How to buy the best microwave
By Rebecca Duff
Our expert guide to choosing the best microwave, from how much to spend to what size is best.
Microwaves are a useful kitchen extra, whether you want to defrost some chicken, make a speedy baked potato or heat up yesterday's leftovers.
Do your research before you buy though. We’ve found price and power aren’t always reliable indicators of cooking or defrosting ability – some microwaves might frazzle the edges of your frozen chicken, leaving the middle solid. And some models might be too small to fit your crockery inside.
The best microwaves we've tested heat and defrost evenly, and are simple to use and easy to keep clean. Some even double up as a mini oven, grilling or baking food as well as microwaving it.
Want to know which microwaves we recommend? Head straight to our best microwaves to see which came out top in our tests.
In this article:
Types of microwave
There are three types of microwave:
- Microwave only (‘solo’ microwave): a basic microwave that heats and defrosts
- Grill microwave: combines normal microwave cooking with a grilling element
- Combination (combi) microwave: can roast, crisp and brown like a conventional oven
Microwave-only (solo) models
- Cheapest type of microwave
- Good for simple defrosting, heating and reheating
- Usually less bulky than a combi microwave
- Lots of models to choose from
- Limited functionality – you can’t roast or brown food
- Tend to have smaller capacity than a combi
Sometimes called 'solo' microwaves, these basic microwaves are great for simple tasks such as warming up soup, heating ready meals or quickly defrosting food.
They tend to be cheap and compact so can be a good option if you just want to complete simple heating tasks more quickly than is possible in a conventional oven. But they don't brown food, so they're unable to compete with ovens on jobs such as grilling or roasting meat.
Visit our solo microwave reviews to find the best for you.
- Can crisp and brown food, as well as heat and defrost
- Compact – usually the same size as a solo microwave
- Cheaper than a combi microwave
- Often come with a metal rack to bring food closer to the grill
- Don't offer convection heating, which helps a microwave cook like an oven
- Usually more expensive than a solo microwave
Grill microwaves can perform all the normal duties you'd expect from a standard microwave, such as defrosting ready meals and reheating leftovers, and the grill function can also brown food.
You can use the grill and microwave cooking functions separately or combine them, for example to brown the top of a shepherd’s pie while microwaving it. They usually come with a metal rack to bring food closer to the grill.
See which grill microwaves we rate highly, and which to avoid, by visiting our grill microwave reviews.
- Can cook in the same way as a conventional oven
- Can be quicker than using your main oven, especially if you combine cooking modes
- Tend to fit more inside than other types of microwave
- More expensive than other types of microwave
- Bulkier than a regular microwave
Combination microwaves tend to be the most expensive type of microwave – but they're also the most flexible. The grill and convection heating (fanned hot air) functions mean they can cook and brown your food, often much more quickly than a conventional oven.
You can read more about the pros and cons of combi microwaves and how much you should expect to pay for a good one in our dedicated guide: combination microwaves: how to buy the best.
You can also visit our combination microwave reviews to find out which models are worth the higher price.
For each type of microwave you can either buy a freestanding or built-in model.
Freestanding models sit on your countertop, whereas built-in microwaves slot seamlessly into your kitchen units, for example above your oven. Built-in microwaves are much more expensive than freestanding models.
Don't assume you need to pay the earth to get a decent microwave.
We’ve found microwave across all price brackets that offer a good range of features and do what they're meant to do brilliantly. Head to our microwave reviews to find the perfect model for your price range.
Budget microwaves costing less than £50, from the likes of Tesco and Asda, will be pretty basic. They tend to be on the small size, and are likely to be microwave-only (solo) microwaves with limited settings.
This makes them very easy to use, but you won’t usually get much in the way of auto cook or defrost programs (see features to look out for, below).
For simple heating and defrosting jobs, cheaper microwave brands can be every bit as good as more expensive microwaves. We've found plenty of basic Best Buy solo microwaves starting from just £45.
What do you get if you pay more?
As you'd expect, typically the more you pay the greater the range of features and accessories.
For around £100...
Look for a microwave with a selection of auto programs (to automatically set the weight and time for specific foods), digital displays and easy-to-use push-button or touch panel controls.
Some models at this price will come with other extras such as delayed start and multi-stage cooking (to automatically switch between heating modes such as defrosting and heating).
Cheaper grill and combination microwaves are available for around £100 – we’ve even found Best Buy combis for as little as £110.
