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Microwave ovens

Microwave oven buying guide

Last updated: May 2014

Getting started

Speed and smarts now go hand in hand as more microwaves serve as second ovens. Many have sensors that automate cooking for more than just popcorn. More also include convection and even slow cooking for homeowners who want added cooking capability without having to add a wall oven or replace a range with a double-oven model.

You'll find more automation as microwaves take on a growing list of tasks. Browning and speed-cook modes, along with interactive recipe databases, are also on the menu as brands push added capability for busy families. But as our tests have shown, you can pay a premium for those perks without getting the even heating and defrosting that are a microwave's two top tasks. Our Ratings also show that some brands overstate usable space by as much as 50 to 60 percent.

Pick a type and size

Countertop models cost the least and are best for kitchens with lots of counter space. Compact models can cost very little but typically offer the least cooking space. Midsized and large models add capacity and features. But because manufacturers often include unusable space in their capacity claims be sure to bring a large platter to see whether it fits inside models on your shopping list. Two other caveats: While some countertop microwaves can hang below a cabinet, you wind up with little working space below the oven. And while over-the-range models save counter space and add convenience, they don't vent nearly as well as a dedicated range hood and typically require an electrician to install.

Be realistic about extras

Decide whether you'll really use grilling and browning features, convection, slow-cook, and other added functions before paying extra for them. Our tests have shown that you shouldn't expect these features to replace your range broiler or grill. However, a sensor is a convenient feature that helps prevent over- and under-cooking food.

Types

You'll find three major types. Most microwave ovens still sit on the countertop, but more consumers are mounting them over the range, especially in kitchens where counter space is at a premium. Others are mounted within custom cabinetry, either over counters or in island or wall units.

Countertop microwaves


These models are best for kitchens with lots of counter space and for avid cooks who use their range often--and require the optimal venting of a range hood instead of an over-the-range microwave. You can hang some countertop models below a cabinet, though that often leaves little working space below. Some models can be used as a built-in and installed with custom cabinets.

Pros:

Countertop microwaves typically cost less than over-the-range models and no installation is needed. Simply plug into an ordinary outlet, one you designate for the microwave.

Cons:

Midsized and large models we tested take roughly 3 square feet of counter space, an issue in some kitchens.

Over-the-range microwaves


Often labeled as OTRs, these models are typically bought as replacements or when a kitchen is remodeled. While they can be vented to the outside, don't expect an over-the-range microwave to vent as well as a capable range hood that extends over the front burners.

Pros:

Over-the-range microwaves leave the counter workspace clear. Typically they have more features than a countertop model.

Cons:

They cost more, and installation might require an electrician. And even the best don't vent as well as a capable range hood.

Built-in microwaves


Often bought as replacements or when a kitchen is remodeled, built-in microwaves are installed within custom cabinets or over counters but flush with the bottoms of flanking cabinets. Typically, built-in models will not have finished sides, nor do they have vents, though some (over-the-counter types) do have finished sides and work lights.

Pros:

Built-ins keep counters clear, and allow you to have a range hood, which works better at venting than over-the-range microwaves.

Cons:

They're relatively expensive. Installation adds to that cost and may require an electrician.

Features


Manufacturers are adding more and more preprogrammed shortcut keys and other perks to their microwaves. When considering microwave oven features, think twice about investing in shortcuts and conveniences you may not use.

Power rating

Midsized and large ovens are typically rated at 850 to 1,200 watts; compact ovens, at about 600 to 800 watts. More watts typically mean more cooking power. But differences of 100 watts or so don't matter much.

Sensor

It measures emitted steam to determine when food is done; that helps prevent over- or undercooking and is a key feature on any microwave oven.

Shortcut keys


Earlier microwaves had just an automatic popcorn setting and perhaps a few others. Many now have auto settings for foods such as oatmeal, pasta, stew, and grits, as well as for reheating or defrosting. That eliminates the need to worry about time and power settings; just press the appropriate button. But avoid paying extra for shortcut keys you probably won't use.

Numeric keypad

Use it to set cooking times and power levels. It's easier to use than a dial.

