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Air-Cooled Computers vs. Liquid-Cooled Computers

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The Background

Before we dive too deep into the different cooling systems available for configuration in a custom computer, let’s take a step back and look at why we need cooling systems in the first place…

Electronic devices, like monster gaming computers, convert energy into calculations. The result? Heat. Electrons to be specific. The more heat, or electrons pumping through each component, the less productive it will perform. Most new CPUs will clock themselves down and eventually shut off before any issues can arise — But still, as experienced PC users know, you can always increase the CPU’s performance by overclocking. Overclocking requires more energy and, in turn, results in a increase in heat. The counter to overheating is to better equip your system with the correct cooling techniques. Cooling your system to optimal temperatures will result in peak efficiency from your system.

Overclocked Intel CPU
Feelin’ Hot Hot Hot!

 

Now that we understand why the PC can overheat, the question becomes what is the best way to keep our PCs cool, air cooled computers vs. liquid cooled computers? Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple.

The Difference

Air-Cooled

The key to understanding air cooling is very simple – fans. A good air cooling system involves a plethora of fans including case fans, graphics card fans, and CPU fans with a strong heatsink on the bottom. All of these fans work cohesively to keep the vital components in the system at an optimal temperature level.

Crappy Air-Cooled Computer
Now that’s what you call ingenuity!

Liquid-Cooled

Liquid cooling is a little more complicated. Referring back to high school chemistry, there is a term called thermodynamics. Thermodynamics states that heat moves from warmer objects to colder objects. This is the same principle that goes into liquid cooling a car for example, or in our case, a computer. In a liquid cooled system a thermally conductive material, such as copper, transfers heat from a warm component to the liquid in the tube. The liquid then moves to the actual cooling device which absorbs the heat from the liquid. The liquid loops back around and continuously repeats this process keeping the desktop at a cool temperature to perform at its’ peak level.

Bill Nye executing a liquid cooled experiment
IT’S SCIENCE!

The Decision

There are a few main factors that each user must take into account when deciding between liquid-cooled or air-cooled. Putting these factors into a prioritized list based on what is most important may help you decide which cooling system is the right choice.

AVADirect Custom Liquid Cooled Gaming Desktop
Custom CPU Liquid Cooling Kit, Single Loop, 360mm Single Radiator

Noise Level

Most avid computer users can attest — there is nothing worse than an obnoxiously loud computer. Thankfully in 2015, we are past the days of lawn-mower loud. Still, the audible noise level plays a huge role in the PC experience. Most times the noise is coming from the computer’s cooling system. As discussed previously, air cooling is done through the use of multiple fans within the chassis working towards cooling all the different critical components inside. As a result of the fans working hard to keep the system cool, they tend to make a humming sound, an annoyance in any quiet workspace or small residential setting. Depending on the number of fans, and the degree of overclocking occurring, the noise can be anything from a soft hum to what seems like the equivalence of a plane takeoff. Liquid-cooled systems, on the contrary, tend to be whisper quiet, sometimes completely silent, dependent on the configuration. Since most of the cooling function comes from the liquid tubes absorbing the heat, only one or two fans is necessary for the process. The fan, which is attached to the radiator, isn’t required to spin as fast because of how cool the system is from the liquid already. If noise reduction is what you’re looking for, liquid cooling might be the best integration to your next system.

Space Race

Liquid-cooled systems also have an advantage over air-cooled systems in the real-estate department. In most scenarios, an air cooling system will take up a good amount of space in the chassis due to the high number of fans used. The more advanced air coolers you upgrade to, the more space they will end up having to take up. This tends to be especially problematic in smaller PC form factors. Liquid-cooled configurations will usually only take up one fan slot or, at most, two fan slots. It is possible to run into space issues with a liquid cooler’s radiator, but contrary to air cooling, it is easy to overcome due to the mobility of the device.

Effectiveness

When it comes to the overall effectiveness, both configurations are legitimate contenders — depending on the internal components of the computer. If you have a rather complex custom computer, you may want to consider leaning towards the liquid cooling to ensure the most optimal cooling for your system. Air cooled systems can have trouble effectively cooling down specific components, which can cause serious issues with extremely overclocked processors or in rigs with multiple graphics cards. Liquid cooled systems, on the other hand, are able to reach the components that need cooling most, keeping the system at premier temperatures for overclocking and bench marking.

A simple way to compare the effectiveness is to consider this: the most entry-level liquid cooling system will be just about as effective as an advanced, high end air cooled system.

 

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because knowledge is power!

 

Price

If cost is a big factor in the decision making process, consider leaning towards the air cooling option. Starting at around $30 for a basic setup and reaching upwards of about $90 for top tier air cooling systems. However, massive fan systems on the market that, while they may be loud, will still be less expensive than a liquid cooling system. Liquid cooling systems can be very expensive, not to mention it’s easy to get a little carried away when planning your configurations. Starting around $60 for an entry-level all-in-one liquid cooling loop and ranging anywhere to over $1,500 for the most advanced, fully custom loop.

Troubleshooting/Maintenance 

Inevitably both systems will require at least some degree of troubleshooting along the cooling path; how much can the system handle is a primary factor to what needs to be in consideration before making a decision. Air cooled system troubleshooting tends to be, for the most part, pretty straight-forward. If a fan fails, replacing it can be fairly inexpensive. When using a liquid cooling loop, PC users need to be well versed on understand the all the parts functional parts involved in a liquid-cooled system including: hoses and joints, barbs, radiators, water blocks, pumps, and o-rings. Often times, troubleshooting may mean draining the entire system to solve the issue. Maintenance is another key factor really only experienced with air cooling and liquid cooling. Dust, debris, and cobwebs (if you haven’t run your pc for a while) could pose an issue when using an air cooled configuration… although utilizing fewer fans equals utilizing less air, which means less dust, which is located in the air. :)  With a liquid cooling configuration, you may find yourself having to periodically (6-12 months) topping-off the fluid levels.    


Keeping all of these factors in mind, remember that optimizing the PC is the end-goal here — how will you be using the PC? Hardcore gaming, graphics rendering, or simply surfing the web… the usage will be the key determining factor on how much cooling your PC will really need. The options are there, and so is the science behind it. The decision is up to you. ;)


Good ideas have a short shelf life. Act upon them before the expiration date.I'm an animated PR guy with an Irish twist. When I'm not busy with my tech life, I love spending time in the outdoors: fishing, skiing, biking.

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