It seems like PC enthusiasts around the world have been fighting on this topic since forever. One half believe that A CPU is best cooled with an air cooler while others believe that an all-in-one closed-loop liquid cooling system is superior. The latter is a bit of a mouthful which is why we’ll use the term AIO throughout this article.
However, even after years and years of different arguments and opinions, it is still not clear which option is exactly better.
If you are too struggling to decide on the type of cooling for your processor, we have gathered all the necessary information, considered different factors such as noise, thermal performance, ease of use, and more to provide you with the final answer to this question.
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Why Does Your CPU Need Cooling?
Before we can expand into which type of cooling you need, we will first have to explain exactly why CPUs require cooling at all.
The central processing unit (processor or CPU) handles the most important logic and arithmetic operations of the computer while also controlling and coordinating with every single piece of hardware connected to the motherboard. To put it simply, it’s the brains of every computer.
To process and handle such complicated tasks, processors consume large amounts of electrical energy.
That wasn’t the case always. In the past, CPUs were much simpler and slower, requiring only the most basic heatsink without any kind of active cooling. In fact, some models could even run without a heatsink. If you tried that with today, your PC would probably melt through the table.
In 2021, consumer CPUs can have clock speeds of up to 5.0GHz (or more) and can come with up to 16 cores and 32 threads. To put this into perspective, we can go back 15 years when processors had no more than 2 cores.
A great example is today’s high-end Intel processors which can consume up to 300W of power during very heavy loads. Such a huge amount of electrical energy has to be dissipated somewhere. And it is dissipated in the form of heat.
Because of this huge leap in clock speeds, cores, and threads, processors require a lot more help for heat dissipation hence the large demand for AIOs and air coolers.
With a good understanding of why your CPU needs to be cooled, we can now look into the different factors that can help you choose the perfect cooling option.
One of the main elements that have to be considered when choosing any kind of air cooling is the product’s thermal performance.
When buying a cooler, it is essential to do your research first to determine whether it will be adequate to keep your CPU cool. That should help you decide whether you should go for an AIO or an air cooler.
Here is an example. AMD’s mid-end 6-core processor, the Ryzen 5600X is rated with a TDP of 60W. Its maximum power consumption is about 140W which would only happen in extreme cases.
Cooling this type of processor would be much easier than Intel’s 8-core processor, the i11900K which peaks at almost 300W power draw. Again, only in extreme cases, but still much more power-hungry.
So, which cooler you should get depends on the CPU in your PC.
Usually, high-end liquid coolers provide much better thermal performance than even the best air coolers such as the Noctua NH-D15. Keep in mind, the temperature difference is not going to be more than 5 degrees Celsius.
It may not sound like a lot, but those 5 degrees can sometimes make a huge difference.
You should also consider the fact that AIOs take five times as long to reach a steady state compared to air coolers. In other words, it would take about 400 seconds for a high-quality AIO to reach max temperature while its air equivalent would achieve that same state in 80 seconds or maybe even less. In this case, longer is better.
All-in-all, liquid coolers can provide better cooling, but the thermal performance of air coolers is nothing to scoff at either. But, still, we give this point towards AIOs.
AIO 1 – 0 Air Cooler
Another factor that might even be more important for a lot of PC enthusiasts is noise. Or better yet, the lack of it.
Both air coolers and AIOs can come with a set of one, two, or sometimes even three fans. The role of these fans is to upkeep the air circulation in the case, effectively helping the heatsink (or radiator) dissipate heat more efficiently.
Without these fans to improve circulation, both types of coolers would essentially become useless during heavy CPU loads.
To minimize noise, fans automatically change their RPM (revolutions per minute) based on the processor’s temperature and the fan curve. As the temperature rises inside of the PC case, the fans start to ramp up, pushing or pulling more air, but also generating a lot more noise.
The amount of noise generated depends on the quality of the fans and the efficiency of the heatsink/cooler itself.
Liquid coolers would produce a lot less noise during a session of heavy gaming compared to an air cooler because of that longer time needed to reach that steady state. Air coolers quickly start ramping up the fans to keep up with the sudden temperature rise.
Another point for AIOs.
AIO 2 – 0 Air Cooler
Installation/Ease Of Use
Air Cooler Installation
By now, you might be convinced that AIOs are obviously the superior option for cooling processors. They are quieter and provide better thermal performance. But, it wouldn’t be fair to make a decision based on those two factors alone. So, let’s delve a bit into the practicality of these products.
When buying a cooler, you can’t forget the fact that you will need to install it by yourself. Unless you have someone more experienced to do it for you.
Installing an air cooler is usually very straightforward. Add the necessary brackets on the motherboard, add thermal paste, align the heatsink with the CPU and attach it to the brackets, add the fans to the heatsink and then connect them to the motherboard. That’s it.
