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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It's been the year of the inexpensive water circulator. Previously, heating water circulators—the devices used to maintain the temperature of a water bath to 1/10th of a degree accuracy for sous-vide cooking—went for several hundred dollars. This year, three new devices targeted at the home cook have been released, all of them available for under $300. It seems that sous-vide cooking has finally come home.

But how do the three stack up against each other?

For the last few weeks I've been testing all three devices side by side, cooking with them in every type of situation a home cook is likely to run into (and some they aren't). Here's a feature-by-feature breakdown of the testing.

Both the Anova and the Nomiku can be ordered immediately through the links provided, while the Sansaire will be ready to ship in January.

Accuracy

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I tested the accuracy of each of the circulators by heating up 4 gallons of water to 140°F and testing the temperature of the water using multiple thermometers.

Once they'd reached their final holding temperature, all three units were accurate to within 2/10ths of a degree when measured at the water output port. I also tested temperature at various points around the water bath to confirm that the circulators were moving the water around enough to even out any temperature differentials. All three managed 4 gallons of water with no problem.

The one odd thing I noticed was that during the actual heating phase of the process, the Nomiku consistently registered temperatures that were 3 to 4°F higher than the actual water temperature. I'm not sure if this is a hardware or firmware issue, but in any case, so long as you only care about the final holding temperature, it doesn't seem to make much difference to overall operations.

Category Winner: Tie

Speed

The wattage of the heater in the device is a pretty good indication of how fast it'll bring water up to temperature (all three devices sport 1,000 watt heating elements), but design elements such as flow and temperature regulation algorithms can all effect how rapidly a circulator will heat.

I tested each of the devices by timing how long it took to bring 4 gallons of water from 80°F from 140°F.

The Sansaire was the fastest, taking only 16 minutes to complete the job.

The Anova came in second, taking 20 minutes.

The Nomiku came on strong right out of the gate, getting to above 139°F in just 16 minutes, but that final 1°F took an additional 7 minutes to achieve, putting it at a total time of 23 minutes.

Category Winner: Sansaire

Water Level

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All water circulators have minimum and maximum water levels for operation. The minimum ensures that water is being taken in by the input port so that the heater doesn't overheat. The maximum is to ensure that water-sensitive circuitry doesn't get wet. These relative minimum and maximum fill-lines can influence what vessels you can use to cook with. A wider range with lower lows and higher highs is generally better.

Having a wide range is also important if long-cooking foods are on the agenda. At 150° in a metal pot with a 10-inch diameter, 2 gallons of water will drop in height by about an inch every 8 hours due to evaporation in my apartment. Covering the top with foil or plastic wrap can cut this down, but the possibility that the water level will drop below the minimum line during an extended cook is a very real one.

All three devices have built-in automatic shut-offs if this happens, so there's no danger of breaking your device, but you are definitely in danger of ruining a cooking project if your bagged food ends up sitting in tepid water because the circulator shut off.

For this reason, a wide water level range is very important if prolonged cooking is on your agenda.

Both the Sansaire and Anova have ranges that span 3 1/2 inches or larger, while the nomiku's range is only 1 1/4 inches.

The Sansaire has a minimum fill line of 2.75 inches and a maximum fill of 6.5 inches. (3.75 inches total).

The Anova has a minimum fill line of 2.75 inches and a maximum fill of 6.25 inches. (3.5 inches total).

The Nomiku has a minimum fill line of 3.5 inches and a maximum fill of 4.75 inches. (1.25 inches total).

Category Winner: Sansaire

User Interface

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When judging this section, I asked myself these questions: Are the controls intuitive and easy to operate? How long does it take me to get the unit set up and ready to cook? Are there any extraneous features that distract from the overall experience? Does it give me quick and easy-to-read feedback?

