The internals of a gaming PC with RBG LEDs.
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Many CPUs come with a free cooler. This is fantastic since it means you have one less component to buy when building a new PC. But many PC builders believe these coolers aren’t worth using. You can definitely buy better CPU coolers than the one that comes with your CPU—but should you?

The answer comes down to how you use your PC and how hot your CPU gets when in use.

It’s All About Keeping Your CPU Cool

The key thing that any CPU cooler needs to do, obviously, is to keep your processor from getting too hot. If your CPU cooler does a good job of that, then it’s fine.

Generally, this means any temperature above 80 degrees Celsius. CPUs generally have a maximum safe limit of around 100 degrees Celsius, but PC components degrade faster if they are constantly forced to operate at higher temperatures. If your CPU is always hitting 80 degrees or higher, then it’s likely that your processor won’t last as long as it otherwise would. Also, when a processor gets too hot, it will either throttle its own performance or just shut down, making your everyday experience less than ideal.

The easiest way to determine your CPU temperatures and whether you need to get a better cooler is to use a desktop program such as Core Temp. This utility sits in the Windows 10 system tray and reports the temperatures of your cores in real-time.

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Once that’s installed, see how hot your CPU gets with its current stock cooler by running a stress test program such as Prime95 or Asus Real Bench. These programs force the CPU to work hard, and then you can see how hot it gets using Core Temp. If it gets past 80 degrees for a long time, then shut down the test and get yourself a new cooler. If the temperatures look good, then you’re likely fine.

Another approach is to test your PC, making it work hard, as you normally would. If you use it for video editing, then keep an eye on your temps while doing that. If you’re gaming, then play your games for a while, and from time to time, hit the Windows key on your keyboard to go back to the desktop and check your temps. Again, if your CPU goes above 80 degrees Celsius for an extended period, then you should consider getting a more robust cooler.

How to Pick an Aftermarket CPU Cooler

A CPU air cooler with two brown fans and two large silver heatsinks.
The Nocturna NH-D15

If you’ve determined that you need a better cooler, the next step is to pick a replacement. This comes down to two basic options: a more robust version of the stock air cooler you have, or an all-in-one liquid cooler. Whichever option you choose, it’s important to make sure it fits your CPU socket type as well as the size of your case.

Air coolers are typically the cheapest and are often (but not always) the easiest to install. Air coolers conduct the heat from the CPU up through a series of pipes toward a robust heatsink, and then a fan pushes that heat away.

The design of these coolers can vary widely, and while they’re easier to install, they can often be quite bulky. Certain models may stick out too far, making it impossible to close the case. That’s rare, but it is something to watch out for. A more common problem is that the fan won’t clear the RAM modules that are right next to the CPU socket. That can sometimes be ameliorated by how you orient the cooler on the socket itself, but sometimes the air cooler only fits one way, given its size.

Examples of an aftermarket air cooler include the Noctua NH-D15, which is a popular choice and usually priced around $80 to $90. The NH-D15 is huge, however, and you may run into issues during installation. A simpler and popular air cooler is the Cooler Master Hyper 212 and its variants. This air cooler is usually about $40 to $50 depending on the specific model.

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There are tons of other air cooler options out there. The best way to determine which one is best for your build is to do some online research. Read reviews on specific coolers and watch YouTube videos from PC builders that include the cooler and, preferably, your case. This will give you an idea of how best to install the cooler and help you learn about any quirks the device may have.

An AIO CPU cooler with two RGB fans and a waterblock with the Corsair logo on it.
The Corsair H115i RGB AIO liquid CPU cooler.

The second option is to go with an all-in-one liquid cooler. These coolers come with a waterblock that attaches to your CPU and a set of fans. They can have just a single fan, dual fans, or even triple fans. The fans can also come in different sizes, such as 120mm or 140mm. The liquid travels through the waterblock, where it absorbs heat from the CPU. It then travels away from the CPU through one of two tubes back to the fans, where the liquid recirculates to cool down before it revisits the waterblock to absorb more heat.

All-in-one (AIO) liquid coolers are generally very, very effective at cooling. They are usually well built to keep the liquid from leaking out, and they can have a variety of features, such as RGB lighting, that can be set to change depending on the CPU temperature.

The problem with AIO coolers is not so much the waterblock, which will usually fit the CPU socket just fine (assuming it’s compatible), but whether the fans will fit your PC case. Each AIO size is measured by the number of fans and their size. So if you have two 140mm fans, then it’s called a 280mm AIO. Three 120mm fans would be a 360mm AIO. To see if an AIO works with your setup, check your case manual.

As with air coolers, it’s important to read reviews and check out YouTube videos to see what the general consensus is before buying. However, some popular choices include the EVGA CLC 240mm or 280mm, Corsair’s H115i, and the simpler Corsair Hydro Series H60. AIO coolers range in price from under $100, like the H60, or $100 to $150 or higher, like the EVGA models and Corsair’s H115i.

A Simple Answer

Deciding whether or not you need an aftermarket cooler is pretty straightforward. Either your CPU is getting too hot or it’s not. If it is, then, with a little research, you can find an appropriate air or liquid cooler for your PC.

Profile Photo for Ian Paul Ian Paul
Ian Paul is a freelance writer with over a decade of experiencing writing about tech. In addition to writing for How-To Geek, he regularly contributes to PCWorld as a critic, feature writer, reporter, deal hunter, and columnist. His work has also appeared online at The Washington Post, ABC News, MSNBC, Reuters, Macworld, Yahoo Tech, Tech.co, TechHive, The Huffington Post, and Lifewire. His articles are regularly syndicated across numerous IDG sites including CIO, Computerworld, GameStar, Macworld UK, Tech Advisor, and TechConnect.
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