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Air vs AIO Cooling For CPU

One of the key factors that determines your PC’s overall performance is the CPU temperature. The CPU is arguably the most critical component of your PC, but it needs the right temperature to work efficiently.

Anything higher than that will cause thermal throttling and will result in performance degradation or CPU bottlenecking.

All you need to dissipate this heat is a cpu cooler.

But this is where things get interesting as they’re different types of coolers in the market, of which two most popular ones are Air coolers and AIO coolers.

Air cooling:

As suggested by its name, air cooling involves air. Air coolers transfer away the heat from the CPU’s IHS (Integrated Heat Spreader) to its conductive baseplate through a thermal paste/pad. After this, this heat is transferred from the baseplate to the cooler’s heatsink fins through the attached copper heatpipes. After this, the heat is pushed away from the heatsink via the cooler’s fan.

Air coolers can be very effective but it depends on their build quality, fan quality, material, design, and size. Large air coolers generally perform better but not everyone has a chassis large enough to accommodate them.

AIO cooling:

Up next we have the AIO cooling. Its working principle is the same as air cooling, but instead of air, a coolant (liquid) is used here to transfer away the heat.

Like air coolers, AIO coolers have a baseplate connected to the CPU’s IHS. This baseplate is a part of the waterblock that is connected to the radiator through liquid-filled tubes.

After this, the liquid absorbs the heat and travels to the radiator (through tubes) which is usually mounted at the top or front of the PC case. The radiator has built-in fan(s) that blow away heat and cools down the liquid. And the whole process starts again.

Air vs AIO cooling

Now that we’ve learned how air and AIO coolers work, we’ll compare their different aspects to see which one of them is better suited for your PC.

Ease of Installation

Although both air and AIO coolers come with a straightforward installation process, we would suggest air coolers if you’re building your first PC – just for the sake of simplicity.

For air coolers, the installation process typically goes like this: you attach mounting brackets on your motherboard, apply thermal paste on your processor, attach the fan with the heatsink, align the heatsink with the CPU before attaching it to brackets, and connect the fan cable to the motherboard headers.

To install an AIO unit, you’ll need to attach its waterblock on the CPU (just like you attach an air cooler) and then attach the radiator on either the top or front side of your chassis, depending on the rad size and the chassis.

Noise

In general, AIOs produce less noise than the air coolers. Most of them have 2-3 fans installed in their radiator which means they can afford to rotate less fast (producing less noise) while dissipating the same amount of heat as a typical air cooler.

That being said, there are some manufacturers (be quiet!, Noctua, etc.) who specialize in producing silent-operation air coolers.

Performance

AIOs perform slightly better than air coolers in terms of heat dissipation. That’s why it’s better to go for an AIO unit if you’re going to perform heavy-duty tasks on your PC, or would like to overclock the processor down the road.

Unlike AIO coolers which push the heat out of your chassis, air coolers push it into your chassis’ atmosphere. It means your case fans must be good enough to take this heat out of the chassis if you’re looking to go for an air cooler.

Compatibility

Although both air and AIO coolers are compatible with all the major socket types, you can face some issues regarding their weight and length.

Many high-end air coolers weigh more than 1 KG. It means if your motherboard is flimsy, it can bend or even break due to extra stress. Bulky air coolers can also create compatibility issues if you currently own an SFF PC. 

You can opt for a low-profile air cooler for those cases, but its performance will be lesser than its regular-sized variant.

The AIO coolers don’t face weight issues as the waterblock is fairly light, but you’ll have to consider radiator size before choosing one for your PC. AIO coolers’ radiators come in different sizes ranging from 120mm-360mm. And like with air coolers, it’s your PC case that will determine the biggest AIO cooler you can put. Your best resource is the specs-sheet.

Reliability

For many years, people used to consider AIOs as less reliable than AIO coolers.

Since AIO coolers come with a liquid filled inside their tubes, there’s an inherent risk of them leaking out and damaging your other PC parts. 

But now this perception is changing. Most AIOs come with 2-5 year warranty these days and easily last 5-7 years in reality.

Moreover, AIOs have fewer points of failure than most air coolers. It means in case you’re shifting your PC from one place to another, an air cooler has a higher chance of breaking down than an AIO cooler.

That being said, this warranty can get void if you disassemble your AIO cooler or do improper installation. That’s Why we would suggest going for air coolers if you aren’t comfortable with this stuff.

Price

The only major factor that keeps people away from AIO coolers is the price. Most of them have a starting price of sub-$100, which is higher than even the flagship air coolers from Noctua and be quiet!. 

On the other hand, AIO manufacturers argue that the price is justified considering the extra bells and whistles you get in these units, such as RGB lighting, customizable waterblock, VRM cooling fan, etc.

Conclusion

Both air and AIO coolers have their own advantages and disadvantages, and it ultimately boils down to your preferences.

In case you’re building a PC for the first time, or having a tight budget, then a good 3rd-party air cooler would be a good start for you.

On the other hand, if you’re an experienced PC builder, and building a high-end PC on which you plan on doing some heavy-duty work, then an AIO cooler would serve you better.

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