We know you’re reading this to find out which affordable microwave you should buy, but we’ll let you in on a little secret—most of them are essentially the same.
How do we know? Well, we’re experts at testing appliances and we've been behind the scenes at some famous appliance companies. Most hire a less-famous manufacturer to make microwaves for them, then put their well-known name on the front. We've even debated whether it's necessary to even formally test microwaves, but we wouldn't be Reviewed if we didn't!
As we suspected, the scores were very close, but testing found a few performance weaknesses here and there. After a series of tests from popping popcorn to making Hungry Man frozen meals, and taking into consideration that you're looking to spend less, we discovered the Magic Chef 1.1 Cubic-Foot Countertop Microwave(available at Amazon for $83.28) is the best affordable microwave you can buy. It's well-designed, has top-notch performance, and has a significantly low price.
Ultimately, you should pick the countertop microwave oven with the wattage you need, the control panel that makes the most sense for your cooking needs, and in a size that fits your space. So be sure to scroll through all our recommendations for all our reviews. But if you don’t know where to start, our recommendations are here to help.
These are the best affordable countertop microwaves we tested:
Magic Chef 1.1 Cubic-Foot Countertop Microwave
GE 1.1 Cubic-Foot Mid-Size Microwave
Hamilton Beach EM031M2ZC-X1
Toshiba EM131A5C Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor
Toshiba EM925A5A Microwave Oven
Magic Chef MCM990ST 900W Countertop Oven with Stainless Steel Front
Black+Decker EM925AB9 Digital Microwave Oven
LG NeoChef with Smart Inverter and EasyClean
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
In our initial research for this guide, an online reviewer wrote this mid-sized microwave from Magic Chef is “built like a tank,” and we can’t find any evidence to the contrary. The Magic Chef passed all our food tests with flying colors, and it's one of the few microwaves at this low price point that also 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 microwave, with a shiny exterior and almost retro-looking control panel, it gets the job done. With 1000 watts and a size of 1.1 cubic feet, it's enough power and space to handle most microwave tasks, except perhaps cooking an entire chicken. With 10 power levels and essential presets, this microwave, which is available in black, white, and stainless steel finishes, has everything you need.
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 evenness of heating and durability as reported in user reviews. Overall user scores and brand history were also taken into account.
People don’t really think much about their microwaves, beyond their ability to heat up food or beverages in a timely fashion. However, there are a number of neat and useful features built in to each microwave. To try to get a grip on how well a given microwave can actually do its job, we subjected each microwave to a battery of food tests, including:
Water test: To get a sense for the raw power available in each microwave, we warmed up three cups of water for two minutes on the microwave’s maximum power setting, and then measured the temperature of the water. Typically, more powerful microwaves will result in hotter water temperatures.
Tomato sauce test: Most advanced microwaves, such as those that have multi-stage cooking abilities (i.e. the ones that have inverter technology built-in), actually have different power levels so that you can adjust the level at which your food is nuked. To see if there is actually a difference in the 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. If the levels corresponded to different levels of heating, then the rate of temperature change between the three stages should be distinctly different.
Popcorn test: One of the most obvious use cases for a microwave is popping popcorn. As a lover of popcorn, I was definitely excited to have a guilt-free reason to pop lots of popcorn. Using the popcorn setting on each microwave, we popped a regular-sized bag of popcorn. Once the microwave stopped, we looked at the popcorn to see if either the bag or the popcorn was burnt, as well as recorded the number of unpopped kernels. The best microwaves can pop your popcorn without burning it and leave only a few kernels unpopped.
Hungry-Man test: If you don’t have the time or effort to spend cooking or assembling a meal kit, a frozen dinner is a tried-and-true way to get cooked food on the table as quickly as possible. 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. If the mashed potatoes came lukewarm while everything else was steaming hot, we docked points from that microwave.
Pork roast test: Reheating leftovers is another common reason to use a microwave. 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 the microwave finished reheating the meat, we touched each piece of pork to determine if it was hot enough to eat.
A good microwave should not only be able to pass these food tests, but it should also make the user experience as easy and forgettable as possible. When assessing each microwave, we looked for common pain points 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 with a wet paper towel. Our favorite microwaves are both effective and user-friendly.
How Much Should I Spend on a Microwave?
A microwave can cost you anywhere from $20 to $2,000, which suggests an equally wide range of performance and quality. But as it turns out, very expensive microwaves aren’t inherently better than the ones that go for around $100, because most microwaves are made by a handful of manufacturers and the core technology is all the same
If you’re drawn to super high-end design, covet a ton of crazy features, want a unit that’s built into your cabinetry, or prefer over-the-range microwaves, you will probably be spending at least $200. But if you’re just looking for a countertop unit that will heat and defrost evenly and has some useful bonus functions, we've found some good options under $100. The rest of your small appliance budget can be spent on a nice multi-cooker, air fryer, or fancy pizza oven.
