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These are the best coolers you can buy this summer

If you enjoy a frosty beverage on a hot, sunny day, you'll need a dependable cooler this summer. Here are our top picks out of the 12 that we tested.

Chris Monroe/CNET

From tailgating to summer barbecues, a dependable cooler is an awfully nice thing to have on hand, and these days, you've got more options than ever. That's largely thanks to a new crop of high-end "rotomolded" coolers that promise significantly better insulation than traditional coolers -- albeit at a much higher price than you're probably used to paying.

So, are they worth it? Can any of the cheap ones keep up? That's what I wanted to know, so I rounded up all of the usual suspects -- Igloo, Coleman, Rubbermaid -- and pitted their most popular models against the rotomolded likes of Yeti, Orca, Rovr and others to see which ones are worth the cold, hard cash. Here's everything I learned, starting with the ones I think you should rush out and buy before it gets any hotter out.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Best rotomolded cooler

Orca Classic Cooler, $300

Rotomolding is short for rotational molding, a manufacturing technique that literally spins the mold as the plastic is poured in. The result: plastic that's more durable, more uniform in density and, most importantly in the case of coolers, better at insulation.

Rotomolded coolers won't come cheap, but they're demonstrably better than the competition at keeping things cold. If you're ready to buy in, you should start with the 58-quart Orca Classic Cooler. At $300, it's expensive, but not more expensive than other rotomolded coolers of this size, and it offers the strong performance that you would expect for the price. The only other cooler I tested that managed to outperform it was the Yeti Tundra 45, which also costs $300 -- but that cooler only offers an 38-quart capacity.

That means that if you've got $300 to spend and you're picking between the Yeti and the Orca, you're picking between an extra 0.75-inch of insulation and the performance boost that comes with it (Yeti), or a 35 percent bump in storage space (Orca). The Yeti is an impressive performer, but the Orca is excellent as well, and you'll notice the difference from its extra capacity. Orca's cooler also comes with a lifetime warranty, besting the five years of coverage you get from Yeti. It couldn't be closer between the two -- their overall CNET scores are only separated by 0.1 -- but for my money, the Orca is the more well-rounded option.

Available at Amazon
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Best value pick

Igloo MaxCold Cooler, $45

If you just want a dependable cooler that's not too expensive, put the Igloo MaxCold at the top of your list. At an asking price of $45, it was the only cooler that costs less than $50 that finished in the top five in my performance tests. In fact, it finished in third. Only the Yeti and Orca managed to outperform it -- and again, both of those cost $300.

The MaxCold's plasticky build and dated design aren't anything fancy to look at, but it covers the basics by including a drainage spout and a latch for the lid (not every cooler in this price range does). Plus, it's sturdy enough to sit on, which could come in handy during your next camping trip. All of that adds up to a lot of value -- enough so that the MaxCold earned an overall score of 8.2 here on CNET, higher than any other cooler I've reviewed.

Available at Amazon
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Best performance

Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, $300

I told you a couple of paragraphs ago that the $300 Yeti Tundra 45 was our top-performing cooler, but I should also add that it really wasn't close. With walls that are about 2.75 inches thick, it offers more insulation than you'll find with any other cooler that I've tested to date, which is key for performance.

Lots of insulation means that the Yeti can do more with less. With just 3 pounds of ice -- not even enough to fully cover the bottom of the cooler -- the Yeti was able to pull its internal ambient temperature down by almost 25 degrees, the biggest temperature drop of the group. From there, it was dramatically better at holding the cold. After 24 hours in a climate-controlled room set to 70 degrees, the Yeti was the only cooler that still had ice in it. After 48 hours, it was the only cooler that still hadn't returned to room temperature.

You'll want to check out my full review of the Tundra 45 to get a better sense of just how badly it smoked the competition, but a good analogy would be a horse that separates itself from the pack early on and wins its race in a breakaway finish. I wish the Tundra 45 offered more capacity for the price, but if you just want the cooler that'll keep your ice frozen the longest, this is the one.

Available at Amazon
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Best design

Lifetime High Performance Cooler, $97

If you want a cooler that feels modern and fancy, but you aren't ready to dish out hundreds of dollars for a rotomolded model, consider the Lifetime High Performance Cooler, which I found on sale at Walmart for $97. It was a top-5 performer in my tests, essentially tying the excellent Igloo MaxCold while also offering a significant step up in build quality. 

The Lifetime cooler isn't rotomolded, but that's the kind of aesthetic that it offers. Call it a lookalike if you must, but it's a very good one, with elegant roped handles, dual-locking lid latches and even a built-in bottle opener, something you won't get with the Yeti or Orca. It's also bigger than both of those pricier options, coming in at a bigger-than-advertised 62.4 quarts. If you're looking for a top performer that looks the part, Lifetime's design offers the most bang for your buck.

