Best CPU Coolers 2018: Air and Liquid

Best Air CPU Coolers



Whether you’re aiming for ultimate overclocks or just a PC that doesn’t get noisy under load, choosing the right CPU cooler is an important decision in any PC build or upgrade that can make a big difference in temperatures and noise. If your existing cooler can’t keep your chip’s temps under control, that could mean slower performance and / or a shorter lifespan for your precious CPU, and no one wants that.

That said, you don’t have to splurge on a massive tower cooler or closed-loop liquid chiller with a giant radiator unless you’ve got an extremely high-end CPU (like AMD’s Threadripper chips or high-end Intel Core X models) and /or you’re trying to push your CPU right to the edge of its overclocking limits. A budget-to-mid-range cooler is usually best for most builders, whether that be an air cooler with a stack of metal fins, or liquid-filed AIO with a one-or-two-fan radiator.

If you’re unsure whether you want air cooling or a liquid-cooled AIO, there are a few things to consider. Big air coolers tend to take up more internal space in your case, particularly when it comes to vertical clearance off the motherboard. They can also be louder and less efficient at moving heat away from your CPU and out of the chassis, though that’s not always the case. Air coolers also tend to cost less than AIOs, though that line is blurring as well.

AIO coolers can move more heat with fewer fans, thanks to an internal pump that moves heated liquid to a radiator, which gets mounted on one of the outside edges of your chassis. AIOs need less clearance above the CPU, so they can be a good option for slim cases, though you’ll still need a place to mount your radiator. AIO coolers can get expensive, particularly for powerful models with big 360mm radiators. But compact 120mm models can sometimes be found at similar—or even lower—prices than good air coolers. Again, AIO coolers can be quieter than air coolers, but you shouldn’t assume that’s the case. Be sure to check the results of our acoustic tests in our reviews before buying.

Why Trust Us

We've tested hundreds of coolers over the years, from massive RGB-lit luxury AIOs to tiny to low-profile models built for slim home theater PCs (HTPCs). We install each cooler in our test system and measure airflow, temperature, and noise at multiple settings.

Below you'll find our favorites, broken out by size type and size. Note that most modern coolers support most modern CPUs and sockets. The main exception is AMD’s high-end Threadripper chips and their TR4 socket. Because these CPUs are larger than anything else in the consumer processor market, they require a larger contact plate for cooling. For this reason, you generally need coolers specially designed for Threadripper chips. We include picks for these as well.

Quick Shopping Tips

When choosing a CPU cooler, consider the following:

  • Own a recent Ryzen CPU? You may not need to buy a cooler, even for overclocking. All Ryzen 2000-series processors and some older Ryzen models ship with coolers, and many of them can handle moderate overclocks. It you want the best clock speed possible, you’ll still likely want to buy an aftermarket cooler, but for many Ryzen owners, that won’t be necessary.
  • If opting for a large air cooler, be sure to check clearances before buying. Big coolers and low-profile models can bump up against tall RAM and even VRM heatsinks sometimes. And tall coolers can butt up against your case door or window, even if your case isn’t very compact. Be sure to check the dimensions and advertised clearances of any cooler before buying.
  • Remember that, all else being equal, more fans=better cooling, but more noise. The coolers that do the absolute best job of moving warm air away from your CPU and out of your case are also often the loudest. If fan noise is a problem for you, you’ll want a cooler that does a good job of balancing noise and cooling. We test for this in all our reviews.
  • RGB lights can be nice, but make sure there’s a way to turn them off. Many coolers these days include RGB fans and / or lighting. This can be a fun way to customize the look of your PC. But be sure there’s a way, either via a built-in controller or when plugging the cooler in to a compatible RGB motherboard header, to turn the lights off without turning off the PC. Chances are there will be times (say, when you’re watching a movie in the dark) when you’ll wan to turn off the RGBs, but leave your PC running.

Best Big Air CPU Cooler

Alternate:

Best Mid-size Air CPU Cooler

Best Low-Profile Air CPU Cooler

Best AMD Threadripper Air CPU Cooler

Alternate:

MORE: Best Liquid Coolers

Cooling DEALS


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  • bit_user
    Thanks for including a down-draft cooler. I feel better having direct airflow on the VRM, which tower-style coolers don't provide. RAM temps also typically benefit.

