It has not been that long since I last owned a microwave oven. Infact I thought I'd be set for life where my white Panasonic NN-E279WMBPQ and I were concerned, but alas in October 2011, my mum's flagship John Lewis, Panasonic- based microwave combination oven had to be returned to John Lewis for a repair which meant she was empty handed in the kitchen and with our main convection oven also not working, would need a small microwave just to get by to reheat prepared food and drinks over the Christmas period, even though it came in handy once the power was switched back on, after dinners were ruined because of the wild weather! John Lewis came back to us with a sad tale of woe that the damaged part in my mum's combination oven would have to specially ordered from Japan no less (!) and she wouldn't probably get the oven back until anywhere around Christmas or in January 2012! Kindly, they sent her some vouchers to keep her amused. So, I handed over my Panasonic to my mother and set about looking for a replacement oven for myself. To say it has been difficult would be an understatement -especially since the cost of my original Panasonic was a mere £60 in 2010 but had now shot up to £79-99 - and there was no way I was paying that kind of money when I could so easily buy a combination oven at that price rather than microwave cooking alone.
So, in November 2011 I went on a hunt again for a microwave oven. Looking through all the review lists online revealed a shocking truth - buyers can no longer afford premium brands because the prices have received an unjustified hike - and my previous NN-E279 Panasonic oven was not alone. Just as I was about to visit a local ASDA store to seek out their "Smart Value," touch control microwave oven, I decided to check the store only to find that they were continually sold out of their touch control oven (no wonder with a price of £29-99 you'd be mad not to) and that one of their stores in England could happily send me the oven over the Christmas period. It would have been peachy but at the very least, I could check for myself whether it would be suitable before handing over my cash whilst the mechanical rotary dial based oven alternative seemed to get negative feedback. On a last ditch attempt I returned home to visit my mum and dropped into our local Scottish Hydro electrical shop. There on the shelf sat three Panasonic ovens, the latest "NN-E281BMBPQ," models in three different colours; white, silver and black - and all of them priced individually at £59-99! Tesco.com meanwhile are selling this same oven for £74-99!
Now before you wonder, Panasonic have mysteriously given this model a different model number just because it is in black or silver. The white model carries the number, "NN-E271WMBPQ," but for all intents and purposes, they are all the same model with a different exterior colour! The good news is that whilst I moaned about the lack of power and noise levels in my last Panasonic oven, it seems that within 2 years Panasonic have sat up and listened.
Compared to the old, the NN-281 is just as compact, measuring approximately 43cm length by 25cm height and 33cm depth. In a matt, glossy black colour my model just seems to feel better made, with the door fitting flush and properly aligned. An immediate downside to this colour though is that finger marks are easily seen, which is a pity! The oven also weighs 11kg so it's quite a hefty beast once it is lifted out of the box. It comes with fixings that allow the Panasonic to be wall mounted but it doesn't come with a wall mount kit. Around the back however, Panasonic have made the magnetron box slightly smaller, so wedging it into a small space is easier than the last oven and I love how Panasonic have retained open vents at the back that allow the cable to be wound around a cord hook storer and an imprint vent where the plug can be slid into, when not using the oven for long periods.
The Panasonic NN-281 has 800 watts cooking power and a slightly bigger 20 litre compared to the 19 litre of old and 700 watts. At last I can put my rectangular pasta maker into this Panasonic without fear of it banging off the sides! The actual capacity is mysterious though. When I open the door, there's barely 1cm between the opened door and the glass turntable, suggesting to any buyer that a large dinner plate could never be placed in there. However, I can confirm that in terms of accommodation, I'm delighted that the Panasonic can take a full size large round dinner plate to the size of 27cm, and even square dishes if you have them.
At last, I can also stick to the actual cooking directions that most prepared foods and tins dictate to the halo of "800 watts"/E rating rather than having to calculate a couple of minutes before hand or thereafter! More to the point though, Panasonic haven't messed about with the easy to use, easy to read & clean seamless smooth and flush control panel and if you haven't owned or used a Panasonic oven before, then you'll love the fact that you won't really need to read the user manual for basic operation - though it does surprise me that several online buyer reviewers point out that the user manual must be consulted first. Whatever did they use before the Panasonic, I wonder? Every button on this oven is clearly labelled, every power level is clearly actioned, even though some downsides from the past still remain, like having to press the "Micro Power," many times to get a lower power rating than "High," such as "Medium," "Low," "Warm" and Defrost settings, 1, 2 and 3 that act like the old "Simmer/Reheat" function dependent on the numbers you select. Again when you make these selections and then look to the LED panel you'll see a little green line that confirms against the wording written on the lower panel of the LED screen. It is a budget oven after all though and having to check what you pick soon becomes automatic when selecting the power options with continued, general use.
There are a few surprises to the control panel though - it isn't just a touch sensitive pad with programs and Panasonic have followed on with what they did with my older oven. The main Micro button to activate the heat levels has a detectable 3-pad pressure backing behind the panel - so whether you touch the button to the left, right or middle of the plastic, you'll always get the Micro function regardless. There's also a handy timer function that is fantastic to use if you're waiting for your main oven to bake a cake or bread, or just need a timer in the kitchen for other preparations. Most of all it is good to see that even at this price, Panasonic have fitted a child lock to the panel and once selected (unless you know how) the panel becomes void and can't be activated. What a pity then that the only downside to the green LCD panel is that the built in clock isn't of the 24-hour format, but that's an issue I'm happy to live with!
