Last Updated On January 4th, 2019
You can theoretically determine how well a microwave oven works by asking two simple questions: will it make my food hot enough, and how long will it take?
Unfortunately, no salesman or online site can (or will) answer those questions. So when it’s time to buy a new microwave, it’s necessary to ask some more specific questions about power, size and features in order to find the best microwave for your needs.
You’ll notice that we said “when” it’s time to buy a new microwave, not “if.” These ovens have been available for well over half-a-century, and became a luxury appliance during the 1960s and 70s. But over the course of the last 30+ years, they’ve become as important to our lifestyle as ovens and stoves – and for some people, even more important.
Those fortunate enough to have a built-in microwave in their kitchen normally have to buy one of these appliances only once every so often, usually replacing one high-end model with another. The rest of us who have microwaves sitting on a kitchen counter or table (or on the floor in the corner of a flat), though, are likely to buy less-expensive models which must be replaced fairly often. Those are the ones we’ll be discussing here: compact and countertop microwave ovens which won’t cost you a ton of money.
Best Microwaves At a Glance
Microwave Oven Buyers’ Guide
When looking at most kitchen appliances, there’s almost always one specification that matters more than any other: size. Space is at a premium in any kitchen we’ve ever seen, and a microwave – or any other appliance – that’s too big to fit is too big to consider. So before shopping for your new all-purpose-kitchen-miracle-heating-things-up-machine, do some careful measurements and don’t be tempted to choose a microwave that’s even a few inches bigger than you can fit. Once you get it home you’ll be cursing yourself all night, and your spouse, partner or roommate may be cursing you even more.
There’s one other measurement that’s just as important: the space available inside. If you only use the appliance for popping popcorn or steaming a bag of vegetables, the internal size of your microwave won’t really matter. But if you have a specific type of plate or bowl which you commonly use for cooking or heating food, you’ll naturally want to be sure that it will fit. Looking at microwave specifications will tell you the oven’s total capacity (like 15 or 20 litres) but won’t tell you if there’s enough room for your favourite dinner plate. Generally speaking, you’ll need a 17-20 liter microwave with a 25cm turntable to fit a standard-sized plate, but if you’re going to be buying from a store it wouldn’t hurt to bring a plate or bowl with you.
Measuring is important, but boring. Let’s turn to the specific features you can find in the top microwaves, and start with power. The more powerful the microwave, the faster your food will cook; most countertop or compact models will offer between 600 and 1000 watts, and to get foods heated or cooked quickly you should look for one that tops out at 800 watts or more. (Larger microwaves normally offer power levels of 1000 watts and higher.)
Next, the microwave’s preset programmes will make a major difference for most users. This will depend on how you use your it, of course, since some people don’t use presets, but nearly everyone finds settings like “defrost” and “reheat” integral to the convenience of a microwave, many also have a grill. You may also find presets for oatmeal, soup, beverages or popcorn irresistible. Features such as auto cook, which will determine the proper amount of cooking time depending on the food’s weight, and multiple-stage cooking to allow you to program it to defrost and then cook, are useless for some but essential for others. They’re rare on compact microwave ovens, unfortunately.
If you haven’t purchased a microwave in some time, there are cool features now available that you may not be familiar with. One allows you to turn off the turntable rotation function, handy if you have food sticking off the end of the plate. Turbo reheat lets you blast food with a quick surge of power to heat it quickly. Many microwaves now have sensors which can tell how much moisture is in your food and how humid the oven is and adjust the cooking time and power level to appropriate levels. You can also, as you’re probably aware, buy a microwave that has a convection cooking feature to allow you to bake and brown as well as heat – but that, along with the other cool features, are unusual to find at the level of countertop appliances we’ll be reviewing. Though you will probably find some that include a grill function.
Additional extras like countdown clocks and removable turntables are usually standard, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure they’re included; one you might not think of but is a great idea is a child safety lock. And although we haven’t mentioned them, the price and appearance (and whether the it fits with your kitchen décor) are obviously going to factor into any buying decision.
Top 10 Microwave Reviews
We’ll start out with lower-end microwaves, and we like this model – except for the fact that it only has a top power level of 700 watts. Other than that, it’s attractive, with a black housing and silver mirror-finish door; it’s compact, at 36 x 45 x 26 cm; and it has 17L of space and a 24.5cm turntable, large enough to hold most plates. The RHM1714B has lots of preset programs for foods like pizza, popcorn and fish, auto-defrost based on food weight, and six power levels. It’s not the best you can buy for your countertop, but it’s easy to use, will do the job for most users who don’t need higher power levels, is moderately priced and looks sharp.
Here’s another basic 700 watt offering that’s right around the same size as the Russell Hobbs, but with a 20L interior and a turntable that’s about 1cm larger. It’s white with a mirrored door so it will match almost all other kitchen appliances. When we say basic, though, we mean it; there are just two rotating dials, one allowing you to choose between five power levels and the other setting the timer. We think the Daewoo is best for one particular group of people: those who don’t want to play around with touchpads and presets, but simply want their microwave to be controlled in the same way as their toaster – perhaps the elderly, those who are visually impaired, or just plain old-fashioned. It’s also easy on the budget.
