Future Tense

A Completely Nonscientific Guide to the Best Rapid COVID Tests

Three cartoon nasal swabs, one wearing a bronze crown, one a silver crown, and one a gold crown.
What rapid test reigns supreme? Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

On Jan. 18, the federal government website where Americans can order free COVID tests went live. People began to receive their tests in the mail as early as Monday, and it appears that they aren’t all the same: Some are getting the orange iHealth tests, some Roche’s test.

As we at Slate began to compare the different tests that people found in their mailboxes, we started discuss: Which test is the coolest? The most aesthetically pleasing? The least intimidating? What test would Blair Waldorf use? Below, you’ll find a completely nonscientific ranking that evaluates six FDA-approved rapid tests based on visual appeal, price, and ease of use. The prices listed are from the websites of CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart and are accurate as of Wednesday afternoon.

Quidel QuickVue

A QuickVue at-home covid test box and swabs.
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It’s a test that’s easy to find and easy to screw up. Combined with the minimal-effort aesthetics, it’s earned the bottom spot of our (again, nonscientific) ranking.

Visual appeal: Terrible. That is a stock image if I’ve ever seen one. The tagline is “Fast. Easy. Ready when you are,” which feels like diagnostic dirty talk—and pretty desperate at that. 1/5

Price: $24 for two tests. 2/5

Ease of use: To use the QuickVue, you swab your nose, swish the swab in the testing liquid, and then leave the test strip in the liquid for 10 minutes. Every time I use one of these, I am terrified I will spill. There are two opportunities for catastrophic failure: swishing the swab around, and then having to leave the top-heavy strip in there for 10 whole minutes. The packaging provides a stand for the tube, but what if I knock the strip out? What if I knock the entire package over??? It’s a nerve-wracking experience, and that’s before I remember I’m testing myself for a pandemic-strain virus. 1/5

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Total: 4/15

A note on accuracy: The QuickVue test correctly identified a positive case 83.5 percent of the time and a negative result 99.2 percent of the time compared to molecular testing.

Ellume COVID-19 Home Test

The Ellume at-home COVID test.
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The black, cyborglike sheep of the bunch, Ellume doesn’t concern itself with making pesky human eyes read lines on a strip. Instead, it sends the results right to your phone.

Visual appeal: This thing looks medical grade. As in, I-should-not-be-trusted-with-this medical grade. Where does the test end and my nose begin? Is it tracking my every move? Is it alive? I’m scared. 2/5

Price: $26 to $40 for one test. 1/5

Ease of use: It looks more intimidating than it actually is—you just have to make sure your phone is near the test bar. The “swab,” if you can even call it that, screws right onto the bottle of testing liquid so you don’t have to worry about spills. Drop a few drops into the test bar, and in 15 minutes, the result will then be sent to your phone, which you have to keep it next to the test bar for the whole time. It could definitely be worse, and I actually like how the chunky “swab” has a design element (the cap) that prevents it from going too far up in there. Zealous swabbers know the struggle. 3/5

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Total: 6/15

A note on accuracy: Ellume’s COVID test actually got recalled back in October for an increased amount of false positives, but it’s back on the market as of Monday. Otherwise, Ellume claims clinical studies have shown that it’s 96 percent accurate.

Intrivo On/Go

The Intrivo On/Go test.
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The Intrivo On/Go test uses an app to guide you through and to display your results, along with a secure pass showing a negative result. It’s pleasing to the eye, but depending on where you get it, you’re paying for aesthetics.

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Visual appeal: Trendy, love the blue and yellow and then the shapes on the side. This rapid test is for phlegming all over a swab in style. However, the look is pretty obviously catering to millennials and Gen Z-ers (Blair Waldorf absolutely uses this test), and if I’m being marketed to, I prefer a little bit of subtlety. 4/5

Price: $23 to $30 for two tests. 2/5

Ease of use: Labeled as “tap, swab, snap,” the company would like you to believe it’s pretty easy. But it also wants you to download an entire app to get instructions and read your results. The good news is you don’t actually need the app to view your results. The app is more worth it if you religiously use this specific test, but at up to $30 per two-pack, that’s a big ask. 3/5

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Total: 9/15

A note on accuracy: Intrivo claims that its On/Go test is 95 percent accurate.

FlowFlex

The FlowFlex rapid test.
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Tampon package or COVID test? At least one Slatester found herself asking that, but at least the price is right for this basic, lines-on-a-strip option.

Visual appeal: Generic-looking. Medical but not classy like Abbott. Not sure how I feel about the giant coronavirus on the box, though it is a lot clearer than On/Go about what we’re dealing with here. I’d call this one the most dystopic of the bunch, and I can’t decide if that’s a feature or a bug. 2/5

Price: $9.99 for one test. 5/5

Ease of use: After you make sure you have the test that’s actually approved in the States, it’s pretty much the exact same setup as iHealth (though you don’t have to fill up the testing tube yourself). Docking a point for possible confusion over which test is approved in the States, but no complaints otherwise. 4/5

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Total: 11/15

A note on accuracy: In March and May of 2021, the test correctly identified 93 percent of positive cases in clinical trials.

Abbott Labs BinaxNOW

The BinaxNOW rapid test kit.
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One of the most ubiquitous tests out there, it’s certainly a popular pick for anyone running to the pharmacy. It’s easy, compact, and widely available.

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Visual appeal: Definitely medical, yet classy. No stock images or cloying millennial artwork. Everything you need to know is right in front of you. Love the color palette; it says, “Hey, you might have COVID, but why don’t you sit down for a minute and see for yourself? Do you want a lollipop?” 5/5

Price: $20 to $24 for two tests. 3/5

Ease of use: No swab-dipping here! To use the BinaxNow, remove the cap from a dropper bottle and add six drops where indicated, swab your nose, slot the swab into that hole, spin it, and then close the card. All the instructions are included and they’re also directly on the test card, which is handy. Fifteen minutes later you can read your test—no fretting over knocking over bottles or unclear results. My one gripe is that I can’t get the cap off the bottle without accidentally squirting some liquid, which makes me nervous I’ll run out before I can get six drops on the card. (But I’ve never actually had that issue.) 4.5/5

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Total: 12.5/15

A note on accuracy: The BinaxNow correctly identified a positive result 84.6 percent of the time and a correct negative result 98.5 percent of the time compared with PCR tests.

iHealth COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test

The iHealth rapid COVID test.
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This is the one a lot of people are going to be seeing in their mailboxes. With a very simple setup and can’t-beat-it price (especially if you can get it for free), iHealth took the top spot.

Visual appeal: Not very classy (one Slatester described it as like an “infomercial in print form”), but it is efficient. Also, the smaller packaging is a big plus if you’re traveling. 4/5

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Price: $18 for two tests, or free from a library if you live in Washington, D.C.! 5/5

Ease of use: Functionally the same as On/Go, except you have to add the liquid to the tube yourself. The tube is a lot easier to use than the QuickVue, though—it has a squeezy bottle so you don’t have to worry as much about spilling. You don’t need an app, it doesn’t “emphasize your snot” like how the Binaxnow does, and combined with the lower price point, this test is quite practical. 4.5/5

Total: 13.5/15

A note on accuracy: The iHealth test correctly identified 94.3 percent of positive cases in clinical trials.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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