4 Types of CPU Coolers – Air / AIO / Custom Water Loops – Which is the Best for You ?

By | April 4, 2021

For the past 10 years, CPU performance has greatly increased, thanks to smaller semiconductor technology.

Comparing Intel Lynnfield processors from 2009 to their latest Comet Lake processors, you would see that there is a huge bump when it comes to performance.

With processors today being able to reach higher frequencies, its heat production also increased.

Thus, increasing the cooling requirement for your processor.

If you don’t want to experience thermal throttling where your processor automatically decreases its speed to allow itself to cool down, you should ensure that your CPU is properly cooled.

Types of CPU Coolers

If you buy a processor, it would have a dedicated cooler included which is commonly known as the "stock cooler".

While these are designed to keep your processor cool, it does not perform that well, especially if you are using your computer for long periods of demanding workloads like video editing and rendering or high graphics gaming.

Most stock coolers are not able to cool the cpu under heavy load causing temperature spikes in the range of 80-90 degrees. This in turn makes the fan turn faster to cool the heat sink, producing more noise.

There are quite a few alternatives to stock coolers that do a much better job at bringing the temperatures down and avoiding cpu clock throttling.

There are 4 major types of coolers/cooling systems using PCs today.

  • Air Coolers - Most common, cheap and easy to install
  • AIO Coolers - Aethetic design, good cooling
  • Custom Water Loops - Used by enthusiasts for high level cooling
  • Submerged Cooling - Very advanced

1. Aftermarket Air Coolers

The simplest upgrade that you can do on your stock CPU cooler is an aftermarket air cooler. In context, aftermarket air coolers work the same as your stock cooler, but with an increase in terms of performance.

They often have larger fans and heatsinks that absorb and dissipate heat faster compared to stock CPU coolers.

If you have a 4 core processor or higher then you should always go for an aftermarket cooler if you want to keep the cpu cool and the fan noise low. There are plenty of reputed brands like Noctua, Cooler Master, DEEPCool that make high performance air cooler.

Now, there are different types of air coolers that you should be familiar with so that you can properly choose what fits you the best.

1.1 U/Twin Tower Type Air Cooler

This type of air cooler is made of two large heatsinks that kind of make a U shape or a twin tower right next to each other.

Fans are attached at the side of each heatsink that actively dissipates heat out of your case and is usually aligned to the exhaust fans at the back of your case that increases cooling performance.

DeepCool’s Assassin III CPU cooler is a good example of a twin tower air cooler. The Assassin III is equipped with dual 140mm fans that can run up to 1400 RPM. It has seven heat pipes and can hold up to 280w of TDP (Thermal Design Power).

Twin Tower Type Air Cooler

Twin Tower Type Air Cooler

1.2 C-Type Air Cooler

Compared to twin tower air coolers, C-type coolers are typically smaller in size with a single heatsink connected to its heat pipes.

A single fan is attached to the heatsink that helps in blowing out the heat from your CPU.

Noctua’s NH-C14S has this kind of design with a top-fan mount that also provides cooling for your RAM modules. It is equipped with a single 140mm fan and able to handle most AMD and Intel processors TDP requirements.

Noctua NH-C14S C-Type Cooler

Noctua NH-C14S C-Type Cooler

1.3 Low-Profile Air Cooler

Low-profile air coolers are typically used for mini-ITX builds that have limited space where even liquid coolers wouldn't fit.

Air coolers with this design are equipped with thinner heatsinks and smaller fans that can decrease cooling performance but are still better compared to stock coolers.

Noctua NH-L9i Low Profile Cooler

Noctua NH-L9i Low Profile Cooler

Noctua is known to manufacture the best low-profile coolers with a little to no impact when it comes to cooling performance. The NH-L9a and NH-L9i are some of the best models that they have.

PROS:

Air coolers are inexpensive and usually cost between $20 to $100 with an average 20-30% drop on your processor's temperature on idle and at load.

