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The microwave is a kitchen staple, but it wasn't always so. These handy kitchen appliances were actually developed by accident shortly after World War II by a man named Dr. Percy Spencer. Dr. Spencer worked for Raytheon, a company that supplied many of the magnetron tubes used in US and British radars during the war.

One day, Dr. Spencer was standing in front of an active magnetron and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had begun to melt. Perplexed by this, he decided to see what would happen if he exposed popcorn kernels to the magnetron and he ended up with -- you guessed it -- that white, fluffy stuff we love to scarf at movie theaters. Enter: a new home appliance.

The earliest microwaves cost thousands of dollars, stood at over 5 feet tall, and weighed an unwieldy 750 pounds. Microwaves have changed a lot since the 1940s, but we must thank Dr. Spencer for his resourcefulness, and for his love of candy.

Today's microwaves come in many different varieties, but they all unite around one common goal: to heat things quickly and efficiently. It's no wonder that I have a soft spot in my heart for this unglamorous, yet hard-working kitchen appliance.

Maytag

So, what kind of microwave is right for you? Here are some things to keep in mind when you're on the hunt for a new model:

Location, location, location
This is one of the most important preliminary decisions you will make about your microwave purchase. Where you put your microwave can significantly impact its price, features, size, and ease of installation. Here are the three main options:

Whirlpool

Countertop

This is the most common type of microwave. They generally cost less and are significantly easier to install than other models. Just find a spot on the counter for it to sit, plug it into an obliging outlet, and start using it right away.

The biggest issue with the counter top variety is the counter space it requires. If you have limited room, you may either want to look at the smaller countertop models available or consider another style of microwave altogether.

Price: $40-$700

External dimensions (HWD): from roughly 10x18x14 inches for compact models to roughly 14x24x20 inches for larger models

Internal capacity: less than 1 cubic foot to more than 2 cubic feet

Wattage: typically 600-1,200 watts

Prices for these models vary widely from roughly $40-$700. So, this is a great budget option, but there's also a lot of wiggle room if you prefer the counter top models but want something a bit larger with more features and power.

GE

Over-the-range

Here's another popular microwave style. It's a built-in variety that hangs above your range and saves precious counter space. These models have vent systems that take the place of the oven hood. They're definitely the multitaskers of the microwave world.

Price: $190-$1,300

External dimensions (HWD): usually wider than countertop models, about 16x30x15

Internal capacity: less than 1 cubic foot to more than 2 cubic feet

Wattage: typically 600-1,200 watts

Prices for over-the-range microwaves vary from about $190-$1,300. As you can see, there's still a very large price range, but the starting price is considerably higher than the counter top variety.

Sharp

Built-in

These are the most high-end microwaves currently available. Over-the-range microwaves are built-ins, but not all built-ins are installed over the range. This catch-all category covers any and all custom cabinets, drawers, or combo oven-and-microwave units.

Price: $500-$5,000

External dimensions (HWD): varies widely depending on type, drawers tend to have more depth than countertop or over-the-range models, about 15x30x26

Internal capacity: less than 1 cubic foot to more than 2 cubic feet

Wattage: typically 600-1,200 watts

Prices can range from around $500 for microwaves built-in to cabinets or drawers to nearly $5,000 for convection ovens with built-in microwaves. Once again, the price range is large, but the starting price is higher than the standard over-the-range built-ins or the countertop models.

Size matters
How large is your kitchen counter? Do you expect to cook large quantities of food in your new microwave? These are questions that will help you pick the right size microwave for your lifestyle and for your kitchen.

Unfortunately, it isn't quite as simple as small, medium, and large. First, you want to measure the counter or other space where you plan to put your microwave. Then, measure the height, width, and depth of any model you're considering to find out if it will fit on your counter top, over your range, or in a custom spot. The external dimensions can vary a lot, from 10x18x14 inches (HWD) on the smaller side to 14x24x20 inches on the larger side.

Then there's also the internal capacity, which can range from less than 1 cubic foot to 2 cubic feet or more. There doesn't seem to be any set rule for how internal capacity correlates to size (like one cubic foot = small, 1.5 cubic feet = medium, etc.), but here's my attempt to break it down:

Compact: Under 1 cubic foot

Midsize: 1-1.5 cubic feet

Full-size: 1.6-2 cubic feet

Extra-large: Over 2 cubic feet

Most of the microwaves available today rest somewhere in the middle around 1.4-1.8 cubic feet. But if you still aren't sure, you can always bring in a plate or bowl from home that you plan to use often to make sure that it fits inside the microwave.

This Amana microwave has a capacity of 1.6 cubic feet. Amana

Still in doubt? Measure everything, take notes, and check with your appliance retailer for help deciding what would work best. For over-the-range and other built-in models, you most likely won't be the one installing your new microwave, so you can always avail yourself of their expertise.

What's the deal with watts?
Microwave wattage equals power. In general, the higher the wattage, the faster and more evenly your food will cook. Most microwaves sit somewhere between 600-1,200 watts. Larger microwaves will tend to have a higher wattage, so this is a price and size consideration that can strongly influence microwave cooking performance.

Basic features
Many microwaves share common functions. Here are some microwave cooking essentials: cook time, defrost, power level, and timer. Each one requires your direct input, but they are usually very easy to set.

Default settings

These presets allow you to throw in the food item, press the corresponding button, and your microwave will automatically start the cooking process--there's no need for your input. This can be really handy, provided that they correctly estimate the cooking time. Here are some of the most common defaults: potato, pizza, popcorn, beverage, frozen dinner, and reheat.

This Haier microwave offers basic functions. Haier

Special features
So, what else can microwaves do?

Convection

Convection heating is a less common option available, with prices starting right around $120. As you probably know, convection technology blows the heat around the food instead of warming your food in patches. This is supposed to cook things more quickly and evenly. So, a microwave equipped with convection heating might claim to be able to make better meat or baked goods.

Convection heating technology comes with this Sharp microwave. Sharp

Inverter tech

Inverter heating is another option available on select high-end models. If you want to heat something at a 50-percent power level, most microwaves actually switch between 100 percent power and 0 percent power to average in at 50 percent power. This doesn't yield great results if you want to heat something on a lower heat and achieve an even result. So, some models now use inverter technology, which maintains a consistent 50 percent power. That way, you can poach salmon, make a fluffy omelet, etc. Here's an example of a microwave with inverter tech:

This model is equipped with inverter technology.
Panasonic

Other advanced features

In addition to new heating technologies, higher-end models usually have more presets than just the basic potato, pizza, and popcorn standard. Some even use moisture sensors to detect food doneness. Companies are also experimenting with LED displays, which adds another dimension to an otherwise dull appliance. Sorry, microwaves, you are extremely useful, but it's true.

Final say
Microwave tech is definitely making strides, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that there are any "smart" microwaves widely available on the market today. For the most part, microwaves are still pretty basic, but they are getting better at what they do. We'll be adding to this list regularly, so keep your eyes peeled for more microwave goodness.