We heavily researched 50+ of the best powered coolers before selecting the 7 most intriguing models in 2019 to pit side-by-side for rigorous testing. For three months and hundreds of kiloWatt hours, we tested these coolers to the max to find out which provide the best temperature control, hardiest insulation, and are energy efficient enough for solar-powered van life. We measured enough energy usage and performance specs to satisfy an electrician and subjected these coolers to an impressive amount of use and abuse. We got to know the ins and outs of these fancy ice boxes extremely well and have compiled our comprehensive and easily digestible findings on to you.
The Best Powered Coolers of 2019
|Price||$999.99 at Amazon||$512.90 at Amazon||$379.99 at Amazon||$966.97 at Amazon||$146.99 at Amazon|
|Pros||Excellent temperature control, energy efficient, large capacity, extremely sturdy, full of useful features||Excellent low energy mode, long cord, good temperature range and control, useful baskets, less expensive||Very energy efficient, relatively inexpensive, impressive minimum temperature, surprisingly lightweight, long cord||Cools relatively quickly, helpful/thorough manual, long warranty, large capacity||Largest temperature range, good insulation, lightweight, few moving parts, can be used as a chest or standing up|
|Cons||Expensive, relatively short cords, no energy-saving mode||Heavy, small capacity, control panel on back||Not durable, takes a long time to cool, insulation not great, fairly loud||Temperature performance not very good, expensive, power-hungry, awkward basket||No AC cord included, not the most durable, energy hog|
|Bottom Line||Precision performance and everything you want in a cooler made to last through years of adventures.||Performance where it matters for a lower cost.||An impressive performer for a lot less than the competition.||Doesn't keep up with the competition, but surpasses them all with the highest price.||Impressive temperature range on a lightweight, no-frills thermoelectric cooler.|
|Rating Categories||Dometic CFX 50W||Whynter FM-45G||Costway 54||Fridge Freezer 50||Portable 45|
|Temperature Control (25%)|
|Energy Consumption (20%)|
|Ease Of Use (15%)|
|Specs||Dometic CFX 50W||Whynter FM-45G||Costway 54||Fridge Freezer 50||Portable 45|
|Minimum Temperature Achieved (F)||-8.9º||-5.8º||-8.9º||1.4º||52.7º with contents
|Temperature Increase in 36 Hours Unplugged (F)||20.7º||21.6º||27.9º||15.8º||9.9º|
|Power Draw in Watts (cooling)||51.8 W||65.5 W
38.9 W (eco)
|64.3 W||62.3 W|
Best Overall Powered Cooler
Dometic CFX 50W
The Dometic CFX 50W easily takes home our Editors' Choice Award this round as the best performing powered cooler. This fancy box has an impressive temperature range, reaching nearly -9ºF in our minimum temperature test and maintaining the lowest temperature when unplugged during our insulation test. It was a beast at cooling our warm drinks and keeping our ice cream frozen no matter what the temperature outside was. And to top it all off, the Dometic is one of the most energy-efficient models we tested running at normal capacity, so it's less likely to suck your battery dry while you're asleep. This thing is also built like a tank, too. And if all that performance isn't impressive enough, the Dometic also comes full of incredibly useful features like an internal light, adjustable display brightness, a (free!) app to control and monitor temperature, a USB port for charging your iPod or phone, a handy drain, and an emergency switch in case of display failure. It's also the only model we tested that's quiet enough we could fall asleep next to it without dreaming about jet engines and wind tunnels.
The Dometic is a pretty heavy cooler, at 46.4 lb when totally empty, so you'll want to load it with food after it's already placed and plugged in where you want it. It also has some fairly short cords both for DC and AC power, that are just over 6 feet long - not really long enough to string from the front plug in your car to the back hatch unless you drive a really short car! It also lacks any Eco or Low power mode that similar models have to save energy when you really need it - though it's normal running energy draw is among the best we tested! And of course, the Dometic is one of the most expensive models in this review. But if you're after the best powered cooler you can buy, we think the Dometic is worth what you'll pay.Read full review: Dometic CFX 50W
Best Bang for the Buck
Selling at retailers for about a third the price of some of its competitors, the Costway 54 Quart offers impressive performance. Though it's rated to -4ºF, we measured this bad boy reaching -8.9ºF - the same as our Editors' Choice winner! It also has the most impressive energy consumption statistics of any model we tested, with the lowest power draw on a normal setting among compressor coolers of just 50.0 watts AND has an eco-mode to boot! The Costway is impressively large inside and has both an interior light as well as special cut-outs to accommodate tall bottles you're keeping "on ice" for that backyard shindig. Weighing significantly less than the rest of the compressor models in this review, the Costway is much more pleasant to move around, and extra long cords add range to the placement of this fancy little icebox.
