There are three types of cooks: those who own a mandoline, those who covet their neighbor's mandoline and those who think that a mandoline is a string instrument (that word is spelled mandolin).

A mandoline is a manual countertop contraption that can slice, julienne, shred, crinkle or waffle-cut large quantities in a relatively short amount of time. It is, arguably, nonessential kitchen equipment -- unless you're the type who prefers hands-on precision, can appreciate a perfect julienne of green papaya, craves cabbage shredded just so for slaw, envies a perfectly French-cut fry or waffle-cut chip, catches his breath at the almost-diaphanous cast of a cucumber shaved lengthwise, or who simply slices a lot of potatoes and apples for gratins and tartes Tatin.

If your heart just skipped a beat, you really ought to consider one.

But which one? Mandolines come in dozens of versions, from $19 plastic gizmos good only for infrequent use to imposing stainless-steel slicers that go for $190. Each consists of a similar setup: There are adjustable and interchangeable blades that allow for slices varying from paper-thin to up to half an inch thick (as well as additional blades that can be used to julienne, waffle cut and to shred); a runway or path along which the ingredient is pushed against the blades; and a pusher-cum-safety guard of some sort that holds the food in place, protects fingertips from the razor-sharp blade and prevents the undertaking from turning into a B-rated horror flick.

Three years ago, I set out to give a few mandolines a test drive with a couple of pounds of potatoes, hoping to find the mandoline most likely to make my life easier and least likely to endanger my already scarred hands.

A lot of cursing, dangerously difficult-to-adjust blades and mangled heaps of vegetables later, I can tell you that the distinctions between mandolines are significant and that each model has special drawbacks. Except for one.

LARGE

Works pretty well, but it's cumbersome and has a big price tag to match its size.JUST RIGHT

Oxo's Good Grips Mandoline is a dream to use and looks cool, too. SMALL

Good for simple slicing, but the blades are a pain to change.