Pipe dream: Watercooling your PC is finally cheap, quiet and easy

liquid cool your CPU
Cooler Master Seidon 120V

Liquid cooled computers used to represent the peak of high-tech geekery. Carefully constructed from various interchangeable and customizable parts, the elaborate chain of pipes and pumps could easily start at $200 in years past.

These prices made liquid cooling – and its benefits – inaccessible to most. However, over the past few years, several companies have introduced affordable, pre-packaged options that are easy to install. Now that they’re cheaper than ever, here’s why you should grab a liquid cooler for your desktop.

Pipe down in there!

Modern air cooling can be extremely effective. Companies like Noctua, which is dedicated to air cooling, have cranked out some hugely efficient CPU and case fans which can handle 99 percent of overclocked consumer PCs. Yet, all of these fans have a downside that they manage with varying degrees of success; they make noise!

Not everyone cares about noise, but it’s a huge problem for those who do. Fans have to spin quickly to deal with heavy system workloads, and that can create an unpleasant mixture of whirs, purrs and growls. Many of the gaming desktops we review generate 50 decibels or more at load. While that’s not going to bust your eardrums, it can be annoying when you hear it every day, especially if you use your PC for hours on end.

Corsair Hydro H50
Corsair Hydro H50

Liquid cooling kits like the Corsair Hydro H50 go a long way towards solving this problem. The system consists of a water block, which is placed on your computer’s processor, and a radiator, which is usually placed in one of your case’s fan mounts. Two tubes connect these parts; one carries hot fluid out from the water block, the other returns it once it’s cooled by the radiator.

A fan still must be attached to the radiator to help cool it, but it doesn’t have to spin as quickly as it would if it were attached to a heat sink. As a result, most liquid-cooled systems emit no more than 30 decibels. If silence is golden, then pre-packaged liquid coolers are close to the jackpot.

The space race

Liquid-based CPU coolers often appear to be large and bulky systems at first glance. Most take up at least one fan slot with a thick radiator, and the most extreme systems take up two fan slots with a double-width radiator built for maximum performance. These heavy contraptions are the first thing most will notice.

In truth though, a liquid cooler can be advantageous. This is because the liquid block itself is usually no wider than a half-dollar, and no more than a couple of inches tall. Highly effective air coolers, on the other hand, are massive. Noctua’s NH-D14 is over six inches tall, and seven inches wide. The Cooler Master V8 GTS is about six inches in all three dimensions.

Cooler Master V8 GTS
Cooler Master V8 GTS

This can easily result in partially obstructed RAM slots, SATA ports and more. In small systems, a larger air cooler can also cut into room that might be devoted to the video card, and may even prevent the case door from closing properly. Simply put, performance air coolers just don’t work in small PC cases.

A liquid cooler’s radiator can also be troublesome to find room for, but unlike a heat sink, it provides options. Any fan mount within range of the tubes connecting the radiator to the liquid block will work. In some situations, you can even place the radiator outside of the case if you’re desperate for space.

What about performance?

You may expect to hear that liquid coolers completely outperform air coolers. This is true when you’re talking about elaborate custom systems, but that’s not what we’re addressing here. We’re talking about off-the-shelf options from Corsair, Cooler Master, Antec and other firms. These options are generally just on par with the best that air cooling has to offer.

But that’s not a problem. Though they were initially sold at a bit of a premium, liquid cooling has come down in price since the first models appeared five years ago. Corsair’s popular H50 was widely regarded as a fine $80+ option in 2010. Today, it’s only $55, which is less than what some high-end air coolers cost. 

Noctua NH D14
Noctua NH D14

You can improve pre-packaged liquid coolers by replacing the stock fan, which is usually very basic, with a fan that has multiple speed modes and a more efficient design. In most cases though, that’s unnecessary. All of the popular liquid coolers out there can handle moderately overclocked CPUs without any issues.

So, what should you buy?

In summary, a liquid CPU cooler is quiet, saves internal space where it matters most, and performs well; all at a price that’s not far off from a good air cooler. Hopefully, this has convinced you that liquid is better than air. If you’ve been won over, you’ll need to know what model you should purchase.

Corsair’s Hydro H50 is a great place to start. I’ve used this cooler in my own rig for two years, and I have been absolutely satisfied with both its performance and its (lack of) noise. The H50 is meant to be an entry-level option, and it is priced accordingly. As I already mentioned, it sells for $55. Also, this model has a 120mm radiator, and most mid to high-end PC cases have numerous 120mm fan mounts available.

Antec KÜHLER H2O 1250
Antec KÜHLER H2O 1250

The Cooler Master Seidon 120V and 120M provide a nice alternative for anyone who for some reason dislikes the Corsair cooler. The Seidon 120V is a rather basic system that sells for $49 and performs okay, but it can easily handle stock speeds at its very quiet “low” fan setting. The 120M is a beefier cooler that’s good for stock CPUs or moderate overclocking. Both need a 120mm fan mount.

If you’re looking to do some serious overclocking though, you’ll need a larger twin-fan system with a 240mm radiator that spans two adjacent 120mm fan slots in your desktop’s case. The best examples are the Antec Kuhler H2O 1250, and the Corsair Hydro Series H105. Both systems provide top-tier cooling performance, yet produce less than 40 decibels of noise at their stock fan speed settings.

Conclusion

With liquid cooling kits now available for reasonable prices, we’re not sure why anyone looking to upgrade beyond their computer’s stock cooler would go with an air-based setup. The only potential issue stems from the radiator itself, which might conflict with some low-end cases that lack room for a 120mm fan. Make sure to measure the inside of your case before handing over your cash, but if the radiator fits, buy it.

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