The CPU, like everything else on your computer, can heat up very quickly. The CPU can get very hot quickly, so even the most powerful CPUs don’t come with a dedicated cooling system. But which one is better, liquid or air?
Many aspiring PC builders have asked this question. The honest answer is that it depends. Air coolers and liquid coolers work in different ways. They use very different forms and cost very different prices. It pays to research before you install your CPU. Then, focus on keeping it cool.
How do Liquid and Air Coolers Work?
Both types of coolers prevent CPU overheating by transferring heat from the processor to the radiator. A fan or fans can then blow the heat away with hot air. Air coolers and liquid coolers use different methods to achieve the same result.
Heat is first conducted onto an air cooler’s contact plates (also known as a cold plate). The heat then flows into the heat pipes, which are the metal tubes that extend from the contact plate to the top of a radiator. The fluid in these pipes evaporates to allow heat transfer to the radiator fins. It does, at least before it quickly becomes a gas.
The “air” is still important because the fins heat up and begin warming the air. The hot air, which was originally created as CPU heat, is then pushed out by an attached fan. It can be vented out of its case by an exhaust fan. The evaporated fluid then condenses at the top of each heat pipe and trickles down to continue the process.
Liquid coolers attach their contact plates to a small pump. This controls the flow of coolant from and to a radiator using a pair of long, flexible tubes. The coolant absorbs heat and then pumps it to the radiator’s water tank. From there, the coolant disperses onto one-half of the radiator fins to transfer the heat. The heat is then blown away by attached fans.
The liquid flows across the tubes and then turns around at the radiator. It eventually reaches another tank, where it returns to its pump. The liquid transfers heat to the fins in the initial pass. After being cooled by fans on the return pass, the liquid cools enough to pick up the heat again from the CPU. Physics!
Why Liquid Cooling?
It is possible to find high-end air cooling units that are comparable to liquid cooling. However, these coolers have a few advantages that make them more efficient and thus better suited for over clockers and CPUs with powerful CPUs.
First, heat transfer from the contact/cold plate: liquids conduct heat better than gas-filled pipes. Heat is dragged away more effectively from the processor and spread over the radiator. The radiator is the second. A 240mm radiator’s fins will have a greater surface area than an average air cooler radiator. You want the radiator to dissipate as much heat as possible, so you need more surface area.
These efficiency benefits often translate into more headroom for overclocking as the CPU can run hotter than the cooler, which makes the liquid cooler ideal for high-core count processors that are relatively toasty even with medium workloads. AIO radiators have a better ability to dissipate heat, so the cooler’s fans don’t need to spin as fast to remove the warmth. In other words, your PC can run cooler and quieter.
Why is Air Cooling so Important?
Air cooling is not the enemy. Most CPUs that are not overclocked will run fine with a simple air cooler. Some chips, especially those with six cores, might even be able to take a moderate OC without temperatures reaching the danger zone.
Air coolers are a great addition to low-end and mid-range builds of PCs, not least because they are more affordable than AIO liquid cooling units. You can get a powerful model starting at around PS40/40, or you can use a stock cooler that comes with your computer if it only has a basic quad-core or dual-core CPU.
Air coolers are also easier to install, which makes them great for novice builders. AIO liquid coolers can be difficult to hammer together. However, not all cases will allow for fan and radiator setups of 240mm, 281mm, or 360mm. An air cooler usually comes pre-attached. Only the largest air coolers can fit into most tower-style cases. It is possible to have high-profile RAM sticks installed in a tight space, but this is not an issue. Some air coolers can even be designed to prevent RAM clash, such as the Cooler Master212 Evo V2 (PS40/ $40), pictured above.
What About Passive Cooling?
It wouldn’t be recommended for a gaming computer. A few coolers that are completely finless, such as the Noctuid NH-P1 or Silverstone HE02, rely on the cooling power of the huge radiators to keep the chips cool. They can distribute heat well enough to cool low-end CPUs and the more efficient mid-range CPUs. However, they are able to do so at much higher temperatures than an active air cooler. These coolers are more expensive and can be bulky enough to block most cases from allowing them in.
Although silent running sounds great, if your gaming rig has fans and a graphic card that makes noise, it won’t have the same benefit as a PC built completely silent for home or work.
Which Cooling Method is the Best, liquid or air?
It all depends on what you need from your CPU cooler, how much money you have available and the quality of your CPU. A liquid cooler is safer for high-performance builds and especially those with overclocked CPUs. However, it is worth considering if you want to reduce noise. AIO coolers may be better for future-proofing. Even if they are too powerful for your current CPU, they will leave you in a better place to upgrade later.
A decent air cooler will be able to handle most processors, provided they are running at their stock clock speeds. A cheaper option is the best, so it’s a good idea to buy an air cooler for your first computer. This will allow you to spend more on a faster CPU and the best graphics card.