How to Buy a Microwave Oven | 2020 Guide

How to Buy a Microwave Oven

With so many different types on the market, how to buy a microwave oven is a challenge. We hope this guide will help you out. 

What are the different types of microwave ovens? 

There are a number of styles or variants of the microwave oven. But you can separate them into four major types, depending on how they are installed: countertop models, over-the-range models, microwave drawers, and built-in microwaves.

Within those categories (except for the microwave drawer) there is the combo microwave/convection oven. The microwave drawer does not yet come with a convection feature.

And within the built-in category there is the combination microwave-conventional oven.

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All this can be quite confusing. But before we break it all down and get into the details, let’s first understand how the microwave oven works.

How do microwave ovens work?

Microwave ovens are an accidental byproduct of research into doppler radar in the 1940s. One of Raytheon’s scientists, Percy Spencer, discovered that the equipment he was working on had melted a chocolate bar in his pocket. 

How the heck did that happen? Well, the radar was acting just like a microwave oven. The microwave oven uses a magnetron (also used in radar equipment) to create high frequency (microwave ) energy. A waveguide transmits the energy into the metal cavity of the oven where the food is to be cooked.

What happens then is that the microwaves excite the water molecules inside the food. This causes them to heat up. This in turn heats the food and cooks it from the inside out.

This also explains why microwave ovens cook food faster than regular ovens. With a conventional oven, the food is heated from the outside in. This is a much more gradual process. 

It further explains why you can’t cook really dry food in the microwave. The food must contain sufficient water. This is why you don’t microwave dry oatmeal. You mix it with water or milk first.

But what about the chocolate in my pocket? Are microwave ovens safe? 

Yes. Microwave ovens are safe. They are examples of Faraday cages, because they prevent the radiation used to cook the food from escaping into the kitchen environment. So, yes, they are safe. See more on this subject at this World Health Organization site.

What makes microwaves so great?

Microwave ovens are a great invention because they can both heat and cook food and save a great deal of energy and time in the process. For example, there is no need to preheat a regular oven, when you can just turn on the micro.

You can heat leftovers, like pizza. And you can steam vegetables and poach eggs. And, with a microwave oven, you can get just as good a cooking result as you can from your cooktop or range.

And provided they have the right setting, microwave ovens can also defrost frozen food.

What makes a good microwave? 

This is where this microwave buying guide delves into the weeds of how to buy a microwave oven. We need to balance out a whole bunch of considerations to find the best microwave oven for you.

What wattage microwave should I get? 

The power output of a microwave oven is measured in watts.  And all microwave ovens are rated in watts. The higher the wattage the more efficient and thorough is the operation of the machine.

So what does this mean in practice?

An inexpensive microwave that has fewer than 700 watts will take much longer to heat food than, say, a 1,000 watt unit. And it will cook less evenly. The lowest wattage microwaves that we are aware of are 320 watts. These are suited to campers and RVs and can run on inverters. But their performance is pretty limited.

In our opinion, for all practical kitchen purposes, you should not get a microwave less than 950 watts. In fact, if you look at microwave cookbooks, you will see that their recipes usually call for 800 watts or more.

What are the sizes of microwaves?

A microwave size chart will show oven sizes ranging from 0.5 cubic feet to 2.2 cubic feet. The small units will typically accommodate a 10” dinner plate. The large units will take fairly large cookware. But the most common sizes are in the 1 to 2 cubic feet range. 

But then external sizes differ widely. What you choose will depend greatly on the amount of space you have on your countertop, if that is where you want to put it. And you need to be conscious of all dimensions – height, depth and width.

If you want a built-in microwave, you need to make sure the dimensions of your cabinetry can allow it.

In the case of the countertop unit, you need to make sure that there is a convenient power outlet behind the microwave, so you don’t have a power cord extending over the surface of the countertop. This is not only unsightly. It is also potentially hazardous.

And in the case of the built-in unit, you also need to make sure that power is available or can be run to it. 

Do all microwaves have a turntable? 

Most microwaves are equipped with a turntable but not all of them. 

The turntable rotates the food that you are cooking. This rotation ensures that the food receives an even distribution of the microwave energy. In turn, this allows the food to cook evenly.

The turntable is necessary because in most cases the magnetron that delivers the microwave energy to the oven cavity is located in the right side of the oven behind the controls. 

If the microwave does not have a turntable, you have to rotate the food by hand during the cooking period.

