Air vs Water Cooling CPU – Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

Austin
| Last Updated: June 2, 2021

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Are you having trouble deciding between an air or water cooling CPU?

Relax! You're not alone. Most people find it challenging to decide without some guidance. We have realized that one option is ideal for light PC users who perform simple tasks like word processing, while the other is better for heavy users who perform demanding tasks like gaming. 

Let's dig in and learn more.

TL;DR: Air vs Water Cooling CPU

Air Cooling CPU

Water Cooling CPU

Pros

Pros

 

  • Affordable pricing with high performance to price ratio

  • Requires less maintenance

  • Zero risks of leaking hence no chances of liquid-damaged parts
  • Better cooling potential due to increased surface area for cooling

  • Consumes less space as fans are fewer

  • More aesthetic appeal

Cons

Cons

  •  Not very suitable for warmer climates where air heats up fast

  • Noisier due to the use of multiple fans
  •  Requires more maintenance

  • Water leakages are detrimental when they occur

  • Highly expensive with lower performance to price ratio

Best For

Best For

Best for users who perform light PC tasks such as web browsing, emailing, and word processing. 

Best for users who perform intensive PC tasks such as gaming, rendering videos, and photoshop.

What is an Air Cooling CPU? 

An air cooling CPU relies on air as its cooling or heat management mechanism. An air cooling system comprises two separate components; the fan and the heat sink. 

The heat sink is a sizeable thermal-conductive metal that lies directly on top of the CPU and transfers the produced heat to the large metal fins. Heat sinks are usually made of copper or aluminum. 

The fan helps in dissipating the heat from the case. It plugs into the motherboard and sits to the side of or atop the heat sink to push air cool air through and cool down the fins. 

The one significant advantage of using an air cooling CPU is that air coolers are cost-effective. 

They have a higher performance per dollar, meaning that you get a higher cooling amount for every dollar you spend. 

On the downside, if you are using an air cooling CPU with elaborate or high-end devices for tasks like rendering videos or gaming, you will require more space since air cooler systems take up a lot of real estate in the device.

Air coolers for overclocked or elaborate CPUs are large and bulky. You will need a larger heat sink and more fans. The added weight the cooler brings might bend or warp your device's motherboard with time. 

Photo credit: tech21century.com

What is a Water Cooling CPU? 

A water cooling CPU relies on water for heat management or cooling. Unlike the air cooling CPU that uses air drawn in from the atmosphere, the water cooling CPU relies on sealed liquid water to carry heat away from the CPU to the radiator. 

The water cooling system comprises four major interconnected parts, namely:

  • The radiator

  • The hoses or tubings

  • The pump

  • The fan

The water flows through the system via the tubing with the help of the pump. A fan comes in handy to ensure cool air circulation for cooling down the water in the radiator.

Photo credit: nerdtechy.com

The main advantage of the water cooling CPU is that more heat is dissipated than the air cooler option. Water has better thermal conductivity than air and thus draws more heat from the CPU. More heat spreads out because the radiator's surface area is larger than that of the heat sink. 

Although water cooling CPUs are an excellent option for overclocking or performing more demanding tasks, the most significant risk is water leakage. If the water leaks out of the system, it can quickly destroy the surrounding electric components or the entire motherboard altogether. 

How Does a CPU Cooler Work?

Both air and water CPU coolers operate on the same principle. They both draw heat from the hot CPU and dissipate it away from the hardware. 

The generated heat is distributed to the CPU’s metal lid (the Integrated Heat Spreader - IHS) and then shifted to the CPU cooler’s baseplate. The heat is then to a fan or radiator via a heat pipe or by the water. The fan blows it away from the cooler and PC. 

In the air cooling CPU, the heat transferred to the IHS through the thermal paste into the thermal conductive baseplate flows into the attached heat pipes. The heat pipes conduct it away to the heat sink and into the thin metal fins. 

The fins optimize the surface area for the exposure of the heat to cooler air. The attached fan blows the now-warm air out of the heat sink and eventually out of the PC.

The CPU baseplate setup and the IHS are the same in the water cooling CPU as with the air cooling CPU. In this case, the baseplate's metal surface forms part of the water block filled with the water. 

