Microwaves Heat Up Chicago Housewares Show

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The weather outside may have been frightful, but inside McCormick Place, here, the site of last month's International Housewares Show, majap makers were heating up the exhibit floor with a new generation of microwave ovens.

While short on fundamental technological breakthroughs, this year's latest offerings did raise the bar on convenience by offering full-sized rounded cavities, combo toaster options and, in lieu of actual bells or whistles, musical notes to cue the completion of the cooking cycle.

The latter innovation came by way of Haier, which is making a major push into the category with a stainless steel line and the aforementioned musical microwave. The former includes a 0.6-cubic-foot stainless steel compact model with 10 power levels, a weight/speed defrost function, a removable glass turntable and a suggested retail of $90.

The latter, a 1.4-cubic-foot unit, features five different end-of-cycle musical alerts and one beep tone, plus an on/off option for the turntable, which provides greater cooking flexibility and allows for larger size plates in the non-rotation cycle. Suggested retail: $150.

Rounded cavity models seemed to abound at the show. Samsung's entry provides a 1.0-cubic-foot interior capacity while occupying only 0.8 cubic feet of exterior space. According to the company, this increases the cooking area of the microwave by 20 percent and increases the diameter of dishes that it can accommodate by 10 percent. The round cavity design also eliminates hard-to-clean corners and provides greater visibility of the cooking process.

The 800-watt units will be available in silver, black and white, and are expected to carry a suggested retail of $99 when they hit store shelves this June.

Also offering round cavity models is LG Electronics' Digital Appliance division, in 1.4-cubic-foot and 1.2-cubic-foot sizes. The larger unit, a 1,200-watt inverter model that carries a suggested retail of $149, features a 16-inch-diameter turntable, eight sensor cook keys and 24 auto cook menu options. Shipping will begin this summer.

LG also showed a Glide & Cook oven, whose unique sliding tray system with left-right motion for optimal space usage allows consumers to cook food in 10 by 15-inch rectangular dishes in addition to round ones. The unit boasts inverter technology, 1,170 watts of power and a 1.9 cubic foot cavity. Three Glide & Cook models are available beginning this month at suggested price points of $429, $499 and $599.

In addition, LG introduced its own version of a microwave oven/toaster combo, a concept that was first seen here at Samsung's Kitchen/Bath Industry Show booth last April. LG's version, available this April in $129 and $149 stainless steel models, offers 900 watts of microwave power and 800 watts of toasting juice, nine browning levels and a 0.9-cubic-foot capacity.

Highlighting Panasonic's microwave offerings are two new browning models, which can grill cheese sandwiches, pizza or even fried chicken thanks to a quartz element located on the top of the cavity. An 800-watt, 0.7-cubic-foot version with a $99.95 suggested retail is available for shipping now, while its bigger brother, a 1-cubic-foot, 1,200-watt inverter model, is due in May for $20 more.

Sharp, the market share leader in microwaves, heralded a "Hide and Sleek" countertop model that boasts a beveled-front "wave" design and a concealed control panel located behind the oven's door. The unit also features a five-digit, two-color lighted display, 11 variable power levels and three programmable cooking stages. Suggested retail is $99.95, and shipping begins this spring.

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