The Best Microwave

There is no perfect microwave oven, but we have two recommendations that are right for most people. If you love one-button cooking with presets and sensors, we recommend the GE JES2051SN ($179 at Home Depot). A roomy cavity makes it great for folks with big dishes, and its sensor was very accurate. It can thoroughly cook a potato, evenly reheat pizza, and warm up a beverage to hot (but not scalding) with the touch of a button. But you should know that it’s a counter hog—24 by 19.5 by 13.75 inches—and its keypad has a number of buttons you may never use.

The GE JES2051SN had the best automatic sensors of all the microwaves we tested, leaving food cooked (but not scorched) in our tests.
Coming to this conclusion took 60 hours of research and testing, interviews with expert writers and a repair pro who works with microwave ovens regularly, reading through hundreds of customer reviews, and polling our readers. We made piles of frozen burritos, a mountain of popcorn, many pounds of potatoes, and learned a lot about microwaves in doing so (mostly that manufacturers overpromise functionality on devices that people want dead simplicity from).

After further digging, we learned that nearly half the microwaves in the world are produced by one manufacturer in China.
But the most shocking revelation that came from 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. We’re not just talking about companies with the same owner, either. Out of seven microwaves we called in, we had two pairs that seemed to be twins—and this was after painstakingly trying to avoid duplicates. After further digging, we learned that nearly half the microwaves in the world are produced by one manufacturer in China. But we also learned that though the housing may look exactly the same, the software can still make a big difference in performance between dupes.
Also Great
*At the time of publishing, the price was $266.
The Panasonic Genius Prestige NN-SD797S has a dial as part of its interface, which simplifies things a lot, but may not be preferable for some users. Still, it’s a great runner-up microwave.

If our main pick is sold out, or you’re someone who wants the simplest possible interface, our runner-up is the $300 Panasonic NN-SD797S. It has a roomy 15-inch turntable big enough to accommodate casserole dishes, features a blessedly uncluttered UI with a dial and a quick minute button, cooks lightning fast with 1250 watts, and defrosts evenly thanks to smart programming and its ability to cook at steady lower power settings.

Should I upgrade?

Microwaves have a life expectancy of about nine years, with seven years for a countertop model. If you aren’t happy with the evenness of the cooking in your microwave or you’re moving into a place with more room for a bigger unit, we recommend dumping your college-era compact for one of these. If there’s any funny business with the latch, recycle it and replace it. The FDA cautions people never to operate a microwave oven with door problems, as this may allow radiation to leak out.

How we picked and tested

According to a 2013 report published by the U.S. Census Bureau, microwaves are in 97 percent of American households—near total saturation. We’d hardly say they’re dying.1 When operated correctly, they heat without smoke or open flame. That convenience has allowed them to infiltrate places outside the home that wouldn’t otherwise allow cooking, so office workers can anger their colleagues with popcorn fumes and prisoners can make commissary cheesecake.

There aren’t many comprehensive reviews of microwave ovens, probably because new models cycle in and older models cycle out so frequently.  There’s a long but out-of-date list of tested models (some discontinued) on Consumer Reports. Bestcovery and Consumer Search have similar lists broken down into categories, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve actually tested models. CNET provides in-depth tests with informative videos for a handful of new models. Good Housekeeping rounded up a list of favorites, but they seem to be much older, discontinued ovens. Basically, we knew from the get-go that we would have to do a lot of research and testing. For this guide, we decided to focus on countertop microwave ovens, the most popular and most affordable segment. Since we wanted a model with great power and versatility, we focused on mid- to large-sized ovens with turntables big enough to spin a 13-by-9-inch dish or two small plates.

We then analyzed hundreds of customer reviews and polled our readers to find out what people want most from a microwave. We go through these features point by point in “What makes a good microwave” later on, but to summarize, most people want to spend between $100-$300 on an oven with easy-to-use controls and a stainless steel finish. So we looked for ovens that fit that criteria. And although our survey showed that most readers find sensors and presets to be finicky and often not worth using, we decided to only test microwaves that had them. That way, if we did find a microwave with good sensors, people would know that they can actually be useful.

A few other important things came up during research that people often don’t consider, like inverters, which promote even cooking at lower power levels (skip down to “How microwaves work” for more info on this). Inverters are almost exclusively found in Panasonic models; we decided to test ovens with and without them to see if it made a difference.

A well-designed door latch is another oft-overlooked feature that proved to be of utmost importance. Doors are often the first part to break, and as previously mentioned, a damaged door can lead to a blown fuse, or far less likely but still possible, radiation leakage. A door that doesn’t need to be slammed closed several times a day is one that you’re less likely to have to prematurely replace. But this is difficult to determine from spec sheets.

After considering all that, we were still left with about 20 models. From there, we decided to focus on higher wattage microwaves in our price point with a minimum of 1100 watts; sources from Good Housekeeping and RepairClinic.com both said that microwaves with cooking power lower than 1000 watts are significantly slower and cook much less evenly.

