But is it better than a powerful fan with a good heatsink?
This article will explore the various methods of keeping your processor at a comfortable temperature and explore the thermal differences between the various cooling methods.
Factors to Consider
Factors to consider
There are many factors to consider when shopping for a processor cooling solution, but the main factor is obvious – performance. The absolute last thing you need to do is overheat the processor, as this can cause permanent damage to the entire system.
The next thing to consider is the price. While system cooling is a good idea, spending your entire build budget on a cooling solution is not.
Other factors to keep in mind include aesthetics and sound. Pretty much everyone needs a sexy build, especially if you’re using a case with windows – and in this category, water cooling will almost always be the best. It’s hard to compete with future LED tubes that look like industrial ones.
You also don’t want to use a coolant that sounds like fighters taking off when the system is under load (looking at you, gaming laptops). Water-cooled computers run quietly, but there are modern air-cooled options that generate almost no noise for a fraction of the cost.
The last factor to keep in mind, especially if you are not very well versed in building computers, is ease of installation.
Difficult and hot numbers
Hard and hot numbers
Before we dive into the numbers on cooling solutions, know that any number or temperature will vary greatly depending on a huge number of factors: the ambient temperature in the room the computer is in, CPU load, installer skills, and sometimes just the day of the week.
It is almost impossible to accurately reproduce the temperature test, but the numbers presented are averages based on typical performance of a standard water or air cooled system.
This 2017 Linus Tech Tips video compares the Corsair H80I GT water cooler to the Noctua NH-U9 air cooler. In the test, the Noctua actually cooled the system 3.5 degrees at idle and 1.3 degrees lower under load than the water-cooled Corsair.
However, when the same system was overclocked, the Corsair H80I GT chilled the system 3 degrees more at idle, but was 0.2 degrees behind the air cooler under load.
Later in the same video, they compared 280mm fans – the largest and coolest radiators you can get your hands on – to see how water works versus air. The results were close.
At nominal voltage, the Noctua fan outperformed the Corsair cooler by 1.2 degrees at idle and by 0.2 degrees under load. In overclocking, the water cooler won 0.8 degrees at idle, but lost 3.3 degrees under load. The difference was that it allowed more energy to be used while keeping the temperature within safe limits.
The particular video mentioned above, along with dozens of reports and hard evidence, makes one thing particularly clear – water cooling can keep the CPU at much lower temperatures than air cooling. When properly installed, it removes heat more efficiently from the system.
However, water cooling is not always the best option. For the average user – and even most gamers – air cooling is more than enough. Modern air cooling solutions have narrowed the performance gap between water and air. In addition, they are usually much more affordable than water cooling solutions.
Water cooling is expensive and requires a certain level of knowledge to properly install. This is something that cannot be erroneous with; just think about how the water leak will affect the rest of your build. But if you’re looking to overclock a processor and want the best performance, water cooling is the way to go. If you can pay the bill, a customized water cooling solution will almost always be better than air cooling.
In short, yes – water cooling is better than air cooling, but the gap between the two continues to close rapidly. If you’re an enthusiast looking for a beautiful PC with all the bells and whistles, go for water cooling. If you are a gamer or someone just needs a PC that will work well without the hassle and expense, then air cooling is for you.