Washing machines don't change much from one generation to the next. Although revamped models with some refinements and an added convenience or two arrive every few years, the basic top-load design has remained the same. This fall, however, showroom floors will be stocked with a less familiar choice: washers that load from the front instead of from the top. But even these "new" machines are refinements of decades-old engineering that's still used in high-priced European washers and those at your local coin-op. Whether they're called horizontal axis, high-efficiency, tumble-action, energy-efficient or agitatorless, they work the same way: The tub spins on a horizontal axis, as a dryer does, dunking clothes in and out of a small pool of concentrated soapy water up to 50 times per minute. Because front-loading washers don't have an agitator, they hold more clothes than comparably sized top-loaders and wash them more gently. They also spin faster and extract more water for quicker drying, saving significant amounts of water and energy in the process. And, the newest American-made front-loaders are priced less than European models. However, front-loaders cost more - $800 to $1,000 compared with $500 to $600 for a similarly equipped top-loader. They also require more stooping and bending - and special detergents. But rather than taking sides in the great debate, begin your search for a new washer by focusing on the features that make the most sense for the way you do laundry.