Liquid cooling is all the rage among gamers these days. Each year Intel or AMD release a processor that, despite being more efficient, is extremely power hungry and generates a lot of heat. To get rid of it efficiently, sometimes air coolers simply prove to be inadequate or are too noisy.
In such a scenario, liquid-based cooling solutions come to the rescue. So, what is it and how does it work? What are the main types of liquid coolers available in the market? How do they compare and which one should you buy? We will answer all of these questions in this detailed guide. Let’s dive right into it!
How liquid cooling works?
The idea of liquid cooling is largely similar to air cooling except that, instead of air, we use a liquid to carry heat away from the CPU (or GPU too if you use a custom cooling kit).
There is a closed loop inside of which a liquid, also known as coolant, keeps on circulating with the help of a pump. Heat from the CPU is absorbed by the coolant and then the liquid is pumped throughout the cooling loop.
As it flows through the radiator pipes, the radiator fans carry heat away from the radiator pipes. The liquid then flows back towards the CPU and the cycle restarts. This is liquid cooling in a nutshell.
What is an AiO cooler?
AiO stands for All in One. Basically, an AiO cooler is an already partially assembled kit that can easily be installed inside your system just like an air cooler.
The two are similar in the sense that you do not have to worry about coolant leakage by improperly connecting the pipes between the radiator and the pump as they are already connected right out of the box.
They offer better cooling performance than air coolers and are much quieter than them. We will take a detailed look at their different performance parameters when we compare them with custom loop solutions.
What is a Custom Loop cooler?
Custom Loop, as its name implies, offers a lot of flexibility in terms of choice of components for your liquid cooling kit. For example, each component of the liquid cooling system such as radiator, coolant or pump can be chosen separately.
They have to be assembled carefully and can take quite a long time to become up and running (a few hours to an entire day, perhaps).
Their advantage is that they offer even better cooling performance than AiOs while generating similar or lower noise. This is because of a reservoir for your coolant.
This means that the custom loop cooler can absorb a lot more heat than an AiO. The result is that heat does not need to be dissipated as fast as with an AiO. Hence, the excellent cooling performance.
However, this flexibility of options can also be daunting for some whose sole concern is cooling their powerful rig, and nothing more.
AiO vs Custom Loop: Installation
In terms of ease of installation, AiO is the clear winner. Installing an AiO system takes between 20 minutes to 1 hour depending upon your level of expertise. You just have to mount the pump on the CPU die, place the radiator in its appropriate slot, tighten up a few screws, and you are good to go.
In Custom Loops, you need to be a little more patient. The clearances for cables are not as clear as for AiO. If your custom loop system comes with solid tubing, you need a hot air gun to bend it which can take quite a lot of time and energy. If you choose to liquid cool your graphics card too, the level of complexity increases even more, resulting in even more time for complete installation of the system.
AiO vs Custom Loop: Cooling Performance
Cooling performance is the main reason anyone would go for a custom loop system over an AiO one in the first place. After all, who would want to unnecessarily bother themselves with extra installation time, risks of coolant leakage, and regular maintenance if cooling performance of the two were similar, right? So, in a nutshell, the difference in cooling performance of the two is pretty significant.
To give you an idea of the cooling performance, we installed each cooler on our i9-13900K test system and ran AIDA64 Extreme on both of them. In the AiO system, we got a peak temperature of 61C while in the Custom Loop solution we got a peak temperature of 48C. Although 61C is still well inside the zone of safe temperatures, the difference between the two is still quite stark.
AiO vs Custom Loop: Acoustic Performance
Acoustic performance is trickier to compare and generally there is not a significantly noticeable difference between the two. This is because the main noise-generating component is the cooling fan, and in liquid coolers, fans don’t need to spin too fast.
Differences can still arise however owing to the extensive customizability offered by custom loop coolers. For instance, if you choose a custom radiator and a custom pump, both of whose hallmark features are extreme quietness, of course its noise performance is going to be better than your run of the mill AiO system.
AiO vs Custom Loop: Maintenance
As surprising as it might sound, an AiO system requires maintenance similar to that of an air cooler. Once it’s installed, you don’t have to do anything other than occasionally, once a year or two perhaps, clean the dust off from the radiator fans. AiOs generally last for 3-6 years, the typical duration after which you start thinking about buying a new PC anyways. Therefore, maintenance is quite a breeze when it comes to AiOs.
The maintenance part is the main headache associated with custom loop coolers. You need to regularly replace the coolant, typically every 6 months. If you don’t take proper care of your custom loop, it will stop working well before your next PC upgrade.
AiO vs Custom Loop: Pricing
A typical custom loop cooling solution is a lot more expensive than a typical AiO one. Pricing can range from $300-600 for a custom loop. For example, the Corsair Hydro X Series iCUE XH305i RGB PRO Custom Cooling Kit is priced at $549 at the time of writing this article. This is typically the price range in which higher end CPUs and GPUs can be easily had.
In contrast the price of an AiO often lies somewhere between $100-200. Even though a hundred bucks still sound quite a lot for a cooling system, when compared with a custom loop kit, $100 almost sounds like a steal.
Which one should you buy?
We took a detailed look at both the cooling solutions in terms of different parameters which are going to have the most impact on the end-user, such as complexity, performance and pricing.
You should buy a custom loop cooling kit if you meet the following criteria:
- Money is not an issue for you and you are not concerned with the best bang for the buck.
- You have a lot of prior PC building experience.
- You are extremely patient and can keep working on your PC even if it requires an entire day’s work.
- You have the discipline to regularly replace the coolant.
- You want to push the limits of cooling performance as much as you possibly can.
In contrast, you should buy an AiO solution if one or more of the following applies to you:
- While not on a tight budget, you still carefully examine tradeoffs and look for the best bang for the buck in your PC purchases.
- You will do just fine even if you are a novice PC builder.
- You want things to become quickly up and running.
- You just want to forget about the cooling system, once it is installed. In other words, you can’t be bothered with the regular maintenance that custom loop coolers demand.
- Higher temperatures are not too big of a deal for you as long as they are within the range of safe operation.
We hope that you found this detailed article to be quite informative and useful in deciding between a custom loop cooling kit and an AiO cooler. We explained how each works, the pros and cons of each and determining the most suitable option depending upon your personality and financial situation.