CONS:

Most air coolers have large heatsinks which may not fit on some cases especially Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX cases. In addition, air coolers have large fans that get loud at high speeds.

When choosing an air cooler make sure that you have enough RAM clearance on your motherboard so that the air cooler does not get into the space of the RAM area.

2. Water/Liquid Cooling

If you are looking for beautiful aesthetics along with good cooling then you should definitely consider getting a liquid cooling system.

Liquid cooling systems are made to further decrease the temperature of your processor on load, which can also prolong its lifespan.

AIO CPU Cooler

AIO CPU Cooler

It also allows room for overclocking to get more performance out of your processors if you need that boost in performance.

2.1 All in One (AIO) Liquid Cooler

The easiest way to get a liquid cooling system to your computer is by using an all-in-one liquid cooler. Based on its name, AIOs have all the components that you need for liquid cooling like radiator, pump, and block.

All-in-one coolers also have pre-built mounting mechanisms that support either AMD or Intel processors for easy installations.

CoolerMaster’s ML360R and Corsair’s H150i are one of the best AIOs in the market right now. Both are equipped with a 360mm radiator with three 120mm fans mounted for excellent cooling performance.

CoolerMaster ML360R

CoolerMaster ML360R

AIO coolers usually have a cpu water block with an inbuilt pump which is connected to the radiators using pipes. The radiators have fans which dissipate the heat quickly.

PROS:

Aesthetics is one of the best things about AIOs, especially those with RGB lighting.

Aside from the looks, you get to experience liquid cooling with very little work required when installing the cooler.

CONS:

It is always bad for electronics to get in contact with water. If your AIO leaks in the future, then there will surely be a lot of problems like damaging other components of your system.

The price to performance ratio is not that good when you factor in the price. Opting for a decent air cooler would get you a better value for your money.

3. Custom Water Cooling Loops

If we are talking about the peak of CPU cooling, then it is definitely a custom water-cooling system. Just like an AIO, custom water cooling is made of almost the same components but with an addition of a reservoir, fittings, water block and a custom tubing.

Custom Water Cooling Loop

Custom Water Cooling Loop

To help you understand even further, let’s break down the components of a custom water cooling system.

Waterblock - this is the block that is attached directly to your processor that is actively cooled by the water from the inside.

Fittings - these are attachments that connect your tubing line to the water block, reservoir, and radiator.

Tubing - water tubing is the custom loop that you use so that coolant can flow smoothly across your custom cooling system. You can opt for a hardline water tubing if you want a cleaner look, but you can also go for soft tubing which is easier to set up.

Reservoir - the main reason why custom water cooling systems perform better compared to AIOs is the reservoir. It allows you to store more water (coolant) to your system, thus increasing cooling performance.

Pump - this helps the coolant on your system circulate from the water block all the way up to the radiator to dissipate the heat coming from your processor.

Radiator - radiator cools down the liquid from your custom cooling system with the help of fans. The radiator fins absorb the heat from the coolant and the fans attached to the radiator helps in dissipating the heat from the radiator fins.

In terms of performance, custom water cooling solutions can handle all processors at stock frequencies.

However, if you want to start overclocking, you should also take into consideration the size of the radiator and pump that you would use so that it can properly handle your overclock temperature.

PROS:

No doubt that you would have the best cooling performance for your system. Aesthetics is also a main giveaway when you opt for a custom water cooling solution especially if you use hard-line water tubing.

CONS:

Having so much performance also comes with a high price. A decent custom water cooling can cost around $600 to $1500 which is already the price of a decent gaming computer. Besides, the work that needs to be done on your system which includes a lot of planning and, of course, maintenance for the coolant.

4. Submerged Cooling

If you are looking for extreme water cooling for your system, you should check out submerged cooling systems. This type of cooling would not only make your CPU cool but also cool your entire hardware including the motherboard, GPU, and RAM.

Submerged Cooling

Submerged Cooling

Most submerged cooling uses a tank that is filled with mineral oil since it does not have the ability to conduct electricity.

