What do I need to know when buying a microwave?
December 13, 2014 12:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking at buying a microwave. These microwaves list a whole bunch of features that I know nothing about. What one's are the most important? I'm trying to keep it cheap.
posted by casebash to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Power probably is the most important feature.

I personally love the "minute plus" button, but I think that might be Sharp only.
posted by aubilenon at 12:24 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Last time I bought one was at a big box store. It is smallish and has a rotating plate. I use it to reheat food or maybe water for tea and my coffee if it gets cold. Also to melt butter in a little pyrex dish, or chocolate for baking. It was cheap and I have no problems. The brand is West Bend if you want a rec.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 12:27 AM on December 13, 2014

Rotating plate goes a long way. The microwave energy is distributed in the cooking chamber in a bunch of waves crossing each other in different directions, and sometimes the waves cancel each other out, making a cool spot with less cooking ability. A rotating plate carries the food through hot and cool spots rather than just hoping you've placed the food in a hot spot.

Any rotating stuff should be easily removed for cleaning, and the rotating plate should have a small lip for catching spills/boilover.

(P.S. Don't put metal in the science oven.)
posted by Sunburnt at 12:35 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I tried running my microwave without a rotating plate, and got burned spots on my pot pies. Pay for the turntable now or over the next six years in having to stir everything.

You can get pretty much anything into 1.1 cubic feet.

Measure your countertop and make sure you'll have space to put down a plate in front of the microwave. Or consider an over-the-range type microwave that takes no counter space at all.

Amazon Price Check app showed me that the cheapest microwave at Wal-Mart had tons of shorting problems, so check their reviews while you're in the store.
posted by Noumenon at 12:49 AM on December 13, 2014

You will thank yourself for buying a microwave with a simple control panel. Some mucrowaves are so bad, every visitor to your home will reset the clock when they just wanted to punch in 90 seconds.

Also get one that doesn't beep with each button press, so you can reheat that pot pie at 1am without waking everyone up.
posted by zippy at 1:48 AM on December 13, 2014

"Smart" controls on microwave ovens are the absolutely canonical case of a thing marketed as smart actually being enragingly stupid.

My favorite microwave ever had a rotating turntable, a knob on the front for time, another knob for power level, and when it was finished it made one discreet little mechanical "ting" rather than going beep beep beep beepitty beeeeep what a clever little oven am I.

It's an oven. Its job is to make what you put in it hot. You don't want "features".
posted by flabdablet at 3:33 AM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I used a cheap microwave for ten years, and replaced it with an even cheaper one that's about three years old now. As long as it works and isn't so cheaply made that it'll break, you can cheap out on microwaves.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:19 AM on December 13, 2014

You will thank yourself for buying a microwave with a simple control panel.

Get a cheap, simple nukebox with a rotating plate. By "simple" I mean two power settings at most (low/high, defrost/cook, etc) and a simple timer. Period.

Once you find those, your most important decision will be size. Be honest with yourself. If you're like most people, you aren't going to be cooking full dinners in the thing. Defrosting and reheating is probably all you're going to do.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:33 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm usually all for simplicity in microwaves, but my LG has a novel feature that I use a lot. It's a humidity sensor that it uses to guess when the food is appropriately warmed, since humidity levels in the microwave rise as the food warms up. It works surprisingly well, and saves me from having to guess appropriate times and power levels for reheating leftovers. It can even tell when a bag of popcorn is done, and shut off before the popcorn burns.

The dedicated buttons for hot dogs and mac-n-cheese are annoying, pointless clutter.
posted by jon1270 at 5:57 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

One really nice feature to have, that no one has mentioned so far, is an automatic defroster. Ours (a Panasonic) does a surprisingly good job at thawing meats. The only other feature we use constantly and couldn't live without is the automatic reheat jon1270 described.
posted by DrGail at 6:12 AM on December 13, 2014

Open the door and ask yourself, how easy is this inside to clean? Look for an Energy Star rating about idle power usage, you don't want bells and whistles costing you money in power usage for AM/FM and basket weaving. A cheap microwave with a glass turntable is pretty simple and helpful part of the kitchen.
posted by nickggully at 7:15 AM on December 13, 2014

Magic Chef is a popular brand of cheap microwave but I'd recommend against them. Every cheap Magic Chef microwave I've ever used has been underpowered and doesn't heat things evenly or quickly. Heck, I've used more than one that were unable to pop a bag of popcorn.

jon1270 brings up the sensor vs. nonsensor thing. It's not unique to LG, most mid-range and better microwaves have a sensor of some kind. And yes they do work pretty well in my experience.
Mostly I think the sensor helps in defrosting, cooking frozen vegetables, and popping popcorn.
posted by cabingirl at 7:17 AM on December 13, 2014

I agree with jon1270 about the sensor thing. My parents have a Kenmore that has a sensor -based function that allows one to choose vegetables and then choose between frozen and fresh. That gets used every day in their household and it works well. I like it so much that I asked for it for my birthday. (It really beats my current circa 1988 found-by-the-dumpster microwave with the only control a dial for cooking time.) Also, a more powerful microwave will make it easier to decide how long to cook things that are packaged with a suggested time.
posted by SandiBeech at 7:43 AM on December 13, 2014

The downside of the small microwaves (less than 1cu.ft., generally) is that it won't hold a large dinner plate (my more dainty round ones fit, but my bigger square plates would bump the sides and not rotate, and there was no reheating a casserole in the dish). If you only eat out of bowls, it's probably not an issue.

