Water Cooling vs. Air Cooling solutions have been at odds during the past decade due to more support for water cooled solutions in the consumer market. AIOs (All In Ones) for CPU and GPUs have expanded support and revealed performance results similar to the best air coolers on the consumer market. This is not to be confused with custom water cooling, which has also seen a surge of enthusiasts but is a prominent minority when it comes to reliability for consumers looking for low-maintenance, effective cooling solutions.
On paper, air and water cooling perform similarly and change depending on the case environment. Both modes of cooling rely heavily on air movement for their results. AIOs are more complex than heatsinks and become prone to failure as the products life continues.
This article reviews the types of AIOs and air coolers and the benefits and drawbacks.
Why Are Different Coolers Essential for Gaming PCs
Air and Water coolers apply a lot of stability to a system's airflow. Coolers dictate how air cools necessary components and fits the dimensions of the case. Each option has a given headroom and clearance depending on the air cooler or water cooler.
Hot Pockets & What Good Cases and Fans do to Avoid Them
Depending on how big and hot your components get, most PC cases have pockets where hot, stagnant air can accumulate if there is minimal to no airflow in the area.This behavior is greatly minimized or exaggerated and can affect performance and hardware longevity relying on fan orientation and position.
Both large and small cases can exhibit hot pockets if not adequately cooled. Common spots for heat to accumulate and stagnate are under the GPU and the space directly over the CPU.
Case Fans provide the proper airflow needed for an AIO or Heatsink solution. Depending on the type of fan, the efficiency of air cycling differs from case to case.
Popular Options for Cooling Systems for Gaming PCs
Air Cooling and Heatsinks
Heatsinks are reliable in their operation due to their simple design. Another name for this cooling solution is "tower cooling" (due to the massive aluminum tower) and transfers heat through copper pipes away from the CPU. The heat in the pipes goes to aluminum fins that radiate heat for a fan to exhaust the system. Simple, efficient, and reliable.
Some drawbacks include the dust accumulated in the fins that can hamper the heat dissipation effect. A case containing dust filters on every primary airflow intake significantly reduces this effect as does regular cleaning of these filters.
AIO (All In One) Water Cooling
This past decade saw a rapid increase in AIO production from brands like Corsair, CoolerMaster, and ARTIC to produce the most impressive cooling solutions. The heat from the component gets transferred to a "soft plate" on the AIO to transfer to the water inside. This water then goes through the radiator, cooling it and recirculating back to the component.
AIOs are still popular choices for some of the most demanding CPUs and GPUs in recent years. With expanded options to increase the radiator surface area, case and AIO manufacturers continue to push the boundaries of conventional AIO design in their cases, ensuring that components stay cool under load.
What to Consider When Choosing a Cooler
A Decent AIO and a Decent Air Cooler will cost roughly the same depending on the brand.
Prices from popular brands like Noctua or Be Quiet! range from $75 to $100 depending on the tower cooler. This is on par with most AIO cooling solutions like Cooler Master with their 240MM AIO Liquid cooler for $78 to other larger, decent build quality AIOs like the ARCTIC Liquid Freezer II 360 at $185.
Depending on your budget, an air cooler might be suitable for you. If you can spare the money and are putting in a high core count CPU like a 5900x or 5950x, then an AIO might be what you need to keep a constant temperature.
While overclock treatment relies heavily on certain conditions like airflow, coolers are the heart and soul of giving the CPU or GPU enough temperature clearance to operate at that capacity. Aftermarket air coolers like the Be Quiet! Dark Castle 4 can handle the heat associated with CPU overclocks.
I would avoid putting an overclock on a stock Intel or AMD cooler due to the design not being able to handle the temperatures of the CPU in an overclocked state.
PC cases can offer a range of support for different types of aftermarket coolers. Before finalizing an upgrade or complete build, knowing what cases can and cannot fit coolers is essential.
Cases like the Lian Li O11 Dynamic for water cooling and radiator support are preferred, and the design reflects that. Some air cooler dimensions like the Cooler Master Hyper 212 cannot fit inside the case due to its dimensions and must use options like AIOs. Air coolers can operate inside this case; however, a radiator at the top or side would be the most optimal.
While more of a personality note, air coolers and AIOs come in black or white, depending on the brand and availability. They can bring a PC together if you are looking for a specific style and would like to display it proudly. There are also other options for colors like AIO sleeves for purchase that can work well with a water cooling solution.
Sound & Temperature Regulations
Depending on the fan configuration and curve, most sounds will dispersed inside the case. A cooler that dispenses enough heat will not have fans running at a higher RPM and an increased noise level. Gamers Nexus does a great job of tracking the noise to performance ratio of air and liquid cooling solutions in the chart below from their best coolers of 2021 round-up.
Source: Gamers Nexus
What Kind of Cooler is the Best?
There is no better cooler between air and AIO cooled systems on a surface level. Depending on how much the cooling solution is, better results are typical from high-end AIOs that keep components cooler for longer. However, the starting price for an AIO is around $80, and there are multiple air coolers under that amount that can compete with low to mid-tier AIOs. No matter your budget, you can still facilitate a decent cooling solution.
At Apex, we offer all AIO cooling solutions for most of our builds. We ensure that both Intel and AMD CPUs keep cooler temperatures and can game longer through any overclocking. Feel free to check our custom gaming PCs line for all customization settings. We hope to fulfill your cooling needs at Apex!
Written by William Wilson