Available at Amazon
Chris Monroe/CNET

Best mobility

Rovr Rollr 60 Cooler, $399

You've got lots of options if you want a wheeled cooler, but if it were me buying, I'd save up and plunk down $400 for the Rovr Rollr 60. Though it wasn't quite as strong of a performer as the Yeti or Orca, it still finished our tests with above-average cooling capabilities, and it was, by far, the easiest and most comfortable cooler to transport from point A to point B (as long as you don't have to carry it for very long. With 9-inch wheels and a frame built from stainless steel and aluminum, the Rollr is quite heavy even before you start loading drinks into it). 

On top of that, I like the included removable fabric wagon bin and a plastic dry bin that helps you keep items separate from wet ice. If you're willing to pay a little extra, you can customize your cooler with extras like a built-in prep board for campsite cooking, stainless-steel drink holders or even a $50 "Bikr Kit" that makes it easy to tow the Rollr behind a bike (though, at $400, I wish at least one or two of these came included).

In fairness, we've only tested a couple of wheeled coolers so far, and the Rollr was the only one that I'd be happy to own. If I find a better value pick in the future I'll update this space, but for now, I think Rovr's wheeled cooler is well worth the money.

Available at Rovrproducts.com
Ry Crist/CNET

Best cooler for cheapskates

Lifoam Styrofoam Cooler, $4

One last recommendation -- if you don't want to spend more than $20 on a cooler, then you might as well not bother with cheapies like the $15 Igloo Island Breeze and $20 Rubbermaid Ice Chest coolers and go with a cheap, Styrofoam cooler from the grocery or gas station, instead. A bold claim, I know, and not the most environmentally friendly one, but the $4 Lifoam model pictured above held its own surprisingly well in my tests, with lower average temperatures than any of the dirt-cheap plastic coolers I tested. Just sayin'...

And hey, while we're talking tests...

What we tested

I gathered a total of eleven hard-bodied coolers for this roundup, aiming for a mix of low-end, high-end and in-between-end. Capacity varied from model to model, but I tried to keep things as close to 50 quarts as I could -- big enough for folks who want dozens of cold beers on hand at their next beach party, but not too big if you're just looking for something to feed the family out of at your next picnic. I also made sure to test both rolling and nonrolling models.

Here's all of them along with what they cost, where we got them from and a dedicated CNET review for each one (yep, even the cheap ones).

Oh, and the $4 Lifoam cooler. Can't forget that one.

That list isn't meant to be exhaustive. We only had the budget and the time to acquire and test so many coolers, so some brands of note like Pelican and Ozark Hills didn't make the cut. We haven't tested soft coolers yet, either. If there's enough reader interest, I'll test them all out down the road and update this post accordingly -- in the meantime, if there are any specific models you'd like me to consider testing, let me know in the comments.

After 48 hours in a 70-degree room with 3 pounds of ice in each cooler, the Yeti (represented by the salmon-colored line at the bottom) was far and away our top finisher.

Ry Crist/CNET

How we tested them

Ice retention

The big differentiator that you'll hear a lot about as you shop for a cooler is "ice retention" -- specifically, how long a cooler can keep a full load of ice frozen. The new, expensive options all hang their hat on this test, with rotomolded coolers specifically designed to ace it (and in doing so, justify their price tags).

That's all well and good, but I worried that a standard ice retention test on its own wouldn't tell us the whole story. Sure, some coolers would probably keep the ice frozen for a lot longer than others, but using the melting point as your metric seems to disregard everything that comes before. I wanted to get a good sense of performance not just seven days in, but seven hours in, before any of the ice had even melted at all.

To do that, I started with a modified version of the ice retention test. Instead of a full load of ice in each cooler, I went with just 3 pounds -- not even half of a small bag from the gas station. Less ice meant more of a challenge for the coolers, which would hopefully give us a more granular look at how well they perform relative to one another. 

If rotomolded coolers like the Yeti are too expensive for your budget, then put the $45 Igloo MaxCold Cooler at the top of your list.

Ry Crist/CNET

Specifically, I wanted to track the ambient temperature in each cooler, so I spread the ice in each one I tested beneath an elevated jar of propylene gylcol solution (watered-down antifreeze) with a temperature probe in it. Why elevated? The temperature down in the ice would have been roughly the same in all of the coolers, leaving retention as the only real variable. Tracking the ambient temperature up above it was much more telling, and it gave us some additional variables to consider.

Oh, and I did all of this in one of our appliance lab's climate-controlled test chambers, and I made sure to let each cooler sit opened in the room for several hours beforehand in order to ensure that they all started within a degree or so of room temperature (about 70 degrees F).

In the end, it turned out to be a fruitful test. After 48 hours, I had a nifty graph showing me the temperature inside each cooler on a minute-by-minute basis -- and the difference from cooler to cooler was striking. 

It didn't get quite as cold as Rubbermaid or the Igloo Island Breeze, but the $4 Lifoam cooler that I used as a control unit actually held to its minimum temp longer than Igloo or Rubbermaid, and returned a lower overall average temperature than either of them as a result.

