Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know (2024)

Every computer, from the smallest of home theater PCs to the most hulking of gargantuan gaming rigs, generates heat during operation—heat that can kill your PC’s precious internals if you’re not careful.

While you don’t have anything to worry about if you bought your computer from a big-box retailer or straight from a manufacturer like HP, you’ll be faced with a potentially crucial decision if you’re building (or custom-buying) a fire-breathing, benchmark-eating computer: Should you chill your PC with a traditional air cooling solution or a pricier, yet more efficient liquid-cooling system? That question has many aspects to consider before you can answer it.

Cooling methods explained

The secret to harnessing the cooling power of air lies in fans—lots of fans. Your typical air-cooled PC is packed with case fans, graphics card fans, and a CPU fan or two—positioned atop a big metal heat sink—to keep your expensive components nice and frosty.

A water-cooling system, on the other hand, employs a series of coolant-filled tubes, a radiator, water blocks (the equivalent of heat sinks), and a couple of other components to keep your PC feeling refreshed. You’ll even need a few fans to push around all the water! Our guide to setting up a liquid-cooled PC explains a basic (ha!) system in exacting detail.

Got it? Good. Defining air cooling and liquid cooling is the easy part. The trickier bit is making the decision to use one or the other.

Air cooling

Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know (1)

One of the great joys of using fans to cool your system is that, in a lot of circ*mstances, you really don’t have to do anything to create a decent cooling setup. If your system’s chassis is of the non-bargain-bin variety, odds are high that its manufacturer has already installed exactly what you need—namely, an intake fan in the front that pushes outside air over your hard drives and an exhaust fan that shoots hot air flying out of the rear of the chassis.

Graphics cards and computer processors pretty much always ship with powerful stock fans—you know, the ones that sound like a plane taking off when they roar into action. Those, combined with case fans, make up the Holy Trifecta of air cooling within a typical desktop PC.

Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know (2)Noctua

So, the big question remains: Why air? It’s cheap, for one thing. Even if you want to go with an aftermarket cooler for your CPU or GPU, you’re going to be paying far less than you would for a liquid cooling setup. The same goes for case fans. You can certainly purchase bigger, better, more efficient fans if you want a quieter rig, or even fans that light up if you’re into that sort of thing. Sure, you’ll have to pay for them, but you’ll still spend far less cash upgrading or building a nice air-cooling setup than you will on a typical water-cooling loop.

Also consider the cost to your sanity. It’s a lot easier to use four screws to attach a fan to your case than it is to build your own water cooling setup.

Traditional air cooling has three major downsides, though. First, fans aren’t as efficient as water cooling, which can pose a problem with severely overclocked processors or in particularly beefy rigs filled with multiple graphics cards. Second, the heat sinks on powerful CPU coolers can get big. Finally, fans are loud.

Water cooling pros

The act of switching from air to liquid cooling represents a personal milestone in one’s computer-building life. You, young PC Padawan, are now a desktop Jedi.

Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know (3)EKWaterblocks

Let’s start with the pleasant bits. One of the key benefits of a strong liquid cooling setup is that it allows you to cool specific system components to a greater degree than if were you to use fans—not the most applicable setup for someone running a typical stock-clock processor, but one that’s definitely of interest to anyone looking to overclock their chips a bit (or a ton).

Even if you don’t tax your rig enough to need a bigger cooling boost, a cheap self-contained water cooling loop—more on those later—can help lower your PC’s sound output. Water cooling is much quieter than stuffing your case full of fans.

There’s also the issue of space. A huge heat-sink/fan combination might perform well enough, but the best CPU coolers eat up a ton of real estate inside your case. Liquid cooling requires much less space, and it looks a lot niftier to boot. You can’t discount the cool factor of a case full of colorful, liquid-filled tubes!

Water cooling cons

Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know (4)

One big downside of water cooling is its comparatively high cost, especially if you’re looking to build a custom setup. While most traditional upper-end CPU coolers cost somewhere between $50 and $100, building a liquid-cooling setup can cost far more. For example, EKWaterBlocks’ top-tier H3O 360 HFX water cooling kit costs a whopping $360. (The price is converted from euros, so the 360 in the name may be coincidental.)

Quality matters in a liquid-cooling setup: You don’t want to buy cheap parts to save a few bucks and end up dousing your pricey PC components in brightly hued coolant.