As the water flows through the water block, it draws heat from the base plate and into the radiator. In the radiator, the water is exposed to cool air blown by the fan, which also blows the heat out of the cooler and eventually the PC. 

The now cool water flows back into the water block, and the cycle begins once again. 

Types of CPU Coolers

There are different kinds of CPU coolers, as discussed below.

All-In-One Liquid Cooling

To ensure a more hassle-free CPU cooling solution for you, an all-in-one (shortened as AIO) liquid cooler comprises the water block, tubes, fittings, pump, radiator, and fans into one sleek package. 

Photo credit: topflightpc.com

AIO coolers use a special liquid as the coolant with little worry about leakages since the cooler comes pre-packed from the manufacturer, and cases of leakages are rare. The liquid is usually a mixture of a thermal-conductive fluid and distilled water.

Also known as closed-loop coolers, AIO liquid coolers are effective, easy to install, and safe to use. The coolant flows through the tubing to a radiator that is mounted on the front, rear, or near the top of the PC case

There are different radiator sizes for AIO coolers, making them usable for a wide range of PC form factors and are thus best suited for large and medium desktops. 

Custom Loop Liquid Cooling

As the name suggests, a custom loop liquid cooling system is one that you build or assemble yourself by sourcing for the different components and connecting them to form a complete cooler.

The working mechanism is the same as with the all-in-one coolers, but you have to be careful enough to ensure there are no coolant leakages as it may ruin the CPU or other device components if it leaks. 

You also have to source for all the constituent parts, including the reservoir, which can be stressful and time-consuming. However, there is no limit to a custom or open-loop system since you have various material and color options. 

Air Cooling

As we have seen earlier, air coolers rely on atmospheric air to cool down the CPU using the heatsink and the fans. Most PCs have air coolers as the stock cooling system, but they are not always reliable, especially if you overclock your CPU.

Water Cooling

Water cooling CPU coolers use water to manage the heat the CPU produces. They are a better option than air coolers since water is more thermally conductive, and the radiator offers a larger surface area for the cooling of the warm water. 

Relevant Characteristics Between Air and Water Cooling CPUs

Air Cooling CPU

Water Cooling CPU

$25-$200

Cost

$60-$360

Little maintenance, including dusting or replacing fans

Maintenance

Require more maintenance, including dusting or replacing fans, refilling or changing the coolant water, and repairing or replacing damaged PC parts if leakage occurs

92mm-140mm (based on fan size)

Size

120mm-420mm (based on radiator size)

70-85°C under load

Temperature

60-80°C under load

Medium to High

Noise

Low

Similarities and Differences

Now that we have a fundamental understanding of what air cooling and water cooling CPUs are and how they function, let's discuss the differences and similarities between the two models. 

Air and Water Cooling CPU Differences 

Air cooling and water cooling CPU systems differ in some aspects, as discussed below.

Size

The fan’s size shows the size of the air cooling system for a CPU. Fan sizes in this case range between 92mm and 140mm. 

It is worth noting that the air cooling system’s size is flexible, and it may involve using multiple fans of different sizes depending on what tasks you use the PC for or if you have overclocked it. 

Photo credit: gamersnexus.net

The size of the water cooling mechanisms for CPUs is determined by the radiator’s size, ranging between 120mm and 360mm for the low to medium options and up to 420mm for the high-end models. 

Maintenance

Air cooling CPUs are easier to maintain since you only have to dust the fan blades or replace worn-out fans. 

Maintaining water cooling CPUs is trickier and more demanding. Besides dusting the fan blades or replacing faulty fans, you have to repair or replace the CPU or other damaged PC parts if the water happens to leak. 

You also have to refill or change the water every six to 12 months because it usually evaporates through the tubes. 

Cost

Air cooling systems cost less. High-end air CPU coolers cost up to $200, while low-end models cost as low as $25. 

On the other hand, water cooling CPU systems are more expensive and cost between $60 for the low-end models and up to $360 for the high-power PCs. 

The water cooling CPU system’s cost can spike to the roof, especially for the open or custom loop option where you have to source each piece separately, including the reservoir. 