Here are my thoughts:

The Sansaire uses a rotating dial at the top of the unit to adjust temperature. Its readout is large, easy to read (even from across the room or in a dark kitchen), and has no extraneous information. Think of this as the Apple of circulators: well designed, stripped down, and minimalist. There are three buttons: a power button, a °F/°C switch, and a button that tells you the target temperature the unit is set to (the readout tells you the actual temperature unless you are adjusting the temperature ring or you press the target temp button).

The dial is intuitive though the resolution of adjustment is very sensitive, making it a little tough to hit the exact temperature you want. I felt like I was turning the shower knob where the difference between too hot and too cold was only a hair's width. Bonus points for having an always-on temperature display. It gives me peace of mind when I can glance across the kitchen in the middle of a long, slow cook and know that everything is going right.

The Anova has a touch screen monitor with a number of more advanced functions that let you adjust temperature (in °F or °C) and cook time, as well as get diagnostic reports of how the system is functioning. The pixelated screen and touch interface makes me confident that in the future, firmware upgrades might increase its functionality even more. For instance, it'd be nice to have programmable cook settings which would let you cook a chicken breast at 145°F for a couple hours then drop the temperature down to a safe holding range of 130°F, which would allow you to start cooking in the morning and have properly cooked meat when you get home from work, even if you're late getting home.

The interface does require you to make more button presses from startup to cook compared to the Sansaire or the Nomiku, so if ultimate simplicity is important to you, you may not be happy with the Anova's interface. It also has a screen auto-shutoff, which requires you to touch the screen in order to confirm target and actual temperatures during a cook.

The Nomiku's controls are a blend of the two, with a small touch screen readout that also presents system diagnostics, and a rotating green temperature knob around the perimeter. The knob on the Nomiku runs on an infrared sensor and has dynamically shifting resolution, which means that if you turn it fast, it'll make rapid jumps, but turn it slow and you can easily make small 1/10th of a degree adjustments (think of it like the scroll wheel on an iPod in terms of dynamic resolution).

Category Winner: Tie

The Sansaire is great if you like simplicity, the Anova is the most adaptable, and the Nomiku lands in the middle.

Clip Design

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The clip is what keeps the unit secured to the side of your cooking vessel. When judging the clip, I was looking for one that felt sturdy and clamped securely. I don't want to worry about knocking the unit into the water bath by accidentally bumping the cooking vessel as I walk by, and I don't want something that looks or feels like it might break off or bend with repeated use.

The Sansaire has a spring-loaded metal clip that looks something like a giant hair clip. It has adjustable width. It also feels a little flimsy for the weight of the overall product, but the Sansaire has the added advantage of a wide, stable-feeling base, so the clip is really just a precautionary measure during use. The clip reaches all the way down to less than an inch above the bottom of the unit, which means that you can clip it onto basically any size pot.

The Anova has a rubberized screw that allows you to get a very firm lock onto pots and containers of any width up to an inch or so. You can move your container around with absolutely no fear of the Anova tipping over or moving around. Its only problem is that it's not heigh-adjustable, which means that your pots need to have a minimum height of about 7 inches if you want to attach the unit securely.

The Nomiku has a rubberized plastic clip that feels nice and secure, though it's not actually powerful enough to hold the unit against a pot without letting it slip down. Like the Anova, pot size is limited to a minimum height of about 6 inches or so.

Category Winner: Anova

Noise

All three units are relatively quiet (I had them running in my kitchen with the door open while I took a nap on the couch about 20 feet away and could barely hear them), but the Nomiku is the loudest of the three. I've heard reports from other users that occasionally the Nomiku's stirring wand makes little scraping noises against the base of the unit, though I haven't noticed this in my own model.

Category Winner: Sansaire and Anova

Capacity

Both the Sansaire and Anova have recommended maximum container capacities of 22 liters (5.8 gallons), while the Nomiku is designed for containers up to 20 liters (5 gallons). In reality, these numbers are estimates. Insulation, outside temperature, and water flow can affect how efficiently they heat. For what it's worth, I did test each unit at its full capacity using a beer cooler as my heating vessel while cooking a dozen 6 ounce portions of protein. All performed as well as advertised.

