Best liquid cooler | PCGamesN

Best liquid cooler

best liquid coolers

Feel like your CPU still has some overclocking overhead but you just can't unlock it with your cooler? In that case you may be interested in one of the best liquid coolers around. Here are the best all-in-one loops that we could get onto our test bench to put through their paces.

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You might think water and electronics go together like chalk and cheese, yet an effective pump and radiator combo will move heat away from that CPU faster than you can say ‘thermal throttling’. Of course, they often feature more RGB LEDs than you can shake a stick at, so you need not worry about colour-matching with the rest of your rig.

We’ve gathered together the finest liquid coolers around and tested them all to within an inch of their lives with strenuous torture testing app, Prime95. While this means we had consistent load on the CPU to test these chillers under serious strain, these aren’t representative real-world temps - even under heavy gaming load. So now we know which is best and, by extension, now you will too.

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Best Liquid Cooler

AlphaCool Eisbaer 240

AlphaCool Eisbaer 240

Size: 240mm | Fans: 2x PWM 120mm | Compatibility: AM4, LGA 1151, 2011-3

Approx. $139 / £110

AlphaCool have really outdone themselves with the Eisbaer 240. This cooler came out on top of our cooling charts, and it’s cheap to boot. AlphaCool also keep things standard with their ¼ inch connectors and refillable loop, adding even more lifespan, and potential for upgrading down the road.

In ditching the software for this not-so-closed-loop cooler, AlphaCool have made it so that this capable chiller runs straight from your BIOS. This means that fan curves are easily changed to your liking, and no middleman software meddles with your settings - that’s two thumbs up from us.

Thanks to the custom fan curves, the fans didn’t ramp up to full blast quite as often as the other coolers we tested, and despite the low-noise and lower-rpm fans, this cooler still performed incredibly well. It’s not the flashiest of all the chip chillers, and unfortunately there is no RGB lighting if you are into that sort of thing, but with a nearly all-black design, sleeved fan cables, and a semi-industrial look, this cooler blends in with your rig and gets on with the job at hand.

The AlphaCool Eisbaer is also available in 120mm, 140mm, 240mm, 280mm, 360mm, 420mm, and the Solo (the pump alone), so you won’t struggle to find the perfect setup for your rig. The only downside is the installation process, which could get a little tricky if you don’t have perfect, unfettered access to your rig, or if it’s in a tight spot…. There is always room for improvement.

With zero RAM clearance issues, a lack of excess cabling, a low price tag, and great maintainability, the AlphaCool Eisbaer 240 is everything a liquid cooler should aim to be - cool, quiet, and unobtrusive.

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Best liquid cooler runner-up

Corsair H100i V.2

Corsair H100i v.2

Size: 240mm | Fans: 2x PWM 120mm | Compatibility: AM4, LGA 1151, 2033, 2066

Approx. $109 / £102

Corsair have been in the gaming peripheral game for quite some time, and their H100i v.2 has been a mainstay for many PC gamers since its release. With a premium design that looks hella smart, it compliments almost every build.

The H100i v.2 performs great in our benchmarking; there is a good reason why we’ve been using this cooler as our test bench workhorse for an age. It features the Asetek design for installation, and you won’t find an easier or quicker setup on any other cooler designs.

The downside for the H100i v.2 comes in the form of Corsair’s own proprietary software, Corsair Link. This software is likely the best of the bunch but, unfortunately, that isn’t saying much. Corsair are improving the software, slowly working out the bugs, yet we still found that it would often jolt the fans to 100% under load on every other run. It’s quite inconsistent, and the fan curves don’t seem to always run according to their predefined profiles. It’s a shame for Corsair that this software isn’t up-to-spec, and while it controls that small RGB light on the cooler, it doesn’t offer any benefit at all over a simple BIOS fan curve.

Due to the awkward software, this cooler does reach some extreme noise levels. While these fans are working hard to keep the CPU at great temperatures under load, it seems the high fan speeds could’ve been dropped a small amount with little effect to the cooler’s performance. Ditching the software altogether is a wise move, and with that, you get a great product that becomes a fierce competitor, with a more-often-than-not low price tag.

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Best liquid cooler runner-up

ThermalTake RGB Riing Water 3.0

Thermaltake 240 Water 3.0

Size: 240mm | Fans: 2x PWM 120mm | Compatibility: AM4, LGA 1151, 2033, 2066

Approx. $117 / £110

Thermaltake’s Water 3.0 is the slightly more budget-friendly version of their Premium Floe Riing 240 cooler. It ditches the RGB pump lighting and the app support, thankfully, but still delivers low-noise performance with a little more flash.

The Water 3.0 still comes with a fan controller in the box, although it is dictated through the buttons on the controller rather than in-app. This controls fan lighting profiles, but it also allows for either low-noise mode or normal mode for performance.

