Best microwaves for 2021 – CNET

Microwaves have come a long way over the years. If you’re not familiar with this essential appliance’s origin, here’s a quick rundown: While working on magnetron production for the military in World War II, Percy Spencer, a Raytheon employee and physicist, discovered that a candy bar in his pocket had melted. Spencer quickly filed a patent for an invention based on the strange accident, and the microwave oven was born. 

Now, microwaves are used to warm up leftovers, make popcorn, melt chocolate and steam veggies, among many, many other things. They save valuable time in food prep when compared to a conventional oven and are an integral part of many cooking routines.

Today, modern microwave options come with plenty of size, power, color and function to choose from. You can get a convection microwave, range microwave, smart microwave, standard microwave, drawer microwave or a grill microwave. You even have smart microwave options such as the GE Smart Countertop Microwave and the AmazonBasics Microwave, which work with Alexa voice commands. We put nine popular models to the test to find the best microwave available today. 


Molly Price/CNET

Molly Price/CNET

In all our testing, this 1.6-cubic-foot, 1,100-watt Farberware model was the best microwave in terms of performance. I was able to boil water in under three minutes and Popcorn mode left an average of just 26 kernels of popcorn unpopped, it handled our tests with ease. 

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At 1.6 cubic feet its capacity is big enough for most anything you’d want to microwave and powerful enough, too. It includes sensor cooking technology, so it won’t microwave every dish for a flat amount of time, instead it uses a genius sensor to detect when something is done.

Special functions also include popcorn, sensor reheat, frozen pizza, meat, fish, frozen vegetable, fresh vegetable, frozen entree and weight defrost. It cooked frozen food dinners and personal pizzas well in each of our tests. Potatoes as large as 11.76 ounces came out fully cooked, too. The only downside to this model is the lack of a dedicated Beverage function for reheating coffee or warming water for tea. 

It certainly isn’t the most affordable microwave on our list (see below for our budget pick), but this Farberware model is probably the best option when you’re looking for a microwave oven that’s a good size, powerful and smart. 

Molly Price/CNET

If you’re looking for a budget pick with plenty of space and power, this 1.1-cubic-foot Oster model is the best microwave oven to buy. At $90, you won’t have to break the bank to get a good microwave. 

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With 1,000 watts of power, this kitchen appliance can handle microwave cooking for large entrees and thick potatoes alike. This Oster model performed exceptionally well in Popcorn mode, leaving just an average of 11 kernels unpopped. That’s the best of all the countertop microwave oven models we tested. 

It also includes a Beverage function that heated water to a toasty 200 degrees F. A simple, flat-front design and stainless border means this microwave isn’t an eyesore. 

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Molly Price/CNET

It’s true, this Panasonic countertop microwave model isn’t winning any beauty contests, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for in a powerful 1,250-watt, 2.2-cubic-foot design. 

The largest and most powerful model in our lineup, this $149 Panasonic microwave model cooked heavy potatoes and frozen dinners well. Popcorn lovers beware, as this model gave us the highest count of burnt kernels per batch. That’s likely due to the extra power, but even the 3.0-ounce setting (smaller than our 3.2-ounce popcorn bags) still resulted in burnt pieces. 

Boiling water, cooking lasagna and baking potatoes were a cinch in this microwave. If you plan to rely heavily on your microwave for cooking, Panasonic’s powerful model is up to the task. It’s also the best microwave when you’re looking for a lot of cooking space.

Molly Price/CNET

Not everyone needs a giant microwave. A lot of people simply don’t have the space and need a compact microwave option. At a small but practical 1.1 cubic feet, this 1,000-watt model is more than capable of handling most tasks. 

Measuring 20.3 x 12 x 15.6 inches, this small microwave won’t take up tons of counter space. You’ll still get plenty of preset cooking options.

It performed satisfactorily in all of our tests, passing thresholds for temperature and doneness in most scenarios. It feels a bit like a Jack of all trades, master of none microwave. Totally capable, yet unexceptional in design or results. However, if space is an issue, Magic Chef’s microwave will get the job done with minimal footprint. 

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Other models we tested

The four microwaves above performed at the top of their class, but we tested a total of nine machines to find the best microwave. Here are the other models that didn’t quite make the cut. 

  • GE JES2051SNSS: This stainless steel GE microwave is a strong contender, but fell short when it came to popcorn, and we were left with a few undercooked potatoes. Reheating beverages, boiling water and cooking frozen meals went well. It’s also the most expensive model we tested at $280. 
  • LG LMC0975ST: This $160 LG microwave model has a small interior capacity of just 0.9 cubic feet. It’s also the only inverter microwave we tested that interfered with our Wi-Fi signal. Twinkly sounds and pretty design weren’t enough to woo us. 
  • Hamilton Beach EM031M2ZC-X3: The $73 Hamilton Beach black stainless steel microwave offers 1.1 cubic feet and 1,000 watts of power but had poor cooking results, especially when it came to fully baking potatoes. 
  • Toshiba EM131A5C-BS: This $120 Toshiba microwave oven produced mediocre results. It did have an easy to clean interior and plenty of special functions, but didn’t do well when it came to reheating leftover pizza or cooking small frozen entrees.
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How we test

Finding the best microwave is about more than just the 30-second express button we use to heat up lunch. Microwaves come with dozens of special functions and adjustment levels that can turn them into truly helpful tools in the kitchen. 

Special functions

For each microwave, we tested Potato, Frozen Entree, Frozen Pizza, Beverage, Popcorn and Reheat when those options were present. Testing the Potato preset requires three rounds of cooking pierced baking potatoes in each microwave using that function. Then, we take the temperature and record the doneness of the potato. 


Hot potato! 

Molly Price/CNET

For Popcorn, we popped three bags of 3.2-ounce popcorn in each microwave, recording the number of unpopped and burnt kernels. Frozen items follow, with similar temperature recording and notes about doneness. For beverages, we also record the temperature of 1 cup of water after being heated with the Beverage option. 

We use frozen personal pizzas and frozen lasagna entrees to test each microwave’s ability to cook evenly and accurately. If you’re like me, I use my microwave most when I’m heating up leftovers, so we round out each set of tests with a slice of leftover delivery pizza. 

We recorded the time and temperature for every test, so we could see which microwaves do their thing most efficiently. 


This microwave had mediocre popcorn results.

Molly Price/CNET

At the end of gathering all that data, we have a good picture of both the cooking power and effectiveness of each microwave’s specialty functions. And we have popcorn. Lots of popcorn. Of course there’s more to consider than just the special presets.

What else to consider

In this round of microwave testing, we focused on microwaves with 1,000 watts of power or higher. These models are ideal for people who use a microwave to cook often or tend to reheat large meals. Chances are, you’ll start your microwave hunt by thinking about what size is right for you. A 2.2-cubic-foot, 1,250-watt microwave isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone. 

If you’re in a tight space or have restrictions on wattage (my college dorm capped us off at a measly 900 watts), then you’ll do best to look for compact model options under 1,000 watts. Once you’ve settled on size, consider which functions mean the most to you. If you never eat popcorn but eat a lot of leftover pizza, make sure the model you choose has the single-slice option. 

Narrow it down to the right size, power level and function set, and all that’s left is to pick a color. Each of the models we tested comes in multiple finishes, so if your microwave will become part of your kitchen landscape, you should be able to find the right hue. 

One final tip: Don’t toss the manual as soon as you open the box! Your microwave’s owner’s manual is a great resource for exactly how to use each cooking mode. Every manufacturer seems to do things just a bit differently, and there were time guides and helpful explanations in every manual we encountered during testing.

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