If you’ve ever looked deeper into CPU cooling, especially for high-end productivity or gaming, chances are you’ve stumbled on the term “liquid cooling” before and weren’t totally sure what it meant or what the difference was. If that sounds familiar, or you just want to make sure you know everything important about the differences between air cooling and liquid cooling, you’re in the right place!
What is air cooling?
First, let’s define what air cooling is.
Pictured above is your standard air cooler. The part with the fan on it is called a heatsink, which is what you attach to your CPU with a coating of thermal paste in between. This allows the CPU’s heat to radiate through the heatsink and be dissipated by the fan, which is where the “air” in air cooling comes from. The vast majority of PCs on the market will use a cooling setup just like this one, albeit with a much smaller heatsink usually.
What is liquid cooling?
Pictured above is a standard liquid cooler – an all-in-one (AIO) liquid cooler, to be precise. Liquid coolers attach small shrouds to the CPU and use liquid through their tubing and radiators in order to dissipate the heat generated. In a liquid cooling setup, fans will be attached to the radiators to dissipate heat, similar to how a fan is attached to a heatsink on an air cooler to dissipate heat.
What makes air coolers different from one another?
Generally, heatsinks and fan size/slots will be the biggest differences between two distinct air coolers.
Some air coolers are built to be low-profile and use small fans, allowing them to fit into smaller cases without having clearance issues. A high-performance air cooler, meanwhile, may have slots for two fans and have a large heatsink, upward of 120 mm tall.
Before buying a larger high-performance air cooler, make sure it can fit inside your PC, especially if you’re using a Mini ITX or SFF (small form factor) PC case.
What makes liquid coolers different from one another?
If you’re shopping retail for liquid coolers, all you will see are AIO (all-in-one) liquid coolers. These can be distinguished by radiator size, which corresponds to the size of the fans on them. Below are some common liquid cooling radiator sizes and matching fan sizes:
- 120/140 mm radiator – single 120/140 mm fan
- 240 mm radiator – dual 120 mm fans
- 280 mm radiator – dual 140 mm fans
- 360 mm radiator – three 120 mm fans
- 420 mm radiator – three 140 mm fans
All of the fan setups with a radiator need to be available, side-by-side, as empty fan slots in your PC case in order to mount the radiator and fans. Be sure to check that this is the case before investing in an AIO, especially if you’re using a Mini ITX or Micro ATX PC case.
What is custom loop liquid cooling?
Custom loop liquid cooling, also known as open loop liquid cooling, adds custom tubing and reservoirs, alongside radiators, in order to achieve liquid cooling. While fairly niche and difficult to put together (and not available all-in-one like AIO coolers), a properly-configured custom loop setup can easily outperform any high-end air or liquid-cooling setup. However, this does require a great deal of skill to get set up and will cost a pretty penny, whether or not you decide to do that extra work yourself.
Air cooling vs. liquid cooling: showdown
Last but certainly not least, the lightning round. Let’s put the air cooling vs. liquid cooling debate to rest!
Pricing for performance
Across the board, air coolers are consistently cheaper than liquid coolers to achieve the same cooling results. A high-end air cooler can often trade blows with a mid-range and even a mid-high-end liquid cooler at a much lower price.
Winner: air cooling
While air coolers have great performance-per-dollar, their reliance on direct contact and powerful heatsink fans make them louder than most AIOs, not to mention a custom loop setup. If you want quieter cooling performance from your system, a liquid cooler, with its large radiator and dedicated coolant, will bring better results, even with a fan attached.
Winner: liquid cooling
High-end cooling potential
In order to achieve the absolute lowest temperatures possible in heavy tasks, a custom loop liquid cooling setup is required. High-end AIOs follow shortly behind that, and high-end air coolers follow even further behind. While the winner in this battle is liquid cooling, the truth is, you don’t need a liquid cooler for a high level of performance, especially if your case has the room for a beefy two-fan air cooler.
Winner: liquid cooling
Ease of use and maintenance
In terms of ease of use and maintenance, air coolers and liquid cooling AIOs rate pretty similarly. Once installed, you don’t really need to worry about them again, barring perhaps an annual or biannual replacement of thermal paste.
Once you start diving deeper into liquid cooling, though, especially custom loops, you begin to run into much more difficult installation and maintenance processes. With a custom loop, you’ll even need to replace your coolant and tubing periodically!
Winner: air cooling
The winner is …
The winner of this air cooling vs. liquid cooling debate is … a tie – it really just depends what you’re looking for.
If you want great performance per dollar and don’t mind slightly noisier fans, go with air cooling. In most Micro ATX and larger-size cases, this is the way to go.
If you want the best cooling performance or the quietest operation and don’t mind spending more for the privilege, go with liquid cooling. Even in a small Mini ITX case, an AIO can help the machine run quiet and cool without the need for a large heatsink.
Looking for ways to lower your CPU temperature without getting an expensive liquid cooler? Check out this article!