There are three types of microwave oven that do not need a turntable. These are 1) the regular microwave that has a spinning metal fan in the roof that disperses the microwaves; 2) the drawer microwave, which has the magnetron in the roof,  and 3) the “flatbed” microwave.

Are flatbed microwaves better? 

“Flatbed” means that there is no turntable in the microwave. A flatbed microwave oven is able to dispense with the turntable because the microwaves are emitted from a rotating antenna located in the base of the oven. The microwaves bounce around inside the oven cavity at different angles than the turntable microwave.  This is known as inverter technology and Panasonic has pioneered it.

Of course, dispensing with the turntable saves a great deal of space. Check this out.

How does a microwave door switch work?

The microwave door switch or door interlock circuit is a safety feature. You can’t see it but it makes sure that the microwave will not run if the door is open or ajar. It typically contains 3 or more microswitches or sensors that ensure that the door is closed properly before the microwave can be operated. The door latch activates the sensors when the door is closed.

Any microwave you buy will be equipped with an interlock circuit and we only mention it here for you to be aware of its existence. These things can fail over time but you can replace them.

What does power level mean on a microwave? 

Almost all microwaves allow you to operate them at less than full power. This is just as important in a microwave as it is with being able to adjust temperature settings on a cooktop or oven.

This variable power allows you to choose different settings for cooking, simmering or defrosting.

There is no standard display of microwave power levels on microwave ovens but all of them relate to the wattage delivered. Some units will list them as high, medium, low, and defrost. Others will have numbered power levels, or will list them by wattage. Still others will have stated pre-sets on the control panel.

However, all of them will have a manual that tells you what the settings mean in watts (W). Generally this is stated as:

  • Very low: 100W or less
  • Low: 100-400W
  • Medium: 400-500W
  • Medium-high: 500-800W
  • High: 800-1,000W

What are microwave sensors? 

The microwave oven sensor is a relatively new technology that measures the steam or humidity in the oven given off by the food that is cooking. The sensor automatically adjusts the cooking time and, in some models, will turn the oven on for you when you close the door. You don’t even have to press “start.” 

All you need do is select the appropriate pad on the control panel to tell the microwave what type of food you are cooking. It will sense when the food is cooked and then shut the oven off to make sure food is not overcooked.

These pads have labels (for example): meat, chicken pieces, fish, potatoes, fresh vegetables, frozen vegetables, canned vegetables.

Do microwaves have child locks?

A microwave with a child-proof door is one that you can lock using the keypad on the machine or a remote. Not every microwave comes with a child proof feature but, if this is important to you, look for one that does. 

Child proofing especially comes into play with microwave convection units. The convection function can cause cookware to be very hot when it comes to removing it from the oven. This is potentially hazardous to a child.

Also, the child herself can be hazardous to the microwave. You don’t want the kid cooking things, like metal objects, that should not be in the microwave. 

What about inverter technology?

We have to say that this is getting pretty deep into the weeds. But here goes.

Microwaves that incorporate inverter technology cook more evenly than the standard microwave. The standard microwave uses coils or transformers to regulate the power it delivers. 

This means that if you select, say, 50% power, the unit will still run at full power. But the coils or transformer will turn it on and off during the cooking time you have selected. In this way the power delivered to the food will just be averaged out at 50%.

By contrast, inverter technology delivers the power and heat steadily at the 50% you selected. This means that it cooks the food more evenly. And in the defrost mode, you will see that the food does not get its edges cooked.

Is there a microwave convection oven combo?

Absolutely. These are great units. A microwave oven with a convection capability can do much more than a regular microwave.  A convection microwave adds a radiant heating element and fan to its basic microwave equipment. The fan circulates heated air around the food. 

Hot air circulation results in even faster cooking and allows you to grill, roast and brown food in a way that is not possible in a regular microwave oven.

Of course, you do not have to use the convection feature. The combined microwave / convection oven allows you to select a microwave only function. 

Needless to say, because these units combine two technologies, they are more expensive than the microwave only oven.

What are the pros & cons of the various microwave types? 

All types of microwave have their place in a kitchen but you have to decide what is right for your kitchen. Your choice of microwave oven depends on where you want to place it, the features you want in it, and how much you want to pay for it. In separate review posts (please see the links at the top of this post), we give you the rundown on the best of each type. 

But for now let’s just look at their overall pros and cons.