But once we got our testers, we came across one of the more shocking discoveries in this research process. After calling in our seven microwaves, it looked like we had received two pairs of twins.
I tried my best to weed out the duplicates by using spec sheets, looking at corporate brand ownership, comparing product photos—basically whatever information I could get. This brought the final list of testing candidates down to seven: GE JES2051SN, Panasonic NN-SD797S, LG LCRT2010, Panasonic Genius Prestige NN-SD681S, Whirlpool WMC30516A[S], Kenmore 73163, and the Breville Quick Touch Oven. But once we got our testers, we came across one of the more shocking discoveries in this research process. After calling in our seven microwaves, it looked like we had received two pairs of twins. Of the hundreds of microwaves you can buy, we may be looking at lots and lots of duplicates coming from the same factory. Most media outlets don’t generally talk about the fact that a few original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) often dominate appliance categories, putting different brand name rebadges on the exact same hardware but (possibly) with different software. We’re not even talking about brand names that own other brands—we’re talking about competing companies selling the exact same microwave hardware with slightly different keypads. Chris Zeisler, appliance expert with RepairClinic.com, told us, “You’d be surprised in the appliance industry, that’s not that uncommon. There’s a half dozen major players making 40 names.” And yet, in our testing, we confirmed that twins could perform very differently depending on how they have been programmed.2

To test these microwaves, we ran them through a battery of basic operations: setting the clock, nuking on high for two minutes, setting the timer, opening and closing the door, and recording the number of beeps. We then tested how well they cooked.*FirstBodyPic

To test for evenness of heating, we placed marshmallows on parchment paper and nuked them on high. A perfectly even-heating microwave would uniformly brown all the marshmallows whereas a spotty one would burn some areas while leaving others unbrowned. We also popped a bag of microwave popcorn in each and weighed the remaining unpopped kernels. We heated up a frozen burrito using standard directions and the sensor when available, checking the internal temperature in three different spots.

We also defrosted equal-sized bricks of frozen ground beef and tested for temperature in three spots. This is often a sticking point with cheaper ovens, which will cook some areas and leave others completely frozen solid. To check sensor/preset cooking, we nuked an extra large russet potato pierced with a fork using the “potato” setting, then sliced it in half to check for doneness. We heated up beverages using sensor cook when available, checking the temperature at the top of the cup. We reheated cold pizza and finally cold, precooked lasagna covered in a paper towel or with vented plastic wrap as suggested. (Note: We don’t recommend letting vented plastic wrap touch your food when you use the sensor cook, even though instructional booklets recommend it. The plastic wrap melted right onto fatty foods—not tasty and possibly not so good for you.)

Our pick

The GE JES2051SN had the best automatic sensors of all the microwaves we tested, leaving food cooked (but not scorched) in our tests.
The amazing thing about the GE is that this microwave seems to have the exact same housing and magnetron as an LG model that we tested, but because it has buttons that are more intuitive and it’s programmed to require less input, it performed better.
For its emphasis on one-button-and-done heating, we recommend the GE JES2051SN ($179 at Home Depot). It has clean stainless steel lines (though it also comes in white or black) and a roomy interior with a 16-inch turntable that’s big enough to handle a 13×9 baking dish with handles with room to spare or two side plates. If all you want is to press Add 30 Seconds until your food is done, this is a great model with quick, even cooking. If you like one-touch preset buttons for foods like popcorn, potatoes, and beverages, you’ll be happy with the actually reliable, no-input-necessary performance of this model’s sensor.*SecondBodyPic

The amazing thing about the GE is that this microwave seems to have the exact same housing and magnetron as an LG model that we tested, but because it has buttons that are more intuitive and it’s programmed to require less input, it performed better. (GE wouldn’t comment on their suppliers, but said they do their own testing. LG confirmed that they’re the OEM and told us that the printed circuit board (PCB) indeed varies, accounting for differences in performance.)2

LG on the left, GE on the right.

LG on the left, GE on the right.

Defrosting meat only requires input of the weight. After seven minutes, parts of the ground beef puck were still a little icy, but nothing that couldn’t be worked with. More importantly, there were no cooked parts. (In contrast, the LG requires you to input the type of meat you’re defrosting and took less than six minutes, but overcooked one corner of the meat. Same machine, different programming—go figure.) Preset buttons excelled on this model to the point where we’d actually consider using them. GE is pretty judicious about which to show: popcorn, reheat, beverage, potato, vegetable, and chicken/fish, which seem to be standard for all of their models. Popcorn came out near perfect, with only two grams of unpopped kernels and no burnt kernels.

An extra large potato baked with the sensor took about six minutes and was evenly cooked all the way through. A reheated beverage came out hot (190 degrees at the top of the mug), but not third-degree-burn hot, after nearly 2 ½ minutes. Uncovered, reheated pizza came out arespectably hot but with one slightly overheated edge after 1 minute and 10 seconds. The GE offers express minute buttons for 1-6 on the keypad, which allows timed cooking with the touch of a single button. An “Add 30 Sec.” button makes it easy to give your food a little extra blast of heat at any point in the cooking process. But perhaps the friendliest feature on the keypad is the beeper volume, which allows you to make the beeps louder, softer, or even mute—great for households with sleeping babies, surreptitious late-night snackers, or even just people who can’t stand to hear their microwaves beep at them. It operates quietly, with a gentle, low whirr, unlike the Panasonics, which emit a louder “medium level frequency, like an exhaust fan on medium,” as Amazon reviewer shopper “blue light” put it. As for cleaning, a seamless, rounded back wall and smooth plastic covers over the wave guide are really easy to wipe down, as is the membrane-style keypad, so cleaning is a breeze.

A very smooth interior with few seams or hooks and a plastic cover over the wave guide make cleaning really easy.

A very smooth interior with few seams or hooks and a plastic cover over the wave guide make cleaning really easy.

Though this one doesn’t have many reviews on Amazon, it does get a 4.5 star rating out of 144 reviews on Home Depot, where it’s sold for $179.

