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When ice just isn't enough, a powered cooler is perfect. We researched 60+ top options available before purchasing the 11 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 well to help you determine which one is right for you.
Lowest temperature achieved: -7.6ºF | Power draw while cooling: 50.7 Watts
REASONS TO BUY
Incredible temperature range and control
Tough and well-built
Integrated smartphone app
Convenient and easy to use
REASONS TO AVOID
Lacks an additional energy-saving mode
Shorter cords than average
The Dometic CFX3 45 is a seriously impressive powered cooler that's convenient to use, rugged enough for just about every adventure, and designed to keep things cool and fresh under nearly any circumstance. This particular model is the updated version of another Dometic model we've loved for years. Some of our favorite upgrades include a better-designed interior, a streamlined app, and extra features like the ability to handle inclines of up to 30 degrees. With two internal baskets (one of which has a removable divider), the CFX3 has the organizational capacity and the convenient dimensions to fit all the items you might want to bring — from a carton of eggs to a bottle of champagne. The internal light faces backward, a drain allows for easy cleaning, a single USB port on the front makes charging your device easy, and the simplified app will alert you if the lid is left open for longer than 3 minutes. It's one of the quietest models we tested and gets the coldest. There's so much we love about this powered cooler.
While it doesn't have an "Eco" mode, like many of its competitors do, the Dometic CFX3 has three battery levels that change how long the cooling cycle runs to conserve your precious electrical juice. It also draws just 50.7 Watts while cooling (even to subzero temperatures), which is on the lower end of average among models we tested. Though many features have been tweaked and updated in this latest model, both the AC and DC cords are still barely over 6 feet long, which feels rather short in our vehicles. It's also one of the most expensive models we tested. But for the impressive performance, rugged durability, and hard-to-understate convenience, the CFX3 is the best we've tested, and worth the investment for serious camping and van living.
Lowest temperature achieved: -8.9ºF | Power draw while cooling: 50.0 Watts (Normal), 38.9 Watts (Eco)
REASONS TO BUY
Impressive minimum temperature
REASONS TO AVOID
Slow to cool
Not well insulated
Selling at retailers for about a third the price of some of its competitors, the Costway 54 offers impressive performance. Though it's rated to -4ºF, we measured this unit reaching -8.9ºF. It also has 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 your backyard shenanigans. The Costway's extra-long cords add range to its placement and are much more pleasant to move around, weighing significantly less than the rest of the compressor models in this review.
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 upon arrival and continued to crack during testing. It also 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. But if you can look past these downsides (we expect receiving a cracked model to be an anomaly), the Costway performs admirably compared to its much more expensive competitors.
Lowest temperature achieved: 5.5ºF | Power draw while cooling: 31.7 Watts
REASONS TO BUY
Impressive energy efficiency
Lengthy DC cord
REASONS TO AVOID
Not a very low minimum temperature
Can't be around saltwater
The Engel Platinum MT35 is an exceptionally energy-efficient compressor cooler. Though there's no official "Eco" mode like many of its competitors, 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. The galvanized steel exterior makes this cooler feel like a tank, and its thick handles 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 simpler to string this thing to the back of your car without creating too much of a tripping hazard. We appreciate the hinge that allows for easy removal of the lid. The MT35's user-friendliness is bolstered by its internal wire basket, a non-skid bottom mat, and the automatic light.
This model's energy savings have a cost. Of our test group, it's one of the slowest to cool completely and has nearly the highest minimum temperature of the compressor coolers. It was also quite loud compared to many of its rivals, making a very obvious noise and awkward silence as it powers on and off throughout the night. We only tested the small, 35L version, which is heavy for the capacity (nearly 48 pounds) and much smaller than anticipated, holding just 27.5 liters. 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.
Lowest temperature achieved: 26.8ºF | Power draw while cooling: 62.3 Watts
REASONS TO BUY
Greatest temp range of any thermoelectric model
Heats and cools
Can be used as a chest or upright
REASONS TO AVOID
No AC adapter included
Not extremely durable
Though thermoelectric coolers can't compare to a compressor-powered cooler's cooling performance, the Koolatron Portable 45 does a pretty nice job. This lightweight ice chest has one of the largest ranges of minimum and maximum achievable temperatures of any thermoelectric model we tested and is the only one to actually reach its 40-degrees-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. It boasts a rather simple, no-frills design that can function just as easily as a stand-up mini-fridge as it does a chest, and it switches from cooling to heating with a simple reversal of the extra-long cord. The Koolatron can also hold an impressive amount of content for such an overall small size — 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 by far the noisiest of any model we reviewed. It's also shockingly power-hungry. And while we didn't experience any durability issues, 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 hope to get from a compressor model. However, 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.
