Why it's best: The Zalman ZM-NC2000 is undoubtedly more expensive than many other laptop coolers, but the extra performance and build quality makes it worth every cent. The cooler is constructed using aluminum, which itself draws heat away from the laptop. The two fans operate quietly, and direct air upwards through the ventilation holes. This model will fit 17-inch laptops, making it a better choice if you need to keep your desktop replacement running cool. Read Full Review
Why it's best: The Thermaltake Massive23 ST sports a gigantic 230mm fan, which is clearly visible through the mesh surface of the cooler itself. Because the larger fan runs at a slower speed, the Massive23 ST runs quietly while remaining just as effective at cooling laptops as multi-fan units. Read Full Review
Why it's best: If you don't have a large laptop computer, consider saving some cash by going for the smaller ZM-NC1000 instead. This cooler offers much of the same performance as the larger ZM-NC2000, but is better-sized to fit 15-inch (or smaller) notebooks. The build quality is high, and the aluminum-intensive construction and quiet fans are able to effectively keep temperatures down. Read Full Review
Why it's best: One of the best ways to obtain cooler laptop operation is to simply allow more airflow underneath the computer itself. If propping your computer up on books does the trick, consider a more permanent solution like the Targus Podium CoolPad. This model costs less than powered laptop coolers, but will still be effective at reducing the operating temperature of your computer. Read Full Review
Why it's best: The Antec USB Notebook Cooler is a popular choice due to its performance combined with the bargain price. The USB plug features a pass-through to retain port functionality, and the fans move air from the top down through the perforations. For the money, this is an excellent choice. Read Full Review
Finding the Best Laptop Cooler
It's no secret that laptops can get extremely hot when they're worked hard. All of the circuits and devices of the modern computer are condensed into a space no more than 2 inches thick, which leaves very little room for cooling. Tower style desktop computers have ample open space for airflow, while laptops must rely on narrow ducts and convection in order to avoid overheating. On top of that, the compressed design means the case itself must dissipate heat, causing laptops to get uncomfortably hot when they're placed on your lap.
One of the ways of dealing with the heat issue is to place your laptop on a laptop cooler. Laptop coolers may seem simple at first glance, but these gadgets have much more to them than what meets the eye. Everything about a good laptop cooler is designed to provide maximum cooling, from the surface material to the fan placement and direction. Every aspect must be considered individually for your needs, or you may end up interfering with your laptop's cooling operation.
What you want to look for is exactly how much specific cooling power the laptop cooler has. This is not necessarily a measurement of fan speed - rather, it's how the unit itself is designed. For example, the Targus Podium CoolPad offers decent cooling power - and does so without the aid of a fan. This is done by raising the laptop off the desk to allow air to circulate underneath. Most other laptop coolers position a fan between the desk and the laptop in order to provide airflow. Both methods work, but only the best laptop coolers can genuinely keep your computer running cooler.
Something else to consider is how the fans are installed within the unit. This deals with where they're placed, but also which direction they're mounted. Some laptop coolers feature multiple fans that move more air, but what's equally as important is which direction the air moves. If your laptop has a bottom-mounted exhaust port, you don't want to use a laptop cooler which directs air upwards onto the bottom of the computer. Likewise, if your computer has a bottom-mounted intake port, you'll starve your laptop's cooling system of airflow if you use a cooler that draws air downwards and away from the bottom surface. Fans can also produce high noise levels when the speed is cranked up. If you want a quiet laptop cooler, look for one which has a lower decibel rating.
Next, you'll want to examine the materials and the build quality of the cooler itself. Better laptop coolers are sturdy and usually feature aluminum surfaces which draw heat away from the computer itself. Make sure there is no rattling or flexing, or anything else which indicates poor build quality. The fans should not make any strange noises, nor should they be excessively loud during operation. If it feels cheap, it probably is. The last thing you want is for your laptop cooler to suddenly stop working only a couple months after you buy it.
For laptop coolers which utilize fans, remember that they require a power source. This is done through a wall adapter or by using a USB port. If you like being able to take your laptop cooler with you wherever you go, one which is powered by a wall outlet may not be the best choice. On the other hand, if your laptop is short on USB ports, consider whether it's a worthwhile tradeoff to tie up a USB port for extra cooling. Some of the better laptop coolers act as a USB hub, or come equipped with a pass-through USB plug which enables you to connect another USB device through the plug itself.
Price and Value
It's quite easy to find both expensive and cheap laptop coolers, but price is not indicative of value. An expensive unit is not the best, and a cheap unit is not the worst. Some lower-priced coolers come with screaming fans which may or may not break, while more expensive models might offer features that you don't need. A cooler which costs $50 and offers excellent cooling and build quality is considered to be a better value than one which costs $30 and offers mediocre cooling and poor build quality. If you don't need speakers built into the cooler, it makes little sense to spend the extra money for them.