Liquid Cooling vs Air Cooling – What Should You Get?
Building PCs is all about choices and sorting out your best CPUs, best GPUs, RAM, and cooling solutions. When it comes to cooling one of the big questions you will have to decide upon will be what kind of CPU cooler will you use – liquid cooling vs air cooling?
To help you decide between those two options we have compiled a list of things you need to keep in mind when looking at air cooling vs liquid cooling products to make the best possible decision for your specific case.
Let us dive in.
Ease of Use
One of the biggest rookie mistakes when building a PC is not taking into account the physical dimensions of the CPU cooler they will install. Because air vs liquid cooling uses different principles and mechanisms to achieve their goal, their physical designs and limitations will also be different.
A good air cooler is usually a pretty big one since it needs a lot of fins in its radiator to disperse heat.
This naturally means that good air coolers are restrictive in terms of their size since you need to make sure this big chunk of metal fits in your case, fits with your RAM and that you have clearance for your M.2 slots on your motherboard.
This will heavily depend on the type of air cooler you are using and the type of motherboard you have, but in general, it takes a lot more research to make sure that everything will fit nicely.
Moreover, the installation of air coolers can be pretty bothersome since you are dealing with a pretty big object in an enclosed space.
On the other hand, liquid coolers are a lot easier to fit into your PC case since AIOs have predetermined sizes and placements. The installation process is also a lot simpler since all you have to do is place the radiator and the pump in their designated places.
The only possible exception to this is if you are making a custom water-cooled GPU loop which will take a lot more time and effort, but we are pretty sure not many regular PC users do that.
Overall if you do not want to fiddle much when assembling your PC, getting a liquid cooler will save you a lot of time and research.
Ol’ Reliable vs New Tech
The next important point in this comparison between liquid or air cooling your CPU is concerned with reliability and how much work would need to be done after you have installed your cooler.
Essentially this is a battle between ol’ reliable fan/air coolers and new and trendy looking liquid CPU coolers.
From this point of view, air coolers are much more desirable since they have limited points of failure because of their extremely simple construction. You are working with a heatsink and a fan – that’s it.
This is not to say that liquid coolers are prone to failing, they are not, it is just that the air cooler failure rate is so small that by comparison, it will make the failure rate of liquid coolers look big.
Moreover, once you put an air cooler into your PC you can basically forget about it. It is just there doing its own thing for the entire lifespan of your build. No maintenance, no checking, just good old reliability.
Liquid coolers on the other hand do need to have their liquids replenished and overall require more attention and care.
A good way to think about this situation regarding liquid CPU coolers vs fan-based coolers is that basic fan plus heatsink coolers are like Toyotas. They might not look the flashiest but they will definitely serve you well!
This is another category in our liquid cooling vs air cooling discussion where air coolers will simply dominate. Let us explain.
No matter how high-end your liquid CPU cooler is, in about 5-6 years you will have liquid permeate through their tubes no matter what. That is just how physics work. At that point, you will either have to swap out the tubes or get another liquid cooler entirely.
Also as mentioned above you will have to do maintenance on your liquid cooler because residue and gunk will eventually be stuck in your pipes or pump. This is once again just how these things work and is completely expected.
On the other hand, a decent air cooler can last you up to 10 years without ever being touched. This means you can take your CPU cooler from one build to another without ever worrying about having to purchase another one.
Moreover, even if the fan on your air cooler fails, all you have to do is purchase another one which is a very cheap investment (10-20$). You swap the new fan in and voila, brand new cooling power without having to purchase a whole new unit.
In this particular case, there is no beating the future-proofing of air coolers.
You are purchasing a CPU cooler for one thing – to ensure the cool and safe operation of your CPU under any loads your computer may produce.
In this category (although not by much) the liquid coolers win, offering better temperatures for your CPU. This information can be confirmed by many sources but here is a handy video to understand the overall situation.
This outcome applies when we are comparing decent air coolers vs decent liquid coolers that have been tested by many users already.
If you plan on buying the cheapest liquid cooler vs a decent air cooler the situation will be different since the components of the liquid cooler will be subpar.
The same situation applies if you buy a cheap air cooler or a low-profile air cooler that will struggle under heavy loads.
Overall though, buying a cheap air cooler is safer since the rate of failure on cheap liquid coolers is pretty high. Cheap air coolers will not be the best but will offer you some cooling, meanwhile, a broken liquid cooler will offer you 0 cooling performance.
The conclusion is that if you only care about the best cooling performance you should get a liquid CPU cooler and call it a day.
The final point in this comparison and perhaps one of the most important aspects overall is the pricing of the products.
It is no secret that liquid coolers are pricier than air coolers and that is because they have more moving parts, more components, and therefore require more money to be manufactured.
Air coolers on the other hand are cheaper while offering slightly worse cooling for your CPU (we really do mean slightly 2-4 degrees Celsius). The air coolers are also more reliable and less prone to failure, and even when it fails you have to only swap out the cheap fan.
If you do not care about the price that much, and want a better looking (liquid coolers often come with RGB and different LED screens installed), better cooling solution, then liquid coolers are the way for you.
The conclusion for this article is that it really depends on what you want to get and how much money you are willing to spend.
If you have extra cash and want an easy installation process, which will offer you the best possible cooling and add extra neat features like addressable RGB and GIF/pictures being displayed on a small LED screen then you should just get a liquid CPU cooler.
If on the other hand price matters to you and you want something super reliable, that once it has been installed it will just live there forever with 0 attention needed, and even in the case there is a failure you can fix it with a very cheap, very simple method, then get an air cooler.
That is all you need to know about the air vs liquid CPU cooler battle! Good luck with your choice!
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