Zap It!

Cheapism surveyed the market and read scores of reviews by experts and consumers to identify the best cheap microwaves. Most of our compact countertop picks cost around $100 or less and meet reviewers' expectations for features, thorough cooking or heating, and ease of use. In our full buying guide, we explain what we looked for and what potential buyers should consider in determining the best microwave for their budget.

Prices and availability are subject to change.

See full Buying Guide

Our Top Pick

Toshiba EM925A5A-SS

Toshiba EM925A5A-SS Review

Est. Price: $75 on Amazon
Buy It

Our Picks
Toshiba EM925A5A-SS

Toshiba EM925A5A-SS Review

Est. Price: $75 on Amazon
Buy It

Pros:

  • Moderately powerful 900-watt microwave.
  • Cooks food very evenly, according to professional tests.
  • Measuring just 19.2 x 15.9 x 11.5 inches, this compact microwave is ideal for tighter spaces.
  • 10 power levels and 6 presets.
  • Mute button to silence alert tones.
  • Modern, attractive stainless steel finish.

Cons:

  • Some quality-control complaints.
  • A few owners say it’s very noisy.
  • 1-year warranty is on the shorter side.

Takeaway: Many experts, including reviewers at both Wirecutter and Good Housekeeping, recommend this countertop Toshiba microwave oven and say it strikes a good balance between size, power, and cooking performance in the kitchen. With just a 0.9-cubic-foot interior capacity, it’s on the small side, but there’s still room for a 10.6-inch turntable that can fit a 9-inch-square baking dish. In testing conducted by Wirecutter, the Toshiba performed very well, cooking and reheating a variety of foods and beverages to perfection; although, as with most cheaper microwaves, it didn’t defrost quite as well.

Most consumer feedback is quite positive, and owners appreciate features like the preprogrammed settings for everything from popcorn to pizza and multiple quick-start options (1 to 6 minutes). There’s even the option to program multi-stage cooking. Reviewers praise the sleek looks and chunky handle, which is easier to use than the push-button door openers on many small microwaves. However, there is a small but vocal minority of buyers who complain of appliances that either malfunctioned or quit working within weeks of purchase. We also read a number of complaints that this Toshiba microwave is particularly noisy. But even some unhappy owners concede that Toshiba’s customer support was generally helpful and, as reviewers at Wirecutter point out, Toshiba is one of the few manufacturers that doesn’t force the owner to pay for shipping a defective microwave for repairs. A black stainless steel model, the Toshiba EM925A5A-BS, is available on Amazon for just a bit more.

Toshiba EM925A5A-SS

Toshiba EM925A5A-SS Review

Est. Price: $75 on Amazon
Buy It

Pros:

  • Moderately powerful 900-watt microwave.
  • Cooks food very evenly, according to professional tests.
  • Measuring just 19.2 x 15.9 x 11.5 inches, this compact microwave is ideal for tighter spaces.
  • 10 power levels and 6 presets.
  • Mute button to silence alert tones.
  • Modern, attractive stainless steel finish.

Cons:

  • Some quality-control complaints.
  • A few owners say it’s very noisy.
  • 1-year warranty is on the shorter side.

Takeaway: Many experts, including reviewers at both Wirecutter and Good Housekeeping, recommend this countertop Toshiba microwave oven and say it strikes a good balance between size, power, and cooking performance in the kitchen. With just a 0.9-cubic-foot interior capacity, it’s on the small side, but there’s still room for a 10.6-inch turntable that can fit a 9-inch-square baking dish. In testing conducted by Wirecutter, the Toshiba performed very well, cooking and reheating a variety of foods and beverages to perfection; although, as with most cheaper microwaves, it didn’t defrost quite as well.

Most consumer feedback is quite positive, and owners appreciate features like the preprogrammed settings for everything from popcorn to pizza and multiple quick-start options (1 to 6 minutes). There’s even the option to program multi-stage cooking. Reviewers praise the sleek looks and chunky handle, which is easier to use than the push-button door openers on many small microwaves. However, there is a small but vocal minority of buyers who complain of appliances that either malfunctioned or quit working within weeks of purchase. We also read a number of complaints that this Toshiba microwave is particularly noisy. But even some unhappy owners concede that Toshiba’s customer support was generally helpful and, as reviewers at Wirecutter point out, Toshiba is one of the few manufacturers that doesn’t force the owner to pay for shipping a defective microwave for repairs. A black stainless steel model, the Toshiba EM925A5A-BS, is available on Amazon for just a bit more.

