Why you should trust us
To find out what makes a great microwave, we spoke to Sharon Franke, former director of the Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab at Good Housekeeping; appliance expert Chris Zeisler of RepairClinic.com; cookbook author Leslie Bilderback, who wrote Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth; and product managers at both Panasonic and GE. We also read reviews from Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, and CNET.
Additionally, we pored over hundreds of customer reviews on retail sites and forums. Finally, we went to several big-box stores, including Home Depot, Lowe's, and Bed Bath & Beyond, to look at microwaves in person.
As a staff writer at Wirecutter, Michael Sullivan has reviewed all kinds of kitchen equipment and gear, including toaster ovens, air fryers, and food processors. This guide builds on work by Wirecutter managing editor Ganda Suthivarakom, staff writer and editor Tim Heffernan, and freelancer Jessie Kissinger. Combined, we have well over 100 hours of formal research and testing and years of real-world use under our belts.
Who should buy a microwave
Microwave-oven technology hasn't evolved much in the past half century. However, the way we use this technology in the home kitchen has changed considerably. Gone are the days of using microwaves to prepare full-on meals (like those featured in this retro cookbook). Today, most people use microwaves for simpler tasks like warming leftovers, making popcorn, or reheating a cup of coffee. If you want the convenience of quickly cooking and reheating foods without having to fire up your conventional oven, you should consider getting a microwave.
We stuck to only countertop microwaves in this guide because we think they're the best option for most people: They are widely available and very affordable, and don't require any special installation. If you're in the process of remodeling your kitchen, you might be looking for an over-the-range (OTR) microwave based on the dimensions that will fit the existing slot above your range. OTR microwaves feature a vent fan underneath the cooking chamber, with the option to send the air to a duct or recirculate it through a filter, depending on your kitchen's configuration. While OTR models are an excellent way for homeowners to save counter space, they're more expensive than most countertop models and must fit specific space constraints. There are simply too many variables for us to recommend one OTR microwave that's suitable for most kitchens.
How microwaves work
Every microwave oven contains a magnetron, which generates microwaves. Those waves are then guided into the oven's cavity, where they bounce around, rapidly swinging the polarity of charged molecules in foods (particularly water, fats, and sugars) and generating heat. Metal mesh on the door keeps those large-wavelength microwaves from escaping the metal box and cooking you. (This great video uses a disassembled model to explain further.)
Microwave ovens don't actually deliver heat to a food item the way a conventional oven does (via heated air); they work by using microwave energy to cause the water and other simple molecules in food to rapidly vibrate, which generates internal friction at the molecular level, heating the food from within. That's why microwave ovens can heat things so quickly, and why they're so good at steaming vegetables in their own juices—they don't rely on the slow and uneven process of transferring heat energy from the air, the way a conventional oven does. But the microwaves aren't delivered evenly, the way heated air in a conventional oven is. That's why microwave trays rotate: so that, ideally, every section of the food item gets equal treatment. But the world doesn't operate on ideals, and neither do microwave ovens. Almost inevitably, you'll get hotter spots near the center of the oven, which may or may not matter depending on the size of the thing you're microwaving.
If you're worried about standing too close to your microwave and absorbing radiation, don't be. The level of radiation in microwave ovens is very low, and must comply with strict regulations put in place by the FDA. You can read a detailed explanation in this article from The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter). And no, for the most part, the radiation in microwaves won't destroy the nutrients in your food (more on that here).
How we picked
The most shocking revelation of all our research was the fact that among the hundreds of microwaves for sale today, many have completely identical hardware. Like, exactly the same—except for slightly different keypads and brand-name badges. This is because most of the microwaves in the world are produced by only a handful of manufacturers. But we also learned that even if the housing looks exactly the same, the way the models are programmed can still make a big difference in performance between seemingly identical microwaves.
Here's a list of the most important qualities we looked for when choosing models to test:
We wanted to find microwaves that could cook a variety of foods, including frozen meals, popcorn, and whole potatoes, quickly and evenly. Some models have functions that cook food using preprogrammed time and power level settings. Others use built-in sensors that automatically adjust the cooking time based on the amount of steam emanating from the food. But regardless of the technology used, none of the microwaves we tested were perfect. Some microwaves had a more accurate baked-potato setting, while others were better at defrosting ground beef. We'd recommend choosing a microwave that excels at cooking the food you plan to prepare most often.
For this guide, we limited our search to countertop microwaves (as opposed to built-in or over-the-range models) because they're widely available and very affordable. We looked for smaller microwaves costing less than $100 and larger models for less than $250. With microwaves $250 and up, you're paying for things like unique shapes (such as this skinny 1.1 cu. ft. Low Profile Microwave Hood Combination) or built-in models with drop-down doors, which can cost well over $1,000. Full-size, built-in convection microwaves can be as much as $2,500. However, these exorbitantly priced microwaves are overkill for most people, who won't be using them to do much more than reheat leftovers. Sharon Franke, former director of the Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab at Good Housekeeping, told us, "Unless you're remodeling your kitchen, and spending $30,000 to $50,000, and you want something that looks nice with the rest of your kitchen, people just aren't buying fancy microwaves anymore, because what are they doing with them anyway?"
We looked for small microwaves around 0.5 cubic foot and midrange models between 0.9 and 1.6 cubic foot. Unless you really need a turntable big enough to spin a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish or two small plates, we found that models over 1.6 cubic foot had too big a footprint for most spaces. Most people use microwaves for reheating leftovers, so there's no reason to have an oven cavity that's large enough to fit a 20-pound turkey. That said, you'll want to measure the diameter of your dinner plates before getting a microwave to be sure they'll fit.
When looking at midsize models, we only considered microwaves with a minimum of 900 to 1,000 watts. Good Housekeeping and RepairClinic.com both reported that midsize microwaves with cooking power lower than 1,000 watts are significantly slower and cook much less evenly. However, just because a microwave has the highest wattage on the market does not necessarily mean that it will cook the fastest or the most evenly; these qualities depend to a great degree on how efficiently the microwave is programmed and how the microwaves themselves are delivered. A smaller machine, by contrast, can potentially get away with somewhat less power; the small GE microwave (at 0.7 cubic foot less than half the size of most of the midsize models we tested) runs at 700 watts and heated very evenly in our tests. Bottom line? Numbers count less than real-world results.
Microwaves should have controls that are intuitive to use. We stayed away from models with dial or knob controls, opting for the membrane-covered buttons, which are both faster to use and easier to clean.
Useful cooking functions
Microwaves come with a slew of cooking functions, but Franke told us, "There are so many features on microwave ovens and people just don't use them. And I'll admit that I use the minute-plus feature on mine more than anything else." Though other cooking functions may not get used frequently, we still put them through their paces on the models we tested.
Here are the essential functions every microwave should have:
- Time cook allows you to manually set the cooking time.
- Express cooking lets you press one of the numbered buttons on the control panel (usually 1 through 6 minutes) for instant cooking. Say you want to reheat something for 2 minutes—simply press 2 and the microwave immediately begins heating.
- An add 30 seconds button tacks on 30 seconds to the cook time.
These functions are nice, but nonessential:
- Preprogrammed cooking functions use sensors and/or preset power levels and times to cook a variety of foods, including popcorn, potatoes, beverages, vegetables, and frozen meals. The sensors detect how much steam is emitted from the cooking food, but they aren't always accurate. Franke said, "A lot depends on the skill of the person who's programming it." In our tests, the accuracy of these functions varied from model to model.
- A defrost function defrosts frozen food at a lower power setting and can be programmed by weight or time.
Volume control is one of the best extra features a microwave can have, but it's pretty rare. Some models allow you to mute the beeping, but very few microwaves let you adjust the actual volume. We also prefer models that stop beeping when the oven door is opened. It's a small perk but one that many of our testers appreciated, particularly those who find the beeping annoying.
Some people are partial to push-buttons to open the oven door, while others prefer handles. Since this is a matter of personal preference, we tested both door styles for this guide. Certain models also include a child lock-out function, which is nice if you have small inquisitive children in your home.
Panasonic uses a supposedly superior power-regulating mechanism called an inverter, which can deliver continuous heating at varying strengths—50 percent power, for example, means continuous delivery at 50 percent of the unit's max. Most other manufacturers use a cheaper and more common technology, a transformer, which means that it delivers 50 percent power by cycling between periods of full power and zero power. Panasonic's inverter technology is supposed to cook more evenly, but Franke told us, "I've never found that [an inverter] necessarily means the oven performs better." The Panasonic models we tested cooked potatoes and frozen meals well, but they overcooked the edges of frozen ground beef using the defrost mode. In the end, we don't think paying more specifically for inverter technology is worth it.
We did not test microwaves with convection settings—meaning the unit also has a heating element and a fan that bakes the food like an oven—for two reasons. One: Microwaves are primarily used for reheating leftovers, not cooking. Two: Appliances with this feature tend to be exorbitantly priced.
How we tested
For our 2018 update, we ran a series of tests on 12 microwaves. First, we created our own version of a heat map by cutting a piece of parchment paper to fit the turntable of each model and completely covering it with a layer of plain mini marshmallows. Then we nuked it on high for 2 minutes until the marshmallows began to brown. By looking at the underside of each piece of parchment paper, we could see the pattern of browning and determine how evenly the microwaves generated heat (for more on how microwaves work, see above).
After creating that heat map, we followed manufacturer instructions for cooking a single potato in each oven using the automatic setting (all of the potatoes we used in our tests weighed between 250 and 325 grams). When the cooking ended, we cut each potato in half to see if it was cooked through.
Next, we tried defrosting a 1-pound portion of frozen ground beef in each microwave, using the automatic defrost setting on the models that had this feature. Some units gave prompts to flip the meat, which we did. When the time was up, we broke apart each block of meat with a fork to see if it was completely defrosted. Spoiler alert: None of the microwaves were particularly great at this task. Every model at least slightly cooked the edges of the ground beef we attempted to defrost. (Best practice is to slowly thaw meat in the fridge, or relatively quickly under cold running water.)
We also popped a 3.2-ounce bag of popcorn in each microwave using the automatic popcorn setting. We looked for any burnt pieces, then carefully sifted the popped kernels from the unpopped before weighing the latter down to the gram. The best performers had fewer unpopped kernels.
To see how effectively each model could reheat an 8-ounce mug of water, we zapped one on high for 2 minutes, starting from approximately the same temperature of water each time. We then subtracted the difference in temperature after microwaving to estimate how well each unit performed this task.
Finally, we prepared 12-ounce portions of frozen Stouffer's mac and cheese following the microwave box instructions and tasted each batch to see if it was thoroughly cooked through. Sadly, our testers all agreed that microwaved mac and cheese didn't taste quite as good as they remembered it when they were kids.
Our pick: Toshiba EM925A5A-BS
The Toshiba EM925A5A-BS cooked the most evenly in our tests and was one of the few models we found with an option to mute the sound. The Toshiba has a control panel that's very easy to use and includes express cooking options and preset cooking functions for specific tasks like making popcorn or cooking a potato. Also, the Toshiba is one of the few models we tested with a handle for opening the door (versus a push-button release), which some people may prefer.
The Toshiba has an easy-to-use digital interface, with one key feature that helps it stand out from much of the competition: a mute button. Since this model doesn't stop beeping when you open the door, we appreciated having the option to mute the beeping entirely. The Toshiba also has six preset cooking functions for popcorn, potatoes, pizza, frozen vegetables, beverages, and reheating a dinner plate. It has one-touch start controls from 1 to 6 minutes, and a plus-30-seconds button so you can quickly add extra time. Also, its lock function prevents kids from accidentally operating the machine (you simply hold the stop/cancel button for 3 seconds to lock or unlock the door). This model also has several other features that other microwaves we tested lacked, including a memory function (that saves up to three customized cooking times and power levels) and a multistage cooking function (that allows you to set two different cooking times and power levels to operate in succession), but we don't think most people will use these often.
In our heat map test, the Toshiba produced the most even heating pattern of all the microwaves we tested, perfectly browning the layer of marshmallows from edge to edge. It expertly cooked a baked potato in about 6 minutes, which was average for the microwaves we tried. It also reheated beverages well and perfectly cooked frozen macaroni and cheese. And it made tasty popcorn, with only 5 grams of kernels left unpopped, which was on a par with most of the models we tested. This model allows you to defrost by time or weight, but like most of the microwaves we tested, it didn't defrost meat well.
Toshiba makes microwaves in other sizes too: 1.2, 1.5, and 1.6 cubic foot, all of which have slightly different internal parts and control panels. However, after testing the 0.9 and 1.2 cubic foot models for this guide, we think the former is the best for most people because it's simpler to use and takes up less space. You can't fit a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish in the cavity of the 0.9-cubic-foot unit, but its 10.5-inch turntable is still wide enough to fit an 11-inch dinner plate or a 9-inch square casserole dish. At 900 watts, the 0.9-cubic-foot Toshiba also packs a lot of power for its size. It measures 19.1 by 16.1 by 11.5 inches, so it's a nice midsize option that falls in between the two other microwaves we recommend. And while we realize the control panel looks straight out of the '90s, the microwave is available in a stainless steel or black stainless steel exterior, so it will fit the aesthetic of most kitchens.
The Toshiba microwave is covered by a one-year warranty, and the claims process is better than what most manufacturers offer. Typically they require you to ship the unit to and from a service center at your own cost, which likely costs as much as or more than the microwave itself. If anything should go wrong with the microwave under warranty, Toshiba will not repair the unit. Instead, they'll issue you a refund check, which, according to the representative we spoke to, can take anywhere from four to eight weeks. Just know that you'll need to provide your original receipt, the cut power cord from your unit, and the model number label in order to receive the refund. Contact Toshiba's customer support center for more information.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Like most microwaves we tested, the Toshiba wasn't great at defrosting meat. This model doesn't beep to remind you to flip the meat halfway through heating, so if you forget, the results are pretty unappetizing. The ground beef we attempted to defrost in this Toshiba remained partially frozen in the center, while the edges were slightly cooked. For that reason, we don't ever recommend using a microwave for defrosting meat unless you absolutely have to. It's always best to thaw meat in the fridge or under cold running water. That said, we still think the defrost mode is great for quickly thawing frozen bread or bagels.
The Toshiba isn't built like a tank the way most older models from the '70s and '80s were, but its sturdier than many other microwaves out there, such as the GE JES1460DSBB, which has a flimsy, bendable door.
One complaint of some Amazon reviewers is that the Toshiba is loud while operating. Others complain that the door makes a racket when closed. We've also read reviews that the control panel's plastic membrane begins to bubble or peel over time. Since this is a relatively new model, there's not a long track record of how it will hold up over the long run. But we'll continue to long-term test it to keep an eye on these issues.
Runner-up pick: Toshiba EM131A5C-BS
The 1.2-cubic-foot Toshiba EM131A5C-BS is a great option for anyone who wants a slightly larger microwave with more express cooking options. Initially, we found these additional controls less intuitive to operate than our main pick, the Toshiba EM925A5A-BS, but after a few tries, we got the hang of it. Like our other picks, this Toshiba has a mute button for silencing the beeping. Its 12-inch-wide turntable is large enough to accomodate most dinner plates or a 9-inch square baking dish, but it's too small to fit a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. The 1.2-cubic-foot Toshiba comes in a stainless steel or black stainless steel exterior.
Like the 0.9-cubic-foot model, this Toshiba has one-touch start buttons from 1 to 6 minutes, a plus-30-seconds button, and a child-lock function. This model also shares several other features with the smaller Toshiba, such as a memory function and a multistage cooking function—but, realistically, we don't think most people will use these controls often.
However, unlike the smaller model, this Toshiba has a learning curve to navigating the other controls on the digital interface. For instance, when you hit the sensor reheat button on the control panel, you're given the option of choosing between several cryptic codes. By consulting the legend on the inside of the microwave, you'll discover that these codes correspond to various commands: reheat, frozen pizza, frozen entree. Oddly, several of these commands already have their own buttons on the control panel, which means there are two ways to perform the same action. The Soften/Melt button also has a jumble of codes you have to scroll through, and you'll need to refer to the legend if you want to decipher what they mean. While we didn't find these commands very intuitive, we don't think they're a dealbreaker since most people won't use them that much anyway.