This microwave oven comes with a limited one-year warranty on parts and labor, which is standard. But unlike other warranties that require you to drop the machine off at a service center, GE can schedule in-home service where a technician comes to your house to diagnose the problem. If you’re out of warranty, the technician fee is $100 before parts or repair costs.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

This will seem like a long list, but like I said earlier, we have yet to find a perfect microwave.

Left, Panasonic’s minimal dial. Right, GE’s cluttered keypad.

Left, Panasonic’s minimal dial. Right, GE’s cluttered keypad.

The GE doesn’t win any beauty contests, especially if you’re a minimalist. They keypad still feels overcrowded with excess buttons that most of us won’t use. The “Delay start” is probably only relevant to the tiny percentage of people who don’t operate appliances on the Sabbath.

And why is there an AM/PM button, which gets pressed a grand total of once when the clock is set for the first time (barring power outages)? There’s also a not-helpful Help button, which doles out user manual advice on a tiny screen that fits only seven scrolling letters. (My theory is that because this model was built by LG, GE had to fill out a few more buttons than they would have designed for, so they just stuck a couple of functions into the mix.) But once we learned to zoom in on the Add 30 Sec. and Express Cook buttons, no extra Start push required, we gravitated towards this microwave.

If you have to cook something for, say, 10 seconds, as you might to soften ice cream, you have to press the dumb “Time Cook” button before you key in 1-0 because the 1 otherwise automatically starts the express cook. It’s mildly annoying.

While it reheated pizza perfectly, its sensor overpowered the cold lasagna when it was covered with vented plastic wrap, scorching the dish and melting the plastic; the sensor had less of a problem with the paper-towel-covered piece.

This unit is big and tall, at 24.12 inches width by 19.5 inches depth by 13.75 inches height. You do need a larger footprint and top clearance on the counter for this model than the 1.6-cubic-foot Panasonic Prestige model we looked at, but only 2 inches more width and 1.75 more height. This model also doesn’t have a trim kit.

There’s a reminder beep that begins 30 seconds after the initial beep and repeats every minute thereafter. This will drive some bananas, but at least you have the option of turning the beeping off completely with the Beeper Volume button.

 

The runner-up

Also Great
*At the time of publishing, the price was $266.
The Panasonic Genius Prestige NN-SD797S has a dial as part of its interface, which simplifies things a lot, but may not be preferable for some users. Still, it’s a great runner-up microwave.
If our main pick is sold out, or if you prefer minimal lines and interfaces, we recommend the Panasonic NN-SD797[S] ($194 on Amazon, $232 at Best Buy). It’s a Goldilocks size at 1.6 cu. ft., but still has a 15-inch turntable big enough to handle a 13×9 baking dish with handles. It comes in a sleek matte silver finish that, while not as high-end-looking as stainless steel, resists fingerprints well. The display is in easy-to-read bright blue.

Panasonic Genius Prestige NN-SD681S on the left, the Panasonic Genius Prestige NN-SD797S on the right.

Panasonic Genius Prestige NN-SD681S on the left, the Panasonic NN-SD797S on the right.

People who want a microwave that just heats up and shuts up will enjoy the minimal interaction required by the Panasonic. It has a quick minute button just above the Start button for fast start and heat action (though it does require the push of the Start button). Its face isn’t overloaded with preset buttons.

Clockwise from top left: Panasonic NN-SD681S, LG, Kenmore, Whirlpool, GE, Panasonic NN-SD797S. The Panasonic NN-SD797S had the most even heat all the way around the 15-inch turntable.

Clockwise from top left: Panasonic NN-SD681S, LG, Kenmore, Whirlpool, GE, Panasonic NN-SD797S. The Panasonic NN-SD797S had the most even heat all the way around the 15-inch turntable.

The marshmallow test showed pretty even heating from the center to the edge of the microwave, and the foods we spot checked showed mostly even temperatures throughout. It’s not astonishingly better than the other options, but it’s still a noticeable difference. While other models show evidence of burning either in the center, around the edges, or both, the Panasonic displays relatively even browning across the platter.

Panasonic has inverter technology, which we found makes a big difference in defrosting and reheating.
Panasonic has inverter technology, which we found makes a big difference in defrosting and reheating. The “turbo” defrost button requires that you indicate only the weight of your food, not the type. A pound of frozen ground beef came out pretty evenly defrosted, with a slightly frozen center but without any overcooked stripes. While some of the other microwaves struggled to evenly cook the slightly tall block of frozen meat, the Panasonic was able to heat it evenly and quickly after 5 minutes and 35 seconds. Sensor reheating a piece of cold lasagna was fast and accurate. It took about 2 minutes, and the final 30 seconds were cooked at 50 percent power so there were no overpowered burnt bits. As far as size goes, the microwave isn’t overly tall, thus saving space while still accommodating a full bag of popped corn nicely. When the food is done, there are five short, low beeps to indicate that your food is ready and no insanity-inducing reminder beeps. Unlike with the GE, you can’t adjust the beep volume or frequency, but the default setting is pleasant enough. Consumer Reports lauded this unit’s heating evenness and defrosting, giving it an “excellent” for ease of use. Like most of the countertop models, this comes with a one-year limited warranty for all parts and labor, as well as a five-year warranty on the magnetron tube. Microwaves must be taken to an approved service center, which can be found at http://www.panasonic.com/help.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

There are many, many customer complaints on Amazon about the Panasonic’s door switch crapping out. We suspect part of the problem is the tension on the door latch. The door doesn’t close softly—it requires a bit of push before the latch sticks. That was also true of the smaller Panasonic model we tested. It’d be easy to get into the habit of slamming the door closed every time you use it, but that would really be terrible for the longevity of the microwave, as the door latch is so often the first failure point on a microwave oven. If your microwave door prevents the oven from working and it’s still under the one-year warranty, you can visit panasonic.com to locate an approved repair person in your area for free repair.

