Straight to the Point
Our favorite, practical, everyday microwave was the Toshiba EM131A5C-BS Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor—it popped popcorn like a champ and cooked foods evenly thanks to its heat sensor. If you have a fridge stocked with TV dinners or frozen snacks (no judgment!), we liked the Panasonic Microwave Oven with Cyclonic Wave Inverter Technology for its remarkable ability to heat frozen food evenly and efficiently. And, if you’re on a budget, the Magic Chef 1.1 Microwave also worked well.
Whether you use yours for popcorn, a plate of nachos, or just to reheat that cup of coffee you forgot about from half an hour ago (that said, don’t do this!), a microwave is pretty darn handy. But like many small appliances, there’s no shortage of models to choose from, and microwave prices can vary widely. How do you even begin to figure out which microwave is best?
Don’t worry—we’ve got you covered. We tested 21 microwave ovens, putting each through a series of tests to assess how efficiently they heat a variety of ingredients and meals (because there’s a time and a place for frozen mac and cheese). We also tested each microwave to see if they could gently melt chocolate, and—of course—make popcorn without burning it to bits. A few clear winners emerged, so grab some (perfectly popped) popcorn and let’s get things heated.
The Winners, at a Glance
We loved the effectiveness of a heat sensor in the microwave, which led to perfectly popped popcorn and evenly cooked mac and cheese. At about $152, it’s reasonably priced, too.
This generously-sized microwave wowed us with its ability to cook frozen foods evenly and without fuss.
This is an above-average microwave that handled everything we threw at it with grace, including “toasting” delicate marshmallows and cooking frozen dinners.
- Water Test: We put a cup of room-temperature water (68°F, in this case) in a glass measuring cup, then zapped it for two minutes without adjusting power levels. Then, we recorded the temperature of the water.
- Marshmallow Test: We layered a 9-inch pie dish with parchment paper and covered the bottom with an even layer of miniature marshmallows. Without adjusting the power level, we microwaved them for two minutes before checking for hot (or cold) spots.
- Frozen Mac n’ Cheese Test: We cooked a frozen, 12-ounce portion of mac and cheese for half the time listed on its package directions, then used an instant-read thermometer to record temperatures in four places around the dish. We checked temperatures again after cooking per package instructions.
- Melting Chocolate Test: We put eight ounces of chocolate wafers in a medium glass bowl and microwaved them for 30 seconds on 50% power. After stirring four times with a rubber spatula, we repeated the process three more times before assessing the consistency of the chocolate.
- Popcorn Test: We popped a bag of popcorn using the popcorn button if the microwave had one, or following package instructions if it didn’t. After the microwave stopped, we spread the contents of the bag on a sheet tray and evaluated the evenness of the popped kernels.
What We Learned
First, How Do Microwaves Work?
You can read more about the inner workings of microwaves here, but, basically, they’re a type of oven that uses a magnetron to generate electromagnetic waves. Those little waves zip around inside the oven, reflect off of the metal walls, and get absorbed by the food inside.
Was Wattage Important?
Don’t get too caught up in wattage. Most modern microwaves operate between 600 and 1000 watts—some can go a little lower or a little higher—and the standard full-power wattage today is 1000. We did notice that higher wattage led to faster cooking. For instance, nearly all of the microwaves we tested performed poorly in the chocolate melting test—which tells us that 50% power is probably too low for this task! But, that’s an easy fix—just up the power.
We Didn’t Love Presets
If we’re being honest, presets—those are the buttons for popcorn or frozen foods—aren’t worth writing home about; they’re just a shortcut to adjust wattage and set a cook time, and it’s easy enough to select 700 watts and two minutes on your own. We found that microwaves with presets for everything (Popcorn! Pizza! Cream of mushroom soup! Okay, just kidding about the last one) were actually confusing and detracted from what should be a relatively intuitive appliance. Sometimes you just wanna reheat a bowl of soup, ya know?
Size (Kind of) Mattered
One of the few downsides we noticed about the Panasonic Microwave Oven with Cyclonic Wave Inverter Technology was its large footprint (it’s nearly 24 inches wide and 14 inches high). Large microwaves don’t necessarily cook food any better or worse than smaller microwaves, but they do eat up counter space and leave you with more surface area to keep clean. Conversely, a microwave that’s too small will quickly lead to frustration when you realize your favorite dinner plate can’t fit inside. Size preference will vary from one household to the next, so pay mind to dimensions when searching for your Goldilocks, just-right microwave.
The Criteria: What to Look for In a Microwave Oven
A great microwave should be easy to operate and cook food efficiently and (mostly) evenly. But, keep in mind that due to the nature of how these ovens work (remember those zip-zappy electromagnetic waves?), if you chuck a frozen-solid chicken pot pie in the microwave, the outer bits are going to heat more quickly than the center—that’s just how it goes.
The Best Microwaves
What we liked: This easy-to-use Toshiba microwave earned an overall score that rivaled the Panasonic in our tests—and it costs less than half the price. It impressed us with how well it cooked popcorn (minimal remaining kernels!), and we appreciated the oven’s heat sensor, which helped facilitate even cooking. Though the Toshiba is best for very basic kitchen tasks, it still cooked frozen foods extremely well.
What we didn’t like: This microwave struggled to melt chocolate chips. That said, we tested each oven on 50% power, so we suspect it would have had a stronger performance here at a higher wattage.
Price at time of publish: $190.
- Dimensions: 17.1 x 20.5 x 12.8 inches
- Weight: 34.5 pounds
- Capacity: 1.2 cubic feet
- Warranty: 1 year
What we liked: The first thing we noticed about this microwave was how big it was. With its 2.2 cubic-foot capacity, you could probably put a turkey in there if you wanted to (please don’t, though). It performed really, really well when it came to our frozen food test, cooking the mac and cheese ridiculously evenly (no frozen noodles snuck into bites). If you’re an avid food prepper with a freezer full of leftovers or ready meals, this microwave has your name all over it.
