The cooler that comes with your CPU is likely to be a pretty basic affair. Investing in an aftermarket cooler is likely to see lower CPU temperatures, reduced noise and it could potentially make your CPU run a touch faster too. Not to mention that it will open up far more headroom for overclocking your CPU, if you’re into such things. We take a look at six of the best air coolers you can buy.
What’s more, you won't have to shell out very much to reap those benefits – just £20 will get you a nice upgrade. Of course, you can spend far more. So, over the next few pages we put a handful of the most popular CPU coolers to the test, to see which is worth stretching your budget for.
Before that, however, here are the main items to consider when buying a CPU cooler.
Related: The best CPUs for gaming, tested
One of the main reasons to invest in an aftermarket CPU cooler is to reduce the noise of your PC. You can buy completely passive air coolers such as the Zalman FX70 to make your PC completely silent. But just how quiet should you aim for?
If your case is located on your desk, next to you, then you’ll want to aim for something as close to 30dB – or below – as possible. That’s about as quiet as a quiet library gets.
If you have your PC under your desk then you can get away with a little more noise – up to 35dB will still be just about inaudible in a typical home. Meanwhile, if you’re working in a slightly noisier office you’ll seldom hear your PC unless it’s well over 40dB.
All modern CPUs have built-in temperature sensors that ensure the CPU almost never overheats – but it will cause it to reduce speed until temperatures drop. This generally happens when the CPU goes above 90°C, although it varies from chip to chip. You’ll want to ensure your PC is some way below that to be on the safe side.
Any cooler that can keep your CPU below 70°C is doing an adequate job, while 60°C or below is very good. And we’re talking about under 100% CPU usage here; not when idling or doing light work on the desktop. Even when gaming, most CPUs are nowhere near 100% usage.
In those situations a good cooler should remain almost completely silent while keeping your CPU only a few degrees above ambient temperature.
Heatpipes are copper pipes that contain a liquid that vaporises when heated. This vapor then travels along the inside of the pipe to the cooler end where it condenses, releasing the latent heat.
Used in most modern CPUs coolers, heatpipes are very effective at drawing the initial heat away from the small area of the CPU and to the large area of cooling fins.
Typical modest coolers will have two or three, while the largest may have six or more. All-in-one liquid coolers don’t need them since the liquid inside serves the same purpose.
Something we’ll mention during our reviews over the coming pages is just how easy the coolers are to install. Many large coolers require fitting a backplate to the motherboard, which means removing the whole motherboard if your PC doesn’t have a cutout on the motherboard tray for this purpose.
What’s more, some coolers have very fiddly and complicated mounting systems that make them a nightmare to install. This is usually a secondary concern, since most of us don’t install CPU coolers that often, but if you fairly regularly tinker with your system then you’ll want a cooler that’s easy to fit.
CPU coolers tend to mount via four points, but some use a crossbar system
Each of the CPU coolers on test is installed on an Intel Core i5-6600K processor mounted in an Asus Z-170A motherboard. The cooler is left open to the air, rather than closed in a case, to ensure as level a playing field as possible.
Temperature and noise levels are measured while the PC is idling on the Windows 10 desktop and when under 100% CPU load using Prime95. Temperature is recorded in Celsius, and the difference between it and the ambient room temperature is taken as the measurement of how well it cools. For example, the CPU may be running at 70°C, ambient temperature might be 20°C, so the Delta T is 50°C.
Noise is measured 30cm from the cooler and reported simply in decibels. The ambient room noise is around 30dB.
For years, the mark of a true PC enthusiast has been investing in water cooling. Generally quieter and more efficient than air cooling, it also looks amazing when done really well.
However, it's a pain to setup, it can leak and it’s expensive. What’s more, even fairly cheap air coolers do the job absolutely fine and stay very quiet too.
Plus, if you do need greater cooling power then an all-in-one liquid cooler is a great option. You get the cooling power of water, but close to the ease of installation of an air cooler – just make sure to check that your case has enough room to fit the radiator.
We'll cover these in a future test.
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