Liquid vs Air Cooling: Which Is The Best?
One of the tricky situations that we face when assembling a new build. It can be for gaming, streaming, content creation, data mining etc., the cooling is the crucial piece of hardware that plays an important role in deciding the durability of your components. The liquid vs air cooling debate has been around for quite some time now and the answer depends on a number of factors. Therefore, we will highlight the essential points to consider when selecting your preferred cooling choice and sort out the best solutions for CPU, GPU intensive builds, mid range builds and low end builds.
Why exactly the need to sort between liquid and air coolers? Well, if you are a regular PC user just using the PC for non-intensive tasks such as casual web browsing, working with MS Office and some low level programming then you really needn’t bother about the cooling. Because you aren’t stressing your CPU, GPU.
But we know the impedance of the electronic circuits in chips generate heat and lots of it if the tasks are hardware intensive. Therefore if the hardware operates beyond acceptable operating temperature limits then they are bound to be damaged. Which is why most high end PC builders choose either liquid cooling(mostly) or aftermarket air cooling.
Liquid vs Air Cooling: Buying Guide
So as usual, there are a few things to know before you purchase either of them. This basically is the answer in long form for our question. You can have the latest Intel CPUs such as the Intel i9-11900K or the AMD 9 5900X, or an average graphics card such as Rx 570 or GTX 1060, the default coolers will be sufficient for average use. But if you are in a habit of overclocking, then you need to read this closely. If you pair these components with the best cooler you need, you won’t be throttling your system. If you are impatient and looking for the direct answer without explanation then liquid cooling is the best. But note that it is quite hard for the inexperienced builder to set up, hence it can go wrong.
With that said, we will proceed for the comparison factors that are considered to differentiate between water and air cooling. Now these are some of the basic criteria that you have to know. However there are cost variations, and some might not even live up to your expected standards. Minor heating issues may persist if the processing powers are extreme. Let’s start off with that;
Basically overclocking refers to increasing the base clock of CPUs and GPUs. As you might have noticed in the specs list of a CPU or GPU, they have mentioned the boost clock specifically. This results in faster/better CPU processing and higher performance in any application that is CPU dependent like CineBench, Adobe Premiere. Same with the GPU, you can output higher frames per second at higher settings and better resolution once overclocked.
If your cooling isn’t enough, CPU/ GPU throttling will occur. This is when the clock speeds are automatically reduced to prevent excess heat emission. What happens next is easy to guess. Less productivity/ lowered settings for everything.
It’s no secret that as the components are larger in size, the more space they occupy inside a case. Some of these high end coolers have considerable large heatsinks that may collide with your RAM, also these coolers may bump against your casing preventing proper closure. Therefore, the bottom line is that your cooler choice also depends on your casing size. If you have a smaller, less complicated build planned with no SLI, then you are probably better off with 120mm fans. However, mid tower and larger cases support high end coolers and offer better flexibility in cooling.
Liquid AIOs is the clear winner here as they deliver better, lucrative aesthetics for any hardware enthusiast. Various upgrades such as custom cap branding and braided sleeves appeal most users to go with liquid cooling. But that doesn’t mean that fan coolers are unattractive. You can customize fan profiles and lighting using the respective software and they still look glamorous. The users who opt for fancy AIO coolers generally own tempered glass cases. The build looks impressive and vibrant with the AIO coolers for most, but in my opinion even the air cooling has the same capability. However it is a personal choice at the end of the day.
This is the common restriction that everyone shares. If money isn’t an issue to you, then you can go for the best all in one liquid cooler to match the high end internals you have already purchased. But if you are on a budget then you probably own a mid range build. Which means you should stick with the air coolers and you will quickly notice that they deliver similar performance compared to the liquid counterparts.
How much does liquid cooling cost? Well, according to an analysis by thecostguys the average cost for liquid cooling on Amazon is about $115. While for air coolers it is $50. Some of the well known air cooling brands are Cooler Master, Noctua and Arctic Freezer. NZXT, Deepcool and Aorus are well known water cooling brands.
As we mentioned before, if you are a newbie then you are definitely better off with air coolers. Because liquid coolers are quite tough to set up and even experienced builders find it confusing sometimes. Air cooling on the other hand isn’t complicated and on a personal note we believe that that’s what you should begin with.
Liquid vs Air Cooling: Pros and Cons
To provide a bit of an insight about the components of both the cooler types, both the coolers share two common parts. A heat sink and fans are found in both liquid and air coolers. Additionally in water coolers you get the pump and the pipes. The pump is to keep the water pushing through the interconnecting types. The heatsink works more like a radiator in the water cooler and you need to make sure that your case supports the radiator size.
The CPU generated heat will be transferred to the pump and then to the water to be pumped around the cooling system. Water has higher specific heat capacity compared to air hence more efficient in transporting heat away from the components. To summarize the pros;
- Better heat stability and cooling performance
- Aesthetically impressive
- Smaller size
- High cost
- Closer maintenance
- Risk of water leakage
As for air coolers, they only have the fans and the heatsink. The heatsink is a heat conducting metal like Copper or Aluminum and they transfer the excess heat away from the CPU, GPU etc. Then the fans will dissipate this heat away from the system and they are placed either at the top or sides of the heatsink. The fan sizes range from 80mm to 200mm, although the most frequently found ones are the 120mm and 140mm. The pros are;
- Low cost
- Low maintenance
The cons are;
- Louder at high processing times
That’s pretty much it for liquid vs air cooling. So which suits you the best? Now that we’ve provided you with the knowledge on the functionality of both the cooler types, it is up to you to make a distinct choice. As per the experts advice, it is better to kick off your PC building journey with air coolers rather than liquid coolers.
If you don’t plan on overclocking and you are only using your PC for general use, then the stock cooler is more than capable of controlling the temperature. Of course if you are planning to build a system for data mining, crypto, streaming or any other high processing power requiring tasks, then a liquid cooler would be better.
If your budget is limited then the air cooler is a better choice. At times they even outperform the water coolers and are quiet most of the time. The heatsink is a bit bulky, but that is not a major issue if the right case is chosen.