Choosing a CPU cooler

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Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Sun Jul 28, 2013 10:55 am

So you have been looking around reading reviews, watching YouTube and you are pretty confused with regard to CPU coolers.

What's all the fuss about? Simply put, the hotter the CPU runs the shorter its lifespan will be. One should not be led astray by anyone talking about "safe" temperatures. Your CPU will die at some point as the heat generated by it burns it up, it is the coolers job to drag out that inevitability. There is also no "safe overclocking". A CPU with a temperature of 48 degrees Celsius will last longer than one running at 60 degrees. Anyone telling you otherwise is just - how do I put this politely - lying. There is an exception (see "Silicon Lottery" below).

There is something known as "The Silicon Lottery" which means that your CPU will be randomly more or less resistant to failure (heat death). If you do overclock then one CPU may run stably at a certain speed whereas another will just crash. There is no way of telling short of actually using the CPU if you are a winner or a loser in this lottery. You also cannot send a CPU back the manufacturer which will not run stably at even a mild overclock because technically you are running it outside the manufacturers specification.

If you have an Intel CPU then the cheapest way to knock a few degrees Celsius off the CPU temperature is to turn off HyperThreading in the BIOS.

There are two kinds of coolers and those can be split into two general categories:

1) Air Coolers
a) Stock Coolers
b) Third Party Air Coolers

2) Water Coolers
a) Custom Parts Water Coolers, Liquid Nitrogen
b) AIO (All In One) Water Coolers.

The easiest ones to discuss are those falling into the category 1a, the Stock Coolers. These are the ones you will get with your CPU when you buy it. The only thing that can be said about them is, "Better than nothing, but not by a lot". In other words they are garbage and should be consigned to the bin at the earliest possible opportunity. From my own recent experience, I bought an AMD A8-5600k processor for my NAS and I put the stock cooler that came with it onto it to see how it would perform before putting a real cooler on it.

I booted up the system, started the hardware monitor to check the CPU temperature then I started Prime95 to put the CPU under load. Within seconds after starting Prime95 the CPU temperature shot up to 62 degrees Celsius, which is totally unacceptable and I stopped the testing immediately so as not to damage the CPU.

The next easiest to discuss would be the ones fitting into the category 2a or "Custom Parts Water Coolers". For this solution you have to buy all the pumps, radiators, reservoirs, tubes, joints etc. yourself and put it all together. These will give you the greatest cooling of your CPU if you have done it right; however they do have major drawbacks:

1) You will have to permanently monitor the system because they are prone to failure and leaks.
2) You will have to run all kinds of routine maintenance on them from checking the fill level of the coolant to making sure that all the joints are tight and not leaking, check for algae.
3) It is exorbitantly expensive
4) You will have to sacrifice a significant portion of the expandability of your chassis to the components of the cooling subsystem (coolant reservoirs)
5) They are only as efficacious as the builders ability to construct the complete system.
6) No warranty and dubious reliability. This solution has a VERY limited field of application (especially Liquid Nitrogen which has the added downside of being extremely dangerous if the LN is handled incorrectly).

The next two, 1b "Third Party Air Coolers" and 2b "AIO (All In One) Water Coolers" are the ones that the overwhelming majority of people will choose from. This is also the portion of the post where I will get the most grief.

Let's start off with Third Party Air Coolers. These range from only slightly better than the stock coolers but with advantages like having a smaller dimension. The one thing which can generally be said is that the lighter (in weight) the cooler is, the worse the cooling performance will be. These types of coolers also are, if one is not looking at overclocking, relatively cheap and one can buy one which will fit any kind of chassis one might choose to put the system into. The cooling performance ranges from good enough to great. The "great" will depend on the size of your chassis and your wallet.

How well an air cooler performs is heavily dependant on things other than the design or efficiency of the cooler itself. Essentially what the air cooler does is that it takes heat away from your CPU and dumps it into your case. It is up to the case ventilation to get rid of that heat. In a poorly ventilated case essentially what happens is that warmer and warmer air is recycled and used to "cool" the fins of the air cooler. The other thing is that a higher ambient temperature within the case will also effect the cooling of other components on the motherboard or the graphics adapter.

Then there is the elephant in the room - literally. To achieve the best cooling of the CPU air coolers have to be massive. All their weight is supported by the motherboard and generally they are oriented horizontally to the vertical alignment of the motherboard. This means that if you are moving your system and you drop it then there is a chance that the cooler will break the motherboard. This is apart from the permanent strain the weight of the cooler puts on the motherboard.

