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Which cooler should you buy this summer? We tested 18 of them

If it's sunny and you're thirsty, then you're going to want one of these coolers on standby. But which one?

Ryan_Crist2.jpg
Ryan_Crist2.jpg

Ry Crist

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1 of 21 Chris Monroe/CNET

Summer is here, and if you appreciate a frosty beverage on a sunny day as much as I do, then you'll want to be sure to have a dependable cooler on hand. That's why we decided to take a quick break from the gadgets and gizmos of the CNET Smart Home to test out 18 hard-bodied coolers that range from $4 to $400 in price. Our goal? Identify the smartest buys for your buck.

These are the best coolers you can buy this summer.

Click through to see a quick rundown of all of them, complete with links to handy reviews that'll help you figure out which one is worth the cold, hard cash. And be sure to check out our full roundup post, too -- we've filled it to the brim with tips, picks and buying advice.

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2 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Igloo Island Breeze Cooler, 48 quarts -- $15

Let's start with the cheap guys. Up first: The Igloo Island Breeze Cooler, which I grabbed on sale at Dick's Sporting Goods for $15. It's about as basic as coolers come, with no latch for the lid and no drainage spout, either, and the performance was pitiful. I say cool your jets and buy something better.

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3 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Rubbermaid Ice Chest Cooler, 48 quarts -- $20

Rubbermaid doesn't make as many coolers as it used to, but you'll still find a few options if you shop around, including the $20 Rubbermaid Ice Chest Cooler. Like that Igloo cooler in the previous slide, it lacks both a latch and a drainage spout, and the performance was, again, pitiful. In fact, Rubbermaid finished dead last in our tests. Buy literally anything else.

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4 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Igloo Recool Biodegradable Cooler, 18 quarts -- $10

When I say "buy literally anything else," I mean it. Even the cheap, disposable Styrofoam cooler we tested did better.

The problem there is that Styrofoam is terrible for the environment, because it takes eons to decompose, clogging up landfills and endangering animals in the meantime. Your better bet? Head to REI and pick up the Igloo Recool for $10. It's a biodegradable cooler made from recycled tree pulp, with natural additives like paraffin wax to keep it from getting soggy. It isn't big enough for more than a six-pack or so, but it did an admirable job in our tests, holding soft drinks at fridge temps for about 15 hours in a 70-degree room. When you're done, just dump the water out, let it air dry, then use it again.

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5 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler, 70 quarts -- $42

Coleman sells a boatload of different coolers, including the popular Coleman Xtreme Marine Cooler, which I picked up for $42 at my local Walmart. With the all-white, wide-bodied design, it's meant to fit right in on a boat (fishermen can even use a ruler embossed on the lid to measure whatever they reel in), but you can use it like any other cooler wherever you like.

Performance was decent, but not spectacular when we tested it out. The real draw, however, was the capacity. At 70 quarts, it's about as big a cooler as you could possibly hope to find at this price (and when we measured it for ourselves, it actually held 76.1 quarts).

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6 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Igloo MaxCold Cooler, 50 quarts -- $45

For a fantastic value pick, consider the Igloo MaxCold Cooler, which I scored on sale for just $45. It isn't anything special to look at, but it performed better than any of the cheap coolers I tested -- and better even than some of the really expensive ones. Put it at the top of your list if you're just looking for great cooling power at a great price.

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7 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Igloo BMX Cooler, 52 quarts -- $100

If the MaxCold is a little too plain for your tastes, you could consider stepping up to the Igloo BMX, a new model for 2019 that costs about $100. Despite costing more, it isn't quite as strong a performer as the MaxCold, but it does look a lot better, with dual-locking latches and a metal kick bumper at the bottom.

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8 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Igloo Latitude Rolling Cooler, 60 quarts -- $50

Not all Igloos are created equal. Take the Igloo Latitude for instance. Unlike that MaxCold cooler I just raved about, the Latitude was a lousy performer, and only incrementally better than what you'll get from Rubbermaid or the Igloo Island Breeze. On top of that, the design is flimsy as hell, with a lid that rips right off of the hinges whenever you give it a gentle yank. Steer clear of this one.

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9 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Coleman Xtreme Wheeled Cooler, 50 quarts -- $45

This Coleman cooler isn't much better as far as the design is concerned, although the lid does tend to stay on its hinges when you pull on it, so point Coleman. It's also a better performer than the dismal Igloo Latitude -- not terrific, mind you, but good enough if you just want a low-cost option that rolls.

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10 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Coleman Steel Belted Cooler, 54 quarts -- $93

Here's another Coleman cooler, and one that's new in 2019. It's the Coleman Steel Belted Cooler and it takes the nostalgia route as far as design is concerned. The price isn't unreasonable if you're a fan of its aesthetic, and it wasn't a bad performer, either (though it also wasn't a standout).

