Keeping your PC cool is critical, whether it’s a high-performance gaming console or just an office PC. There are many PC types in between these two extremes, and many require robust cooling under heavy loads. So should you stick with an air cooling fan or opt for an expensive liquid cooling system?
What is liquid cooling?
When we talk about liquid cooling for regular PCs, we are talking about all-in-one (AIO) liquid cooling systems. These are pre-built components made by companies such as Corsair and EVGA. To get it working, you don’t need to fill a reservoir with a cooling solution or assemble multiple parts like you would with a DIY liquid cooler. These systems generally (but not always) use water, which is why they are often referred to as water cooling systems.
You simply follow the instructions to install the cooling system, as you would with any other computer component. However, it is always a good idea to inspect the hoses for leaks.
AIO liquid cooling systems have three main parts you should know. First, the radiator is the big box part with the fans. This is where the fluid circulates, taking the hot fluid away from the CPU and running it through the system to cool it down before returning to dissipate more heat.
The other big part is the water block and the pump. This is the part that mounts on top of the CPU. The water block has a bottom plate that sits between the rest of the block and your CPU. This is where heat is transferred from the CPU to the cooling system. The water block usually also contains the pump, which moves the liquid through the system.
Between the radiator and the water block, we also have the hose that the fluid passes through as it travels between the two larger components. It is important to keep an eye on the hoses to look for possible leaks when you first install it, although that is unlikely.
Economical liquid cooling
Is liquid cooling better than air cooling?
In general, liquid cooling fares better than an air cooler. However, there are exceptions to this. Some aftermarket air coolers do a great job and can compete with lower end liquid coolers, especially single fan radiator designs.
In general, however, liquid cooling is better than bulky fan and heat sink combos. Air cooling relies on absorbing heat in a metal base plate. Then the heat travels through heat pipes to a large heat sink, where fans are dissipated and push hot air away from the CPU. Liquid coolers, on the other hand, also use a base plate, but the heat is absorbed in liquid, which can transfer heat more efficiently than air. Then that hot liquid moves away from the CPU, where the heat is dissipated through the radiator.
Another consideration is that heavy-duty air coolers, such as the ones that can compete with lower-end liquid-cooling AIOs, are much heavier and bulkier. An air cooler like the Noctua NH-D15 can cool fantastically, but may not fit in cases with a lower clearance. Some large air coolers can also block RAM slots if you’re not careful with orientation.
Should you use a liquid cooler?
A lot of people suggest that if you’re not overclocking your CPU, there really is no need to go with a liquid cooler as air coolers will do fine anyway – especially the big, chunky models. That argument is valid, but there are other arguments for liquid cooling.
The lower you can maintain the temperatures of your components, the more likely they are to last longer, and AIOs will keep your CPU cooler. CPUs also slow down when they get too hot for too long, meaning that a processor can maintain top speed for longer the cooler it is. For example, if you’re playing a CPU-demanding game or editing video files, liquid cooling can translate to better performance.
In addition, there are some minor considerations, such as noise, since an all-in-one liquid cooling unit is generally quieter than an air cooler. AIOs with RGB lighting can also look better in a cabinet with a transparent side, although this is entirely subjective.
If you want to use an AIO, you should also make sure you have a place in your suitcase for the radiator. This isn’t usually a problem, but it’s always a good idea to check what your computer case manual says – or, if you have a pre-built system, you can refer to the general system user manual. You need a place in your suitcase to mount at least two fans of 120 mm or 140 mm.
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The cons of AIO liquid coolers
While an AIO has a lot to offer PC owners, there are some drawbacks. The first is cost. A 240mm AIO (meaning it has two 120mm fans) costs about $ 100 or more, while a popular air cooler like the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo often costs between $ 30 and $ 50. You can definitely pay around $ 100 for a high-end air cooler (like the Noctua NH-D15 mentioned above), but one of these is generally cheaper than an AIO liquid cooler.
Second, it is just more complicated. An aftermarket air cooler has fewer moving parts and is therefore less likely to break down than a liquid cooling system. Plus, you can replace the fans on an air cooler if they don’t work. An AIO, on the other hand, has a pump and fans to deal with. If any of these things break, you will need to replace your unit. Then, of course, there is the issue of coolant leakage, although this is rare on new models. In fact, some AIO makers (but not all) will guarantee the cost of replacing your system if the cooling unit damages it while under warranty.
Fixed air cooling
Liquid vs Air Cooling: Which Is Best?
Liquid cooling is a great way to keep your CPU temperatures lower, which can translate to more durable performance under load, even without overclocking.
On the other hand, liquid cooling is not strictly necessary and more expensive, and there are more moving parts that can break.
All-in-one liquid coolers look cool and are great at lowering the temperature, but anyone on a budget will still do well with a good air cooler.