The Best Microwave
There is no perfect microwave oven, but after two hands-on trials, 75 hours of research, and years of ownership by several Sweethome editors, we’ve concluded that GE microwaves come darn close to the ideal. Our new top pick, the countertop model JES1656SRSS, offers all the GE features we’ve come to love.
Its cooking performance is excellent and dead simple: It’ll expertly “bake” a potato, reheat pizza, and warm up a beverage to hot (but not scalding) with the touch of a button. Its internal sensors reliably eliminate cold spots and overcooking. It performs better at a wide array of tasks than more expensive and “advanced” competitors. And last but not least, it excels in the crucial matter of user interface: With a plainly labeled keypad and intuitive controls, it’s like that Ron Popeil oven—you “set it and forget it.” (One Sweethome editor tested it for two weeks and never needed to consult the user manual.) The value of this cannot be overstated—especially in light of the absurdly complicated interfaces on offer from other makers.
To cook something for one minute you simply press the “1” button, for two minutes you press “2,” and so on. Unlike with other microwaves, you don’t even have to press Start. It starts itself. The Add 30 Sec[onds] button tacks on a half minute of heating time with a single push—a so-dumb-it’s-genius widget that, in our tests and in our years of GE microwave ownership, gets more use than any other. Because let’s face it: Dull-witted early-morning or end-of-a-long-day nuking accounts for 90 percent of our microwaving. This GE also comes with an attractive price—currently about $150. It is virtually the same unit as our original pick—it’s just a newer model in a smaller size.
New for this year, we’ve made an over-the-range (OTR) microwave pick, the GE JVM6175SKSS, for homeowners who are redoing their kitchen or want to spare the counter space. Its sensor-cook options, presets, specs, and interface are similar to those of our main pick. Like all OTR microwaves, it also features 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. It’s a great value given that OTR microwaves are generally much pricier than countertops.
Finally, for those looking to save space and money, we like the GE JES1072SHSS. This is a tiny (0.7 cubic foot, 10 inches tall by 13 inches deep by 17 inches wide) unit, and lacks the cooking sensors that make our other picks so reliable at auto-reheating and not overcooking. But it has the same brilliant user interface, and a terrific reputation among owners. Cheaper mini microwaves are available, but at less than $100, you won’t find a better value.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust us
- How we picked
- How we tested
- Our pick
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- An over-the-range pick
- Minimal size, minimal cost
- Care and maintenance
- How microwaves work
- What to look forward to
- The competition
Why you should trust us
We reviewed buying guides and ratings from Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, and CNET, and read through hundreds of customer reviews on retail sites. We also interviewed product managers at Panasonic and GE, appliance expert Chris Zeisler of RepairClinic.com, and microwave cookbook author Leslie Bilderback.
I am a Sweethome staff writer and editor, and have tested dozens of products and authored guides to many tools for the site, including air purifiers, knife sharpeners, and shovels.
This guide also builds on research and testing by Sweethome executive editor Ganda Suthivarakom for the first version of this guide in 2014 and research by freelancer Jessie Kissinger this year. Combined, we have 75 hours of formal research and testing and years of real-world use under our belts.
How we picked
For our original guide, we spent 60 hours researching microwaves and testing a finalist group of seven. Given that the microwave field doesn’t generally take quantum leaps, this time around we simplified things. Applying what we learned in the first guide left us with a short list of seven models. Then we spent 15 hours speaking with product managers at the different brands, poring over customer reviews, and polling our staff for input. The result was a pair of finalists made by the same companies that made our winner and runner-up last time: GE and Panasonic. With these two in hand, we ran them through four of the most indicative tests from our original guide (for details see How we tested) and emerged with a clear pick.
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. We’re not just talking about companies with the same owner, either. Out of seven microwaves we called in in 2014, 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.
That, in a nutshell, is why we ultimately decided to test just a GE and a Panasonic this time: After our earlier battery of tests, they’d shown themselves to have the best combination of hardware and software. They simply worked better than the rest.