Countertop microwave ovens 

countertop microwave

Countertop units simply sit on any open kitchen surface.

Pros: 

  • They are portable, easy to move.
  • No installation required.
  • They are made with a wide range of features, functions, and power.
  • A countertop microwave with trim kit can also be built into a cabinet.
  • They come in a wide range of sizes.
  • Easily reached by short people.
  • A landing space for the cooked food is immediately available.
  • Within easy reach for cleaning.
  • Overall they are the most economical choice.

Cons:

  • They take up precious countertop space that you could otherwise use for food prep or some other appliance.
  • You need to have an electrical outlet handy. Preferably this should be immediately behind the unit so as to avoid having a power cord draped across the countertop This looks untidy and is potentially hazardous.
  • Taller people need to stoop and peer into the unit to see what is going on.
  • No ventilation system to deal with steam or cooking odors emitted by the unit.
  • For a kitchen design purist, they look tacky.

Over-the-range microwave ovens 

over the range microwave oven

As the name suggests, these units are installed above the range.

Pros:

  • They save counter space.
  • Because they have built in ventilation systems, they greatly reduce the steam and cooking odors emitted by the unit.
  • They double as a range hood, which is a money saver.
  • A better kitchen design solution than the countertop unit.
  • They add value to your property compared to the countertop microwave, since they are built in.

Cons:

  • The over the range microwave hood is simply not as efficient in ventilation as a regular range hood. If you use the range cooktop a lot and like to cook food that gives off a lot of steam and strong aromas, you will prefer a regular range hood that can deliver much better ventilation.
  • They are difficult to reach for small people.
  • They can be hazardous to use for elderly people and people with reduced upper body strength. In fact, it isn’t a good idea for anyone to maneuver hot and heavy dishes above shoulder height.
  • Greater distance to a landing space for hot food.
  • They are generally more expensive than the countertop microwave.
  • The over the range microwave installation generally needs expert help. And this may include having to run power to the back of the unit.
  • As a kitchen design feature they are pretty much out of style now. A dedicated range hood makes much more of a design statement.

Built-in microwave ovens

The built-in microwave is installed in a wall of cabinetry but not over the range. 

Pros:

  • Like the drawer microwave, it is a great design solution and makes the kitchen look good.
  • Frees up countertop space.
  • Adds value to your property by virtue of being built in as compared to the countertop unit.
  • It can be installed at a more convenient height and in a more convenient location than the over-the-range unit.

Cons:

  • Relatively expensive.
  • Requires expert installation.
  • Needs electrical power run to it.
  • Depending on the location, it may be distant from a landing space for cooked food.

Microwave drawer oven 

The drawer microwave oven fits into a lower cabinet or the kitchen island immediately beneath the countertop. 

Pros:

  • Save countertop space.
  • Look great and enhance a kitchen design.
  • They are very accessible for shorter people or people in wheelchairs.
  • They make lifting a heavy load in and out of the microwave much easier than with the over-the-range microwave.
  • Because the unit opens straight out and does not have a left hinged door like all other microwaves, the microwave drawer is easier to use for left handed people.
  • Spacious interior. These units do not have a space-hogging turntable because the magnetron is in the roof of the unit.
  • Landing space is immediately available for cooked food.
  • Like the over-the-range unit, it is built in and adds value to your property compared to the countertop microwave.

Cons:

  • Require installation. This is actually quite easy but you may need a handyman to do it for you.
  • They require electrical power to be run to them.
  • Not (at least yet) available with a convection cooking option.
  • They are relatively expensive.

Installing a microwave drawer:

Wall oven and microwave combination

wall oven and microwave combo

In this solution a regular wall oven is combined with a microwave oven in one single unit and installed within cabinetry.

Pros:

  • This is a good looking kitchen design solution.

Cons:

  • If the microwave dies, you are faced with replacing the entire unit. 
  • Relatively expensive.

In our opinion, it is virtually guaranteed that the microwave will die before the oven. So you are better off installing a regular wall oven with a convection capability. You can install a separate microwave oven with a finish that matches the wall oven. So there should be no design issue, 

 By the way, because we do not recommend the wall oven and microwave combo, we do not offer a review of these units. 

Wrapping it up 

Well that pretty much wraps it up for how to buy a microwave oven. We hope it helps. Please leave any comment or question below. We’d love to hear from you.

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picking a microwave oven
How to Buy a Microwave Oven

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