However, the Costway isn't known for its durability or longevity. Not only does this low-priced appliance not come with a warranty and the internet is full of user complaints of many parts breaking, but the actual model we tested was cracked when we received it, and the crack continued to grow throughout our testing. It also isn't the most insulated cooler and gained nearly 28ºF during our 36-hour insulation test, the most of any cooler we reviewed. And don't plan on sleeping next to this cooler unless you enjoy falling asleep to the dulcet tones of a thrumming fan in your face. But if you can look past these downsides (we expect receiving a cracked model an anomoly), the Costway performs admirably compared to its much more expensive competitors.
Read full review: Costway 54
Top Pick for a Thermoelectric Cooler
Koolatron Portable 45
Though thermoelectric coolers can never hold a candle to the cooling performance of a compressor-powered cooler, the Koolatron does a pretty excellent job! This lightweight ice chest has the largest range of minimum and maximum achievable temperatures of any thermoelectric model we tested and was the only one to actually reach its 40-below-ambient claim. Not to be a single-mode star, the Koolatron can also keep your food hot, making driving home takeout through rush hour traffic that much easier and better-tasting. It boasts a no-frills design that can function just as easily as a stand-up mini fridge as a chest and switches from cooling to heating with a simple reversal of the extra long cord. For such a small overall size, the Koolatron can fit an impressive amount of contents - more than some of the gigantic compressor coolers we tested!
Like most thermoelectric coolers, the Koolatron doesn't do a swift job cooling room temperature items and performs better when used in conjunction with sealed containers of ice. We quickly discovered this cooler is far and away the noisiest of any model we reviewed. It's also shockingly power hungry. And while we didn't experience any durability issues while using ours, the cord dangling out the back and overall construction didn't give us a lot of confidence that it would last the 10+ years we'd expect from a compressor cooler. But if a full-on compressor-powered cooler is too much for you, this little thermoelectric box does a pretty great job maintaining the temperature of its contents, cold or hot.
Read full review: Koolatron Portable 45
Why You Should Trust Us
Our cooler guru, Maggie Brandenburg, has spent months living out of her teardrop trailer and is unwilling to sacrifice having eggs for breakfast or enjoying mayonnaise on her sandwiches while she's out on an adventure. Her background conducting scientific research combined with her decades of experience living in the outdoors in remote locations from the wild savannah of West Africa to the scorching beaches of the Galapagos Islands give her an eagle eye for backcountry comfort. A firm believer that living in the wilderness doesn't mean eating subpar food, Maggie is passionate about bringing her favorite ingredients with her on every car camping weekend and cross country road trip. She spent weeks wading through the world of powered coolers before selecting the top contenders to subject to our rigorous testing.
Over the span of three months, Maggie tested these coolers' abilities to handle anything she could throw at them. She filled them to the top with warm things to chill, forced them to maintain their coldest temperatures for days on end, and measured their level of performance through every setting they have. She loaded them with food, packed them with beverages, and jammed them to the brim with things that spoil easily like milk, eggs, and raw meat. Bouncing down unmaintained dirt roads, being carted across parks to picnics, and used as impromptu step ladders, these coolers saw it all. Maggie has been testing and reviewing a wide variety of gear - including soft coolers and traditional hard coolers - for OutdoorGearLab for over three years.
Related: How We Tested Powered Coolers
Related: The Best Soft Coolers
Analysis and Test Results
We utilized a wide range of tests over six different, mutually exclusive metrics to form a complete picture of each cooler's performance. Each metric is rated by importance and gives an easy, comparable overall score of 1-100 for each product we reviewed. Read through each metric below to learn how we calculated each model's score and which cooler scored best in each area.
