When purchasing, PC enthusiasts often emphasize the CPU cooler they choose. However, new consumers trying to build their first computer might not know the importance of a CPU cooler. Therefore, in this article, we will stress understanding CPU coolers and look into the importance, types, selection, and installation of coolers.
- There are three CPU coolers: air coolers, All-in-One (AIO) coolers, and custom water cooling kits.
- When selecting the suitable cooler, considering the budget, use-case scenario, future-proofing, compatibility, and required TDP, will help shortlist what a consumer should buy.
- Case fans are essential to CPU coolers to maintain a PC’s temperatures as they manage the airflow.
- Intake fans curve away from you, while exhaust fans curve towards you. When assembling the PC, you want intake fans on the front and bottom of the case and exhaust fans at the top and back.
- The wattage label on CPU coolers doesn’t signify their required wattage but rather the heat they can dissipate.
What Is A CPU Cooler?Before progressing into a CPU cooler’s nuances, we must understand what a cooler is. To explain, a CPU cooler dissipates the heat generated by the processor. The CPU cooler absorbs the heat from the processor through its Integrated Heat Spreader (IHS), cools the heat through its heat sink, and dissipates it outside of the PC case.
Through this method, the PC remains cool and functional. But, for a traditional CPU cooler, you require multiple case fans to help move the hot air out of the computer. Moreover, depending on your processor, you will require more substantial CPU coolers with faster fans.
On the other hand, All-in-One (AIO) coolers and custom water cooling kits also help keep the PC cool. In the case of the AIO coolers, a radiator is attached to a water-cooled CPU block which directly releases heat outside the PC. Meanwhile, water cooling helps keep the GPU and CPU temperatures minimum.
No matter the type of CPU cooler you choose, your PC must always have enough case fans to properly radiate heat outside the computer. These case fans also help bring cool air inside the case, which keeps all the other components cool.
If your case fans are not working correctly, please read our guide on fixing case fans not spinning. Likewise, if you’re looking for great PC cases, please read our article on the best airflow PC cases.
Impact of CPU Coolers On PC PerformanceAs stated above, CPU coolers are essential to keep the computer cool. Keeping the processor cool ensures it can run at boost clocks for longer, improving performance. Except for the latest AMD Ryzen 7000 series processors, most processors will start to slow down once the temperatures increase.
Therefore, consumers utilize proper airflow techniques and good CPU coolers to keep the CPU temperatures as low as possible. While a good CPU cooler is essential to reduce processor temperatures, the placement of case fans is also important. The following video by renowned tech YouTuber JayzTwoCents explains how you can optimize your case’s airflow.
Moreover, when understanding CPU coolers, you must realize that a good CPU cooler is essential if you want to overclock your PC. To explain, overclocking is only possible if you have lots of thermal headroom and the ability to control the voltage of your components. So, with proper cooling, you can keep your overclocks for longer.
Additionally, with proper cooling, you ensure the longevity of your hardware components as they aren’t exposed to heat often. Therefore, good CPU coolers are necessary when planning or purchasing a PC.
Types Of CPU Coolers
As we discussed before, there are three types of CPU coolers. The traditional air cooler, All-in-One (AIO) coolers, and custom water cooling kits. Each type of CPU cooler has its uses and benefits in a consumer’s use-case scenario. For example, a water cooling kit would be overkill in a budget build, while an air cooler might not cut it in a high-end build. Let’s discuss all three CPU coolers in detail.
Air CoolerFirstly, discussing air coolers, these are the traditional CPU coolers found in most PCs. While air coolers are meant to dissipate enough heat not to overheat the processor, modern coolers go a step beyond.
For example, the Noctua NH-D15S chromax.black air cooler in the above image is one of the most potent air coolers on the market. Using such CPU coolers allows one to overclock their system if they have proper airflow.
However, the downside to such fancy air coolers is their price tag. Therefore, many consumers tend to buy a moderate air cooler which is enough to dissipate excess heat produced by the CPU. So, purchasing a mid-end air cooler should suffice if you have a budget processor like the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 or the Intel Core i5-10600K.
The Enermax ETS F40 FS we reviewed is a great budget air cooler. Another air cooler, if you have a greater budget, is the be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4, which is one of the most incredible air coolers on the market. Thus, depending on your budget and requirements, you can get several air coolers to help dissipate heat.