Then there is the design of the cooler itself, or rather the mounting system the manufacturers choose. These range from very easy and well thought out to the feeling that the manufacturers of the cooler are bloody-minded sadists hell bent on making your life a misery. Then there are the coolers which have a clip on system for the fans, however if the clips ever spring open for some reason there is a good chance they will short-circuit your graphics card.

Another thing to take into account is whether or not the components UNDER the CPU cooler will get any ventilation or that it effectively insulates the capacitors, VRMs around the CPU from any airflow which might cool them. If a capacitor blows due to excessive heating then it is game over for your motherboard.

If you are going to choose an air cooler for the CPU then you will have to plan the choice of things like RAM with regard to that choice. In many cases RAM slots will be blocked to anything other than low profile RAM. So you could end up having bought the cooler, bought your RAM and end up not being able to put your system together. Another scenario could be that you have bought the components and although the RAM fits, you won't be able to put the side panel onto the chassis because of the height of the cooler.

Personally I would say that if you are considering an air cooler then the gold standard against which you should judge the competition are the Noctua series of coolers. As I have tried to point out, air cooler benchmarks with regard to how well they cool the CPU are not the entire story - by a very long shot.

Last but not least we come to 2b "AIO (All In One) Water Coolers". These kind of coolers have a small footprint on the CPU itself and remove the heat via the liquid to a radiator to be disposed of as you see fit. The main advantage of the water cooler in my estimation is that the weight of the business end is taken up by a component of the system which is specifically designed to take the stress of the weight, namely the chassis itself - if you drop your system then you might dent your chassis, but you are unlikely to destroy your motherboard. No air cooler other than the highest end ones even come close to giving the cooling performance of a water cooler. The highest end air coolers are also more expensive than a water cooler offering the same performance.

The one thing one thinks about with regard to water coolers is "leaks". This possibility has been pretty much eliminated and I have not heard of any such failure - although I am sure such a thing has occurred.

So the choice is a no-brainer right?

Wrong.

Water coolers are expensive and if you only need something which is good enough or have a processor and system which is energy efficient then it is hard to justify the expense of a water cooler. Even though mounting the radiator to the chassis is the best place for the business end of any cooler to be there are many systems where there is just not enough room to do so. If you want to build a system as small as possible then this will be a deal breaker with regard to a water cooler.

If the pump on the water cooler fails then you will not be able to repair it yourself. With an air cooler, if a fan fails then it is very simple and relatively cheap to replace it and restore the cooler to its former glory.

The other problem one has with regard to water coolers is the tubes taking the liquid from and to the pump. Even if you do have a spot to attach the radiator to the chassis you might not be able to get the tubes to cooperate. Jamming the water cooler into your chassis and placing stress on the joints where the tubes connect to the radiator or the pump is a recipe for disaster if even one of those joints ever give and a leak occurs. If you kink the tubes on the water cooler then the coolant will not be able to circulate and your temperatures will shoot up.

I have tried to be as fair as I can with regard to the choices one has with regard to cooling a CPU and I hope this doesn't disintegrate into a series of fanboy rants.
Last edited by Nec_V20 on Sun Jul 28, 2013 3:27 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Sun Jul 28, 2013 10:58 am

For the past 3-4 years my attitude has been "just slap a CoolerMaster heatpipe cooler on it and be done with it". They're inexpensive, much quieter than the stock air coolers, perform well, and (now that I have been using them for a few years) I can also state from personal experience that they are reliable. :wink:

(I had some initial misgivings about them due to their use of sleeve bearing fans. But I have not had a single fan failure, across multiple systems with these coolers. I have even had a few ball bearing fans from other vendors *Thermaltake* *cough* *cough* that didn't last this long!)
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Sun Jul 28, 2013 11:48 am

just brew it! wrote:For the past 3-4 years my attitude has been "just slap a CoolerMaster heatpipe cooler on it and be done with it". They're inexpensive, much quieter than the stock air coolers, perform well, and (now that I have been using them for a few years) I can also state from personal experience that they are reliable. :wink:

(I had some initial misgivings about them due to their use of sleeve bearing fans. But I have not had a single fan failure, across multiple systems with these coolers. I have even had a few ball bearing fans from other vendors *Thermaltake* *cough* *cough* that didn't last this long!)


I realised when I was writing the post that technically what I called an "air cooler" is a subset of a water cooler because it does rely on the evaporation of a liquid within the heatpipe.

But generally with regard to my post do you see anything where I made a gross omission or showed a bias?
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Sun Jul 28, 2013 11:57 am

That's quite a useful summation, thank you.