Related: Buying Advice for Powered Coolers
Powered coolers come with a staggering array of prices, from cheaper than some soft coolers and up to a grand! More importantly, we discovered through our extensive testing that these price tags don't necessarily correspond to the quality or performance of the cooler. While we never consider the price of a piece of gear during any of our score calculations, we recognize that it is an important factor in your ultimate purchasing decision.
In powered coolers, there are two main types — compressor and thermoelectric models. Compressor models get much colder, but also cost much more. Thermoelectric models are significantly less expensive but are typically only designed to drop to temps 30-40F below ambient temperature. Some can power up the heat, too, which compressor coolers cannot. Our Best Buy winner, the Costway 54, offers the most value among the compressor models. And with all thermoelectic models being relatively close in price, we think the Koolatron boasts the best value.
One of the main reasons to get a powered cooler is to be able to control the temperature of your food while you're out. All powered coolers advertise their ability to do this and make various claims about how cold they can get - but what are they really capable of? We subjected these coolers to a battery of intensive tests to find out where each model excels or falls short. We tested how cold each cooler could get, how quickly they cooled a full load of room temperature beverages, how accurate their display was to the actual internal temperature, and compared these to the manufacturer's claims as well as to each other. For thermoelectric models with a heating function (the Knox and Koolatron), we also tested their maximum temperature. The chart below sums up how well each model was able to control their temperature during all these tests.
The model best able to control its temperature is the Dometic CFX 50W. This impressive cooler performed well in every one of our temperature control tests. It, along with the Costway 54, cooled to the lowest minimum temperature of -8.9ºF. The Dometic impressively reached that frigid temperature from room temperature in one of the shortest times - just 5.5 hours! The only model to beat that amount of cooling time to its minimum temperature was the ARB, which only cooled to 1.4ºF - almost 10ºF warmer! The Dometic's display was also within about 3ºF of the actual internal temperature. It was beaten in accuracy only by the Whynter FM 45-G which was a mere 1.6ºF different.
The Costway and Whynter also scored quite well in temperature control testing. While the Costway lost some points for being slow to cool, it also reached an impressive -8.9ºF, despite advertising a minimum temperature of -4ºF. It was similarly accurate in display vs. actual temperature to the Dometic; an average of 3.8ºF different. The Whynter didn't quite meet its advertised minimum temperature of -8ºF, though hit pretty close to the mark at -5.8º. It performed decently in the time to cool test, but also boasts a Fast Freeze function that can speed this process up considerably.
Because thermoelectric coolers work relative to ambient temperature, they will never hold a candle to the impressive cooling abilities of compressor-powered coolers, which work on the same principles as your fridge at home. Many models claim to be able to cool up to 40ºF below ambient temperature. When in temperatures around 75ºF, that means a thermoelectric cooler with such a rating could cool to 35º, which is within USDA safe food parameters (below 40ºF is considered safe). We tested this to see which models could reach this advertised temperature. The only model that achieved this range is the Koolatron, which in a 67ºF room, reached 26.8º. However, it's important to note that none of the three thermoelectric coolers we tested (Knox, Koolatron, and Igloo) got anywhere near 40ºF in room temperature conditions when they were full of sodas, and only achieved this temperature when totally empty. As their directions state, it's important to load these coolers with contents that are already at the desired temperature, as they aren't really capable of cooling room temperature contents.
Only two of the thermoelectric coolers in this review also have heating functions - the Knox and Koolatron. This is an easy feature for most thermoelectric modules, as the way they function is by pumping heat from one side of the device to the other. A simple reversal of the direction the mechanism is pumping allows you to heat the inside, rather than cool it - a great feature for bringing home piping hot food or making it to the winter potluck with your hot dish still steaming. Between the Koolatron and the Knox Gear 48, the Koolatron was able to achieve much higher temperatures, hitting 130.1ºF during our testing. The Knox only reached 103.1º, which isn't much warmer than normal human body temperature. For sheer temperature control, the Koolatron far outperformed the other thermoelectric models.