For the past several years, we've spent months testing these coolers' abilities to handle everything we can throw at them. We fill them to the top with warm things to chill, force them to maintain their coldest temperatures for days, and measure their levels of performance through every setting they have. We load them with food, beverages, and 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 have seen it all.
Our testing of powered coolers are divided across six rating metrics:
Temperature Control tests (25% of overall score weighting)
Insulation tests (25% weighting)
Energy Consumption tests (20% weighting)
Ease of Use tests (15% weighting)
Portability tests (10% weighting)
Features tests (5% weighting)
Our cooler guru, Maggie Nichols, has been leading the testing of this category for several years now. Maggie has spent months living out of her teardrop trailer and relying on a powered cooler to keep her food refrigerated. Her background in conducting scientific research combined with her decades of experience living outdoors in remote locations, from the wild savannahs of Western 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 spends weeks wading through the world of powered coolers before selecting the latest and greatest contenders to subject to our rigorous testing.
Analysis and Test Results
To form a complete picture of each cooler's performance, we implement a wide range of tests over six different, mutually exclusive metrics. All six metrics are rated by their relative importance in selecting the right cooler for you. Together they give a comparable combined score for each product.
These big boxes come in a staggering array of prices, from two to four digits. Though some of the most expensive models we tested are also some of the best-performing, there are several that stand out as high-value options with exceptional performances that match or outstrip their price tags.
There are two main types of units we tested — compressor and thermoelectric models. Compressor models get much colder, but also come at a higher price. Thermoelectric models are significantly less expensive but can only cool to temps 30-40°F below ambient air temperature. Some thermoelectric units can power up the heat too, which compressor coolers cannot. The Costway 54 offers the most value among the compressor models tested, boasting cold temperatures and solid performance for a price that's just a fraction of some of its competitors. Most thermoelectric models are relatively close in price, but we think the Koolatron boasts strong value. And though the Whynter model exceeds both of these in price, we are very impressed that it can perform alongside the strongest and highest-performing competition for considerably less.
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 see where each model excels or falls short. We tested how cold each cooler can get, how quickly they 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. We also tested maximum achievable temperatures for those thermoelectric models with a heating function.
One of the best models when it comes to controlling its temperature is the Dometic CFX3 45. This impressive cooler performed well in every one of our temperature control tests. It reached an impressive minimum temperature of -7.6°F — bested only by the Costway 54 by just over a degree (-8.9°F). The Whynter FM-45G isn't far off either, hitting -5.8°F. The Dometic's display was also within less than 3ºF of its actual internal temperature. Its accuracy was beaten only by a smidge by the Whynter FM-45G (1.6ºF different) and Engel Platinum (2.5ºF different).
The Costway and Whynter also perform quite well in temperature control testing. While the Costway lost some points for being slower to cool, it managed to reach an impressive -8.9ºF, despite advertising a minimum temperature of just -4ºF. It's similarly accurate regarding its displayed temperature vs. the actual temperature to the Dometic, an average difference of 3.8ºF. The Whynter doesn't quite meet its advertised minimum temperature of -8ºF, though it was pretty close to the mark at -5.8ºF. It performed decently in the time to cool test and boasts a Fast Freeze function that can speed this process up considerably.
Because thermoelectric coolers work relative to ambient temperature, they can never truly compare to the impressive cooling abilities of compressor-powered coolers, which work on the same principles as your home fridge. 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 models that achieved this range are the Koolatron and Wagan, which in a 67ºF room, reached 26.8ºF and 30.2°F respectively. However, it's important to note that none of the larger thermoelectric coolers we tested (Knox, Koolatron, and Igloo) reached anywhere near 40ºF in room temperature conditions when they were full of sodas, and only achieved this temperature when completely empty. The only thermoelectric model to actually accomplish this was the Wagan. The tiny, 4L Cooluli Mini Fridge came close, hitting 42.8ºF, which is still not technically "safe" for food, according to the USDA. As all 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.