Even if it is your first time and you are using a manual, it shouldn’t take you any more than five or ten minutes. Simple, practical, and fast.
Other than that, there isn’t much you can do. If you want, you could play around with the fan curve in your motherboard’s BIOS, but that’s about it. No need for any additional software.
Liquid Cooler Installation
AIOs on the other hand tell a completely different story. Even users with tons of experience can sometimes have trouble installing these things into a case.
First, you will have to sort through several different brackets to find the ones matching your motherboard. Then, screw in the fans into the radiator, ensuring they face the right direction while also keeping track that the cables are positioned properly.
Once the brackets are installed and the fans are added to the radiator, you can start screwing in the pump. While working, the radiator will constantly be getting in your way, making this task even more complicated. Screw the radiator into the case and then you are finally done.
No, wait, there’s more. You must plug in the cables for the pump and the fans. If there’s RGB, you will need to plug in those cables in the necessary headers too. If you want control over the RGB and other features of your AIO, you will also have to plug in a USB2 header.
This whole process can take hours. And, once you are done, you may have to download the AIO’s software and do some optimizing there too. NZXT’s CAM software allows you to edit the fan curve of the fans, the RGB lighting, etc. What’s even worse is that oftentimes software like this is bugged or broken.
This is one of those moments where AIOs are seriously lacking. Very unfriendly towards the user which is why air coolers get a point here.
AIO 2 – 1 Air Cooler
You may have heard rumors about the dangers of using an AIO. The dangers of a leak. And that is not just a rumor. There is indeed a higher possibility of failure which could ultimately lead to a leak.
But, that is not the only problem. A leak has the potential of damaging some of the most valuable parts of your computer such as the GPU, motherboard, hard drive, SSD, etc.
Liquid coolers have several points susceptible to failure. Pumps, tubes, radiators, and fittings can fail after long-term use. The liquid inside of the closed-loop could permeate, effectively reducing the product’s thermal performance.
Air coolers on the other hand have only two points of failure. The fans can fail, but they can be easily and inexpensively replaced. The other point of failure is the cold plate (the plate on the AIO making direct contact with the CPU). It could chip, break or it could come with production errors resulting in bad performance.
It is important to note that the failure rates for high-quality AIOs today are very low. These fears of a possible leak are not supported by any concrete evidence or statistics. If maintained accordingly, pumps could last up to 6-7 years or more.
Still, objectively, air coolers have fewer points of failure and can last much longer. So when it comes to reliability and longevity, air coolers get a point.
AIO 2 – 2 Air Cooler
When shopping for an air cooler, budget is definitely one of the factors you should keep in mind.
The consensus here is that air coolers are always the cheaper option. You could grab yourself a be quiet! Pure Rock 2 for around $50-60 which is more than enough to keep most high core count CPUs cool.
For those that want the best of the best, Noctua’s NH-D15 is what you need. You could grab this air cooler for less than $100.
On the other side of the spectrum, most high-quality AIOs are priced over $100. For example, the Kraken X62 is one of the better liquid coolers on the market, but it comes at a cost of around $140. Corsair’s Hydro Series H100i Pro is another great option with a price tag of $120.
Keep in mind, you will ultimately get better performance and a quieter PC with these premium prices. In the end, it is up to you to decide whether spending extra is worth it.
Still, air coolers deserve a point here too.
AIO 2 – 3 Air Cooler
Designs, styles, and overall PC aesthetics are purely subjective. We can’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t like.
However, we can’t ignore the fact that a lot more thought goes into the design of an AIO. Braided black tubes, RGB fans, pump with RGB LEDs or an LED display, etc. Overall, these products are made of high-quality materials that are pretty on the eyes and smooth to the touch.
Air coolers, not so much. Take the NH-D15 as an example. It’s a huge block made out of aluminum combined with the default dark and light brown fan, it will look incredibly out of place.
We understand that some people don’t care about aesthetics and want only the best price per performance, but it’s still a factor we can’t ignore.
Naturally, liquid coolers get a point here.
AIO 3 – 3 Air Cooler
Air or Liquid – Which One Is Best For Your PC?
After going through all of these points above, we wound up with a tie. Both types of coolers excel in certain segments.
So which type you should go for? Well, it depends on what you are looking for.
If you are looking for the best thermal performance to cool a high-core count chip such as the 11900K or the Ryzen 5900X, you should absolutely go with a liquid cooler. AIO is also the perfect choice if you want a silent-running system and one that looks aesthetically pleasing.
However, for the people that are on a tight budget for a PC build, an air cooler is heavily recommended. It’s also a great choice for those that are building a PC for the very first time.