The temperature and noise levels for both air coolers and water cooling systems differ. Under intense loads, air-cooled CPU temperatures range between 70 and 80°C, while water-cooled CPU temps fall between 60 and 80°C under load. 

Water cooling CPU systems are less noisy compared to their air cooling counterparts since they use fewer fans.

Custom loop water cooling system (Photo credit: instructables.com

An air cooling system comprises both intake and exhaust fans, all of which can be noisy, especially when the CPU is excessively heated up. 

Air and Water Cooling CPU Similarities

Despite the above differences, air and water cooling CPUs share some similarities, as outlined below. 

Operating Mechanism

The operating mechanism for both air and water cooling systems for CPUs is the same. They both rely on heat transfer through convection to cool down the CPU since both water and air are fluids. 

Both water and air cooling systems manage the CPU's heat output by drawing the heat away from it and redistributing it to other parts like the fans, which then blow it out of the PC.

Reliance on Other Internal and External Factors

On their own, both water and air CPU cooling systems may not adequately manage the CPU’s heat output. Both are affected by many internal and external factors, like the temperature of the surrounding components and the atmosphere. 

Photo credit: pcmag.com

PCs used in hot areas will perform better if they use water cooling rather than air cooling systems. In such warm climates or conditions, the air cooling system fans only absorb air with almost the same temperature as that within the PC. 

Customizability

You can customize both water and air CPU coolers. However, water coolers are more customizable, especially in the open or custom loop model, because there are various materials and colors for the components. Varying colors add pomp and aesthetics to the custom model. 

With the air cooler system, users can customize it for more productivity by changing the size or number of fans.

Note here that you should first check to ascertain that your device will accommodate the fan changes. If it can allow for a fan with a higher capacity of revolutions per minute, go for it. 

Advantages of an Air Cooling CPU

Air cooling CPUs have several advantages that you can count on if you opt to use them. Such advantages include the following:

Photo credit: pcguide.com

Lower Costs

An air cooling CPU will cost you just a few dollars for a low-end model. A high-power model for an overclocked CPU will cost you about $200, which is still considerably affordable. 

The lower cost of air cooling CPUs is attributable to their simplicity since they usually comprise two main parts - the heatsink and the fan. 

Since they have a lower cost, air cooling CPUs have a higher performance to price ratio in that you get more cooling for every dollar you spend. (It's worth noting that water cooling CPUs generally achieve the same or slightly better cooling results, but at a higher cost.)

Ease of Installation

Whether you are installing yourself or enlisting a computer shop’s services, installing an air cooling CPU is easy, and this saves you time. The whole system consists of just a few parts, with only one or two cables that plug in. 

It is also easy to maintain or replace the fan if it fails. You just have to use four screws to attach the fan. 

Water-cooling loop leakage (Photo credit: bit-tech.net)

Compared to the water cooling CPU and especially the custom loop model that is easy to build and install for beginners, air cooling CPUs are super easy to install. They offer a plug-and-use installation process.

Zero Leakages

Since air cooling CPUs use no water or other liquid as a coolant, there are no risks of leakages. To your advantage, as long as the system is functioning well, you won't incur extra costs of repairing or replacing damaged parts like the CPU or other PC components. 

Some of the other advantages of using air cooling CPUs include:

  • Suitability for use in small custom desktops and computers

  • Availability of aftermarket air coolers that you can use to replace the less effective stock coolers

On the whole, an air cooling CPU will be the best pick for you if you are on a limited budget and don't want to incur regular maintenance or repair costs. It will also come in handy if you are a beginner in the computer world and don't want to struggle with complex installations. 

Advantages of a Water Cooling CPU 

The advantages of a water cooling CPU are more compared to those of an air cooling CPU. Let's consider some of these significant advantages below.

Better Efficiency

Water cooling CPUs are much more efficient than air cooling CPUs. Because of its high heat capacity and thermal conductivity, water transfers heat more effectively. 

Water cooling thus allows your computer to operate constantly at cool temperatures all the time, unlike the air cooling model, whose fan only kicks into gear when the device overheats. 

Water Cooling Improves CPU Overclocking Potential

If you opt for the water cooling CPU model, you can enjoy better CPU overclocking without crashing your computer or damaging its hardware through overheating. 