Four of the five thermoelectric coolers in this review also have heating functions — the Knox, Cooluli, Wagan, and Koolatron. This is a simple feature for most thermoelectric modules, as they function by pumping heat from one side of the device to the other. A simple reversal of direction allows this mechanism to pump heat in the opposite direction, warming the inside rather than cooling it. This is an excellent feature for bringing home piping hot food or making it to the winter potluck with your hot dish still steaming. The Wagan, Koolatron, and Cooluli are most easily able to achieve higher temperatures, hitting 137.3°F, 130.1ºF, and 136.0ºF, respectively. The Knox, on the other hand, only reached 103.1ºF, which isn't much warmer than normal human body temperature. For sheer temperature control, the Koolatron outperforms the other thermoelectric models.
Controlling the temperature of your cooler is only as valuable as the insulation that maintains that temperature. We test the insulation value of each cooler 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 on a hot summer's eve, you want to know your food won't be spoiled before you wake up. Insulation is also influenced by what a cooler is made of and how well it's made. Thus, we include durability observations from our testing process in this metric.
The Dometic and Engel score best in this metric, both keeping their contents well insulated and gaining just 17.6°F and 18.9°F respectively over the course of 36 hours. The Whynter is another strong contender, gaining 21.6°F in the same time frame. The Alpicool scores well in our insulation testing also, gaining just 14.9°F in 36 hours, but loses some minor points for its less durable build compared to other compressor models we tested. While the ARB Fridge Freezer 50 initially appears to be a great insulation performer, gaining just 15.8º in 36 hours, 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, while all of them started from much higher relative internal temperatures. All of the compressor models we've tested can also be fitted with insulated covers to add to their insulation 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 once again shine brightly. The Engel has a galvanized steel exterior with thick handles and sturdy feet. In particular, the Dometic 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 stays 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 thick walls and grippy feet that help hold this icebox in place. The ARB is also 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 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 unmaintained road.
Controlling your food temperature is great, but not if it leaves you stranded by killing your car battery. Powered cooler manufacturers make all sorts of energy use claims, and we test them. We cycle through each setting on every 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. We measure 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 have tested feature low power or eco-energy modes, advertised to save you precious watts — so naturally, we test 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 units with "Eco" modes can't compete with this impressively efficient box that pulls just 31.7 Watts, which is why the Engel is our recommendation if you're most interested in energy efficiency. The Costway is also an excellent contender for power efficiency, with a regular power draw that's lower than most of the other compressor models (50.0 W) and lower even than two of the thermoelectric coolers. It also boasts an "Eco" mode, bringing that number down to just 38.9 W. The Dometic CFX3 is nearly in the same boat, using just 50.7 Watts to cool. Not far behind, is the Alpicool, which draws 52.9 Watts in Max mode and 38.6 Watts in Eco mode.
The Whynter's 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. Drawing just 46.1 W while cooling, the Knox cooler was competitive in this category, while the initially impressive Cooluli boats a low, 33.9 W draw. However, considering that it cools just 4L of space, it quickly becomes much less impressive.
Several of the coolers we tested have a low power draw mode, including the Costway and Alpicool. However, all the compressor models we tested also come equipped with battery monitors that can easily be programmed to one of two or three levels of sensitivity and will automatically turn the chest off when your battery reaches a critical level. In general, using a high battery protection setting conserves 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, such as your car battery. However, a lower setting can be used if you're running it off an auxiliary battery. That being said, all of these coolers have slightly different shut-off trigger levels for their various levels of sensitivity. Whichever one you choose, you should read the manual carefully to know exactly how much juice it will drain from your battery before turning off and compare it to how much you need to start your car.
Ease of Use
This metric may not seem as crucial with such a technical piece of gear, 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 more likely not to want to go 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, and how loud they are while running. As this is one appliance that you 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 for its incredible user-friendliness. Its low profile allows you to easily find what you're looking for compared to the taller, thinner coolers. It, along with the ARB, Engel, Alpicool, and Costway each open from a short-edge hinge. Many of these offer different lid-opening orientations based on what size you buy. The Whynter opens along its long edge, more like a traditional cooler or trunk. The ARB and Engel have removable lids, but they can't be mounted another way, just removed and then replaced, which isn't as convenient as the reversible lids.