All-In-One CoolerSecondly, All-in-One (AIO) coolers are considerably stronger than traditional air coolers. Consumers are more likely to use AIO coolers as a means to fit a CPU cooler and radiator at the same time. While high-end air coolers can help with overclocking, they are expensive.
Therefore, consumers purchase AIO coolers for their high-end processors while ensuring better cooling for the entire chassis. All the heat dissipated by the processor and graphics card is emitted outside through the radiator attached to the CPU cooler.
Also, talking about radiators, AIO coolers come with three main radiator sizes: 240mm, 360mm, and 420mm. There are, of course, other sizes, too, such as 120mm, 280mm, and so on. So, depending on the size of your chassis, you should buy an appropriate AIO cooler.
For example, the DeepCool LT520 240mm is an excellent small cooler, enough to fit in almost any chassis.
Besides, you must also be careful of the mounting brackets these AIO coolers support. Depending on the cooler’s support and the processor you own, you can fit it in the case. If you’re looking for a great AIO cooler to overclock your PC, please read our article on the Lian Li Galahad 360mm cooler.
You should select radiators based on the size of your chassis and the free space in your PC case. To explain, a 360mm radiator can house three 120mm case fans, whereas a 420mm can house three 140mm fans. If you want to learn which fan size is better, kindly review our article on 120mm Vs 140mm case fans.
All-in-all, AIO coolers are the go-to if you own a high-end processor or want better cooling in your system.
Water Cooling KitFor the last CPU cooler type, we have custom water cooling kits. In terms of assembling, water cooling kits are the most difficult to assemble and can take a long time. However, using such a method of cooling your PC leads to extremely low temperatures. Thus, water cooling kits are the epitome of cooling if you want to keep your PC’s temperatures to the lowest.
Custom water cooling kits don’t only handle the CPU’s temperatures but also the temperatures of the graphics card. Also, due to water running through a specialized loop going around the PC, temperatures of components usually don’t exceed 45°C to 50°C. Furthermore, if you’re looking to overclock your computer, custom water cooling kits should be able to handle the task perfectly.
There are two types of water cooling kits when discussing water cooling: hard tubing and soft tubing. Hard tubing suits consumers and enthusiasts who have previously handled water-cooling products. In contrast, soft tubing suits consumers who have only recently entered the water cooling market. Although, the type of tubing rarely poses a difference in performance and is only necessary for aesthetics.
Of course, even if you water cool your PC, you still require case fans to regulate air within the PC. If you’re looking for new kits, please read our article on the best water-cooling kits. For effective water cooling, you will also require a suitable chassis. For that reason, read our best water cooling cases too.
How To Select The Right CPU Cooler
There are many factors to consider when selecting an appropriate CPU cooler. So, when understanding CPU coolers, we must learn how to select the proper cooler for our PC. When selecting a CPU cooler, there are five criteria to look at the budget, intended use, future-proofing, compatibility, and Thermal Design Power (TDP). Let’s discuss all of these criteria separately.
Before considering which CPU cooler you want, you must decide your budget. When we say “budget,” we don’t mean the price of the cooler but rather the amount you are willing to spend on a particular component.
With that said, if you have a lower budget, you would probably be better off with an air cooler. For example, on a budget of $20 to $50, you can get a be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2. While it’s not the best air cooler by the brand, it will do the job splendidly. Increasing your budget to around $75 will get you a be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4 and Arctic Freezer 34 eSports Duo.
On the other hand, if you require an AIO cooler and have the budget for it, you can get the Cooler Master MASTERLIQUID ML240L within the $90 budget. Also, consider the radiator size you require when choosing an AIO cooler. The Cooler Master AIO cooler mentioned above has a 240mm radiator. You can find 360mm radiator AIO coolers above the $150 mark, such as the Arctic Liquid Freezer II.
But if you want custom water cooling kits, your budget should exceed at least $350. For instance, you can find the Thermal Take Pacific C360 custom water cooling kit for $360 on Amazon. In contrast, better kits can cost up to $1,000, such as Corsair’s Hydro X series iCUE XH5000i.
Thus, budget is essential when selecting an appropriate CPU cooler for your PC. Of course, a greater understanding of CPU coolers is required for a better purchase, which you can acquire by following the market.