A 1-minute or 30-second key


It extends the preset cooking time, maintaining whatever power level was selected. It also allows quick adjustments to your previous settings--pushing the button more than once multiplies the time extension.

Turntable vs. tray


A microwave oven must keep food moving for uniform heating. Most microwaves have a turntable that rotates the food. Some replace the turntable with a rectangular tray that slides from side to side. An elongated platter that's too large to rotate might fit on a sliding tray.

Convection cooking, grilling, and browning

These features, along with broil, steam, and speed cooking, are aimed at homeowners who want a second oven without having to remodel. But none of the tested models consistently provided the results you'd get in a regular oven. or a grill.

Removable racks


These let you cook several foods at once. But even a coffee mug is too high for some models unless you remove a rack.

Slow cooking

Some over-the-range microwaves can slow-cook foods using convection. But don't throw away your dedicated slow-cooker just yet: Models we tested in this mode overcooked the meat in our beef-stew recipe and left the top layer dry. What's more, the four-hour maximum cook time some offer is far less convenient than the eight hours or more slow cookers typically allow.

Brands

Frigidaire arrow  |  GE arrow  |  Kenmore arrow  |  LG arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Sharp arrow  |  Whirlpool arrow

GE leads the countertop microwave-oven market with approximately 30 percent of units sold, followed by Sharp. GE also sells the most over-the-range models. But there are a number of other players in the market. Use this information to compare microwave ovens by brand.

Frigidaire

Frigidaire currently offers few over-the-range microwaves but is rolling out its new high-end Electrolux line. A wave-touch model with bottom controls will be available. Current Frigidaire models are sold for $250 to $450 at retailers nationwide.

GE

General Electric is the dominant brand in the entire category of microwave ovens. The brand's ovens can be found in all big-box retailers and independent, national, and regional dealers. The brand strives for innovation. Countertop models range in sizes from 0.8 cubic feet to 2.0 cubic feet. Some models offer convection cooking, and a number provide speed-cook options. GE countertop models range in price from $70 to $350. GE over-the-range (OTR) models measure about 1.5 to 2.0 cubic feet with wattage ratings of 900 to 1,200; GE's OTRs cost $200 to $1,400. GE's latest innovation is the Advantium speed-cook technology, which uses a halogen bulb. The company also sells models with convection cooking.

Kenmore

This brand, sold at Sears, offers a wide number of countertop microwave ovens, with prices ranging from $70 to $350. Capacities are from 1 to 2 cubic feet, and some models provide convection cooking. Kenmore over-the-range models measure about 1.5 to 2.0 cubic feet and have wattage ratings of 900 to 1,200; they cost $200 to $800. Sears offers a wide range of OTR ovens and sells a model with GE's Advantium speed-cook technology.

LG

LG recently introduced a model with a door that swings upward and is introducing a model with a keep-warm feature--new to the market--and bottom controls. It was LG that introduced the glide tray, which moves from side to side instead of in a circle--good for rectangular dishes--and also hidden vents. LG also introduced the blue interior cavity in its products. The microwaves are available for $300 to $800 at Home Depot, Sears, and large regional and independent dealers.

Panasonic

This maker offers a wide range of products in the midlevel to high-end categories and is known for its Inverter technology. A number of Panasonic countertop models are also built-ins and convert with a kit you can purchase. The company sells a number of models with the Turbo Convection feature. Models range in price from $110 to $700.

Sharp

Sharp sells a wide range of countertop models through retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Lowe's, Sears, and Wal-Mart. Sharp is planning to introduce a steam-assisted microwave oven. The company also offers the only microwave drawer on the market (in a single- or double-drawer unit). Sharp microwaves cost $70 to $800. Sharp over-the-range (OTR) models measure about 1.5 to 2.0 cubic feet with wattage ratings of 900 to 1,200 and cost $200 to $1,000.

Whirlpool

Whirlpool's over-the-range microwaves feature what the company calls the Velos design, a venting system that removes smoke better than any other over-the-range model we've tested. The company also sells convection and nonconvection microwaves, some with speed-cooking capability. The ovens are sold at most major retailers and cost $300 to $800.

   

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