The 1.2-cubic-foot Toshiba didn't heat as evenly as the smaller Toshiba. Unlike the 0.9-cubic-foot version, this Toshiba uses a steam and temperature sensor to automatically determine cooking time. However, we didn't find the sensor particularly accurate: The baked potato we cooked using it came out completely raw in the center. In our heat map test, the marshmallows near the center of the turntable came out very dark. That said, it heated more evenly across the surface of the turntable than most of the microwaves we tested. The popcorn we made wasn't burned, though it did have twice as many unpopped kernels as the 0.9-cubic-foot model. We liked that this model beeps to prompt you to flip meat while defrosting, something the smaller one doesn't do. Impressively, this Toshiba only slightly cooked the edges of ground beef on the defrost mode, unlike most of the models we tested, which fully cooked entire sections of meat.
The 1.2-cubic-foot Toshiba is covered by a one-year warranty and has the same claims process as the 0.9-cubic-foot model. Contact Toshiba's customer support center for more information.
Also great: GE JES1072SHSS
The small GE JES1072SHSS microwave (it measures just 10 inches tall by 13 inches deep by 18 inches wide) is the ideal size for single users or apartment dwellers with limited counter space. This 0.7-cubic-foot model has a turntable that measures 10 inches in diameter, so it's still large enough to fit a 10¾-inch dinner plate or a 9-inch square casserole dish. It has a simple user interface, but it lacks some of the preset cooking functions, such as those for vegetables and pizza, that came with larger microwaves we tested. Its 12-by-12-inch oven cavity can't handle a large 9-by-13-inch casserole dish, but it's great for basic reheating and cooking tasks.
The GE has four preset cooking functions for popcorn, beverages, potatoes, and reheating. It has a plus-30-seconds button, express cooking controls for 1 to 6 minutes, and a child lock-out function. Along with all that, it can defrost by weight or time, but like most of the models we tested, it didn't excel at the task. Like the Toshibas we tested, the GE has a sound button that lets you mute the beeping, a rare feature not typically seen in smaller microwaves.
The GE is small in every respect except performance. It perfectly cooked a potato in about the same amount of time it took the larger, more expensive microwaves we tested. Our marshmallow heat map test revealed that it concentrated heat in a bull's-eye pattern near the center of the turntable. But it still heated more evenly than many other microwaves we tested, such as the Magic Chef, which burned the marshmallows in the center of the turntable.
At 700 watts, this model isn't as powerful as our other picks, but that's to be expected with such a small microwave. The frozen mac and cheese we prepared was fully cooked through, but it could have used an additional 1 minute, 30 seconds to get it piping hot (the cooking directions on the box of Stouffer's frozen macaroni and cheese were formulated using a larger 1,100-watt microwave). Former Wirecutter appliance writer Michelle Ma, who has owned this GE model for a year, said, "I have had to adjust my times a little and generally do 2:30 to 3 minutes for most leftovers (for comparison, I do like 1:30 to 2 minutes for the office microwave), but I don't mind the extra minute. All in all a great purchase and I love it. I use it pretty much every day."
Under the GE's s one-year warranty, the company will replace "any part of the oven which fails due to materials or workmanship." However, it won't cover the cost of shipping the microwave to and from a customer care servicer. So in most cases, it's probably far cheaper to buy a new unit than have it repaired.
Care and maintenance
The most important way to ensure that your microwave lasts is to avoid slamming the door. That's because microwaves have a dual kill switch in the latch to make it impossible for the microwave to turn on if the door is open or even compromised. That's a good thing—but it means that the latch is a vulnerable point of potential failure. Do yourself a favor and be gentle with it.
And never run your microwave empty. Without food to absorb the microwaves, they'll bounce around the cavity and possibly cause damage to the oven.
Frequently used microwaves need to be cleaned at least once per week, because any food remnants stuck to the walls can get overheated and cause damage to the microwave itself. A simple trick (courtesy of Wirecutter senior editor Christine Cyr Clisset) is to nuke a bowl of water for a few minutes on high: The steam will loosen most gunk, and you can wipe it out with just a plain paper towel or a sponge. For cleaning the outside of a microwave, Good Housekeeping recommends spraying cleaner onto a towel and not on the actual surface, where it can get into the perforations and damage the internal elements.
