What do we ask of a tea kettle? Not too much. First and foremost, we would like it to boil water.
And that's about it. Of course, if it can boil water faster than other kettles, that's a plus. Likewise, it's nice if the handle stays cool to the touch—even when there's boiling hot water inside. That way you can pour out the water without charring your palm. (And please don't start on oven mitts. They're an added, unnecessary step, and they never seem to be handy when you're in the thick of things.)
Sure, there are other considerations. You may prefer a kettle with a larger capacity, a sleek look, or a melodious whistle. But these are minor concerns. In the end it comes down to those two main criteria: boil quickly; keep the handle cool.
Given this, I think America is living in the past. According to the tests I conducted (using a gas range at highest heat), our traditional stove-top kettles take eight or nine minutes to boil a mere four cups of water. Pathetic! What's more, the handles of these stove-top kettles—having perched above a hot flame for eight long minutes—are often quite painful and injurious to grab.
People, we are long overdue for a consumer revolution. Like Bob Dylan walking onstage at Newport in 1965, kettles are poised to go electric.
It pains me to tell you that the Brits are way ahead of us on this. It's all about electrics over there. Granted, the higher U.K. voltage allows kettles to boil at light speed. But even using the standard voltage in my U.S. apartment, I found that an electric kettle can boil four cups of water in well under five minutes. That's twice as fast as most of the stove-top kettles I tested (even the most expensive ones).
Meanwhile, the electric kettle's handle—safely shielded from the heating element—remains perfectly cool. Electrics are easier to clean (their wide mouths let you wash out their insides, while a metal kettle has a tiny mouth to help retain heat). Electrics even shut themselves off automatically.
I see only two drawbacks to plugging in. The first is that electrics take up counter space, while a standard kettle sits on your range. In a small apartment, this might be a problem. But given that most of America now has acres of granite countertop and vast kitchen islands, I don't see it as much of a problem.
The other thing is that electrics don't work in a blackout. Of course, in an emergency situation where you simply must brew tea while enduring a power outage, you could just boil the water in a pot. (Assuming you have a gas range. If you have an electric, you'll need cans of Sterno.)
So, I've sort of killed the suspense here. I think electrics are the way to go, and I won't hear otherwise. Furthermore, I see no reason to buy anything but my winning electric, the Bodum Ibis, which is both affordable and excellent. Nonetheless, certain among you (for reasons of affectation, or just a hidebound fear of the new) will insist on clinging to your primitive stove-top kettles. For you, I offer these rankings, from worst to first: