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Feature Attractions: Best Values in Microwave Ovens

The latest microwave ovens speed up cooking times and have new combinations of features. But these new features appear to deliver limited cooking benefits for consumers.

By Lisa Bonnema
Article Published: November 2011
Best Buy Recommendations: Current

Whirlpool

If the race to prepare your meals is more like a chaotic scramble than an easy task, there’s no question that having a microwave oven (or microwave) helps a lot. But just when you thought that microwaves couldn’t zap foods any faster, one manufacturer claims that its latest product takes speed-cooking to a new level.

It sounds unbelievable that any microwave could cook meals four times faster than a traditional oven does and 75 percent faster than most other combination microwaves, which are microwaves that also use convection cooking technology. But that’s precisely what Half Time Oven claims with its latest models.

You also will find new microwaves from other manufacturers that have new combinations of features, as well as models that have new buttons that are designed to help you to cook healthful meals or to save a few dollars each year in electricity costs.

We wish that we could tell you that sweeping innovations are revolutionizing the products that are from most manufacturers. But, in general, what’s new in microwaves today amounts only to microbenefits for consumers.

SPEED LIMITS. Half Time Oven’s UltraSpeed Oven 4X speeds up the company’s approach to convection cooking. Whereas other combination microwaves cycle back and forth between convection and standard microwave modes during cooking, 4X models (and original 2X models) run both modes simultaneously. (Convection technology bakes and browns foods.)

4X models, which use a whopping 1,900 watts of cooking power, generate up to 80 percent more power than a traditional microwave does. Consequently, they cook food dramatically faster than all other microwaves do, says Mike McDavitt, who is the founder of Half Time Oven. McDavitt claims that 4X’s High Speed mode cooks food 50 percent to 75 percent faster than do other manufacturers’ combination microwaves, twice as fast as 2X models and four times faster than a gas oven or an electric oven.

For instance, if a roast takes 2 hours to cook in a traditional oven and about 1 hour in a combination microwave, it would take just 30 minutes in a 4X model. Or if you bake an apple pie, it would take 60 minutes in traditional ovens, 42 minutes in most combination microwaves and 15 minutes in 4X models.

Half Time Oven models also don’t use sensor-cooking technology to help the appliance to determine the proper cooking time and temperature, which is what most other combination microwaves do. Instead, you simply set the time and temperature like you would for a traditional gas or electric oven—say, 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 hour—and the combination microwave uses a mathematical formula to convert that information to the appropriate microwave-cooking time.

The big benefit here, McDavitt says, is that this programming function allows consumers to follow the recipes that they already have, as opposed to making the special programming conversions that typically are needed for conventional combination microwaves. Of course, it’s worth noting that many combination microwaves that other manufacturers make have their own programming shortcuts, such as “easy convect” buttons that automatically deliver times and temperatures for convection cooking recipes.

Although no independent expert whom we interviewed questioned the speed-cooking capabilities of Half Time Oven microwaves, we don’t expect other manufacturers to try to replicate this approach. As impressive as the cooking times of 4X models might be, you still face plenty of obstacles if you determine that a 4X is worth purchasing.

For starters, 4X models have limited availability, and that isn’t expected to change anytime soon. At press time, countertop ($299), built-in ($549) and over-the-range ($599) models of the 4X were available for preorder at halftimeovens.com, and the countertop version was available at walmart.com. All 2X models are available only at the company website or walmart.com. Because you can’t buy any of these models off the shelf in a brick-and-mortar store, you’ll have to pay about $20 to have one shipped, or you’ll have to wait 5–7 days to pick it up free at a Walmart store.

A larger issue is that you’ll need a dedicated 20-amp electrical circuit if you want to run this monster in your kitchen, or else your circuit breaker will trip constantly. Other microwaves typically can run on a standard 15-watt circuit, like other major kitchen appliances.

HOT CORNER. Whirlpool introduced a compact microwave oven (or microwave) in August that’s designed to save counter space. It’s the first model that we’ve seen that has a curved back, which means that the 0.5-cubic-foot mini microwave fits better in corners than a traditional model does. That’s an appealing feature if you have little counter space. But the $139 price for a black or white model (stainless steel is $149) seems a bit high for a microwave that has no special cooking features and just 750 watts of cooking power, which is among the lowest wattage that you’ll find on the market.

Although it’s fairly common for new homes to have a 20-amp circuit that’s dedicated for a microwave, homes that were built before 1995 typically don’t have such dedicated wiring. You’d have to pay an electrician $150–$400 to install a 20-amp circuit in your kitchen that’s dedicated for a microwave. If you add that to the price of a 4X model, you could pay more than what most premium combination microwaves cost.

The lack of cooking sensors also is a drawback, particularly when you consider that other similarly priced combination models have as many as 13 sensor-cooking options.

Microwaves that have sensor-cooking buttons sense the moisture and temperature of the food and can adjust the cooking variables, so food is cooked more accurately than it is in nonsensor models. This means that it’s less likely that food will be overcooked or undercooked. 4X models have three automatic, or preset, buttons for standard, nonsensor microwave cooking—baked potato, beverage and popcorn—as well as speed defrost and defrost by weight. However, these cooking programs are based on time and weight only, which is more of a one-size-fits-all cooking program than the more customized sensor-cooking programs are.

So, we believe that Half Time Oven models are suited best for those who will use a combination microwave primarily for convection cooking rather than standard microwave tasks, such as reheating leftovers.

FINISHING TOUCHES. It’s sad to say that nearly everything else that’s touted as innovative in microwaves is no more than an attempt by manufacturers to bundle existing technologies into new packages. For instance, Sharp’s SteamWave 3-in-1 microwave ($499) is the first home countertop microwave that combines sensor-cooking technology, steam cooking and grilling in one unit. Other models combine no more than two of those three cooking features.

Of course, you can’t grill and steam at the same time, which means that this model won’t save you any time when it comes to preparing a meal. For example, let’s say you plan to use the SteamWave 3-in-1 to grill a steak and steam potatoes. The steak will take up to 14 minutes and the potatoes will require 30 minutes. It would be just as quick to cook your steak on a grill and steam your potatoes on a stove top.

And don’t be swayed by the new buttons that are popping up on some of the latest microwaves, because none of the buttons enhances the cooking performance of the microwave.

The MyPlate one-touch cooking button that’s on three GE models gives consumers specific directions for how to cook more healthful food, such as rice and vegetables. You press the MyPlate button and choose the food item, and the display will give you cooking times and other directions. The button corresponds with the new federal-government MyPlate eating guidelines that replaced the longstanding food-pyramid suggestions in June. You’ll pay at least $400 for a microwave that has the My Plate button.

The same three models also have a Power Saver button that turns off your display clock, which is designed to reduce the amount of standby power that a microwave consumes. However, industry experts estimate that the function—depending on how frequently that it’s used—will save about $3 in annual electricity costs, which is how much you’d pay for a frozen dinner.

So when it comes to microwaves, it seems that it still is much more about saving time than money.

Freelance writer Lisa Bonnema, who wrote the feature story, has covered the appliance industry for 11 years. She is the former editor of Appliance Magazine.