While PCs and servers have been water cooled for decades, there is still an ongoing debate as to its worth.
While liquid cooling provides the best cooling, it is debated on whether it’s even worth the hassle. Liquid cooling tends to be more expensive than traditional air cooling and comes with the constant fear of a leak onto your PC’s most valuable components.
CPU air coolers, on the other hand, have grown larger and more efficient over the last decade and GPUs now feature elaborate heatsinks and fan cooling systems. So it begs the question, is liquid cooling worth it?
In this article, we will be providing a brief overview of what liquid cooling is, methods of liquid cooling, and ultimately providing you with the major pros and cons of liquid cooling so that you can make an informed decision for your PC’s build.
What Is Liquid Cooling?
To begin, liquid cooling uses a liquid solution, water or specific coolants, to draw heat away from the CPU or GPU. This is done through the use of a water block and radiator system.
Cool liquid is pumped through the water block situated on top of the CPU or GPU, draws off heat, runs through a tube to the radiator, is cooled off by fans, and then recirculates again. If you are familiar with a vehicle cooling system, then this is a very similar concept.
Air cooling also pulls heat off the CPU or GPU, but it is done through a slightly different, and in many ways simpler, process than liquid cooling. Air coolers will use a heatsink that draws heat away from the CPU and into fins to be pushed away by a fan. This is similar to the radiator on a liquid cooling system, but the only moving part of an air cooler will be a fan.
Two Types of Liquid Cooling
Within liquid cooling, there are two primary methods of cooling: AIO (All-in-One) systems and custom systems. The two systems are similar in concept, but are slightly different in configuration.
AIO systems are closed loop systems that generally can’t be customized, but offer almost no risk of leaking or evaporation. Many AIO systems are completely enclosed, so that evaporation of the coolant is minimal to non-existent. They consist of a water block, pump, coolant lines, a radiator, and potentially a fan.
The reservoir will be minimal to non-existent as all of the coolant is already sealed in the system. They aren’t too much more difficult than a traditional CPU air cooler to install as everything is already assembled. Simply mount the radiator to your case, apply thermal paste to the water block, and mount the block to the CPU.
Custom systems, on the other hand, will likely be more complex. They will still have all of the same parts as an AIO system, but they may also include GPU coolers, a coolant reservoir, additional pumps, and more. Custom options obviously offer a great level of versatility, but can come with a higher risk of leaks or mechanical breakdown.
It all depends on the experience level of the PC builder. Because of their complex nature, they are more difficult to install. You will need to manually install the coolant lines, reservoir, pump(s), radiator and fans. These are recommended only for users that have previous experience installing liquid cooling systems.
Regardless of whether or not you plan to use an AIO or custom cooling system, they both operate on the same thermodynamic principles. Liquids are simply superior to air for drawing heat away from critical systems.
But does this superiority really make a difference in your PC? Keep reading to find out the pros and cons of these systems to help answer that question.
(All-in-one Liquid Cooler, Source: Thermaltake.com)
What Are the Pros of Liquid Cooling?
You should now have a basic understanding of how liquid cooling works. Now we need to look at a few pros of liquid cooling. Why would a PC builder want to use liquid cooling in their system? Are there truly advantages? We’ve compiled 5 advantages of liquid cooling.
- A liquid cooling system is simply better at cooling your PC – Liquids are a better heat conductor than air. No matter how many fans you have running, liquid will always trump air for cooling power.
- Extreme gamers and professionals will see better performance with liquid cooling – Cool temperatures are critical for PC users that push their system to the max. This would include everyone from gaming and cryptomining overclockers to video and CG editors. If you plan to overclock, then you will likely benefit from a liquid cooling system.
- Liquid cooling systems, especially AIO systems, tend to be discreet and unobtrusive – If a clean and simple looking build is important to you then you will likely prefer liquid cooling. A water block will always be much smaller than a modern CPU cooler.
- Liquid cooled PCs tend to be quieter than a traditionally air cooled system – While you will still have fans at the radiator and PSU at minimum, you won’t have a loud CPU cooler anymore. Coupled with an 80 Plus Platinum or Titanium rated PSU, and your PC should be whisper quiet.
- A liquid cooled PC can have less overall dust – You will still accumulate dust and hair overtime, but with less fans the buildup should occur at a much slower rate. This means that you can reduce that can of air budget – a true win.
What Are the Cons of Liquid Cooling?
While liquid cooling promises a lot, there are several disadvantages to this system of cooling. We’ve listed the 5 biggest disadvantages of liquid cooling:
- Liquid cooling systems tend to be more expensive than most CPU air coolers – While some AIO liquid cooling options may be priced similar to a mid to high-end air cooler, custom solutions will likely be more expensive. On average, you can expect a difference of at least $50 to $100 between an air cooler and an AIO liquid cooling system. Premium custom systems can easily cost anywhere from $300 to $600.
- A liquid cooling system will require more maintenance than an air cooling system – This can include everything from a failed pump to corrosion or even algae buildup if using water instead of coolant. After a year or two, you will also need to routinely check all of the parts of the system to ensure that no leaks or cracks are forming.
- Evaporation can be a common issue, especially for custom systems – While you can refill most systems should the coolant levels drop too low, this is another cost and maintenance piece of liquid cooling.
- While rare, liquid cooled systems can leak – An improperly installed cooling line, a crack in the water block, or simple corrosion can all lead to a leak. This leak can equal a fried motherboard and CPU if liquid gets on the board. Look on any PC website or forum, and you will find examples of what a leak can do to a PC. While it is more common in custom systems, AIO systems are not immune to leaks. They are more fool proof, but they can still fail due to a user accident or a manufacturer defect.