Also Read: AIO Vs custom liquid cooling
You must know your use-case scenario when considering the CPU cooler you want. For example, an enthusiast who wants to stress their PC through overclocking and other methods will require a custom water cooling kit.
On the other hand, average gamers and people who require PCs for creative tasks might be okay with an AIO cooler. Besides, depending on your budget, you must maneuver how you select the CPU cooler. So, a simple air cooler can fit the bill if you properly utilize the case fans and airflow of the chassis.
Meanwhile, even a custom water cooling kit can fail your system if you make a slight mistake in the installation. Therefore, depending on how you intend to utilize your PC, you must choose a suitable CPU cooler.
Remember the heat your processor and graphics card generates and move further from there. No matter your intended use, your PC will overheat to death if you can’t even fulfill the basic requirements. Thus, if you’re buying a regular air cooler, ensure it can dissipate adequate heat per the processor’s requirements and use proper intake and exhaust fans to regulate the airflow outside the PC.
When selecting CPU coolers, you must also keep your power supply in mind. Upgrade the PSU or downgrade the cooler if your power supply isn’t powerful enough. Please check our guide on checking for insufficient power supplies if you’re unsure whether your current PSU is good enough.
When understanding CPU coolers, we must also understand if future-proofing is worth the gamble. Many enthusiasts buy an expensive CPU cooler beforehand and upgrade the rest of their system afterward.
Of course, if you’re thinking of doing something similar, you’ll need to ensure your chassis and power supply can get the job done. Otherwise, you’ll need to upgrade both components alongside your CPU cooler.
Moreover, if you’re buying a CPU cooler for future-proofing, you must have a clear build path for the future. Because if you buy a cooler based on your current compatibility and don’t consider your future equipment, your purchase will become useless.
However, future-proofing is mainly focused on air coolers and AIO coolers. Compatibility with custom water cooling kits is challenging because many come with pre-determined GPUs and CPUs. Therefore, if you’re planning a custom water-cooled PC, it’s better to settle with a more affordable CPU cooler for the time being and upgrade the whole PC at once.
All-in-all, it’s essential to consider your future upgrade path when determining your CPU cooler, but be aware of your current options while also seeing how to utilize your resources better.
CompatibilityCompatibility is a grave issue when discussing CPU coolers. The CPU socket isn’t the only problem the cooler has to face. Instead, it would be best if you took care of the length and width of the CPU cooler too. Because if you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll face problems with inserting the RAM or closing the side panel of your chassis.
Furthermore, when looking at a particular air cooler, you must also look for potentially more excellent fans you can place for better cooling. While the stock fan might be adequate, after-factory fans can remarkably improve your PC’s thermals.
Also, a few air coolers allow placing two fans on both sides of the heatsink. Thus, you can improve the airflow by correctly placing an intake and exhaust fan.
If you’re currently using a small form factor motherboard, a giant CPU cooler might be slightly problematic unless your RAM sticks can fit underneath the cooler. Sometimes, due to the CPU cooler, you might be unable to insert your NVMe M.2 storage drive or have problems inserting the GPU. For that reason, you must check your CPU cooler’s length, width, and height before proceeding with the purchase.
AIO coolers and custom water cooling kits pose similar threats outside the socket problem. For example, the radiators of AIO coolers might be unable to fit inside the chassis due to their length or width, while the pump of the water cooling might be unable to find a spot in the chassis.
Therefore, when choosing any CPU cooler, ensure you know the correct dimensions of your case and other components. Not checking the dimensions can lead you to a heap of trouble you’ll regret.
Thermal Design PowerLastly, when understanding CPU coolers, we must know how Thermal Design Power (TDP) can affect our purchase. To explain, unlike popular belief, TDP does not state the amount of wattage required to run a processor or GPU, but rather the amount of heat the component generates. As we already know, the job of a CPU cooler is to dissipate the heat the processor generates.
Some coolers also dissipate the GPU’s heat. Therefore, we see the TDP of CPU coolers. The numbers inscribed don’t indicate the wattage required but rather the heat the cooler dissipates.
Therefore, when making your purchase, you must buy a CPU cooler that at least dissipates as much heat as the processor generates. Otherwise, the processor will overheat and be unable to perform efficiently.
