The microwave oven is a surprisingly simple bit of technology. All it does is bombard food with microwaves, which cause polarized molecules within the oven cavity to spin and quickly build up thermal energy. The result is rapid heating in foods with high water content.
The speed is great—it's why nearly every modern home includes a microwave oven—but the machines are far from perfect. Anyone who's ever microwaved a Hot Pocket or frozen burrito knows why: uneven cooking.
Sadly, though the technology has been around since the 1950s, there has been very little innovation in microwave oven design over the past half-century. That means most modern machines perform in pretty much the same way, which is to say that they get mediocre results. In fact, in our budget microwave roundup, we discovered there was virtually no difference in performance between machines.
But at least one manufacturer is applying modern smarts to these dinosaur appliances in an effort to set itself apart from the pack. At the International Home Housewares Show this March in Chicago, we got to spend some hands-on time with Panasonic's new cyclonic inverter technology, which will soon be making its way into two new models. Here's what we found.
Finally, Some New Tech!
Rethinking how a microwave should work
If Panasonic has its way, the age of stale microwave tech will soon be at an end. Its new cyclonic inverter microwaves may not look any different than the box sitting on your counter at home, but they represent a ground-up reconceptualization of how a microwave should function.
To understand what's special about these microwaves, you need to know a little about how microwave ovens traditionally work. The vast majority of machines on the market today emit microwaves in simple, straight lines, from the top of the machine to the bottom. This linear distribution means that the waves can "miss" some parts of your food. That's why one part of your pot pie might be ice cold while another section is molten lava.
Panasonic's cyclonic inverter microwaves, on the other hand, radiate microwave energy in a three dimensional, circular pattern—kind of like a tornado laid on its side. According to product representatives, this tech should not only allow the waves to hit more of your food, but also prevent dried-out edges caused by overcooking.
Panasonic is launching two new machines equipped with cyclonic inverter technology, both of which will be available this month. But while the tech sounds exciting, we'll have to wait to get them into our labs to pass judgment on their actual cooking ability.
A Familiar Design
...but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Despite the potentially revolutionary tech crammed inside, these microwaves look reassuringly familiar. Consumers tend to react with fear and distrust when familiar appliances get a big makeover—see the ongoing kerfuffle over front-loading washers, for just one example—so Panasonic is probably smart to stick to what works here.
That said, the control panel includes a few interesting design choices. Notice, for example, that there are no number buttons. While there's a +/- dial that allows you to manually scroll up or down to choose your cook time, there's no way to set a precise time. That will probably take some getting used to, especially with the somewhat confusing icons used to denote each cooking mode. Other than that, it's a pretty straightforward microwave with highly responsive electrostatic touch controls.
And Familiar Features
No numbers? Denied!
The cyclonic inverter line will come in two sizes—2.2 and 1.6 cubic feet (the SE985S and SE785S, respectively). The machines can be installed as countertop or built-in units, and each features 20 programmable sensor cook and reheat options, multi-stage cooking, and a turbo defrost mode—all built on 1250 watts of cooking power.
The 2.2 cubic foot SE985S features a 16.5-inch turntable diameter, and the 1.6 cubic foot SE785S offers a 15-inch diameter.