Cooking Without the Bulk!
In the world of compact microwaves, manufacturers have historically focused on price, with appearance being an afterthought. With more people than ever moving into smaller spaces we decided it was time to look into compact microwaves that won’t make you skimp on appearance. Armed with the knowledge that most people only use a fraction of the features found in pricier models, we also decided to keep things cheap. Our top picks...
- OUR TAKEPROSCONS
- OUR TAKE
- A stylish, compact and inexpensive unit that is our top pick. Despite its size, this microwave still has 900 watts of cooking power and a 0.9 cu. ft. cooking area, meaning it can handle most kitchen tasks. Even better, is its affordable price.
- Compact dimensions will work in almost any kitchen (19.2" w x 15.9" d x 11.5" h).
- 0.9 cu. ft. cooking area (perfect for couples).
- Turntable cooking surface.
- "Start" serves as quick 30-second button.
- Competitively priced.
- We prefer the styling of the Panasonic NN-SN686S.
- We wish it had a "1 lb Defrost" button like its slightly larger cousin, the EM131A5C-CS.
- OUR TAKE
- Our favorite styling and the power of a large-size unit make this our "performance" runner up. It would have been our first choice but for consumer complaints about the unit being noisy and unsatisfactory post-purchase support.
- Our favorite styling in this comparison and lightweight to boot (~25 lbs).
- 1.2 cu. ft. cooking area.
- Most powerful device in our comparison at 1,200 watts.
- Turntable cooking surface and inverter technology.
- Quick 30-seconds button.
- Consumer reports of unit being noisy and of unsatisfactory manufacturer post-purchase support.
- On the larger side (20.7" w x 15.8" d x 12.3" h).
- Highest list price at the time of our comparison.
- OUR TAKE
- Great styling, super compact and inexpensive. This unit has great functionality and sufficient power at 950 watts. If the Toshiba or Panasonic NN-SN686S are too big for the space you have, go with this unit, our "super compact" runner up.
- Powerful for its size at 950 watts.
- Comes with an easy-to-use control knob (more on this below).
- Compact and lightweight (19.2" w x 14.8" d x 11" h and ~21lbs).
- Turntable cooking surface.
- Consumer reports of unsatisfactory post-purchase support.
- Cooking area only 0.8 cu. ft. (0.9 cu. ft. is the low end threshold for mid-size unit).
- Quick 1-minute button—we prefer a shorter quick 30-seconds button.
- OUR TAKE
- An affordable microwave, with cool retro styling and a small size that will fit almost anywhere. Unfortunately, at only 700 watts this cute unit is a bit too under-powered for us to recommend for most consumers.
- Unique retro styling.
- Most compact unit in our comparison (17.6" w x 12.7" d x 10.6" h) and also lightweight (~23lbs).
- Turntable cooking surface.
- Priced at the lower end of our comparison.
- Least powerful unit in our comparison at 700 watts.
- Retro styling may not work in some kitchens (we love it!).
- Cooking area only 0.7 cu. ft.
How We Chose
Style, Size and Cooking Power
As is evident from the title of today's review, we focused on microwaves that are stylish, compact and inexpensive. Our determination as to what items made the cut for being "stylish" was made in conjunction with an interior designer who has won numerous American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) awards for kitchen design. And our threshold for being a compact unit was set at 21 inches wide, 16 inches deep and 13 inches high—although there are no hard and fast guidelines on where a mid-size unit crosses over into a compact unit, we feel these measurements hit the mark.
In addition to our baseline requirements of price, style and size, we also looked to attributes such as wattage and those features our research shows matter most (more on these in the following section).
Weighing all this, we chose the Toshiba EM925A5A-BS as our top pick. This device is compact, inexpensive and has enough cooking power (900 watts) and cooking area (0.9 cu. ft.) to tackle almost any home kitchen task. In short, it represents a great value and you won't feel like you've sacrificed much for going compact.
Our "performance" runner up, the Panasonic NN-SN686S, offers more features than our top pick but is larger and pricier. Still, this great unit has our favorite styling in this comparison and the power of many large-size units at 1,200 watts. If it will fit and you have the budget, it is a solid choice.