Hamilton Beach EM720CGA-PM

Hamilton Beach EM720CGA-PM Review

Est. Price: $40 at Walmart
Buy It

Pros:

  • 700-watt microwave covers the essentials despite the cheap price.
  • At 17.3 x 13.4 x 10.2 inches, it’s a good size for an RV, mobile home, dorm, or apartment kitchen.
  • Available in 3 colors — white, black, or red — to match decor.

Cons:

  • Door can be difficult to open, according to many reviewers.
  • Control panel isn’t always responsive.
  • Condensation is apt to form on the window, some owners say.

Takeaway: This Walmart-exclusive model gets very positive owner reviews — something that can’t be said of many other 0.7-cubic-foot microwave ovens this cheap. It’s a good fit as a “starter” appliance or a low-use unit for a small office kitchen or vacation home. Although it lacks the frills and fancy stainless steel styling of some models, it’s got the same range of basic features that pricier countertop microwaves have, including two defrost modes, six presets, and 10 power levels. With just 700 watts, cooking times tend to be longer than some users say they expect, although on the plus side, it won’t overload an RV’s power system. For simple tasks, like popping popcorn, cooking a frozen entree, or reheating leftover food, the Hamilton Beach performs as well as expected.

Small microwaves like this aren’t necessarily known for sturdy construction, and several owners say this unit is so lightweight they have to use one hand to open the door and the other to steady the unit. Others complain that the keypad requires a particularly firm touch. Early demises — and even internal sparking — also are not unheard of, and the one-year warranty offers scant coverage. But, given the incredibly low price, and more than a thousand 5-star reviews posted on Walmart’s website, the positives appear to outweigh potential negatives.

Hamilton Beach EM720CGA-PM

Hamilton Beach EM720CGA-PM Review

Est. Price: $40 at Walmart
Buy It

Pros:

  • 700-watt microwave covers the essentials despite the cheap price.
  • At 17.3 x 13.4 x 10.2 inches, it’s a good size for an RV, mobile home, dorm, or apartment kitchen.
  • Available in 3 colors — white, black, or red — to match decor.

Cons:

  • Door can be difficult to open, according to many reviewers.
  • Control panel isn’t always responsive.
  • Condensation is apt to form on the window, some owners say.

Takeaway: This Walmart-exclusive model gets very positive owner reviews — something that can’t be said of many other 0.7-cubic-foot microwave ovens this cheap. It’s a good fit as a “starter” appliance or a low-use unit for a small office kitchen or vacation home. Although it lacks the frills and fancy stainless steel styling of some models, it’s got the same range of basic features that pricier countertop microwaves have, including two defrost modes, six presets, and 10 power levels. With just 700 watts, cooking times tend to be longer than some users say they expect, although on the plus side, it won’t overload an RV’s power system. For simple tasks, like popping popcorn, cooking a frozen entree, or reheating leftover food, the Hamilton Beach performs as well as expected.

Small microwaves like this aren’t necessarily known for sturdy construction, and several owners say this unit is so lightweight they have to use one hand to open the door and the other to steady the unit. Others complain that the keypad requires a particularly firm touch. Early demises — and even internal sparking — also are not unheard of, and the one-year warranty offers scant coverage. But, given the incredibly low price, and more than a thousand 5-star reviews posted on Walmart’s website, the positives appear to outweigh potential negatives.

GE JES1145SHSS

GE JES1145SHSS Review

Est. Price: $110 at Best Buy
Buy It

Pros:

  • Named one of the best compact microwaves by Top Ten Reviews.
  • Slightly more powerful and spacious than our top choice for best value, the Toshiba EM925A5A-SS, with 950 watts and a 1.1-cubic-foot interior.
  • Heats and defrosts food well for a model this size, according to tests.
  • 12.75-inch turntable can accommodate a mixing bowl or large dinner plate.
  • Despite a wider footprint, measuring 20.3 x 15.6 x 12 inches, a low profile helps it fit under cabinets.
  • Comes in 3 finishes, including stainless steel.

