We’ll lay out the advantages and use cases for water cooling vs. air cooling, then make some product suggestions for different budgets which will hopefully let you make a more informed purchasing decision.
We’re going to focus on comparing air coolers and all-in-one (AIO) CPU liquid coolers, but we’ll also cover some basics about custom water cooling loops.
How Do CPU Coolers Work?
Before deciding which type of cooler is best for your system, you should know how both air and liquid cooling work. CPU air coolers, despite what you might assume, actually contain a liquid. Inside the copper or aluminum heat pipes is a coolant of either ammonium, ethanol, or distilled water.
When heated, this liquid becomes a gas and travels up the heat pipe where the heat load is spread across the aluminum fins and dissipated by a fan. Here’s a demo video courtesy of Gamers Nexus:
This process causes the gas to condense back into a liquid, then through capillary action (like how oil moves up a wick in a lamp) this liquid returns back to the bottom of the heatpipe. Apart from the fan, this is an entirely passive process that works regardless of cooler orientation as it does not rely on gravity.
CPU water coolers are a bit more complex than air coolers because they actively pump liquid, which is why liquid coolers consume more electricity. Water coolers pump a distilled water and propylene glycol mixture over a micro-copper fin array attached to a cold plate which is mounted to your CPU.
This warmed liquid is then passed through the radiator where aluminum fins conduct heat away from the liquid. Fans help dissipate the heat from the radiator fins and the cooled liquid loops back around to repeat the process. This flow rate is controlled via an impeller often located in the CPU block (a dubious design patent held by Asetek).
The concept behind custom water cooling is much the same, albeit with more room for infinite customization such as having more radiators, water blocks, and larger volumes of liquid. If you opt to go the route of custom loop cooling, your first choice is between soft tubing or hardline – both will be tough on your bottom line.
Building a custom water cooling loop can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000 (you can get an idea of the price by going through EK’s configurator). While custom loops promise greater performance, customization, and aesthetics, they take longer to install, require more maintenance, and introduce more points of failure.
Liquid Cooling vs. Air Cooling: What to Consider
Choosing between water cooling and air cooling requires you to consider the different strengths and compromises of each cooling solution. And it all comes down to which combination of characteristics you value most in a CPU cooler: price, performance, compatibility, lifespan, and/or aesthetics.
Competent air coolers can be found at lower price points. For example, the ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports is a great entry-level air cooler for less than $40, while it isn’t until you get above $70 that you can find reliable AIO water coolers that are worth buying (we recommend some great air and liquid coolers in a section below).
If budget is your primary concern, you should stick with the stock cooler that comes with your chip unless it draws enough power to require the additional cooling capabilities of an aftermarket heatsink or liquid cooler.
Upgrading your cooler becomes more necessary of course if you are overclocking a high-end CPU, and the more power that chip consumes the more it makes sense to invest in liquid cooling over air cooling.
In most cases, the top AIO water coolers will slightly outperform the top air coolers. This advantage affords you the choice between lower temps or lower noise levels. It’s often said that liquid coolers are quieter than air coolers of a similar price, but generalizations like that are misleading.
Liquid coolers will tend to be quieter at a given heat load. However, many coolers ship with lower quality fans or run their fans at higher RPMs out of the box to achieve better thermals. So if noise is a concern, some custom fan curve tuning would likely be required regardless of which solution you choose.
The cooler that is able to run quieter is the cooler that has the better thermal performance. The higher-performing your cooler is, the slower you can run your fans to achieve the same desired temperature.
In short, if noise is a concern, buy a quality cooler – liquid or air – and simply set your fan curve to operate within an acceptable noise level.
Compatibility & Clearance
Liquid coolers require room in your case to mount the radiator while air coolers take up more immediate space around your CPU, which could pose clearance issues with side panels and larger RAM kits. If you’re building your PC in a compact case, you will need to pay careful attention to the size and compatibility of your components.
The installation process is fairly straightforward for both. You can check out our interactive PC building guide for demonstrations and quick tips for installing both air and AIO liquid coolers.
Lifespan & Failure Rates
Installing an air cooler is mostly set it and forget it, so long as the mounting hardware exists they can be reused in new builds for a decade or more. Quality modern AIOs can be expected to last around six years or more, but all AIO liquid coolers will eventually fail. That said, it’s rare that a liquid cooler fails so spectacularly that your components wind up damaged from leaking liquid.
Even if your AIO liquid cooler doesn’t suffer a catastrophic failure, it will eventually break down. You have additional points of failure with the impeller and tubing as there are no perfect seals. With enough time, the liquid level in your loop will decrease as it slowly permeates the tubing.
Eventually, the water and glycol mix will become too low and you will lose lubrication on the bearing/impeller. This will initially reduce performance, increase pump noise, and eventually lead to failure. Some AIO loops can be refilled, which can increase the usable lifespan but ultimately introduces more points of failure.
Aftermarket CPU air coolers often take up more space around your CPU, which could be a problem if you need to show off as much RGB lighting as possible.
If you want an unobstructed view of your components, AIO liquid coolers move the radiator out of the way so you aren’t left staring at a hunk of aluminum.
Check out our gallery showcasing the best gaming setups and PC Builds on the internet for more examples.
So, Which Type of Cooler Should You Buy?
In terms of real-world performance, the difference between air coolers and AIO liquid coolers is minimal, though that difference increases the more power your processor burns. There’s no reason to pair a mid-range $200 CPU with a top-end $140 cooler if you care about maximizing your performance-per-dollar.
For example, if you have a Ryzen 3600 chip and the stock Wraith Spire cooler installed, you won’t see appreciable gains going to a bigger cooler. And as mentioned previously, your money is better spent elsewhere – perhaps a better graphics card for instance if you’re building a gaming PC.
However, if your system has an overclocked Threadripper pulling over 300 watts, you’ll see a much greater benefit upgrading to a higher class of cooler, regardless if that’s air or liquid.
If your CPU runs hot enough to benefit from upgrading to aftermarket cooling (and budget isn’t a concern), the best option for you is likely to be the largest AIO cooler that you can afford and that will fit comfortably inside your case. And again, the more power your CPU consumes, the more you will gain from investing in better cooling.
The Best CPU Coolers in Its Class
Price and performance were the main considerations for our suggestions. Aesthetics depend on your build and preferences so we have outlined three of the best-value air coolers and three of the best-value AIO water coolers:
Best High-End CPU Coolers
Best CPU Coolers Under $100*
*MSRP prices are under $100. Live prices may vary depending on availability.
Best Budget CPU Coolers
And let’s not forget. If your total system budget is under $1,000, you don’t plan on overclocking, and your CPU comes bundled with a cooler, you probably don’t need an aftermarket CPU cooler.
It’s Cool Man, Don’t Sweat It
The best cooling solution depends on your priorities. You’ll have to decide for yourself what best suits your needs and budget. And ultimately, it’s just a computer part that you’ll eventually upgrade.
You may one day even consider buying a phase change CPU cooler that can handily beat both liquid and air coolers with sub-ambient temps. We’ll cover that subject more in a future article.