When ice just isn't enough, a powered cooler is perfect. We researched 60+ of the top options available before purchasing the 9 best models to test side-by-side. For several months and hundreds of kilowatt hours, we put these coolers through the wringer to discover which offer top-notch temperature control, the hardiest insulation, and those efficient enough for off-the-grid living. We tested and recorded enough performance and energy usage specs to make an electrician happy and subjected them to a profound amount of use and abuse. From enduring stifling summer heat to careening down rutted gravel roads, we got to know the ins and outs of these electric boxes extremely well, and help you determine which one is right for you.Related: Best Cooler of 2020
Best Powered Cooler
Dometic CFX 50W
The Dometic CFX 50W is the best performing unit in our tests. 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 is a beast, both 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 is chock full of incredibly useful features like an internal light, adjustable display brightness, a (free!) app to control and monitor your food's temperature, a USB port for charging your iPod or phone, a handy drain for spills or defrosting, and an emergency switch that allows it to keep functioning even if the display screen fails. It's also the only model we tested that's quiet enough we can 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 comfortably string from the front plug in your car to the back hatch unless you drive a super short car! It also lacks any Eco or Low power mode that similar models feature to save energy when you need it — though its 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, we think the Dometic is worth what you pay.Read 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 still offers impressive performance. Though it's rated to -4ºF, we measured this bad boy reaching -8.9ºF! It also has some impressive energy consumption statistics, with a pretty low power draw on a normal setting (just 50 Watts) AND 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 anomaly), the Costway performs admirably compared to its much more expensive competitors.
Read review: Costway 54
Best for Energy Efficiency
Engel Platinum MT35
The Engel Platinum MT35 is an exceptionally energy-efficient compressor cooler that's also quite durable and full of handy features. Though it has no official "Eco" mode like many of its competitors do, it draws less power than any other option with or without an Eco mode - just 31.7 Watts! It still reaches a low temperature of around 5ºF, which is plenty cold to keep your ice cream safe. A galvanized steel exterior helps make this cooler feel like a tank, and thick handles only add to that feeling. It also has pretty good insulation, right on par with the best of the other compressor models we tested. An extra-long, 9.5 foot DC cord makes it much simpler to string this thing all the way to the back of your car without creating too much of a tripping hazard. The ability to install an included hinge that makes the lid easily removable is much appreciated, and the non-skid bottom mat with an internal wire basket and automatic light help make this model easy to use.
All this energy savings does have a little bit of a cost, as this model takes the longest to cool completely, and has the highest minimum temperature of any compressor cooler we tested. We also found it to be pretty loud compared to a lot of other coolers, making a very obvious noise and awkward silence as it turns on and off through the night. We tested just the small, 35L version, which not only is rather heavy (nearly 48 lbs!) but also is much smaller than we'd thought, holding only 27.5 L. And if you're searching for a cooler that's right for your seagoing vessel, the Engel is not for you, as it can't be used around saltwater. But if you don't mind the noise and love the energy savings, you'll be well-served by this super durable unit.
Read review: Engel Platinum MT35
Best 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 one of the largest range of minimum and maximum achievable temperatures of any thermoelectric model we tested and is 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 pretty simple, 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 doesn'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 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 savannahs of Western Africa to the scorching beaches of the Galapagos Islands gives 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 these top contenders to subject to our rigorous testing.
Over repeated bouts of several months at a time, 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: Best Soft Cooler of 2020
Related: Best Cooler of 2020
Analysis and Test Results
We implemented a wide range of tests over six different, mutually exclusive metrics to form a complete picture of each cooler's performance. All six metrics are rated by their relative importance in selecting the right cooler for you. Together they give a comparable overall score of 1-100 for each product. Read through each metric below to learn how we calculate each model's score and which coolers score best in each area.
Related: Buying Advice for Powered Coolers
These big boxes come in a staggering array of prices, from two to four digits! 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.
There are two main types of units we tested — 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. The Costway 54, offers the most value among compressor models we tested. And with all thermoelectric 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 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 can get, how quickly they will cool a full load of room temperature beverages, how accurate their display is compared 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, Koolatron, and Cooluli), we also tested their maximum achievable temperatures.
Without a doubt, 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 by a smidge by the Whynter FM 45-G (1.6ºF different) and Engel Platinum (2.5ºF 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 managed to reach an impressive -8.9ºF, despite advertising a minimum temperature of only -4ºF. It is similarly accurate in display vs. actual temperature to the Dometic; an average of 3.8ºF different. The Whynter doesn'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. The Engel Platinum falls a little bit short in this metric, probably because it pulls less energy than its competitors. It advertises a minimum temperature of 0ºF, and in our testing only reached as low as 5.5ºF. While this is still plenty cold enough for most normal usage, it's just not nearly as impressive as the competition. It also takes a whopping 16 hours to hit this low point from room temperature.
