Written by Lucas Coll
The hot summer weather may be in its final stretch, but for PC users, heat is an issue year-round. That’s especially true if you’re an advanced user that demands more of your computer’s hardware than the average person. Gaming, video editing, frequent multi-tasking, and other such resource-heavy tasks can put a lot of strain on your PC components (and that’s before you even consider things such as overclocking), and that excess heat is one of the biggest threats to your computer’s performance and longevity.
That’s why every PC builder and enthusiast needs to know the ins and outs of computer cooling. This goes beyond just installing a few case fans in your build; you should understand the thermodynamics of computer waste heat removal, fundamental concepts like pressure and airflow, and the different types of cooling setups available. To help you out, we’ve put together a thorough PC cooling guide along with some component picks to give you some ideas for your next project.
Night Sky by Danial S
The concept of cooling your PC probably seems pretty straightforward, but as you can imagine, it involves a little more than popping a fan on top of your CPU and calling it a day. Your computer’s cooling system needs to exhaust waste heat generated by your hardware (primarily the CPU and GPU, if you’re using dedicated graphics) by pulling it away and expelling it from the case. This is achieved with a system of heatsinks (passive cooling) and fans if using an air-cooled system or with water in the case of a liquid cooling system (active cooling).
With active fan and liquid cooling setups, air flow and pressure come into play as well. Cool air needs to be brought into the PC case while hot air needs to be exhausted from the case, and for this to happen, there needs to be sufficient airflow. You need to consider the number of fans, their placement within the case, and the direction of airflow (i.e. where the cool air is being pulled into the case and where the hot air is being pushed out). You also want to ensure that your PC itself is placed in a location that allows for waste heat to be properly exhausted without obstruction.
The importance of airflow is rather obvious, but air pressure is something that’s often missed by novice builders. There are two types of pressure systems with regard to PC cooling: positive and negative. In a positive pressure system, more air is being pulled into the case by the fans than is being exhausted. In a negative pressure system, more air is being pushed out than pulled in. Positive pressure is generally preferred as it mitigates dust buildup better than negative pressure. With negative pressure, air gets sucked in through small gaps and vents in the case, which increases the likelihood of dust ingress. (If you're looking to learn more, check out our Positive and Negative Airflow guide!)
As you can see, the thermodynamics of PC cooling are a little more complicated than they seem at first glance. The good news is that once you have a basic understanding of what’s going on under the hood, it’s not too difficult to set things up how you like. Your first decision is whether to go for a traditional fan-based air-cooling system or a liquid cooling setup.
Types of PC cooling systems: Fans vs. water cooling
Virtually all desktop computers use fans for waste heat management, and for most PC builders, a simple fan-based cooling system is best. It’s less risky and easier to install than liquid cooling, and will adequately cool your computer when set up properly. Water cooling is more for enthusiasts and experienced builders, though modern AIOs, or All-In-One water coolers, have made it far more accessible.
If you’ve ever assembled (or even just used) a desktop PC before then you’re probably somewhat familiar with fan-based cooling already. Cool air is pulled in by fans, which are typically located at the front of the case, and expelled by exhaust fans situated at the top and rear of the tower. Discrete GPUs also usually have their own built-in air cooling with pre-installed fans, heatsinks, and shrouds.
Liquid cooling is less common, but is a highly effective method of removing waste heat and is not as daunting to install as one might think. These setups use some sort of liquid coolant – usually distilled water – to pull waste heat from the CPU and transfer it through a heatsink/radiator to fans where it is then exhausted from the case. Water is circulated via a built-in pump and is tightly sealed inside a closed, leak-proof loop so as not to ruin any components with cooling fluid.
Modern liquid coolers are commonly assembled together with the pump, tubing, radiator, and fans as a single component. These are known as “all-in-one” coolers and are much simpler to install and use than water cooling systems of decades past. Liquid coolant is generally more effective than air alone in removing heat from components such as the CPU, so it’s a better option for enthusiast-tier builds, overclocking, and other scenarios where you expect heat generation to go beyond normal bounds. Liquid coolers are usually quieter than air-cooled systems as well.
What parts to use for a thermally efficient PC build
Instead of laying out specific CPUs, GPUs, RAM, and the like here, we will instead focus primarily on cases and components specific to an active cooling system that will help you achieve a thermally efficient build. These cooling setups are adaptable to a wide variety of builds and budgets and cover a range of different projects, such as a budget desktop, an entry-level or mid-range gaming PC, or a high-end enthusiast-tier build, to name a few examples.
We’ve already stated that most people can get by with a traditional fan-based cooling system, and that’s what we’re using for anything other than a high-end build. Your choice of case will determine what fan size(s) you can use; the most common are 120mm and 140mm. Starting with cases, we don’t suggest anything smaller than a standard ATX mid-tower for proper cooling as these provide sufficient working room along with interior space for airflow, case fans, and cable management.
