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How to Choose A CPU Cooler: 8 Factors to Consider

How to Choose A CPU CoolerYour computer’s processor is one of the most important components inside of your system. And, in order for it to run properly, you need to ensure that it doesn’t get too hot. Fortunately, if you choose the right CPU cooler for your processor you can help ensure that it operates at appropriate temperatures.

In this guide, we’re going to go over how to choose a CPU cooler that works with your processor and your needs. We’ve broken the guide down into eight different factors to consider when you go to choose a cooler for your system.

1. Your Budget

First off, the first thing you’ll want to consider—and something that might seem obvious—is your budget. If you’re just upgrading your cooler, then your budget is straightforward. What you have to spend is what you have to spend.

However, if you’re picking a cooler as part of a new system build, then it’s important to allocate the appropriate amount of your budget to your cooler. You don’t want to underspend on your cooler and end up with something that isn’t cut out to cool the CPU you’ve chosen and you don’t want to overspend and waste money that could have gone towards upgrading more essential components.

While the other factors to consider when choosing a CPU cooler in this post will help you determine how much of your budget you should allocate to your CPU cooler, as a general rule of thumb, the better the CPU you get and the hotter it runs (whether at stock settings or when overclocked), the better the CPU cooler (and the more you will need to spend on it) you will need.

2. Your Specific Use Case

Are you looking to overclock your processor and push it to extreme levels of performance? If so, then you need to spend more in order to get a higher-end cooler.

Are you building a budget-oriented gaming computer and not planning on overclocking it? In that case, you can either get by with an entry-level cooler or—if your budget is too tight to accommodate an entry-level cooler–just stick with the stock cooler that comes with the processor.

Stock coolers are typically good enough for average users and the stock coolers on certain processors (AMD’s new Ryzen processors) are even good enough for mild overclocking. And, in the instance of the new stock coolers that come on some of AMD’s new Ryzen CPUs, they are good enough to replicate the performance of entry-level third party coolers.

The bottom line is that, if you are budget-oriented, you don’t HAVE to spend extra money on a high-end cooler if you won’t be using your system in a way that requires extra cooling.

But, if you will be looking to get as much performance out of your processor as possible, then an upgraded cooler is a must.

3. Air Cooling vs AIO Coolers

Air cooling vs liquid cooling is a big decision for system builders and each cooling options have their own pros and cons, which we have covered in detail in this article here.

But, here are the main pros and cons of each style of cooler to help you decide which option is better for you:

Liquid Cooling Pros

  • High-end liquid coolers and custom liquid cooling setups can achieve better temperatures than the best air coolers can
  • Liquid coolers have lower profiles than air coolers and, as such, they don’t typically cause clearance issues with memory, case fans, and other components close to the motherboard’s CPU socket

Liquid Cooling Cons

  • Liquid coolers have a lower price-to-performance ratio than air coolers do
  • Liquid coolers require more maintenance and present the risk of leaking

Air Cooling Pros

  • On average, air coolers offer great performance for the price you pay
  • Air coolers require little-to-no maintenance and will typically last longer

Air Cooling Cons

  • Air coolers aren’t typically suitable for setups that need extreme cooling
  • Some higher-end air coolers can be very bulky and cause clearance issues (memory, case fans, motherboard components, etc.)

4. TDP Rating

A cooler’s TDP rating is really one of the most important factors in determining whether a specific cooler is right for your system. From Wikipedia:

The thermal design power (TDP), sometimes called thermal design point, is the maximum amount of heat generated by a computer chip or component (often the CPU or GPU) that the cooling system in a computer is designed to dissipate under any workload.

When you go to buy a processor and CPU cooler, both components will have a TDP rating. To explain it as simply as possible, if you purchase a CPU cooler that has a lower TDP rating than your processor, it will not do an adequate job of cooling your processor.

Of course, if the TDP rating on your cooler is slightly lower than the TDP rating of your processor, it still might do an okay job, as your processor won’t hit the actual maximum heat generated all the time.

