Our pick for the best cheap microwave oven is, well, whichever is the cheapest. Currently, that's the RCA RMW733 microwave, available for $45 at Walmart.
When it comes to low-cost microwaves, they're all the same. Seriously. We bought the cheapest microwaves available at each of a handful of major stores. When they arrived, we realized that we were looking at four copies of the same piece of hardware—all 0.7 cubic feet, all 700 watts, all black, differentiated by nothing more than a few superficial tweaks.
The brand names are different, and there are some small aesthetic distinctions in their doors and control panels. Their prices vary quite a bit, too. But after comparing the specs and, y'know, just looking at the design, we're convinced that all of these microwaves are built by the same manufacturer (Galanz), probably at the same factory on the same assembly line.
Why These Microwaves?
How did we end up testing such similar microwaves? I took a trip down memory lane, back to the beginning of my sophomore year of college. My roommates and I were moving into our first apartment, and we decided that we needed a microwave, because that's a thing that people have.
On move-in day, our plan was to head down to one of the big-box stores near campus—didn't matter which one—and grab the cheapest model off the shelf. Fate intervened, and we stopped at the Salvation Army first, where we bought a big ol' used GE microwave for like 15 bucks.
But what if St. Salvo, the patron saint of secondhand goods, had not intervened? Would it have mattered whether we bought the cheapest microwave at Kmart, or at Best Buy, or at Walmart? Would any of them have been any good at all?
So for this roundup, we bought the cheapest microwave we could find at each of those three national retailers, plus one from Amazon.com. (We also ordered one from Target, but it was damaged in transit, and a replacement didn't arrive in time for testing.)
We did a few simple, real-world tests to get a feel for how these machines would perform in a dorm room, college apartment, or post-college pad.
In a nutshell, we didn't measure any significant performance differences between any of the microwaves—they all did a decent job. There was variance, but it fell within a reasonable margin of error. The spectrum of results probably had more to do with inconsistencies in food samples we used and how we placed them in the microwave, than the effectiveness of the actual hardware.
As we've noted, these are all the same model of microwave with different badges and buttons slapped onto the front, so it's no surprise that performance is basically indistinguishable from model to model.
First up was the classic popcorn test. We weighed an unpopped bag of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn, nuked it for the recommended amount of time (75 seconds, in this case—it was a small bag, designed to cook very quickly), weighed the unpopped kernels, and subtracted out the weight of the empty bag. We ran this test twice for each microwave.
There was a ton of variation from sample to sample. The RCA model, for example, popped 40% of one bag, and 55% of another. The Sunbeam popped 60% of its first bag, and only 30% of its second. That said, the average popping percentage for both rounds of testing was very similar for all the microwaves—between 45% and 52%, within a reasonable margin of error given then sample size. It also never felt like any of the bags were significantly under-popped—each one came out of the microwave puffed up and reeking of fake butter.
Next, we made Lean Cuisine frozen macaroni and cheese. We followed the cooking directions, and then gave each sample a pass-fail grade—if we couldn't stir out most of the cold spots, it failed.
All of the samples passed the test, except for the first tray that we cooked in the Haier microwave. It had a few more cold spots than the others, even after a good stir. But the second sample in the Haier microwave passed, so the first result probably had more to do with the temperature of the frozen meal before we cooked it, rather than the microwave itself.
These results are all pretty solid, given the context. The cooking directions recommend an 1100-watt microwave, but even these cheap-o 700-watt models can get frozen food warm enough to eat.
How to Buy
With identical specs and no obvious performance advantages, there isn't really a best microwave. But we can tell you that buying the cheapest microwave possible is a safe bet. Follow your wallet on this one. Or just buy one off of Craigslist, or from a secondhand store.