- Air coolers are generally more affordable and offer better performance compared to liquid coolers, making them a cost-effective option for lower-end and midrange builds.
- Liquid coolers can provide significantly better cooling potential, especially with larger radiators, making them ideal for high-end CPUs that require efficient cooling to avoid thermal throttling.
- Air coolers are the smallest and most compact cooling options, making them suitable for mini-ITX builds where space is limited. However, some ITX cases can accommodate larger radiators for liquid coolers. Custom liquid coolers offer customization options and high performance but require more time, effort, and budget.
When it comes to the best coolers for CPUs and even GPUs, you have two basic options: air cooling or liquid cooling (also called water cooling). While both cooler styles ultimately use fans to cool off a heatsink in order to keep your computer chips from overheating, there’s a difference in how each type gets the heat from chips into those heatsinks, and that difference makes a serious impact on performance.
When it comes to coolers, there are generally three attributes you want to consider: price, performance, and size. While there are a wide range of both air and liquid coolers to choose from, each with specific pros and cons, there are fundamental differences between air and liquid coolers, and each offers distinct advantages and have different drawbacks. Here’s how air and liquid coolers compare to each other.
The key difference between air and liquid cooling
Despite having very different performance profiles, air and liquid coolers are largely similar when it comes to how they work. Both types will come with a mass of thin, metal fins called heatsinks, which is where all the heat from a chip ends up. Fans are then used to bring cool air across the fins to transfer the heat from the metal to the air, allowing more heat to enter the heatsink from the processor. Air and liquid coolers usually even use the same fan sizes, often 120mm or 140mm. Though, liquid coolers exclusively use 120mm or 140mm, a handful of air coolers will use smaller or larger sizes, it just depends on the model.
The key difference is in how these coolers get the heat from the processor to the heatsink. Air coolers use metal heat pipes, which are thin and full of fluid that is constantly changing from liquid to gas and vice versa, which helps heat traverse the pipe and into the heatsink. Liquid coolers instead use water or another coolant, which is pumped through tubes to draw heat away from the heat-generating components (such as the CPU) into a specific kind of heatsink called a radiator. Since water can hold so much energy, it’s a big performance advantage on paper.
Air cooling is cheaper and gets you better bang for buck
While you can buy both air and liquid coolers in the $50 to $120 range, you’re generally going to find that air coolers can cost as little as $20 to $30, and even at the same price point, air coolers generally have better performance. Again, this will depend on specific coolers, but among the best of the best models, this is usually the experience.
Take for instance Thermalright’s Peerless Assassin 120 SE. It’s an incredible, high-end CPU cooler for just $40, and it’s pretty much as good as the best liquid coolers with 240mm and 280mm radiators, which tend to start at $60 minimum and can cost as much as $100. Even less competitive coolers like Deepcool’s AK620 can be found for $60 and still have as good performance as the Peerless Assassin.
Meanwhile, for GPUs, it’s very difficult to find liquid-cooled models, and virtually all of them come with coolers that can’t easily be upgraded. It’s hard to stomach spending a big premium for a liquid-cooled card that might not be all that much better than air-cooled models, not to mention the fact that you’ll also have to deal with a separate radiator if you also have a liquid cooler for your CPU. A custom liquid cooling solution would solve that whole double radiator issue but it would still be just as expensive, if not more so.
Saving this much money can make a big difference if you’re building a $600 or even $1,000 PC. If you’re on a tight budget, having to spend $50 might force you to significantly downgrade some components, especially important ones like the CPU and GPU. Even though liquid coolers look pretty neat and high-end, it’s hard to justify buying one unless you’re building a truly high-end desktop.
Liquid coolers can perform much better than air coolers
While liquid coolers that cost around $120 or less aren’t particularly special when it comes to performance, those models are relatively cheap and low-end. Starting at about $120, you can get yourself a liquid cooler with a 360mm radiator, and with a bigger budget, you could even get a 420mm or 480mm sized cooler. Radiators of these sizes offer substantially better cooling potential than you can get on even the highest-end air coolers.
