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Microwave Intros Heat Up International Housewares Show

CHICAGO -The International Housewares Show has long provided a platform for majap makers to introduce their newest microwave oven lines, and last week’s 2001 event at McCormick Place did not disappoint.

Once again, convenience reigned supreme as the show’s theme, which translated into bigger, faster-cooking, feature-laden machines designed with time-pressed two-income households in mind. Manufacturers are also keeping an eye on the Internet, as a bevy of models came replete with Web-enabled touchpad controls, while stainless steel and Sharp’s Mac-inspired, candy-colored Half Pint line dominated exterior cosmetics.

Among the bigger-is-better contingent was GE, which introduced the first 36-inch over-the-range microwave oven. The unit, which joins GE’s Spacemaker Performance Series, provides full lighting and venting of wider cooktops thanks to the use of halogen bulbs and a three-speed vent with boost setting, coupled with a bottom plate redesign.

“This microwave oven offers a great utility of space,” stated Jerry Wolff, marketing manager for GE microwave cooking products. “Consumers enjoy a versatile microwave oven, powerful venting and lighting of their wider cooktops, and an uncluttered countertop. It’s easy to install and provides GE’s largest capacity microwave oven, with 1.8 cubic feet of useable space.”

Set to hit retail shelves in June, the oven also features a 14-inch-diameter recessed turntable; intelligent sensors that determine “doneness” by sensing moisture in food; and two lines of scrolling display for cooking tips, and product use and care information.

The 1,000-watt unit is available in black, white, bisque and stainless steel, and will carry an estimated retail price ranging from $599 to $679.

In addition, GE bowed a pair of convection microwave ovens in 1.4-cubic-foot over-the-range and 1.5-cubic-foot countertop configurations that cook up to 25 percent faster than traditional ovens and can brown baked goods and roast foods.

GE’s “true convection” design provides an element behind the fan to constantly circulate hot air for even cooking, the company said, and both models feature touchpads that automatically calculate microwave and convection cooking times for certain foods.

The units will be available in white, black, bisque and stainless steel when they reach stores in June. Suggested retail prices will range from $649 to $749 for the over-the-range unit, and $429 to $479 for the countertop version.

Panasonic, meanwhile, continues to tout inverter technology, which improves the results of microwave defrosting, reheating and cooking, and replaces the bulky transformer used in traditional microwave ovens with a less cumbersome circuit board.

“Until now, the most common uses for a microwave oven have been defrosting, reheating leftovers or making popcorn,” said Mary Sadankas, marketing manager for microwave ovens within Panasonic’s home appliance division. “But inverter technology provides more precise cooking capabilities, allowing the consumer to, for example, simmer sauces and keep foods warm without overcooking them.”

The loss of the transformer also lessens the weight and allows more of the oven’s cabinet size to be dedicated to internal cooking space, substantially reducing the overall counter space needed, the company said.

Also, more precise cooking control allows more accurate cooking capabilities. Meat or soup could be set to “simmer,” for example, once the ideal temperature is reached. A Keep Warm key is also included on some models.

Equipped with built-in sensors, select models in the line automatically cook, defrost and reheat as many as 18 different foods via one-touch buttons on the oven keypad. Sensor Reheat and Sensor Defrost buttons are provided, enabling the microwave to reheat food based on its current state of preparation, or to completely defrost frozen food with the touch of a button.

All ovens are available in stainless steel, black and/or white. Suggested retail prices range from $99.95 for a 1.6-cubic-foot, 1,100-watt unit that ships next month, to $229.95 for a 2.2-cubic-foot, 1,300-watt model with menu action screen and stainless-steel face that also ships in February.

For Samsung, technology was the buzzword at the company’s booth, which bore the banner “Samsung Digitall: Everyone’s Invited.” Indeed, both the booth and the extensive 30-SKU, 1,200-watt line reflected the “digital experience” through their look and feel.

New microwave groupings include the Silver, Sensor, Convection, Over-The-Range, Semi-Translucent, Stainless Steel and Black series, while select models boast such features as Handy Helper, Kid’s Meals and Snack Bar Menus for cooking fast fare.

Among the former, the elegant Silver series offers a silver finish, convenient touch controls, up to three auto reheat options, 10 power levels and an enamel-coated interior on select models.

Sharp’s senior manager of product development Joy Daniel said that “in addition to providing a sleek, updated look for the contemporary kitchen,” her company’s 2001 line “incorporates the most advanced microwave technology with increased power to produce delicious meals in as short a time as possible. As an added value to our customers, we have also included a glass door in some of our models.”

Among Sharp’s introductions, the Carousel Platinum Collection offers a space-saving control panel on the door that allows for a narrower profile while still providing 1.4 cubic feet of capacity and a 16-inch diameter turntable that can rotate a 9 x 13-inch oblong dish.

Features include CompuDefrost, which allows quick, even defrosting of meats and poultry; Minute Plus, which sets the oven for one minute at high power with a single touch; and 10 power levels that vary cooking speed. Suggested retails range from $169.95 to $189.95.

Also new is Sharp’s ’30 Series group, which features a two-line, 16-digit, two-color lighted display and an interactive cooking system with Custom Help.

The system provides programmed heating instructions and customized step-by-step, tri-lingual cooking directions. Shipping begins in March at suggested retail prices ranging from $149.95 to $169.95.

The Housewares Show held even greater importance for LG Electronics(LGE), maker of GoldStar white goods, which used the forum to introduce a full line of major appliances to the U.S. market under its own LG moniker.

Microwave ovens figured prominently in the 25-SKU debut, which includes room air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines.

LGE’s ovens feature True Cook Plus technology, which, like rival units from GE, take the guesswork out of cooking through a system that interprets numerical codes printed on food packaging.

With the touch of a few buttons, the microwave automatically learns the food’s characteristics and weight, resulting in “just-right” preparation. General Mills and other leading food manufacturers have embraced the technology and are printing the codes on select packages.

LGE will market two microwaves with the True Cook Plus technology, the 2.1-cubic foot MA-2107, and the 1.4-cubic foot MA-1417.

LGE is also offering a 1.9-cubic foot over-the-range unit, a 1.9-cubic foot over-the-range inverter model and a 1.5-cubic foot convection oven, some of which include wide LCD screens. The line is expected to ship during the second quarter.

Looking ahead, LGE is using computer technology to create Internet-enabled microwaves that go beyond simple functions to perform more “intelligent” tasks such as collecting recipes and preparing meals

These next-generation ovens are designed to communicate with other household appliances via a digital home network and will “maximize the power of the Internet for the comfort and convenience of the consumer,” the company said.