Building a gaming PC is an expensive proposition, even on the “value” side of things—we’re talking about at lest $500 for a new machine. Penny-pinchers often forego unnecessary extras. And since most CPUs come with a cooler right in the box, why bother with a big bulky aftermarket cooler, especially if you’re not going to overclock anything?
We decided to quantify this sentiment: we know aftermarket coolers are better, but how much better are they? We set up our test bench, grabbed a popular Intel CPU, and compared the stock coolers to a basic expanded CPU cooler from Cooler Master. This is hardly an exhaustive investigation, but it should be able to demonstrate how much benefit a little extra investment at the beginning of your PC build can make.
Our test bench uses Thermaltake’s Core P3 ATX case, which is basically a suspended steel wall with open air on four sides. With the plexiglass window removed, there’s practically nothing around the CPU mounting area aside from the RAM DIMMs and the graphics card below. That means we’re testing this in open air, rather than a closed case, but the environment was kept the same for each test, so it shouldn’t affect our basic conclusion—just know that your temperature values will be different depending on the CPU, case, and specific coolers you use.
Our test CPU is Intel’s Core i7-7700K, a popular model for gamers and general performance enthusiasts. With the widely-used LGA1151 socket, it’s a good test option for this build, since a wide variety of aftermarket coolers are compatible with it. The 7700K is actually one of the few CPUs on the market that doesn’t come with its own cooler in the box, but we bought two separate stock coolers for the sake of comparison. (Its non-overclockable sibling, the i7-7700, does come with a stock cooler.)
This small heatsink with a 80mm fan top-mounted fan is part number E97379. It’s an extremely basic solution, supplied by OEM part maker Foxconn and at this point probably installed in millions of desktops. If you bought an Intel heatsink in the past ten years or so, you probably own this cooler.
Intel itself has moved on to a slightly more robust design for its most recent generation of stock coolers (see below), but since this one is so prevalent, we decided to include it in our comparison for the sake of completeness.
As it happens, it’s a pretty good thing that Intel moved to a more capable design. While the small stock cooler kept the 7700K CPU at a respectable 31 degrees Celsius at idle, the temperature shot up to 100 degrees (the “TJmax” value for this CPU, where it actively begins throttling its own performance to safely compensate for heat) almost immediately. It took only fourteen seconds of benchmark testing to get the temperature up to the manufacturer’s maximum allowable on one core. Noise is noticeable thanks to the small, high-RPM fan, but probably not so bad that you’d be distracted by it with a fully enclosed case.
Were we to try extended sessions of gaming or other visual rendering with this setup, the processor would probably trip its safety and shut down the system after an hour or so. Again, this combination of high-powered CPU and minimal CPU cooler isn’t recommended by Intel, but it shows how easily the older stock cooler design can hit its limit of performance. After all, this article was actually inspired by my rather old home-built PC (using the same E97379 stock cooler on a CPU it was bundled with) frequently overheating and shutting down during intense games, necessitating an upgrade.
This more advanced cooler design from Intel is probably what you received free with a Core-series processor that uses the LGA 1151 in the last two years. It’s part number TS15A, and while it uses the same cylindrical design with the top-mounted fan as the smaller cooler, the heatsink is three to four times bigger, creating a massively expanded cooling surface area. The fan itself seems to be the same size, but it’s capable of reaching a much higher RPM under load (and it’s easily three times louder than the smaller cooler, too). The thermal compound pre-applied to the cooler is also different, being much more runny and spreadable than the type on the smaller cooler.
At standard idle, the larger Intel cooler kept the CPU at a more comfy 27 degrees Celsius. When put under load with a CPU benchmark, it reached a stable top core temperature of 72 degrees Celsius in 22 seconds. That’s a long way from world champion performance, but it’s well away from the TJmax value and any cause for alarm.
The larger cooler is a much more robust solution, and even in an enclosed case with decent airflow, it should be able to run advanced games or media tasks for hours on end without creeping up to the throttling point. But a cramped case (like a Mini-ITX build), poor airflow setup, or simply a hot environment might make things a bit more difficult.
The Cooler Master Hyper 612 is a fairly typical design for an aftermarket CPU cooler: six big, beefy copper heat pipes run from the CPU plate up to the heatsink, which has roughly a bazillion layers of thin metal to dissipate heat and a big ol’ 120mm fan to shoo it away. It operates on the same basic thermodynamic principles as the stock coolers, just at a much bigger scale, filling up the available space around the CPU section of the motherboard and a full-sized ATX case to boot.
There are more advanced coolers out there to be sure, to say nothing of the various liquid cooling options. But this one costs just $35 and is well-reviewed, so it makes a logical and frugal upgrade for gamers.
Installation, however, is less than intuitive. While the relatively light stock coolers merely need to be screwed down at four points—you can do it with your fingers if they’re nimble—the Hyper 612 needs a plastic retention plate on the opposite side of the motherboard and an elaborate brace built up around the CPU socket. This means taking off the back of your computer case and any cables or hard drives that get in the way. Because this model is made to fit a wide variety of AMD and Intel CPU designs, you’ll need to follow the directions closely to get the various holes and slots in the bracket correctly aligned. Unlike the pre-applied thermal compound on both Intel coolers, Cooler Master leaves the ridged copper contact plate bare except for a protective film, and you’ll have to manually apply the included Cooler Master-branded thermal compound yourself. Finally, you may need to remove some excess cables or nearby components like your RAM DIMMs to get everything properly assembled, carefully reinstalling them after you’re done.
So what does $35 and about a half-hour of installation get you? The Cooler Master actually lets the CPU idle at a slightly higher 28 degrees Celsius, then it quickly shoots up to 68 degrees under the benchmark load. It doesn’t take long for this to happen—about five seconds—but once there, the Cooler Master resolutely refused to let the CPU get any hotter for the duration of the test. The stability is impressive, even if the actual thermal advantage for the larger cooler is only about six percent. And, with a bigger fan pushing more air over a larger surface area, the Cooler Master is significantly quieter than both the large and small Intel coolers.
Based on these results, the Cooler Master is incrementally better than Intel’s newest stock cooler and dramatically improved over its smaller, older design. The difference probably isn’t worth it if you have the larger Intel cooler (unless you want to do some overclocking or reduce noise), but it’s definitely worth an upgrade from the smaller stock cooler.
Do you really need an aftermarket cooler? If your only alternative is an older, less-capable design like the small Intel cooler above, then yes, I’d definitely recommend one. We don’t have them handy for testing, but freebie pack-ins from AMD and corporate PC vendors like Dell don’t seem like they’d fare much better.
But if you’re running a newer processor with a more advanced cooler design, you have more options. With the expanded heatsink in the larger Intel stock cooler keeping the CPU a comfortable distance away from its maximum recommended temperature, an upgrade is somewhat less necessary. AMD’s “Wraith” cooler, included on newer Ryzen CPU designs, would be a comparable upgraded version. Be sure to know which stock cooler you’re getting when ordering a new CPU.
For those who intend to do some overclocking, or just want a little more flexibility in their thermal setup, a cheap upgrade is definitely a plus. For half the price of a new game, you’ll get an extremely reliable reduction in temperatures and a much larger margin of error for expanding performance—not to mention reduced noise. You’ll want to be careful with dimensions and compatibility, of course, to make sure that the aftermarket cooler you choose is compatible with your CPU and able to physically fit in your computer case.