One of the most important decisions you can make when planning out your gaming PC build is how to keep all the components in your case cool. Proper cooling increases the lifespan of your parts and can give you extra performance in certain situations. Virtually all cooling solutions for gaming PCs involve moving air to dissipate heat either from a radiator or directly from the components themselves.
This focus of this guide will stick to dedicated CPU coolers and the static pressure fans you'll need to keep your CPU running cool and quiet (if noise is a concern). Undoubtedly you have seen pictures of elaborate water-cooled gaming PCs at trade shows, on Youtube, or other social media. The time and effort that goes into those types of builds is immense and will fall out of the scope of this guide. If you are interested in going down that path, the first place you need to visit are the folks at EKWB.
Selecting the Best CPU Cooler For Your Gaming PC
Which Type of CPU Cooler Should I Choose for My Gaming PC Build?
This is a question as old as time (or as old as the late 2000s when All-In-One (AIO) liquid cooling solutions became widely available). Should you cool your CPU with air or liquid? The answer can depend on several factors.
Most CPUs you buy come with a basic CPU heatsink and fan combination. These combo units are generally adequate at doing the bare minimum required to keep your CPU within safe operating specifications. Some newer stock coolers, like AMD’s Wraith Spire, are really nice solutions, and can be counted on to perform as well as many budget-oriented aftermarket cooling solutions. For Intel’s K-series CPUs like the 8600K and 8700K, no cooler is provided in the retail box and aftermarket cooling is required.
Air coolers have been around forever and modern designs are capable of excellent heat dissipation. The strongest reasons for choosing to use a heatsink/fan CPU cooler are cost, reliability, and compatibility. Basic CPU heatsink coolers can be purchased online for as little as $5 (though we don’t recommend using such units) and are generally more cost effective than their AIO watercooler counterparts. Heatsink coolers are incredibly simple, which makes them incredibly reliable, as the only points of failure are the thermal paste/tape/gel and the fan itself. If the fan on your heatsink cooler was to fail, you would only need to replace the fan to get back up and running. Heatsink coolers also fit into most PC cases with no issue, though the incredibly large enthusiast tower heatsinks may have clearance issues in smaller cases or with cramped motherboard layouts. When using large heatsink coolers, extra care must be taken to ensure that clearance for things like memory sticks is available.
All-In-One liquid coolers have gained popularity with PC gamers in recent years. For a long time, liquid cooling components in a PC required lots of money, effort, and custom-made parts. AIO coolers simplify the process by offering a closed-loop cooling solution in an easy to install and affordable package. While they are not capable of the extreme levels of performance found in custom solutions, they are an attractive option for PC gamers for several reasons.
AIO coolers can dissipate heat more efficiently than all but the very best heatsink coolers and often do so while being quieter. These units typically consist of a pump situated above a copper plate that is affixed directly to the heat spreader on a CPU. This pump will circulate water (or similar liquid solution) through some tubing and into a radiator. As the liquid moves into the fins of the radiator, static pressure fans will force cool air between them, lowering the temperature of the liquid. As the cooled liquid leaves the radiator, it is circulated back into the pump unit to absorb heat from the CPU.
The pump units on the most popular AIO solutions have a very low clearance, allowing them to be mounted inside very small enclosures that would be impossible for high-performance heatsink coolers to fit. The tricky part to fitting AIO coolers into PC cases comes when the radiators must be mounted. There must be enough clearance so that the radiator and the required fans can fit without obstructing other components. Most PC fans are 25mm thick and common radiators are anywhere from 25-35mm thick, so they can only be mounted in spots with more than 50mm of clearance. When a radiator is mounted with the push/pull configuration (where a pair of fans work on either side of the radiator to force more airflow), the clearance requirements can be even higher.
AIO coolers are typically offered in a few different size configurations that are directly tied into common PC fan options. The radiators can come in sizes of 120mm, 140mm, 240mm, 280mm, and 360mm. Usually, the bigger the radiator, the more capable it is of dissipating heat. 240mm AIO coolers are the most popular size on the market currently. While these coolers have unique fitment considerations, their popularity has been accommodated by PC case manufacturers in recent years. Most new cases are built with radiator mounting in mind on the front and/or top panels.
