The vast majority (and by that we mean 99.9999 percent) of so-called "built-in microwaves" are simply countertop microwaves that give you the option of building them in, either as an over-the-range microwave, or in a custom installation; for example, under a bank of cabinets, on a shelf, tucked into a cabinet or behind an appliance door. The obvious advantage to this is that you get the microwave off the counter, thus freeing up valuable real estate. You can also place them at a friendlier, eye-level height that might make them easier to use.
Another advantage of custom built-ins is aesthetics and flexibility. Putting a microwave somewhere other than above the range allows you to consider adding a range hood for better ventilation. An attractively placed microwave in an unusual area of the kitchen also can add a pleasing visual element to a custom kitchen.
If you're handy, you can install a built-in microwave yourself, but it requires proper venting and a dedicated electrical outlet, so, unless you have the skills and knowledge, be safe and hire a professional.
GE is tops in most of the professional tests we saw this year, earning raves across the board for performance and durability. And none get quite the praise of the GE JVM3160RFSS (Est. $250). Some retail stores offer free installation and haul away (if you have an old microwave you're replacing) included with purchase, owners say. It comes in stainless steel, bisque, black, white and slate, making it even easier to match your kitchen's décor.
At 1.6 cubic feet, the GE JVM3160RFSS is large enough for all but the biggest families, and is reported as very powerful. It is rated at 1,000 watts, but owners say that it performs like a more powerful microwave, making quick work of most tasks. At ConsumerReports.org, this microwave is both Recommended and dubbed a Best Buy, earning Excellent scores for defrosting, noise and ease of use, and Very Good scores for heating evenness and venting; speed of heating is rated as just average, though.
We were hard-pressed to find many complaints about this workhorse, although some say the keypad is hard to see; a complaint we saw a lot of across the board when compiling this year's report. The GE JVM3160RFSS gets very few durability complaints; those we saw didn't seem to have a unifying theme and there weren't enough to give us pause. The JVM3160RFSS has the impressive array of presets that we noted on all of the models in the GE line this year, including buttons for 30 seconds and one to six minutes, as well as beverage, popcorn, potato, reheat and defrost. There's also a surface light and night light. The sensor is said to be extremely accurate -- set it and forget it because it will do its job.
Ease of use is a huge plus with the GE JVM3160RFSS; you probably won't ever need to glance at the owner's manual once you get it installed. And installation is reported as quite easy, although you'll need another pair of hands to help you lift and bolt it into place.
It's slightly larger (and more expensive as well), but the GE JVM6175SKSS (Est. $330) earns a nod as the best choice for an over-the-range microwave from testers at TheSweethome.com. The two microwaves are strikingly similar in appearance, as you would expect from the same manufacturer, but the JVM6175SKSS does not come in bisque.
Like the JVM3160RFSS, the JVM6175SKSS gets kudos for its ease of use, again, you probably won't ever need to even glance at the owner's manual. It has one more preset than the JVM3160RFSS, a one button "melt" function, but the JVM3160RFSS has one more time preset -- it has 1 to 6 minutes at a touch, the JVM6175SKSS only has 1 to 5 minutes. Both have a button to add 30 seconds. The JVM6175SKSS has a couple of more keypad settings (such a mute option for the timer), but the display on the JVM6175SKSS seems cleaner. Still, either of these microwaves is a great choice, and shine where it's important -- and that's accurate sensor cooking, the most important feature in a top microwave.
Another type of built-in microwave is called a microwave drawer, and that is exactly what it is: a microwave oven that opens like a drawer. These are great for saving space because one can be installed under a breakfast counter or on a work island. They are safe, easy for children to reach, and look very upscale. Because it's located in a low space, and you slide is out like a drawer, you don't have to remove the dish to stir or check the food.
Currently, there is only a very limited selection of drawer-style microwaves and they are quite a bit more expensive than other types. There are also very few reviews, professional or otherwise. The reviews we did see are not as positive as those for traditional built-in or countertop microwaves.
For now, a top choice in drawer-style microwaves is the Sharp KB-6524PS 24-Inch Microwave Drawer Oven (Est. $830). Sharp invented this technology and, in fact, makes the internals for all current microwave drawers, regardless of branding. Most user reports say that the KB-6524PS works very well and is powerful and convenient, with intuitive cooking controls and preset options. It does not get very good feedback for durability, however, although plenty of users say it's still going strong after a couple of years.
If a drawer-type microwave is right for you and your kitchen set-up, the Sharp KB-6524PS earns our qualified recommendation, but we also might recommend waiting a while until this style of built-in microwave builds up a better track record, or until the selection improves and prices drop.