Most of our survey respondents said they hate preset buttons because they never work properly, and this model is a perfect example of that. While the sensor reheat button excelled in its dead simplicity, the sensor cook button is fussy, requiring you to look up your food on a menu printed inside the door of the microwave. Sensor cook failed miserably for potatoes and popcorn, leaving a huge chunk of raw potato in the center and a considerable amount of unpopped kernels (9 grams, versus 2 grams of unpopped from the GE).*SeventhBodyPic

Panasonic’s dial is not going to please everyone. Sasha Dichter got the smaller Panasonic and summed up our feelings about the dial in this blog post: “It has a big knob that you turn to add time, poorly solving (because it over/undershoots too easily) a problem I didn’t have in the first place.” Some of our survey respondents will  love it; others will miss the keypad. The model we tested had some weird stickiness in one quadrant, so it would slow down in the middle of turning. We asked Panasonic whether or not this stickiness was intentional, but they believe it’s just the model we got for testing.

It’s considerably louder than some of the other microwave ovens, but not so much that it’s deafening. And finally, this oven also lacks an Add 30 Seconds button, which a lot of people would miss dearly. Instead, it offers the Quick Minute button, but when you’re talking about microwaves that cook at 1100 watts or higher, there’s a pretty big difference between 30 seconds and 60 seconds.

Care and maintenance / setup

One of the most important ways to make sure your microwave lasts is to refrain from slamming the door. This is where microwaves sustain a lot of damage, and because of that dual kill switch in the latch, a broken door can mean a broken microwave.

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.
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. Good Housekeeping recommends spraying cleaner onto your towel and not on the surface of the microwave, where it can get into the perforations and damage the internal elements. 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.

Sensors require moisture to be released from food in order for them to work properly. Don’t cover your food completely with something that isn’t porous. Use a microwave cover with holes or something vented. Also, any excess water in the cavity (say, from a mug spill) will trip the sensor early before your food is done. 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.

How microwaves work

The technology for microwave ovens hasn’t changed much in the last half century. When you lifted your microwave onto the counter for the first time, did you notice that it was heavy on one side? That’s likely the vacuum-tube magnetron. Voltage goes through a transformer, then gets enough volts to activate the magnetron, which generates microwaves. Those waves are then guided into the cavity of the microwave, 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 wavelengths from escaping the metal box. (This great video uses a disassembled model to explain.) Generally power isn’t controlled so much as it’s flicked on and off by running the current and stopping the current during cooking.

“Inverter technology” is generally associated with Panasonic, which holds about 170 patents for it and is an OEM for other brands. You know power inverters, like the ones used to turn car battery power into something you can plug appliances into? Same sort of idea here, except the inverter is a integrated circuit board that takes power and controls its output to a lighter, smaller transformer. Louis Nieves, Senior Product Engineer at Panasonic, explained: “It can generate the 4,000 volts necessary to generate the energy for the magnetron, but it doesn’t require it to be the big, heavy component. Because it’s digitally controlled, you get the regulated power. Instead of an on/off type of power control, it will actually run at 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent consistently. That makes for more even cooking.” It’s not a silver bullet, though. Most people use the microwave in quick blasts at 100 percent power, so the inverter’s not going to make much of a difference. But on defrost and sensor reheating, the gentler, nuanced power helps.

What makes a good microwave?

Easy-to-operate controls: A simple, clean UI is what people demand above all else. Lee Hutchinson from Ars Technica tweeted at us, “I’d buy a microwave w/nothing on it but a “GO” and “STOP” button. The ‘GO’ button turns it on & adds 30 seconds.” People wanted as few buttons and as little interaction with the microwave as possible. Micah Wittman sketched a super simplified control with only power and time on this post. In an interview, Leslie Bilderback, author of Mug Cakes, lamented the loss of her old commercial-style microwave with only a time dial and no turntable. Beyond overstuffed keypad woes, people also want a microwave to be easy to clean with a pleasant post-cook beeping experience.

But $100-$300 range seems to be what most people spend and what most people want to spend, which eliminates a lot of the microwaves with extra features like convection, steaming, etc.
Price: Microwaves can go from about $40 all the way up to $1500, depending on how many features you want. But $100-$300 range seems to be what most people spend and what most people want to spend, which eliminates a lot of the microwaves with extra features like convection, steaming, etc. Besides, those features add a significant amount to the price. Also, Consumer Reports (subscription required) tried these features and said, “Our tests have shown that you shouldn’t expect these features to replace your range broiler or grill.”

Size: Compact microwaves are smaller than 1 cubic foot, midsize are 1-2 cu. ft., large are 2+ cu. ft. Over-the-range models are generally mid to large. Ry Crist, Associate Editor at CNET, told us, “The one tip I could think of when it comes to capacity is that manufacturers oversell the internal volume. The true stat to look at if you’re interested in capacity is the size of the turntable. You don’t typically need microwave height. If it can fit a bag of popcorn, that’s probably the biggest thing you’re going to put in it.” We decided to focus on mid- to large-sized models for most people.

Color: Stainless steel seems to be most common and most desired look, followed by white and black. There are also colored metallic microwaves in the compact group, where designs get a bit more whimsical.

Even cooking: Given how microwaves work, the design of the internal cavity, the wave guide, and the turntable all can affect how evenly the food cooks. Chris Zeisler of RepairClinic.com recommended a round turntable over side-to-side sliders because there are fewer moving parts that can break. A polished interior and smooth seams are easy to clean and can help microwaves bounce evenly through the cavity, said Louis Nieves of Panasonic.