Category Winner: Sansaire and Anova

General Design

In this category, I considered my overall user experience. Are there features that I like about one more than another? Does the unit feel like it's built to last? Is it attractive? Does it store and set up easily?

Sansaire: The greatest advantage the Sansaire has over the Anova and the Nomiku is better drainage at the bottom of the unit. This means you can lift the Sansaire out of the water and within a few seconds, all excess water will drip out, allowing you to rest it on a kitchen towel or drying matt to drip-dry on its own. The downside of the Sansaire? Its all-plastic chassis feels a little fragile. I can imagine the casing cracking with an accidental spill, or perhaps the clips that hold that back panel in place cracking off with normal opening and closing for cleaning. This hasn't happened to me yet, but I can see it happening down the road.

Anova: This thing feels solid as a rock. It's heavy, sturdy, and just a really tight feeling piece of hardware. It's made by a company with a long history of high-quality products, which shows in its no-nonsense, solid design. In terms of functionality, it's the only unit that lets you adjust the direction of water output, and the easiest to open up for cleaning or maintenance. The impeller is all-metal and built to last.

Nomiku: Another tight feeling piece of hardware, the oddest design choice might be the power brick that is always attached to the main unit. It'd be nice if that power brick were attached to the cord that plugs into the outlet, reducing the storage profile of the unit itself. Opening and closing the Nomiku is also not possible, which means if you accidentally break a bag and gunk gets up in there... you're out of luck.

Category Winner: Anova

Reliability

I tested reliability over the course of a 72-hour cook with all three units. The final copies I received of all three devices performed without flaw.

The only reliability issues I've had with any unit were with an early tester copy of the Sansaire, which would inexplicably shut down after a few moments of cooking. To be fair, the unit had been used by several other testers before me and was quickly replaced with a new unit (and an apology). Since then I've had no problems at all.

The Nomiku offers a nice feature: it tells you if there were any power interruptions during a prolonged cook. It won't tell you how long the interruption lasted or if your food dipped down into dangerous territory, but it's at least one layer of feedback that the others don't offer.

Category Winner: Tie

Cleaning

Water circulators all require occasional cleaning even with careful use to remove lime scale from hard water. All you have to do is run the machines with a de-scaler in the water for a few minutes. Easy. The bigger problem is if a bag breaks and gunk leaks out into the circulating water. Both the Sansaire and Anova feature a removable chassis, which makes cleaning out after a disaster relatively easy. This is not possible with the Nomiku.

Category Winner: Sansaire and Anova

Price

The Sansaire and Anova both sell for $199, while the Nomiku goes for $299.

So Which One?

It really depends on your needs. All three are strong products that, for the most part work. work as advertised, and any problems I've had with them were quickly solved either by troubleshooting with the manual, or emailing the manufacturers. I can't tell you for sure whether my personal experiences were identical to what others can expect, but from all reports I've heard, customer service for all three products has been responsive and helpful thus far.

The larger size and faster heating of the Anova and the Sansaire will appeal to more serious cooks and chefs who have big projects planned, while the more compact design and cuter look of the Nomiku makes it a better option for more casual home cooks who are looking to cook smaller meals and host the occasional larger party.

The lower price point of the Anova and Sansaire is very appealing to me, and personally I prefer the slightly smaller profile of the Anova—it lets me slip it into a cabinet just a bit more easily than the bulkier Sansaire. You should also ask yourself which interface you like. The Sansaire and Nomiku are simpler to operate, but the Anova has more potential for features down the road.

As for me? With all three devices currently residing in my kitchen, I've found myself reaching for the Anova most often.

For more details, check out our early review of the Sansaire here and our review of the Anova here.

How to Buy

All devices are available for online order and delivery.

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