Liquid cooling vs. traditional cooling: What you need to know

Choosing the right cooling option can mean the difference between tearing through benchmarks or crashing and burning.

Every computer, from the smallest of home theater PCs to the most hulking of gargantuan gaming rigs, generates heat during operation--heat that can kill your PC's precious internals if you're not careful.

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While you don't have anything to worry about if you bought your computer from a big-box retailer or straight from a manufacturer like HP, you'll be faced with a potentially crucial decision if you're building (or custom-buying) a fire-breathing, benchmark-eating computer: Should you chill your PC with a traditional air cooling solution or a pricier, yet more efficient liquid-cooling system? That question has many aspects to consider before you can answer it.

Cooling methods explained

The secret to harnessing the cooling power of air lies in fans--lots of fans. Your typical air-cooled PC is packed with case fans, graphics card fans, and a CPU fan or two--positioned atop a big metal heat sink--to keep your expensive components nice and frosty.

A water-cooling system, on the other hand, employs a series of coolant-filled tubes, a radiator, water blocks (the equivalent of heat sinks), and a couple of other components to keep your PC feeling refreshed. You'll even need a few fans to push around all the water! Our guide to setting up a liquid-cooled PC explains a basic (ha!) system in exacting detail.

Got it? Good. Defining air cooling and liquid cooling is the easy part. The trickier bit is making the decision to use one or the other.

Air cooling

One of the great joys of using fans to cool your system is that, in a lot of circumstances, you really don't have to do anything to create a decent cooling setup. If your system's chassis is of the non-bargain-bin variety, odds are high that its manufacturer has already installed exactly what you need--namely, an intake fan in the front that pushes outside air over your hard drives and an exhaust fan that shoots hot air flying out of the rear of the chassis.

Graphics cards and computer processors pretty much always ship with powerful stock fans--you know, the ones that sound like a plane taking off when they roar into action. Those, combined with case fans, make up the Holy Trifecta of air cooling within a typical desktop PC.

So, the big question remains: Why air? It's cheap, for one thing. Even if you want to go with an aftermarket cooler for your CPU or GPU, you're going to be paying far less than you would for a liquid cooling setup. The same goes for case fans. You can certainly purchase bigger, better, more efficient fans if you want a quieter rig, or even fans that light up if you're into that sort of thing. Sure, you'll have to pay for them, but you'll still spend far less cash upgrading or building a nice air-cooling setup than you will on a typical water-cooling loop.

Also consider the cost to your sanity. It's a lot easier to use four screws to attach a fan to your case than it is to build your own water cooling setup.

Traditional air cooling has three major downsides, though. First, fans aren't as efficient as water cooling, which can pose a problem with severely overclocked processors or in particularly beefy rigs filled with multiple graphics cards. Second, the heat sinks on powerful CPU coolers can get big. Finally, fans are loud.

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