In this article, we will be discussing the two main cooling solutions available in the market, air coolers and liquid coolers. Liquid coolers are of two types: custom loops and AiOs. However, when we use the term liquid cooler in this article, we will be referring to the latter.

We will begin with some fundamentals and then dig deeper into the specifics of each, covering their relative advantages and disadvantages. We will conclude with some final remarks and a few recommendations.

Why do you need a CPU Cooler?

Let’s begin with the basics: Electronics generate heat. This heat has to be removed, preferably quickly, unless you take joy in frying them. We use two components to achieve this task: a heatsink and a fan.

A heatsink is used to distribute the heat generated by an electronics component over an area that is much larger than the component itself. As heat loss is directly proportional to the exposed surface area, a heat sink prevents build up of heat around the electronic component itself.

While for small electronics projects, a heat sink can suffice, as power ratings rise, for instance a computer’s CPU, the addition of a fan also becomes necessary. The fan draws cool air from the outside and pushes it over the fins of the heat sink. As a result, the heat built up on the fins is carried outside, away from the CPU, resulting in a cool operation.

Air vs Liquid Coolers Comparison

The fundamental principle is the same for each cooling method. That being said, however, liquid cooling is slightly more complicated. We will discuss each of them in turn.

Air vs Liquid Coolers Comparison

How does an Air Cooler work?

The part of the CPU die that is visible to us is known as the Integrated Heat Spreader. This is the part on which we apply the thermal paste and then mount our air cooler on it. The metal baseplate at the bottom of the air cooler carries the heat generated by the CPU and transfers it to the heat sink on top of it.

The fan of the air cooler then carries that heat away from the CPU. There is a tradeoff between conductivity and cost as far as the material of the heatsink is concerned. For instance, copper is more expensive than aluminum but is also more conductive. However, either is just fine for most users as the cost and performance differences are minuscule.

How does Liquid CPU Cooler work?

In liquid cooling, both air and water act as mediums for heat transfer. The water flows through a closed loop with the help of a pump. The pump is mounted on top of the CPU. Water carries the heat from the CPU die towards the radiator, on the top or to the side.

The radiator, like a heat sink, has a very large surface area to speed up heat dissipation. A fan on top of the radiator then carries the heat to the outside air.

The benefits and drawbacks of Air Cooling

The main advantages of air cooling are its cost and simplicity.

Most air coolers can be had for between $50-100. The stock fan included alongside the processor is often good enough so that you don’t need to buy a custom one. However, as you might have noticed, higher-end processors often don’t include a stock fan. This is because air cooling is generally not adequate for those processors, especially if their full potential is to be realized.

Simplicity means that you just have to mount the unit on top of the CPU die and you’re done. No worries about clearances for loops. However, this is not too big of an advantage as most liquid coolers are also pretty straightforward to set up. You might need to spend a few extra minutes setting up liquid cooling.

  1. They are cost effective.
  2. Easy to install.
  3. Offers good performance.

The drawbacks of air cooling are that they are noisy, inefficient, bulky and have low aesthetic value

Inefficient here means in their ability to carry heat away from the system. There is a tradeoff involved. To remove heat more effectively, these fans have to spin faster. However, if they spin faster, noise levels increase. Generally speaking, air fans are good enough for day-to-day tasks but if you are of the overclocker or the content creator type, our advice would be to avoid them.

Clearance is another major drawback of air coolers. Since the bulk of the air cooler is concentrated in a single spot, high performance air coolers are generally quite large and can often block access to RAM slots. Their large size also means that they are not suitable for small form-factor PCs.

Aesthetics are a subjective matter. Despite this, we still would like to share some of our thoughts. Air coolers generally do not have any RGB lights which give a cool “gamer” look to your PC. However, since some people find elegance in simplicity, don’t take our remarks on aesthetics too seriously!

The benefits and drawbacks of liquid cooling

The most noticeable benefits of liquid cooling are the exact opposite of the drawbacks of air cooling. Liquid coolers run extremely quiet, are highly efficient, and have fewer size issues.

Quietness and Efficiency. There are multiple reasons for this combination. First, water is a much better conductor of heat and has a high heat capacity. This means that heat is quickly carried away from the CPU die and the water doesn’t get too hot too. Second, heat distribution is concentrated inside the insulated loops and the radiator pipes. In contrast, hot air is distributed throughout the cavity of the PC case, which means higher ambient temperatures. To compensate for that, the fans of air coolers need to spin faster, resulting in higher noise. Third, the surface area of a radiator is also larger than that of a typical heat sink resulting in faster heat dissipation. All this combined means that the fans in liquid coolers do not have to spin as fast to achieve similar or better performance than air coolers.

Size. Since liquid coolers consist of multiple components, their bulk is distributed throughout the body of your system. The heavier parts, radiator in this case, lie outside the PC case, on the top or to the side while the small water pump is mounted on top of the processor. This makes liquid coolers an excellent option for PC builds of almost any size.

Where disadvantages are concerned, liquid coolers are generally more expensive and have some risks associated with them.

Cost Good liquid coolers generally start above $100 and models from premium brands like Corsair can go up to $300. cost more than $100) and there is always the

Risks Costs aside, there is also a certain, though negligibly small, chance of water leaking in your system and turning your gaming PC into one large brick that is good for nothing. However, there rarely, if ever, has been any complaint of such an event happening. Therefore, fret not! Your motherboard isn’t going to release smoke any time soon, at least not due to water leakage from the AiO.

The Final Word

So, with all that information, where to go from here? Well, we hate to use that clichéd phrase, as much as you do, but as with everything else in life, “it depends”. It depends on how you are going to be using your system and your budget constraints.

If you are building a gaming PC or intending to run high-end video editing programs like Adobe Premiere Pro for long hours every day, your best bet would be to invest in a quality AiO liquid cooling system.

However, if your budget is limited and most of the time, you are just going to be running Office programs, browse some YouTube videos, or play some of the older video games, an air cooler is going to be more than adequate.

A few recommendations

If you have read this article, or similar others, chances are that you are not the stereotypical “mainstream user”. In other words, either the stock cooler is not present or is not good enough for your needs and, thus, you are looking for a custom one.

So, before you go, we have listed some recommendations that you might want to consider for your next PC build. To keep things short, simple, and useful, we have chosen only unit from each side, air coolers and liquid coolers, to spare you from unnecessary decision fatigue.

Be Quiet Dark Rock Pro 4

The Be Quiet Dark Rock Pro 4 is an excellent option for those who are considering using an air cooler for their PC build. Unlike most air coolers, its fans have been designed in such a manner that even at high speeds, the noise level is pretty low. At the slightly expensive price tag of $89, this is a premium air cooler which means that it is possible to overclock your processor with minimal risk of damage. However, it is a bit chunky which means that you should make sure that you have a pretty spacious PC case.

Arctic Liquid Freezer II 240A-RGB

The good thing about the Arctic Liquid Freezer II 240A-RGB is that it provides the best of both worlds. It has excellent thermal and acoustic performance while coming at the not too expensive price of $112. The fact that it is a liquid cooler means that it also does not have any of the space constraints that the Dark Pro 4 comes with. Highly recommended if your PC use involves heavy and sustained workloads.

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Umar Farooq
Umar Farooq

Umar Farooq has developed a passion for computers ever since the time his father brought home the first family computer in 2002, a time when broadband internet was still in its infancy and almost every PC component was at least an order of a magnitude less powerful than the typical ones available today. Recently, he decided to start writing on this website to help tech rookies not be too enticed by overly hyped marketing terms they barely understand and get the best deal for their money.

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