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11 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Lifetime High Performance Cooler, 55 quarts -- $97

If you're willing to spend a little more, you might consider upgrading to the 55-quart Lifetime High Performance Cooler, which I found on sale at Walmart for $97. In fact, I'd recommend that you strongly consider it. For the money, you're getting performance that's just as good as the impressive Igloo MaxCold, plus a much nicer design that includes dual-locking lid latches, a roomier-than-advertised interior, fancy-schmancy roped handles and even a built-in bottle opener for good measure. Why every cooler doesn't come with a built-in bottle opener is beyond me, but kudos to Lifetime for making it happen.

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12 of 21 Ry Crist/CNET

Performance check

Let's pause to consider the performance of all the coolers we've seen so far.

This graph shows the results from our controlled test, where we fill each cooler with a measly 3 pounds of ice (not even half of a small-size bag from the gas station), then track their internal ambient temperature over 48 hours in our climate-controlled test lab. It's a stress test for sure, but it gives us a good, granular look at how well each one holds the cold.

As you can see, the Igloo MaxCold and Lifetime High Performance coolers lead the pack, with Rubbermaid and the Igloo Island Breeze bringing up the rear. But what about coolers that cost even more, you say?

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13 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler, 33 quarts -- $300

So glad you asked. Up first, the Yeti Tundra 45. It's probably the most popular "rotomolded" cooler out there, and at $300, it ain't cheap. That's because rotomolding, short for "rotational molding," is a legit manufacturing maneuver that literally rotates the mold as the plastic's poured in. The result is plastic that's a lot more durable, a lot better at holding the cold -- and, a lot more expensive.

Still, it's worth it if you just want the best performance for the price. Simply put, the Yeti clobbered the competition in our tests. Just keep in mind that Yeti's coolers aren't as big as the names suggest -- the Tundra 45 here holds just 33 quarts, which isn't great considering how much you'll have to pay for it.

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14 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Orca Classic Cooler, 58 quarts -- $300

For a rotomolded option that's a lot bigger at the same $300 price, consider the 58-quart Orca Classic. It didn't hold the cold for as long as the Yeti did, but it still performed admirably, earning the runner-up spot in our tests. Plus, it's just as big as Orca says it is, coming in at a very sizable 58.1 quarts.

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15 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler, 60 quarts -- $300

This cooler from Cabela's was another rotomolded option that tested well, essentially finishing in a dead heat with the Orca.

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16 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Pelican Elite Cooler, 50 quarts -- $300

Hey, here's another $300 rotomolded cooler. It's from Pelican, and it comes in an impressive variety of color options, but the performance wasn't as strong as other comparable options.

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17 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

RTIC 65, 73 quarts -- $231

If you're looking for a rotomolded cooler at a value, the closest thing I've seen outside of the occasional blowout sale is this model, the RTIC 65. As of writing this, it costs $231 -- a good deal for a model with a bigger-than-advertised capacity (and as that "65" in the name suggests, it's big to begin with). Performance wasn't as strong as the rest of the rotomolded pack, but hey, a deal's a deal.

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18 of 21 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Bison Gen 2 Cooler, 55 quarts -- $329

The Bison Gen 2 Cooler is another heavy-duty, rotomolded option with lots of room for your beer. It's also one of the sturdiest and most well-built coolers that we tested. If you care about the way your cooler "feels," well, this one felt the most premium to me. I just wish it cost a little less, since you'll get better performance from the slightly less expensive Yeti and Orca coolers.

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19 of 21 Chris Monroe/CNET

Rovr Rollr 60 Wheeled Cooler, 60 quarts -- $399

At $399, the Rovr Rollr 60 was the most expensive cooler that we tested, but when you consider the build, the price makes a little more sense. Not only is it rotomolded, but it also comes with a rugged set of 9-inch inflatable rubber wheels, plus an aluminum axle and handlebar. It's basically a tank that's made to go anywhere you want to take it (you can even hitch it behind your bike). The comparable wheeled Yeti model is just as expensive, and a Bison with a wheeled cart accessory will cost a total of $460, so don't rule Rovr out if you lead an active outdoor lifestyle.

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20 of 21 Ry Crist/CNET

Rotomolded recap

Among the high-end, rotomolded coolers that we've tested over the past two years, the Yeti Tundra 45 still reigns supreme -- but note that Cabela's Polar Cap Equalizer Cooler actually managed to notch a lower minimum temperature. It's a decent pick, too.

Now, how do these stack up to the cheaper models?

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The gang's all here

All right, here's all of them. Again, that pink line at the bottom that's making all of the other lines jealous is Yeti -- nothing we tested really came close to matching it. 

If you don't feel like spending $300, don't worry -- the Yeti wasn't the only recommendable option we found by any stretch. Be sure to check out our full cooler roundup for all of our top picks and buying recommendations, with reviews for everything to help you pick the perfect one.

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