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How to choose the right cooling system for your computer – 2020 edition

If you are planning a monster build, you’ll need something to keep everything cool.

pc watercooling build
Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

When you start putting together a list of parts for an upcoming computer build, it’s easy to overlook cooling. That’s a shame because it is an important factor to consider if you want to overclock your CPU, or if you are planning to buy a CPU that’s known to run hot.

If you know what you’re looking for, it’s just a matter of checking independent review sites and making a choice between the best performance per dollar coolers that have your necessary specifications.

But… what if you don’t know where to start? CPU coolers can come in all kinds of sizes and shapes, and the number of CPU sockets that they can go on is even more numerous. Do you want RGB lighting? Do you prefer quietness or do you want the absolute best cooling you can get your hands on, even if it’s louder?

Things to know before we start:

  • Most Ryzen CPUs already come with adequate cooling: If you’re building a Ryzen system, the cooler that it comes with will be plenty for stock speeds, or some overclocking. You can still buy aftermarket cooling if you want, for a bit of extra thermal headroom, but see if the stock cooler is enough for your needs first.
  • Check your RAM height and other clearances: Big air coolers and some AIO water loops can intrude into the space used by your RAM or some VRM heatsinks on some motherboards. They’re not really supposed to, as both CPU makers specify a “no use zone” to keep other components away, but sometimes they do. Check dimensions and advertised clearances before buying. PCPartPicker is good for flagging any potential issues.
  • More fans = more cooling but also more noise: Think about when you use your car’s A/C. Low fan speed you can barely hear, right? Now, what happens when you turn it up to full? Yeah, that’s the same thing that happens in your PC when you add more fans (for the most part). You can mitigate this somewhat by using larger fans that move more air at lower speeds or buying fans specifically marketed as quieter.
  • Make sure RGB can be turned off: Unless you love being bathed in the glow of a thousand unicorn-colored suns, make sure that there is a way to turn off the RGB lighting of your cooling. Otherwise, you run the risk of finding out that some of your hardware is set to cycle colors that don’t match the rest of your build, and that’s never a good thing. Of course, if you’re using a case without a window, who cares if you can turn the lighting off.

Check your budget

This is probably the most important decision to make when choosing a new CPU cooler. Things like size and other specs are largely dictated by the CPU, PC case, and motherboard you’ve chosen, so the list of potential coolers is already narrowed down for you.

Building an entry-level build for someone? You can probably save some cash by using the included cooler with most Ryzen CPUs. Even if you don’t get a cooler with some Intel chips anymore, you can grab the capable Cooler Master Hyper 212 for around $40, and not worry about cooling. The most expensive air coolers are around $100 and will get you comparable temperatures to all-in-one (AIO) coolers that could be more expensive.

AIO liquid coolers start at around $60 and could go to nearly $300 depending on the model. Generally speaking, larger radiators are more expensive, as are extras such as RGB lighting.

Custom water cooling will drain your wallet, at the same time as you are filling your PC with water. Between blocks for your CPU and GPU, fittings, tubing, pumps, radiators, and reservoirs, you’ll be looking at a substantially larger cost than any AIO. That’s before you consider the extra tools you might need to buy.

Check your clearances

motherboard cpu socket

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

No, we don’t mean sales here, we mean physical dimensions. See all those things close to the CPU socket above? Every one of those components could potentially get in the way of you using the cooler you want.

Even the CPU socket could be an issue, but that’s less of consideration nowadays as most coolers are compatible with a wide range of socket types. That’s true for mainstream parts, but if you’re building a HEDT system with either Intel’s X-Core or AMD’s Threadripper, you’ll need to take care to get a cooler that will both fit your massive chip, and also have a chance of cooling the additional heat output.

You also want to check the specifications for the computer case you want to build in. Chassis manufacturers should list the maximum cooler height allowed, and cooler manufacturers will list the height of their coolers. Make sure the cooler is under the max for the case, and you’re golden. Spare a thought for your RAM compatibility as well. Some larger coolers will mention if they have an offset so larger RAM sticks can be used.

cpu cooler

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

Water cooling means you don’t really have to worry about clearance for the cooler, but you do need to pay attention to the radiator compatibility of your case. Usually, case manufacturers will list the max radiator sizes for each position they can be mounted, so check for those specs.

The last thing with water cooling is to make sure that you think about clearance if you are mounting the radiator on the top of your case. The height of the radiator plus the thickness of the fans can sometimes interfere with the top of the motherboard, the 8-pin CPU power connector, and/or the RAM sockets. Even if there’s enough room to squeeze the radiator in, you’ll probably want to plug all the power connectors in before you install your radiator and fans.

Air or water?

cpu air cooler from noctua and water cooler from nzxt

Image: KnowTechie

Ah, the perennial argument, which is better, air cooling or water cooling. Which end of this argument you come down on is one part personal preference, one part performance considerations, one part maintenance concerns, and one part cost.

Air cooling generally has a lower cooling potential than water cooling but has a few outliers such as Noctua’s superb NH-D15 which can cool any consumer chip with silent fans. It’s a hundred bucks though, so it’s a few times more expensive than most air coolers. It also has some clearance issues with combinations of other hardware.

Air cooling is also pretty maintenance-free, only really needing some compressed air to blow off any dust every few months. Pay attention to reviews of air coolers for mention of mounting issues. They can be heavy, and some mounting systems are tricky to use.

Water cooling using AIO coolers gives more cooling potential than most air coolers, but it also comes with a higher price tag. This NXZT Z73 360mm cooler is a whopping $260, but you do get some cool RGB with that, and an OLED readout on the CPU block that can show the temperature, or GIFs.

There are fewer issues with clearance around the socket, which is nice. There is some potential for component-damaging leaks though, so check user reviews for those that mention failure due to leaks.

We’ll cover custom watercooling systems in a later series, as they’re designed for enthusiasts and need a bit more explanation.

Some final thoughts on cooling

Like every other component of your computer, cooling considerations are a balance of cost, use case, and other parts. The aim is to make a harmonious whole, not a supercar powered by a lawnmower engine.

If you aren’t planning on overclocking, either because you bought a non-K Intel chip or a Ryzen chip you plan running at stock, all you need to do is match the TDP of the cooler you want with the TDP of your CPU. Just make sure you check for space considerations, as high-profile RAM sticks, in particular, can make some coolers unusable.

What do you think? Plan on using water cooling in your next PC build? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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