Controlling the temperature of your cooler is only as valuable as the insulation that maintains that temperature. We tested the insulatory value of each cooler in this review by using them similarly to how you would use a traditional cooler - aka unplugged. While the idea behind these coolers is that they stay plugged in, they also draw power, which may be more than your power source can handle for long periods. If you need to unplug your cooler overnight, say, you want to know your food won't all spoil before you wake up in the morning. Insulation is also a factor of what and how a cooler is made, so we included durability observations from our testing process in this metric. And because these coolers are designed to last longer than our several month testing process, and perhaps longer than a decade, we also scoured the internet for other user feedback on each model. The results of our insulation testing and durability review are summarized in the chart below.
The Dometic and Whynter scored best in this metric, with very similar levels of temperature gained over our 36-hour test; 20.7º and 21.6ºF, respectively. While the ARB initially appears to be a better performer, gaining just 15.8º in the same time frame, it also started nearly 10º warmer than any other compressor model, leaving less room between internal and ambient temperature. This is also true of all the thermoelectric models, which each gained an average of about 10ºF during the insulation test - all three of them were starting from even higher internal temperatures of over 50ºF. All four compressor models we tested (Dometic, Whynter, Costway, and ARB) can also be fitted with insulated covers to add to their insulatory capacity, which we did not test but could be a great investment if you're planning to spend a lot of time in environments over 90ºF.
When it comes to durability and sheer ruggedness, the Dometic and Whynter again shine brightly. The Dometic, in particular, seems to ooze durability, with incredibly sturdy hinges and handles - two common weak points of coolers - thick walls, and reinforced corners. Its low, squatty profile helps it stay in place wherever you put it, and we had no qualms sitting on it or even using it as an impromptu step-stool. The Whynter has such thick walls they seem almost absurd, and handy grippy feet that help hold this icebox in place. The ARB also is quite ruggedly built, with thick walls and intense handles. Both the ARB and the Dometic feature a 2 pole auxiliary socket under the DC adapter that can be used to more securely plug the units into power. They require an additional adapter, but allow you to thread the plug into power, preventing it from rattling out during a bumpy drive down an abandoned and unmaintained road.
Keeping control of the temperature of your food is great, but not if it kills your car battery and leaves you stranded. Powered cooler manufacturers make all sorts of claims of energy use, and we tested all of them. We cycled through every setting on each model and measured the actual amount of power they were pulling, as well as their voltage and amperage used. Compressor models run just like your fridge, cycling through cooling and steady phases where they alternately cool their insides and sit doing nothing, waiting for the internal temperature to rise to too warm of temperature so they can kick back on again. We measured power usage during all phases of this cycle, as well as for both cooling and heating of dual-temperature thermoelectric models. Additionally, several compressor coolers we tested have low power or eco-energy modes, advertised to save you precious watts - so naturally, we tested those too. You can see the measurements we attained in our full spec table at the top of this article, and a summary of each cooler's overall performance in the chart below.
The Costway is the clear winner in this category, with both the lowest power draw of any compressor model (50.0 watts) - lower even than two of the three thermoelectric models! - as well as an eco mode that draws just 38.9 W while cooling. The Dometic was also a high-performer, using just 51.8 W to cool the largest internal capacity to the lowest temperature of any model in our review. We were also impressed by the low power mode of the Whynter, which uses the least power of any model we tested - 35.5 W. However, the Whynter didn't win top marks in this category because its normal and Fast Freeze functions both used the most energy of any model we tested, drawing 65.5 W. We were also surprised to see just how much energy the thermoelectric models used compared to their larger, more intense compressor cousins. Only the Knox cooler was competitive in this category, drawing just 46.1 W while cooling.
Only two of the coolers we tested had a low power draw mode: the Costway and Whynter. However, all four compressor models (Dometic, Costway, Whynter, and ARB) are also equipped with battery monitors that can be easily programmed to one of three levels of sensitivity and will automatically turn the chest off when your battery reaches that critical level. In general, using a High battery protection setting protects your battery more and will turn your cooler off with more juice remaining in your battery. This is best if your cooler is hooked up to a main power source battery - like your car battery. If you're running it off an auxiliary battery, a lower setting can be used. That being said, all four of these coolers had different shut-off trigger amounts for their three levels of sensitivity. It's important that you read the manual of whichever one you choose to know exactly how much juice it will sap from your battery before turning off and compare that to how much you need to be able to start your car. The Dometic and ARB offer the most conservative levels even on medium and low settings, compared to the Whynter and Costway which drop from the high setting of 11.8 or 11.7 V, respectively, down to less than 11 V just on medium, which is unlikely to be enough to start your car.