Unlike heatsink coolers, AIO units have more points of failure, specifically the pump unit and tubing. If the pump on your AIO units fails, the entire unit must be replaced, even if the rest of the unit is still in perfect working order. Leaks are always possible when using liquid cooling, but the units from most reputable manufacturers offer very high reliability. Obviously, AIO coolers cannot operate until the end of time like heatsink units (assuming you are always around to replace fans), but you should expect to get at least 5 years of cooling performance from the better options. Most gamers will have upgraded or moved onto a new build in that time span.
Temperature Fluctuations and Fan Behavior
While heatsink coolers can quickly heat up and cool themselves down, AIO coolers are a bit slower to respond. During heavy loads on your CPU, temperatures will reach their peak faster than when using a heatsink cooler. On the flip side, should you Alt-Tab or exit your game or application, air cooled CPUs will drop back to their idle temperatures very quickly. A common trait of heatsink coolers is the whooshing sound you hear when your CPU heats up and the fans ramp themselves up to deal with the heat. As soon as the load on the CPU is no longer required, heatsink fans can quickly cool down the fins on the cooler and you’ll notice the fans speeds will drop just as quickly as they sprung into action. Some folks don’t mind the change in volume or constant fluctuations in their CPU fan speed.
With AIO coolers, the liquid solution inside the unit is much slower to absorb and dissipate heat energy than the air around heatsink fins. The fans attached to an AIO radiator can be set to only spin up as the temperature of the liquid increases. This means that rapid spikes in CPU temperature will not cause your fans to ramp up and down rapidly. The water being moved through the pump may be all that’s needed to deal with short-term fluctuations in CPU heat production. When you put a load on your CPU for an extended period of time or subject it to a long gaming session, the liquid temperature will slowly begin to rise. Because of this, you may not see the real peak temperatures of your CPU until an hour into a heavy load. On the flip side, it will take the liquid an extended amount of time to return to its idle temperature once the CPU load is diminished.
There is no perfect solution for CPU cooling performance, as each of the two common approaches have their pros and cons. The solution that is best for your gaming PC will depend on the factors most important to your build goals. If looks and consistency in volume levels matter the most to you, AIO liquid coolers will likely be the best choice. The same goes for builds in the smallest Mini ITX enclosures. Big tower heatsink coolers are the ticket if reliability and performance are all that matters. Some of the premium offerings on the market offer performance and silence that can match the most popular AIOs, but they come with a matching price. Some newer heatsink designs from companies like Cryorig, be quiet!, and Noctua offer aesthetics that can easily fit in with the wildest themed PC builds and colors.
The Best Air Coolers for Your Gaming PC
When it comes to the best air coolers that money can buy, the Noctua NH-D15 is generally regarded as king of the mountain. It’s big, bad, and can handle the hottest CPUs while barely making a sound. It features a dual tower design that has a pair of Noctua’s own 140mm static pressure fans sandwiched in. This is the cooler to take when you need overclocking headroom and don’t want your PC to sound like a jet taking off. Because of its size, careful consideration must be taken to ensure that it will fit in your case and not block memory slots or bump into your GPU. With those famous turd-colored fans, this thing will never win a beauty contest, so it works best in cases without a side window.
If you want performance similar to the big Noctua, but don’t a big brown behemoth living in your PC, the Cryorig R1 Universal should be your go-to. Like the Noctua, it features a dual tower design with twin 140mm fans, though it comes in a smaller package. The reduced footprint lets the R1 Universal work with many more cases and motherboards. The black fans and white heatsink tower accents make this unit much more visually appealing and let it fit right into a variety of visual aesthetics.