I have a very fancy $120 1200w Panasonic inverter microwave, and the sensor cook thing does actually work pretty well, and the popcorn button is precisely on point. But I could live with a slightly lower-powered simpler microwave, as long as it was the same size so I can fit a plate in it.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:45 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

IME the point of failure has most often been the door-opening mechanism, like having to push a big button to get the door to open. In my own microwaves, I've looked for doors that just need to be pulled to be opened and never had a problem.
posted by homesickness at 9:48 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would go for a digital timer over a twist knob. Cooking something for one minute is quite difficult on the latter sort, I've found. Being able to specify the exact time has been very useful.
posted by Solomon at 10:33 AM on December 13, 2014

IME the point of failure has most often been the door-opening mechanism, like having to push a big button to get the door to open.

As a counterpoint, the handle on my parents' microwave broke off and couldn't be repaired. Their next microwave had a push button and no problems. I guess neither style is perfect.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:36 AM on December 13, 2014

You need the following:

A way to set the time (minutes and seconds). Digital is more accurate to set and keep than a dial.
A way to set the power (defrost and high are essential, medium is very useful, low kinda handy).
A way to start and stop it.
A turntable.
A decent wattage that is covered by most recipes (650-800w usually)

You don't need anything else beyond this. Don't be suckered into buying more expensive models that have smart cooking, choas defrost, roasting, grill, auto-cook, food detection or other such stuff. You'll never use them.

I have a cheap Panasonic, it does way more than I need but was very cheap. Next time I'll probably replace it with something even cheaper.
posted by mr_silver at 12:09 PM on December 13, 2014

Most microwave ovens use a synchronous motor for the rotating platter so that it rotates exactly once every 10 seconds. This means that if you use any multiple of 10 seconds for cooking time (30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, etc.), your coffee cup will be right back at the front where you put it originally.

I have seen a few ovens that run the table separately from the cooking time, so that your cup ends up at a random location, which is annoying. Hard to know for sure without testing in advance, but most ovens do this correctly.
posted by JackFlash at 12:38 PM on December 13, 2014

I had a GE microwave once that would refuse to run until you set the clock (both date and time). Was very annoying when I wanted to cook something after a power outage. This is something you probably want to avoid.

I meant to look into it and see if it had somehow slipped into Jewish Mode, but never got around to it before moving out of that place.
posted by Hatashran at 1:04 PM on December 13, 2014

Here are some microwave ovens reviewed as best, and why. I think it may give you some insights on what to look for that haven't been mentioned above.
posted by artdrectr at 2:15 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a Frigidaire that beeps three times when it's done cooking. If I let the cooked item sit there for a minute without opening the door, it beeps another three times. And so on. It's so fucking annoying.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:15 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're going to be using the microwave for a lot of low power things (defrosting food, melting chocolate or butter, etc.), then get one which uses an inverter (mostly Panasonic ones, it seems), as ordinary microwaves cook at lower power by cooking at full power for 5 seconds then turning the microwave beam off for 5 seconds*, leaving plenty of time for your melting chocolate to develop hotspots.

This is especially important when defrosting meat, because once a bit of the meat's defrosted, it becomes better at absorbing microwaves, so it heats more, so you end up with parts that are fully cooked adjacent to parts that are fully frozen. If the microwave heating is less intense, the defrosted parts of the meat will conduct more of their heat to the still frozen parts while being heated up, and everything heats through a bit more evenly.

Also, as everyone else has mentioned, the user interface is key. I have a Bosch one which has a digital display which is set by a dial, and separate physical buttons for each power level. If you're going to buy a cheap microwave, get one with dials rather than a membrane keypad which beeps with every button press.

*Assuming it's set to cook at 50% power, obviously. For cooking at 33% power, it's on for 5 seconds, off for 10 seconds, etc.
posted by ambrosen at 4:45 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I believe if you want a cheap microwave now (US edition) you are in luck. No matter what you pay, the race to the bottom has rendered all microwave ovens essentially cheap.

That said--the suggestions above are apt:
Power. Size.
These are the meaningful parameters. Everything else is a furbelow.
It will somehow destroy itself in a few years, though. That is cheap in action.

But ff you drink a lot, or do much sleepmicrowaving, minute+ is a godsend.
posted by hexatron at 5:24 PM on December 13, 2014

If you're going to be using the microwave for a lot of low power things (defrosting food, melting chocolate or butter, etc.), then get one which uses an inverter (mostly Panasonic ones, it seems), as ordinary microwaves cook at lower power by cooking at full power for 5 seconds then turning the microwave beam off for 5 seconds.

It turns out that the inverter microwave ovens do the same thing except they turn the power on and off every few milliseconds to provide average power of 40% to 100%. For 30% and below, they cycle the entire unit on and off at the 40% average power level every few seconds, just like regular microwave ovens.

Whether or not this makes any real difference to cooking or thawing is a debatable marketing point since it is only average power that matters. Thermal mass is going to smooth out the heating pulses in any case.

I wouldn't pay extra money just to get an inverter microwave.
posted by JackFlash at 5:39 PM on December 13, 2014

I have a Panasonic with inverter etc., and the single button that I press most-often—it easily meets 95% of my microwaving needs—is the "sensor reheat" button, which basically tells it it to cook until it detects steam. Insert mug of water and press the button: it heats it until the water boils, then beeps and turns off. Insert plate of refrigerated leftovers and press button: it heats until the food's steamy hot, goes beep and turns off. I don't really use my microwave for cooking anything (though it is pretty handy for defrosting the odd block of frozen meat) but if what you mostly want is to nuke water for tea and reheat leftovers, that steam-sensor feature is better than sliced bread.
posted by mumkin at 1:53 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

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