If you're not interested in a model that can also produce a warm mist, a cool-mist-only humidifier could be a reasonable alternative. While an absolute consensus on which model is best is tough to find, you can find both ultrasonic and evaporative cool-mist humidifiers that are generally well regarded.
A case in point is the Honeywell HCM-350 (Est. $55), our pick this time around for the best reviewed cool-mist humidifier. It's a strong performer in testing at TheSweetHome.com, earning that site's recognition as the best humidifier overall, but a middle of the road finisher at other expert review sites. User feedback -- including a 4-star rating at Amazon.com based on over, 1,500 reviews, and a 4.4-star rating at Walmart.com based on over 100 -- while far from exemplary, is certainly better than we see for most other humidifiers.
This is an evaporative humidifier, so the top negative out of the gate is that it will be louder than an ultrasonic humidifier, but how much louder seems to be in the ear of the beholder. BabyGearLab.com calls it very loud, while John Holecek at TheSweetHome.com says that while not as silent as an ultrasonic humidifier, it's still very quiet. More important, he adds, is that the pitch of the noise emitted is unlikely to be too objectionable. "Rather, it's a pleasant white noise that sounds like a box fan on a medium to low setting," Holecek says. A third, independent expert splits the difference and rates the noise performance as "very good," but without providing further explanation.
The HCM-350 holds its own against even pricier humidifiers in terms of effectiveness, all experts say. "While it didn't top the charts, it was a solid performer, raising the relative humidity of my office by 14 percentage points over the course of three hours," says Holecek. Another reviewer gives the humidifier top grades when it comes to output.
Maintaining a humidifier is a vexing problem, even with models that earn top grades overall. Not so with the Honeywell HCM-350. "The Honeywell didn't have any of the difficult-to-reach areas and small spaces that some of the ultrasonic humidifiers had, and we could easily fit our entire hand into the water tank to clean it," says Ellen Baker at BabyGearLab.com. Holecek is thrilled that any parts that come in contact with water are completely submersible for easy washing, and that the tank and bottom water tray are even dishwasher safe. There is a replaceable filter that needs to be changed periodically (how often depends on the hardness of your water) at a cost of around $8. There's a UV light that's said to kill germs in the water, but reviewers say that's more marketing hype than an effective feature.
Everyday ease of use is good -- for the most part. The controls are simple and straightforward, and the tank is easy to fill. One additional plus is that the tank is made from a single piece, without any seams, so that the chances of it developing a leak over time are diminished. "This means it will likely outlast its three-year warranty, which is already generous compared with most models' one-year warranty," Holecek says.
As this is an evaporative rather than an ultrasonic humidifier, the issue of it generating a white dust if hard water is used is eliminated, though one reviewer only rates it as good in performance with hard water. Baker grouses about the size: Between its large footprint, and the need to keep the space around the intake vents clear, "We couldn't fit it on a standard night stand without taking everything else off, nor could we put it on our carpeted floor because the carpeting would block the vents."
The Honeywell humidifier is suitable for rooms up to 500 square feet. If you have a smaller space to humidify, and would prefer the quieter operation of an ultrasonic model, the Safety 1st Ultrasonic 360 (Est. $30) draws some kudos from experts. It's the Best Buy award winner and the runner up in testing to the SPT SU-4010 (Est. $80) (covered in our section on the best ultrasonic humidifiers) at BabyGearLab.com, and earns another Best Buy recommendation among small room dehumidifiers in an independent test. That latter test gives top marks to this humidifier's output (for its class), energy efficiency and noise levels. This small humidifier offers adjustable output, with two rotating nozzles to direct the mist, and it can humidify an area up to 330 square feet. Users say this humidifier produces good mist output and is very quiet. They also like the auto shut-off feature and say the analog controls are easy to use. Like other humidifiers, however, some users complain that the Ultrasonic 360 isn't very durable, while others say it's prone to leakage. A few owners also complain that the humidifier can be knocked over easily. All of that leads to user ratings at sites like Amazon.com that while unimpressive compared to other types of products, are pretty much typical for a humidifier.
The Crane EE-5301 Cool Mist Humidifier (Est. $50) draws a recommendation from one well-regarded expert reviewer, but lackluster feedback elsewhere. This small tabletop ultrasonic humidifier has a 2.3-gallon output and can humidify a 250-square-foot room. It has variable mist output, an automatic shut-off feature and a rotating nozzle to direct the mist. It is sometimes referred to as the Crane Drop because of its unique drop-shaped profile. It's available in a spectrum of colors, including blue/white, aqua, black, green, orange, pink, red and white. Experts are split on performance. One expert rates it top for output, but the reviewers at TheSweetHome.com and BabyGearLab.com are very unimpressed.
User reviews largely say that this Crane humidifier performs well in appropriately sized rooms and is very quiet. Ratings vary widely, depending on the site, but are about the same as other ultrasonic humidifiers; i.e., not very impressive. The most common complaint among owners concerns the small, 1-gallon tank, which needs to be refilled frequently and may leak when it's removed for filling. Like many cool-mist humidifiers, the Crane may emit fine white particles that settle on furniture and fixtures. The dust is residue from minerals found in tap water; it's harmless, experts say, but annoying nevertheless. Using distilled water can help mitigate this issue, but adds to maintenance costs. A demineralization filter that sits in the bottom of the humidifer is also available.
Crane also produces a line of animal-shaped ultrasonic humidifiers that are mechanically similar to the EE-5301 Cool Mist Humidifier and that are worth considering for a young child's bedroom.
The Crane Adorable Ultrasonic Humidifier (Est. $40) collection is available in a number of fun shapes. One version, the Crane Adorable Owl -- dubbed whimsically as Oscar the Owl by Crane, and officially as the model EE-8189 -- earns a Best Buy rating from the same reviewer that bestows a recommended rating on the Crain EE-5301. It rates identically to the EE-5301 in output, efficiency and noise, and rates a level better in convenience and how it handles hard water. Aside from their shell, other versions are identical; shapes include a frog, duck, tiger, elephant, pig, cow, pig, panda, dragon, dog, penguin, monkey, and hippo. Other adorable but non-animal models include a train engine and Hello Kitty.
User reviews again vary a little by site, but most seem pleased with all versions of this humidifier. As with the Crane EE-5301, the Crane Adorable humidifier is only rated to be effective in a 250-square-foot space, and a few owners seem disappointed with that. Also like the Crane EE-5301, some owners had problems with leaking from the tank. Like the Crane Drop, the company does offer a demineralization filter (Est. $9) for the Adorable Animal series. Most say that it helps keep down dust for those with hard water, but that it might not eliminate it completely and that the filters don't last very long.
Elsewhere in this report: