The introduction of water cooling revolutionized PC building, providing a new, incredibly efficient way to cool an entire system. Since then, water cooling has been seen as the ultimate goal for a PC build – sleek, sexy, and high-performing.
But is it really better than a powerful fan with a good heat sink?
This article examines the different methods of keeping your CPU at a nice, comfortable temperature and discusses the temperature differences between the different cooling methods.
Factors to consider:
There are multiple factors to consider when buying a cooling solution for your CPU, but the most important factor is clear: performance. The last thing you want is for your CPU to overheat as it can lead to permanent damage to the entire system.
The next thing to consider is the price. While it’s a good idea to keep your system cool, blowing your entire building budget on a cooling solution isn’t.
Other factors to keep in mind include aesthetics and sound. Most everyone wants a sexy build, especially if you’re using a windowed enclosure — and in that category, water cooling will almost always be the winner. It’s just hard to compete with the future-industrial look that LED-lit tubes offer.
You also don’t want to use a cooling solution that resembles fighter jets taking off when the system is under load (looking at you, gaming laptops). Water-cooled computers are quiet, but there are modern air-cooling options that produce almost no noise at a fraction of the cost.
One last factor to keep in mind, especially if you’re not too familiar with building computers, is ease of installation.
The hard and hot songs
Before we get into the numbers about cooling solutions, you should know that any number or temperature can vary wildly based on many factors: the ambient temperature of the room the computer is in, the CPU load, the skill of the installer and sometimes just the day of the week.
It will be nearly impossible to perfectly mimic a temperature test, but the figures presented are averages based on the typical performance of a standard water or air cooled system.
This one Linus Tech Tips video from 2017 compared a Corsair H80I GT water cooler to a Noctua NH-U9 air cooler. In the test, the Noctua even kept the system 3.5 degrees cooler at idle and 1.3 degrees cooler under load than the Corsair water cooler.
However, when that same system was overclocked, the Corsair H80I GT cooled the system 3 degrees more at idle, but 0.2 degrees below the air cooler under load.
Later in the same video, they compared 280-millimeter fans — the biggest, worst radiators you can get — to see how water performed versus air. The results were close.
At standard voltages, the Noctua fan outperformed the Corsair water cooler by 1.2 degrees at idle and 0.2 degrees under load. Overclocked, the water cooler gained 0.8 degrees at idle, but lost 3.3 degrees under load. The difference is that it allowed for more power consumption while keeping the temperature within safe parameters.
The specific video referenced above, as well as dozens of reports and hard evidence, make one thing particularly clear: water cooling can keep the CPU at much lower temperatures than air cooling. When installed correctly, it conducts heat away from the system more efficiently.
That said, water cooling isn’t 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. They are also usually much cheaper than a water cooling solution.
Water cooling is expensive and requires a certain level of knowledge to install correctly. It’s one thing you don’t want to make mistakes with; Just think of how a water leak would affect the rest of your build. But if you’re going to overclock your CPU and want the absolute best performance, water cooling is the way to go. If you can foot the bill, a custom water cooling solution will almost always outperform air cooling.
In short, yes: water cooling is better than air, but the gap between the two continues to narrow rapidly. If you’re an enthusiast who wants a great looking PC with all the bells and whistles, opt for water cooling. If you’re a gamer or someone who just wants a PC that works well without a lot of hassle and expense, then air cooling is the way to go.