Can you rate kitchen countertops on the basis of objective factors? Yes. Besides subjective matters--appearance, mainly--cost, value, maintenance, durability, and even DIY-ability make it possible to rate and rank different types of countertop materials:
Laminate: Cost and Fine Appearance
Bottom Line: Cheap and easy. Acceptable appearance.
The laminate countertop is a cousin of laminate flooring: layers of paper treated with resin and pressed together under high heat and pressure.
Under this paper-and-resin layer is a base of composite chip wood. The thickest laminate is used for horizontal work surfaces; thinner laminate is used for vertical areas such as backsplashes.
Wilsonart, Nevamar, and Formica are major brand name manufacturers of the laminate used for laminate countertops.
Easily damaged. Laminate surface will easily scratch and chip. Because the base is constructed of particleboard, it may swell if it comes into contact with water.
Solid Surface: Comfortably Middle-of-the-Road
Bottom Line: Seamless and solid, but rarely a DIY option.
Solid surface is all man-made material, top to bottom. Unlike laminate, there are no layers. It is often called homogeneous because the surface you see on top is the same surface all the way through.
Solid surface counters are not cheap, but they definitely do not reach the price points of stainless steel, concrete, or engineered stone. They represent a middle range choice, both in terms on price and aesthetic value.
Prominent solid surface brand name manufacturers: Corian, Avonite, Gibraltar, and Earthstone.
Sandability. Should you scratch or gouge your solid surface, you can sand it out with very fine sandpaper.
A slightly plastic look and feel. Also, it is reputed that solid surfaces will crack and scorch if subjected to high heat, such as a hot pan.
Engineered Stone/Quartz: Predictable Stone
Bottom Line: Consistent stone quality, without the stone.
Engineered stone was invented only about 50 years ago by the Italian company Breton, but already it surfaces millions of kitchens worldwide.
Quartz/engineered is a conglomerate of 10% binding resins and 90% stone-like materials, such as waste natural stone, glass, mirrors, and silica. It has the solidity of real stone but the predictability of solid-surface materials.
Quartz/engineered counters look fantastic. Plus, it can be construed as being a green product, utilizing waste materials. Even the binders may be composed of waste organic materials (non-food vegetable oils).
It is difficult to find low-cost quartz/engineered. No matter which manufacturer you choose, the technology still flows from the original Breton company patent.
Natural Stone (Slab Granite): Traditional, Timeless
Bottom Line: Always beautiful, but rare to find a bargain.
Price runs anywhere between $50 and $100 per square foot. Natural stone slabs are sleek and extremely handsome and they give a very high-end look to your kitchen.
Resale value. Slab granite, once trendy, is still trendy. Subsequent buyers of your home likely will value this natural material in the kitchen.
Stone is porous, so it requires sealing, and it can crack under heavy weight or stain.
Ceramic Tile: The Sole DIY Option
Bottom Line: Cheap, easy, and DIY, but seams are a problem.
Ceramic tile: an infinite range of designs are possible. The only limit is your imagination.
Ceramic tile counters' claim to fame: it is the only countertop project that can remotely be called a do-it-yourself project, as all other surfaces require special tools and skills.
Even so, installing ceramic tile on a countertop is not for the faint of heart, as this is a highly visible surface and any errors will stand out like a sore thumb.
Even cheaper than laminate, ceramic tile is about as cheap as you want to make it. You can lay a ceramic tile kitchen countertop for as low as $5 per square foot.
The ability to do it yourself.
Grout seams. Seams attract food and other gunk and they are difficult to clean. Not only that, but the grout needs periodic sealing to repel moisture.
Concrete: Trendy and Expensive
Bottom Line: Solid and modern looks. But more expensive than you might expect and maintenance is difficult.
The newest entrant in the kitchen counter game, concrete is truly a custom surface. It can be tinted to any color your heart desires, and there is a host of texture options.
Concrete is about as heavy as solid granite. Note that concrete counters are poured and cured before being installed in your house; it is not created on-site.
As this is a "poured material," you can form it into any shape you wish and add your pick of colors.
Porosity. Concrete must sealed on a regular basis.
Cost: this very humble building material, used for walkways and patios, hits the $100/square foot mark when used in kitchen applications.
Stainless Steel: Swanky and Professional
Bottom Line: Highly unique--a showstopper--but outrageously expensive.
Stainless has come out of professional kitchens and into the home.
Sixteen-gauge stainless steel is used in home kitchens, whereas the thicker fourteen- and twelve-gauge steel is found in restaurant kitchens.
Because it starts as raw material, it can be formed into practically any shape and dimension you desire.
Flair. Like stone, it is all about appearances. If you want to give your house a sleek, contemporary look, stainless is the way to go.
For its outrageous price ($100-$200) per square foot, it is really not as "stainless" and durable as it seems.
It will stain and corrode and it does require a significant amount care and maintenance.