Microwave ovens

The best of these 'second ovens' are faster and friendlier, and start at less than $150

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Any microwave can serve up popcorn and other snacks on Super Bowl Sunday. The latest also promise to make cooking main meals about as simple as nuking your favorite snacks. Our tests of more than 60 models include nine CR Best Buys.

Even heating and thorough defrosting make the new Kenmore 6633, $140, our top-scoring midsized countertop model. But most unique are its preprogrammed cooking codes for baby-back pork ribs, chicken parmigiana, and more than 100 other frozen meals.

Dubbed TrueCookPlus, the software adjusts heating according to a food code you punch in as well as to your home's altitude, based on your ZIP code. The feature worked in our initial tests. But Betty Crocker Warm Delights Minis cake is among the few foods so far with the code on the package, so you'll have to get other food codes off the Web (www.truecookplus.com).

You'll also find that halftime refers to more than football. Apollo claims its Half Time convection microwave cooks anything you'd cook in a conventional oven twice as fast. It beat a high-scoring range in our speed tests, but another convection microwave delivered crispier pizza. (See Super Bowl pizza challenge.) Months of testing yielded other ways to save on a microwave:

Get better browning for less

You'll find more lower-priced models with a grilling feature, which uses an electric element like the one in your oven's broiler. But you can still pay $600 or more for models that have it. A top midsized convection model that cost $250 and didn't have the grilling feature gave us crispy grilled-cheese sandwiches. You can also use the convection mode for browner, crispier chicken.

Don't pay extra for racks

Most over-the-range models now include an upper rack that lets you cook several foods at once. The best microwaves we tested have that feature for as little as $260. Just be sure to check racked foods often for even cooking because they aren't on a moving turntable.

Skip these space savers

Unlike most microwave ovens, Sharp's $760 Insight Pro drawer model mounts under the counter to free up space and allow a range hood for optimal venting. Conveniences include a bevy of shortcut keys and a "keep warm" feature that maintains serving temperature for up to 30 minutes. But that pricey pro's heating evenness was only mediocre in our tests. Sharp's $380 Carousel R-1214, a built-in model, can hang under a wall cabinet. But defrosting was subpar.

Posted: January 2009 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: February 2009