Like its slightly larger big brother, this 700W oven is black with a mirrored door. But like the Daewoo, it has just two knobs to control its five power levels and the timer, although it does also have a defrost setting. Once again, this isn’t the microwave for involved cooking or programming, but it’s compact, functional and attractive. It’s a very good buy if you don’t want a fancy microwave.
We’ll stay with Russell Hobbs a bit longer, but step up in class. The 900-watt RHM2563 has a larger 25L capacity with a 30.5cm turntable, and is about 4-6cm wider, longer and taller than our first three options. In short, it will fit almost anything you’d want to put into a microwave. The control panel isn’t digital, but there’s pretty much everything else required from a mid-level oven: eight presets including pizza, meat and porridge, auto defrost by weight or time, auto reheat, countdown timer and child safety lock. If we had one wish, it would be for an extra 100 watts, but even though it’s expensive, the RHM2563 is a no-brainer.
Here’s a Daewoo that’s definitely a notch above the one we’ve already looked at, and if you don’t mind a red appliance, it’s worth considering. The Touch Control Solo is a 20L model but it’s definitely compact at 34 x 44 x 27 cm, with a 24.5cm turntable. It’s also just 800 watts, which may be enough power for some but won’t be enough for everyone. The controls are sort of odd, with a combination of pushbuttons and knobs letting you choose four preset modes, defrost and the time. Not fancy, not bad, and definitely red.
Moderate power, moderate capacity, and a good selection of features – that’s how we’d describe this Panasonic with lots of letters and numbers in its name. The 800 watt, 20L oven has a 25.4cm turntable and approximately the same outside dimensions as the other compact Daewoo models on our list. What we like about it, though are the acrylic interior that’s easy to clean, the fully-digital control panel with nine presets, auto defrost and reheat, the child lock, the clean white look and a very reasonable price for all of those features.
We’re not quite sure why “Push Button” is in the name of this product, since it’s controlled by two rotary dials that select between six power levels and the length of cook time – perhaps they’re just referring to the fact that you open the door by pushing a button, as with most microwaves. In any event, the Akai is silver-and-black with 800 watts of power, 20L, has a 24.5cm turntable, and is not quite as tall as most of the others on our list. It’s also fairly inexpensive, although we think there should at least be an auto-defrost function.
Now this is a feature we wish our own microwaves had – a two-level setup with a shelf, allowing you to put two plates into the oven at the same time. On the other hand, with just 800 watts of power you’ll be waiting a while for both plates to heat up. This white Daewoo has standard compact dimensions with a 20L capacity and eight presets from baked potato to frozen pizza, as well as a standard defrost setting. It’s somewhat low on power and features compared to the Panasonic or the best Russell Hobbs model, but to us the two shelves alone and sharp appearance make it worth the moderate price tag.
We’re not quite sure who would want a 600 watt, 14L Daewoo when they offer larger, higher-powered models at around the same price – unless the goal is to find the smallest oven on our list, or a Daewoo that isn’t red. In that case, the QT1 fits the bill. It’s a few cm smaller on each dimension, and an attractive white colour with two white knobs that control the seven power levels and dual speed timer. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not a bad microwave; it’s just one which fits certain, very specific needs.
You could either look at the Swan as retro, as they do, or you could look at it as just simple. The cream-coloured microwave (it’s also available in seven other pastel colours, some at a higher price) is several cm shorter than most compacts and will fit easily under cabinets, and certainly will match some kitchens’ retro designs. But the 800 watt, 20L Swan is also “retro” because it doesn’t have digital controls, just two knobs controlling five power levels, a defrost setting and a 60-minute digital timer. The turntable is 24.5cm. If we were cynics, we’d say the company made it pastel-coloured so it could call a simple microwave “retro,” but we have to admit that it does look good with pastel-coloured retro appliances.
Ready, Set, Cook!
The one thing that all of these microwaves have in common is that they’re not overloaded with features that greatly add to their price. Compact microwave ovens like these, which don’t cost a lot, aren’t meant to be appliances which you’d be proud to own for a decade or longer; they’re meant to be functional and save space. Lots of manufacturers offer microwaves at that level, but many of them won’t last a year, let alone ten.
This selection of ovens gives you a nice selection to choose from in the compact and countertop categories – from the most basic to a few which are relatively rich in features considering their very reasonable price. If your microwave is primarily used to heat up a plate of leftovers, bake a potato and make some popcorn, any one of these models will do the job nicely. If you need more, the Russell Hobbs Digital or the Panasonic give you all you could expect for a microwave that fits nicely on a counter, without breaking the bank. After reading this guide you should be able to confidently choose the best microwave for your home.