Home microwaves have been around since 1946—when they were known as “radaranges”—and have only gained in popularity since. What would we do without our countertop microwave to reheat food, make popcorn, and defrost meat in a jiffy? These rectangular machines, the size of a couple of shoeboxes, work by blasting food with electromagnetic radiation, revving up molecules to produce thermal energy: in other words, heat.
Microwaves offer faster cook times than stovetops, though you sometimes sacrifice texture and flavor. Newer microwaves attempt to solve these woes with technology that promises more consistent, less soggy, better-tasting results. With one of these stylish, high-tech models on your countertop, you may be surprised what your microwave can do for you!
- BEST OVERALL: Toshiba EM131A5C-BS Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor
- BEST BUDGET: COMFEE’ EM720CPL-PM Countertop Microwave Oven
- BEST FEATURES: Emerson 1.2 CU. FT. 1100W Griller Microwave Oven
- BEST SMALL: Galanz GLCMKA07BKR-07 Retro Microwave
- BEST LARGE-CAPACITY: Sharp Electronics ZSMC2242DS Countertop Microwave
- BEST FAST-HEATING: Panasonic NN-SN75LW Countertop Microwave oven
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Countertop Microwave
A good-quality microwave should hold up to frequent daily use without smoking, steaming, overheating, or, worst of all, catching fire. These hazards sometimes come down to machine malfunctions but often have to do with improper use. Be sure to read instructions before plugging in your new microwave, and never place these 13 things inside, including anything with metal, like takeout containers and foil packaging. Beyond common sense safety, you’ll want to investigate the following features before selecting a microwave for your household.
Power and Capacity
Microwaves with higher wattage provide more power and shorten cook time overall. Look for microwaves that have anywhere from 700 to 1,250 watts. For home use, countertop microwaves need at least 700 watts to swiftly and evenly heat food. Just remember that higher wattage also comes at a cost, with high-powered models costing upwards of $150.
In terms of interior capacity, countertop microwaves run the gamut from 0.5 to a little over 2 cubic feet. For dorm rooms, efficiency apartments, and other small spaces, a microwave with at least 0.7 cubic feet of space is sufficient. For most households, however, microwaves in the 1 to 2 cubic foot range are most popular. This allows you to heat serving platters and storage containers efficiently, without transferring food to smaller plates.
Conventional microwaves work by producing electromagnetic waves in a tube called a magnetron. These microwaves are reflected in the interior and absorbed into the food, causing it to heat. The inner chamber of a microwave is made of steel, coated with acrylic enamel (typically in white) for durability, easy cleaning, and good visibility. A new microwave should also have interior LED display lights, which illuminate food as it warms so you can monitor it easily without opening the door. A microwave also needs a revolving glass turntable, which should be removable for regular cleaning.
Convection microwaves have an additional heating element and fan, which distributes heat evenly throughout the chamber. This has the benefit of more consistent, even temperatures and better-cooked results. Convection microwaves have at least two modes: standard mode (for reheating and basic cooking) and convection mode (for baking, grilling, broiling, and more).
Controls and Settings
Beyond a sturdy metal shell, adequate wattage, and a large, easy-to-clean interior, there are a number of other features that set a microwave apart from the pack:
- LED display: Microwaves are controlled via electronic panels on their exterior front. On higher-quality microwaves, these buttons may be lit by LEDs, providing better visibility in all lighting conditions.
- Preset functions: Beyond quick start, many microwaves offer at least five or six preset options, so you can perfectly heat up pizza, make popcorn, and bake a potato without wondering what time or temperature to choose. Also, look for defrost settings that give you the option of thawing food by time or weight.
- Humidity sensors: In high-quality microwaves, smart sensors monitor humidity levels in food, automatically adjusting the temperature and time accordingly. This saves you the trouble of monitoring your meals too closely and also prevents overdone, soggy, and ruined food.
- Eco mode: Microwaves are typically plugged in all the time, so some brands have invented a handy eco setting, slashing standby power usage by up to 50 percent. A small win for the environment, the eco mode also decreases your power bill by a tiny amount.
- Smart tech: Smart-enabled microwaves pair with your home assistant and smartphone app. This way, you can operate your microwave by voice or remotely—say, if you’re busy helping your kids with their homework.
- Mute feature: A microwave’s insistent beeping signals your food is done. But that sound can be annoying and downright disturbing, especially if you have a housemate or are using the microwave at odd hours. Some models feature a mute button for extra-quiet operation.
- Child safety lock: If you’ve got kids or overly curious pets, the ability to lock your microwave is a safety feature you’ll want to have.
Microwaves aren’t always the most beautiful appliances. They’re boxy and take up about a foot of counter space, give or take. That said, with the right color and finish, your countertop oven can blend right into the background, making its presence a natural fit with its surroundings.
One option is to match your microwave’s exterior color and finish to your other big kitchen appliances: cooking range, oven, freezer/fridge, and dishwasher. Most microwaves come in black, and many brands also offer white and stainless steel options.
A second option is to draw the right kind of attention to your microwave, choosing a model that adds a pop of color and flair. Certain brands design microwaves with bold, retro styling in colors including red, blue, and green. These machines are intended to be seen and should have pride of place on your countertop.
Our Top Picks
Revamp your cooking routine with a microwave that not only heats food but prepares healthy meals without sacrificing quality or taste. The following recommendations are based on safe functioning, optimal power and size, user-friendliness, precision engineering, and outstanding features including eco mode and customizable settings.