Ease of Use
This metric may seem less important with such a technical piece of gear like a powered cooler but is an important part of your overall happiness when using your new toy. After all, if every time you eat is a hassle, you're unlikely to enjoy going out on adventures anymore, and that's just sad. We took a lot of things into consideration when scoring each model in this metric. From measuring their actual internal capacity, both in liters/quarts and in the more relatable "number of cans," to noting what cords are included with each. We also used them a lot and judged how easy their lids are to open, how handily you can load/unload/find what you're looking for in each, and how loud they are while running. And, as this is one appliance that you actually need to read the instruction manual for, we evaluated the thoroughness and helpfulness of each model's included directions.
The Dometic again stood out in this category, as being incredibly user-friendly. Its low profile make it easier to find what you're looking for compared to the taller, thinner coolers. It, along with the Whynter, open along the long edge like a traditional chest, whereas the ARB and Costway both open from a short-edge hinge, which requires more space to be able to open and we preferred much less when trying to dig around to find what we were looking for. The Dometic's lid can also be easily reversed to open the other direction if you find the most convenient place to keep it is better facilitated by opening the other way. The ARB also has a removable lid, but it can't be mounted another way, just removed and then replaced, which is less convenient than being reversible.
Additionally, though it appears (from the outside and from the advertised specifications) to be about the same size as the three other compressor models, the internal capacity of the Dometic is much larger. We fit 86 cans inside - 14 more than the next largest coolers, the ARB and Costway. While most the other coolers were fairly accurate in their claimed vs. actual internal volumes, the Dometic we measured to be significantly larger than its advertised capacities - over 6 liters more! While we're not totally certain why this cooler's capacity is so underestimated, we think its advertised capacity is of the main compartment only, and it has an additional, sizable compartment inside. This is supported by Dometic's claim that this model can hold 72 cans, which is exactly how many we fit into the main compartment - but the side holds another 14. And though the thermoelectric models appear much smaller, they boast similar capacities to several of the compressor coolers. The Koolatron holds an impressive 63 cans, and the Igloo holds 60.
All four compressor models feature removable baskets that aid in loading and unloading. Our favorites were the Dometic and Whynter baskets. Both have helpful spots to be able to grab and lift them out even when they're full and heavy. Helpfully, the Dometic, Costway, and ARB all have internal LED lights to help you easily find what you're looking for in less time. Built for rugged conditions, all four compressor coolers we tested (Dometic, ARB, Costway, and Whynter) are rated to function at angles of up to 30 degrees off flat. This is an important ability for an appliance you need to rely on in tilted conditions such as the back of your Jeep while off-roading or below decks in your yacht on the open ocean. Additionally, the Dometic, Whynter, ARB, and Knox all have drain plugs to facilitate easy cleaning. Looking for a quiet model? The quietest by far is the Dometic - all other models we found to be varying levels of too-loud-to-sleep-next-to.
The general level of powered cooler portability depends a lot on its size and functioning mechanism. Because compressors are so much heavier, these kinds of powered boxes tend to come in larger sizes and are intended more for stationary use - similar to a refrigerator. Thermoelectric models, however, are much lighter and usually are manufactured in smaller sizes that facilitate their mobility. And of course, anything is harder to move when it's tethered to an electrical outlet! We considered not just the overall size and weight of each model in its portability, but also the design of handles, inclusion of wheels, and the length of included cords. Unsurprisingly, the thermoelectric coolers scored much better in this metric, though some of the larger compressor models turned out to be more portable than we anticipated.
The Knox Gear chiller/heater takes home the bacon in this category as the only model with wheels. It's also one of the lightest coolers we tested, weighing in at 14.4 lb. The lightest cooler is the Koolatron at just 14.2 lb. The Knox is also the only thermoelectric model that comes with both DC and AC cords automatically, though all four compressor models include both. That being said, the Knox's cords are also the shortest of any cooler we reviewed, which severely limits how far you can venture from an electricity source. Both the Koolatron and Igloo are pretty portable even without wheels, and they each have much longer DC cords than the Knox. We also purchased and tested their respective AC adapters, which both add a lot of additional length to how far away from your average household plug you could take your powered-on cooler, which we appreciated.
