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Cheap Microwave Ovens Buying Guide

The inexpensive microwave ovens arena is dominated by companies such as GE, Panasonic, Sanyo, Sharp, and Kenmore, which also manufacture upscale models. What distinguishes a cheap microwave oven from its expensive counterpart is a combination of size, power, design, and array of functions.

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The cheapest microwave ovens are compact (interior capacity of less than one cubic foot) and just right for dorm rooms and kitchens with limited counter space.

Prices start to climb with size, although we found good cheap microwave ovens that qualify as mid-size (1 to 1.5 cubic feet of interior space). Size is associated with power, and the larger the microwave, the more power it generally has. Higher wattage means more heat and faster cooking. Compact microwaves typically run on 600 to 800 watts compared with mid-size and large ovens with up to 1,650 watts of power. Microwaves aren't particularly small appliances, and even a compact microwave takes up space on a counter or table. The smallest microwave ovens are about 18 inches wide and the largest about 27 inches across. Unfortunately for frugal consumers, the space-saving alternatives -- e.g., over-the-range models that also serve as range hoods, models that fit under cabinets, and models built into dedicated cabinets -- are too pricey for Cheapism's taste.

On the other hand, all but the cheapest microwave ovens feature a variety of functions that add spice to food-prep adventures. Features you'll definitely want on a budget microwave oven include automatic or quick-touch settings for edibles such as popcorn; a defrost setting; pre-programmed power levels; and a rotating turntable. A few of the best cheap microwaves also incorporate sensors that account for the humidity level inside the oven. A time-extender button is a handy convenience. Not surprisingly, the higher the price of a microwave, the more functions you get.

After checking prices and specs and poring over scores of reviews, we found four cheap microwave ovens that meet the important criteria for features and performance (thorough cooking or heating, ease of use, and durability). Heading the list is the Panasonic NN-SN651 (starting at $124). Sitting alongside is the Danby DMW111K (starting at $80). Our runner-up picks are the Frigidaire FFCM1134L (starting at $103) and the Sharp R-309Y (starting at $98).

What We Looked For

Size.

The first step in choosing a microwave oven is determining how many people will be feasting on the results at any given time. Consumers who live alone, college students with roommates, and folks who just want to heat up a frozen dinner, can get by with a small microwave oven with less than 1 cubic foot of capacity. Frugal households with more robust demands should opt for a cheap microwave with at least a cubic foot of interior space. Among the top picks on our list, the Panasonic NN-SN651 is the largest, with a capacity of 1.2 cubic feet inside. Internal capacity is loosely associated with external dimensions. Our four top choices are all about 20 inches wide, 12 inches high, and 15 or 16 inches deep.

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These measurements can be misleading, though. Consumer product experts point out that manufacturers include unusable space when specifying capacity, so it's a good idea to test out a favorite piece of microwave-safe cookware in any model you're considering. (Of course, this means getting to a store with cookware in hand.) When deciding where to put the microwave oven, make sure there's clearance above and around the unit. Experts say at least 2 inches in the back is necessary if the microwave is going into a cabinet.

Cooking Power.

Power in a microwave is measured in watts, and mid-size microwave ovens need at least 1,000 watts of power to heat food quickly. Fortunately, there's no need to sacrifice power just because you're being economical. Our top picks boast 1,000 to 1,200 watts of power.

You don't always need to operate at full throttle, however, and the best cheap microwave ovens come with 10 power levels that suit different cooking tasks. Each setting represents the amount of time that the magnetron (the component that converts electrons into microwaves) cycles on and off. If you're at level 5, say, the unit produces microwaves 50 percent of the time and is passive the other 50 percent. Alternatively, you can rely on a one-touch cooking button that eliminates the guesswork in deciding how much power to use.

One-Touch Buttons and Sensors.

Microwaves have come a long way since the single-function on/off-button days. Even cheap countertop microwaves now have settings pre-programmed to achieve certain ends with the touch of a button: cook rice, fresh vegetables, or pizza, say, or boil water and heat up coffee. Some microwaves, including the top-ranked Panasonic NN-SN651, have a sensor that automatically controls power levels and calculates the proper cooking times for various foods, based on the presence (or absence) of steam.

