Today's busy consumers demand speed and convenience in the kitchen. Cue cheap microwave ovens, which excel at defrosting and reheating foods and popping bags of corn. If these and a few other simple tasks are the primary reasons for using one, the best budget microwaves won't disappoint. Cheapism.com surveyed the market and read scores of reviews to identify midsize countertop models costing less than $100 that meet expectations for features, thorough cooking or heating, and ease of use.
Choosing a Cheap Microwave Oven
The market for microwave ovens overflows with choice. There are dozens of models under $100. Stalwarts such as GE, Panasonic, Sanyo, Sharp, and Kenmore dominate the category across the price spectrum. Other popular brands include Samsung, Danby, Westinghouse, Frigidaire, Magic Chef, Sunbeam, RCA, and Oster.
Our research identified four cheap microwave ovens that meet our criteria for features and performance. They're also suitably sized to deal with the everyday demands of the average household. Top honors go to the Westinghouse WCM11100 (starting at $78) and the Frigidaire FFCM1134L (starting at $93). The two runner-up picks are the Magic Chef HMD1110 (starting at $70) and the Danby DMW111K (starting at $70). One model that doesn't bear up under scrutiny is the Sunbeam SGB8901 (starting at $50).
Compared with high-end models, budget-priced microwaves are short on frills but long on value. Forget about sensors that adjust power levels and cooking times, dozens of preprogrammed settings, roasting and grilling functions, extra-large capacity with cooking racks, and snazzy design. Many reviewers consider these extraneous. 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 edibles such as pizza, defrost functions, preprogrammed power levels, and often a time-extender button.
Microwave Oven Reviews: What We Considered
Regardless how many features are bundled into today's microwaves, they must perform reliably. According to the scores of reviews we pored over on sites such as Best Buy, Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon, and Target, consumers are satisfied if the appliance accomplishes the basic tasks of heating, cooking, and defrosting foods thoroughly and quickly. The models we researched pass this test with particular ease. There are, nevertheless, several specifications and features to take into account when choosing the particular model that best serves the needs of your individual household.
Dimensions and Capacity.Microwave ovens aren't particularly small appliances, and budget models are designed to sit atop a counter or table. Figure on a footprint of about 20 inches across, 15 inches deep, and 12 inches high, with plenty of deviation from the norm. Models with stainless steel exteriors may run slightly larger. Capacity ranges between 0.9 cubic feet and 1.5 cubic feet, which is considered large enough to accommodate the demands of a multi-person household. Our top pick, the Westinghouse WCM11100, boasts that it can handle microwaveable cookware up to 12 inches, and several users, like this one on Amazon, remark on its generous capacity and ability to fit most standard-size plates and food items.
Compact microwave ovens, intended for dorm rooms, offices, and tiny kitchens, tend to be about 17 inches across, 14 inches deep, and 10 inches high, give or take an inch or so on any dimension. The usual capacity is 0.7 cubic feet. Two good buys in this segment are the Magic Chef MCM770 (starting at $55) and the Westinghouse WCM770 (starting at $57). We recommend them for the same reasons as the best models on our list: value for the money.
Space-saving alternatives -- over-the-range models that double as range hoods, microwaves built into cabinets, and microwave oven drawers -- are either mid- or full-size units. Unfortunately for frugal consumers, the prices easily reach into the high triple digits.
Important note: A microwave oven's stated capacity can be misleading. Consumer product experts point out that the usable space is actually less than the specified capacity. It's a good idea to test out a favorite piece of microwave-safe cookware before making a purchase, even if that means going to a store with vessel in hand. When deciding where to place the microwave oven, make sure there's clearance above and around the unit; figure on a minimum 2 inches in the back if the microwave will be sitting in a cabinet.
Power.Power is associated with size, to a degree, and with cooking/heating speed. The more power, the more molecular activity in the food and the faster it warms or cooks. Midsize countertop microwave ovens 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 as high as 1,650 watts. Compact models make do with 600 to 800 watts. Of our top picks, the Frigidaire FFCM1134L is the most powerful at 1,100 watts; its 1.1-cubic foot counterparts all come in at 1,000 watts. Of the more compact microwaves we looked at, the Sunbeam SGB8901 is a 900-watt machine, while the diminutive Magic Chef MCM770 and Westinghouse WCM770 have just 700 watts of power.
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. The Frigidaire FFCM1134L stands out for its multi-stage cooking ability, allowing users to program it to shift power levels during the cooking cycle.
Presets and Defrost Functions.Microwaves have come a long way since the single-function on/off-button days. 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 eliminate the guesswork in deciding how much power to use. Some microwaves have more such buttons than others, and the Sunbeam SGB8901 and both the Magic Chef models we researched are particularly flush with presets. The larger one even has an autocook option for bread.
One of the great advantages for home cooks is using a microwave to thaw dinner straight from the freezer. It's not unheard of, however, 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 percent 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. The latter of these functions are particularly popular, and some users express more than a little dissatisfaction with the Westinghouse units for their inability to easily tack on additional time.