In 2014, we polled our readers to find out what they wanted in a microwave, and we found that most people wanted a unit that costs between $100 and about $300, with easy-to-use controls and a stainless steel finish. We then focused on countertop microwave ovens because they are the most popular and affordable segment. But as mentioned, this year we’ve added an over-the-range pick, because this is an excellent way for homeowners to invest in their kitchen, save counter space, and create a more cohesive kitchen aesthetic. Reader comments and internal Sweethome conversations made us realize that we also needed a true budget pick—something under $100—and, if possible, a genuinely diminutive pick. Fortunately, those qualities tend to go hand in hand.
In our first guide, we reviewed both mid- and large-size ovens with turntables big enough to spin a 13-by-9-inch dish or two small plates, but in retrospect, we realized that the larger microwaves had too big a footprint for most spaces. So this year we narrowed our countertop and OTR search exclusively to midsize microwaves—between 1.5 and 1.9 cubic feet. (That’s still plenty big enough for most things you’ll ever need to cook or reheat.)
For midsize models, we only considered microwaves with a minimum of 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; our small budget pick (at 0.7 cubic feet, less than 50 percent the size of our main pick) runs at 700 watts and receives rave reviews. Bottom line? Numbers count less than real-world results.
We also did not include units with the ability to convection bake—meaning the microwave also has a heating element that bakes the food like an oven—for two reasons. One: Microwaves are primarily used for reheating leftovers, softening butter, and cooking TV dinners, potatoes, and popcorn. Two: Appliances with this feature tend to be well above the $300 limit that our reader poll set.
How we tested
In 2014, we tested seven different microwaves from GE, Panasonic, LG, Kenmore, and Breville. The first two manufacturers were our clear winners, so this time we tested a single model from GE and one from Panasonic that met our criteria: the GE JES1656SRSS and the Panasonic NN-SE785S (both 1.6 cubic feet; 1,150 and 1,250 watts, respectively).
We repeated four tests from our 2014 guide.
First, we created a “heat map” for both microwaves by completely covering each one’s platter with parchment paper and a layer of plain mini marshmallows, then nuking them on high until the marshmallows began to brown. 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.1 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. The marshmallow “heat map” reveals their actual heating patterns—as illustrated in Our pick below.
We then “baked” potatoes in the GE and Panasonic. A baked potato is one of the great dinnertime basics, a cheap and tasty starch that complements everything from simple sour cream and chives to baroque beef bourguignon. But actually baking a potato takes upwards of an hour, whereas by virtue of that internal steaming, a microwave can cook a family’s worth of large russet potatoes in under 5 minutes; you lose the crispy skin but gain far more in convenience. We followed manufacturer instructions to the letter for this test, cooking a single potato in each oven on each unit’s automatic setting. By luck, both potatoes were precisely the same size: 7.94 ounces, weighed on our favorite kitchen scale; and the GE and Panasonic took nearly the same time to cook them—between 3.5 and 4 minutes. When the cooking ended, we cut each potato open and tested for doneness.
Next we attempted to defrost a pack of frozen ground beef—and again, by luck we had test items of absolutely identical size, 1.31 pounds. As with the potato, we used the automatic function (the defrost setting, inputting the approximate weight). Here, the GE and Panasonic differed considerably, the former settling on about 11 minutes and the latter about 6 minutes for the same task. Both units gave prompts every few minutes to flip the meat, which we did. When the time was up, we cut apart each block of meat with a fork to test for evenness and completeness of defrosting.
Finally, we made popcorn—basic Orville Redenbacher. Once again, we cooked them using each unit’s automatic setting. We then opened each bag of popcorn and smelled, looked, and tasted for doneness versus burntness, and then carefully sifted the popped kernels from the unpopped before weighing the latter down to the gram.