The Panasonic NN-SN372S is our "super compact" runner up. It is powerful at 950 watts, has great styling and a turn dial time input, which we find is great for those who struggle with seeing and pressing high gloss "button" style inputs. With only a 1-minute quick button (as opposed to our preferred 30 seconds) as well as a 0.8 cu. ft. cooking area, it isn't as versatile as the NN-SN686S. That being said, there are trade-off with trying to fit into smaller spaces and we feel this microwave hits the sweet spot for a more compact unit.
If you need to go ultra compact, must have retro styling or only use your microwave for the most basic tasks (e.g. heating beverages and Hot Pockets), the Daewoo will do the job. Ultimately, it lost out in our comparison because we feel 700 watts is just at the threshold for when a unit has insufficient cooking power, limiting the microwaves usefulness. This being said, if you don't need a microwave for "heavy lift" cooking purposes, this is a cool unit that will fit almost anywhere.
Some Useful Information
What Features You Need
These simple features are must haves that we recommend looking for:
30 Second Buttons – Look for a microwave with a 30-second button that you can press multiple times to add cooking time in 30-second intervals. You will use this feature frequently—after all, it's easier to press this button twice then to press "1", "0", "0", "Cook" for a one minute zap.
Also, we prefer 30-second buttons over 1-minute buttons, which can add too much cook time for smaller items.
Turntable Cooking Surface – Microwaves work by by generating electromagnetic waves that cause the water particles within your food to quickly vibrate. This generates heat and cooks your food. It really is pretty simple.
So why the long explanation and what the heck does this have to do with a turntable cooking surface? Well, the strength and speed of the electromagnetic waves in your microwave varies within the microwave's cooking box, making it important to move the food around so that it is cooked evenly throughout. This is why a turntable-style or moving-tray-style cooking surface is necessary in all but the most high end commercial microwaves.
Wattage – More on this below, but suffice it to say you will generally want your microwave to be at least 900 watts.
What Features You Don't
These bells and whistles just aren't worth the extra dough:
Shortcut Buttons – When looking at a "fancy" microwave, you will often see that much of the user interface is taken up with shortcut buttons for specific foods or functions (e.g. pizza, defrost, etc.). For these to actually work, you will then need to input the weight of the item and how often do you know that?* Anyways, our experience is that these buttons are seldom used. Look for a unit with just the basics that you will actually use and you will save big—did we mention we like 30-second buttons . . .
*This is actually the reason we wish the Toshiba had a "1 lb Defrost" button like its larger cousin the EM131A5C-CS as mentioned in the review grid above.*
WiFi Connectivity – We're an internet company after all, but seriously, why connect your microwave to WiFi? It's not like things take a long time to cook in there or as if you can leave food requiring refrigeration in your microwave all day so that it is cooked the minute you walk in the door. Our advice for now is to keep your microwave "dumb."
Why All The Fuss About Wattage?
A microwaves "wattage" means the amount of power generated by its magnetron, which is the device that disperses electromagnetic waves into the microwave’s cooking area. As mentioned above, these electromagnetic waves heat your food by causing water particles in the food to rapidly vibrate, releasing heat. The higher the wattage in your microwave, the faster those particles will vibrate, causing the cooking time to decrease. In addition, when the wattage in your microwave is too low—right around the 700-watt line is where we begin seeing complaints—it can result in the food not cooking as uniformly.
To provide a more concrete example, a 1,200-watt microwave will boil water in less than 2 minutes, an 800-watt microwave in about 2.5 minutes and a 700-watt microwave in about 3 minutes. This example is only for reference—as you will see below, NEVER attempt to boil water in your microwave as it can result in severe injury.
Never Boil Liquids in Your Microwave – As discussed above, microwaves heat food by quickly vibrating the water molecules within the food. This way of cooking can super heat items while causing little disturbance to the item being cooked. With liquids (especially water), this means they can be heated past their boiling point without actually boiling. Once you disturb a liquid superheated in this way—by for instance grabbing it out of the microwave—the disturbance can cause the liquid to flash boil. Flash boiling can result in a nearly explosive reaction which flings boiling hot liquid in all directions—causing severe injuries and burns.
Use Microwave Safe Containers – It is very important to only use containers that are “microwave safe” in your microwave. Using items like aluminum foil and metal pans can cause fires and damage to your microwave. Conversely, certain plastics will not be able to withstand the heat of microwaved foods and will melt as a result. Always make sure to check that the containers you place in your microwave are microwave safe! Duh!