However, as a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to ensure that the cooler you buy has a TDP rating that exceeds your processor’s TDP rating. And, this is especially as true if you are planning on overclocking.

Both the TDP rating for your processor and your cooler can be found on their spec sheets (either at the retailer you are purchasing them from, or from the manufacturer’s website.)

5. CPU Socket

CPU Socket

While most CPU cooler manufacturers produce their coolers in such a way that they will fit with most CPU sockets (usually by offering different brackets for various common sockets), there are certain CPU coolers out there that will only fit with a specific CPU socket. So, make sure you check that the CPU cooler you are considering is compatible with the motherboard/processor combination you have or are planning on getting.

This information can easily be found on both your CPU or motherboard and your CPU coolers spec sheet.

6. Clearance

Along with ensuring that your CPU cooler is compatible with your motherboard’s socket, you’ll also want to make sure that it is compatible in the following areas, too:

CPU Cooler Clearance

Height

Some CPU Coolers are too tall to fit inside of certain cases. So, before you purchase a CPU cooler, make sure that you check your CPU Cooler’s height on its spec sheet, and then check the spec sheet of the case you are considering to make sure the cooler will fit inside of that case.

Bulkiness

Most high-end air coolers out there can have clearance issues because of how bulky they are. Their bulkiness can get in the way of the DIMM slots on the motherboard you have chosen and interfere with taller memory kits, or they can also hang over the top PCIe lane, thus forcing you to install your GPU in a lower lane. So, it’s a good idea to check and see if choosing a bulky air cooler will interfere with your other parts.

Radiator size

For liquid cooling, and more specifically, AIO coolers, the biggest determining factor in clearance will be the cooler’s radiator size. AIO cooler radiators come in a lot of different sizes. However, not all cases can accommodate each radiator size. So, again, before you choose an AIO cooler, you need to check the spec sheet of the computer case you are considering and make sure it can accommodate the radiator size of the AIO cooler you want to get.

7. Aesthetics

CPU Cooler Aesthetics

Aesthetics are a big part of choosing a CPU cooler. Some builders prefer the sleek low-profile look of AIO coolers. Other builders like the extreme look of custom liquid cooling setups. While others prefer the look of a big bulky high-end air cooler.

If you’re not sure what option you prefer, my advice would be to check out some pictures of finished builds that others have done and see which style of CPU cooler you think looks the best. And, if everything else about that cooler style fits with your needs, go with that style.

8. Sound Levels

There are a lot of builders out there that put a lot of emphasis on building as quiet of a PC as possible. One of the loudest components in a computer is the CPU cooler… and more specifically, the fans associated with the CPU cooler.

Coolers with larger fans are typically quieter than coolers with smaller fans. The reason being that larger fans don’t have to spin as fast (which means they will be quieter) as smaller fans to produce a similar level of cooling.

So, coolers with 140mm fans will generally perform quieter than coolers with 120mm fans. Coolers with multiple fans can also spin at lower speeds since there are more fans working to keep the cooler cool.

Which Cooler is Right for You?

There are a ton of different factors that go into choosing the right CPU cooler for your needs. Hopefully, the information above helps you in finding the right option for your system.

If you need further help finding the best CPU cooler for your needs, check out our CPU Cooler Buyer’s guide.

Hey, I’m Brent. I’ve been building computers and writing about building computers for a long time. I’m an avid gamer and tech enthusiast, too. On YouTube, I build PCs, review laptops, components, and peripherals, and hold giveaways.

1 thought on “How to Choose A CPU Cooler: 8 Factors to Consider”

  1. Great Article! This pretty much covers everything major when it comes to picking a CPU cooler. I’d also pay attention to the RPM and CFM for air coolers.
    A cooler is something you should never skimp out on, especially if you want to overclock your CPU. I had a CPU literally melt on me when I made that mistake many years ago.

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