Liquid Vs Air CPU Cooler [In-depth Guide]: Which One Should You Choose?

watercooling system

How do you know what is best for you when it comes to a liquid vs air CPU cooler?

If you run games that require high performance or if you have overclocked your CPU, you will find that your component generates a lot of unwanted heat. If this heat is not adequately dispersed, your component will start to run at an unsafe temperature.

This poses risks both to your CPU’s performance as well as possible irreparable damage to your pricey component. Of course we all want to avoid such headaches. The stock cooler that comes with your CPU can be sufficient for general computer use but a powerful CPU generates some high levels of heat that the stock cooler simply can’t handle.

You will want to look at buying an aftermarket cooler in this situation and look at what is right for you between air and liquid cooling.

Is a custom built liquid cooling system right for you?

There is always the option of a custom-built liquid cooling system which does look really nifty.

You can create a really cool looking liquid cooling system with clear tubing, dyed liquid and even fancy lighting. However, if you have always used the stock cooler that comes with your CPU and haven’t ventured much further into the world of CPU cooling, a custom loop system may be a bit overwhelming for you.

With many moving parts and configurations, it is a very complex system to set up and there are risks involved with regards to leaks and subsequent damage if things are not set up and sealed properly.

The simpler cooling options – AIO Coolers

Luckily, there are All in One (AIO) liquid coolers on the market that are much easier to install than a custom liquid setup. But are they better than their counterparts in the air cooling universe?

It’s definitely an important question which I will aim to answer for you here. You will find a lot of debate in the internet universe between what is better to use, air or liquid coolers.

As you might expect, there are pros and cons for each system and there are different variables you will want to think through before opting for one system over the other. Efficiency in performance, noise level, available real estate in your PC case, and ease of setup are some of things to consider and we will go over them here between the two cooling options. You’ll, of course, want to consider your budget on top of all of these variables as well.

First, however, how do these two systems differ in the way they operate in order to cool down your CPU? The goal of any CPU cooler, air or liquid, is draw heat away from your CPU and out of your case.

Within your CPU itself, the component is designed to draw heat to the metal Integrated Heat Spreader and then to the CPU cooler’s base plate. After this point, the method of transferring the heat away from the CPU is where air cooling and liquid cooling start to differ.

How does air cooling work in PCs?

Air cooling is a very straight forward process and has been used in PCs for years. Put simply, air cooling works by using a fan to blow warm air out of your PC case in order to keep the overall temperature down.

Air Cooled CPU

Most air coolers use heat pipes made of aluminum or copper which transfer heat from the CPU cooler to the fan which pushes the air away from your component. The warm air is, thus, successfully distributed away from your CPU and it is pushed out of your PC case all together. This is a tried and true method of cooling that many PC users have in their setups.

Its simplicity is what makes it great.

How does liquid cooling work in PCs?

Liquid cooling is a bit more complex. The idea is that liquid absorbs heat and can be routed away from your components to keep them cool.

First, a liquid cooling pump is placed directly over your CPU. When your processor generates heat, the liquid cooler uses the cold plate and cooling pump to transfer the heat away from your component and it is absorbed into the liquid.

The now heated liquid is then pumped through the liquid tubes to the radiator where it is cooled by a fan and the heat is then pushed out of the PC case. The liquid, which is now cooled again, is transferred back to the cooling pump via the liquid tubes and the process is repeated with the recycled liquid.

Here’s a complex video explaining how liquid cooling work in PCs:

What liquid is used for CPU cooling?

For those who have a custom loop liquid cooling system, there are quite a few options with regards to what liquid to use. Some custom loop users simply use distilled water, others add biocide to battle against bacteria and corrosion. Some users even add dyes to the liquid to give their transparent tubing some color and aesthetic appeal.

If you plan on mixing your own cooling liquid, check out the best cooling mixes for PCs.