The homework involved is another drawback. Generating the parts list is going to take a little planning if you’re not buying a prepackaged kit. You’ll have to pick up a water block for your CPU that fits its socket, fittings that match your block and tubing size, the tubing itself, a pump, a reservoir, a radiator, a fan (or fans) for the radiator, and the coolant itself. And that’s just a typical setup for the most bare-bones configuration you can build. If you want to power separate loops for your video card, motherboard, RAM, or hard drives, you’ll have to do even more planning and purchasing.

Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know (5)

You’ll also have to make sure you have room for your setup. Radiators typically require open fan slots on your case. Reservoirs require space in your case as well, and you’ll have to plan out your loop’s layout so that you can actually get it up and running (“priming” the pump, so to speak) when you fill it with coolant. In other words, your water-cooling loop does you no good if you don’t have a good way to get the fluid running around!

Then there’s the installation itself. Simply put, your first adventures in water-cooling land could very well be fraught with peril. Installing loops isn’t exactly newbie-friendly, and the process might be more involved than you’re comfortable with, even if you’ve installed a typical fan-based aftermarket CPU cooler or two.

Which reminds me: Connecting your tubing and fittings in a secure and safe fashion is going to be your number-one issue when building your first water-cooling setup. You will spring a leak in some fashion. You’ll want to construct and test your liquid-cooling system outside of your PC to ensure its fortitude before installing it around your expensive electronics. Component manufacturers aren’t likely to replace flooded electronics, and the manufacturers of your water cooling parts certainly aren’t going to foot the bill.

Self-contained liquid coolers

Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know (6)

If all this talk of water cooling’s complexity has left your head spinning a bit, fear not: Another solution is available.

Self-contained or “sealed” liquid-cooling kits—preassembled and completely sealed, they start at around just $60—allow you reap the benefits of a simple water-cooling setup without having to deal with any of the messy particulars. You just need to attach a water block to your CPU and a radiator/fan combination to your case, and you’re off to the races, with nary a drop of coolant to worry about. You may lose customization options if you use self-contained kits like Corsair’s Hydro H-series or NZXT’s Kraken-series coolers, but you also lose most of the headaches typically associated with do-it-yourself liquid cooling. Leakage is highly unlikely as long as you don’t bend or twist the tubing at sharp, weird angles.

Installing a self-contained liquid-cooling kit is about on a par with the difficulty of installing an aftermarket cooler for your CPU. If you need to water-cool only your overclocked processor, a sealed liquid cooler is a compelling option. Stick to DIY loops if you want to liquid-cool more than the single component, however—or if you want the bling factor of clear tubes filled with colorful coolant. Most sealed coolers are opaque.


So, which is better? Air cooling or water cooling? The answer depends on your particular usage needs.

One size does not fit all when it comes to case cooling, but most people can get by with fans alone. It’s easy, and it’s cheap. If, on the other hand, you’re an enthusiast who needs the best cooling possible for your flaming CPU and a gaggle of graphics cards, a DIY water-cooling setup is in your future. Finally, try a sealed liquid cooler if you’re considering liquid cooling either to keep your overclocked processor chilled or simply to benefit from reduced system noise.

Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know (2024)


Liquid cooling vs. air cooling: What you need to know? ›

Air coolers are quite good at relocating heat away from the CPU, but keep in mind that heat is then dispersed into the case. This can raise the ambient temperature of the system overall. Liquid coolers do a better job of relocating that heat outside of the system via the fans on the radiator.

What you need to know about liquid cooling? ›

This process uses water rather than air as the cooling medium because water can conduct heat about 30 times faster than air. Additionally, a water cooling system allows computer components to run at higher speeds while reducing system noise. All electronics generate heat during operation.

Do I need to do anything for liquid cooling? ›

Maintenance – Custom liquid cooling systems require more maintenance than air cooling, as you need to sustain proper fluid levels, and make sure the components are clean and functional. Also, if any of the parts of a custom cooling system fail it could be catastrophic for your computer.

What are the cons of liquid cooling? ›

However, liquid cooling also has some drawbacks that you should consider before opting for it. First of all, liquid cooling is more expensive than air cooling, as you need to buy more parts and accessories, and possibly a larger case to fit them.

