The CPU cooler is an essential and critical component of any PC build.
Its job is to keep the CPU cool.
If your CPU is reaching unfavorable temperatures or you plan on overclocking it, you need to get a good cooler.
Budget CPUs come with stock coolers provided by the manufacturer but often times the stock coolers do not cool sufficiently and cause over heating of the processor.
Another problem with the stock coolers is that they run the fans at much higher speed causing a lot of annoying noise.
The solution is to use after market high quality air coolers that are designed for better cooling, and low noise.
Air coolers also have certain advantages over liquid coolers, such as being cheaper, requiring no maintenance, and having no chance of liquid leaks that can damage your PC components.
However buying an air cooler can be very tricky because there are a large number of compatibility factors involved that need to be examined first. These include the size of the cooler, socket compatibility etc.
There are certain essentials you need to look out for while trying to find the right CPU cooler for your PC.
You need to be well-informed about the technical specifications of an air cooler and understand whether it is optimal for, or sometimes compatible with your PC.
In this article we shall take a look at the technical specifications of air coolers which include the following:
- CPU Socket (Compatibility)
- Heat Sink Material
- Tower Quantity
- Cooling Capacity - TDP
- Fan Quantity
- Fan Size
- Fan Speed
- Air Flow
- Bearing System
- Noise Level
- RGB Support
1. CPU Socket (Compatibility)
The CPU socket of an air cooler refers to the CPU socket types the mentioned air cooler is compatible with.
To check if it is compatible with your CPU, you have to learn your motherboard model and check which socket your CPU uses on it. After that, check whether that socket is supported by the air cooler.
Most of the current CPU air coolers use mounting hardware, which lets them support a wide range of CPU sockets, even ones that are as old as LGA 1366 and AMD AM1.
For example, both Noctua NH-D9L and ID-COOLING SE-234-ARGB support the most recent AM4 and LGA1200 sockets, on top of their predecessors. Because of this, they can be mounted on a wide range of processors.
Nevertheless, it is always vital to check a cooler’s compatibility before making a purchase.
2. Dimensions - Clearances
One of the most important specifications you need to look out for while looking for an air cooler is its dimensions.
The heat sink of air coolers are much larger than those of stock coolers or liquid coolers, so they have clearance issues like bumping up against the RAM or case window.
Sometimes, they can be simply too big for your case.
To give an example, be quiet!’s popular cooler Dark Rock Pro TR4 has two fans, which makes it bigger than its single fan counterparts. Likewise, ABKONCORE’s CT404B may need some extra space for its 128x 107x 157mm dimensions.
To avoid issues, measure the clear space around your CPU socket and check whether the length, width and height of the air cooler can easily fit in. If not, look for a smaller CPU air cooler.
If a dual tower air cooler does not fit will or hits the RAM sticks, then go for a single tower air coolers which will occupy less space. Also note that some coolers will cover the ram area and then if you need to remove the ram sticks, you would first have to remove the cooler.
3. Heat Sink Material
The heat sink of a CPU air cooler transfers the heat generated by your CPU and dissipates it using the fans. It has 2 main parts: heat pipes and fins. The material of these parts matter, because they need to have high thermal conductivity to effectively dissipate the heat.
The two most common materials used for heat sinks are aluminum and copper. Copper has almost twice the thermal conductivity of aluminum, but aluminum is noticeably cheaper.
Copper heat pipes are almost always recommended, but copper fins aren't a necessity, though they are still the best.
Cooler Master MasterAir G100M is a great example of what is achievable with aluminum fins and copper pipes. It has one of the best price-performance ratios in the market and features aluminum fins and a copper base with a large surface area.
If your processor has lower tdp ratings that does not heat much, you might be able to get sufficient cooling with a cheaper air cooler. However for high end processors with high TDP values, a good quality copper made cooler is a must.
4. Tower Quantity
While most CPU air coolers have a single heat sink tower, certain models feature two separate heat sink towers for more efficient heat dissipation. They are larger than their single-tower counterparts, but if you have space to spare, they can cool even the hottest CPUs.
Cooler Master MasterAir MA620M and Noctua NH-D15S, for example, feature two heat sink towers on both sides of a single fan.
This dramatically increases the surface area of the heat sink and improves cooling efficiency.
However, bear in mind that dual towers require more volume space over the motherboard and can hit other components like the ram sticks or even enclosures over the IO port backpanel. Sometimes dual tower coolers will simply not fit such motherboards, so you have to be very careful.
Besides the size, dual tower coolers are also heavier and are likely to put load on the motherboard. In most cases its not a major issue.
5. Cooling Capacity - TDP Rating
The cooling capacity of an air cooler refers to the maximum amount of heat it can effectively dissipate in theory, measured in watts. For example, if your CPU has a rated TDP of 100W , you need a CPU air cooler that has at least 100W or more of rated TDP cooling capacity.
This specification is stated under TDP (Thermal Design Power) and measured in watts.
It should be noted that the coolers do not consume that many watts of power, its just a measure of its cooling capacity.
Air coolers generally consume only a few watts of power to run the fan.
Most consumer-level CPUs from Intel and AMD are rated around 60-130W TDP.
For example, the latest i9-10900K uses 125W and the Ryzen 9 3900X uses 105W power, so 150W coolers like Thermaltake Contac Silent 12 and be quiet! Pure Rock 2 would suffice for most CPUs as long as they are compatible.
High end cpus like 12-16 core processors from AMD and Intel have much higher tdp ratings over 180W. For those processors you would need an equally powerful air cooler like the NH-D15 rated at 220W TDP.
6. Fan Quantity
This is simply the number of fans the air cooler has. Most CPU air coolers have only one fan, but some of them can have more. Coolers with more fans provide better cooling, but they also make more noise, cover more space, and are heavier.