The GE JES1656SRSS is our new pick for a countertop microwave. Like our previous pick, it can do a lot of basic, diverse, often-repeated jobs—like reheating a single bowl of soup or “baking” potatoes for a family of four—with the touch of one of its task-specific preset buttons. It also lets you manually set cooking times and power levels with the push of a button or two—basically, it nukes food as easily as flipping a switch—and being honest, that’s how most of us use microwaves. Moreover, it does these tasks well, many of them outright superbly, thanks to a combination of solid hardware and well-engineered software that delivers its ample power efficiently and effectively. But where this microwave—like all GE microwaves—sets itself apart is in its easy, intuitive operation. How intuitive? Wirecutter executive editor Mike Berk has used it happily for over a month, as a replacement for a Sharp, and has never looked at the manual. Neither have I, and I’ve owned and used a fancy-pants GE Profile microwave for nearly three years.
Let’s begin with that intuitive usability. Judged by the minimalist, menu-based interfaces of a lot of modern technology—that of smartphones, most obviously—GE microwaves are firmly in the dumb camp. The keypad is busy, incorporating a 0-to-9 “calculator” and various function-specific buttons like Potato, Popcorn, Reheat, and Add 30 Sec. Yet, in practice this dumbness proves brilliant. The machine more or less tells you how to make it work. One button gets you perfectly baked russets, another, perfectly popped Redenbacher. As a result, the JES1656SRSS and our other picks are a cinch to use right out of the box.
The way you input the time to cook is a perfect example. For one minute, you simply press “1”; for two minutes, you press “2”; and so on—and cooking begins as soon as you press the number’s button. Some other brands force you to hit a Time Cook button, then manually type “1:00,” or whatever amount of time you need. Others make you input times incrementally by repeatedly toggling an arrow button (that’s how the Panasonic works). Many also require you to then push a Start button as well. This unnecessary effort may not be a big deal the first few times you have to do so—indeed it initially gives the illusion of greater control—but it soon becomes maddening.
The JES1656SRSS—like nearly all GEs, and some other brands, including Panasonic—also features an Add 30 Sec button, and if that seems minor, you’ve probably never had one as an option. If that bowl of yesterday’s soup isn’t quite steaming hot yet, you just want to hit it with a touch more cooking time—one tap of Add 30 Sec instantly does the trick. As Sweethome executive editor Ganda Suthivarakom, a three-year GE owner, laughingly described her interactions with her microwave, “I press two buttons: Add 30 Sec and 1-minute auto—and there is very little friction between my life and my use of the microwave.”
In the marshmallow “heat map” test, the GE gave a visibly more even heating pattern than the Panasonic (see the pictures below). Both concentrated heat in the center of the platter, as they should—that’s where most cooking and reheating occurs. But the GE browned the marshmallows quite evenly on the outer half of the platter, indicating consistent peripheral heating; the Panasonic created an archer’s target of browned and unbrowned rings, indicating uneven peripheral heating. (In fairness, however, the burnt spot on the edge of the Panasonic sample was the result of the parchment paper sticking to the wall of the cooking chamber for the last few seconds, concentrating the heating in one spot just below the microwave generator.)
The GE won the baked-potato test hands down. Lacking specific instructions from the user manual, we placed the GE potato on the center of the platter. Following the specific instructions in its manual, we placed the Panasonic potato on the edge of the platter. Again, both were cooked using the units’ automatic Potato function. The result? The GE produced a perfect “baked” potato, soft but not mushy from end to end. The Panasonic produced a half-cooked potato, which is to say, a half-inedible one—and more to the point, not the foundation of a quick weeknight dinner.
The GE and the Panasonic both flubbed the defrost test. Despite the wide difference in defrosting time between them (roughly 11 and 6 minutes, respectively), they yielded identical blocks of ground beef that were perfectly defrosted on the outside—and still frozen hard at the core. To be fair, this was a hard test: We took the meat straight from the freezer to the microwave, without allowing it to naturally defrost at all. (Best practice is to slowly thaw meat in the fridge, or relatively quickly under cold running water.) But that’s the way most of us would do it in everyday life, too. Realistic or not, we anticipated better performance from both brands.