Compared to the older oven, this microwave also has 2 extra auto cook programs including auto-reheat functions and like most ovens these days (but not all, especially the budget ones) the Panasonic NN-281 will allow you to double program the cooking so that you can have one high heat program and then another dependent on need. This is great for the cooking of foods you know well without having to even think about using the auto cook programs, which sadly still rely on you having to learn how heavy the food is and having to check the food every couple of minutes when the oven intermittently stops. So for making traditional porridge oats for example, I'd put the cold porridge in after submerging it in water or milk, program on High for 1 minute and then 2 minutes on the lowest program. Like the older oven, Panasonic have retained the basic 10 minute, 1 minute and 10 second timings. The Panasonic will beep twice after it has finished the first program and go onto the next that you've programmed automatically - and like all Panasonic touch-control ovens, this one will alert you with 5 beeps at the end when the prep has been finished.
The difference with the auto cook programs is that you have to know the weight of the food you're cooking before the auto programs sense the food type and adjust the cooking time accordingly. I didn't have time for the old oven and I don't have the time to keep manually dialling the weight of the food into the Panasonic so that it cooks. I've been microwave cooking for the best part of 30 odd years and I don't like auto cook programs in general. The NN-281's auto cook programs require you to check the food after it has been cooked and will give you an audible 2 beep alert so that food can be inspected or stirred, before hitting the start button again to continue the cooking process. The options are pretty simple enough like "Curry," "Chinese" and "Pasta," auto reheat & cook programs, further advancing to "Bread," "Meat Items" and "Meat Joints." Thanks to the budget origins though you have to remember to press the auto defrost button once, twice or 3 times to select the food options on offer before entering the weight and then allowing the Panasonic to do the cook work.
In terms of performance though, cooking and defrosting are both as good, if not excellent and better than my old oven. I don't like to defrost food generally unless it is bread or something that I've home prepared like soup, that doesn't contain uncooked meat or fish, thus minimising any chance of over-cooking, contamination or under-defrosting. Ready cooked foods and meats such as sausages or bacon for example can be done well in 4 minutes on the high power, the requirement to heat up tea takes 40 seconds and food doesn't come out looking soggy or overly dry unless I've mis-timed it!
With noise and operation, the NN-281 is a touch quieter than my old oven too. This oven doesn't pulse, as noisily in between cooking stages either and that's a welcome relief, with the only whoosh heard from the fan and a slight whine. For this price though, it lacks the Inverter technology that would give this oven a near silent performance and a much flatter backing - but you can't have everything at this price - not in this year anyway! Another design addition is that the fan vents have been located to the left hand side of the oven - so if you are going to place the oven in a closed space, at least give the left hand side 10cm width gap so that the air can diffuse.
Inside Panasonic have retained the dark grey Acrylic lining. It worked well in the last oven and it works well here, banishing years of white acrylic paint that shows up food stains all too easily. The oven is also fairly easy to wipe clean thanks to this Acrylic coating, giving it an almost smooth non-stick tactile feeling and there are thankfully no awkward partitions inside the oven (aside from the light to the right hand side) where food can get trapped, or make it difficult to get a damp flannel into. The glass turntable is dishwasher safe at least but it's a pity that the runner wheel ring isn't.
The downsides to the NN-281 are harder to spot. Despite the initial weight of the oven, Panasonic could improve the feet that the oven rests on. The door release button can sometimes move the whole oven whenever you need to gain access and I believe that it is the feet design here to blame and not the heavy weight of the oven. I have had other brands in rented properties that are cheaper at cost price and by brand reputation where the base feet are flatter rather than stubby, narrow rubberised points and this is where Panasonic could make a rather simpler adjustment so that the oven doesn't move if the door mechanism is actioned.
At the end of the day the Panasonic NN-E281BMBPQ is a good all round, basic touch control microwave oven and I'm very pleased at being able to find it at a cheap cost price. Reasonably well made with a good user manual that is both helpful and has a few tips and recipes, it is a well thought out appliance that is both easy to use, easy to clean and cooks to a very high standard and for the price I paid, a total bargain - especially as it comes with a standard 2 year guarantee as a bonus! Thanks for reading. * An exclusive review for Dooyoo. ©Nar2 2012.
The Panasonic NN-E281BMBPQ Solo Microwave Oven , with its wipe-clean acrylic interior and sophisticated black exterior, offers 5 power levels to ensure you select the best setting to suit your food / 800W power and a 20-litre capacity make the Panasonic NN-E281BMBPQ a helpful kitchen tool / The microwave features 9 preset auto-cook programmes which will cook your food to perfection once the weight has been entered / Touch control makes cooking and heating accurate and efficient / Recruit a helping hand in the kitchen with the Panasonic NN-E281BMBPQ Solo Microwave Oven ! General information Type Microwave oven Max / Power (in W.) / Short name: Pana NN-E281BMBPQ