Make Sure Your Door Closes – Never use a microwave that will run when the door is still open as there is the possibility this can emit microwave radiation. Although microwaves are designed to prevent the magnetron from emitting microwaves when the door is open, if yours starts operating in this way the FDA recommends you immediately stop using the device.
Additional Safety Information – You can read more about these and other helpful microwave safety tips on the Federal Drug Administration's website.
Common Consumer Complaints About Microwaves
What They Mean and What To Do About Them
Two issues we found are common with many compact microwaves are consumer complaints that (1) they do not properly heat items and (2) they quickly malfunction.
Issues with Heating Items – Given their smaller size, compact microwaves do not have space for larger, more powerful magnetrons. As a result, they tend to have less wattage than their mid-to-large size counterparts and—as mentioned in our discussion on wattage above—will take longer to heat items. As also discussed above, when wattage figures approach 700 watts and below, items may not heat as uniformly as with higher wattage units.
So how to avoid this issue? You guessed it—pay attention to wattage figures and try to purchase something with 900 watts or more if you plan on using your microwave for any amount of "heavy lift" cooking.
Issues with Malfunctions – With respect to malfunctions (an issue common for microwaves of any size), many consumers share the common perception that microwaves are sturdy devices that can take a beating. In fact, the average useful life of a microwave is somewhere between 9 and 10 years. While this may seem like a long time, it is actually on the lower end for many common kitchen appliances, indicating these devices are more malfunction prone than would seem to be the case at first glance. This makes sense when one thinks about the numerous issues that can cause a microwave to malfunction—anything from blown fuses to faulty door latches, to shorted transformers and magnetrons.
So why is the web full of stories of consumers having experienced issues with their microwaves malfunctioning? At ReviewDECIDE we believe this is likely attributable to a combination of sample bias (i.e. individuals who experience a malfunctioning microwave are upset and motivated to write about their experiences, especially due to the common perception these devices will work forever) and the fact that microwaves are relatively fragile devices as borne out by their comparatively short useful lives.
So we know microwaves are relatively fragile, but what to do about it? While we do not often recommend aftermarket warranties at ReviewDECIDE, microwaves are somewhat of an exception. All of the units in our comparison come with a 1 year warranty against defects in material and workmanship (the Panasonics also include a 5 year warranty for the mangetron, but not the related labor, which is still only warrantied for one year). Given this relatively short period of time and the propensity of microwaves to malfunction, we would recommend purchasing an optional 4 year aftermarket warranty for these items. At the time of our our comparison, these ranged from approximately $5 to $15 for the the items in this review. In fact, it may actually be better if you microwave malfunctions after the manufacturer's warranty expires, because aftermarket warranties will generally cover your shipping to and from the repair location (if the malfunction occurs while still under the manufacturer's warranty, aftermarket warranty providers will generally direct you to the manufacturer which will rarely cover shipping expenses).
We started ReviewDECIDE on the premise that a great deal of the information required to properly evaluate a given product is already right in front of your (and our) eyes. In fact there is too much information! A crucial skill necessary to picking the best products is instead the ability to cull through the available information, focusing on what should really drive a purchase decision.
To make those crucial determinations as to what matters and what doesn’t, we begin by thinking through what really matters to us when we use a particular product. We then use the that type of product to further refine the features we care about and that we think you will care about too. Next we search the web, looking to manufacturer’s websites, product specifications, consumer reports, expert blogs, research reports and the like to obtain crucial insights and the facts.
Finally, we distill the results of our research and combine it with our own experiences as consumers, professionals, techies, mothers, fathers, hobbyists, designers, software engineers, attorneys (sorry) and more. Ultimately, this process results in the reviews we present to you. We hope you enjoy!
- Photo of woman shopping for microwaves from iStock.
- Photo of woman taking meal out of microwave from iStock.
- Photo of hand pressing button on microwave from iStock.
- Photo of smartphone and microwave from iStock.
- Photo of man after electric shock from iStock.
- Photo of smoking microwave from iStock.
- Photo of keyboard with "complaints" key from iStock.
- Photo of group jumping in office from iStock.
*Images have been cropped and/or resized.