Overclocking as a process means setting your CPU to operate at a higher frequency, thus speeding up the processor and other components. As such, you will enjoy faster execution speeds when performing intensive CPU-dependent tasks like gaming and rendering videos. 

Water Cooling Systems Take Up Less Space

Photo credit: brainwavepc.com

When you consider the large sizes and bulkiness of traditional air cooling systems, water cooling systems take the trophy because they consume less space. 

For high-powered PCs, you will need more fans to customize the cooling system. Water coolers take up less space because only one or two small fans are used, and the interconnected tubes are thin. 

Other key advantages of water cooling CPUs include:

  • Suitability for warmer climates since the water cooler system relies only to a small extent on air circulation

  • Water cooling systems for CPUs are less noisy due to the use of fewer fans

At large, a water cooling CPU will be the best for you if you live in a warmer climate where the air heats up faster, and ambient temperatures remain high.

If you are a Do-it-Yourself (DIY) enthusiast, you choose the custom or open-loop water cooling model as it will allow you to customize your cooler to your liking on color and material. The customization will allow for a more aesthetically appealing cooler. 

Bottom Line

Whether you are a beginner or an expert in the computing world, you have to ensure that your devices operate optimally and manage heating issues using the proper CPU cooling systems. The CPU is the computer's brain, and all functionalities will halt if it heats up excessively.

The decision to use either the water or air cooling system for your CPU depends on your personal preference and your system's needs.  

Photo credit: computerlounge.co.nz

You can go for air cooling models if you prefer to keep things simple or the water cooling option if you have a bigger budget. 

Intensive CPU-dependent tasks like rendering videos, editing photos, streaming, and gaming will require a water cooling CPU. If your daily computing tasks only involve web browsing, emails, and word processing, then an air cooling CPU will serve you just right. 

People Also Ask

If you are a beginner, you may find the whole CPU cooling issue an entanglement of sorts. The key thing to understand here is that CPU cooling relies on the basic thermodynamic principle of convection, which is possible with fluids like water and air. 

To further enhance your understanding of water cooling CPUs, let's look at some common questions on the topic from both beginners and experts.

Is Water Cooling Hard to Maintain?

Water cooling is not hard to maintain, although compared to air cooling, it becomes more challenging if you don't know how to do it right. 

Proper maintenance is essential for water cooling. It includes refilling water, dusting fan blades, and replacing any damaged components when the water leaks. 

Do You Have to Refill the Liquid Cooling PC?

For all-in-one or closed-loop liquid cooling solutions, no refilling is required since the system is fully sealed. 

Photo credit: pcworld.com

How Often Should You Change a Liquid Cooling PC?

It is advisable to change the coolant liquid every six to 12 months to prevent organisms or corrosion buildup, depending on the liquid you are using. The liquid cooling system can last as long as your PC lasts if you maintain your device correctly. 

With good maintenance, you don't have to change your liquid cooling PC for several years as long as your needs remain the same and the device serves you right. 

What Liquid is Used In Liquid Cooling?

You can use the following liquid coolants depending on your needs:

  • Distilled water for copper-based components and due to its high thermal conductivity and heat capacity

  • Deionized water for stainless steel components and due to its excellent insulation capacity

  • Inhibited glycol and water solutions for copper-based components

  • Dielectric fluids like polyalphaolefin (PAO) for aluminum-based components

Can You Cool a PC With Liquid Nitrogen?

You can use liquid nitrogen to cool down a PC. Liquid Nitrogen can reach low temperatures of -320°F and is thus a good option for your cooling needs. The liquid is poured into a metal pot or similar container put on top of the CPU. 

The idea is to freeze the pot and have it keep the CPU below it cool even if the liquid nitrogen evaporates. However, this is a risky process, and most experts consider it extreme.

Austin

When the tech company I worked for restructured and I ended up jobless, I decided to put the wealth of knowledge and management skills to use somewhere new. I’d checked out a few buyer’s guides on the site in the past and reached out to the previous owner. A few months later, here we are. Now, I get to be behind the scenes, helping people find the best tech.