Cons:

  • Door-release button takes effort to use, some owners say.
  • Control panel labels are prone to wear, according to user reviews.
  • 1-year warranty is relatively short.

Takeaway: If you need something slightly larger but don’t want a full-size model in your kitchen, this 1.1-cubic-foot GE microwave oven is an excellent buy, according to expert reviews. The 950-watt cooking power is a bit low for a microwave of its size, but it’s a step up from smaller microwaves, and testers at Top Ten Reviews say the GE JES1145SHSS is among the top performers they’ve tried. With the usual 10 power levels, two defrost options (time and weight), and six auto-cook buttons (popcorn, frozen vegetable, pizza, etc.), where this microwave stands out is in its ability to capably handle nearly any task thrown at it. In testing it excelled at popping corn thoroughly and evenly and was able to heat up most frozen foods within the recommended time (baking potatoes, however, may take a bit of trial and error to achieve perfection).

Most consumers give this GE countertop microwave oven high marks as well, although we did see some complaints that it’s noisy when cooking and that the white-on-gray text on the control panel can be hard to read — both somewhat subjective critiques. If a stainless steel finish doesn’t suit your fancy, this microwave is also available in black or white.

GE JES1145SHSS

GE JES1145SHSS Review

Est. Price: $110 at Best Buy
Buy It

Pros:

  • Named one of the best compact microwaves by Top Ten Reviews.
  • Slightly more powerful and spacious than our top choice for best value, the Toshiba EM925A5A-SS, with 950 watts and a 1.1-cubic-foot interior.
  • Heats and defrosts food well for a model this size, according to tests.
  • 12.75-inch turntable can accommodate a mixing bowl or large dinner plate.
  • Despite a wider footprint, measuring 20.3 x 15.6 x 12 inches, a low profile helps it fit under cabinets.
  • Comes in 3 finishes, including stainless steel.

Cons:

  • Door-release button takes effort to use, some owners say.
  • Control panel labels are prone to wear, according to user reviews.
  • 1-year warranty is relatively short.

Takeaway: If you need something slightly larger but don’t want a full-size model in your kitchen, this 1.1-cubic-foot GE microwave oven is an excellent buy, according to expert reviews. The 950-watt cooking power is a bit low for a microwave of its size, but it’s a step up from smaller microwaves, and testers at Top Ten Reviews say the GE JES1145SHSS is among the top performers they’ve tried. With the usual 10 power levels, two defrost options (time and weight), and six auto-cook buttons (popcorn, frozen vegetable, pizza, etc.), where this microwave stands out is in its ability to capably handle nearly any task thrown at it. In testing it excelled at popping corn thoroughly and evenly and was able to heat up most frozen foods within the recommended time (baking potatoes, however, may take a bit of trial and error to achieve perfection).

Most consumers give this GE countertop microwave oven high marks as well, although we did see some complaints that it’s noisy when cooking and that the white-on-gray text on the control panel can be hard to read — both somewhat subjective critiques. If a stainless steel finish doesn’t suit your fancy, this microwave is also available in black or white.

Magic Chef HMM1611ST2

Magic Chef HMM1611ST2 Review

Est. Price: $90 at Home Depot
Buy It

Pros:

  • Very inexpensive for a microwave of this size and cooking wattage: 1.6 cubic feet and 1,100 watts.
  • 13.4-inch turntable can fit baking dishes and large dinner plates easily.
  • 11 power levels provide customization.
  • Kitchen timer is a nice extra.
  • 8-year warranty on the magnetron is longer than average (1 year on all other parts).

Cons:

  • Many owners complain of noise.
  • Gray interior and dim light makes it hard to see food, some reviewers say.
  • A handful of reviews claim the microwave stopped working after a few months.

Takeaway: If you and your family use a microwave oven on a daily basis, this MagicChef countertop model is a relatively powerful option that strikes the right balance of price and performance, reviewers say. There’s plenty of space inside, making even casserole prep an easy chore, and users appreciate its simple functionality.