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 larger 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. The tiny, 4L Cooluli Mini Fridge came closest, hitting 42.8ºF, which is still not technically "safe" for food. As all four of 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.
Three of the four of the thermoelectric coolers in this review also have heating functions - the Knox, Cooluli, 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 this mechanism pumps 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. The Koolatron and Cooluli are much more able to achieve higher temperatures, hitting 130.1ºF and 136.0ºF, respectively. The Knox only reached 103.1º, which isn't much warmer than normal human body temperature. For sheer temperature control, the Koolatron far outperforms 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 be spoiled before you wake up in the morning. Insulation is also influenced by a cooler is made of and how, 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 Dometic, Engel, and Whynter scored best in this metric, with very similar levels of temperature gained over our 36-hour test; 20.7º, 18.9º, 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 temperatures. This is also true of all the thermoelectric models, which each technically gained less heat during the insulation test, but all of them were starting from much higher relative internal temperatures. All five compressor models we tested (Dometic, Whynter, Costway, Engel, 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 Engel, Dometic, and Whynter again shine brightly. The Engel has a galvanized steel exterior with thick handles and sturdy feet. 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 have 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 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 two-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 to measure the actual amount of power they pull, as well as their voltage and amperage. 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 warmer than they were set to 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.
The Engel is the clear winner in this category, with the lowest power draw of any model (compressor or thermoelectric) that we tested. Even the "Eco" modes of units that have it can't compete with this impressively efficient box that pulls just 31.7 watts, which is why the Engel is our choice for energy efficiency. The Costway is also a pretty excellent contender for power efficiency, with a regular power draw that's lower than most the other compressor models (50.0 W) and lower even than two of the thermoelectric coolers! It also boasts an "Eco" mode that brings that number down to just 38.9 W. The Dometic is also noteworthy, using just 51.8 W to cool the largest internal capacity to the lowest temperature of any model in our review. Even the low power mode of the Whynter is worth mentioning, as it just 35.5 W. However, the Whynter doesn't win top marks in this category because both its normal and Fast Freeze functions used the most energy of any model we tested, drawing 65.5 W. We are 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. The Cooluli at first appears impressive with a low, 33.9 W draw, but considering that cools just 4L of space, it quickly becomes less impressive.
Only two of the coolers we tested have a low power draw mode: the Costway and Whynter. However, all five compressor models (Dometic, Engel, Costway, Whynter, and ARB) also come equipped with battery monitors that can be easily programmed to one of two or 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 five of these coolers have slightly different shut-off trigger amounts for their various levels of sensitivity. You must 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, Engel, and Costway which drop from high settings of 11.8, 11.7, or 11.5 V, respectively, down to less than 11 V on the next step, 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 it 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 take 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 stands out in this category as being incredibly user-friendly. Its low profile allows you to 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, Engel, and Costway each open from a short-edge hinge, which requires more space to be able to open and we prefer much less when trying to dig around to find what we're 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 and Engel also have removable lids, but they can't be mounted another way, just removed and then replaced, which is a bit 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 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 relatively 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 five compressor models feature removable baskets that aid in loading and unloading. Our favorites are the Dometic, Engel, and Whynter baskets. All three have helpful spots to be able to grab and lift them out even when they're full and heavy. Helpfully, the Dometic, Costway, Engel, and ARB each have internal LED lights to help you quickly find what you're looking for. Built for rugged conditions, all five compressor coolers we tested (Dometic, ARB, Costway, Engel, 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 (though don't take the Engel to sea — it's not rated to be around saltwater!) 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 score 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, of course, is the Cooluli who's 4L size weighs just 3.7 lbs, and a handle on the top makes moving it around single-handedly an absolute breeze. The Knox and Cooluli are the only thermoelectric models that come with both DC and AC cords automatically, though all five compressor models include both. That said, the Knox's cords are 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 lbs. "Wow, that seems heavy!", you might think. But when compared to the 46.6 lb Dometic, 47.8 lb Engel, 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 bested by the DC cords of the Whynter and Engel, which are 9'6" long, and the AC adapter and cord combo of the ARB, which stretches a total of 15' 3". And though it isn't the best for overall portability, we appreciate the comfortable and sturdy handles of the Dometic and its overall rounded design that make it much more comfortable for a single person to carry than the more angular models.
We don't recommend making your choice in a powered cooler based on its nifty 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 consider the manufacturer's warranties as part of this metric. If you're going to spend over a thousand (or even a couple hundred) dollars 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 so that you can plug in a 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 warranties from Engel and 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, which 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 neither cooler is cheap and both 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