Wood-frame windows are slowly losing their market dominance to vinyl, though they're still considered the gold standard by many professional installers and homeowners. They're strong, beautiful and relatively energy efficient. As might be expected, good ones also cost the most. The knock against them is maintenance: They must be painted or stained periodically to look good and remain protected from the elements.

Some manufacturers address that required upkeep by cladding the wood with vinyl — as is the case with Andersen Windows — or aluminum. The result is a tough, maintenance-free exterior and a natural-wood interior that you can paint or stain. These advantages mean clad-wood windows usually cost more than ordinary wood.

When shopping for wood windows, look for easy operation and tight-fitting corners. Be sure any exposed wood is free of blemishes and that finger joints aren't visible.

Aluminum-frame windows offer the low cost and low maintenance of vinyl versions; they're also durable. The major drawback to aluminum-frame windows is their metal frame-they conduct heat easily, earning them a high U-value. (Higher is not better here — the higher the U-value, the more heat a frame loses.) Compared with vinyl or wood frames, which fall within the 0.3 to 0.5 range, aluminum frames can have a U-value as high as 2. They also tend to feel cold to the touch and are prone to condensation.

Those drawbacks make aluminum-frame windows suitable only for warm climates where cooling bills are greater than heating bills. If you decide to install aluminum windows, be sure the ones you order are equipped with a thermal break in the frame — usually a strip of plastic or rubber that keeps the inside and outside of the frame separate in order to help limit heat conductivity.

Fiberglass and composite-frame windows are the newest options. Made from materials similar to those on car bumpers, both are strong, maintenance-free and more energy efficient than vinyl. And at a price roughly between vinyl and wood, they're also affordable.

Owens Corning offers a composite unit called Generations for the replacement market. Marvin produces a line of composite windows called Integrity. Made of Ultrex, a combination of fiberglass and polyester resin, the Marvin units can be painted to suit your taste, something you can't do with vinyl windows.

As with vinyl windows, look for a uniform color throughout the frame and joints that are heat-welded rather than joined with fasteners. And whichever window you're considering, don't go by material alone. "Check out the locks, cranks and lifts," says Carl Germer, of Germer Construction in Rutherford, New Jersey. "They should be easy to use and feel comfortable in your hand. A quality window has quality hardware."
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