Moreover, if you’re thinking of overclocking your processor or graphics card, you’ll need a cooler whose TDP exceeds the processor’s TDP. Thus, TDP plays an important role when purchasing the CPU cooler. However, it would be best if you remembered that TDP values are usually incorrect. They only provide a basis for how much wattage and cooling you might require.
Sometimes the numbers shown are lower than required, and vice versa. If you want to learn the ins and outs of Thermal Design Power, please read our article on Understanding TDP And What Affects It.
While understanding TDP, you might also be interested in knowing everything about a CPU. If so, please review our article on What Is A CPU?
How To Install A CPU Cooler?
If you’re new to building a PC, installing a CPU cooler must feel daunting. When understanding CPU coolers, you must know how to install one too. While it seems complicated, the process is neither too long nor does it require any crafting skills.
Firstly, after installing your processor, you must apply thermal paste on your CPU lid. However, before you approach doing so, check whether the base of the CPU cooler has pre-applied thermal paste. You don’t need to apply any on the CPU lid if it does. Otherwise, please proceed to do so. You only need to put a small dot at the center of the CPU to cool the processor properly.
Also Read: How Long Does Thermal Paste Last?
Secondly, if your air cooler requires, install a bracket behind the motherboard to ensure the cooler fits appropriately. Or, you might need to install standoffs that will screw through the case. Check your CPU cooler manual to determine whether you need to install the bracket or standoffs.
Depending on your cooler, you might need to remove the fan before you continue with the next step. Take your air cooler and align it perfectly over the CPU, around the screws. Before you lower the cooler, ensure that the sticker at the bottom of the cooler’s heatsink has been removed.
Once you’re confident the alignment is proper, lower the cooler on the CPU and screw the cooler in an “X” pattern. We recommend starting from the top left, going to the bottom right, rummaging towards the top right, and finishing on the bottom left.
After you have screwed everything properly, attach any fans you dismantled back on the CPU cooler, and plug everything in. If you don’t know how to attach the CPU fans, consult your manual and attach them properly. Confusing intake for exhaust will mess up the entire airflow of the PC, and you might lose out on valuable performance.
Discussing AIO coolers, a good part of the installation process is identical. The only extra thing you’ll notice is the radiator. Before you screw the heatsink on the CPU lid, attach the fans to the radiator and screw them in. After doing so, install the heatsink and attach the radiator to the chassis’s upper part.
Ensure that you install the fans so that they take the air out of the case and do not bring it inside. If you don’t do so, then the hot air will keep flowing throughout the chassis, and temperatures won’t go down. Thus, you’ll lose out on performance.
If you want to learn how to install a water block for your graphics card, kindly read our guide on how to water cool a graphics card. Alongside installing a water block, you will also require a graphics card.
Tips For Safe Installation Of Hardware
For understanding CPU coolers, we have a few helpful tips for installing your cooler and handling similar hardware.
- If it isn’t pre-applied on the CPU cooler, apply thermal paste on the CPU lid. Don’t apply thermal paste on both surfaces, or the CPU cooler won’t stick properly.
- Before sticking the CPU cooler to the CPU lid, remove the sticker at the bottom of the heatsink.
- Don’t mistake intake for exhaust and vice versa. If the curves on the fan are going away from you, you’re looking at the intake side of the fan. Please turn it on the other side to make it an exhaust fan.
- When screwing the CPU cooler, do so in an “X” pattern. Start from the top left, go to the bottom right, then move towards the top right, and lastly, go to the bottom left.
- Before you attach the heatsink of an AIO cooler, attach the fans to the radiator. Ensure the fans are on the exhaust side.
- When installing the radiator, please attach it to the upper part of the chassis to remove all of the hot air outside the PC.
- When handling water cooling, ensure all of the pipe fittings are shut tightly and no water can leak.
- Ensure that the pump of your water cooling build is below the reservoir for proper water flow.
- When handling airflow, you want intake fans at the front of the case, exhaust fans at the back and top of the chassis, and intake fans at the bottom.
Impact Of Overclocking On PC TemperatureOverclocking negatively affects the CPU and GPU’s temperature. When you overclock your components, you allow them to overwork themselves by consuming more voltage than their manufacturers allow. A component that consumes more voltage generates more heat and requires more cooling power.
