Microwave Oven Buying Guide

Microwaves sometimes get a bad rap as being the easy way out for a quick dinner—and typically a frozen one. But today’s microwaves can do a lot more than heat cold coffee and packaged mac and cheese (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). In fact, the additional cooking capability of microwaves has made them more essential than ever, especially if you’re not a planner and need to defrost a piece of meat to cook for dinner.

Countertop microwaves are the most common type, but an over-the-range model can also round out your kitchen suite, especially if you prefer appliances that are all from one brand, with matching handles and other details. No matter which type you choose, you’ll want a microwave that measures up in our member surveys for predicted reliability and owner satisfaction.

Once you make the investment, use your microwave with care so that it will last; you shouldn’t have to replace it more than once every 10 years, which is how long manufacturers say microwaves should last. Here are eight simple things you can do to keep your microwave in tip-top shape.

A countertop microwave is a key appliance for any starter kitchen, such as in a first home or an off-campus apartment. And you don’t have to spend a lot to get top performance, as evinced by this selection of countertop microwaves for $150 or less.

At Consumer Reports, we test microwaves in every price range and buy every model 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 your cabinetry.

Our tests find 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, like the corners around the turntable. 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 $300 range. Over-the-range microwaves, or OTRs, can be had for as little as $200, but most we test 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 countertop real estate. For example, midsized models are typically a little over 20 inches wide and up to 18 inches deep, and large microwaves can be an inch or two larger. You’ll want to factor in height as well, but unless you have very low cabinets, a countertop model should fit in nicely. 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 into this group and can be placed under the countertop or below a wall oven. And then there are some—but not all—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 listed in the full view of our microwave ratings; slide the Ratings & Specs bar to the right. The usable capacity and wattages presented below are based on our tested models, which represent the marketplace.

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.

Usable Capacity

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

700 to 950 for small
900 to 1,200 for midsized
1,000 to 1,250 for large

Countertop microwave ovens 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.

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

850 to 1,100

Over-the-range microwave ovens 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 they can be installed below a wall oven. The look is sleek and integrated. Some countertop microwaves can be built in with a kit. Information below is for models designed only to be built in, not for countertop models with optional built-in kits.

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

950 to 1,100

Countertop microwave ovens Ratings

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 when cooking is done. Here are other features to consider.  

Microwave Brands That Matter

Frigidaire microwaves, made by Electrolux, are available in countertop, built-in, and over-the-range categories. Frigidaire models are available 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.
This brand, sold at Amazon and Sears, offers a wide range of countertop and over-the-range (OTR) microwave ovens.
LG offers countertop and over-the-range (OTR) microwaves. 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. They're sold at big-box stores, such as Home Depot and Lowe's, and independent appliance retailers.
This manufacturer offers a wide range of countertop models in the U.S. market, ranging from midlevel to high-end. A number of Panasonic countertop microwave ovens can be converted to built-in with a kit you can purchase. Models are widely available.
Samsung offers models in countertop and over-the-range categories. The ovens, from basic to fully featured, are widely available nationally at all major retailers.
Sharp manufactures countertop and over-the-range models. They are sold through retailers such as Best Buy, Lowe's, Sears, Target, and Walmart. Sharp also manufactures built-in microwave drawers.
Whirlpool offers basic to multifeatured countertop and over-the-range models. The ovens are sold at most major retailers.
Other brands in our ratings include Amana, Bosch, Electrolux, Haier, Hotpoint, KitchenAid, and Magic Chef.
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