Watts: The wattage determines the speed at which the microwave will work. Good Housekeeping said, “Microwaves with 700 watts or less are slower and may not cook evenly.” Chris Zeisler told us, “Anything under 1000 you’re not going to be able to do a whole lot of cooking with.”

Inverter: The inverter technology is patented by Panasonic and licensed by a few other companies. It can help food heat more evenly.

Sensors: Sensors work by measuring the amount of humidity in the oven and adjusting the time based on the sensor setting. Some we polled named this as a favorite feature on the microwave, while others say the sensor is “never accurate.”

Preset buttons: Lots of microwaves boast about preset buttons, but our survey responders generally hated them passionately, as they muck up the keypad and sometimes don’t work. Preset buttons either employ the sensor to judge the right length of cooking time or they’re preprogrammed with times specific to the type of food. Preprogrammed times can work well, but often require you to look up your food on a chart printed on the inside of the microwave door and give a volume or weight measurement—pretty annoying.

Cook settings/auto defrost: Setting different levels on a microwave can be good for gentler needs, like softening ice cream or defrosting meat. Finding a defrost button that worked well without precooking gray stripes of meat was important.

Warranty: Most countertop models carry a pretty wimpy one-year warranty on parts and labor, given that lifespan should be seven times that.

Doors: Who cares about the door? You should. All microwaves are required to have a double kill switch connected to the latch and door as a safety precaution, so that opening the door immediately turns off the radiation and having a door open prevents the microwave from being turned on. However, this means that the door latch or the fuse attached to it are often the parts that break first. As for repair parts purchased from RepairClinic.com, Zeisler told us, “Closing components are really common from slamming the door or putting undue weight on the door.” Of course you want to be gentle with the door. But it helps to look for microwave ovens with doors with soft, sturdy latches that open and close with minimal effort. Be mindful with the door, and get a pro to repair a microwave with a broken door.

Competition

You’d think the 1200-watt LG LCRT2010, which has the exact same build as the GE we liked, would have fared better. We like that it offers “Soften” and “Melt” as quick preset buttons. But many of the presets required input of food type using a menu printed inside the microwave door. With popcorn, all of the kernels popped but also burned slightly. Trying to cook a frozen burrito using the frozen entree sensor was a big mistake, resulting in a burnt, solid, acrid shell with all of the moisture completely zapped out of it and temperatures topping 270 degrees. A cooked potato was totally solid in the middle. Unlike the GE’s, the defrost button requires that you define the type of meat you have, and reheat requires a door lookup to define the type of food you want to heat up. To top it all off, it’s about $60 more expensive than the GE.

The smaller Panasonic Prestige Genius NN-SD681S ($218) seemed promising, as it provided great wattage, a sensor, and a nice-sized 13.5-inch turntable, but with a much smaller footprint than the NN-SD797S. Unfortunately, cooking was much less even. The light bulb inside doesn’t turn on when you open the door. Like the other Panasonic, preset buttons didn’t work well. Unlike the other Panasonic, the defrost overcooked the frozen ground beef, leaving a gray bottom in a pool of 155-degree meat juice while the center was still frozen solid.

The smaller Panasonic didn’t defrost as well as the larger one. There was no mid-cycle pause for an admonition to flip the meat.

The smaller Panasonic didn’t defrost as well as the larger one. There was no mid-cycle pause for an admonition to flip the meat.

The $229 Whirlpool WMC30516A[S]’s matte keypad looks a bit chintzy, with an interface chock full of preset buttons using centered text that doesn’t really line up evenly. It’s on the smaller side, with a 13.5-inch turntable and 1200 watts of cooking power. The keypad comes with an add 30 seconds button, but no express minute buttons. This microwave aced the popcorn test with 2 grams of unpopped kernels and a quick cooking time. There seemed to be a cold spot in the dead center of the microwave, which showed up in the marshmallow test and a cold burrito center. While its programming required the longest time of any microwave for defrosting a pound of ground beef (9:28), the meat was still slightly solid in the center. And buyer beware—only a few of the presets are sensor-based. Most require looking up your food on a chart inside the microwave door and providing weights or counts on different foods.

We also eliminated nearly 200 other models that were not countertop microwave ovens, had a turntable of smaller than 13.5 inches, cooked with less than 1100 watts, only came in black or white, lacked a quick minute or add 30 seconds button, or were discontinued.
The $148 Kenmore 73163 housing looked identical to the Whirlpool, except for the keypad and the color of the number display. But this model cooks with 1100 watts and comes with express 1-6 minute buttons. The first model we tried from Kenmore went completely kaput and refused to turn on after we had used it to heat two things. The second one wasn’t that impressive. Popcorn worked by preprogrammed countdown, not by sensor, and required input of the size of the popcorn bag in ounces (the Orville Redenbacher bag we used only listed grams). Defrosting didn’t provide a prompt to flip the brick, so after the long 9 minutes and 30 seconds, one spot on the bottom of the meat was fully cooked while there were huge chunks of frosty meat in the center.