In fact, for high-end CPUs like the Ryzen 9 7950X and especially the Core i9-13900K, you’ll practically need a liquid cooler with a 360mm or larger radiator in order to not hit thermal throttling. While this does mean getting high-end CPUs costs both the price of the CPU itself and that of a high-end cooler, that’s simply the price of great performance. Besides, if you’re buying a top-end CPU, you can probably afford to buy a high-end cooler that will probably last you a good while anyway.
You could also get a high-end liquid cooler not just to keep a high-end chip in check, but to enjoy extremely low noise on a more midrange processor too. Cheaper, more midrange and lower-end CPUs usually consume less power and create less heat than their higher-end counterparts, which allows you to run fans at a lower speed and still get good cooling performance from a good liquid cooler. There’s really nothing like enjoying a well-performing PC without even hearing a fan rev up.
The smallest, most compact coolers you can buy are air coolers
If you’re building a PC in many of the best ITX cases, you’ll find that many of them don’t support radiators larger than 240mm or even 120mm, leaving air cooling as your best option. It’s certainly not a bad thing; mini-ITX PCs generally cost quite a bit to build, and going with an air cooler is already a good way to whittle that price down to something reasonable. What’s great is that there’s a wide selection of small, low-profile CPU coolers, with the smallest ones not even poking above the I/O shield on the back of the motherboard.
Additionally, mini-ITX builds also tend to use lower-power CPUs and GPUs, so the lower performance of air coolers generally isn’t a big deal anyway. Take for instance Noctua’s L9 series, which are designed for PCs that have practically no clearance for a CPU cooler that stretches out above the motherboard’s footprint. The NH-L9a-AM5 will cool even the 12-core Ryzen 9 7900 pretty well, bringing high-end performance to the smallest PCs you can build.
That being said, there are ITX cases designed for higher-end builds that can support 240mm or greater radiators, like NZXT’s H1. Of course, these cases are significantly bigger than the smallest ones on the market, but they’re still smaller than more typical mid-towers and also often have enough room for a decently sized gaming GPU.
You can build your own custom liquid coolers
One unique thing about liquid cooling is that you can make your own, something that’s just not reasonably possible with air cooling. To be clear, most are best off with an all-in-one (or AIO) liquid cooler since it’s cheaper, easier to install, and much less of a hassle than building and maintaining your own, custom liquid loop. Nevertheless, custom liquid coolers will make sense for people with large budgets, high-end PCs, and a desire to customize a PC as much as possible.
The performance benefits of building a custom liquid cooler are pretty straightforward. You can pick your own radiator, have multiple radiators if you want, and hook up the CPU and GPU to the same cooler. And just like with high-end AIO coolers, you can also achieve really low noise levels by building a custom liquid loop with lots of cooling capacity and then turning down the fan speed.
Additionally, custom liquid coolers can be highly decorative parts of a desktop with lots of cosmetic options to choose from. The norm for custom liquid loops is to use clear plastic tubes, which allow you to dye your coolant to whatever color you want and show it off. You can also choose specific fittings and waterblocks to achieve a particular appearance, and going for hard plastic tubing rather than soft plastic tubing can make a big difference too (though it’s a much bigger hassle to work with hard tubing).
Air and liquid cooling have their own strengths and weaknesses
When you add up all the strengths and weaknesses of air and liquid cooling, it’s pretty clear that air cooling is mostly appealing for lower-end and more midrange builds, while liquid cooling will fit in best with higher-end PCs. That’s just a natural consequence of air cooling being cheaper and liquid cooling being more expensive and generally a worse deal at price points where air coolers are an option.
Still, there are things that air and liquid coolers are great for that have nothing to do with simple performance or price. If you’re building a mini-ITX PC, air cooling is almost always your best option, while liquid cooling is great if you simply want to add something unique and interesting to your desktop. Which one is best really depends on what you need your PC to do for you, and neither one is going to be perfect for every PC build.