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What's Cookin'?

Consider size and power first when trying to decide what kind of microwave to buy

by David Sharos

Wednesday, August 26, 1998

One of the greatest conveniences of this century has been the microwave oven. Everything from defrosting a roast to cooking a full dinner to reheating leftovers and preparing a TV snack is a lot easier and quicker with the microwave.

The small, barely-larger-than-a-breadbox units when they were introduced in the late 1970s have been expanded into larger, roll-featured models, now sold in combination with stoves or as kitchen-counter appliances.

If you're looking to upgrade from an older model, add a new microwave to a summer home or buy one for that departing college student here's what you'll need to know.

Retailers and consumer magazines agree that the intended uses for the microwave will determine which unit you'll buy and the features you'll need.

"You really have to decide what the oven is likely to be used for," said Dennis Larson, manager of the service department for the Microwave Service Co. in Niles. Larson brings an unusual perspective to choosing ovens since his company sells primarily commercial sized microwaves but services pretty much all brands and knows about brand reliability.

The two most common uses, ,Larson says, are making popcorn and reheating foods, and you don't need a lot of bells and whistles for either job. Other experts would add defrosting to that list.

The good news for consumers is that most manufacturers have included controls or features that will accomplish these tasks, offering them in machines that retailers say cost at least 25 percent less than they did just five years ago.

"The range of prices for most microwaves runs from just under $100 to maybe $275," said Rick Maksen, sales manager for Abt Television and Appliance in Morton Grove. "Like so much of the technology today, you can get a lot more oven for even less money."

Once you've decided what the oven will be used for, size and power are the two features most often used to determine which unit to buy. Size is measured in cubic feet and is typically found right on the box of the unit.

"I'd agree size is a consideration since most people are looking for what will fit on their counters," Maksen said. "The other option that's popular would be a unit that hangs under a cabinet."

General Electric, for instance, makes a SpaceMaker JEM 25 model for $139 that fits under a cabinet as well as the JEM 31 model with a sensor that sells for $15 more.

Maksen says five sizes of units are typically offered, ranging from the large (around 1.5 cubic feet) to a subcompact (half a cubic foot or less).

Ovens come in various configurations, which means you must decide where yours will fit and how to integrate it with the rest of your kitchen appliances.

Besides the counter or under-the-cabinet option, you can also buy what Maksen calls a "microhood"—a combination stove hood and microwave that can be vented to the outside of your house or can re-circulate the air through a filter.

Maksen says GE makes a model that fits over the range, the JVM 1460, that performs both as a vent and an oven. It's priced around $450, and even has a recording function for a 30-second voice message for family members.

Another option, Maksen says, is to buy special units with trim kits that fit into the wall, like a built-in oven.

Since defrosting is a commonly used function, look for an automatic defrost control that allows you to key in a particular weight in pounds or ounces listed on the meat package and lets your microwave do the rest.

© 1998, Chicago Tribune