The Breville Quick Touch Oven ($300) was a late addition to the testing lineup. Though its turntable was too small (12.5 inches) to be considered in the first round of testing, we had hoped that the Breville would solve all of our UI issues. We love the intuitive interface on their famous Smart Oven. But this is the perfect example of how a well-designed, minimal UI doesn’t matter if the cooking is totally uneven. The marshmallow test showed very obvious hot spots at dead center and on the outside ring, and we saw the same dead spots in the cold burrito center and a potato that was blazing hot on the sides but totally uncooked in the middle. After ten minutes, the longest of any microwave, defrosted ground beef was still completely frozen solid in the center. Their “Smart Cook” button uses preprogrammed times assigned to specific foods, which you have to input using the dial, but the potato we tested came out raw in the center. We also tried the sensor to reheat a slice of pizza and were left with a lukewarm stripe of cheese. For $300, we expected better.

Breville: serious hot spots.

Breville: serious hot spots.

We also considered many more models that weren’t tested for one reason or another (or several).

The Frigidaire FFCE1638L[S] hit all of the right criteria for us, but after looking at terrible customer reviews on Amazon, Home Depot, and Frigidaire’s site, it was hard to ignore the chorus of dissatisfied customers who complained about “chronic” beeping problems.

We had initially called in the Sharp R426L 1100-watt oven, but were told by Sharp that it was discontinued.

The Panasonic Genius NN-H965BF was very highly rated on Amazon, but we didn’t consider it because customer reviews showed a preference for silver models.

Techlicious named the Panasonic NN-SE982S their favorite countertop microwave oven, but at 2.2 cu. ft. and nearly 2 feet in width, it seemed like more footprint without a discernible gain over the smaller but still wide NN-SD797S.

Consumer Reports’ top-rated large-size countertop model was the GE Profile PEB2060DM[BB]. This model has been discontinued.

The Kenmore Elite 74229 only comes in black.

Consumer Reports’ top-rated mid-size countertop model was the Sharp R-323TKC, which seems to only come in black and is a bit too small to accommodate a 13×9 dish.

The Oster OGZB1101-B has a too-small turntable and only cooks at 1000 watts.

We also eliminated nearly 200 other models that were not countertop microwave ovens, had a turntable of smaller than 13.5 inches, cooked with less than 1100 watts, only came in black or white, lacked a quick minute or add 30 seconds button, or were discontinued.

Wrapping it up

We think there’s still room for someone to design the perfect microwave, combining minimalist design with truly even cooking. Until then, if you’re looking for a no-think sensor, precise presets, and single button cooking, the roomy GE JES2051SN is right for you. But if you can adjust to the dial and don’t care about presets, you’ll love the Panasonic NN-SD797S.

Footnotes:

1.Quartz declared that dropping sales of microwave ovens and frozen meals signaled the slow death of the microwave. While we’re not convinced that a machine with 97 percent penetration in U.S. households is dying, we do get a sense that people are not exactly enthusiastic about their microwaves.

You’d think people would embrace microwaves more. They’re green—microwaves are more energy-efficient than toaster ovens and large ovens, and you save on A/C bills when you don’t heat up the whole kitchen to cook a meal. They’re cheap—a basic countertop model costs about $100-$200, less than the best toaster oven. Despite what you may have heard, microwaves can actually preserve more nutrients than conventional cooking. They’re safe—they emit about the same amount of radiation as a cell phone, and as this Need to Know article said, “you probably don’t hold a microwave oven to the side of your head for hours at a time.” Yes, you could put your leftovers in a steamer or slow heat them in your oven, but microwaving is much faster and lets you use a single dish to heat up and eat off of.

A certain kind of cook can be snobby about microwaves, but they can be really handy for defrosting foods, softening butter, heating milk for yeast doughs—any number of tasks that serious cooks might need. Leslie Bilderback, former Executive Chef instructor at the California School of Culinary Arts and author of Mug Cakes, said microwaves are more prevalent in professional restaurants than you might think. “Every place I’ve ever gone, we use microwaves, for melting butter and chocolate because it’s fast, and anything that gets firm, like icing that gets hard in your refrigerator. We put icing in piping bags and just zap the cold hard bag. On the service line, a lot of people will use it to heat precooked things that would be incorporated into something else. Say you’re going to serve a breakfast burrito, and you’re going to cook the eggs, but you can microwave the beans and rice so it’s all hot together. Little things like that are amazingly efficient with a microwave.”

(And don’t knock the microwave cake. David Chang makes one in the style of Albert Adria in the Spain episode of The Mind of a Chef and said, “The microwave is highly underrated; as a cooking vessel, it’s pretty rad.”)

This is not the cast iron skillet you caress with flaxseed oil, or the Wedgwood stove you haul with you from house to house. It’s a perfunctory appliance that is often used daily, but begrudgingly. Many of people’s complaints center around some microwaves’ assertions of existence—overly complex buttons, multiple beeps reminding people that a cooking cycle is complete, chipper messages that scroll across the screen. When the machine isn’t intuitive or immediate enough, people become irate. It’s almost as if we don’t want to be reminded that we’re using a microwave, we just want our food to get hot, we want it done quickly, and we want to limit the amount of time we spend with the appliance.Jump back.

2.Researching this category was really daunting. I looked over reviews and specs of almost 200 microwaves and I started wondering, why are there so many different models of microwaves from so many manufacturers?

The first issue is brand overlap. Once you start digging into brands, it’s crazy how many brands that would seem to be in competition are actually owned by the same parent company. Electrolux owns Frigidaire. Conair owns Cuisinart and Waring. Panasonic owns Sanyo. Check out these identical microwaves from parent company Whirlpool ($279 at Home Depot) and sub-brands Maytag ($385 on Best Buy), KitchenAid ($219 from Elite Appliance), and Amana ($219 on Amana.com), all with the exact same model number UMC5165AS, and then this nearly identical model from upscale, Whirlpool-owned Jenn-Air (no price listed).

