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There is a long debate on this topic. As both provide efficient cooling for your cpu but have different features, it’s hard for the beginners to choose which is the best option for them. Air or Liquid Cpu cooler?
I am not going to list some points based on what some people say, but I will explain some points based upon my experience with both. I have not used many cpu coolers but to conclude a winner among these two is easy if you have tested them simultaneously.
As I built my personal gaming pc back a month ago, I used to have two cpu coolers. Both were air but one was Stock heat sink and the other was Aftermarket air cooler. Nonetheless, there is no need to debate on Stock vs aftermarket cpu cooler, because we all know that stock cpu coolers are just there for fulfilling the need to cool down cpu’s and not to provide the best performance.
For a gaming pc, particularly a pc where you can overclock your processor to boost the performance, you need a bigger heatsink and a better cooling fan. Fortunately there is a wide variety of cpu coolers present on the market ranging from $10 to >$100. Each of these air coolers provide more and better cooling as you go above in the price range. But Air coolers are commonly much cheaper than the liquid coolers.
But do they perform good enough ?
To clear some points, I tested my two cpu coolers and compared them in some points. One is Cooler Master Hyper 103 air cooler and the other is Deepcool Captain 240 liquid cooler. Now please don’t attack me by saying that these coolers have a wide difference in price and they are not comparable. This is not a guide which compares two equivalently priced cpu coolers but is actually to see if you get a huge difference in performance to justify the prices.
How Each Works
Air Cooler- The mechanism is simple. An aluminium heatsink with or without copper pipes are used to absorb heat from the cpu by making direct contact with it. The heat spreads on the heatsink and the fan attached to it cools it down.
As said, the heatsink may or may not have copper pipes depending upon the quality. A cpu cooler which has copper heat pipes provides more efficient cooling and costs more. The sizes of heatsinks also vary with the quality. The bigger the heatsink, the better will be the cooling Or the more a heatsink has copper pipes in direct contact with the cpu, the better the cooling will be.
Liquid Cooler- Here the mechanism is complex. A liquid cooler uses a pump, a radiator and radiator fans. The pump is connected to the radiator through tubes which allow the water or coolant to circulate from the pump to the radiator and vice versa.
When the pump starts working, the liquid gets hot due to the copper plate of cooler which is in direct contact with the CPU. As liquid is more efficient in absorbing the heat from metal than air, the hot water goes through tubings to the radiator. The radiator is made up of aluminium fins. The size of the radiator varies from 120mm to 360mm. The more the number of fins, the easier will be the dissipation of heat.
Now the fans which are attached to the radiator blow air directly to the fins, and the fins cool down. The Liquid which is in indirect contact with the fins cool down as a result and goes back to the pump for the next cycle. So this is more efficient that simple air cooling.
Which is Safer
Air cooler is far safer than any liquid cooler because of the fact that water can damage all of your parts in seconds if it leaks. Air coolers always work and the maximum what can happen is fan failure which you can change anytime and won’t cost you more than $15. But the heatsink will still do it’s job, although thermal throttling can be expected due to high load on cpu when you do gaming or other cpu intensive stuff.
Now as for liquid cooler, it’s rare that water leaked from pipes or pump. But if it does, your whole system will go down and even if you can fix your pump, you have to buy the damaged components. Although it’s safe and you shouldn’t be afraid of doing liquid cooling but this may happen as there is possibility of anything. But it doesn’t happen that easily. The tubes and all the components of a liquid cooler are tight enough to prevent the leakage. So go ahead if you like lower temperatures.
This is one of the most important thing choosing the right cpu cooler. If you think you only need performance and you can ignore noise levels, then you will be irritated once your cpu cooler starts operating at full speed.
Noise levels under 30DB is silent but when it goes above that you start noticing it which may interfere in your in-game sound. When I used cooler master hyper 103, my pc was silent most of the time at normal load, but when I maxed out the speed of the fan, the noise wasn’t much noticeable at 30DB due to the fact that it’s maximum fan rpm is 2200 along with lower air pressure and air flow.
But when I installed the Deepcool Captain 240, things changed very much. Although the noise levels at standard speed was un-noticeable but at full speed the noise is unbearable and reaches upto 39DB. That’s not ideal if you want a silent system. But the reason it was so loud is because of much higher air pressure and air flow.
But if you ignore those air pressures and air flows, the CM hyper 103 is a clear winner when silence is preference.