Toshiba makes a range of microwaves, but their EM131A5C-BS model has some of the best features, capacity, and performance for most households. This 1.2 cubic foot microwave operates at 1,100 watts, with 10 power settings, an electronic clock, and a kitchen timer. Its pre-programmed sensor menu provides an easy selection of six favorite settings for optimally heating pizza, potatoes, veggies, and more. It also has two defrost settings: by time and by weight. A built-in sensor monitors humidity levels and automatically adjusts cooking time and temperature for delicious, unsoggy meals in record time.
The digital display is easy to read, and the inner glass turntable is a generous 12.4 inches. The interior cavity is easy to clean—just wipe with a damp cloth regularly. The Toshiba microwave has an energy-saving eco mode, which gives the option to save energy consumption and minimize standby power usage by up to 50 percent.
Fortunately, there’s no need to spend a fortune on a good microwave. Comfee’s budget version comes in black or white, with heavy-duty plastic and stainless steel construction. With a 0.7 cubic foot capacity, it operates at 700 watts and offers 11 power levels. No need to guess how much time or power you’ll need: Just select one of the easy auto-cook functions for popcorn, potatoes, pizza, veggies, beverages, and reheating leftovers. It also has a one-touch express operation and two defrost settings.
Other features include a mute button, digital clock, kitchen timer, and child safety lock. The glass turntable is a roomy 12.4 inches, and bright interior lights allow you to monitor food. Like other premium grade microwaves, Comfee’s comes with an energy-saving eco mode, allowing you to save up to 50 percent of standby power consumption.
If you’re looking for a microwave with a little more cooking cred, check out the Emerson griller unit. This 1.2 cubic foot, 1,100 watt countertop oven can not only cook and reheat most foods, but it can also can grill or broil meat and veggies, thanks to a convection heating element that ensures consistent, well-done results. One thing to keep in mind: The convection function only heats up to 425 degrees, so you may have to keep certain dishes in a little longer to ensure they’re fully cooked.
With the Emerson, you also get other beneficial features, including nine pre-programmed settings, 11 power levels, two defrost settings, a digital clock and timer, and a removable glass turntable. Perfect for large households thanks to its power, capacity, and versatility in the kitchen, the Emerson features a child safety lock, making it a good choice for families with kids.
The Galanz GLCMKA07BKR-07 has a name that’s almost bigger than the device itself. This mini, 0.7 cubic foot microwave makes a great gift for the college student or young professional in your life. But with its retro styling, it’s so cute you may just keep it for yourself. Operating at a standard 700 watts, this Galanz microwave has six power levels, defrost settings, a safety lock, and an easy to read LED display. Bright interior lights allow you to monitor food without opening the door. The glass turntable rotates smoothly, 360 degrees, to ensure consistently heated results. Choose from one of four vintage hues: Retro Red, Bebop Blue, Surf Green, and Vinyl Black.
Sharp Electronics’ ZSMC2242DS microwave oven is a workhorse—but it’s a workhorse that looks good, too. This premium stainless steel model offers 2.2 cubic feet of capacity, making it ideal for cooking and reheating larger serving trays, family-style meals, and more. The inner glass turntable is a very large 16 inches in diameter and is removable for easy cleaning. This 1,200 watt microwave provides 10 power levels, which you can control via the external LED display. Blue lights on the display panel provide clear visibility, even in the dark. With built-in sensors to ensure food cooks evenly, you can also program six presets to reheat food at the touch of a button. This is a great choice for large households, offices, and people who enjoy big dinner parties.
If waiting around for food to heat is not your strong suit (and who has time to waste, anyway?), the Panasonic NN-SN75LW countertop microwave may be just the thing. It uses patented “cyclonic wave inverter technology,” which is just a fancy way of saying it cooks a wide range of foods really fast, without sacrificing precision or even, consistent heating. Even its defrost settings are super-fast, allowing you to thaw meat in record time. This 1.6 cubic foot, 1,250 watt machine offers maximum interior space for entrées, with 15 preset options for optimally cooking fresh and frozen meals. That said, it is also designed to take up minimum countertop space, with a compact outer shell combined with maximum interior capacity.
FAQs About Countertop Microwaves
If your old microwave is smelling a little funky or making too much noise, it may be time to get a replacement. New models are quieter, more compact, and offer ample interior space, even as they save counter space. Learn how to choose the right microwave for you and where to place it to your best advantage.
Q. What is a standard-size countertop microwave?
Look for an interior capacity of between 0.7 and 2.2 cubic feet. The exterior shell can range anywhere from 16 to 18 inches in length, a foot or less in depth, and up to a foot in height.
Q. How much clearance does a countertop microwave need?
You’ll need an inch of clearance in the back and at least three inches on the sides, top, and front. Also consider how far the door swings out to avoid hitting other cabinets, your dish rack, or other countertop appliances.
Q. How do you make a countertop microwave look built-in?
Choose a color and finish that matches your other appliances, and position your microwave as close to the wall as possible. If you have shelving, you can also place it higher up, as long as it’s within safe reach of an electrical outlet.
Q. When should I replace my microwave?
Look for the signs of a dying microwave, including taking extra-long to heat food, buttons that don’t work properly, noisiness, and cracked or broken parts. With proper care, microwaves can last upward of 10 years. Keep in mind that replacing and recycling an old and malfunctioning microwave can often be more cost-effective than getting it fixed.
Q. Can you hang a countertop microwave?
Yes, but be careful! You’ll want to purchase a microwave oven mounting kit with wall brackets and anchors to ensure it is solidly fixed. Another option is to buy a built-in microwave if you have the space and setup for it.