I have a question that's been bothering me the past few years - why haven't liquid-cooled GPUs become more mainstream? By mainstream, I mean AIO designs that I can just plug and play (the way I can just buy Antec Kuhler or Corsair Hydro for the CPU)? The GPU liquid coolers I've seen require you to take apart the GPU cover and mount it there. I'm not sure how standardized various manufacturers (ASUS, MSI, etc.) are when implementing AMD or Nvidia's designs, so I'm always nervous about a compatible combo. In the case of CPU's, the IHS of different CPUs are pretty much standard.

I've been planning to upgrade for a few years, but I'm keen on giving my future GPU the best cooling - and I'd prefer LC given the relatively higher power draws that GPUs have compared to Intel's CPUs.
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Sun Jul 28, 2013 12:00 pm

@Nec_V20 -

I have no problem with calling heatpipe CPU coolers "air coolers". They're still used like a conventional (no liquid) air cooler, in that you don't need hoses, a pump, or a separately mounted radiator.

I wasn't trying to disagree with you, just adding my personal experience. I don't overclock (much), so to me any cooling solution that costs more than around $30 is generally overkill!
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Sun Jul 28, 2013 12:17 pm

arunphilip wrote:That's quite a useful summation, thank you.

I have a question that's been bothering me the past few years - why haven't liquid-cooled GPUs become more mainstream? By mainstream, I mean AIO designs that I can just plug and play (the way I can just buy Antec Kuhler or Corsair Hydro for the CPU)? The GPU liquid coolers I've seen require you to take apart the GPU cover and mount it there. I'm not sure how standardized various manufacturers (ASUS, MSI, etc.) are when implementing AMD or Nvidia's designs, so I'm always nervous about a compatible combo. In the case of CPU's, the IHS of different CPUs are pretty much standard.

I've been planning to upgrade for a few years, but I'm keen on giving my future GPU the best cooling - and I'd prefer LC given the relatively higher power draws that GPUs have compared to Intel's CPUs.


You pretty much answered your own question with regard to the main factor which is space. A standardised liquid cooling solution for one graphics card might be feasible however what about SLI or Crossfire configurations? You have to then go into the realms of 2a "Custom Parts Water Coolers" and all the concomitant disadvantages.

I would also suggest that the scalability of graphics cards upwards in performance although that does carry a price premium would be cheaper than trying to realise a water cooling solution to radically overclock a lower end graphics chip.
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Sun Jul 28, 2013 12:40 pm

just brew it! wrote:@Nec_V20 -

I have no problem with calling heatpipe CPU coolers "air coolers". They're still used like a conventional (no liquid) air cooler, in that you don't need hoses, a pump, or a separately mounted radiator.

I wasn't trying to disagree with you, just adding my personal experience. I don't overclock (much), so to me any cooling solution that costs more than around $30 is generally overkill!


Actually my location is in a chair in front of my screen, having a beer :lol:

I didn't take your reply as being any form of disagreement. I am autistic (I have what is known as Asperger's Syndrome) and your reply reminded me that I should have mentioned that what I called "air coolers" was technically wrong.
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Mon Jul 29, 2013 11:31 am

Nec_V20 wrote:You pretty much answered your own question with regard to the main factor which is space. A standardised liquid cooling solution for one graphics card might be feasible however what about SLI or Crossfire configurations? You have to then go into the realms of 2a "Custom Parts Water Coolers" and all the concomitant disadvantages.

I would also suggest that the scalability of graphics cards upwards in performance although that does carry a price premium would be cheaper than trying to realise a water cooling solution to radically overclock a lower end graphics chip.


Thank you.
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Mon Jul 29, 2013 12:46 pm

I haven't yet explored the options of AIO LCs (I fall into JBI's way of thinking) but one question I've always had was regarding pump noise. We can keep it to AIO solutions since custom loops vary wildly and most popular AIO LCs use Asetek design. Can anybody weigh in on their opinions on the pump noise of such coolers? I don't want my case to sound like a fish tank.
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Thu Aug 01, 2013 1:00 am

Nec_V20 wrote:The next easiest to discuss would be the ones fitting into the category 2a or "Custom Parts Water Coolers". For this solution you have to buy all the pumps, radiators, reservoirs, tubes, joints etc. yourself and put it all together. These will give you the greatest cooling of your CPU if you have done it right; however they do have major drawbacks:

1) You will have to permanently monitor the system because they are prone to failure and leaks.
2) You will have to run all kinds of routine maintenance on them from checking the fill level of the coolant to making sure that all the joints are tight and not leaking, check for algae.
3) It is exorbitantly expensive
4) You will have to sacrifice a significant portion of the expandability of your chassis to the components of the cooling subsystem (coolant reservoirs)
5) They are only as efficacious as the builders ability to construct the complete system.
6) No warranty and dubious reliability. This solution has a VERY limited field of application (especially Liquid Nitrogen which has the added downside of being extremely dangerous if the LN is handled incorrectly).


