Here’s a little known secret: Most cheap microwaves are essentially the same—even the best budget models.
That’s because many appliance companies hire a less-famous manufacturer to make countertop models for them, then they put their well-known names on the front. That’s why you shouldn’t pay too much for a microwave.
Still, after testing affordable microwaves, we found some performance differences. The scores were very close, but the Magic Chef 1.1 Cubic-Foot Countertop Microwave (available at Amazon) emerged as the best affordable countertop microwave you can buy. It's well-designed, has top-notch performance, and has a low price.
Ultimately, you should pick a countertop microwave with the wattage you need, the control panel that's easiest for your cooking needs, and in a size that fits your space. So be sure to scroll through all our reviews to find the best one for you.
Magic Chef 1.1 Cubic-Foot Countertop Microwave
Dimensions: 23 x 18.5 x 14.5 inches
Capacity: 1.1 cubic feet
Power: 1000 watts
This mid-sized microwave from Magic Chef passed all our food tests with flying colors, and, as one online reviewer wrote, it’s “built like a tank.”
It's one of the few cheap microwaves we tested that offers multi-stage cooking. That means, for example, you can set the cooking power for the first minute at 40 percent, and then an additional 90 seconds at 50 percent without coming back to the oven to reset the time and power level.
While it's a pretty typical appliance, with a shiny exterior and almost retro-looking control panel, it gets the job done. It has enough power and space to handle most tasks, except perhaps cooking an entire chicken. With 10 power levels and essential presets, this microwave has everything you need.
It's not surprising that the Galanz ExpressWave countertop microwave scored well in our performance testing. This Chinese company partners with many popular appliance brands to manufacture microwaves, so it has considerable experience in creating these appliances.
For a basic microwave with no multi-stage cooking, we liked this microwave quite a bit. It passed all our food tests and its numerical display is very easy to read.
The only thing that gives us pause is that its display could be a bit confusing because this unit doesn’t have a keypad that you’ll find on more traditional microwave control panels.
This mid-sized stainless-steel GE microwave has more than 1,000 five-star reviews on Best Buy for its simplicity, even heating, and attractive design.
Its interior light comes on (and stays on) whenever the microwave is open or running, and its control panel features 12 helpful functions, including a weight defrost function. Just enter the weight of the meat you’re trying to defrost, and it will properly heat your meal without leaving frozen spots.
During our lab testing, this microwave passed all of our cooking tests; however, we discovered the buttons were not very intuitive. Rather than using the "start" button to start the kitchen timer, you have to press the timer button itself to stop or start the countdown.
The Toshiba EM131A5C Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor was our former top pick based on reviews and specs—but after formal testing, we’ve found it to be quite average. Mid-powered and aesthetically pleasing, this unit has sensor cooking, multi-stage cooking, and a variety of presets.
If you'd prefer to stick with a Toshiba microwave, this model is the cheapest that offers a smart sensor, which adjusts the cook time based on how much steam your food releases.
We like its convenient one-touch controls, mutable buzzer, fingerprint-proof front panel, and door that opens by pulling the handle, rather than pressing in a rather stiff door button.
This Toshiba excelled in the pork and popcorn tests, but it really struggled to heat tomato sauce in the time given. It’s easy to use and quieter than other units we tested. Ultimately, this is a very standard microwave.
The Toshiba EM925A5A Microwave Oven performed similarly to its larger counterpart. However, it was better at heating tomato sauce, and was solid in popping popcorn and heating frozen dinners. It also seemed quieter when in use than many countertop models we tested.
The EM925A5A has the same one-touch controls, mutable buzzer, fingerprint-proof front panel, and pull-open door that we love on the EM131A5C. It also comes in the same stainless steel and black stainless finishes. All it’s missing is the sensor cook option, which is reserved for more expensive models.
This is a fine, basic microwave at a very affordable price, but it’s too small for more substantial cooking.
With its partial stainless-steel finish and limited exterior buttons, this sleek LG NeoChef microwave will blend seamlessly into a modern minimalist's dream kitchen. But what you get in design, you lose in function—to achieve its streamlined exterior, the controls are split between the interior and exterior of the microwave.
Inside, the control panel is functional, yet limited. On the outside, there are three main buttons for start/pause, stop/cancel, and a touch slider bar that lets you adjust the cook time using plus and minus buttons (even during cooking).
For those who are used to having a traditional keypad in one place, this might take time to get used to. For us, it was a bit annoying that you had to open the door to do anything more complicated than setting a cook time.
While this microwave passed most of our food tests, it left the Hungry Man mashed potatoes and chicken wings lukewarm. While it's easy to add more cook time, that's obviously not ideal.
This popular compact microwave from AmazonBasics has one feature that sets it apart from every other one we tested—it’s a smart device designed to be used with Alexa.
But of all the appliances we tested, this tiny little unit is the only one we vehemently do not recommend.
