So, you’ve decided to build a new gaming PC (or upgrade your existing system), and you’re ready to choose your CPU cooler. The first factor you will want to consider is liquid cooling vs. air cooling and which style cooler would be better for you.
That bad news is that the decision between air cooling and liquid cooling isn’t a simple one.
The good news, though, is that in this post, we’re going to go over everything you need to know on whether or not you should choose an air CPU cooler, or a liquid CPU cooler.
Liquid Cooling vs. Air Cooling: Five Things to Consider Before You Choose
Before we even get into the pros and cons of both liquid CPU coolers and air CPU coolers, first we need to discuss some factors you’ll need to consider before you can determine which style cooler is right for you.
1. How Much Do You Want to Spend?
The most prominent determining factor in whether or not you should get a liquid cooler or air cooler is how much you have to spend. On average, liquid coolers cost quite a bit more than air coolers.
In fact, if you have $60 or less to spend on your new gaming computer’s cooler, your only options will be air CPU coolers.
The other factor that is important to note here is that, typically, smaller AIO liquid coolers perform worse than higher-end air coolers.
So, as a general rule of thumb, if you don’t have over ~$90-$100 to spend on a cooler, you’ll likely get better price-to-performance out of an air cooler.
2. Are You Planning on Overclocking Your CPU?
Another thing to consider on your CPU cooler style choice is whether or not you are planning on overclocking your processor.
If you aren’t looking to overclock your CPU and you don’t want to spend more money on your system than you have to, you could get by with the stock cooler that comes with your processor.
Sticking with your stock cooler is completely fine if you have a locked CPU (a processor that cannot overclock). And, if you are looking to get an Intel processor and you aren’t planning on overclocking it, you might as well just save some money and get a locked option.
However, if you are planning on overclocking, or you at least want to have the option to later down the road, then the question becomes: how much do you want to overclock your CPU.
If you are looking for higher overclocks, then you will want to look into going with a more expensive cooling solution. Typically, high-end AIO coolers and custom liquid cooling loops are best suited for higher overclocks, but there are a few air coolers out there that can help you get good overclocks as well.
If you are looking for mild overclocks, you can afford to go with a bit lower-end of a CPU cooling solution. And, if you’re going with a budget-friendly Ryzen processor, you can even get by with the stock coolers they come with, as they are adequate for mild overclocking.
So, ultimately, in your quest for the perfect CPU cooler for your needs, you’ll need to decide whether or not you want to overclock your processor and, if so, how high of overclocks you’re hoping to achieve.
3. AIO Liquid Coolers vs. Custom Liquid Cooling
If you do decide that you want to push your processor to extreme overclocks, then you must next determine whether or not you want to build a custom liquid cooling setup or go with an AIO cooler.
A custom liquid cooling setup is going to be more expensive and a lot more challenging to put together. However, if done correctly, it will allow you to push your processor to higher overclocks than any other CPU cooling solution.
AIO coolers, on the other hand, are cheaper and come ready-to-go right out of the box. The high-end AIO coolers are also capable of helping you hit high overclocks as well, but just not entirely on the same level as a legit custom loop cooling setup will.
4. Clearance With Your Other Components
Another thing that may prevent you from choosing a particular cooler (whether liquid or air) is whether or not it will fit into your computer’s case.
If you haven’t yet chosen the case that you want to use to build your new gaming PC in, then you’ll have an easier time finding a case-cooler combination that works.
However, if you’ve already chosen a case for your build (or you’re upgrading your existing system), your case will determine what kind of cooler you can get.
If it’s a mid tower or full tower case, you’ll have a broader selection of coolers to choose from.
If it’s a smaller mini-ITX or micro-ATX case, you’ll have a more limited selection to choose from.
Also, the bigger the AIO cooler radiator you want to get, the fewer case options there are that will support it. If your case can only accommodate 280mm radiators, you can’t get a 360mm radiator liquid cooler. (At least, not without some modification.)
The same goes for CPU air coolers. For air coolers, the cooler’s height is the main limitation. If you have a case that will only fit coolers as tall as 5″, then you can’t get an air cooler that is over 5″ tall (again, at least not without some modification.)