Not to be outdone, the Costway is the lightest compressor cooler we tested, at 34 lb. "Wow, that seems heavy!", you might think. But when compared to the 46.6 lb Dometic, 49.8 lb ARB and 54.6 lb Whynter, the Costway is practically featherweight and by far our favorite compressor model to have to lug in and out of the car, up and down the stairs and through the garage. It also has the second longest DC and AC cords at 7' 9.75" and 14' 7" respectively. These stats are beaten by the DC cord of the Whynter, which is 9'6" long, and the AC adapter and cord combo of the ARB, which stretches a total of 15' 3". And though it wasn't the best for overall portability, we appreciated the comfortable and sturdy handles of the Dometic and its overall rounded design that made it much more comfortable for a single person to carry than more angular models.
We don't recommend making your choice in a powered cooler based on its cool little features (or lack thereof), but we do acknowledge that these little things matter. And some coolers have more of them than others. Importantly, we also considered the manufacturer's warranties as part of this metric. If you're going to spend over a thousand - or even a couple hundred - on a piece of equipment that could potentially fail in a devastating way, it's good to know if you're covered or not. These warranty policies, of course, can and do change over time and based on who you purchase your product from, so it's important that you look into it yourself when the time comes to punch in that credit card info.
Continually a show-off (but we dig it!), the Dometic is chock full of useful features. While several manufacturers offer external displays that can be paired with your cooler, Dometic is the only one we tested that can be controlled by a free app on your smartphone. It also has a handy USB port on the back that you can quickly plug in said phone or a speaker to keep you company while you make an excellent dinner. Though all the compressor coolers we tested can switch their display temperature between Celsius and Fahrenheit, the Dometic is the only model that also has a dimmable display, making it less of an eyesore after dark, or easier to see in the bright light of day. It also is the only cooler we reviewed that has an emergency bypass switch to allow the unit to keep functioning even if the display shorts out. And to top it off, Dometic offers a full two-year manufacturer's warranty. The only cooler we tested that offers better is the three-year warranty from ARB.
Speaking of ARB, the model we tested also has a lot of features beyond its impressive warranty. The unit can easily be mounted directly to the floor to hold it in place no matter the bumps and jolts. If you're not quite ready to permanently affix it, you can also use its sturdy handles as secure tie-downs. The ARB also has cord mounts on the back of the unit that helps hold cords in place and out of the way, allowing you to slide this cooler up against a wall without leaving an awkward cord gap. Our favorite thermoelectric model features can be found in the Knox, that not only has wheels, a pull handle, and a drain, but also has the best cord storage of any powered cooler we reviewed. Both the AC and DC cords are permanently attached inside the lid and easily wind up and stuff into a hidden compartment on top.
While we typically try to highlight all the best performers in any given category, we feel it's important to note that at the time of writing, there are several of the coolers we tested that have an extremely short warranty or don't come with any warranty at all - the Costway (just 90 days) and Knox (none at all). We think this can be a pretty big gamble, as both coolers aren't cheap and have a lot of online user complaints of failures. We didn't experience any issues with the Knox during our testing, but our Costway did get a small crack near the handle, which got progressively larger the longer we used it. So take into consideration what warranty is offered with your purchase and be sure to thoroughly test your unit before it runs out. And double-check, as this may change over time and Costway and Knox may offer better warranties in the future - we certainly hope they do!
There are so many options of powered coolers out there, all with different functioning mechanisms and an array of temperature and functionality claims. It's a complicated topic to feel knowledgeable enough to spend your well-earned greenbacks on a single unit. We spent hundreds of hours researching, testing, comparing, and pushing these coolers to their limits to bring you the most accurate portrayal of some of the best powered ice chests out there. We hope that this review helps you identify the right powered cooler to suit your needs, whether you live in your van or you just want the pizza to make it home to the kids still hot.
— Maggie Brandenburg