On the Horizon: Microwaves

Plus: Best Buys in Countertop, Over-the-Range & Combination Models

Minor changes to microwave ovens over the past 2 years include a new touch dial and a new vent-control option on an over-the-range model. However, a major change that would make models lighter and more efficient is at least 3 years away.

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Microwave ovens, or microwaves, have changed so little in recent years that even a minor tweak is something that consumers will notice in 2013.

For example, Panasonic now has two microwaves that use a recessed dial, which allows you to control the microwave in a way that’s similar to using a notebook computer’s touchpad. However, the dial might become tricky to use when things get sticky in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Whirlpool introduced a feature for microwaves that double as a range hood in which the feature is designed to automatically turn on the cooking-exhaust vent earlier than what other models do.

However, microwaves might change dramatically in the years ahead when manufacturers finally incorporate a new cooking element that’s designed to make the appliance lighter and more efficient.

DIALED IN. Panasonic’s electrostatic touch dial made its debut in March 2012. The touch dial has the same functionality as does a conventional dial in that the touch dial allows you to select cooking settings for the microwave. Unlike a conventional dial, the touch dial is a touch-sensitive disc that sits flush against the body of the microwave. Panasonic claims that the touch dial makes the controls easier to clean, because the control board has no contours. Panasonic tells us that the touch dial operates much like a touchpad that’s on a notebook computer. Your fingertip movement controls the settings, and you tap the touch dial to make a selection.

Models that have the electrostatic touch dial start at $270 and cost $10 more than do similar Panasonic microwaves that have a conventional dial.

However, experts whom we interviewed question the performance and the durability of the electrostatic touch dial. For instance, if your fingers are coated with water, oil or other cooking residue, as is often the case when you cook, it makes controlling the touch dial difficult, says Mariska Krause, who is an appliance expert at retailer Abt.

It’s also unclear whether the touch-dial sensors will hold up during the lifetime of the microwave. Panasonic’s director of engineering, Gus Erazo, tells us that the company is “pretty confident” that the technology will last the lifetime of the microwave. However, Erazo says Panasonic won’t share the results of its tests of the touch-dial sensors, because the results are considered to be proprietary information.

Based on the use of similar technology in notebook-computer touchpads, it’s difficult to say whether Panasonic’s touch-dial sensors will last the lifetime of the microwave. Although touchpads typically work for the lifetime of a notebook computer, most people use their notebook computers for 3–5 years before they purchase a new one, says Jeff Kagan, who is an independent technology analyst. Microwaves, on the other hand, typically are used for at least 10 years, appliance experts tell us.

“So, this is unchartered territory,” Kagan says of Panasonic’s touch dial.

TOUCH CONTROL. Panasonic’s new dial operates similarly to how you control a notebook computer’s touchpad.

TOUCH CONTROL. Panasonic’s new dial operates similarly to how you control a notebook computer’s touchpad.


VENTILATION VARIABLE. In April 2012, Whirlpool introduced an over-the-range microwave that gives you a new convenience option when it comes to vent-hood control. Although the vent hood for all over-the-range microwaves automatically turns on when the temperature under the microwave reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit, Whirlpool’s Auto Adapt Fan takes it a step further.

You can set the vent hood to turn on at low power when the temperature of the space that’s beneath the microwave reaches 140 degrees F, and the hood’s power increases as the temperature from cooking heat increases.

The Auto Adapt Fan is available on Whirlpool’s WMH53520AW ($339). The feature likely will be added to other models, says John Hines of Whirlpool.

The Auto Adapt Fan eliminates the need to turn on the vent hood each time that you cook, Hines says. Vent hoods that turn on automatically at 160 degrees F likely won’t turn on unless all four range burners are operating at full power, experts tell us. It’s unclear how many burners must be operating for the Auto Adapt Fan to be triggered.

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