While the previous version of the Magic Chef HMM1611ST earned very solid marks from owners, earning an average of 4.4 stars from more than 1,000 consumers on Home Depot’s website, the brand recently gave this unit a facelift, making some cosmetic changes to the door and control panel and lowering the height by an inch so it fits in tight kitchen spaces more easily. Magic Chef also upped the number of power levels from 10 to 11. But key features were left as is, like the previous roster of presets (six) and defrost modes (three, although one is technically just 30% power), so we expect this version to prove just as capable — and popular — as its predecessor. A Home Depot exclusive, this Magic Chef microwave oven measures 21.8 x 19.2 x 12.8 inches and is available in both black and stainless steel.

Magic Chef HMM1611ST2

Magic Chef HMM1611ST2 Review

Est. Price: $90 at Home Depot
Buy It

Pros:

  • Very inexpensive for a microwave of this size and cooking wattage: 1.6 cubic feet and 1,100 watts.
  • 13.4-inch turntable can fit baking dishes and large dinner plates easily.
  • 11 power levels provide customization.
  • Kitchen timer is a nice extra.
  • 8-year warranty on the magnetron is longer than average (1 year on all other parts).

Cons:

  • Many owners complain of noise.
  • Gray interior and dim light makes it hard to see food, some reviewers say.
  • A handful of reviews claim the microwave stopped working after a few months.

Takeaway: If you and your family use a microwave oven on a daily basis, this MagicChef countertop model is a relatively powerful option that strikes the right balance of price and performance, reviewers say. There’s plenty of space inside, making even casserole prep an easy chore, and users appreciate its simple functionality.

While the previous version of the Magic Chef HMM1611ST earned very solid marks from owners, earning an average of 4.4 stars from more than 1,000 consumers on Home Depot’s website, the brand recently gave this unit a facelift, making some cosmetic changes to the door and control panel and lowering the height by an inch so it fits in tight kitchen spaces more easily. Magic Chef also upped the number of power levels from 10 to 11. But key features were left as is, like the previous roster of presets (six) and defrost modes (three, although one is technically just 30% power), so we expect this version to prove just as capable — and popular — as its predecessor. A Home Depot exclusive, this Magic Chef microwave oven measures 21.8 x 19.2 x 12.8 inches and is available in both black and stainless steel.

Panasonic NN-SN736

Panasonic NN-SN736 Review

Est. Price: $183 at Walmart
Buy It

Pros:

  • 1,250 watts and 1.6 cubic feet of interior space make this a formidable cooking appliance.
  • 15-inch turntable can accommodate 9-by-15-inch baking dish.
  • 10 power levels and 14 sensor cooking modes.
  • Lots of extra features — like turbo defrost, delay start, keep warm, and multi-stage cooking — not found on cheaper models.
  • Can be mounted on a wall or in a cabinet with an optional trim kit.

Cons:

  • Struggled to fully cook a baked potato and had some issues with thawing in Wirecutter testing.
  • A handful of owners say the microwave died within 2 years.
  • Like most microwaves this powerful, it takes up a lot of counter space, at 21.9 x 19.4 x 12 inches.
  • Unlike most pricey microwaves, comes in only black and white; no stainless steel option.

Takeaway: In terms of power and size, this Panasonic countertop microwave oven dominates all other models in our review. It’s also big on features, with a host of conveniences meant to make quick and easy work of food prep. Steam sensors allow the microwave to automatically adjust cook time and power output for best results, and Panasonic’s proprietary Inverter Technology is supposed to modulate cooking temperatures better and cook more evenly than conventional models.

While professional testers at Consumer Reports and Wirecutter are a bit divided on this microwave oven’s performance — reviewers at Wirecutter are a bit more skeptical of its cooking and defrosting capabilities (they say it overcooked meat set to thaw) — a majority of buyers at Amazon, Home Depot, and Walmart give the Panasonic an enthusiastic thumbs-up. In fact, among Panasonic NN-SN736 owners, the most consistent gripes have little to do with how it cooks food and more to do with quality: We saw reports of turntables that rotated unevenly; microwave doors that were hard to open or felt cheap; and a control panel that was difficult for some to use. This Panasonic microwave oven carries a one-year warranty on parts and labor and five years on the magnetron.

