For cooling CPUs and GPUs, there are two main methods: air and water. This is how any cooling system works.
- Air coolers are generally less expensive and offer better performance than liquid coolers, making them cost-effective for low- and mid-range designs.
- Liquid coolers can provide better cooling, especially with larger radiators, making them ideal for high-end CPUs that require proper cooling to prevent overheating.
- Air coolers are the smallest and most compact cooling solutions, making them suitable for mini-ITX builds where space is limited. However, some ITX cases can have large water-cooling radiators. Custom liquid coolers offer customization options and high performance but require more time, effort and budget.
When it comes to the best cooling for CPUs and GPUs, you have two options: air cooling or liquid cooling (also known as liquid cooling). Although all cooler styles can use fans to cool the heatsink so your computer’s chips don’t overheat, there are differences in how each type transfers heat from the chips to the heatsink, and those differences can cause serious problems.
When it comes to coolers, there are usually three things you want to consider: price, performance, and size. While there are many different types of air conditioners and liquid conditioners to choose from, each has its pros and cons, there is a big difference between air conditioners and liquid conditioners, and each has its own pros and cons. Here’s how air conditioners and water coolers compare.
The main difference between the cooling of air and water
Although they have very different histories, air and liquid refrigerants are very similar in how they work. Both models will come with thin, metal fins called heatsinks, which are where the chip’s heat dissipates. Fans are used to bring cooling air past the fins to transfer heat from the metal to the air, allowing more heat to enter the heatsink from the processor. Air coolers and liquid coolers usually use the same thickness, usually 120mm or 140mm. Although, liquid coolers only use 120mm or 140mm, some air coolers can use smaller or larger sizes, it just depends on the model.
The main difference is how these coolers get the heat from the processor to the heatsink. Air coolers use metal heat pipes, which are small and filled with fluid that constantly changes from liquid to gas and vice versa, which helps heat pass through the pipe and into the heatsink. Liquid coolers instead use water or other coolant, which is pumped through tubes to draw heat away from heat-producing components (such as the CPU) into a type of heatsink called a radiator. Since water can hold a lot of energy, it’s a great opportunity to do well on paper.
Air conditioning is cheap and saves you money
While you can buy air conditioners and liquid conditioners in the $50 to $120 range, you will find that air conditioners can cost $20 to $30, and even for the same price, air conditioners have a better performance. Again, this will depend on the actual cooler, but among the best models, this is often the case.
Take for example Thermalright’s Peerless Assassin 120 SE. It’s a cool, high-performance CPU for only $40, and it’s as good as the best liquid coolers with 240mm and 280mm radiators, which start at $60. at least and can cost up to $100. Even less competitive coolers like Deepcool’s AK620 can be found for $60 and still perform as well as the Peerless Assassin.
Currently, for GPUs, it is very difficult to find water-cooled models, and almost all of them come with coolers that cannot be easily replaced. It’s hard to spend a lot of money on water-cooled cards that won’t be any better than air-cooled models, not to mention the fact that you’ll need to deal with a separate radiator if you have liquid cooling for your CPU. A liquid cooling solution can solve the entire dual radiator problem but can be expensive, if at all.
Saving this much money can make a big difference whether you’re building a $600 or $1,000 PC. If you have a tight budget, spending $50 may force you to downgrade some components, especially important ones like the CPU and GPU. While liquid coolers look cool and classy, it’s hard to justify buying one unless you’re building a high-end computer.
Liquid coolers can be more efficient than air conditioners
While liquid coolers that cost around $120 or less aren’t all that special when it comes to performance, the models are affordable and affordable. Starting at around $120, you can get yourself a liquid cooler with a 360mm radiator, and with a bigger budget, you can get a 420mm or 480mm cooler. These types of radiators provide better cooling than you will find in even the highest end air conditioners.
In fact, for high-end CPUs like the Ryzen 9 7950X and especially the Core i9-13900K, you’ll need a 360mm water cooler or a larger radiator to keep it cool. Even if this means getting a higher CPU costs the same CPU and cooler, that’s just the cost of performance. After all, if you’re buying a high-end CPU, you can buy a cooler that will give you better performance.
You can also get a high-end liquid cooler not only to manage the high-end chip, but to enjoy the lowest noise level on a midrange processor. Cheap, medium and low-end CPUs usually consume less power and generate less heat than their high-end counterparts, which allows you to run the fans at a lower speed and get better cooling from a good cooling water. There’s nothing like enjoying a high-performance PC without hearing the cooling fan.
The smallest coolers you can buy are air conditioners
If you’re building a PC in an ideal ITX case, you’ll find that most won’t support radiators larger than 240mm or 120mm, leaving air cooling as your best option. It is certainly not a bad thing; mini-ITX PCs often cost more to build, and going with a pre-installed air cooler is a good way to reduce that cost to something worthwhile. What’s interesting is that there are smaller, lower CPU coolers, where the smaller ones don’t even put an I/O shield on the back of the board.
In addition, mini-ITX architectures also tend to use lower-power CPUs and GPUs, so lower cooling rates are often unnecessary. Take Noctua’s L9 for example, which was designed for PCs that don’t have a CPU cooler that extends across the board. The NH-L9a-AM5 will cool even the 12-core Ryzen 9 7900 well, bringing high performance to the smallest PCs you can build.
That being said, there are ITX cases designed for high-end builds that can support 240mm or larger radiators, such as NZXT’s H1. Of course, these cases are much larger than the smallest ones on the market, but they are still smaller than mid-range platforms and usually have enough space for a decent gaming GPU.
You can make your own favorite liquid coolers
One unique thing about water cooling is that you can do it yourself, something that is not possible with air cooling. To be clear, most are better with all-in-one (or AIO) coolers because they’re cheaper, easier to install, and less complicated than building and maintaining your own, liquid coolers. However, liquid coolers make sense for people with big budgets, high-end PCs, and a desire to customize the PC as much as possible.
The quality of work in building a liquid cooler is very difficult. You can choose your own radiator, have multiple radiators if you want, and connect the CPU and GPU to the same cooler. And as with high-end AIO coolers, you can achieve even lower noise levels by building a liquid block with more cooling and reducing fan speed.
In addition, liquid coolers can be a great decoration for a desktop with a wide variety of accessories to choose from. The trend for liquid loops is to use clear plastic tubing, which allows you to dye your coolant to any color you want and display it. You can also opt for fittings and waterproofing for a better look, and going for hard plastic tubing instead of soft plastic tubing can also make a big difference (although hard tubing is more difficult to work with).
Air and water cooling have their strengths and weaknesses
When you combine all the strengths and weaknesses of air and liquid cooling, it’s clear that air cooling is more interesting for low-end and mid-range designs, while liquid cooling pairs well with high-end PCs. This is a natural result where air cooling is cheaper and water cooling is more expensive and often worse at prices where air cooling is optional.
However, there are things that air conditioners and liquid conditioners are good for that are not related to performance or cost. If you’re building a mini-ITX PC, air cooling is always the best option, while liquid cooling is great if you just want to add something unique and fun to your computer. Which one is best depends on what you want your PC to do for you, and no one is perfect for every PC build.