 

However, AIO liquid coolers typically come with a liquid that is a mix of thermally conductive fluid and distilled water. AIO coolers also typically have black or opaque tubing so you cannot see the liquid within the tubes and a dyed liquid would be pointless.

Do you have to refill liquid cooling PC?

AIO liquid coolers are a closed loop setup so you are unable to change or refill the liquid that comes in it. There is typically no need to refill the liquid, however, since it is recycled after it is cooled in the radiator. The liquid that comes loaded in the cooler will last you for the life of the cooler which is typically between five and seven years for a high end AIO liquid cooler.

What are the advantages of liquid cooling system?

Water cooling does tend to be more effective and more efficient than air cooling. While the top of the line in air coolers does beat out the budget versions of liquid cooling, an apples to apples comparison of the best of both worlds shows that a high quality liquid cooler can handle the performance of an overclocked CPU better than its air cooler counterpart, even if only by a small margin.

Liquid coolers also tend to run quieter than air coolers but this is typically due to their customizability. Liquid coolers often come with software that allows users to customize fan speeds and other functionality that can reduce the overall noise level of the system.

This software also sometimes allows for some pretty cool aesthetics as it controls RGB lighting on the cooling pump as well. Overall aesthetics are much better with liquid cooling as the AIO coolers leave more visual space for you to show off your overall PC build.

Once installed, a liquid cooler also leaves ample space to be able to access your other PC parts. This is great for easy cleaning and maintenance for the rest of your rig. Overall, liquid coolers are the top pick for enthusiasts due to the higher performance capabilities as well as the benefits of aesthetics.

What are the disadvantages of liquid cooling system?

The biggest downfall of liquid coolers is undoubtedly the higher expense. Some of the best air coolers on the market cost between $60 for mid-size and $100 for larger models compared to the best AIO liquid coolers on the market which cost between $100 and $160.

Since some air coolers perform very well these days, you will have to determine if the extra headroom for CPU overclock is worth it for you.

While there are plenty of PC cases that are compatible with a liquid cooling setup, there are much fewer than those that are compatible with air coolers. Mini cases and some mid-size cases may not have the room for your preferred liquid cooler and radiator to be installed so you will want to be sure both your case and your hardware are compatible.

Setup is a bit more complex for liquid coolers and installation can get a bit tricky due to multiple moving parts. You will need to be sure you plan out your set up so that the pump, the radiator, and fans fit nicely into your case.

Since so many parts are involved for liquid cooling when compared to air coolers, the chances of repairs are multiplied. When one part breaks, obviously the whole system stops working. In addition to several moving parts in the liquid cooler itself that might need repairs, there is also the risk of leaks.

If your liquid cooler springs a leak, you guessed it, you will definitely see some damage to your parts. While this is certainly a concern, this occurrence is not at all common. In fact, many manufacturers are so confident in their products that they even promise to cover the cost of damages due to leaks if it is apparent that the issue was with the cooler.

What are the advantages of air cooling system?

The most obvious benefit of air coolers is that they tend to be much more affordable than liquid coolers. As previously stated, comparing high quality liquid coolers with high quality air coolers reveals that air coolers generally cost a great deal less.

Outside of affordability, however, air coolers also tend to consume less power than liquid coolers and are often compatible with more PC cases than liquid coolers tend to be. The list of compatible mid and full sized PC cases that are compatible with air coolers is very long and even many smaller “mini” sized cases are also compatible with air coolers.

Lastly, air coolers have a lot less moving parts than liquid coolers so installation is much easier and repairs are less frequent with fewer parts.

What are the disadvantages of air cooling system?

When comparing the best with the best, air coolers do not quite reach the performance level of liquid coolers and often cannot handle the level of heat that an aggressively overclocked CPU generates like a liquid cooler can.