Even in the default mode, the Water 3.0 is very quiet, and the controller does a great job of limiting the RPMs under load to keep things much quieter than the competition. There is a pay off for this hushed operation, however, and the Water 3.0 did reach higher maximum temps than other coolers we tested.

At stock speeds, this cooler is more than capable, and as one of the cheapest options it’s a great buy for someone that wants a quiet liquid-cooled build. This cooler is capable with some mild clockspeed tuning, but for anything a little more intensive, you might want to look elsewhere.

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Best 280mm liquid cooler

Corsair H115i Pro RGB CPU cooler

Corsair H115i Pro

Size: 240mm | Fans: 2x PWM 140mm | Compatibility: AM4, LGA 1151, 2033, 2066

Approx. $140 / £135

The Corsair H115i Pro RGB offers good performance with incredibly low noise - thanks to the two maglev 140mm fans. Sure, it may be a little pricey, but it’s nothing that gamers aren’t used to with the 280mm competition.

The two ML-Series 140mm fans combine the low-RPM performance of the larger blade size with the low-friction operation, thanks to the magnetic levitation design. This combination is conducive to the fantastic airflow these fans produce with little noise whatsoever. A welcome change from the usual whirr of liquid coolers.

With Corsair at the helm, and RGB in the name, it’s easy to guess that this cooler comes fitted with a handful of rainbow LEDs to light up your rig. Surprisingly, these little luminous electrodes never made it into the fans, although that is likely good news for your bank account.

Corsair’s H115i Pro is a welcome addition to any silence-focused build - mostly because you’d barely know it was there if it wasn’t for the considerably chilly CPU temps. It’s not the absolute best chiller around, or the cheapest for that matter, but I’ll be damned if there are any quieter all-in-one coolers out of the box than this one.

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Best 280mm liquid cooler runner-up

NZXT Kraken X62

NZXT Kraken X62

Size: 240mm | Fans: 2x PWM 140mm | Compatibility: AM4, LGA 1151, 2033, 2066

Approx. $156 / £126

NZXT love to make their products stand out from the crowd, and the Kraken X62 is no different. This chunky 280mm cooler features a unique infinity mirror lighting design that makes the Kraken x62 an incredible build centrepiece.

With the stunning design and top build quality, you won’t be disappointed by this chiller’s cosmetics, yet the performance left a lot to be desired. Sadly, it seems this is not entirely due to issues with the cooler or fans themselves, but is yet again another issue with bundled software.

The full potential of this cooler is dashed by the inadequacies of the NZXT CAM software, which in our experience doesn’t control the cooler when it should, doesn’t report the vital information - such as fan speed or liquid temperature - whatsoever, and ramps fan speed up at a moment’s notice to 100%. Thanks to the app’s unfinished and shoddy deployment, the performance of the cooler really suffers, and for the price tag, this absolutely shouldn’t be the case.

Adjusting the fan curves yourself should bypass most of the issues with this cooler, although you can’t ditch the app entirely when it controls the top selling point of this cooler - the lighting. Those 140mm fans /should/ allow you to run at lower RPM and, in turn, lower noise levels - so make the most of them yourself as CAM won’t do it for you.

Overall, this is the most stunning cooler of the lot. NZXT have a certain flair for lavish designs, and you won’t find many other coolers that draw the eye away from a flashy graphics card as much as the Kraken x62. Unfortunately, NZXT couldn’t carry this level of detail over to their CAM app, which left this chiller with mediocre performance. If you aren’t scared of kicking fan control back to BIOS, then it should be, at least, a quieter unit. Even so, at its high price point, you shouldn’t have to eek every bit of performance out of your luxury cooler yourself.

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Best budget liquid cooler

Arctic Liquid Freezer 240

Arctic Liquid Freezer 240

Size: 240mm | Fans: 4x PWM 120mm | Compatibility: AM4, LGA 1151, 2033, 2066

Approx. $85 / £78

Arctic are offering the cheapest chiller we’ve looked at by far, and are one of the few manufacturers who include enough fans in the box to set up a push/pull configuration right out of the box. Thanks to these extra fans spinning away in your rig, this cooler offers great cooling potential and value for money, and was almost our pick as the best liquid cooler overall.

There are packs of RGB-plastered fans that cost more than this entire pump, radiator, and fan combo combined. Not only is this exceptional value for money, but it’s more than capable performance-wise, with temperatures sitting pretty between some far more expensive alternatives. Despite doubling the fan count of the competition, it is far from noisy, even under heavy load. Those extra fans don’t need to work as hard to keep the chip cool, and this approach certainly pays off for Arctic.

With price/performance metrics off the charts, it’s really no surprise the Liquid Freezer was a close second for the top spot. No it’s far from the prettiest design in the world, and Arctic have ditched all the RGB flair, but in return you get a cooler that gets the job done - with no unnecessary features, and no frustrating software. Kudos, Arctic.

