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Liquid Cooling vs Air Cooling Your PC: Which is Right for You?

In this post, we’ll compare liquid cooling vs air cooling your PC, highlighting the pros and cons of each so you decide which is best for your machine.
September 01, 2020

In this Article:

Liquid Cooling

Learn about the pros and cons of liquid cooling systems.

Air Cooling

Learn about the pros and cons of air cooling systems.

Liquid vs. Air Cooling

Compare the costs and benefits of both systems and choose the one that's right for your PC.

When pushing your PC to its limit, cooling is of the utmost importance. Whether you are gaming at max settings or rendering 4k video, your components can really heat up. Selecting the right temperature control solutions can help to keep your components cool and prevent overheating. Customizing your cooling system is also a great way to personalize your PC and make it stand out. When it comes to cooling your PC, the two most common options include liquid cooling and air cooling. In this post, we’ll compare the two and highlight the pros and cons of each so you decide which is best for your machine.

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Liquid Cooling

The flashier option for temperature management, liquid cooling offers incredible performance combined with a visual appeal that no other cooling system can match. In these systems, liquid (typically water) transfers heat away from components and is generally much better at heat management than air alone.

Liquid cooling systems are available in many variations but are most commonly seen in an All-in-One (AIO) system configuration. AIO systems include all of the parts you need as a pre-bundled component that you can simply screw onto your machine. This provides an affordable solution that is easy for most users to install on their own.

Alternatively, you can create your own custom liquid cooling loops. Just note that custom loops can be fairly expensive to implement and maintain. Custom loops have their place but are typically only found in the top percentile of powerhouse machines. For this reason, this guide will focus primarily on AIO liquid cooling solutions.

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How Does It Work?

Liquid cooling works very much like a radiator in your car or home. These systems circulate liquid through “water blocks” which rest on top of the chip that is being cooled. The relatively cooler liquid circulating through the water block pools the heat away from the chip, cooling it. Thermal paste and a baseplate rest between the water block and CPU to help improve the heat transfer properties. The heated fluid is pumped to the radiator, where fans expose it to cold air. The re-cooled fluid is then returned to the water block to be heated, and the cycle repeats.

Liquid Cooling Pros

  • Quiet operation. Fans in radiators tend to rotate slower and quieter than those attached to heatsinks on air coolers. This makes liquid cooling a PC ideal for users concerned with acoustics.
  • Best heat regulation. Liquid cooling allows you to push your PC components to the absolute limit while maintaining safe temperatures. It is the best cooling option for overclocking.
  • Visually impressive. Many water blocks feature LED screens or RGB elements that sync with radiator fans or other PC components to enhance your machine’s aesthetic.

Liquid Cooling Cons

  • Expensive. Due to their more complex nature, even the most basic AIO liquid cooling system is more expensive than its air-cooling counterpart.
  • Complicated installation. Installing liquid cooling in your PC can be a daunting task, especially when implementing custom systems. There are multiple pieces that need to be delicately connected within your machine.
  • Possible problems and maintenance. Liquid cooling is far more complex than air cooling, which also means there are more areas in which a liquid cooling device can fail. Leaks can be catastrophic and failure to properly maintain your device could result in component damage. 

Air Cooling

While they may not be quite as effective as liquid cooling systems, air cooling systems are still a viable option. In fact, they are the most common type of cooling system used in PC’s today. PC air cooling systems are consistent, cost-efficient, and easy to install. They provide the safest way to cool your PC while requiring the least amount of maintenance. Air cooling is ideal if you are hoping to build a PC quickly at a lower cost.

One thing to keep in mind when purchasing an air cooler is that they tend to be larger and take up more room in the case. Just be sure to check the dimensions of the system before purchasing and measure the available space where you hope to install. Some air systems have RGB options such as fans or accents, but most feature a more industrial look sporting a large heat sink.

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How Does It Work?

Like with liquid cooling, a plate is attached to the CPU with thermal paste in between. Heat is transferred through this plate to a specially designed piece of metal called a heat sink. Heat passes through the metal upwards due to its specialized design. A fan then pushes the warm air generated by the heat sink away from the CPU and other critical components. The attached fan will automatically spin faster to increase cooling when needed.

Air Cooling Pros

  • Cost-effective. Air cooling is by far the most cost-efficient way to cool a CPU. Money saved on air cooling can be spent elsewhere in the build.
  • Sufficient for most users. Air cooling works just fine for most tasks. In most cases, high temperatures will not be an issue unless you are pushing your PC to its limits. Activities such as 4k gaming or detail-heavy rendering, however, may be too much for air-cooled machines.
  • Easy to install. Installing an air cooler can be as easy as securing some screws and properly plugging in a cable. There is no need for filling liquids or stretching hoses, which saves time in the build.

Air Cooling Cons

  • Takes up space. Air coolers take up quite a bit of space in the center of the case and can make accessing other parts such as RAM a problematic and tedious task.
  • Loud. Air coolers need to increase their fan speed to cool your CPU in stressful situations. This can come with a significant increase in volume compared to liquid cooling systems.
  • Not ideal for peak performance. When using your PC for cutting edge gaming or performance-intensive workloads, air cooling might not be enough to cool your components. Overheating can limit the potential of your PC and even cause components to fail.

Liquid vs Air Cooling Your PC: Key Factors to Consider

Now that you know the basics of how liquid cooling and air cooling work as well as their pros and cons, here are a few factors to consider to further help you decide which is right for your build:

Cost

The first thing to consider in every PC build is cost. Knowing what your machine is going to be used for can be key to ensuring you don't overspend. For example, if your PC needs to be powerful but will only run in 1080p, then air cooling could be sufficient, allowing you to save money. On the other hand, if you will be using your PC to edit all your 4k videos, then water cooling is likely the better option, allowing you to cool your components at peak performance. 

Overclocking

The process of pushing your system past its base limits is called overclocking. By setting the CPU multiplier at higher frequencies, users can vastly speed up their processor and get the absolute best performance from their PC. Most users are not going to be overclocking their CPU, but liquid cooling is ideal for those who are. That’s because overclocking can generate substantially more heat, which may be too much for air cooling systems to handle.

Size/Clearance

While air coolers take up more space in the center of the case, liquid cooling radiators can also be quite large. When purchasing an AIO liquid cooling system, make sure that your case has the proper space for the radiator and can run tubes to the CPU.

Likewise, when installing air cooling systems, make sure your case has the proper clearance. Purchasing an air cooler that is too large could prevent your case from closing or even block other components from fitting properly.

Style

For many, building a PC is incredibly personal. Customizing the machine’s look can go a long way to make it feel like "yours."

  • Liquid cooling offers limitless ways to stylize your build. Small displays and colored fluid are just a few ways to customize your PC. Just keep in mind that customizations can get expensive quickly and may require greater maintenance. If a full custom cooling system isn’t in your budget, you’ll be pleased to know that you can find many AIO liquid cooling systems with some flashy RGB or LED elements as well.
  • Air coolers tend to have a less flashy design, as they are primarily a large heat sink and plastic fan. Mild RGB accents can help to make air coolers more visually appealing, but they are rarely seen.

Shop Cooling Systems at CDW

We hope this guide has helped you understand the differences between liquid and air cooling a PC. If you’ve decided which cooling system is right for you are ready to shop, explore the many cooling system options available at CDW today!

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