What we didn’t like: Despite (or perhaps because of) its efficiency with frozen foods, the Panasonic was far less delicate with our marshmallows, which emerged straight-up burnt with no delicate caramelization (just…char). And while this microwave’s cavernous quarters could certainly prove useful (family-sized macaroni?), it does take up a lot of counter space. It’s also on the pricier side for a microwave, so if you only use yours to heat up leftovers here and there, it might not be worth the extra cash.
Price at time of publish: $367.
- Dimensions: 19.44 x 23.88 x 14 inches
- Weight: 36.8 pounds
- Capacity: 2.2 cubic feet
- Warranty: 1 year
What we liked: This microwave oven is a great buy with a nice range of functions (that weren’t just useless presets). More importantly, it performed well, too. Our marshmallows were evenly caramelized, and the frozen mac n’ cheese cooked impressively well. If you’re looking for a user-friendly microwave without unnecessary frills, we’re happy to recommend the Magic Chef.
What we didn’t like: The chocolate chips barely melted during our 50% power test. Our popcorn test also yielded more unpopped kernels than we’d prefer.
Price at time of publish: $70.
- Dimensions: 12.1 x 20.x x 15.7 inches
- Weight: 30.1 pounds
- Capacity: 1.1 cubic feet
- Warranty: 1 year
- Breville Compact Wave Soft-Close Microwave Oven: We found the soft-close door and quiet cooking volume to be the most impressive features of this microwave, which proved otherwise lackluster in performance.
- Comfee Retro Microwave with Multi-Stage Cooking: Though its retro appearance is aesthetically pleasing, we didn’t find this microwave to be especially user-friendly.
- Breville Combi Wave 3-in-1 Microwave: For the price, we just weren’t super satisfied with this microwave’s performance.
- Commercial Chef Countertop Microwave Oven: We were not at all impressed with this microwave; it was overpriced and inaccurate thanks to rotary dials used to set the time.
- Galanz GT 4-in-1 ToastWave: While this microwave was versatile—it acts as a toaster oven and an air fryer, too—we think money is better spent on buying gadgets that are built for those things, rather than a mediocre all-rounder. Plus, this microwave was quite expensive and left hot spots during our marshmallow test.
- Farberware Countertop Compact Microwave: This was a fairly standard microwave that, while it performed well, did show signs of hot spots throughout testing.
- Panasonic 1.2 Inverter Microwave: While this microwave performed well, it was edged out slightly by our favorites from Toshiba and Panasonic. That said, it’s still a good, affordable microwave.
- Panasonic HomeChef 4-in-1 Microwave Oven: Overall, we found this expensive microwave didn’t perform very well on basic tasks and was rather inefficient when it came to reheating. And, while it was replete with all kinds of features (Airfry! Bake! Broil!), we don’t think they make up for an overall mediocre microwave.
- Cuisinart CMW-200 1.2-Cubic-Foot Convection Microwave Oven with Grill: This was one of the most expensive microwaves in our lineup, and only had mediocre results to show for it. Plus, we think grilling is best left to an actual grill.
- SMETA Microwave 1000 Watt Countertop/1.1 cu ft Microwave: While this microwave performed okay at basic reheating tasks, we found the presets inaccurate, particularly regarding popcorn.
- Proctor Silex 1.1 Microwave: With overall weak power and poor heating, this microwave was a dud from the start.
- Samsung Speed Cooking Microwave: While this microwave is currently unavailable, it scorched popcorn and began making an alarming noise midway through testing, so we stopped using it.
- Black+Decker EM720CB7 Digital Microwave Oven: Appealing and inexpensive, it failed to melt chocolate well and left a good amount of unpopped popcorn kernels.
- Magic Chef Retro Countertop Microwave: After just two minutes in the microwave, this (admittedly cute) microwave aggressively burned popcorn. Sad!
- Galanz GLCMKA07BER-07 Retro Microwave Oven: While we were actually quite impressed with the performance of this microwave, its capacity was small (as in, a popcorn bag was crowded).
- Nostalgia RMO4AQ Retro Large 0.9 cu ft, 800-Watt Countertop Microwave: Fun-looking but not super functional, this microwave didn’t do well in our chocolate and popcorn tests.
- Toshiba EM925A5A-BS Microwave with Sound On/Off: This microwave was on the smaller side and just didn’t do well in our basic, chocolate-melting test.
- Midea Equipment 1025F0A Stainless Steel Countertop Commercial Microwave Oven, 1000W: While this microwave performed pretty well, it did toast marshmallows unevenly. It’s also pricey.
Is a microwave an oven?
It sure is! We dig deeper into what microwave ovens actually are here, but they are indeed ovens and electromagnetic waves are to thank for heating your food.
What is the best way to clean a microwave?
From soup splatters to coffee sloshes to mysterious greasy smears, microwaves can definitely get a little grimy from time to time. Keeping them clean helps avoid unpleasant odors and generally extends the life of your appliance, so it’s best to wipe up spills and splatters as soon as they happen. A damp cloth should do the trick in most cases, but if you need some extra help, an all-purpose kitchen spray will work well to cut through grease. You can remove the inner plate from your microwave and hand-wash with dish soap and hot water in the sink.
How can you find the wattage of your microwave?
The packaging or owner’s manual is an easy place to start, but if you don’t have either of those, there should be a label somewhere (probably on the inside of the door) that will indicate wattage. You can also run a quick Google search for your microwave’s make and model to learn more.