What you should know about buying a microwave oven

Microwave oven

The humble microwave oven sits in every kitchen. When it comes to buying a new one, it turns out there is a lot more than to consider than you may have thought. Most of us just use a microwave for reheating food but did you know you can use them to prove bread dough, ferment yogurt, melt or soften ingredients to use in cooking?  Some models even contain grills, air fryers, steamers and full convection ovens to help make cooking more efficient. In this how-to buy guide, we’ll explain your options and help you choose the best microwave oven for your needs.

Style and design

There is an excellent chance that, one way or another, a microwave will take pride of place in your kitchen. You may have a dedicated alcove, and if so, don’t forget to make a note of its size to ensure that your new microwave will fit. In other kitchens, it may just sit on the bench. While there’s nothing wrong with this, your available bench space should guide the size of microwave you chose. In a small kitchen, for example, a large microwave could take up half the available bench space.

In general, a more expensive, highly specified model will also have a more upmarket finish and include features like a glass or stainless (vs plastic) door. Where once most microwave ovens were white, now most microwaves are black. It is possible to get silver, colours or stainless steel to match other appliances or decor you may have.

The last consideration is the display and controls. These could be analogue switches and dials, digital or a combination of both. A LED display usually indicates things like the remaining time, cooking mode or instructions. The display itself can really affect the microwave design, so it’s worth checking what it looks like when turned on as well. For example, the LEDs may be a bright green, blue or amber, and could clash with your colour scheme.

Tip: Some brands offer trim kits that enable you to integrate your microwave into your cabinetry to give you that stylish built-in look.

Standard and inverter microwaves

A microwave is called a microwave because it produces “microwave” frequencies that bounce around the inside of your machine and cause water molecules inside your food to vibrate.  This vibration creates heat that cooks the food or liquid.

There are two microwave oven types including a ‘standard’ microwave and an ‘inverter’ variant. The difference is the way that the ovens regulate microwave energy. If you run an oven at full power, the microwave beam needs to be on the entire time. However, if you are defrosting food, the microwave’s power should be lower, otherwise it will cook rather than defrost. A standard microwave oven regulates its total cooking power by producing energy in bursts. For example, it might be on at full power for 1 second and off for 4 seconds when defrosting. An inverter microwave, on the other hand, has the ability to adjust the energy of the beam, so it doesn’t need to switch off and back on to reduce its power.

The benefit of the inverter microwave is more even heat, so cooking at various power levels and defrosting will be better. Inverter microwaves are more expensive but, in our opinion, worth the investment.

Combo microwave ovens

You can reduce the number of appliances or add other functionality to your kitchen by opting for a ‘combo’ microwave with additional functionality. You can select models that add:

  • Grill – a grill element in the top of the microwave to grill food
  • Steam – Using a water tank, this gives you the ability to steam food
  • Convection – Your microwave can function as a convection oven as well as a microwave. Cooking can be done separately or combined to accelerate the process. Some models will include a grill as well.

Size & Power

Microwaves come in different physical sizes, so ensure it will fit where you plan to place it.  Also, allow for ventilation space behind and around your unit. Their capacity or how big they are to cook with is measured in litres, representing the internal volume. In Australia, you will find a range from around 20 litres to 56 litres. 

The turntable width of your microwave will also determine how big an item will fit inside. For example, measure your largest dish or plate and make sure it will fit.

Tip: A 20-25 litre unit is suitable for reheating a single plate of dinner.  A 30-40 litre oven is good for actually using the microwave to prepare meals. A good family size microwave is 27 litres.

The speed that a microwave works is influenced by its power output, measured in Watts. Microwaves typically range from 800 to 1300 Watts.  Note higher power is faster but can also be too powerful for what you are trying to do. You might need to reduce the power in the settings for cooking a specific dish.

Tip: When the instructions on a microwave meal say heat for 90 seconds, check what wattage microwave those instructions assume. You may have to slightly increase or decrease that time to ensure you do not under or overcook.

Functions and Controls

Before we buy a car, we always take it for a test drive first. Have you considered how the menu works and how easy it may be to operate when purchasing a microwave?  Is there a one-touch button that will easily allow you to heat up your dinner or a glass of milk? Some dial-based ovens are quick and easy to use too. Try it out before you buy!

Key features you should consider when making your decision:

  • LED oven light – Look for a unit with a bright LED light inside, which will never need to be changed
  • Stable turntable – This might sound obvious but placing a cup of water on an unstable platform only leads to disaster. Open the door and feel if the turntable is stable.
  • Cleaning – Look for a microwave with an easy-clean finish and one with minimal crevices for food to gather in. Some models have curved rear walls, which reduce the corners allowing easier cleaning.
  • Food sensor – This sensor measures the humidity level of your food. It overrides the timing function to ensure the best results
  • Preset programs – This can vary from one touch reheating  (using an inbuilt sensor) to selecting fish from a menu that will be automatically cooked.  The real test here is how simple will it be for you to use these functions
  • Warranty – A microwave machine should last you 5 years or more. Indeed, some brands offer up to a 10-year warranty on specific parts only.  In the unlikely event that your microwave does fail and your warranty has run out, you may still be able to get your microwave repaired under Australian Consumer Law (More details here).

What microwave oven should I buy?

GadgetGuy has reviewed several microwave ovens. As there are plenty of choices models available in retailers, we recommend you go with the more popular brands and not the cheapest. Walking around a retailer, you will soon see which brands are popular as they will have more display models than others. Also, look out for stickers from consumer advocacy groups who do testing and have subsequently found a certain model to be better.

After reviewing this article, make some notes on what is important to you and how much you want to spend. Once you have picked your model, don’t be afraid to haggle on price.