While this configuration has some advantages like an overall better cooling performance and the idea that your entire CPU is submerged in a liquid is really cool, there are a lot of problems that can potentially surface in the future.

PROS:

Having a PC that is completely underwater is really cool and an overall better cooling performance since all of your hardware except the hard drive is also getting cooled by the mineral oil.

CONS:

Since you are submerging your PC on oil, it is a nightmare when you have to take all of your components out for maintenance. Oil leaks from the tank is also a factor and you don’t want loads of oil splattered on your desk.

Lastly, once you choose to submerge your CPU in mineral oil, you cannot take it back out and mount it in a normal case. Well, it is still possible but you would have to deal with very greasy computer components.

PC Case Airflow Configuration

Here are the three types of airflow that you can apply to your PC case to have an overall better cooling system.

1. Negative Air Pressure

This type of airflow configuration focuses mainly on hot air being pulled out of your case. To achieve this, you should have 2 to 3 fans pulling out hot air from your case and a single fan from another side of your case (lower front part) that pulls in cold air from your room.

2. Positive Air Pressure

Having a positive airflow on your CPU case means that most of your fans would be pulling in cold air from the outside which can help in cooling down your hardware like the processor and video card.

3. Balanced Air Pressure

Among the types of airflow, balanced air pressure is the best setup that you can do for your CPU fans. This means that you have an equal number of fans that blow hot air out of your case and draws cold air into your case.

Other Things That You Need to Know

1. IHS

Integrated Heat Spreaders are the silver-coated covers on top of your processor that are designed to equally spread the heat from your processor to the dedicated cooler that you would attach to it.

IHS are either soldered directly to the CPU or fixed using adhesive materials. Processors that have soldered heat spreaders maintain better contact, which results in better temperatures.

2. Thermal Paste

Thermal paste is placed between the IHS and the actual cooler for your system. This ensures that there are no gaps between the IHS and cooling system to maximize heat transfer and heat dissipation.

  • Carbon Paste - the most common type of thermal paste that is equally conductive and non-conductive. A thin coat of this kind of paste is enough to provide proper contact between the IHS and CPU cooler.
  • Liquid Metal Paste - these are highly conductive which makes it dissipate heat better. Incorrect application of this paste can cause a short circuit on your processor that can lead to permanent damage.
  • Diamond Paste - similar to carbon paste in terms of material but with refined diamond particles that prolong its lifespan and effectiveness.
  • Silicone Paste - they are very easy to use but do not have the same effect compared to other thermal paste compounds. This permanently sticks to whatever component it is used on so stay away from this kind of thermal paste.
  • Ceramic Paste - these are non-conductive thermal paste that is great for CPUs. They are very affordable and have the longest lifespan and effectiveness.

A good quality thermal paste can drastically improve the cooling of your CPU even with simple air coolers. Thermal pastes dry up over time in a span of around 3-5 years, after which they need to be replenished.

Verdict

It is no doubt that liquid coolers are the best cooling solution when it comes to raw performance.

However, if you consider several factors like durability, maintenance, and price, it is still advisable for most computer systems to have a decent air cooler like the ones we mentioned above compared to all-in-one coolers.

On the other hand, if you have the money to spend on liquid cooling and you don’t mind the work that needs to be put in, then you should go straight to custom liquid cooling and avoid AIOs.

Another factor that you should consider when choosing the right CPU cooler is the type of build that you are going to have.

If you are working on a small case with limited space for large air coolers like mini-ITX builds, then this is where small AIO coolers can be really useful.

Compared to low-profile air coolers, small all-in-one coolers with 120mm radiators would definitely work better in cooling down your processor.

The key to a proper cooling system is basically good airflow. After ensuring that you have the best CPU cooler for your system, you should also take into consideration the fans inside your CPU case.

About Silver Moon

A Tech Enthusiast, Blogger, Linux Fan and a Software Developer. Writes about Computer hardware, Linux and Open Source software and coding in Python, Php and Javascript. He can be reached at [email protected].

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