Another problem that sometimes arises with aftermarket air coolers is that they can interfere with the heatsinks on your RAM. What happens is that the air cooler is so bulky that it extends out over the RAM slots. And, if you have RAM that has tall heatsinks on it, you may not even be able to install them, as they might not fit underneath the air cooler.
So, before you choose any cooler, make sure it will fit with the components in your system.
5. Which Aesthetic Style You Prefer
The final thing that you might want to consider is the aesthetic differences between air coolers and liquid coolers.
It’s tough to say that one style of cooler is better-looking than the other because people’s opinions will vary on a person-to-person basis.
In my opinion, though, I think that, overall, liquid coolers tend to make a build look nicer than air coolers do.
However, there are nice-looking air coolers out there, and there are some that would disagree with my assessment.
So, if aesthetics are important to you, you’ll want to take a look at some examples of builds with air coolers and builds with liquid coolers to determine which option would be better for you.
If you take all of those five factors into consideration, you’ll have a much better idea of what type of CPU cooler you need to get. However, these factors determine whether or not you can or should get a liquid or air CPU cooler.
They do not go over the pros and cons of each cooler type though. So, below, we will discuss the pros and cons of both liquid coolers and air coolers. Some of the pros and cons will overlap a bit with the factors listed above. However, I’ll go a bit more in-depth on those overlapping factors below.
The Pros & Cons of Liquid CPU Coolers
Liquid coolers—especially AIO coolers—have become incredibly popular over the last 4-5 years. This popularity is mainly because manufacturers have made liquid cooling easier for the average system builder to install and use.
So, whereas before, the only liquid cooling options were custom loops—which took a lot of time and money to setup correctly —now getting the benefits that liquid cooling offers has never been cheaper and easier to set up.
However, not all is perfect with liquid cooling (both custom loops and AIO coolers.) Below we will go over some of the pros and cons that liquid coolers bring to the table.
Some Liquid Cooling Pros
1. High-end liquid coolers can achieve better temperatures than the best air coolers can
If you want the absolute best cooling potential possible, you’re going to want to go with a liquid cooling setup. And, more specifically, a custom-loop liquid-cooling setup.
After a custom-loop liquid-cooling setup, the next best option (regarding pure cooling performance) are high-end AIO coolers.
However, it’s important to note that even the best high-end AIO coolers are only able to provide a small-to-moderate performance edge over the top air coolers.
So, if price is important to you and you don’t mind the difference in aesthetics between liquid coolers and air coolers, then you might want to go with a high-end air cooler.
Also, it’s important to note that the smaller AIO coolers out there (like the 120mm and 140mm coolers) don’t typically perform at the same level as similarly-priced (or lower priced) air coolers.
So, unless you prefer the aesthetics of a CPU cooler, if you have less than ~$90-$100 to spend on your cooler, you should probably be looking at an air cooler.
2. In my opinion, most liquid coolers look better than most air coolers do
This is solely my opinion. But, I think that custom-loop liquid-cooling and AIO coolers tend to look better in a system than air coolers do.
Now, of course, this will vary from build-to-build and cooler-to-cooler. There are some ugly AIO coolers out there. There are also some nice-looking air coolers as well.
But for me, custom liquid cooling setups and AIO coolers look the best. This one is solely up to you, the individual, though.
Some Liquid Cooling Cons
1. Liquid coolers have a lower price-to-performance ratio than air coolers do
I touched on this a bit above, but the reality of custom-loop liquid-cooling and AIO coolers is that their price-to-performance ratio isn’t great when compared to air coolers.
But, this is typical for any high-end consumer tech—especially computer hardware.
Intel’s Extreme Edition processors typically don’t offer very much more performance over their high-end unlocked consumer i7 processors. A $500 case doesn’t provide very many more practical features than a $200 case.
So, ultimately, if you want the best cooling possible, you’ll have to pay a premium to get it. And, it is a premium that won’t scale evenly with how much you pay for it.