The GE aced the popcorn test, producing a full bag of popped but not scorched corn and leaving a single gram of kernels unpopped. The bags have a net weight of 93 grams, so this works out to 99 percent efficiency. By contrast the Panasonic produced many scorched bits, and a few that were outright charred (see the photos). It left 6 grams unpopped, too—six times what the GE left behind.
At 1,150 watts, the GE has plenty of power for its size (1.6 cubic feet). It also comes with an attractive price—currently about $150—and a smallish footprint at roughly 18 inches deep by 22 inches wide by 12 inches high. GE adopted a boxy shape for this model, meaning it’s a bit taller but significantly less deep than the Panasonic (which has the same cooking-chamber volume: 1.6 cubic feet). We prefer GE’s approach: counter depth is at a premium in most kitchens, yet the airspace above the counter is generally open.
The platter is 13.5 inches across, and the cooking chamber is 16.5 inches wide and deep, so you can reheat a big 13-by-9-inch pan of lasagna in it. But you—or a houseguest who’s never used it before—can also stumble out of the bedroom, slop in a mug of yesterday’s coffee, press a single button, and join the land of the caffeinated within 60 seconds. That’s what makes it great.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The GE gave an average-for-microwaves—which is to say, poor—performance on thawing hard-frozen ground beef.
GE microwaves have an oddly—and accretively—annoying four-beep “your food is ready” alarm and a single-beep reminder that repeats every 30 seconds. You can, happily, lower the volume to the point that it’s unobtrusive from anywhere outside the kitchen. But note to GE engineers: One beep, total, is enough. It’s not an oven; nothing’s gonna burn if we’ve gotten sidetracked by more important matters than warming up last night’s pad thai.
An over-the-range pick
Over-the-range (OTR) microwaves represent an upgrade in terms of complexity (and permanence) of installation, and usually an increase in price—in this case, currently about $150 over the cost of our main countertop pick. (Even if otherwise identical to a countertop model, an OTR will always feature a ventilation fan, and that alone adds to the manufacturing cost.) The GE JVM6175SKSS is very similar to our main pick on most specs, albeit slightly less powerful at 1,000 watts (versus 1,150). It has the same terrific, plainly labeled, intuitive interface. Its 300-cubic-feet-per-minute vent fan is not the most powerful (higher-end models generally offer 400 cfm or more), but it will quickly clear most kitchen disasters short of a full-on fire. And with a suggested price that’s usually around $330 (and some color variant models that are $50 less) it’s a quality machine at an attractive price.
Minimal size, minimal cost
At 0.7 cubic feet (less than half the volume of our main pick) and with a countertop footprint of 10 inches tall by 13 inches deep by 18 inches wide, this GE is small in every respect except performance. It gets tremendous reviews from owners—nearly five stars from across 42 Home Depot reviews—and, just as important, has the same simple user interface as our main pick. It lacks some of the advanced features, and with a 12-by-12-inch cooking chamber, it can’t handle a big casserole pan if you’re feeding a crowd. But for small families or single users, and for basic reheating and cooking tasks, it’s a top value.
Care and maintenance
The most important way to make sure your microwave lasts is to stop 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. Good Housekeeping recommends spraying cleaner onto your towel and not on the microwave’s surface, where it can get into the perforations and damage the internal elements. An even simpler trick (courtesy of Sweethome editor Christine Cyr Clisset) is to nuke a bowl of water for five minutes on high: The steam will loosen most gunk, and you can wipe it out with just a plain paper towel.
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 lightbulbs.
Microwaves with reheating sensors require moisture to be released from food in order to work properly. Don’t cover your food completely with something that isn’t porous. Use a microwave cover with holes, or loose plastic wrap.