Corsair A500 and Noctua NH-D14 are two excellent dual-fan CPU coolers. NH-D14 features two heat sink towers with two fans while A500 supports one larger heat sink with dual fans.
If you need smaller CPU coolers, you can check Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo and Noctua NH-L9i. Both feature single fans but can still dissipate heat effectively for their sizes.
Single Fan - Push or Pull Only
Single fans can either be installed in a push air position or a pull air position. They will either push air into the heatsink, or pull air away from the heatsink. Push configuration is more popular though.
Dual Fan - Both Push-Pull
With dual fans, you can have both push and pull configurations together. One fan will push air into the heatsink, another will pull away from it. This way the air circulation is much improved.
However, it is important to note that dual fans do not make a huge impact on the cooling performance. The differences are often low to moderate. On the other side having double fans may increase the noise level sometimes.
7. Fan Size
The fan size of a CPU cooler states the diameter of the fan in millimeters. There are many fan size categories here, from 92mm up to 140 mm. Certain low-profile coolers can have fans as small as 65mm.
Similar to fan speed and quantity, fan size is just another factor that contributes to better cooling performance, so a bigger size doesn’t always mean better cooling.
For example, Noctua’s NH-L9x65 and NH-U14S are two different CPU coolers with different fan sizes. The first one has a small 65mm fan and the second has a 140mm fan, yet both still provide excellent cooling performance relative to their sizes.
Larger fans have the advantage of pushing more air per rotation, so that can spin at lower speeds, producing lesser noise. This makes them very suitable for silent builds.
8. Fan Speed
The fan speed of an air cooler refers to the number of turns it makes per minute, measured by RPM (revolutions per minute). The more RPM an air cooler has, the more airflow it creates, which means better cooling.
Of course, a higher RPM isn’t the ultimate answer. Most air coolers work between the 600 – 2000 RPM range, which is more than enough to keep your CPU around 60 – 65 °C under heavy load. It is also important to note that higher RPM also creates more noise.
Usually the speed of the fan is automatically regulated by the system itself depending on the cooling required. So if the processor is heating up the fan would step up its speed as well.
Besides this, there are certain settings in the BIOS that can be configured to finetune the speed of the fans for improved performance specially if you plan to overclock.
9. Air Flow
An air cooler's airflow refers to the amount of air it can move in a minute. It is measured by cubic feet per minute (CFM). The airflow of a CPU cooler is closely related to its fan speed; a higher RPM means a higher CFM.
While a fan with a higher CFM number theoretically provides better cooling since it moves more air, it doesn't directly translate into a better cooler. Similar to fan speed, coolers with higher CFM numbers are often noisier.
10. Bearing System
Air cooler fans have bearing systems that allow their blades to spin efficiently and reliably. There are 3 common bearing types: sleeve bearings, ball bearings, and hydro bearings.
Sleeve bearings are the most common.
They are the cheapest option and run quietly at lower fan speeds. Sleeve bearings often die suddenly over 70°C and have shorter lifespans. Still, they are great options in non-demanding environments. They are best mounted vertically.
Ball bearings are more expensive than sleeve bearings but make up for it with higher heat endurance, longer life, and more mounting options other than vertical.
Hydro bearings, also known as fluid dynamic bearings, are the last and most expensive type. They are essentially a heavily modified version of sleeve bearings and can be mounted in all directions.
Their fluid cycling technology makes them extremely quiet and durable as they can last from 100,000 to 300,000 hours according to the reliability tests.
ABKONCORE CT405W and MSI Cooling Core Frozr XL, for example, feature hydrodynamic bearings that dramatically increase their lifespans and makes them quieter relative to their size and RPM.
11. Noise Level
The amount of noise your air cooler will produce while operating under normal conditions refers to the noise level. It is measured in decibels (dB). Most CPU air coolers work between the 16-40 dB range.
For instance, Noctua NH-D15 provides an excellent noise-performance ratio. Even though it features 2 fans and 2 heat sink towers, it can consistently stay below 24.6 dB under load.
Another excellent CPU cooler that’s known for its silence is DEEPCOOL GAMMAXX GT BK. Even under full load, it doesn’t surpass 27 dB. Similarly, be quiet! Dark Pro 4 provides a similar performance with its 24.3 dB noise level, despite its dual-fan dual-tower setup.
12. RGB Support
RGB stands for Red Green Blue and refers to the colorful LED effects that certain computer components display while operating.
Since CPU coolers are often preferred by gamers that want to overclock their CPUs, companies add RGB support to add a little flair to their products. While RGB doesn’t have any impact on performance, it certainly makes a difference to the aesthetics.
If your PC case has a transparent window and you want to add some cool visual effects to your setup, you can look at Thermaltake UX100 and Cooler Master A71C. Both of them have customizable RGB effects around their fans that create a cool effect while operating.
Another popular rgb air cooler is the Cooler Master MasterAir MA410M RGB CPU Air Cooler.
These are the most common technical terms you will hear when looking for a CPU air cooler. If you think you need one, check these specifications to learn how to make the right decision.
Some cooler manufacturers provide details on their website, about the supported processors for a particular cooler model. Be sure to check all such details if you are planning to build a completely new pc.
The most important specs to check are the TDP rating, socket compatibility and clearance. Most of the time, if these 3 factors match properly, the cooler should give good performance.
Also consider the brand when buying a new cooler, because there are lots of cheap alternatives available that claim to be high quality in their specifications but fail to perform when put to real tests. Some popular brands include Noctua, Cooler Master, Be Quiet! etc.
If you have any questions or feedback, let us know in the comments below.