This question has been asked many times, and it’s still a serious concern for gamers as well as general PC users who care about performance. Is there a big enough difference to care, and if so which of the two should you spend your money on?
TL;DR – Liquid Cooling wins on performance 90% of the time. But Air Cooling is better for most scenarios 90% of the time.
Liquid Cooling –
Liquid Cooling is both useful for CPUs and GPUs. In the case of liquid cooling, water is pumped through a hose to a heatsink which is then cooled. The heatsink will be touching the component such as the processor, allowing heat to be dispersed into the cooled heatsink. Heatsinks are metal, which is great for heat conduction.
Air Cooling –
Air Cooling is the standard kind of cooling you’ll find in most computers generally, with both CPUs and GPUs using air cooling for dealing with heat. This is achieved through using mounted fans that are attached to the component in the case of graphics cards or atop heatsinks in processors. Most computers also have additional fans within the tower.
Related: Best Budget Gaming CPU
Performance & Cooling Efficiency
The performance differences of both liquid and air cooling vary product to product, but surprisingly some of the better “big air” style setups can actually compete with liquid cooling. This is surprising due to the popularly held notion that liquid always performs better. However, sites such as TomsHardware have shown this to not always be the case.
In the image above, what we see is fans such as the Noctua NH-D15 providing great CPU Cooling.
Essentially you can find fans that will provide better cooling for your CPU than some liquid cooling systems. Where this is less efficient is when you start adding in powerful graphics cards with a number of fans that constantly pump that warm air back into the case of your computer. Ultimately performance comes down to cooling efficiency which can even vary depending on other components you have. So simply saying that one product is great for reducing the baseline temperature of your CPU isn’t always true as two users may have very different systems overall.
Variables To Be Aware Of:
There are a number of variables to be aware of that can affect the efficiency of cooling in your system, whether you’re using a fan or a liquid cooler.
As a rule of thumb, smaller cheaper towers aren’t as good for cooling as larger ones. The price comes into it in obvious ways, larger towers are going to be more expensive, but also better-designed towers offering better air flow are usually more expensive as well.
2. GPU Venting
Choosing a liquid cooler vs an air cooler is also going to depend on the kind of venting you have chosen for your graphics card.
External Venting – External Venting (blower GPUs) got a pretty bad rep in the early days for being noisy and inefficient compared to internal venting GPUs. However, times have changed and this is no longer always the case. I always point to this interesting comparison between the two (which is old even by today’s standards) which shows how there is little difference when it comes to actual temperature.
Internal Venting – Internal Venting GPUs (Open Coolers) can be really efficient at reducing the temperature of your GPU, but that can sometimes come at a cost when you’re dealing with a smaller tower with poor air flow. Also, certain kinds of CPU Fans can really make this problem worse. Generally, internal venting is fine for most builds.
Closed-Loop Venting –Closed-Loop Venting (AIO or All-In-One Coolers) are basically External Venting coolers that give you exhaust control which makes them oftentimes a better option than a regular blower GPU. The main downside of these are that they’re expensive. However they offer a great alternative to Open Cooler style GPUs.
3. Baseline Temperature
Every GPU and CPU has a rough baseline temperature that they run at, and this can greatly affect the temperature inside your computer, thereby changing the temperature of other components and effecting the efficiency of your cooling apparatus. If you’re overclocking temperatures will also increase which is often when people start to consider liquid for cooling.
4. Additional Fans
If you have additional fans inside your case, this can make a big difference to things like the Baseline Temperature. If you’re using a fan to push out hot air, or if you’re using a fan to draw in cool air it can all play a significant role.
The Best PC Cooling Solution Varies…
If you’re building your first computer, maybe even your second it’s a good idea to just go with fan cooling unless you’re including some very powerful components. This is because liquid cooling gets expensive when you’re picking the right quality products. It also requires a lot of research and knowledge that beginners may not have. Lastly, with liquid cooling there’s always a risk of leaking even if you know what you’re doing. This can wreak havoc on any system and destroy thousands of dollars worth of components as well as being very dangerous.
I would also recommend not using liquid cooling as your main method of cooling if you’re spending very little on your processor and GPU. Budget builds don’t usually require liquid cooling to reduce heat effectively, it’s only really when you start spending mega bucks that you need to start thinking about cooling as effectively as possible. Instead for most budget builds it’s far better to spend your money on a tower with better airflow.
For high-end systems, you need to plan your build accordingly. Most graphics cards offer two variants for cooling, usually an internal venting and external venting designs. Due to aesthetic, most people will simply go for internally venting graphics cards, but this is usually ineffective for keeping your CPU temp cool if you’re using a top-mounting fan on your processor. As well as several other variables we’ve referenced that may effect this.
The Bottom-Line is that when comparing liquid cooling vs air cooling – liquid wins 90% of the time. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t cool effectively without it. Due to drawbacks of liquid cooling and the variables at play, it’s usually better to go with air cooling and sacrifice the small difference in performance.
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