    An interesting test would be to measure the difference that occurs when you reverse the fan direction of such a cooler. So, flip the fan and run it as an updraft cooler. The rationale is that case exhaust fans are often right next to the CPU, in which case they'd be fighting the airflow of a downdraft cooler. However, if you instead run it in the updraft direction, the airflow rate should benefit and more of the hot air should get exhausted.
  • Carsten_3
    I wonder why you link a 5 month old review, instead of reviewing the latest ENERMAX LIQTECH TR4 II serie?
    As the old Enermax LIQTECH TR4 360mm AIO Liquid CPU Cooler got 35% 1 star customer reviews on Amazon.
  • madymadme
    why is swiftech water cooler included here ?
  • fredfinks
    Should be stated that gunk builds up on the insides of liquid coolers. Also theres chance of pump failure & leaks.

    A big dumb block of metal, combined with a top notch fan (i.e. the noctua - guaranteed for 7 years) will function for a LONG time.
    The only thing stopping it being mounting kit obsolescence. (low & behold noctua will send out a mounting kit in future if you ever need it, for free anywhere in world)
    Indefinite lifespan. Eff liquid AIOs. (custom loops go ahead)
  • bit_user
    Anonymous said:
    A big dumb block of metal, combined with a top notch fan (i.e. the noctua - guaranteed for 7 years) will function for a LONG time.

    The enemy of air is dust. Of course, this also applies (somewhat) to liquid cooling radiators.

    Bigger, slower fan = less dust buildup.

    I also run a positive-pressure case setup, with removable dust filters behind the intake fans. This has worked remarkably well at keeping the case clean.

    Of course, it also helps not to have pets.
  • medicjambi
    It would be nice to see stats on how much cooling each one provides. As in how many watts of energy it can dissipate or cool, etc. I've not been able to find the cooling capacity on these coolers. I understand the larger the radiator and more fans equal more cooling capacity, but it would be nice to see how much each is able to cool.
  • medicjambi
    I have the Liquid Freezer 240 and I was able to find the stats that it is able to dissipate 300 Watts TDP. Information like that should be listed in a review like this. That's quite the oversite there Tom's Hardware. You guys are slipping.
  • jill.and.molly.bff
    The most important aspect of a cooling system is its heat dissipation capacity, which CPU makers express as Watts TDP. If the cooler's TDP capacity does not at least equal the CPU's, the CPU will overheat under heavy load. Can't even imagine why this important fact is entirely omitted from the article...
  • Chupacabra69
    Err where are the cooling performance comparisons.. is this an opinion or marketing piece?
  • Chupacabra69
    nvm found the reviews... very weird how they chose to make nearly every clickable area in the products go to a page to sell it to you. and devoted very little area to allowing you to get to a review to see how it performed. i really hope they do not continue with this format. tom's is all about the reviews and performance tests, and when a roundup like this comes out, you shouldn't have to hunt around to find the review....
  • stdragon
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:
    A big dumb block of metal, combined with a top notch fan (i.e. the noctua - guaranteed for 7 years) will function for a LONG time.

    The enemy of air is dust. Of course, this also applies (somewhat) to liquid cooling radiators.

    Bigger, slower fan = less dust buildup.

    I also run a positive-pressure case setup, with removable dust filters behind the intake fans. This has worked remarkably well at keeping the case clean.

    Of course, it also helps not to have pets.


    The cooling capacity is based on the combination of surface area to be cooled and the CFM of air that passes through them.

    The reason you don't see filters on rack-mounted servers is because their design is predicated on the assumption they will be racked up in a data-center where the HVAC system has multiple layers of filtration and maintenance is done on routine to replace the filters. Have one at home, and you will be cracking that box open very often!

    As for PC cases, absolutely love the washable filters at both the PSU intake and front side of the case. But IMHO this should be standardized with a tab that makes removing and cleaning them as easy at pulling a lint filter from a cloths dryer. I often have to clean mine every 3-4 months in my office (it's not that bad, but very noticeable how much it collects). My case makes it rather a PITA. :(
  • jpe1701
    There's a review link at the bottom of each coolers little pros and cons section. It's not immediately noticable because they are in black like the rest of the text. I would love it if Toms would put all the data from previous tests on one chart and I think it would benefit the reader. I'm a little OCD I guess though because everytime I read a new cooler review I am compelled to go back and see how the coolers I use stack up or how the current cooler stacks up against popular ones like the nh-u14s and a big chart would be very useful. And one other point, is this list just the best of the coolers that Toms reviewed this year or overall? Just asking because I have the EVGA CLC 280 so I know that review was last year but it's on the list. Phenomenal cooler and I actually bought it from the recommendation on here.