Portable air conditioners vs split system air conditioners: which should you get?

Clara V.
Clara V.Published on

An air conditioning unit will probably make your home or office a lot more bearable - and even enjoyable - in the summer months. But with such a wide range of air conditioner options available, how do you go about choosing which one is right for you and your space?

We compare two popular types of air conditioners - portable air conditioners and split system air conditioners - putting them head to head so that you can get shopping and stay cool, calm, and collected in the heat.

A woman wearing a brown shirt using a remote control to adjust the settings of a split system air conditioner.

What's the difference between portable air conditioners and split system air conditioners?

Portable air conditioners can be moved from room to room, and often have wheels on their base to make it easier to do so. They work by drawing air from inside the room into the unit and expelling it through a duct. These air conditioners don’t need to be installed by an electrician, making them suitable for renters.

Some are reverse cycle portable air conditioners which can heat, which can be handy in winter. If you don’t already have a dehumidifier, some portable models have a dehumidifying function too.

Split system air conditioners have a condenser outside and an evaporator inside. The evaporator component is what you see on the wall inside a home; it emits the air you want in your home - warm or cool - while the condenser emits the unwanted air outside. You can also get reverse cycle split system air conditioners, so you can have warm air for the colder months.

These air conditioners can be installed in a day, but have to be installed and fitted on a wall by an electrician. This may not be a suitable option for renters, unless you can strike up some kind of deal with your landlord.

Portable air conditioners: pros and cons

Pros

  • They’re portable! The main benefit of a portable air conditioner is that it’s portable, and can be moved wherever needs cooling the most.
  • Not as expensive to buy. Portable air conditioners are typically a lot cheaper to buy than split system air conditioners, often costing somewhere between $500 to $1000.
  • Simpler to install. You can install these air conditioners yourself, however you’ll still need an exhaust point (like a window or ducted wall). Some newer models don’t even need an exhaust point.
  • Suitable for renters. You don’t need to mount these air conditioners on a wall, so renters should have no trouble using one.
  • Can store it when you’re not using it. If you only need an air conditioner for a few months a year, then you can put your portable air conditioner out of sight and out of mind.

Cons

  • Suited to smaller spaces. Portable air conditioners are usually only really suited to rooms around 20m² or smaller, however this might not even be an issue if you only have a smaller space to cool.
  • Not as energy efficient. Portable ACs aren’t as energy efficient as split system ACs of the same size, and can cost up to twice as much to run (sometimes around 50c per hour in summer, which can add up quickly).
  • Not as powerful as split system ACs. They don’t have a particularly high power output; it’s around 2kW, which is less than other air conditioning systems.
  • They can be noisy. While more quiet models are available, some models can be up to 70 decibels (comparable to a running shower) on high speed, which is quite noisy, especially if you run it while you sleep.
  • Takes up floor space. Portable air conditioners can be bulky; they usually stand under a metre tall but they can be indiscreet - and you’ll need to have a place to put them.
  • Can be heavy. Some can be heavy, particularly for their size, with some models weighing in at over 20kg.
The Coolzy-Pro portable air conditioner.The Omega Altise OAPC10 portable air conditioner.

On the left: the Coolzy-Pro, which doesn't need an exhaust point - you just need to plug it in.

On the right: The Omega Altise OAPC10, which has a dehumidifer.

Split system air conditioners: pros and cons

Pros

  • Effective at cooling larger spaces. Split system air conditioners are effective at cooling and heating large, open spaces, making them a great option for those who have open plan homes or big rooms. You can also have a multi split system if more cooling is needed in other areas of your home.
  • Energy efficient. In terms of size, split system air conditioners are more energy efficient than portable systems and have lower running costs.
  • Powerful. They’re quite powerful for their size, producing 3kW to around 9kW for more high end models.
  • Easy to operate. These air conditioners use a remote control.
  • Simple installation. Split system air conditioners are quite simple to install, compared to ducted air conditioners. They can be installed in a day.
  • Useful features. Split system air conditioners usually have a suite of useful features that make them more convenient to use, such as being able to time them to switch on before you arrive home, so you can get sweet relief the second you walk through the door.
  • Quiet. These don’t produce much noise, and are sometimes almost silent, even on high speeds. This is because the noisiest component, the compressor, is situated outside the home.
  • Don’t take up floor space. While you’ll have to figure out where on the wall you want to install a split system air conditioner, you won’t have to worry about it taking up valuable floor space.

Cons

  • Expensive to purchase. Split system air conditioners can easily cost at least $1000, with plenty of models costing $2000 or more.
  • Need a qualified technician to install one. This means you’ll probably have to fork out for installation costs on top of the purchase price.
  • Might not be suitable for all living situations. Because you have to mount the air conditioner on a wall, you’ll need permission from your landlord if you’re renting.
  • More involved maintenance. Maintenance for a split system air conditioner is more involved than a portable air conditioner. It's recommended to get it serviced yearly, and you should be doing things like keeping the outdoor unit (the condenser) free of dirt and debris.
  • The condenser can be an eyesore. The condenser is the part of a split system air conditioner that is placed on the home’s exterior, and while it’s usually placed in a spot on the side of a home that isn’t seen often, it’s not the prettiest thing.
A Mitsbushi portable air conditioner from the Bronte Series.The Mitsubishi MSZ-AP71VG portable air conditioner.

On the left: The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Bronte SRK71ZRA-W / DXK24ZRA-W (7.1kW).

On the right: The Mitsubishi MSZ-AP71VG Portable Air Conditioner (part of the Mitsubishi Electric MSZ-AP Series).

Portable AC vs split system AC: summary

Portable ACs

Pros
Can be moved to where it’s most needed
Cheaper to buy
Can install it yourself
Suitable for renters
Cons
Only effective for smaller spaces
Not as energy efficient as split systems
Not as powerful as split system ACs
Can be noisy
Can be heavy

Split system ACs

Pros
Effective at cooling large spaces
Energy efficient
Powerful
Quiet
Doesn’t take up floor space
Cons
Expensive to buy
Need a licensed electrician to install one
May not be suitable for renters
More maintenance than portable ACs

The bottom line

On top of everything we’ve talked about in this article, you should also consider the following:

  • Your budget. Take into account the purchase cost, installation, and running and maintenance costs.
  • Your cooling needs. Do you want an air conditioning system that will blast cool air and can bring the temperature of a room or your home significantly? Or do you just need a bit of cooling?
  • Your housing situation. Whether you’re renting or own the home you’re living in will likely impact which type of air conditioner you use and whether you’ll need a permanent or flexible solution.

Split system air conditioners are great at cooling big spaces, and while you'll have to fork out more money for the unit and installation, it'll be worth it if you use your air conditioner a lot.

If you only need to keep one room cool and would like a unit that can be moved around the home depending on where it's needed, or if installing a split system just isn't a viable option, then a portable air conditioner could better suit you and your home.

Read our Portable Air Conditioner Buying Guide for a more detailed overview of what to look for in a portable air conditioner. You can also:

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