Panasonic NN-SN736

Panasonic NN-SN736 Review

Est. Price: $183 at Walmart
Buy It

Pros:

  • 1,250 watts and 1.6 cubic feet of interior space make this a formidable cooking appliance.
  • 15-inch turntable can accommodate 9-by-15-inch baking dish.
  • 10 power levels and 14 sensor cooking modes.
  • Lots of extra features — like turbo defrost, delay start, keep warm, and multi-stage cooking — not found on cheaper models.
  • Can be mounted on a wall or in a cabinet with an optional trim kit.

Cons:

  • Struggled to fully cook a baked potato and had some issues with thawing in Wirecutter testing.
  • A handful of owners say the microwave died within 2 years.
  • Like most microwaves this powerful, it takes up a lot of counter space, at 21.9 x 19.4 x 12 inches.
  • Unlike most pricey microwaves, comes in only black and white; no stainless steel option.

Takeaway: In terms of power and size, this Panasonic countertop microwave oven dominates all other models in our review. It’s also big on features, with a host of conveniences meant to make quick and easy work of food prep. Steam sensors allow the microwave to automatically adjust cook time and power output for best results, and Panasonic’s proprietary Inverter Technology is supposed to modulate cooking temperatures better and cook more evenly than conventional models.

While professional testers at Consumer Reports and Wirecutter are a bit divided on this microwave oven’s performance — reviewers at Wirecutter are a bit more skeptical of its cooking and defrosting capabilities (they say it overcooked meat set to thaw) — a majority of buyers at Amazon, Home Depot, and Walmart give the Panasonic an enthusiastic thumbs-up. In fact, among Panasonic NN-SN736 owners, the most consistent gripes have little to do with how it cooks food and more to do with quality: We saw reports of turntables that rotated unevenly; microwave doors that were hard to open or felt cheap; and a control panel that was difficult for some to use. This Panasonic microwave oven carries a one-year warranty on parts and labor and five years on the magnetron.

Daewoo KOR07R3ZE

Daewoo KOR07R3ZE Review

Est. Price: $70 on Amazon
Buy It

Pros:

  • Controls are simple and intuitive, according to reviews.
  • Streamlined vintage-yet-modern design and color options are appealing, buyers say.
  • Covers the basics with 5 power levels and 5 auto cook options, as well as a dedicated popcorn button and 2 defrost modes.
  • Energy saving: Automatically shuts off when not in use.

Cons:

  • Fewer features than other, cheaper microwaves.
  • No clock.
  • Feels flimsy to some owners.
  • Short 1-year warranty.

Takeaway: Owners say the real appeal of this Daewoo microwave, the latest in the brand's retro series, is its looks. They insist that the sleek “vintage” design and quirky cream, red, minty aqua, and "city blue" color options (no stainless steel here) add a welcome dash of flair to their kitchens. As with any 700-watt microwave, cooking times are longer than they would be with more powerful models, something several otherwise-satisfied reviewers of the previous model complain about. It also lacks the ability to fine-tune power levels and other settings to the same extent as other cheap microwaves — and don’t even think about sophisticated sensor cook options.

With a capacity of just 0.7 cubic feet and a 10-inch turntable, this microwave oven won’t accommodate oversize dinner plates. But for a dorm room, a vacation home, or a cramped city apartment, this compact model (17.6 x 12.8 x 10.2 inches) is sufficient for small kitchen tasks like reheating leftovers or cooking soup. And, judging by its many fans, it’s clearly big on charm.

Cuisinart CMW-200

Cuisinart CMW-200 Review

Est. Price: $209 on Amazon
Buy It

Pros:

  • Relatively low price for a convection microwave oven (but still not cheap).
  • Rack allows two items to be cooked at once.
  • 9 preset cooking options and 8 different cooking functions including grill mode; can be programmed for multi-stage cooking.
  • 3-year warranty is longer than average.

Cons:

  • Defrosts unevenly and slowly, according to some reviews.
  • More than a few owners complain about build quality and poor customer service.

Takeaway: Convection microwaves combine wave-based and heat-based technologies to cook foods faster and more evenly inside, while at the same time browning and crisping the outside of food — something conventional microwaves can’t do. Convection models also tend to be more expensive, regularly selling for $300 or more. Price alone makes this Cuisinart microwave a winner for some frugal consumers, even if its overall performance is only so-so.

