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PC Hardware Buyer’s Guide: Air or Water Cooling – Which Is Superior?

PC building involves a lot of decision making, and one of the most important choices you’ll have to make is choosing how to cool your processor. While stock coolers are generally good enough for most consumers, opting for a more robust cooling solution is worth the investment to prolong the lifespan of the CPU.

But the question is, should you go for a more traditional air cooler, or invest in a more expensive water cooling system for your CPU? We will compare the two in several key areas, including cost, performance, aesthetics, and of course, reliability.

Do note that we will be talking exclusively about closed-loop water cooling systems in this article, which doesn’t require extra maintenance like costlier custom-made ones.

Cost

In this regard, air coolers are without a doubt much cheaper than water cooling systems. This, in turn, give air coolers better value for money across the board. Whether you’re looking at an entry-level or a high-end air cooler, they will be more affordable than their water cooling counterparts.

But just because you’ll be paying less for air coolers doesn’t mean they’re inferior when it comes to cooling performance, and that brings us to the next point.

Performance

If you’re on a tighter budget, air coolers will definitely provide better cooling performance. This ties back to cost: a good, high-end air cooler like the Noctua NH-D15 will set you back RM459, but for about the same amount of money, you can only get an entry-level to mid-range water cooler like the NZXT Kraken X42.

But what if budget isn’t an issue to you? Well, just look at the video comparison by Linus Tech Tips below.

Evidently, there is very little difference in cooling performance between air and water coolers. In fact, air coolers are actually superior in Linus’ tests above. However, performance is only one part of the equation – there are other key factors to consider too.

Aesthetics

This is subjective, but generally, one of the main appeals of water cooling systems are their minimalist designs. The water block is the only part that is connected to the CPU, and the rest of the cooling system – the radiator and fan – is usually out of view. In fact, NZXT Kraken water coolers have very sleek-looking water blocks, which is further complemented with RGB lighting.

Air coolers, on the other hand, are usually very large, and they are very noticeable on a motherboard. This may not look very appealing to some folks, but as mentioned, this is a subjective matter.

Reliability

Closed-loop water cooling systems have come a long way, and they’re pretty reliable these days. That being said, there is always the risk of the cooling system leaking, which…well, will be disastrous to your PC hardware. Again, it’s unlikely it will happen, but it can happen, and some may not be willing to take the risk.

As for air coolers, the only real point of failure is the fan, which isn’t that big of a deal – it won’t directly impact (literally and figuratively) other hardware in the PC.

Size & Compatibility

It’s important to consider these two things when deciding between an air and water cooler, especially for those who are working with a smaller case. For example, if your case doesn’t have enough clearance, you may not be able to install an air cooler on the CPU. A water cooling system, on the other hand, is more flexible in this regard – the water block isn’t as intrusive. But you’ll have to make sure the case can accommodate the water cooler’s radiator.

Compatibility aside, due to the sheer size of air coolers, some of them may not play well with other parts of a motherboard. This is especially the case with the RAM slot, which may be obstructed by bigger air coolers.

Conclusion

Depending on the case you have, how you want your system to look, and how much you’re willing to spend, you’ll want one cooling system over the other. As a whole, however, both air and water cooling systems are…well, viable options.

Personally, I love the design of a water cooling system, but I’ll have to spend a lot more money to get comparable cooling performance as a good, more affordable air cooler. But if your concern is to get the best cooling performance for the least amount of money, invest in a good air cooler – it’ll keep your CPU cool without breaking the bank.