Best of the Best: Cooling

Ryan Sparks May 16, 2015

Air or liquid? That’s the decision you face after choosing a CPU—especially those one that doesn’t come with a stock cooler. Both mediums have their strengths and weaknesses, so the best choice will depend on many factors, including the motherboard, case, memory, and processor.

Liquid cooling uses a pump with circulating fluid to quickly draw heat away from your CPU, dissipating it in a radiator typically mounted on the back or top of your case. The radiators tend to be larger and spin slower, generating less noise. Air cooling heat sinks, on the other hand, don’t leak, and the fans can help cool other motherboard components like power circuitry.

Both technologies are subject to compatibility issues, so take measurements and don't be afraid to ask us for advice!

The best liquid cooling solution

Corsair Hydro Series H110

AT A GLANCE

  • Excellent performance
  • Quiet, high-efficiency pump
  • Corsair-Link monitoring
  • Fits in mose cases
  • Premium over 140mm systems that cost less

Typically, anyone shopping for a CPU with an unlocked ratio multiplier intends to do a bit of performance tuning. And you shouldn’t start overclocking until you have the hardware able to keep those sensitive components nice and cool.Corsair’s H110 is celebrated for its ability to pull heat away from high-end processors with a copper base plate.

That thermal energy is transferred through bendable tubes to a 280mm aluminum radiator. Two 140mm fans blow through the fins at low RPMs, generating relatively little noise. You really can’t get any more aggressive without dipping a toe into open-loop liquid cooling.

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With an improved design over the previous H100, the H110 comes with a new pump design that is both quieter, and faster than before. The H110 also has Corsair-Link support, allowing you to connect the pump to a spare USB header on your motherboard for more specific and manual control. When in use with Corsair's Link software, you'll be able to see such things as: cold-plate temperature, liquid temperature, fan speeds, and pump speeds. You'll also be able to set custom thermal definitions to fine tune the H110 for either quiet, balanced, performance or custom operation modes.

The best air cooler

Noctua NH-D15

AT A GLANCE

  • Very high quality
  • Cools as good as many closed-loop liquid systems
  • No leaks
  • Quiet operation
  • Very big and heavy cooler
  • Heatsinks can get clogged with dust

If you have worries about using liquid to cool your PC, you're not alone. Many out there stay away from liquid coolers due to the fear of leaks, which can be a devastating event if it occurs. These days though, there are a lot of closed-loop products on the market that are mature. Manufacturers have improved both design and quality of such systems. Although they don't happen as often, leaks do occur from closed-loop systems but they're rare.

Despite the the rage over liquid cooling, air cooling is still popular and air cooling technology has evolved too. Some of the best air coolers on the market today actually deliver equivalent cooling performance to that of the top rated closed-loop liquid coolers.

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Many enthusiasts still favor big heat sinks to cool their overclocked processors, and it gets no better than Noctua’s NH-D15. Six copper pipes are sandwiched in a thick copper base.

They run up into two towers of aluminum fins, which a pair of 140mm fans blow air across. These fans enable one big advantage that heat sinks hold over closed-loop solutions: motherboard component cooling. Voltage regulators and memory modules get hot, so it’s nice to have airflow down there. Noctua stands behind its quality with a six-year warranty, too.

Best budget cooler

Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo

AT A GLANCE

  • Excellent performance for the price
  • Fits every PC
  • No negatives!

For less than one-third the cost of a high-end liquid cooler or heat sink, Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 EVO serves up performance that seems almost too good to be true. Its four copper pipes contact your CPU’s heat spreader directly, drawing thermal energy up into aluminum fins. A 120mm fan blows through the sink and does its job without making a din. The Hyper 212 EVO isn’t a huge cooler, so it enjoys broad compatibility with all modern sockets and most motherboards.

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If you're not planning to do overclocking or just mild overclocking, the Hyper 212 EVO is your best choice for simplicity and low maintenance. There's only one fan, which is easily replaced, and the heatsink itself is easy to clean if you have dust build-up.

The current price at the time of writing for the Hyper 212 EVO is $34, and enjoys a 5/5 egg rating on Newegg with 3278 reviews. In terms of price-performance, you can't get much better than that.

For the full low-down on the Hyper 212 EVO, check out our review here.

Don't forget to add good thermal compound

Alright, so we have a propensity for big, beefy coolers. But hey, that’s a requisite if you want to dial in the best overclock. Sure, you could go with a custom-built open-loop setup or something even more exotic. Those options get pricier and more difficult to maintain, though.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of capable coolers that perform nearly as well as our favorites. Many of them cost less and fit better into smaller spaces—and they’re perfectly capable options if you need to make some compromises in the name of, say, a small form-factor enclosure.

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