Therefore, no matter what cooling you’re using; your temperatures will rise if you overclock your PC. However, the rise can be halted depending on the cooling you’re using. For example, if you’re utilizing an air cooler, your temperatures might be more significant than those utilizing an AIO cooler.
Moreover, the stock temperatures are lower for people utilizing AIO coolers and custom water cooling kits. Although, unless you’re overclocking your PC, you won’t need to water cool your PC, except for the aesthetics. So, overclocking will always increase a component’s temperatures, but the increment depends on the cooling you utilize.
If you don’t know the concept of overclocking, please read our guide to learn what overclocking is. Moreover, once you enable overclocks, you’ll also want to turn them off. Therefore, feel free to read our guide on how to turn off overclocking.
Importance Of CPU Coolers For Overclocking StabilityWhen understanding CPU coolers, knowing how they can affect overclocking is essential. As stated above, your CPU cooler decides how quickly the temperatures of your components increase.
The core concept of maintaining stable overclocks is to have enough voltage supply and proper temperature control of components that are being overclocked. So, if you can maintain your temperatures, you will automatically be able to maintain stable overclocks for extended periods.
However, we don’t recommend overclocking your processor and graphics card all day. Overclocking is fine if you’re playing a game and can’t get enough FPS. But constantly having to overclock will reduce the components’ and the CPU cooler’s life span.
Therefore, if you overclock your processor, graphics card, or even both components, don’t go overboard with the power scaling. Slight and stable overclocks are better than high and unstable overclocks.
While CPU coolers improve overclocking stability and allow enthusiasts to overclock their components to achieve more outstanding performance, they can severely reduce lifespan. Therefore, if you’re thinking of frequently overclocking your build, we suggest getting at least a 360mm AIO cooler with a few 120mm or 140mm case fans. Although a water-cooled PC would be best for overclocking, it might not be feasible for everyone.
If you want to overclock your PC, you’ll need overclocking software. Review these 12 best overclocking GPU software to determine what works best. Moreover, if you’re scared of damaging your components, read through our guides on whether overclocking can reduce a CPU’s lifespan or whether overclocking can damage a GPU.
In conclusion, you must learn many diversified topics when understanding CPU coolers because CPU coolers don’t only work to dissipate the heat generated by a processor. Moreover, to understand how heat dissipation works, you must understand the concept of Thermal Design Power (TDP).
Then there are different CPU coolers, such as air coolers, All-in-One (AIO) coolers, and custom water cooling kits. Each CPU cooler has its properties and installation process. Additionally, each CPU cooler has different dimensions you must be aware of when choosing the perfect cooler for your build.
Furthermore, when researching the topic, you must also learn how CPU coolers are essential for overclocking. Case fans are also essential for CPU coolers to maintain a PC’s temperatures. Knowing intake and exhaust fans will either make or break your airflow.
Therefore, when you purchase a CPU cooler in the market, remember your requirements, budget, use-case scenario, compatibility, and TDP of your processor.
Frequently Asked Questions
The CPU cooler you use determines your thermal temperatures. So, you can go with any CPU cooler if you don’t care about your CPU and GPU’s temperatures. However, if you care, you’ll need to properly budget out a CPU cooler by researching the market.
Water cooling will always be better than air cooling. But air cooling is more affordable and more accessible to install than water cooling. Therefore, water cooling might be a good call depending on your budget and expertise.
Multiple ways exist to determine the best cooler for your build. For example, look at your budget, your use-case scenario, whether you want to consider future-proofing, compatibility with your existing PC components, and the required TDP of your processor. You can also find the details in this guide.
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Ali Rashid Khan is an avid gamer, hardware enthusiast, photographer, and devoted litterateur with a period of experience spanning more than 14 years. Sporting a specialization with regards to the latest tech in flagship phones, gaming laptops, and top-of-the-line PCs, Ali is known for consistently presenting the most detailed objective perspective on all types of gaming products, ranging from the Best Motherboards, CPU Coolers, RAM kits, GPUs, and PSUs amongst numerous other peripherals. When he’s not busy writing, you’ll find Ali meddling with mechanical keyboards, indulging in vehicular racing, or professionally competing worldwide with fellow mind-sport athletes in Scrabble at an international level. Currently speaking, Ali has completed his A-Level GCEs with plans to go into either Allopathic Medicine or Business Studies, or who knows, perhaps a full-time dedicated technological journalist.