The be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 3 offers similar thermal dissipation to the previously mentioned tower coolers, but chooses to accomplish that goal with a unique fin design and some powerful 120mm fans. It will not be as quiet as the Noctua or the Cryorig, but if your goal is moving heat out of your CPU and into the air, the Dark Rock Pro 3 will get the job done. The company also offers a full line of similar tower coolers priced accordingly with their heat dissipation capabilities.
If you want a highly compatible tower cooler that gets the job done and stays whisper-silent, the Noctua NH-U12S should be on your shortlist. The U12S is a single tower design with one 120mm Noctua fan attached. If you have no plans for serious overclocking with your CPU and are willing to pay extra for silence, this cooler has you covered. It will fit in just about any case and its slim profile ensures that memory slot clearance is never an issue.
For many years, the most popular aftermarket heatsink cooler for gaming PC has been the Coolermaster Hyper 212. It is affordable and it simply gets the job done. While the included fan was never anything special, owners could opt to replace it and make the 212 into a much better solution. Enter the Cryorig H7. It takes the same basic idea as the Hyper 212, and includes an enthusiast-class fan and an easier mounting system for about $5 more. It is the best bang for the buck CPU cooler that money can buy right now. Spending less money does not mean you have to settle for substandard performance or excessive noise.
For some builds, especially in smaller form factor enclosures, using a conventional tower cooler is not an option. It’s possible that you have a pre-built PC in a proprietary case that won’t allow for the height requirements of a tower cooler. In these cases, a low-profile cooler will do the job. The Cryorig C7 uses a 90mm fan to push air downward through a set of heatsink fins, much like OEM stock coolers. The difference here is that the C7 can dissipate more heat and look really good doing it. The black and white color scheme plays nice with all sorts of builds.
The Noctua NH-L9I is a similar design to the C7. It offers comparable performance to the Cryorig unit, though it does cost a bit more. Still, for that extra cash layout, you get a Noctua fan and one of the legendary Noctua accessory offerings. If you are planning a butterscotch pudding-themed build, the color of the fan should fit right in.
The Best AIO Liquid Coolers for Your Gaming PC
NZXT’s Kraken line of AIO liquid coolers are top performers when it comes to cooling your CPU. Like many of the top brands, they are manufactured by Asetek, though built to NZXT’s specifications. Without a doubt, the first thing you’ll notice about these coolers is the infinity mirror attached to the pump unit. AIO coolers always looked fairly dapper inside of a well-planned gaming PC build, but the Kraken liquid coolers are on an entirely different level. The mirror and lights do absolutely nothing to help cool your PC and help to make the Kraken the most expensive option between the mainstream AIO offerings, but they look so good.
If you are serious about the looks of your gaming PC, it would be a good idea to set out a chunk of your budget to acquire one of these coolers. The pump has a USB plug that connects to one of your motherboard’s onboard USB 2.0 headers and allows you to fully customize the lighting experience via NZXT’s CAM software. The CAM software also lets you synchronize the Kraken with RGB light strips and fans that are compatible with NZXT’s Hue+ controller.
You can thank Corsair for the current popularity of AIO water cooling products in the PC gaming market. Several years back, their offerings helped popularize AIOs with gamers and enthusiasts alike. The current generation of Corsair’s AIO liquid coolers are built for Corsair by Asetek. The performance of all other self-contained liquid coolers are judged against the Corsair units. While they are somewhat similar to NZXT’s Kraken products, the Corsair coolers tend to have shorter lengths of tubing. This can help reduce tubing clutter in small form factor builds. While the Corsair units don’t have infinity mirrors, they do have software-controllable RGB lights on the pump and sell for a good bit less than their Kraken counterparts.
EVGA’s new CLC line of AIO liquid coolers have not been on the market long, but have managed to make an impact due to their performance and value. Like the NZXT and Corsair product lines, the EVGA coolers use Asetek pumps and designs. Like the others, EVGA coolers have RGB lights on the pump head that can be controlled via the company’s Precision XOC software. The EVGA CLC line can often be found on sale and offer a great alternative to the big dogs in this product space. Plus, you get the peace of mind that comes from doing business with one of the most respected customer support departments in all of PC hardware.