We’re also filtering for ATX towers that have a basement for the power supply. The PSU has its own fan, but still requires proper placement for optimal airflow, which these ATX cases allow for. Some of our top picks for ATX mid-tower cases include the NZXT H510 Flow (offered in black or white) for entry- and mid-level builds or, for higher-end builds, the Corsair 5000D Airflow (also available in black or white). Both feature nice designs, tempered glass side panels, and plenty of fan bays.
For case fans, we recommend installing at least three aside from the CPU cooler: Two for pulling in air at the front and one exhaust fan at the upper rear of your case. Choose any of the 120mm or 140mm fans that suit your style, meet your budget, fit inside your case (some cases use both 120mm and 140mm fans), and are made by a brand you trust. Corsair, Cooler Master, and NZXT are highly popular choices among builders today. Most people don’t need to concern themselves with a dedicated fan controller, but it’s another option that gives you more direct control of your fan speeds and monitor system temperatures if you’re so inclined. Note that many cases come with a fan or two pre-installed.
Each fan has its own power connector. You need to make sure, then, that you select a motherboard with at least four fan headers (one for the CPU fan and three for the case fans), otherwise you’ll need to buy fan splitter cables which are an extra expense in addition to creating cable clutter. Many cases can accommodate three intake fans at the front, as well as exhaust fans placed in the ceiling of the case if you plan to add more fans than the recommended minimum – a good idea for any machine that will be tackling heavy workloads or doing things like gaming. Again, make sure your motherboard has enough pin connectors to support the number of fans you plan to install, or be ready to buy splitter cables.
This should go without saying, but make sure you install your fans correctly! Fans pull air in through their front and exhaust it through the top and rear, so always double-check and be certain that the fan you’re installing is actually positioned in the right direction. This is a building mistake that is easier to make than you might think, and an incorrectly installed fan will mess up your airflow and pressure system.
If you’re doing a high-end enthusiast build, then a liquid cooling setup is almost certainly worth it. The market for water coolers has evolved a lot over the last decade and builders have a number of all-in-one systems to choose from nowadays; these are much easier and simpler to install than liquid coolers of years past. Since these combine a processor cooler with two to three 120mm or 140mm case fans, you’ll have to choose one that fits both your case and your Intel or AMD CPU socket (AM4, LGA1200, LGA1700, etc.). This will be particular to your build and which hardware components you’ve chosen for it. After narrowing that down, select an AIO cooler you like from well-regarded brands like Corsair, MSI, Thermaltake, Cooler Master, or NZXT.
For a build like this, it’s also a good idea to upgrade your CPU cooler to something other than the stock fan that your processor comes with. Stock coolers are okay for general use, but a good aftermarket cooler will be a notable improvement in terms of both temperature and fan noise. You have your pick of the litter here, but Cooler Master and Noctua are well-regarded makers of processor coolers. Just ensure it fits your CPU’s socket. If you want something seriously high-end and your case has the clearance for it, then the IceGiant ProSiphon Elite is a highly effective hybrid air/water CPU cooler. It utilizes a unique gravity-driven cooling cycle that evaporates and then re-liquifies water and dissipates heat using four fans. It’s ideal for overclocking and for hot-running CPUs like the Ryzen Threadripper series.
Don’t overlook thermal compound, as well. This transfers heat from the processor to the cooling components; too much compound, not enough compound, or poorly applied compound will all diminish thermal efficiency and therefore your PC’s performance and lifespan. Your CPU almost certainly comes with an application tube of thermal paste, but if it’s a generic brand, you might want to spend a few bucks and get some compound from a better name like Thermal Grizzly or Artic Cooling. It’s crucial to apply your thermal paste properly, though Micro Center’s Build Services can put your whole PC together for you, saving you the headache!
We will mention one thing about GPUs: Since these components usually come with pre-installed fans, we recommend a graphics card with at least two built-in fans for optimal thermal performance; three fans is even better. In concert with a good case setup with optimized fan placement and airflow, this should be sufficient to keep your GPU running coolly along with your CPU.
And finally, a few parting cooling considerations to keep in mind during and after your build: Proper cable management can help with your PC’s thermal performance, although this is often over-stated. However, we still recommend taking the time to tuck and tie cables out of the way during the build process, as it looks neater and can help with airflow (even if only a little bit). A clean cable setup will also make the interior of your PC easier to clean, which is also important for proper cooling. You should regularly clean the inside of your case of dust buildup in the fans, vents, and anywhere else where you see it. Good cable management and proper cleaning will keep your PC hardware running cooler for longer, enhancing its performance and extending its life.
this actually helped me be more mindful of my cooling in my pc so thank you for the guide
Love to put water coolers in my builds, it just adds such a nice finishing touch! Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut is the paste I use with them every time and it works wonders. 😀
IceGiant go Brrrrr
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