Air coolers also tend to be bulkier and less beneficial for aesthetics. They don’t generally come with some of the bells and whistles that liquid coolers come with like RGB lighting and sleek design. Their bulk does visually block a good portion of your rig so you can’t show off your build or easily access other PC parts for cleaning and maintenance like you could with a liquid cooler.

While air coolers have made strides in lowering audible noise, they still tend to run noisier than their liquid cooling counterparts and are much less customizable.

Liquid cooled vs air-cooled – The Verdict!

Your unique preferences and set up, like always, will be the deciding factor in your choice between purchasing an air cooler and purchasing a liquid cooler. Between the two options, which one is right for you? I want to put this all in perspective for you and directly address the top factors that will go into your decision. Which type of cooler wins in each category?

Cost/Budget

Without a doubt, the air cooler wins the category of affordability. At costs that are a fraction of the cost of a liquid cooler, you will definitely save some cash going the route of an air cooler. If you have a limited budget and cost plays the biggest role in your decision, look no further.

Related Reading: Best Time To Buy PC Parts

Performance

There are some pretty great air coolers on the market these days and they do a phenomenal job at keeping your components cool. The margin of increased performance between an air cooler and a liquid cooler of similar quality is very small. However, an aggressively overclocked CPU will generally require every last bit of cooling capability. If you want to be totally sure your cooling system will be able to handle your CPU’s power, it will be best to opt for a liquid cooler.

Compatibility

Air coolers are generally compatible with the majority of PC cases and CPUs. While some of the larger coolers do sometimes interfere with your memory drives, there won’t be many issues with compatibility in the air cooler route. Liquid coolers have a smaller pool of compatible items but there are still a lot of options that are, in fact, compatible with liquid coolers.

If you already have a PC case that is not compatible with a liquid cooler, you will need to make the decision between buying a new case and going with an air cooler. While this is an important factor and must be considered prior to purchasing a cooler, make sure you are not tying yourself down for the sake of compatibility. If you plan to overclock your CPU and have a PC case that will not fit a liquid cooler, this might be the perfect time to upgrade your case.

Make sure to check our list of the best cases for water cooling, if you’re currently looking for one.

Noise Level

Both of these cooling systems can make a bit of noise. Both require fans, both have moving mechanisms, etc. Even though liquid coolers have more moving parts and moving liquid that, itself, makes a certain amount of noise, the liquid cooler tends to be quieter.

Aesthetics

This category is a blatant win for the liquid cooler. Cool LED lighting aside, the clean, slim, and elegant look of the liquid cooler looks much better than the bulky and sometimes unsightly air cooler. Liquid coolers are also more conducive to displaying your rig and visually showing off your build.

Ease of Installation/Maintenance

This one is a bit of a split vote. Liquid coolers, in all honesty, require a much more complex set up process and you will need to plan out your design carefully to be sure it will be set up adequately. There is the size and location of the radiator to consider as well as the placement of the fans and other parts.

However, once installed, the replacement and maintenance of other PC parts like your motherboard are much easier when a liquid cooler is installed. The other parts are simply more accessible than if you install an air cooler. With an air cooler, though, installation is a breeze but future maintenance can be a pain. If you plan on doing any other upgrades in the coming months, keep them in mind when you are deciding on your cooler.

At the end of the day, your final decision is, as always, going to depend on your unique setup. A hardcore gamer with an overclocked CPU will definitely benefit from a liquid cooler. If, however, you are using a stock CPU and you don’t run games that require huge processing loads, a liquid cooler might be a waste of money.

It all boils down to what will be compatible with your current setup, your intended use, and your budget. Choosing your new product when it comes to a liquid vs. air cooler can be confusing, but once you consider all of your options as well as the advantages and shortfalls, your decision will be simple.

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About Richard Gamin 137 Articles
My name's Richard and over the years, I have personally built many PCs for myself and my friends. I love gaming, programming, graphics designing and basically anything that has to do with computers and technology. If you ever need a hand with anything, feel free to contact me and I will be more than happy to help you out.

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