- Some liquid cooling systems can actually be louder than air cooled systems – Cheaply made pumps or inefficient fans can add up to a loud system. While this is not a common complaint with liquid cooling, it is still an issue that has surprised some users. It is important to do your research on the decibel levels of the fans and pump before purchasing a liquid cooling system. If you are planning to buy a liquid cooling system solely for reduced noise, just ensure that you do your research first.
Is Liquid Cooling Worth It?
We’ve taken a look at how liquid cooling systems work, their two primary configurations, and their pros and cons, but is liquid cooling worth it? Honestly, it depends on your PC build and your intended usage.
Are you building a budget, mid-tier, or premium PC? Do you have a $500 budget or a $5000 budget? To answer the question of worth, we will break down each of these three tiers and examine them individually.
Simply put, budget gamers are unlikely to benefit from the advantages of liquid cooling. There is no sense in beating around the bush. It simply doesn’t make sense to waste your money on a liquid cooling system that may cost more than your CPU. There are three primary reasons as to why budget gamers should avoid liquid cooling.
The first reason is cost. The extra $50 to $100 that you will likely spend on an AIO liquid cooling system would be better served on a quality PSU or jumping one of your components up to the next tier.
If you only have $500 to $750 to spend on a PC, then liquid cooling is an exorbitant cost. Not to mention a custom liquid cooling option, which is simply out of the question with budget builds.
The second reason is that low-end systems typically don’t produce as much heat. Lower end CPUs and GPUs tend to use less power and produce less heat than higher-end GPUS. If your system is producing less heat, then a liquid cooling system may not produce any noticeable performance gains over a decent air cooler.
Why waste money if there is no real temperature or performance difference?
The third reason to avoid liquid cooling is that budget PC components tend to have shorter and more limited warranties than their more expensive counterparts. If the water cooling system springs a leak, the components may not be covered under warranty. Leaks are extremely rare, but you might not be able to afford the damage from a leak.
If you still want a liquid cooling system for your budget PC, then it’s your PC. Just understand that it will either increase your budget or force you to cheap out on a different component to afford it. Also understand that it’s basically overkill for a budget PC.
If you insist on liquid cooling, then we would recommend installing an AIO system as they are generally cheaper and less likely to spring a leak than a custom system. Also, make sure to check our selections for the best budget AIO systems currently available on the market.
Unlike a budget build, a mid-tier build straddles the line between overkill and benefit. More so than budget and premium builds, your intended usage will dictate liquid or air cooling.
If you plan to overclock your components to make up for the mid-tier quality, then liquid cooling would probably make sense. Not only will it reduce your temperature, it will improve performance and the overall lifespan of your components.
However, if you are a casual gamer that doesn’t push their system that hard, then liquid cooling might produce negligible improvements over air cooling.
It’s fair to say that the average mid-tier gamer won’t be pushing their systems hard enough to truly require liquid cooling. In addition, CPU air coolers have improved vastly in the 21st century and can keep most CPUs running well within optimal temperatures. Also many PC components are more efficient than they used to be, thus equalling less heat to disperse.
If you are a mid-tier gamer, it would be beneficial to do your research on the expected temperatures from your CPU and GPU at normal use, full use, and overclocked use. This should ultimately dictate your decision on whether or not to use liquid cooling.
It also is fair to use liquid cooling if you simply hate the look of a CPU cooler and want something less obtrusive. Unless you have a limited budget or you buy a low quality liquid cooling system that leaks, it is unlikely that you would regret installing one, even if it is potentially superfluous.
Like the budget build, we would recommend an AIO system for mid-tier builds. You are unlikely to see tangible benefits from a custom system at the mid-tier range.
If you plan to build a premium PC with the very best components, liquid cooling is recommended. As with mid-tier builds, this can still depend on your usage, but most premium builds are designed to be pushed to their limits.
Premium builds will be using the latest and greatest CPUs and potentially multiple GPUs. Premium builds are also often designed with overclocking in mind, and they are going to be used by extreme gamers that expect game perfection or video editors and engineers that need pure processing power.
Premium PCs are also using power hungry CPUs and GPUs which will produce a greater amount of heat. To push your system without burning out your components, you will likely want to install a liquid cooling system.
Also, unlike mid-tier PCs, premium PCs can more greatly benefit from a custom liquid cooling system over an AIO system. With a custom system, you can build it so that it cools not only your CPU, but also your GPUs, and even other components. Premium PCs can truly benefit from the increased cooling power.
Premium PC components also come with the best warranties, including liquid cooling parts, so if there is a malfunction and you do have a leak, your PC is likely covered – double check your warranties to verify if it’s true in your situation. This should give you peace of mind to install a liquid cooling system.
While you may still be fine with an air cooled system, we would recommend installing a liquid cooling system in your premium PC. As with everything, do thorough research on your specific PC components before deciding on your cooling system. Think about not only your components, but also your intended usage.
At the end of the day, is liquid cooling worth it?
Yes, if you have a premium PC.
No, if you have a budget PC.
Maybe, but probably not, if you have an average mid-tier system.
Rule of thumb is that casual gamers and users that aren’t overclocking or running multiple graphics cards will likely see miniscule improvements with a liquid cooling system. Extreme gamers, overclockers, cryptominers, and other high need users would likely benefit from the use of a liquid cooler.
Liquid cooling systems come with greater maintenance needs and costs, but they do provide the superior cooling method. Only you can decide what makes sense for your situation. The great thing about building your own PC is that you can also change your build with relative ease.
Do you agree with our evaluation? Did we miss a pro or con of liquid cooling? We would love to hear from you. We have years of experience building and maintaining PCs, but there is always something new to learn.
Also, if you are planning out your next build, feel free to follow the link below to the CPU cooler section of our website. We have several articles on the best liquid and air coolers based on budget, size, and color that we think would be of great use to you.
Thank you for reading, and we hope you look forward to our next article.