THere is no "secret" to softners. They ALL work the same (except for the ripoff units claiming to be miracles of magnetism). The "real" ones ALL work though a system of "ion exchange". The trick is to buy from someone reputable (something CR can do nothing about). I have seen people ripped off so badly it makes me want to cry. People who have paid thousands of $$$$ for what amounts to a $500 appliance. For $500 a VERY good softner can be acquired. So add in MAYBE $500 for an install. BUt I'll tell you what. They are sooooo simple to install I'd do it all day for $500 each and get truly rich doing it. A more reasonable price would be maybe $250 for labor and incidentals.
UNderstand too softners are like water heaters. NO magic and not too many companies making them.
There are types with media made to work kmore efficiently with a potassium compound rather than sodium (for those worried about salt) BUT with a salt unit if it's set up correctly salt should not be a concern.
The first thing to do is determine how "hard" your water is and if it contains harmful amounts of iron. It's from there you can continue. Check Angieslist in your area for installers.