The 1,000-watt microwave oven itself gets good marks for being powerful and speedy, but the convection function takes a long time to heat up, some owners grouse, and a few people note that frozen foods have proved a particular challenge (a baking sheet helps, other reviewers say). It has a generous 1.2-cubic-foot capacity, and the 12-inch turntable can easily handle a medium-size baking dish or a large dinner plate, yet its exterior dimensions (21.2 x 19 x 12.2 inches) are compact enough to fit in some boats and RVs, according to owner reviews we read on Amazon.

Cuisinart CMW-200

Cuisinart CMW-200 Review

Est. Price: $209 on Amazon
Buy It

Pros:

  • Relatively low price for a convection microwave oven (but still not cheap).
  • Rack allows two items to be cooked at once.
  • 9 preset cooking options and 8 different cooking functions including grill mode; can be programmed for multi-stage cooking.
  • 3-year warranty is longer than average.

Cons:

  • Defrosts unevenly and slowly, according to some reviews.
  • More than a few owners complain about build quality and poor customer service.

Takeaway: Convection microwaves combine wave-based and heat-based technologies to cook foods faster and more evenly inside, while at the same time browning and crisping the outside of food — something conventional microwaves can’t do. Convection models also tend to be more expensive, regularly selling for $300 or more. Price alone makes this Cuisinart microwave a winner for some frugal consumers, even if its overall performance is only so-so.

The 1,000-watt microwave oven itself gets good marks for being powerful and speedy, but the convection function takes a long time to heat up, some owners grouse, and a few people note that frozen foods have proved a particular challenge (a baking sheet helps, other reviewers say). It has a generous 1.2-cubic-foot capacity, and the 12-inch turntable can easily handle a medium-size baking dish or a large dinner plate, yet its exterior dimensions (21.2 x 19 x 12.2 inches) are compact enough to fit in some boats and RVs, according to owner reviews we read on Amazon.

Daewoo KOR07R3ZE

Daewoo KOR07R3ZE Review

Est. Price: $70 on Amazon
Buy It

Pros:

  • Controls are simple and intuitive, according to reviews.
  • Streamlined vintage-yet-modern design and color options are appealing, buyers say.
  • Covers the basics with 5 power levels and 5 auto cook options, as well as a dedicated popcorn button and 2 defrost modes.
  • Energy saving: Automatically shuts off when not in use.

Cons:

  • Fewer features than other, cheaper microwaves.
  • No clock.
  • Feels flimsy to some owners.
  • Short 1-year warranty.

Takeaway: Owners say the real appeal of this Daewoo microwave, the latest in the brand's retro series, is its looks. They insist that the sleek “vintage” design and quirky cream, red, minty aqua, and "city blue" color options (no stainless steel here) add a welcome dash of flair to their kitchens. As with any 700-watt microwave, cooking times are longer than they would be with more powerful models, something several otherwise-satisfied reviewers of the previous model complain about. It also lacks the ability to fine-tune power levels and other settings to the same extent as other cheap microwaves — and don’t even think about sophisticated sensor cook options.

With a capacity of just 0.7 cubic feet and a 10-inch turntable, this microwave oven won’t accommodate oversize dinner plates. But for a dorm room, a vacation home, or a cramped city apartment, this compact model (17.6 x 12.8 x 10.2 inches) is sufficient for small kitchen tasks like reheating leftovers or cooking soup. And, judging by its many fans, it’s clearly big on charm.

Buying Guide

Buying Guide

There are myriad compact and countertop microwaves available, with stalwarts such as Panasonic, GE, Sharp, and Toshiba dominating the market. There is also no shortage of professional reviews of top models from reliable sources including Wirecutter, Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, and more. Unfortunately, few of them spend much time rating and reviewing cheaper microwaves, and there’s not much consensus among pro tests, either. To get a better sense of the best cheap microwaves on the market, and how well these microwaves perform in actual home kitchens, we also looked at the top-selling microwaves at Amazon, Home Depot, and Best Buy, as well as owner feedback at these and other major retailers.

