To air cool or to liquid cool, that is the question. Odds are if you are reading this article, you are building or have built a sophisticated gaming PC and want to know if you should build or switch to a liquid cooling system – or stay with your air cooling system. In this analysis we break down liquid cooling vs air cooling to see which is best for you.
Air Cooling vs Liquid Cooling: Which is For You
To figure out whether you should have liquid or air cooling for your gaming rig, we recommend you consult our very simple flowchart below to help make your decision.
Put simply, liquid cooling is better if you overclock your graphics card and CPU – a lot. When you reach that level of heat, air is not efficient enough to cool your system. You need a huge and heavy heat sink at that point – which can end up taking up too much real estate in your rig. Liquid cooling is better when your really taxing your system – and you have the money to spare.
If you bought your PC from retailers like Dell or HP, then you definitely will not need a liquid cooling system. The fans and cooler already in your machine will keep your system cool. If you customized your machine however and are using powerful graphics cards like the GTX 1080 Ti or others we describe here, liquid cooling may be for you.
Pros of Liquid Cooling
Liquid cooling is best for these reasons:
- Highly efficient cooling
- Low noise
- More space within your rig
- Looks way cooler
The first one is obvious. Think back to your high school chemistry class and remember liquids are better coolers than gases (air). It’s the same logic why you throw water on a hot surface to cool it down. A liquid cooling system will carry the heat generated by your PC components much more efficiently than an air cooling system. Therefore liquid cooling does a better job at protecting the delicate materials within your gaming set up from melting. What is less obvious are the other two benefits.
Liquid cooling systems don’t need loud fans like air systems need, thus make less noise. Cooling down three graphics cards at once can make it seem like your powering up an airplane in your home office. The liquid cooling system would dampen some of that noise. Lastly and surprisingly, a liquid cooling system actually saves you space. You don’t need a cumbersome heat sink at the bottom of your rig with liquid cooling. Finally, there’s no denying a liquid cooling system comes with a lot of style. Dye your liquid a certain color and you’ll have an aesthetically superior system.
Cons of Liquid Cooling
There are two main downsides to a liquid cooling system:
- They are more expensive than air cooling
- Installation can be tricky even for experienced gamers
- They can leak and damage your system with improper installation
The total cost of a case fan and a heat sink shouldn’t run you more than $70 while any decent liquid cooling system will be at least $100. The cost between the thermal paste, water box, pumps, radiator and other hardware will add up and usually run you about $200 to $300 for a completely custom liquid cooling set up. Prebuilt cooling systems however tends to be much cheaper than needing to start from scratch.
Tricky Installation and Dangers
If you are building a system from scratch, organizing all the hardware you’ll need for this project will be a struggle in itself. Depending on how sophisticated you want to get with your setup, you may need to do a lot of preplanning when finding out which parts you need. Then when you finally have all the parts, there’s a lot that can still go wrong during installation. The stakes are high in this situation. If you do not install your system properly, you can end up springing a leak and ruining all of the precious gear inside your computer. In fact, we expect you to spring a leak the first time you put together your system. That is why it is highly advised you first build the system outside the PC to test it.
What About Self Contained Liquid Coolers
Another compelling (and less expensive) option is buying a self contained liquid cooler. These prebuilt systems come with one loop and cooler meaning you don’t have to risk building your own system. The chances of leaking with the prebuilt coolers is very low unless you intentionally damage the hoses. These coolers can be found in abundance on Amazon. You should consider self contained liquid coolers if:
- You don’t mind not customizing
- You just need to cool one component of your system
- You are not handy
The prebuilt systems unfortunately don’t allow the same degree of customization as a system you build from scratch. If you want to have fancy colors and glowing lights, that’s going to be hard with a prebuilt system.
Another drawback to the self contained liquid coolers is that they are only one loop. That means if you have multiple components you need to cool, you may need a custom system. If you are overclocking multiple graphics cards and CPUs, the self contained system won’t do an adequate job.
The formula is simple, if you are overclocking your graphics card and CPUs, you should get liquid cooling. Anything else however you are fine with an air cooling system. If you are using an out-of-the-box PC, you are wasting money on a liquid cooling system. On the other hand, if you’ve invested hundreds or thousands on expensive computer parts, and are turning up the heat, a liquid cooling system may be the only way to protect the delicate components from melting.
The following video from Youtuber Techquickie who gives a great rundown on liquid coolers (if you didn’t want to read our entire analysis). Give it a watch!