A microwave oven is a kitchen essential
A microwave oven can be a major time saver in the kitchen. It can defrost a pound of meat for dinner in minutes, or cook a side dish of rice or potatoes while the oven is busy. It's also handy for reheating leftovers, steaming fresh veggies and of course, making popcorn. Some microwaves even double as convection ovens, so they can bake and brown like a traditional oven.
Size is an important consideration with any microwave. It needs to fit in the available space you have for it; either on a countertop or into a specific area where it will be built in. Some microwaves even have an optional kit to suspend them under a cabinet. You also need to consider capacity. If you have a big family or make a lot of large dishes in the microwave (think a 9- by 13-inch pan of lasagna), you need at least 2.2 cubic feet. If you need a big microwave, but don't have the counter space and can't build it in, you may be able to fit a microwave stand in your kitchen area to hold it. That will also provide extra shelving. However, experts say that most people only need a mid-sized microwave of about 1.2 to 1.7 cubic feet, plenty large enough for most dishes. For small spaces, there are a lot of good choices in the 1.0 cubic foot and smaller range.
Power is also important. Experts say the best microwaves have at least 1,000 watts of power. And, in fact, cooking instructions for frozen foods are often based upon 1,000 watts. Many microwaves have more power -- 1,100 or 1,200 watts. If you're upgrading from a less powerful microwave, reviewers say, you need to be careful not to overcook foods until you get used to it. Once you have those considerations out of the way, there are a few basic categories of microwave ovens to choose from.
Types of microwaves
Countertop microwaves are the most common. As the name implies, they sit on a counter or microwave stand. The best countertop microwaves usually cost between $100 and $300, depending upon the size and features, but a few very small ones can be had for $50 or so. Countertop microwave ovens offer the widest range of sizes, from under 1 cubic foot to 2 cubic feet or more. Even the cheapest of these come with a good array of features: Instant cook buttons for 30 seconds to 5 or 6 minutes at full power, popcorn and potato presets, and auto-defrost and reheat modes. More expensive models have high-end sensors that can perfectly, and quickly, cook a potato or thaw a hunk of meat without cooking any part of it. For use on a countertop, installation is simple: just plug the microwave oven into a standard household outlet (though you may want to consider what else is plugged into the same circuit to avoid, for example, tripping a circuit breaker should your refrigerator cycle on while you are using a toaster and microwave at the same time).
Convection microwaves offer two-in-one convenience. Convection microwave ovens used to be fairly rare, and quite expensive. Nowadays, they're more common and, while they still cost more than a microwave without a convection feature, the price difference isn't that steep -- $50 to $100 at the most. A convection features allows you to use a microwave like a small oven -- you can roast and bake. The best microwave/convection oven combination browns well, bakes evenly, and puts a nice crust on burgers or roasts. While a lot of people say convection is unnecessary in a microwave, or that it's something they use rarely, plenty of cooks love having it because they don't have to use their big oven for a small job, and they have an extra cooking appliance available for parties and holidays.
A built-in microwave means many things. The word "built-in" is tossed rather freely around the microwave world to denote any type of microwave that doesn't sit on your counter. Over-the-range microwaves are in the built-in category, as are any countertop microwaves that can be built in, either as a custom set-up or over an oven or range using an optional trim kit. Drawer microwaves are installed lower in the kitchen, below the countertop, and they open like a drawer. They're often installed in kitchen islands or underneath wall ovens. Professional reviews of drawer microwaves are hard to find, however, and user reviews are limited and somewhat mixed -- especially when it comes to durability.
A microwave can't do it all
Although microwaves are becoming increasingly versatile and many come with cookbooks that feature a wide array of dishes you can cook in them, they aren't the best appliance for cooking everything. Even a microwave with a convection feature will not be as effective as a dedicated convection oven for baked goods, and its capacity will be smaller. For better options for baking and roasting, see our reports on wall ovens, ranges and toaster ovens.
If you do opt for a drawer microwave or for a custom built-in microwave anywhere in your kitchen but over the range, you may want to upgrade your kitchen exhaust and air flow, as well; if so, see our report on range hoods.
Finding the best microwaves
Narrowing down the selections to find the best microwave oven can be a challenge simply because there are so many of them -- and manufacturers tend to cycle models in and out quite frequently. With hundreds of models over dozens of brands, you can look at quite a few professional reviews and not see the same microwave oven twice. However, when analyzing professional tests at places like ConsumerReports.org, CNET, TheSweetHome.com and Reviewed.com, some consensus starts to emerge -- especially across brands, or lines within brands (GE's Profile series being an excellent example). Matching those results and recommendations to long-term, real-world experiences posted at user-review sites such as HomeDepot.com, Lowes.com and BestBuy.com helped us narrow the focus to a few top microwaves. The result of that research is our recommendations for the microwave ovens with the best combination of performance, features, ease of use and reliability.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Countertop Microwaves | Best Convection Microwaves | Best Built-In Microwaves | Buying Guide | Our Sources