This microwave is both too small and too weak to perform many basic tasks. It’s almost too small for a standard bag of popcorn, and in testing, it struggled to pop the popcorn and heat a frozen dinner. It’s also the cheapest unit we tested, and we can see why.
Sure, the Alexa command aspect is a unique bonus feature that allows the microwave’s display panel to stay uncluttered, because you can select from dozens of preset options using just your voice. On the other hand, it’s another thing that can break, and it isn’t that useful. If you have to physically walk over to your microwave to put food in and take food out, what’s the hassle of just pressing a button to start it?
Hi all, my name is Julia MacDougall, and I’m the senior scientist here at Reviewed. Most of the products I test aren’t food-related, so my tummy rumbled in excitement when I saw that I’d be putting these microwaves through their paces.
Prior to our 2020 formal testing, this roundup was researched and edited by Cassidy Olsen, Reviewed's former kitchen and cooking editor. She chose products for this guide by reading hundreds of user reviews, researching price and model history, and considering which kitchen appliances most people need—whether they have a large or a small kitchen.
Microwaves were evaluated for their affordability, size, wattage, and usefulness of features, in addition to the evenness of heating and durability as reported in user reviews. Overall user scores and brand history were also taken into account.
When assessing microwaves, we looked for common issues such as non-responsive buttons, confusing or dimly-lit control panels and buttons, loud humming noises, or anything that would prevent the microwave from being easy to clean.
Our favorite models are both effective and user-friendly. To understand how well the microwaves we tested actually performed, we subjected each to a battery of food tests, including:
Water test: To get a sense of raw power, we warmed up three cups of water for two minutes on the microwave’s maximum power setting, and then measured the water’s temperature. More powerful appliances, typically, will result in hotter water temperatures.
Tomato sauce test: To see if there is a difference in a microwave’s power levels, we heated up one cup of tomato sauce in a ceramic dish for 30 seconds on level 2, 30 seconds on level 6, and 30 seconds on level 10, measuring the temperature in between each stage of heating.
Popcorn test: One of the most obvious use cases is popping popcorn. Using the popcorn setting on each microwave, we popped a regular-sized bag of popcorn. Once it stopped, we looked to see if either the bag or the popcorn was burned. We also recorded the number of unpopped kernels.
Hungry-Man test: To see how well a microwave could heat up a frozen dinner, we followed the microwave directions on the back of the Hungry-Man Boneless Fried Chicken dinner box. When it finished cooking, we looked at each of the four dinner components (two breaded chicken patties, mashed potatoes, corn, and a brownie) to see if they were evenly and thoroughly cooked.
Pork roast test: After thoroughly cooking four small boneless pork loins, we cut them up into smaller slices and let them cool in the fridge overnight. The next day, we put four palm-size pork loin slices on a small plate, covered them with a paper towel, and used the setting on the microwave that was most appropriate for reheating approximately 8 oz. of meat. Once it finished reheating the meat, we touched each piece of pork to determine if it was hot enough to eat.
How to Choose the Best Microwave for You
Cost: A microwave can cost anywhere from $20 to $2,000. As it turns out, very expensive microwaves aren’t inherently better than the ones that go for around $100. If you’re drawn to super high-end design, covet a ton of features, want a unit that’s built into your cabinetry, or prefer over-the-range microwaves, you will probably be spending at least $200.
Power: People often believe that the higher the wattage, the better the microwave, but we’ve found that isn’t always the case. Even though we recommend a baseline of 900-1000 watts for mid-sized models, there are compact microwaves with just 700 watts that heat food evenly—whether you’re baking potatoes, popping popcorn or just trying to reheat leftovers on a dinner plate. Generally, the higher the wattage, the faster your microwave cooks. So if you’re only using your unit for basic tasks or don’t care about lightning speeds, don’t be afraid of lower wattages.
Capacity: Microwave sizes generally range from 0.5 to just over 2 cubic feet. We find that most models over 1.5 cubic feet are needlessly big. Compact models (between 0.5 and 0.9 cubic feet) can suit smaller kitchens, dorms, and anywhere you need to conserve counter space, but may be too small to cook or reheat all types of food. Ultimately, buy whatever size suits your needs, and make sure to compare the exterior dimensions to your actual space before you invest, but remember that bigger isn’t always better.
Julia is the Senior Scientist at Reviewed, which means that she oversees (and continually updates) the testing of products in Reviewed's core categories such as televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, and more. She also determines the testing methods and standards for Reviewed's "The Best Right Now" articles.
Cassidy covered all things cooking as the kitchen editor for Reviewed from 2018 to 2020. An experimental home chef with a healthy distrust of recipes, Cassidy lives by the "Ratatouille" philosophy that, with a few techniques and key tools, anyone can cook. She's produced in-depth reviews and guides on everything from meal kits to stand mixers and the right way to cook an egg.
Our team is here for one purpose: to help you buy the best stuff and love what you own. Our writers, editors, and lab technicians obsess over the products we cover to make sure you're confident and satisfied. Have a different opinion about something we recommend? Email us and we'll compare notes.