Space Required and Compatibility
CPU Air Cooler: For air coolers you just need a case which has some big dimensions that will support the cooler. The height of these cpu air coolers range from 90mm to upto 168mm. In order to build a mini-ITX gaming pc, the mini cpu air coolers are best which require less space and deliver rock solid performance, but in order to cool your cpu more, you need a beefy heatsink with good PWM fans. Here you need to get at least a mid tower which supports upto 160mm heightened coolers.
Cooler master hyper 212 EVO is a great example of a decent budget cpu cooler which is good for mild overclocking. If you need a good mid tower for these types of coolers then here is the list of Best mid towers for every budget which will not only support mini cpu coolers but beefy coolers like Noctua NH-D15.
But there are some issues with the compatibility of Air coolers as well. As some of the beefy air coolers use 2 or even 3 fans with a huge heatsink, your whole motherboard is covered by the heatsink and wiring becomes difficult. In case if you need to do something like rewiring and installing a new ram stick, you may have to remove the heatsink before doing that which is a headache. The only thing beefy Air coolers are good at is low noise and good performance.
As far as my Cooler Master Hyper 103 is concerned, it didn’t took much of space on my motherboard and was easy to install. Almost all of the mid towers will support it’s height and you won’t be facing any trouble.
CPU Liquid Cooler: If you think that only Air coolers have some compatibility issues then you are mistaken. Liquid coolers on the other hand although may seem to acquire less space on the motherboard but the amount of space the radiators require may not be present in your case.
You need at least a good mid tower to support a 120mm or 240mm radiator. Some cases have space for two 120mm fans but it doesn’t necessarily means that you will be able to install your 240mm radiator. Your case necessarily may or may not have enough space at the top or the bottom to install the radiators with fans or in some cases you are only able to install a single 120mm fan on a 240mm radiator which looks odd.
My Deepcool Captain 240mm required 240mm of space and my case cooler master 690III was enough for it as it has a lot of space at the top and at the front for installing upto 280mm of radiators. The only problem however is it takes a lot of time to install a liquid cooler because you need to handle the big radiator after you fix your pump at the cpu. The radiator is big and the tubes are not that much flexible.
You also need to install the fans on it before installing the radiator to make it easier process but now you need a second 4 pin power port on your motherboard to power those fans along with the 4 pin power port used for the cpu pump.
Some motherboards don’t have them and you will be allowed to use either the rear fan of your case or your radiator fans. So it depends on motherboard sometimes.
To be honest Liquid cooler looks much better than an Air cooler to me although there are some beautiful air coolers like BeQuite Dark Rock Pro 3 and Reeven RC-1001b Brontes which add some decent decoration to the case. But it’s only optional and depends upon the user what he likes.
Nonetheless almost all the Liquid and Air coolers are compatible with the motherboards we have on the market right now.
Which is Hotter
I tested the two coolers on two different things. The first one is an application called HeavyLoad and the other one is a cpu intensive game Battlefield 4. To test the cpu temperatures and the performance of two coolers, these two things are enough to see which cooler is good for day to day work.
As you can see from above results, Deepcool captain is obviously better than the Cooler Master hyper 103. The idle temperature always hovered around 30 with Deepcool Captain 40 and at full load, the temperature didn’t went above 63 degrees in any of the case. I still benchmark my cpu in different applications and games with different fan speeds and it has never crossed 63 degree celcius. But increasing the fan speed to 100% didn’t decrease the temperature a lot. There is only 2-3 degrees celcius difference at the cost of so much noise. So I keep the fan speed at standard.
The Coolermaster hyper 103 however reached upto 81 degrees very fast in Battlefield 4 but not in Heavy Load which I think is because of the increase in temperatures of GPU, motherboard and Ram combined. But it didn’t affected the performance of Deepcool Captain 240.
Performance Per Dollar
Cooler Master hyper 103: $24.99
Deepcool Captain 240: $124.99(At the time of launch)
The difference in performance per dollar spent is huge. Although the Deepcool captain 240 liquid cooler seems to beat the Cooler master hyper 103 with some good margin but the price you pay for it is almost 6 times more and that doesn’t justifies the price of this liquid cooler. So, in order to cool you cpu effectively for normal use or even for mild overclocking, I recommend going with a budget air cooler but for enthusiasts who want to make their pc’s look attractive and want to push the overclocking limit, the AIO coolers are fit for them. It’s all about how much money do you have. If you have money for a budget gaming pc, then I won’t be recommending anyone a liquid cpu cooler because it will make almost no difference in fps. But recommend these to enthusiasts, for whom low temperatures are first priority.