Microwave Ovens: Quick Picks

Best Buys & New Technology

A rather meaningless energy-efficiency standard, more models that you can place somewhere besides the countertop and connectivity highlight today’s microwave-oven marketplace.

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"Energy efficiency” has come to microwave ovens, or microwaves. Department of Energy’s (DOE) first efficiency standard for microwaves took effect in June 2016. The standard specifies a maximum standby power of 1 watt for countertop microwaves and combination microwaves and 2.2 watts for models that are installed over the range and elsewhere. (Standby power refers to the electricity that an electronic device draws when it isn’t in use.)

“DOE found that microwaves were consuming more power in standby mode than they needed to,” says Joanna Mauer of Appliance Standards Awareness Project, which advocates for energy efficiency in appliances. Consequently, manufacturers reworked the majority of their microwave lines in the past 2 years.

However, the standard won’t affect your energy bill significantly: DOE estimates that the standard will yield an average of $3 per year in savings. Fortunately, the changes that manufacturers made so their models meet the standard didn’t seem to affect the models’ pricing. Our research indicates that microwave prices were stable overall during the past 2 years, and existing models that have advanced cooking features dropped in price. Those trends are expected to continue.

FREE SPACE. Shirley Hood, who is a microwaves expert at retailer Abt, reports that interest jumped substantially among shoppers at her megastore in microwaves that are designed to be installed over a range or built in to drawers and elsewhere. Observations such as this one might be driving manufacturers’ expansion of the number of these models.

In the over-the-range category, we counted 75 models, which is up from 61 in 2015. During the same period, the number of countertop models dropped to 101 from 138. Microwaves that you install over the range or elsewhere now make up 32 percent of sales, says Gaurav Shukla of Allied Market Research, which tracks the microwaves industry. Shukla says his company expects that these models will account for a larger percentage of microwave sales during the next 2 years.

We found that manufacturers increasingly are developing over-the-range microwaves that have controls that are positioned along the bottom of the door. This design allows shorter people to access the controls more easily, and the design also makes the controls look less conspicuous.

Meanwhile, experts agree that built-in units are moving to less obvious spaces, such as below the counter, in their own microwave “garages” and sometimes in other spaces, such as a pantry. “I’m an open-house enthusiast, and in the past couple of years, I’ve really noticed that microwaves are not just off the counter but in unusual spots, like the side of an island or behind its own door,” says Julie Garden-Robinson, who is a food and nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University Extension Service.

New microwaves that you install over the range or elsewhere also have a slightly larger cavity than do their predecessors, according to Jim Sandusky of manufacturer Sharp. “Over-the-range microwaves used to be mostly between 1.1 and 1.5 cubic feet, but in the past 2 years, we are seeing many more at 1.6 cubic feet and higher.” Our research bears this out, as 45 out of 75 over-the-range microwaves that we found have a capacity that’s larger than 1.6 cubic feet, up to a maximum of 2.2 cubic feet. Such a capacity accommodates larger dishes and increases your ability to use the microwave as a range’s companion.

Manufacturers also are tinkering with the functionality of their microwaves that are for over-the-range and built-in installation.

Scan-to-Cook technology that’s in Whirlpool’s WMHA9019HZ over-the range microwave ($999) allows users to scan the bar code on several packaged food items via a smartphone and Whirlpool’s mobile app, so they can have recommended directions, temperatures and cooking times sent to the microwave. The app and the microwave always are in sync, according to Whirlpool, and the company continually updates its library of packaged foods and related instructions.

The app also lets users save favorite recipes. For example, if you want to make your pizza a little crispier next time, you can customize the Scan-to-Cook settings, and it will remember specific preferences. The company plans to launch the microwave in fall 2017. Whirlpool tells us that it’s seeking to expand its offerings in regard to “automated cooking.”

“Connected appliances are a growing trend,” says Mike Brown of GE Appliances. The clock that’s on one GE over-the-range microwave syncs with the clock that’s on a compatible GE oven and range, and the microwave’s light or vent hood will activate when the range is turned on, if they choose that option. “Smart technologies we are working on are all about assisted cooking, meaning finding ways to make the microwave better at helping consumers with total meal preparation,” Brown says.

COUNTERPOINT. More countertop microwaves are available in black stainless steel than was the case 2 years ago. We found 21 models in that color, compared with just six in 2015. However, the average black stainless steel model costs an additional $50–$100 compared with a stainless steel model.

In May 2017, Sharp introduced a line of countertop microwaves that have a popcorn-settings button that’s tuned to specific package sizes of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn. Sharp says it worked closely with the popcorn company to create an algorithm that would achieve the popping quality that Orville Redenbacher targets. This popcorn-settings button also can be used when you cook other brands of popcorn, although Sandusky recommends that you follow the instructions on the popcorn package, which often discourages consumers from using the popcorn button in favor of manual timing. These models are priced from $119 to $140.

However, Hood is dubious about this feature and pins the collaboration on clever marketing. “It’s about staying ahead of the competition,” she says. “At the end of the day, all people really want is for options to work. Most microwaves do that without fancy labeling.”

More significant is LG’s addition of inverter technology, which creates more-even cooking by modulating the amount of energy that’s used during the cooking process. Previously, just GE and Panasonic microwaves that started at about $155 had that technology. In May 2017, LG introduced its inverter technology in its NeoChef line of countertop microwaves, which are priced from $129 to $219. LG’s inverter technology delivers variable power control that’s between 300 and 1,200 watts.

The line also uses humidity-sensing technology that helps it to determine when food is cooked appropriately and automatically turns off the microwave, according to LG spokesperson Taryn Brucia. The technology measures water vapor and controls the microwave throughout the cooking process.

STEAMY SCENE. We found that more microwaves than ever before have steam cleaning or easy-clean interior coatings that inhibit staining and make cleaning them easier. “Everyone knows how stuck-on food can get, so I think it’s great that manufacturers are following the oven and dryer industries, which have had steam cleaning for several years,” Hood says.

In 2015, we noted only one over-the-range combination oven that had steam-cleaning technology. That number has increased to nine, and experts agree that more will be launched in the next 2 years, which makes for steamier prospects for the future.

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