Microwave Oven Buying Guide

Whether you love to cook, rush to pull dinner together, or live on reheated coffee and frozen pizza, a microwave has become a kitchen essential. Defrosting and reheating are common uses, but some of our tested microwaves don’t do either very well.

At Consumer Reports we buy every microwave we test. Our ratings include small, midsized, and large countertop microwaves; over-the-range microwaves; and a few built-in models that sleekly integrate into their surroundings.

Our tests found big differences in overall performance. To test heating we warm up mashed potatoes, and we use frozen ground beef to test defrosting. We also test speed of heating, noise, and ease of use. We measure usable capacity, too—manufacturers often include space you can’t use. And we test how well the over-the-range models vent.

What to Consider

Countertop microwaves usually cost less than the other types. Small models start as low as $50, and midsized models are typically in the $100 to $200 range. Over-the-range microwaves, or OTRs, can be had for as little as $200, but most we tested cost $400 and up. Models designed only to be built into cabinetry or a wall begin at $400 but can cost more than $1,000. Some countertop models are available with kits that give you a built-in look for less.

Space and Location
Think about where the microwave works best for you and about available space. Countertop models eat up counter space. For example, the top-rated midsized model is 22 inches wide and 18 inches deep. The best large microwave we tested is 22 inches wide and 19 inches deep. You’ll want to factor in height as well. Dimensions can be found on the model page for each microwave.

Countertop models are the most widely sold. Over-the-range models are just that: They’re installed over the range. The built-in category includes models designed only to be built in—surrounded by cabinetry or built into the wall. Microwave drawers fall in this group and can be placed under the countertop or below a wall oven. And then there are some countertop models that can be converted to built-ins with a kit.

Which Type Is Right for You?

Depending on your kitchen, you can choose from countertop, over-the-range, and built-in microwaves. Note that the size of the unit doesn’t always translate to usable cooking space. Our research shows that usable capacity for tested microwaves is about 50 percent of what manufacturers claim. We measure the amount of space you can actually use. More watts typically mean more cooking power, but differences of 100 watts or so don’t matter much. Watts are noted in the Features & Specs tab in our microwave ratings. The prices, usable capacity, and wattages presented below are based on our tested models.

A countertop microwave oven.

Countertop Microwaves

Price and easy installation are appealing. Just plug into an ordinary outlet—use one dedicated to the microwave or it might trip the circuit breaker. Zero in on usable capacity in our ratings. Also note the microwave’s external dimensions, taking into consideration your available space. A stainless finish is common, and a convection feature is becoming available on more models.

$60 to $150 for small
$70 to $500 for midsized
$120 to $550 for large

Usable Capacity
Most of the tested models in this category have a usable capacity of about 50 to 60 percent of what manufacturers claim.

0.4 to 0.5 cubic feet for small
0.5 to 0.8 cubic feet for midsized
0.7 to 1.5 cubic feet for large

700 to 950 for small
800 to 1,200 for midsized
900 to 1,250 for large

Countertop microwave Ratings
An over-the-range microwave oven.

Over-the-Range Microwaves

Known as OTRs, these models free up counter space. But while they can be vented to the outside, don’t expect an OTR to vent as well as a range hood. Installation might require an electrician.

$130 to $1,200

Usable Capacity
Most of our tested OTR models have usable capacity of about 40 to 50 percent of what manufacturers claim.

0.6 to 1.5 cubic feet

850 to 1,100

Over-the-range microwave Ratings
A built-in microwave oven.

Built-In Microwaves

This category includes models designed only to be built in—surrounded by cabinetry or built into a wall. Microwave drawers, for example, can be placed under the countertop, removing them from sight lines, and glide out for easy access, or can be installed below a wall oven. The look is sleek and integrated. Some countertop microwaves can be built in with a kit. (We note that on model pages.) Information below is for models designed only to be built in, not for countertop models with optional built-in kits.

$380 to $1,440

Usable Capacity
We haven’t yet tested enough built-ins to determine percentage of usable capacity compared with manufacturers’ claims.

0.9 to 1.1 cubic feet

950 to 1,100

Features to Focus on

As the price goes up, so does the number of features. One we find invaluable is the sensor, which measures the steam food emits and turns off the microwave at exactly the point when cooking is done. Here are other features to consider.  

Brands That Matter

Frigidaire microwaves, made by Electrolux, are available in countertop, built-in, and over-the-range categories. Frigidaire models are sold for $80 to $450 at retailers nationwide.
General Electric is one of the major microwave brands; it offers countertop and over-the-range (OTR) models. The ovens can be found in big-box retailers and independent appliance dealers nationally. GE countertop models range in price from $70 to $300; OTR models, from $250 to $1,000.
This brand, sold at Amazon and Sears, offers a wide range of countertop and over-the-range (OTR) microwave ovens, with prices ranging from $70 to $350 for countertops and $250 to $800 for OTR models.
LG offers countertop and over-the-range (OTR) microwaves. Prices range from $150 to $300 for countertops and $300 to $800 for OTR models. They are sold at Home Depot, Sears, and large regional and independent appliance dealers.
This brand offers a small choice of countertop models and a wider variety of over-the-range (OTR) versions. Prices range from $100 to $600, and products are sold at big-box stores, such as Home Depot and Lowe's, and independent appliance retailers.
This manufacturer offers a wide range of countertop (only) products in the U.S. market, ranging from midlevel to high-end. A number of Panasonic countertop models can be converted to built-in with a kit you can purchase. Models range in price from $100 to $800 and are widely available.
Samsung offers products in countertop and over-the-range categories. The products, from basic to fully featured, are widely available nationally at all major retailers. Prices are between $150 and $600.
Sharp manufacturers countertop and over-the-range (OTR) models. They are sold through such retailers as Best Buy, Lowe's, Sears, Target, and Walmart. Prices are between $70 and $800. Sharp also manufacturers built-in microwave drawers that cost approximately $900 to $1,500.
Whirlpool offers basic to multifeatured countertop and over-the-range models. The ovens are sold at most major retailers and cost $300 to $800.
Other brands in our ratings include Amana, Bosch, Electrolux, Haier, Hotpoint, KitchenAid, and Magic Chef.
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