1 that all depends on what parts you choose and your experience level with watercooling, never had a leak and never had a failure in 7 watercooled systems, i monitor the temps but i have always done that with aircoolers and watercooling
2 once you have done the initial checking you dont really need to do anything else, i have had watercooled computers go for 2 and half years before i have even looked at them (and they are fine still - water level the same as when i built it) fill level doesnt change unless you have a leak, algae is only a problem if you dont have any anti algae stuff or even better than that is (what i do) put silver in the loop and demineralised water
3 no doubt about that one - you try and cheap out and you WILL have problems
4 yep also true in some cases not so bad (bay reservoirs+pumps) and other cases a lot - get a nice big case and you should be fine though
5 also true
6 no warranty? on what? the watercooling parts or the computer parts because both do come with a warranty and if you screw up (no matter if its watercooling or you put a screwdriver through the motherboard) then it is your own fault, my watercooled systems have been just as reliable as any other system i have had

custom watercooling is expensive and can take up a lot of space in the case but its reliability has more to do with what parts you choose (i love laing d5 pumps never had a failure) and your skill level with building them
not for the novice but if you are feeling adventurous make a practice system with some old parts, thats what i recommended to my friends trying it for the first time

edit: "A CPU with a temperature of 48 degrees Celsius will last longer than one running at 60 degrees. Anyone telling you otherwise is just - how do I put this politely - lying."
i will agree maybe but i havnt heard of ANY cpu dieing within a "reasonable" timeframe from running at 60 (or even higher) degrees, i ran my htpc in the 60s with its old core2duo e6600 (from 2006 thats 7 years at that temp) before i upgraded to an ivy bridge htpc and its still running fine as a htpc in my brothers room, i agree that a cooler cpu will last longer but how much longer and how short of a timeframe a hot cpu will last is almost unknown and i havnt come across a single cpu actually dieing from a reasonable amount (60's) of heat yet (run a really old cpu without a heatsink and it will probably happen because no thermal cut outs/throttling) since i started building computers in the 80's

new cpus are so reliable (2005+ models) with regards to heat that i dont really think heat is a problem anymore with regards to how long they last - has anyone actually killed a new cpu? (post 2005) i have had motherboards dieing from cpu fan failures that have been running at crazy temps for months (because of no fan) but the cpu has been fine after i change the motherboard
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Thu Aug 01, 2013 7:15 am

DPete27 wrote:I haven't yet explored the options of AIO LCs (I fall into JBI's way of thinking) but one question I've always had was regarding pump noise. We can keep it to AIO solutions since custom loops vary wildly and most popular AIO LCs use Asetek design. Can anybody weigh in on their opinions on the pump noise of such coolers? I don't want my case to sound like a fish tank.


While I don't have extensive experience regarding LC; pumps are close to soundless.
Fans? that is another matter. Currently I am using Corsair's H70 on a i7-3770k with two 120mm fans.
Due to the thick rad (?) this solution is rather large and loud.
An H60 which is reported to be sufficient with a single fan, will be put into service shortly.
Utilizing a mild OC means upgraded cooling, this is my current windmill joust.
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Re: Choosing a CPU cooler

Postposted on Sat Aug 03, 2013 7:20 pm

I'm in the AIO water camp.

I have a thermaltake water performer 2.0, with noctua P12 fans. It is more than sufficient for my basic overclocking needs. Some people would say "eww thermatlake" or "AIO pumps don't have a lot of flow rate" but to be quite honest, I don't care.

It "just works" and I don't need to mess with it. The pump has a 50k hour MTBF (which equates to nearly 6 years) by which time I'm expecting that I'll want to upgrade my computer to something the cooler will not fit on. Note however that is 6 years of 24/7, and I probably get 10-15 hours a week use out of my pc, so it very well would probably last much much longer.

Does it give me substantially more cooling capacity than a high end air cooler? nope, about equal within 5 degrees. It does mean it is much easier for me to work in my case, and it also means that heat goes directly out of my case so my gear is likely to last longer than otherwise.

I have considered going full water, but it just doesn't make economical sense.

I work on the a very basic rule. If it is going to cost <100$ and give me 20-25% more power, then I'll do an upgrade. That's what had me move from an i7-3770 (non-k) to an i7-4770k (at 4.5ghz), as I sold the former, and the changeover to the latter was about $100.
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