Liquid Cooling vs Air Cooling in 2020
A crucial part of the modern PC is its cooling solution. Whether you have the best CPU money can buy or a budget processor, you need to keep those temperatures down, especially if you are going to be overclocking. When the CPU is running at idle, you can get away with a stock cooler, but when under heavy load some CPU's will run severely hot and require the best coolers available to minimize potential harm. If you fail to pair your CPU with an effective cooling solution, you run the risk of throttling your system, which can be a huge waste of money.
CPU coolers come in three different forms; air, closed loop (all-in-one), and custom. All three will bring you effective cooling performance, with custom water cooling solutions often offering the best temps for an overclocked system. Despite custom water cooling providing the best temperatures, they are the hardest to set up for the beginner/ novice builder, and it can sometimes be a bit scary having water running through your new PC build.
Below we are going to go into what the best cooling solution will be for you, the main differences between air and liquid coolers, and what you should consider before you make that vital choice. If however, you are already familiar with what you need from a cooler (overclocking ability? Flashing RGB lighting?) then head over to our roundup of the best CPU coolers on the market.
Things To Consider Before Buying
Before we go buying any old CPU cooler, there are a few things to consider. The cost of the different cooling solutions varies quite a lot, and they might not handle the overclock you plan to run on your system. You could be after a particular style or maybe one of a specific size, either way, it's good to think about these things before the purchase.
What cooler you buy could simply hinge on your overall budget. If money is no object and you have some of the best components going maybe with a view to overclock the system then consider the biggest all-in-one liquid cooler you can buy. If you are on a tight budget, then the cheaper air cooling solutions could be perfect for you, often yielding similar results to their liquid counterparts.
A huge factor in whether you go for air or liquid is if you plan to overclock your CPU. As overclocking will require more power, it inevitably will heat up to a dangerous level without an efficient cooling solution.
Generally speaking, all-in-one cooling solutions and custom cooling setups are the best when it comes to higher overclocking, but there are a few air coolers that can handle this too.
Some of the larger coolers have substantial heat sinks which may bump against your other components such as RAM. These big coolers can also hang over the edge, scraping against your case door or sometimes stopping the case door from shutting.
If you have already bought or decided on a case, then this determines what size cooler you can go for. If however, you are still in the process of creating your build, it is worth knowing that mid-tower cases and bigger will give you greater flexibility for which coolers may fit. Any builders out there looking to create a small compact build you are probably looking at a low profile CPU cooler or a 120mm AIO CPU cooler.
For builders out there that don't care how aesthetically pleasing a CPU cooler looks then you can probably go down the air cooling route. For builders out there that may have a tempered glass window or RGB components, the style becomes quite important.
Whether or not a CPU cooler looks stylish or not is down to personal opinion at the end of the day, but there is something about those AIO closed loop coolers that make a PC build pop, especially with those specks of RGB. This isn't to say there are no nice looking air coolers; it is probably just that AIO coolers do tend to look more impressive.
The key factors outlined above should be considered before purchasing, but let's move on to discuss how these coolers actually work and what makes the best for those high temps.
So How Do These Coolers Work?
So now you know what factors to consider before making that final choice let's discuss the benefits to each cooler type and any drawbacks they potentially feature.
An air cooler is often comprised of two separate parts; the heat sink, and the fan. The heat sink is usually a large thermo-conductive metal which will go directly on top of the CPU to transfer the heat up to the large metal fins. You will often find heat sinks to be made from aluminum or copper all the way through.
The heat needs to be dissipated out of the case for the heat sink to work more efficiently, which is where the fan comes in. The fan will plug into the motherboard and sit either on top or to the side of the heatsink to help push air through and cool those fins down.
|Air Pros||Air Cons|
|Affordable||Sometimes louder under load|
|Less maintenance required||Often bulky|
|No leaking||Limited cooling|
|Price to performance||Less attractive|
Although your all-in-one coolers come in one piece, they are comprised of four parts overall. Just like the air cooler you have a heat sink and fans to attach, however, you also have a pump to push the water through the interconnecting pipes.
The heatsink on a liquid cooler is often referred to as a radiator and works in the same way as an air cooler. The heat from your CPU is transferred into the pump (part screwed on top of your CPU) and then the heat is transferred into the water which is pumped around the closed loop system.
With liquid coolers, you will need to make sure your case supports your radiator size, and this will generally be screwed on the top, front or back of the case rather than sat in the middle like an air cooler.
|Liquid Pros||Liquid Cons|
|Better cooling potential||Generally cost more|
|Smaller form, so less clearance issues||More maintenance required|
|Visually more appealing||Has the potential to leak.|
So, Which Is Best?
Whether you are looking to overclock your high-end CPU to its limit or are facing throttling issues, the right CPU cooler is essential. If you don't plan on overclocking and you have a relatively tame CPU, then your stock cooler should be more than adequate at doing the job.
At the extreme end of the scale where air can no longer do an efficient job, liquid cooling is going to be the answer. Liquid cooling will cost you more, but it does have the greater potential for cooling and in my opinion, looks much nicer in a system.
If you are on a tighter budget and aren't too concerned with the bulky heat sink from an air cooler then going for an air cooling solution is never a bad idea. Air coolers, in some cases, can outperform the liquid ones unless pushed to the limit and they are normally quieter when idle.
Like lots of areas in the PC building world, it is down to your personal preference but more importantly, your system's needs.