Microwave Ovens: Warming Up to New Ideas

Plus: Best Buys in Countertop, Over-the-Range & Combination Models

Manufacturers and engineers have ideas that could kick life into a stagnant microwave market. That’s good news, because analysts tell us that between a lack of innovation and consumers turning to alternative countertop appliances, the microwave is in need of serious reheating.

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Microwave ovens, or microwaves, which are used commonly to reheat leftovers, are beginning to look a little like leftovers themselves. Countertop competition, such as rice cookers and slow cookers, increasingly seem to be viewed as better options for what consumers turned to microwaves in the past. When you combine that with a relative lack of new technology, the microwave market appears to be rather stale in 2015.

INVERTED USE. The use of inverter technology, one of the few innovations that the microwave industry cooked up in recent years, already seems to be on the wane.

Panasonic has used the technology in its microwaves for at least 6 years, and 3 years ago, we found at least three other manufacturers that had inverter-driven models. Today, Panasonic still uses it in models that start at $150, but only one other microwave, by GE, has inverter technology.

Inverters are used in other home appliances, such as air conditioners, to regulate the amount of energy that an appliance uses. The same principle applies in microwaves: An inverter modulates the amount of energy that’s used in the cooking process to achieve a more even heating level.

Conventional microwaves typically cook in bursts, because the magnetron, which accelerates water particles in food to generate heat to cook the meal, can deliver only full power. For example, if you set a conventional microwave to cook a dish at 50 percent power, it actually cooks the dish at 100 percent power—it just reduces the amount of time that the full power is used—so it follows bursts of full power with periods of no power. Inverter technology, however, operates steadily at 50 percent power throughout the cooking time, so energy is distributed consistently.

Manufacturers proclaim that this leads to food that’s cooked more evenly. Panasonic even built on the concept in April 2015 through the debut of two microwave lines (starting at $260) that have “cyclonic inverter” technology. These models not only distribute an even flow of energy inside of the microwave, but they also radiate energy in a three-dimensional spherical pattern that’s designed to contact food evenly. Julie Baumann of Panasonic says the cooking pattern eliminates “cold spots, undercooked centers and dried-out edges.”

Rick Maksen, who is a microwaves expert with retailer Abt, tells us that an inverter microwave works as advertised. However, he hesitates to say that microwaves that have inverters cook food better or more evenly than do conventional models.

KitchenAid had inverter technology in its microwaves 3 years ago. It tells us that it stopped using the technology, because it was the property of its supplier at the time, and after that partnership ended, so did KitchenAid’s use of inverters. The company adds that it has no plans to return to inverter technology for future models. Whirlpool, which also had inverter-driven microwaves 3 years ago, declined to say why it no longer uses the technology.

“If it was perfect, everybody would do the same thing,” Maksen says.

WARMED OVER. In fact, the uniformity among microwaves that are on the market appears to be one of the chief reasons why consumers buy fewer new models and instead turn to appliances such as rice cookers, slow cookers and toaster ovens.

In an October 2014 report, market-research company Mintel noted that U.S. sales of cooktops, ovens and ranges increased by 11 percent between 2012 and 2014, but U.S. sales of microwaves stayed flat.

John Owen of Mintel, who led the research, says that for the most part, consumers who were surveyed said they don’t use microwaves regularly to prepare meals and that the appliances “play a supporting role in many kitchens,” because the overall impression of microwaved food is that it tastes poor. When you throw in the fact that the majority of consumers are more mindful to eat fresh items and cook health-conscious meals, Owen says a microwave typically isn’t the first kitchen appliance that springs to mind when it comes to making a meal.

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