Microwaves with reheating sensors need to be able to detect the steam coming off your food, so don't cover your food completely with something that isn't porous. Use a paper towel or loose plastic wrap.
Generally, you should avoid placing metal in the microwave. For specifics, check out this video by The Huffington Post.
If your microwave is broken, do not attempt to repair it yourself. Microwaves are very dangerous to tamper with and should be serviced by professionals because the magnetron can retain a hazardous charge even when it isn't plugged in. Most microwave manufacturers discourage people from even changing the light bulbs. But realistically, it's probably cheaper and less of a hassle to buy a new microwave than to have it repaired.
If your microwave bites the dust, first check with your local trash disposal company to see if they'll take it. If they won't, check out this search engine to find a recycling center near you. (Just be sure to call in advance to confirm it accepts microwaves.)
The highly rated Whirlpool WMC20005YB 0.5 Cu. Ft. Black Countertop Microwave is larger in person than we expected. We preferred the sleeker, less intrusive shape and design of the GE JES1072SHSS over this model.
The GE JES1656SRSS used to be our main pick, but according to the GE representative we spoke to, this model will soon be discontinued. It's being replaced by the new GE JES1657SMSS.
The new GE JES1657SMSS did well in our tests overall. However, at 1.6 cubic foot, we found it to be too big for most things you're ever likely to cook or reheat in a microwave. That said, this model would be a good option for anyone wanting a unit large enough to fit a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Like most microwaves we tested, it didn't defrost meat well, and it lacks a control to silence the beeping.
The GE JES1460DSBB had a very flimsy door that required some force to close. We expected more from a microwave at this price point. We also felt this model looked dated and wished it came in more color options.
The large 1.6-cubic-foot Panasonic NN-SN736B eats up a lot of counter space. This model also failed to fully cook a potato all the way through and overcooked the meat we attempted to thaw on the defrost setting.
The Panasonic NN-SN686S fully cooked the bottom and edges of the frozen ground beef we tried to thaw using the defrost mode. Like the other Panasonic models we tested, this microwave lacks the express cooking controls we preferred on the Toshibas and GE.
The Panasonic NN-SN651B cooked ground beef well past just thawed on the defrost mode. And again, it lacks express cooking controls, which start microwaving at the push of a button.
We found the dial and push-buttons on the Panasonic NN-SD797S to be more difficult to operate and clean than the simple and straightforward membrane-covered interface of our picks. This model's inverter technology didn't provide superior results in our tests either.
The keypad on the Panasonic NN-SE785S is a confusing jungle of icons, which makes it difficult to clearly identify functions. (Below, the icon that looks like weeping asterisks turns out to mean defrost, for example.) There's not even a numerical pad to set the time for cooking; to do that, you have to go through an icon-based menu, then press an up or down arrow half a dozen times or more to set the time. Though it has a sleek design, our testers felt this model was unnecessarily complicated.
The Panasonic Prestige Genius NN-SD681S failed our defrost test and has an internal light bulb that doesn't automatically turn on when you open the door. We also weren't fans of its push-buttons and dial control, which were more difficult to operate and clean.
The Magic Chef HMM1611ST is exclusively sold at Home Depot and didn't impress us with its performance. Ground beef remained frozen in the center when we nuked it on the defrost setting, while the edges were completely cooked. Since this model generates so much heat, a plastic tray of mac and cheese was too hot to hold after cooking.
The Whirlpool WMC30516AS had a dead spot in the middle of the turntable and a complicated door-mounted chart for looking up cooking and defrost times and settings.
The Breville Quick Touch Oven is the perfect example of how a well-designed, minimal user interface doesn't matter if the cooking is subpar. In every test—from marshmallows to defrost—it performed poorly. For the premium price, we expected better.
The GE JES2051SNSS was one of the best models we tested at defrosting frozen meat. But at 19.25 by 13.63 by 23.88 inches, we felt it was just too large for most kitchens. Our own experience and user feedback taught us that a smaller microwave is preferable. However, we think this is an excellent choice for someone who has ample counter space and prefers a larger microwave.
Even though the LG LCRT2010ST shares hardware with GE, we found that it had markedly inferior performance—it failed to defrost in our tests. For the price, we expected more from this model.
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