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.
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 There’s a long but out-of-date list of tested models (some discontinued) on Consumer Reports.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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 $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.
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.
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.
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.
What to look forward to
In January, Panasonic announced an addition to its Genius Prestige line, the Genius Prestige Plus. It promises more uniform cooking by rotating the inverter as well as turntable, a feature that Panasonic is calling “Cyclonic Wave Technology.” Reviewed.com wrote up their early impressions of the Genius Prestige Plus, noting that besides the rotating inverter, Panasonic added a touch screen in place of the Genius Prestige line’s dial. It also made the slightly unusual choice of removing any number keys from the display. The Genius Prestige Plus also, according to Panasonic’s press release, produces 1250 watts of cooking power, or 50 watts more than our current runner-up. It ships in late April, priced at $329 for the 1.8 cu ft model. We will keep an eye out for editorial and user reviews to see how it compares to our current pick.
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.
Extended Measures of Well-Being: Living Conditions in the United States: 2011, US Census Bureau , September 2013,
Buying a Microwave, Good Housekeeping,
Appliance Expert at RepairClinic.com, Interview,
Slick, Amazon (review), January 8th, 2012,
Microwave Ovens: Panasonic Inverter NN-SD797[S], Consumer Reports
I hate my microwave, Sasha Dichter's Blog, May 1st, 2013,
How a Microwave Oven Works, YouTube, June 26th, 2012,
Twitter, May 7th, 2014,
Microwave Oven UI Standard Project, Micah Wittman (blog), August 15th, 2009,
Author of Mug Cakes, Interview,
Microwave Oven Buying Guide , Consumer Reports, May 2013
Originally published: May 19, 2014