2. Liquid coolers require more maintenance and present the risk of leaking
Whether you’re going with a custom-loop liquid-cooling setup or an AIO cooler, both have downsides in maintenance, lifespan, and the potential for leaking. And, so if any of those are a concern to you, an air cooler might be the better option.
These potential problems, though, are mostly because air coolers A) require little-to-no maintenance at all, B) have incredibly long lifespans (since they are just a simple spinning fan), and C) don’t bring water into your system.
Custom-loop setups do require a bit of maintenance, but, if you are someone who is looking into putting together a custom-loop setup, you are likely also someone who enjoys the “tinkering” side of it all.
AIO coolers don’t require as much maintenance. In fact, due to AIO coolers being closed off, there really isn’t much maintenance that can be done to them, other than cleaning their radiators. The problem with AIO coolers, though, in this context, is that they are a bit more complicated of a mechanism than air coolers are and, so, in theory, they won’t last as long.
However, most quality AIO coolers will last long enough that they will outlive the timeframe in which most owners will decide to upgrade their system. So, is lifespan really an issue when comparing AIO coolers and air coolers? Probably not in the grand scheme of things.
The other factor with AIO coolers and liquid coolers, though, is that they present a unique issue. And, that is that they can leak. And, naturally, water and computer components don’t mesh well.
Now it is rare for the big brand’s AIO coolers to leak and as long as a custom loop is put together correctly, there isn’t a super high risk there. But it just should be noted that there is some risk there that isn’t present with air coolers.
The Pros & Cons of Air CPU Coolers
While air coolers aren’t as flashy and not as popular as liquid coolers, they are still more widely used than their water-based counterparts. This is mostly because of how many more air cooler options there are and how much more affordable they are.
And, while high-end liquid cooling out performs high-end air cooling, the difference between the two cooler style’s performance is really not as significant as you might think.
However, there do exist some cons of air coolers and below we have listed them, as well as the pros that air cooling brings to the table.
Some Air Cooling Pros
1. On average, air coolers offer great performance for the price you pay
If you’re looking to build a budget-friendly gaming computer and you can’t afford a high-end liquid cooler, you’re in luck. There are plenty of quality air coolers out there that will allow you to reach mild-to-moderate overclocks and that won’t break your bank.
In fact, for just $30-$40, you can get a decent air cooler that will offer you a nice upgrade over your stock cooler.
Also, as mentioned above, some of the best air CPU coolers available (most of which come in at under $90-$100) only perform at a slightly lower level than the top AIO coolers on the market.
So, overall, on a purely price-to-performance basis, air coolers are a much better option than liquid cooling is.
2. Air coolers require little-to-no maintenance and will typically last longer
Again, air coolers are not a complex component. All they really are is a heatsink and a fan.
And, since most computer fans can last a really long time, you can get a lot of mileage out of a CPU cooler.
The only real maintenance required with an air cooler is cleaning the dust off of them every once in awhile.
Some Air Cooling Cons
1. Air coolers aren’t typically suitable for setups that need extreme cooling
One of the downsides of air cooling, though, is that if you’re looking to hit extreme overclocks, air coolers aren’t suited for the job.
Air coolers are great for lower-to-moderate overclocking (and even higher in some cases). But, once you get into the extreme territories, some form of liquid cooling becomes a must.
2. Air coolers, in my opinion, aren’t as nice-looking as liquid coolers
I’ve touched on this multiple times in this article. And, again, this is solely my opinion.
I think that, on average, liquid cooling looks cleaner than air cooling in the majority of cases.
But, I know that there are those out there who prefer the way an air cooler looks. So, this one may not even be a con for you.
Air Cooling vs. Liquid Cooling? Which One is Better
Ultimately, there are a ton of different factors to consider. There is no answer in the debate of which CPU cooler style, liquid vs. air, is better. And, that’s because different users have different needs.
If you have a large budget and want extreme cooling, or you prefer the aesthetics of liquid coolers, then go with a liquid cooler.
If you have a tighter budget and either aesthetics aren’t a concern for you, or you prefer the way air coolers look, get an air cooler.
There really is no wrong choice as long as the air or liquid cooler you get is a well-regarded and high-quality unit.