How microwaves work
The microwave-oven technology 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. The magnetron 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.)
“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 an integrated circuit 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.” Theoretically at least.
What to look forward to
As this guide neared completion, GE finalized the long-planned sale of its appliance division to Haier, the Chinese appliance giant. In a press release, Haier announced that “GE Appliances will continue to be headquartered in Louisville [Kentucky] … and operated independently under the day to day direction of the current management team.” We’ll keep a close eye on changes to the GE appliance lines, but at least for the near future they’ll remain available and made to the existing styles and standards.
Our previous pick was the GE JES2051SNSS. We liked—and still like—it, but our own ongoing experience and user feedback taught us that a smaller microwave is preferable. Our original GE pick is a 2-cubic-foot model (versus the new pick’s 1.6-cubic-foot size), and is about two inches taller, wider, and deeper. That may not sound like much, but space is at a premium on any countertop, and the new pick is just as capable (and costs the same or less) as its bigger brother. If you have the older one, there’s no performance-related reason to upgrade. But if you’re a first-time buyer, we’d vote for our new pick.
Our previous runner-up, the Panasonic NN-SD797S, has exactly the same dimensions as the NN-SE785S that we tested this time. The chief differences are that the newer model features “Cyclonic Wave” technology and a touchscreen rather than buttons and a dial. Our tests convinced us that Cyclonic Wave doesn’t give performance benefits, and that the new touchscreen actually takes away from usability. See the following paragraphs and How we tested for details on these points; for now, just know that if you have and like the previous Panasonic runner-up, you’ve got no compelling reason to upgrade or switch manufacturers.
The Panasonic NN-SE785S has an undeniably attractive minimalist aesthetic. But good lookin’ doesn’t always mean good cookin’. This Panasonic uses a supposedly superior device called an inverter to produce microwaves. In practical terms, that means it can deliver continuous heating at any power level—50 percent power, for example, means continuous delivery at 50 percent of the unit’s max. GE uses 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. This Panasonic also incorporates the company’s new, proprietary “Cyclonic Wave” technology, in which the microwave generator rotates, theoretically delivering more consistent microwave dispersion than our pick, the GE. Yet the GE delivered objectively better cooking performance—see the marshmallow heat map, the popcorn test, and the baked potato test in Our pick, above). That’s a testament to the combined power of good basic hardware and sophisticated software. One other knock on this Panasonic: These supposed technological advances also make it considerably more expensive than our pick.
Adding to our frustration, The Panasonic’s keypad is a confusing jungle of icons, few of which announce their functions plainly and none in written language. (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—with the increments jumping unannounced from 1 to 5 to 10 to 15 seconds depending on the ever-changing cumulative total. Or you can hold the arrow down and face a race through time that proceeds at roughly Warp 6; miss your mark by a blink and you’re suddenly nuking your potato for Earth-years. To simply turn the thing on for a minute at default power requires reading the manual. And if you pause to read that manual for more than a few seconds, the backlit keypad goes blank, and it’s up to you to discover that turning it back on requires that you unlatch the door.
The LG LCRT2010ST (tested in 2014), despite sharing hardware with GE, gave markedly inferior performance—unable to even thaw a frozen burrito. What else is a microwave meant for?
The Panasonic Prestige Genius NN-SD681S (tested in 2014) failed the defrost test, and the internal lightbulb doesn’t come on when you open the door.
The Whirlpool WMC30516AS (tested in 2014) had a “dead spot” in the middle of the platter, and a complicated door-mounted chart for looking up cooking and defrost times and settings.
The Kenmore 73163 (tested in 2014) appeared identical to the Whirlpool and performed worse. In the defrost test, one spot on the bottom of the meat was fully cooked, but there were huge chunks of frosty meat in the center.
The Breville Quick Touch Oven (tested in 2014) is the perfect example of how a well-designed, minimal UI 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.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
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Originally published: June 20, 2016