Liquid Cooling vs. Air Cooling: Keep Cool and Carry On

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Liquid Cooling vs. Air Cooling: Keep Cool and Carry On

Have you ever had your computer (or other device) shut itself down as a precaution due to overheating? I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one to have pushed their rig a bit too far in the thick of summer. Sometimes stock air coolers are good enough — but sometimes they aren’t.

If you’re looking to invest in a better cooler for your setup, where do you start?

Perhaps you’ve heard that you can cool your rig with both air and liquid. Yes, that’s absolutely true. But don’t go dumping water on your PC, expecting that to help (HGG cannot be held liable). Instead, let’s take a step back to talk about thermal management and the specifics of both air and liquid cooling. 

A Day at the Beach

When we talk about the thermals of your rig, we’re talking about the heat generated by key components and the ways that heat is dissipated. One of the fundamental principles of silicon transistors is that they produce heat as a byproduct of regular use. And that heat has to go somewhere. If it doesn’t, you end up melting costly pieces of equipment. Hardly an ideal situation. If you’ve ever had a device throw a critical heat warning and shut itself down, it was trying to admit defeat before something happened that couldn’t be taken back.  

There are two main types of cooling available to computer builders these days: liquid cooling and air cooling. To illustrate the point, let’s take a trip to the beach. Take a moment to don your board shorts, apply some sunscreen, and spread your sprawling beach towel out on the sand. In this example, you’ll be our CPU. As you lay there foolishly foregoing any sort of shade, the sun beats down and imparts heat to your body. That heat has to go somewhere. 

Air Cooling vs. Liquid Cooling Example

Then the onshore flow kicks in and sends a breeze rushing up the beach. I know — we’re sort of walking the line between air cooling and liquid cooling — but hear me out. As the breeze passes over you, you feel immediately cooler. The relatively lower temperature of the air passing over you absorbed some of the heat the sun imparted to you. As the breeze continues, you gradually cool to a tolerable level. 

But let’s say you aren’t cooling fast enough. The sun is relentless and wants to play Half-Life: Alyx on max settings. The breeze becomes clogged with lint, dust, and pet dander. Whatever the reason, you find that air cooling isn’t cutting it. So you scramble to your feet and rush to the water’s edge. Diving in, you find the water shockingly cold and refreshing. As your head breaks the surface again you take a deep sigh of relief. Now you’re nice and cool. Time to get your game on. Just watch out for stingrays (I guess they are computer viruses in this example). But I digress…

The breeze, of course, represents air cooling, while swimming in the ocean represents liquid cooling. Some key differences should make themselves apparent even from that analogy. But let’s codify them for clarity’s sake. 

Elemental Air and Water

Air cooling is cheap and near-ubiquitous. Even something as simple as opening up your computer case is technically imparting air cooling to your rig. But will it be sufficient enough for marathon gaming sessions? Not likely. 

Cooling and Air 2

That’s why we have case fans and component fans. Case fans get mounted to strategic locations around your computer case, moving in fresh air from outside or flushing heated air back out. Component fans, like those located on CPU heat sinks and graphics cards, function in like fashion. They take the heat soaked up by the metal lid of the CPU or GPU, perhaps also transferred to some conductive metal heatsink mounted to the processor, and flush it into the case. Hopefully, to be whisked away by a case fan pointed outward. Ever wonder why your rig makes such an effective footwarmer in the dead of winter? 

But sometimes, air simply isn’t conductive enough. The amount of heat generated outpaces the ability of the fans to keep things cool by circulating the air supply. What’s the next step? Liquid cooling. 

Having liquid in your computer isn’t as scary as it sounds. Of course, there’s always the potential for a leak. But nowadays the coolants used in liquid cooling systems are often low conductivity — for electricity, that is. As illustrated by our beach example, there’s nothing quite as thermally conductive as liquid, which means more heat will be dissipated more quickly by a liquid cooling system. They also tend to be lower profile than an air-cooling system — so they cool more and take up less space doing it. Score. 

To sum up: Air cooling is cheaper and takes up more space. Liquid cooling can be more complex but cools more with a smaller footprint. 

O2 or H2O? Air vs. Liquid PC Cooling

So when should you choose one form of cooling over the other? 

Water Cooling
Water Cooling Setup

How do you feel about the word “overclocking?” Are you a master of pushing your computer to its limits — and beyond? Always playing the latest and greatest at the highest settings possible? For the techies who love to tweak their rigs and demand the most from them, liquid cooling is going to be the right choice. All those extra gigahertz you’re squeezing out of your processors are turning straight into degrees Celsius. Surely you don’t want to turn your new i9 processor into slag? 

For mid-range gamers and less intensive users, air cooling may be the way to go. It’s cheaper, you may have the spare space in your rig, and you’re not likely to be tasking your computer with anything that might push it into dangerous thermal ranges. Just be sure to apply the right amount of thermal paste and keep your fans clear of dust and debris with compressed air. With fans, the more the merrier. If you have a few free spots around your case, maybe consider mounting some additional case fans to keep things humming and pleasantly cool. 

Cooling Fans
Air Cooling Setup / Image Credit: Michael Saechang & CC BY-ND 2.0

Of course, regardless of what camp you fall into, you’re welcomed and encouraged to experiment. See how that stock CPU cooler works under load before springing for the water-cooling system. Even if you’re doing fine with fans, consider picking up a small water-cooling system and see how it affects your temperatures. As with all things in the DIY computer realm, the real fun is in exploration.

Keep it cool this summer, and game on!  

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