Does airflow matter with liquid cooling? ›

If the air stays in the water pump, it may cause some problems such as noise and reduced thermal efficiency, and the lifespan may be reduced too. It's important to prevent the air from gathering in the pump or somewhere that will impact the thermal efficiency when considering how to install the liquid cooler.

Do liquid coolers leak often? ›

If you install everything correctly, no. Generally, the main issue with liquid cooling (as far as I know) is having the coolant evaporate over time and have to be replaced. Obviously, before you start installing your liquid cooling system inspect the parts for leaks or other defects!

Do you need a special case for liquid cooling? ›

There is no exact formula that decides which case is the best for liquid cooling because it all depends on your needs. You can go about it from two angles. You can first choose your case and then pick the water cooling parts, or first get the parts and then find the adequate case.

How often does liquid cooling need maintenance? ›

However, a general rule of thumb is to clean your PC water cooling system at least once a year, or more frequently if you notice any signs of contamination, such as cloudy or discolored water, algae growth, sediment buildup, or reduced performance.

What are the pros and cons of liquid cooling? ›

Liquid-cooled ICEs are more complex, heavier, and more expensive than air-cooled ICEs, and they require more maintenance and care. However, they also have some benefits, such as higher thermal efficiency, lower noise levels, and more consistent performance regardless of the external conditions.

Do liquid coolers need to be refilled? ›

AIO (All In One) liquid cooling solutions, also called Closed-Loop liquid coolers, are sealed coolers. Meaning they don't require any maintenance at all since they can't be refilled in the first place. But because water can evaporate through the tubing, some AIO coolers are built to be user-refillable.

Is liquid cooling better in hot weather? ›

Even if the environment is warm, the need is to direct the heat generated inside the computer outside. Therefore, water cooling is more suitable for warm environments than air cooling, due to its excellent heat storage capacity. In general, water cooling will be more efficient than air cooling.

Why air cooling is better than liquid? ›

And liquid cooling limits thermal throttling of the CPU due to heat spikes associated with air cooling. Air cooling, which entails heat sinks and fans, is best for those on very limited budgets. Air cooling is less expensive and therefore has a higher performance per $ (the amount of cooling you get for every $ spent).

Does liquid cooling last? ›

Usually just 1 – 3 years without any sort of maintenance. Of course, if properly taken care of, meaning cleaned and flushed on a regular basis, even a custom setup can go toe to toe with an AIO and beyond.

How many fans do you need with a liquid cooler? ›

In a standard desktop PC, you want at least one intake and one exhaust fan. Some cheaper cases only include a single intake fan on the front of the PC, or a single exhaust fan at the rear. Spend a couple bucks for another fan so you have both.

Do I need more fans if I have an AIO? ›

The AIO liquid CPU cooler alone can't cool down the entire PC. The PC itself must be equipped with other fan products to achieve an effective cooling effect. A quick tip, if you really forget which side is air intake and which side is the exhaust, try pushing the blades hard to feel the wind flow.

Where is the best place to put the AIO? ›

One good mounting position is to mount the radiator of the cooler at the frontal area of the case interior. The side of the radiator where the tubes connect should be at the bottom, and the pump should be mounted in a position where it is slightly lower than the top of the radiator, where air is captured.

Is liquid cooling hard to maintain? ›

Water cooling systems can offer many benefits over air cooling, such as lower noise, better performance, and more aesthetic options. However, they also require more maintenance and care than air cooling systems, as they can accumulate dust, debris, algae, and bacteria over time.

What to look for when buying a liquid cooler? ›

Besides the price, radiator size is the most important factor you need to consider when purchasing an AIO liquid cooler. The radiator's length should give a rough idea of the AIO's cooling performance. The bigger the radiator, the more air it can push through, allowing it to dissipate heat quickly.

How long does liquid cooling last? ›

Or do you have a custom liquid cooling setup? Generally, a well-made AIO water cooler can last you about 3 – 6 years. Whereas with custom solutions, they usually don't last as long. Usually just 1 – 3 years without any sort of maintenance.

What is the best liquid for liquid cooling? ›

Water, deionized water, glycol/water solutions, and dielectric fluids such as fluorocarbons and PAO are the heat transfer fluids most commonly used in high performance liquid cooling applications.

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