Compared with high-end models, budget-priced microwaves are short on frills but long on value. You don’t get dozens of preprogrammed settings, extra-large capacity with cooking racks, and sensors that adjust power levels and cooking times, but many budget-conscious and time-crunched cooks consider these extraneous conveniences anyway. What the best cheap microwaves do provide is reliable simplicity for an economy price and enough features to make quick work of food prep, including quick-touch settings for foods such as pizza, defrost functions, preprogrammed power levels, and often a time-extender button. Cheap microwaves typically come in basic black or white plastic finishes, but many are now available in stainless steel or other colors (red is popular), which may cost extra. The industry standard for warranties is one year.

Dimensions and Capacity

Size varies considerably among smaller countertop microwaves, so shop carefully and with overhead cabinet clearance in mind. Compact microwave ovens are ideal for dorm rooms, offices, RVs, apartment kitchens, or anywhere space is tight. These typically measure about 17 inches across, 14 inches deep, and 10 inches high, give or take an inch or two. For slightly larger, midsize countertop models, figure on a footprint of about 20 inches across, 15 inches deep, and 12 inches high, with plenty of deviation from the norm. Capacity ranges from about 0.7 cubic feet to around 1.6 cubic feet. At minimum, you should be able to fit a 10-inch dinner plate inside.

Wattage

Microwaves’ power, measured in watts, is associated with size, to a degree, and with cooking/heating speed. Compact microwaves typically make do with from 700 to 900 watts, while midsize countertop models generally run on 1,000 watts; sometimes a bit less, sometimes a bit more. Full-size variations often use 1,100 or 1,200 watts of power, and a handful climb higher. Theoretically, the more power a microwave has, the faster it can defrost or heat food. A 700-watt microwave takes about twice as long to boil a cup of water as a 1,200-watt model.

However, experts at Wirecutter suggest that wattage alone doesn’t tell the entire story, and how quickly a microwave can heat food — and, more importantly, how evenly food is cooked — is also affected by the technologies that different microwaves use and how adeptly they’re programmed. Convection microwaves, for example, use microwave radiation along with an internal heating element (like traditional ovens) and a fan that circulates the heated air, cooking food faster and providing even more consistent results. They also have the advantage of being able to bake and brown the outside of food. Better still, these appliances can be used as a microwave, as an oven, or with the microwave and convection functions in combination. Not surprisingly, this technology carries a much higher price tag.

Settings

Operating at full throttle often is unnecessary, and the most practical cheap microwave ovens come with 10 power levels that suit different cooking tasks. Each setting represents the amount of time that the magnetron (the component that converts electrons into microwaves) cycles on and off. At level 5, say, the unit produces microwaves 50 percent of the time and is otherwise passive. Some models even have multi-stage cooking ability, allowing users to program them to shift power levels during the cooking cycle.

Another useful feature, not found in a lot of inexpensive microwave ovens, is sensor cook functions that automatically adjust power levels and cooking times based on the amount of moisture or steam emitted by food. However, in lieu of fancy sensors, even budget countertop microwaves boast preprogrammed one-touch settings for edibles like baked potatoes, fresh vegetables, pizza, or hot beverages. These one-touch buttons are an alternative to cooking/heating with power levels and help to eliminate the guesswork in deciding how much power to use. Some microwaves have more such buttons than others.

One of the great advantages for home cooks is using a microwave to thaw dinner straight from the freezer. It’s not unheard of, though, to wind up with cooked edges on a lump of frozen ground meat and a partially frozen midsection after the end of a defrost cycle. Always remember to remove the food from its packaging and move it around (flip it over, break it up) throughout the defrosting process. Defrosting is best done at 30% power, and virtually all countertop microwaves have a defrost function that lets users choose time or weight as the determining factor.

Another set of buttons that add convenience to these appliances are express keys that allow quick access to standard cook times (e.g., just press 1 for one minute of cooking) and time-add buttons that tack on 30 to 60 seconds of extra zapping if needed.

Turntables

All but the cheapest microwave ovens come with a turntable, which rotates food to ensure even cooking. The turntable should be large enough to allow your plate, baking dish, or food package to rotate freely. Many measure 12 to 13 inches in diameter, though some are as small as 10 inches. Most rest on a ring or little feet set into the floor of the oven, so the turntable may slip out of alignment. Some pricier models come with a recessed turntable, which keeps it secure and leaves more internal space for food.