What Size and Wattage are Right for Me?
The two key microwave specifications are interior size, measured in cubic feet, and wattage. When you’re shopping for a new unit, you’re guaranteed to see these specs listed before anything else. Of course, external dimensions also matter so you know if the microwave will actually fit in your kitchen, but you’ll need to go digging for those details in the product description.
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—unless you plan to cook turkey dinners in your microwave, or reheat entire casserole dishes, you won’t need that much space. If you have a large dish to reheat, the oven will almost always give you better results, anyway.
Compact microwaves (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.
Wattage is usually related but not directly proportional to size—you can expect large microwaves to also have higher wattages. People often believe that the higher the wattage, the better the microwave is, but we’ve found that isn’t always the case. Even though we recommend a baseline of 900-1000 watts for mid-sized microwaves, there are compact microwaves in this roundup with just 700 watts each that heat evenly. A microwave can be overpowered, meaning the high wattage can quickly overcook food.
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. Choose the microwave that balances size and wattage to suit your needs.
Which Presets Matter?
Most microwaves have a full panel of preset options for different modes and types of food. But what does pressing those buttons actually do? And which presets matter?
All microwaves operate on the same basic principle: A magnetron generates microwaves, which excite the water molecules in food and cause them to heat up. So, pressing a button only controls the on and off interval of the magnetron.
When you set a time, your microwave heats up your food at full power for the time you enter on the keypad. But when you press a button like Defrost, Popcorn, or Potato, most microwaves simply alternate between 0 and 100 percent power for a predetermined period of time that can vary from model to model. Find a microwave that includes the presets you use most often, but don’t stress about finding one that has them all—they’re not critical.
Some higher-end models offer up an Eco Mode, but the good folks at Consumer Reports have concluded that "there are easier and much better ways to save money and energy" around your house if you're looking to be more eco-conscious.
One preset that we actually find rather useful is the sensor cook option. Sensor controls on your microwave generally adjust the cook time based on the amount of steam the food gives off, while newer and more expensive models use even more precise technology to determine when food is done cooking. If you want to take the guesswork out of microwaving something, consider a unit with a sensor cook option.
Other Affordable Microwaves We Tested
If this is the first time you're hearing about Galanz, you've probably never gone deep into microwave research. This Chinese company partners with many popular appliance brands to manufacture microwaves. With their considerable experience in creating microwaves for other companies, it's not surprising that the ExpressWave countertop microwave scored well in our performance testing.
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 for those who are used to more traditional microwave control panels that have a keypad. Below the function buttons, the numeric keypad is replaced with an easy-to-use dial that you rotate and press in to select the cook time.
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 the somewhat uncommon 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.
As a 1.1 cubic-foot microwave with 950 watts, this unit is somewhat underpowered, but it isn’t a cause for many complaints in user reviews..
This very affordable Hamilton Beach microwave has multi-stage cooking and includes six preset buttons for popcorn, potato, pizza, frozen vegetables, beverages, and a dinner plate.
While this microwave is pretty average, it comes in a number of finishes, including stainless steel and black stainless steel.
Despite its 1,000 watts of power, we found that this microwave was unable to heat all of the parts of the Hungry Man frozen dinner up to preferred eating temperatures. While you can easily stick it back in the microwave and cook it longer, it’s always best when a microwave gives you the right results the first time.
However, if you just need something to pop popcorn or reheat leftovers, this Hamilton Beach microwave will do the trick.
The Toshiba EM131A5C Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor was our top pick for affordable microwaves before testing based on reviews and specs—but after testing, we’ve found it to be quite average. The 1100 watt, 1.2-cubic-foot unit is mid-powered and aesthetically pleasing, with sensor cooking, multi-stage cooking, and a variety of presets.
If you'd prefer to stick with a Toshiba microwave, this model is the least expensive Toshiba microwave that still 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; judging from the positive online reviews of this microwave, we’re not alone.
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 smaller Toshiba EM925A5A Microwave Oven performed similarly to its larger Toshiba counterpart in testing. The 900 watt, 0.9-cubic-foot microwave 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 microwaves 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.
The Magic Chef MCM990ST Countertop Oven has a stainless steel front, but its looks are still on the dated side. It’s a 900 watt, 0.9-cubic-foot unit, and it performed similarly to the Toshiba EM925A5A, popping popcorn well and adequately heating frozen dinners and tomato sauce.
Features include 10 cooking power levels, auto cook and auto defrost menus, eight cooking modes, and a child safety lock.
This basic microwave includes a push-button door 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, rather than steaming hot. 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 microwaves we tested, this tiny little unit is the only one we vehemently do not recommend.
This 700 watt, 0.7-cubic-foot 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?
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.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.