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It’s not often that we compile a “best of” list from a product category that, overall, delivers mediocre performance in Consumer Reports’ tests. But that’s the case with portable air conditioners, which—even in optimal conditions—are an imperfect way to cool a room.
Still, they might be your only choice if your home lacks central air conditioning or you live in a building that either prohibits window ACs or has window configurations that make them difficult to install.
“You may have sliding windows, which are common in the West, or just need spot-cooling in a home office, or you don’t want to block off an entire window,” says Thomas Kelly, senior marketing director at GE Appliances.
And despite their drawbacks, portable air conditioners account for 18 percent of the room air conditioner market, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
The upside of a portable air conditioner—that it isn’t bolted to a window—is also its downside.
Unlike a window AC, which uses outside air to cool the coils on the outdoor part of the unit, a single-hose portable AC uses conditioned air from the room it’s sitting in to cool the mechanicals. That creates negative pressure that causes warm, unconditioned air from nearby rooms or the outdoors to flow into the room you’re trying to keep cool. It's a struggle, then, to maintain a comfortable temperature.
“You may not be getting what you think when you buy a portable model,” says Chris Regan, who oversees CR’s air conditioner tests. “It’s difficult to compare the cooling to a window AC.”
In our air conditioner tests, we measure how long it takes a portable model to lower the temperature of our test chamber from 90° F to 85° F. That takes an average of 20 minutes. By comparison, the best window air conditioners can cool the room by 10° F in about 15 minutes or less.
But the news about portable ACs isn’t all bad. According to CR’s brand reliability survey, two brands—Whynter and Frigidaire—earned a top rating of Excellent for predicted reliability, and three other brands received a Very Good score. Owner satisfaction, which is based on the proportion of our members who are extremely likely to recommend their AC, was not quite as high, with most brands earning a middling rating of Good.
We test portable ACs from brands such as LG, Whynter, Whirlpool, SPT, and TCL. CR members can read on for ratings and reviews of models that rise to the top in our tests.