Keeping your PC cool is critical, whether it’s a high-powered gaming machine or just an office PC. There are a lot of PC types in between these two extremes, and many require robust cooling under heavy load. So should you stick with an air-cooling fan or go with an expensive liquid-cooling system?
What Is Liquid Cooling?
When we talk about liquid cooling for mainstream PCs, we’re talking about all-in-one (AIO) liquid cooling systems. These are pre-built components made by companies like Corsair and EVGA. To get these working, you don’t have to fill up a reservoir with a cooling solution or assemble multiple parts, as you would with a DIY liquid-cooling build. These systems generally (but not always) use water, so they’re often called water-cooling systems.
You just follow the instructions to install the cooling system, as you would with any other computer component. Inspecting the tubing for leaks is always a good idea, however.
AIO liquid-cooling systems have three primary parts that you need to know about. First, the radiator is the big boxy part with the fans. This is where the liquid circulates, taking the hot liquid away from the CPU and running it through the system to cool it down before it returns to take more heat away.
The other major part is the water block and pump. This is the part that attaches on top of the CPU. The water block has a baseplate that sits between the rest of the block and your CPU. This is where heat transfers from the CPU to the cooling system. The water block usually contains the pump as well, which moves the liquid through the system.
Between the radiator and the water block, we also have the tubing that the liquid runs through as it travels between the two larger components. It’s important to pay attention to the tubing to look for potential leaks when you first install it, although those are unlikely.
Corsair Hydro Series H60 AIO Liquid CPU Cooler
This all-in-one liquid cooling system from a trusted brand is an inexpensive water cooling option. It's more expensive than many air cooling fans, however.
Is Liquid Cooling Better Than Air Cooling?
In general, liquid cooling does a better job than an air cooler. There are exceptions to this, however. Some aftermarket air coolers do a tremendous job and can compete with lower-end liquid coolers—especially single-fan radiator designs.
In general, however, liquid cooling tends to be better than bulky fan and heatsink combos. Air cooling relies on absorbing heat into a metal baseplate. Then, the heat travels up heat pipes to a large heatsink, where fans dissipate and push hot air away from the CPU. Liquid coolers, on the other hand, also use a baseplate—but the heat is absorbed into liquid, which is more efficient at transferring heat than air. Then, that hot liquid moves away from the CPU, where the heat is dissipated via the radiator.
Another consideration is that heavy-duty air coolers, like the ones that can compete with lower-end liquid-cooling AIOs, are much heavier and bulkier. An air cooler like the Noctua NH-D15 can do a fantastic job of cooling, but it may not fit in cases with lower clearance. Some large air coolers can also block RAM slots if you’re not careful about orientation.
Should You Use a Liquid Cooler?
Many people suggest that, if you aren’t overclocking your CPU, there’s really no need to go with a liquid cooler, since air coolers do a good job anyway—especially the big, beefy models. That argument is fair, but there are other arguments in favor of liquid cooling.
The lower you can keep the temperatures of your components, the better chance you’ll have that they’ll last longer, and AIOs will keep your CPU cooler. CPUs also throttle down when they get too hot for too long, meaning that a processor can maintain top speeds for longer the better the cooler is. If you’re playing a CPU-demanding game or editing video files, for example, then liquid cooling can translate into better performance.
Beyond that, there are some minor considerations, such as noise, since an all-in-one liquid-cooling unit is generally quieter than an air cooler. AIOs with RGB lighting can also look better in a case with a transparent side, although this is entirely subjective.
If you want to use an AIO, you also need to make sure that you have a spot inside your case for the radiator. This usually isn’t a problem, but it’s always a good idea to check what your computer case’s manual says—or, if you have a pre-built system, you can check the system’s general user manual. You need a spot in your case to mount at least two fans that are either 120mm or 140mm sizes.
The Downsides of AIO Liquid Coolers
While an AIO has a lot to offer PC owners, there are some downsides. The first is cost. A 240mm AIO (meaning that it has two 120mm fans) will run you around $100 or more, whereas a popular air cooler like the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo is often priced around $30 to $50. You can certainly pay about $100 for a high-end air cooler (like the Noctua NH-D15, mentioned above), but one of these is generally cheaper than an AIO liquid cooler.
Second, it’s just more complicated. An aftermarket air cooler has fewer moving parts and is thus less likely to break down than a liquid-cooling system. Plus, you can swap out the fans on an air cooler if they fail. An AIO, on the other hand, has a pump and fans to deal with. If either of those things breaks, then you’ll need to replace your unit. Then, of course, there’s the question of the coolant leaking, although this is rare for new models. In fact, some AIO makers (but not all) will guarantee the replacement cost of your system if the cooling unit damages it while under warranty.
Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo CPU Cooler
This popular air cooler is less expensive than liquid coolers.
Liquid vs. Air Cooling: Which Is Best?
Liquid cooling is a fantastic way to keep your CPU temperatures lower, which can translate into better-sustained performance under load, even without overclocking.
On the other hand, liquid cooling is not strictly necessary and is more expensive, and there are more moving parts that can break.
All-in-one liquid-cooling units look cool and do an excellent job of lowering temperatures, but anyone on a budget will still do well sticking with a good air cooler.