Defrosting.

One of the great home-cooking advances arrived with the microwave's ability to defrost a dinner straight from the freezer. A practical and welcome concept, certainly, but the execution has hardly been flawless. It's not unheard of, for example, to wind up with cooked edges on a lump of frozen ground meat and a partially frozen mid-section after the end of a defrost cycle. One of the common misperceptions about microwave ovens is that they heat from the inside out. In fact, notes the USDA, they cook to a depth of 1.5 inches, so frozen foods must continuously be moved around (flipped over, broken up) throughout the defrosting process. Defrosting is best done at 30 percent power, and virtually all countertop microwaves have a pre-set defrost button.

Indicators.

Almost all countertop microwaves emit a sound when a cycle is complete; a few follow up with a reminder beep a minute or two later. While some consumers are grateful for the prompt, others find it irritating.

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Turntable.

A rotating glass turntable is standard on today's countertop microwaves because it ensures more even heat distribution and better results. The turntables are easy to remove and wash, and many models let you turn off the carousel to prevent oddly shaped cookware from getting stuck. The turntables are generally large enough to hold a dinner plate, and most measure 12 or 13 inches in diameter. Some pricey models come with a recessed turntable, which keeps it secure and leaves more internal space for food. The turntable in most cheap microwaves rests on a ring or little feet set into the floor of the oven, so it may slip out of alignment.

Microwave Reviews

The microwave oven reviews we found indicate that many of the best microwaves on our list are replacements for models that provided users with 15 to 20 years of service. Although consumers are delighted with the advances in microwave functionality, they're not so thrilled with the decrease in durability that seems to plague inexpensive microwaves. Still, during the active life of the unit, reviews reveal that consumers want the microwave to heat consistently and evenly and to prove its time-saving chops. For the most part, the best microwaves on our list meet and sometimes exceed these expectations.

Heating/Cooking.

Despite all the many features bundled into the new microwaves, they still must perform the fundamental function of heating food, be it refrigerated leftovers or a frozen dinner. If the microwave accomplishes these tasks thoroughly and quickly, consumers are satisfied with the purchase.

The Panasonic NN-SN651 meets this standard with particular ease. Microwave reviews on sites such as Amazon consider this model a big-time convenience and particularly rave about its sensor heat and Inverter Turbo Defrost functions. The latter eliminates trial and error, users note, and the sensor produces perfectly cooked foods, including a mac-and-cheese casserole devoid of cold spots. Reviewers also like the consistent and speedy results, noting that 1,200 watts of power gets the job done faster than older units this microwave replaced.

Ease of Use.

For the most part, the best microwaves in the budget segment score highly for ease of use. Microwave reviews often comment approvingly on the variety of pre-programmed settings (choose one and forget about it until the beep goes off), the intuitive control panels, and the quick swipe cleanup. Consumers seem happiest with their budget microwaves when the function buttons are self-explanatory and the manual superfluous.

Noise Level.

Noise is a common but low-grade complaint about discount microwave ovens. Even the top microwaves we researched are targets of at least some grumbling about noisy operation, be it buzzing, popping, or humming. The beeps emitted at the end of the cook cycle irritate some consumers. On the other hand, many appreciate a beep in the midst of the defrost cycle as a signal to stir, rotate, or break apart the food.

Durability.

After reading through scores of microwave reviews, we noted that glowing comments about even the top budget microwaves are often tempered by a few reports of life spans shortened for one reason or another. Such failures are particularly irksome to consumers who report having gotten a decade or more of service from a unit bought years ago. Indeed, it seems that a long and productive life is one of the sacrifices you make when buying a budget microwave. The top cheap microwaves occasionally get dinged for problems such as error codes on the display, a heating function that suddenly cuts out, a turntable that stops rotating, and electrical circuits (in the house) that trip. Most of the negative reports we came across, however, don't concern our top picks.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Microwave Ovens
  2. Discount Microwaves Features Comparison Table
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