Liquid-cooling versus air-cooling for your gaming PC

XSPC watercooling feature

Many PC gamers build their own gaming rigs, as it is usually cheaper to purchase individual components and install them yourself.

For this reason, we are often faced with a decision to make – should we use air-cooling or liquid-cooling to keep our processors cool?

We have compared performance data of various air and liquid-cooling products to make that decision easier.

Although gamers can also choose to use liquid-cooling on their GPUs, we will only be comparing performance of CPU coolers.


Liquid-Cooling

Liquid-cooling involves the use of liquid to dissipate heat from and cool electronics.

PC liquid-cooling setups generally consists of some combination of a cooling block, radiator, pump and reservoir.

A liquid-cooling loop allows for quieter operation and supposedly better temperatures.

However, liquid-cooling is usually more expensive than air-cooling, and with some setups, the extra cost may not be justified.

XSPC Watercooling


Air-Cooling

Air-cooling is the most common form of PC cooling, as it is the default CPU and GPU cooling option, with most cases being set up to provide a constant and directional airflow.

Although most processors come equipped with a stock air cooler (consisting of a heatsink and fan), this can be replaced with a more powerful aftermarket product in order to greatly improve temperatures.

Because surface area plays a central role in heat dissipation, these aftermarket coolers are generally quite large and can be outfitted with different fans depending on the user’s needs.

Air-cooling is traditionally the cheaper option, as it is cheaper to buy a heatsink and fan as opposed to an all-in-one liquid-cooling loop.

Intel's most powerful reference cooler - TS15A


Comparison

Although liquid-cooling is more expensive and offers quieter, cooler performance than air-cooling, is the performance difference big enough to justify its expense?

To find out, we collated various noise and cooling tests performed on a variety of coolers which directly measure the difference in performance between air and liquid-cooling.

Check out an eight-cooler performance comparison below, courtesy of Reddit user Pianowned:

4.2GHz OC Processor @ Full Fan Speed
CPU Cooler
Temperature (Celcius)
Noise Level (dB)
Liquid-cooling
Cooler Master Glacer 240L 44.5 56
Corsair H105 45.25 58
Cooler Master Eisberg Prestige 240L 47.25 47
Corsair H75 54.5 41
Thermaltake Water 2.0 Performer 55.5 41
Cooler Master Seidon 120V Plus 55.75 43
Air-cooling
Thermalright Silver Arrow IB-E 52.25 38
Cooler Master Hyper 612 V2 56.25 37

Cooling comparison


Results

According to the above data, although air-cooling is less effective at reducing temperature, it maintains a lower noise level under heavy load than most liquid-cooling loops.

Obviously, coolers of either variety will be more effective at cooling or reducing noise depending on design.

For now, if you are building a gaming PC and are not partial to any particular form of cooling, feel free to use either liquid-cooling or air-cooling depending on  your budget and needs, as neither offers a distinctly large advantage over the other.


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