All the compressor models we tested feature removable baskets that aid in loading and unloading. Our favorites are the Dometic, Engel, and Whynter baskets. All three have helpful spots to grab and lift them out even when they're full and heavy, and wires that are closer together to hold items better. The Dometic, Costway, Alpicool, Engel, and ARB each have internal LED lights so you can quickly locate what you're looking for.
Built for rugged conditions, all the compressor coolers we tested (Dometic, ARB, Costway, Engel, and Whynter) are rated to function at angles of up to 30 degrees (the Alpicool says up to 45 degrees) off flat. This is an important ability for an appliance for which you need to rely on in tilted conditions, such as the back of your Jeep while off-roading or below decks in your yacht (though don't take the Engel to sea, as it's not rated to be around saltwater). Additionally, the Dometic, Whynter, ARB, and Knox Gear 48 Quart all have drain plugs to facilitate easy cleaning. Are you searching 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. However, thermoelectric models are much lighter and usually manufactured in smaller sizes that facilitate their mobility. And, of course, anything is harder to move when it's tethered to an electrical outlet. Not only did we consider the overall size and weight of each model in its portability, but also the design of handles, inclusion of wheels, as well as the length of included cords. Unsurprisingly, the thermoelectric coolers score much higher in this metric, though some of the larger compressor models turned out to be more portable than we anticipated.
Our favorite model in this metric is the Wagan 12V 14 Liter Personal Fridge/Warmer. This small, 8.4 pound, thermoelectric cooler/heater has a shoulder strap to facilitate easy carrying and is the perfect shape and size to double as a backseat armrest on road trips. The Knox Gear chiller/heater is another outstanding model, as it's the only one we tested with wheels. It's rather light, weighing just 14.4 pounds. The lightest cooler, of course, is the Cooluli, whose 4L body weighs just 3.7 pounds, and a handle on the top makes moving it around an absolute breeze.
The Knox and Cooluli are the only thermoelectric models that come with both DC and AC cords right out of the box, though all the compressor models we tested include both. That being said, the Knox's cords are the shortest of any cooler we reviewed, severely limiting how far you can venture from an electrical 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 Alpicool and Costway are the lightest compressor coolers we tested, at 30 and 34 pounds, respectively. "Wow, that seems heavy," you might think. But when compared to the 42 lb Dometic, 47.8 lb Engel, 49.8 lb ARB, and 54.6 lb Whynter, the Alipcool and Costway seem practically featherweight. The Costway has the second-longest DC and AC cords at 7' 9.75" and 14' 7", respectively. These stats are only 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 this model 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 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. We noted what features each model has and just how handy they actually are. From cup holders to drain plugs, you might be surprised to learn some of the thoughtful details many of these coolers come with.
Continually a show-off (but we dig it), the Dometic is chockfull 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 — that even warns you when the lid has been open for longer than 3 minutes. It also has a handy USB port on the front so you can plug in a phone or speaker to keep you company while you make an excellent dinner outdoors. Though all the compressor coolers we tested can switch their display temperature between Celsius and Fahrenheit, the Dometic is the only model with a dimmable display, making it less of an eyesore after dark and 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.
The ARB has many features we found extremely useful. The unit can easily be mounted directly to the floor to hold it in place, no matter the bumps and jolts. You can also use its sturdy handles as secure tie-downs if you're not quite ready to affix it permanently. The ARB also has cord mounts on the back of the unit for holding cords in place and out of the way, allowing you to slide this cooler up against a wall without leaving an awkward gap.
Our favorite thermoelectric model features can be found in the Wagan, which has two legit cup holders (not just minor indents) on the front, a third compartment for miscellaneous items, a compartment for storing the cord on the back, and a fantastic shape that feels made to be a backseat car armrest. We also like the Knox, which has wheels, a pull handle, a drain, and great cord storage. Both the AC and DC cords are permanently attached inside the lid and easily wind up and stuff into a hidden compartment on top.
With so many options of powered coolers out there these days, it can feel overwhelming to make an informed purchasing decision. If you're confused by all the different functioning mechanisms and the array of temperature and functionality claims, don't feel like you're the only one! It's a complicated topic and a big purchasing decision, and that's why we're here to make it easier. We've spent hundreds of hours over several years testing, comparing, and pushing these coolers to their limits, to bring you the most accurate portrayal of what these products have to offer. Whether you're a van lifer looking for a kitchen upgrade, or have to travel a long way to get groceries, we hope that this review simplifies the decision-making process and helps you find the best-powered cooler for your needs and budget.
GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.