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How to buy a liquid cooler

Liquid cooler cold plate

Maybe your CPU is a potential clockspeed adrenaline junkie but your cooler has been holding it back from tearing through those instructions at mach 10, or maybe you just want a little more RGB in your life. Either way, you’ve ended up settling for one of these new-fangled all-in-one liquid coolers. How grand. But what do you need to look for in a new cooler?

Liquid coolers, closed-loop coolers (CLC), All-in-one (AIO) coolers, or computational-dampener-hyperloop-machines (made up), go by many names. When shopping around for the latest liquid cooler, you have plenty to choose from - with most peripheral companies dipping their toe into the cool waters. While most liquid coolers nowadays will support a wide range of CPU sockets and are able to cool any chip you throw at it adequately, there is still a lot to choose from when it comes to picking the best chip chiller for your requirements.

Do you need four fans? How about radiator size and thickness? Do you want custom lighting modes to keep your rig lit? It may seem like these are fairly arbitrary checkboxes, and sure, RGB most likely is, but the size of a radiator and quantity of fans can be a real game-changer when it comes to how far you can overclock your rig, especially when you start adding high core-count processors into the mix.

Liquid cooler case airflow

How to install your liquid cooler

First up is the radiator. This key component is what cools off all that rapidly-heated liquid once it is moved away from your CPU via the pump. Radiators come in a range of sizes, and their exact size and design can directly affect whether they will fit in your case in the most ideal spot. The bigger the radiator, the more cooling potential it can offer.

For the most part, radiators are installed above the motherboard on the top of your PC case, this allows cool air to be drawn through the front of the case, and expelled out the top. Another likely location for a radiator, although more often for space-saving 120mm designs, is on the rear exhaust of the case, keeping airflow moving through the front of the case and out the rear.

Keeping your airflow moving from front to back is ideal with most standard case designs. This will give your components plenty of fresh, cool air from the front intakes, and exhausts the hot air from your components outside of the case.

Now onto the fans. Most 240mm and 280mm liquid coolers come with dual fans in the box, this means you’re likely be looking at a single row of rans attached to one side of your radiator. Whether you face these fans to pull air in, or out, of your PC case, however, can make a difference to how they perform and affect your other components.

As with the above examples, you’ll still need to make sure which direction your fans are facing to optimise your case cooling. You’ll often find small arrows on fans that indicate which direction the air will be moving through the fan, but if these markings are not present, most of the time the fan will expel air out of the side with the fan motor brackets.

A common setup is to have all radiator fans exhausting out of the case, this ensures that all the hot air generated by your components will be expelled out of the case rather than warming up your delicate components within. If this is going to cause an issue within your particular case - whether that is due to a lack of top vent, or a chunky motherboard not leaving you much room - you can install your radiator on the front side of your PC tower, with the fans pulling air into the case.

If you have extra fans to hand, or - like the Arctic cooler in our roundup - your chiller comes with four, you want to ensure that these are all forcing air in one direction in a push/pull configuration. Whichever way you set up one row of fans, you need to ensure that the second row is helping them out by moving air in the same direction, and that they aren’t blowing air toward each other, as this will lead to low airflow and poor performance.

In any case, bad airflow is better than no airflow, but there is usually some way to move radiators and fans around to optimise the flow of air through your case, and maximise your case cooling.

Corsair Air 740 liquid cooling

Air or liquid?

This is a hard fought over question and you’ll find valid arguments on either side. Air cooling offers the tried and tested method for cooling your CPU, and these chunky towers and high-pressure fans have done a great job so far. Air coolers offer fewer components, and fewer moving parts, which always tends to lead to more redundancy should something go wrong. If you are looking for something a little cheaper, air coolers often won’t impact your bank account quite so much, either.

Liquid coolers offer great performance, and while all well-made air and AiO liquid coolers offer more than satisfactory cooling in our benchmarks, liquid offers the best performance overall - especially if you intend on overclocking. Liquid chillers also move the bulk of the cooling components away from your thin and delicate motherboard, and in doing so, often give you more flexibility in cramped spaces, and you won’t have to worry about memory clearance quite so much. Low-profile air coolers cannot be matched on size, but they lose considerable performance as the heatsink surface area reduces.

If you want to see what peak cooling performance really looks like, then look no further than custom liquid-cooled loops. These marvels of PC building prowess often utilise multiple radiators and can include cooling components for not only your CPU, but your GPU, memory, and even the motherboard. Pricing for custom chillers can be through the roof, though, but you will find that there is little more capable until you dip your toes into sub-zero and liquid nitrogen.

Both coolers have their style choices, too, and we would be amiss to say that didn’t count for anything among PC builders. Liquid coolers certainly bring their own impressive style to the table, especially with all that RGB and sleeved tubing, but we are partial to a chunky air cooler and those incredible curved heatsink designs every once in awhile. Personal preference definitely reigns supreme here.

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Subnautica
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