I got my first tip off from my fellow Sweethome editor, Liam McCabe, who did a roundup of budget microwaves for Reviewed.com. He called in four microwaves, set them up in the same room, and discovered that they were exactly the same. Of course they had the same specs, at 0.7 cu. ft. and 700 watts, but physical inspection proved that they were four copies of the exact same microwave, just with different badges. “The brand names are different, and there are some small aesthetic distinctions in their doors and control panels. Their prices vary quite a bit, too. But after comparing the specs and, y’know, just looking at the design, we’re convinced that all of these microwaves are built by the same manufacturer (Galanz), probably at the same factory on the same assembly line.”

It turns out that this is a well-known fact in the business world. From the 2013 book Brand Breakout: “Today, Galanz is the largest player in the world in microwave ovens, with a 40 percent global share. It produces 30 million units out of two locations in China. Global sales are about RMB 35 billion, of which 60 percent comes from international markets. Galanz sells microwaves in more than 150 countries…In the rest of the world, they are contract manufacturers to brands such as Electrolux, GE, Miele, Whirlpool, and Zelmer, as well as retailers such as Carrefour, Metro, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart. They often license the Western brand and pay them a royalty to use it. Country-level distributors are then responsible for marketing and promotion, while Galanz does service and after-sales support.”

In 2008, Galanz themselves released a press release claiming, “Today, in every two microwave ovens sold in the world, one has been made by Galanz.”

After going over almost 200 models, trying to eliminate duplicates from brands with the same owner, we were left with seven we wanted to call in. But once we received them, we noticed that two pairs seemed to be twins. The LG and the GE looked like the exact same housing with different keypads and colors, and the Whirlpool and Kenmore looked like the exact same housing. In trying to find some kind of clue that would link the models together, we found an FCC ID on all of the models. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that any device that might interfere with radio frequency be registered with them. Since microwaves are known radio (and Wi-Fi) disruptors, they have to list their FCC numbers, which can be looked up on the FCC database.

LG and GE have the exact same ID, BEJS205ZM. The Whirlpool and Kenmore have very close FCC IDs, VG8XM245AXX-P and VG8XM145AXX-P, both registered to the Midea corporation, a Galanz-rival OEM.

From Brand Breakout again: “According to BrandZ, Midea is the sixth most valuable brand in China, with a brand value of $8.3 billion. International sales are to 200 countries, but only as an OEM manufacturer. When we visited their enormous warehouse with 54 truck-loading docks, there were packaged microwave boxes bearing famous brand names such as Akai, Bosch, Cuisinart, Electrolux, Emerson, Ericsson, General Electric, Godrej, Kenwood, Panasonic, Toshiba, Whirlpool, and Zelmer.”

I asked LG and GE for a comment on this practice. A rep for GE responded, “We do not discuss our supplier relationships. I can tell you that when a supplier makes a product for us, they make it to our engineering specifications but I can’t get into the details of those specifications.”

But LG was more forthcoming. A representative responded that they are indeed the OEM for GE microwaves. When I asked about the matching FCC IDs, LG confirmed that this is because “the base tool is the same for the LG and GE models.” Despite that, performance varies between the twins because, as they told us, “The PCB boards used in the LG and GE microwaves are different, so the heating function works differently. The differentiation in the PCB boards also means that the software is different.”

So know that a microwave may come from the same factory, and the hardware may be the same, but the software can actually make a big difference. If you want to try and look up your microwave by FCC ID, you’ll probably find it on either the label on the back of the microwave or inside the door. Plug it into the FCC database to see test reports, external and internal photographs, and more.Jump back.

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Sources

  1. Sharon Franke, Buying a Microwave, Good Housekeeping
  2. Chris Zeisler, Appliance Expert at RepairClinic.com, Interview
  3. shopper "blue light", Slick, Amazon (review), January 8th, 2012
  4. Sascha Dichter, I hate my microwave, Sasha Dichter's Blog, May 1st, 2013
  5. engineerguy, How a Microwave Oven Works, YouTube, June 26th, 2012
  6. Lee Hutchinson, Twitter, May 7th, 2014
  7. Micah Wittman, Microwave Oven UI Standard Project, Micah Wittman (blog), August 15th, 2009
  8. Leslie Bilderback, Author of Mug Cakes, Interview
  9. Microwave Oven Buying Guide , Consumer Reports, May 2013
  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    We have the Panasonic and love it. The dial is such an incredible ergonomic plus its worth it just for that.

  • Aetles

    I think most extra functions are rarely used so I prefer a good dial for time and only the most essential buttons. After doing some research I choose the white Whirlpool GT285 but unfortunately it seems like it’s not sold i the US. Anyway I’m very happy with it, elegant, simple and well built. (Here Whirlpool GT285 on Whirlpool’s Swedish website.)

  • samdchuck

    Do they really not sell microwaves without the moving-/turntable? They’re so much more convenient.

    • Ganda Suthivarakom

      They sell high powered commercial microwaves without the turntable, but they tend to be more expensive.

    • Stavros Macrakis

      The turntable is necessary to distribute the heating effect evenly, with the disadvantage that the corners of the cavity are wasted space. There are other ways of distributing the heating evenly, but I don’t know how well they work. Of course, turntables aren’t perfect, either, as shown by the marshmallow and defrosting tests.

  • http://tristantom.com Tristan

    I would recommend never to get one with a push button door opener-they break easily. Get one with a handle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utfST5EtsDA

    • Dennis Madrid

      I would second this. We have two of the recommended Panasonic ones at work, and after about a year and half the latch on one is broken. The door closes but the button has trouble opening it back up and the microwave doesn’t register the door as being actually closed, so you can’t use it.