For around £200
Features to look for include self-cleaning catalytic linings and pull-down, oven-style doors, which make it easier to unload very hot dishes. Accessories you might find useful include 'crisper' plates and steamer accessories.
For £300 plus
Models at the pricier end of the spectrum are likely to be built-in models.
If not, they should have stand-out features, such as one-touch sensor cooking, which works out what's needed for you – all you need to do is put your food in and press the start button – or a built-in steamer.
Despite their relatively straightforward purpose, microwaves can vary considerably in terms of the features and accessories they offer.
Here are some of the key features to look out for.
- Clear viewing window: Combined with a bright interior light, this makes it easy to check on food. Watch out for reflective door finishes or window grids that are hard to see through.
- Large door: Wide-opening or drop-down doors make it much easier to get heavy or hot dishes in and out of the microwave, especially if you have reduced strength or dexterity.
- Auto cook programs: Enter the type and weight of food and the microwave will automatically set the time and power needed to cook it. Premium models can offer up to 30 programs, including specialised ones for popcorn or roasts.
- Auto defrost: Most microwaves offer an auto-defrost setting that uses bursts of low heat to defrost based on the weight of the food. Some come with settings for specific foods.
- Multi-step programming: This allows you to program different cooking modes in sequence, to automatically switch between defrosting and cooking your dinner, for example.
- Touch-panel controls: These take far less effort to press than push-button controls. If you do go for button controls, they should be large, easy to press and not too close together.
- Clear labelling: Controls should be clearly labelled, with a large, clear font. Digital displays should be brightly lit and easy to read. If you are visually impaired, consider a model that beeps when you make a selection.
- Pizza function: This tends to work better with grill or combi microwaves, as the grill helps to crisp the pizza base and brown the top. Some microwaves come with ‘crisper plates’.
- Vegetable steamers: These can be tricky to get to grips with, but after a bit of practice can be a fast and healthy way to cook vegetables. Pricier models may include built-in steamers.
Flatbed microwaves do away with a traditional turntable. They use a different technology to distribute the microwaves and heat evenly.
The big advantage of a flatbed microwave is you get extra cooking space, as you can squeeze in bulky or oblong containers without having to leave room for them to rotate.
There are also fewer places for cooking grime to collect. On average, you will pay more for a flatbed microwave, though.
To see which flatbeds are brilliant at heating evenly, head to our flatbed microwave reviews.
Microwaves come in all sizes, ranging from small, compact models to large, bulkier machines that’ll take up much more space on your counter.
Basic microwaves tend to be the smallest; some combis measure almost twice the size of the smallest solo (microwave-only) and grill microwaves we’ve tested.
Arguably more important than external size is internal capacity – we've found microwaves of the same size can vary massively in terms of usable space.
While manufacturers do generally state the internal capacity, this doesn't actually tell you what size dishes you'll be able to get inside. For every microwave we test, we measure the widest plate that you can fit through the door without tilting it.
Combis usually have a much bigger capacity than standard microwaves. The average combi can fit a 35cm-wide dish inside, compared with 29cm for a typical solo microwave.
All microwaves require some clearance space around them to allow air to ventilate, but the amount of space needed varies between models. So consider where yours will be placed and check this before you buy.
Half the microwaves we’ve tested need at least 30cm above them but we’ve also found plenty that only need between 10cm and 20cm.
Many also need 10cm to 20cm space at the back and sides. However, if you’re short on counter space it’s worth looking around a bit as we’ve found some that only need a 5cm gap around them, or don’t need any.
You can check clearance space for specific models by finding the user manual online or contacting the manufacturer directly.
Our tests have shown that power isn’t a good indicator of microwave performance. We've found 700W microwaves that can cook food as well and quickly as 1,000W microwaves.
To find out which power level you should be using for different food types, read our 12 essential microwave cooking tips.
For the past 15 years, microwaves have been labelled according to their heating category – A is the least powerful, E the most. This gives consumers a rough guide to how powerful their microwave is and how long to heat food for.
We test the performance of microwaves against their power ratings, and have found they’re not always accurate – differences of 5% to 10% are commonplace. Use our microwave reviews to check how accurate energy labels are, and always make sure your food is hot enough to eat before tucking in.
What are the best microwave brands?
Every year we survey thousands of Which? members who own a microwave to find out what they think of the brands they’ve bought and which brands have encountered the most problems.
We’ve looked at the big brands including Panasonic and Samsung, as well as cheaper brands such as Daewoo, Tesco and Argos, to see which brands and the most reliable and the most popular.
To find out which brands came out top, head to our guide to the top microwave brands.