Ry Crist/CNET

Some were able to do more with that measly helping of ice than others -- particularly the Yeti cooler, which kept the ambient temperature colder than any other cooler I tested for longer than any other cooler I tested. After 24 hours, the Yeti was the only cooler with any ice left in it at all, and at the end of the test, it was the only model that hadn't returned to room temperature yet.

And the worst? That'd be the Rubbermaid Ice Chest Cooler, which couldn't get the inside of the cooler any colder than 55.7 degrees F. On top of that, its average temperature for the duration of the test was 66.8 degrees F -- a warmer average than any other cooler I tested. Even than the $4 Styrofoam control cooler did better than that. Not cool, Rubbermaid.

It's nothing too fancy, but the $42 Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler offers a whopping 70-quart capacity, which is fantastic for the price.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Capacity considerations

If we're going to talk about performance, we have to talk about capacity, too. Though some sizes are more popular than others (50-quart, for instance), there really isn't much uniformity among coolers as far as size and shape are concerned. That'll obviously have an impact on performance. After all, with the quantity of ice being equal, a 70-quart cooler like the Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler has a bigger job on its hands than the 48-quart Igloo Island Breeze.

I did my best to account for those size differences as I evaluated each cooler's relative performance, but first, I needed to be sure that I had accurate measurements. That meant putting those manufacturer capacity claims to the test.

lifetime-fill-test

I was able to fill the Lifetime High Performance Cooler with 62.4 quarts of water without causing it to overflow when I shut the lid. That's 13.5 percent bigger than advertised.

Ry Crist/CNET

To do so, I carefully filled each cooler with water, measuring out the exact number of quarts each one could hold before I wasn't able to close the lid without spilling. If anything, the cheaper models were mostly conservative in their estimates, with ones like the Coleman Xtreme and Igloo Latitude wheeled coolers coming in several quarts more sizable than advertised.

The expensive guys? Not quite so much. Rovr pegs the capacity of its $400 Rollr wheeled cooler at 60 quarts, but I could only fit 52.8 quarts of water inside when I measured for myself. The $300 Yeti Tundra 45 wasn't as spacious as expected, either, holding just 38 quarts of water before overflowing with the lid closed. That's several quarts less than the 45 quarts implied by the product name (nice try, Yeti).

That might be in part because the Yeti's walls are considerably thicker than the other coolers' -- which, in turn, is probably a big reason why the thing performed so well. You're getting a lot of extra insulation, but at the expense of capacity. I think that's a reasonable trade, but I wish Yeti were more transparent about it. Meanwhile, the equally priced 58-quart Orca Classic Cooler came in right on the money at 58.1 quarts measured, and while it didn't hold its ice as long as the Yeti did, it still finished as one of our top performers.

Bison offers lots of optional extras for its rotomolded coolers, including nonslip mats for the lid so you can stand on the cooler to cast a fishing line.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Don't forget design

I also took each cooler's design and features into consideration as I tested, and kept an eye out for durability concerns. I wasn't impressed with the lid on the Igloo Latitude wheeled cooler, for instance. It doesn't lock shut, and the plastic nub hinges are a total joke. Give it a modest yank, and the whole lid comes right off.

The Rovr Rollr wheeled cooler fared much better, thanks to a rugged design that features heavy-duty wheels, a sturdy steel handlebar and an optional $50 accessory that lets you tow it behind your bike. I also liked that the interior comes with a divider that makes it easy to keep items you don't want getting wet separate from the ice, and that you can customize it with different interior liner designs. My only qualm -- that handlebar includes comfy rubber grips on the sides, but not in the middle, the spot you'll actually want to hold as you lug it around.

Something else to think about: whether or not your cooler is sturdy enough to sit on, something that comes in handy when you're out camping. Most of the coolers that I tested were, but some took things even further. For instance, the Bison Gen 2 Cooler goes so far as to advertise itself as an ideal casting platform to stand on during your next fishing trip, and even sells nonslip traction mats for the lid in a variety of designs.

You can find more design quibbles like these in my individual reviews of each cooler. The only other thing I'll say here is that I was surprised not to see more of the high-end options try to separate themselves from the pack with clever bonus features like a built-in battery for charging your devices while you camp (or better yet, a solar panel).

If that's what you're hoping for, your best bet might be something like the Kickstarter-funded Coolest Cooler, which includes a built-in blender and Bluetooth speaker. That said, a history of production delays and decidedly unhappy customers stops me well short of recommending that product (in fact, I'd recommend skipping it). Meanwhile, new names like the Infinite Cooler are jumping in with high-tech, feature rich coolers of their own, and hoping to catch some of the same lightning in a bottle as the Coolest Cooler's smash hit campaign back in 2014.

Time will tell if startups like those can avoid the same mistakes that spoiled the Coolest Cooler's initial success -- in the meantime, consider waiting to see if a more established name will jump in with a tech-rich cooler of its own.