      • http://tristantom.com Tristan

        Yep, I had a Panasonic before and when the door button broke, I could not get my plate of food out of it. I had to dispose of the entire thing with the food and plate inside!

  • offby1

    I still love my ancient Sanyo Maxi Chef, because it has just one knob for time, and a lever to pop the door open. https://www.flickr.com/photos/offby1/1439826679/

  • d0x360

    My parents bought a sharp carousel in the 80’s. It didn’t die until 2012 and that’s only because someone drove into the pole outside my parents house who at the time had an old fuse box. The surge killed the Microwave.

    That sharp was not only obscenely old and reliable its also the absolute best microwave I’ve ever used. It was big enough to fit a turkey and it heated everything evenly and insanely quickly. I miss it. I wish they had given it to me I would have had the PSU fixed. I ended up buying myself a more modern sharp microwave and it cooks nice and quickly too. The big problem with modern units is people look for cheap and cheap is generally under powered. Spend another $40 and get a more powerful unit.

    Also remember Walmart culture has lead to these cheap appliances and to cut costs they use cheap component so if you spend a little more money and DONT buy it from Walmart or target you will get a unit that not only cooks better but also lasts a lot longer. Big box stores have destroyed quality products so avoid buying from them if possible.

    • jeanne

      i have a sharp that i am looking to replace with a smaller
      microwave as i am tired of how much room it takes up…

      i have had it 12 years & it still rocks.

      you want it??

      am in southern calif.

      • d0x360

        lol iappreciate the offer. I really did love that sharp. I have a good microwave myself though so I’ll pass but if it really is one of the classic powerful sharps you should have no trouble selling it. A microwave as good as those sharps are not only hard to find new but also really expensive.

        • jeanne

          thanks for the tip!
          i might well have to keep it, clunky monster though it is
          in my miniscule kitchen because a/no one even the japanese seem to have created a small powerful microwave and b/many of the smaller ones apparently have no way to mute the beeps. and essential function!!

          i am considering putting it within a pantry cabinet, albeit with space around it for ventilation. it’s just too gigantic to keep on the counter any more… & too heavy to hang from cabinets…

          ta ta!

          jeanne

          • d0x360

            I actually had a smallish sharp that was pretty good. I gave it to my parents because theirs got fried when someone drove into a telephone pole. It works almost as well as their previous 80s sharp.

            So they do exist and sharp seems like the brand to go with. I would have kept it but we moved into a new house that had the microwave built into the wall above the stove and it wouldn’t fit the enclosure.

          • jeanne

            i *wish* my microwave were suspendable!

            i finally checked the tag on the back — it is from 2004
            and made in Thailand of all places. could that well be
            why it is of good long-lasting quality? the world may never know…

            i think i might try to stash the microwave on a small table in this now chaotic pantry closet….

            if only i can keep from stuffing things around it.

            have a good week!

            jeanne

  • fulltext

    Does anyone know what the model number would be for the GE equivalent over-the-range model?

  • Stavros Macrakis

    You say that a $100-$300 price range “eliminates a lot of the microwaves with extra features like convection, steaming, etc…. Also, Consumer Reports… said, “Our tests have shown that you shouldn’t expect these features to replace your range broiler or grill.””

    Though I agree that a convection microwave doesn’t replace a range broiler or grill, it does do a great job for roasting (chicken and pork loin are better than microwave and faster than conventional), baking potatoes, and reheating or defrosting baked goods. My Sharp R-820 (currently $234) just died after 20 years of good service, and I will definitely replace it with another convection microwave.

    I’d have hoped that The Sweet Home could help me decide whether it was worthwhile to stay with the Sharp, or pay less for a Cuisinart, or pay more for a KitchenAid, Bosch, GE, Samsung, …. CR has its place, but I’d like an informed opinion about better options, not just CR’s assessment of the middle market.

    • Ganda Suthivarakom

      For this initial guide, we had to reduce the scope on what most people are looking for, which is the middle market. In future updates, I hope to have more resources to tackle more expensive and niche models such as convection and infrared heat combo models.

  • Debbie Rea

    I love the thoroughness of your testing and review, but it does me no good as you eliminated all microwaves that were not countertop models. Due to the size of my kitchen and limited counterspace, I have to get an over the range model. Where can I find dependable review of those? (I have already checked Consumer Reports. Their “best buy” is already discontinued.)

  • Jen Michaels

    I’m really late to this party, but I just bought the GE microwave y’all recommended…and it’s everything you promised it would be. In the last 24 hours, I’ve used this microwave to soften butter, heat up milk for homemade ricotta, defrost 4 frozen bratwursts, make microwave mug cake from scratch, heat up several plates of leftovers, etc. Compared to the Panasonic that it replaced–and that one was a Consumer Reports Best Buy with great ratings on Amazon–this thing is STELLAR. I was hesitant to buy it because I have limited counter space, but I got a thinner knife block to make up for the lost space (Bodum Bistro = holds 12 knives and only 3 inches wide), so it all came out in the wash. Thanks, Sweethome team! A pro tip for Lowes shoppers: the stock number given here, JES2051SN, applies to the $179 stainless steel version. I bought the black version of this microwave for $20 less, item number 297375, model JES2051BB. The Lowes web site claims that the white version is on clearance for $129 thru 2/9/2015, item number 297376, model JES2051DNWW, but I didn’t investigate that route since I needed a black one.

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      Excellent pro-tip! Thanks much!