Small Water Versus Big Air, Part 3: Cooling Questions Answered

Test Results

The three biggest factors that affect CPU cooling performance are radiator surface area, airflow, and ambient temperature. Will the combination of good case airflow and thicker radiators mitigate the effect of a closed system on air cooling performance?

The thickest cooler in today’s comparison, Rosewill’s FORT120 leads even though its fan must use warmer case air, rather than outside air, to cool the sink. Reversing the fans to mimic the Corsair H50 orientation helped bring down CPU temperatures slightly, but only at idle. Looking more closely at the second-place tie, the H50 was only able to match the mid-thickness True Spirit in performance when both were configured with Rosewill’s faster fan.

Reversing the exhaust fan as per Corsair’s H50 installation instructions has a significant impact on internal air temperature, increasing its rise over ambient by more than 100% compared to the original fan configuration.

Northbridge temperature isn’t as severely impacted by having the exhaust fan serve as an intake, although the three configurations with the reversed fans still finish last.

Thomas Soderstrom
Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews cases, cooling, memory and motherboards.
  • Annisman
    Ditched my Domino A.L.C. for a Xigmatek Thor's Hammer with 2 X Scythe fans. Strapped it on a Core i7 920, bumped it to 4.0Ghz and never looked back.
  • burnley14
    Interesting. This is good to know for a future build, since cheap water cooling was always a temptation for me.
  • tkgclimb
    I was looking at water, then I decided if I really want to do this I'm going to have to spend at least 200 if i want a good, effective, upgradeable system. So I'm going to get the megahalem or the thermalright TRUE extreme. and stay with some sick air.
  • rpmrush
    Air is still a better value unless you value noise or lack there of.
    Water offers lower noise @ a slightly less extreme overclock, but who runs 4.0Ghz plus everyday.
  • apache_lives
    still using my old thermaltake big typhoon with a few mods - sealed the gaps on the sides for more air pressure and using a 12cm "thick" fan from a dell tower (crazy) and the same type fan to extract air - works a treat :D

    kinda proves that when your going water cooling, do it PROPERLY not a pre made kit

    if i was to do water cooling, i would go all the way with a modded car radiator, drum for a water sump and a few powerful decent sized pumps to start off with to keep everything sweet, none of this "barely better then stock" bs.
  • The corsair h50 is NOT a water cooling solution. Not even close. At best, call it an "optimized" air cooler. The only situation where you would want one is if you need to install a cooler in a tight space. Otherwise, it's higher cost really ruins any value it has.
  • The_Blood_Raven
    Get a Swiftech H220 in there and it will beat the air coolers pretty well, besides that there are no out of the box water cooling setups that can actually beat high end air coolers by anything meaningful.

    Good article though, your best articles are when you take the time to answer these odd questions that are commonly asked by the enthusiast.
  • Onus
    As many times as I see bottom-PSU cases like the Antec 300 recommended in builds in the Forum, the lingering question for me becomes, "Suppose I do have a bottom-psu top-panel-fan case. Would that make a difference?" Or, is there ANY situation where the cooling performance of this type of liquid cooler is actually superior to a big air cooler?
  • skora
    Thanks for listening to the feedback and doing follow ups like this TS. Really gives the community a reason to become involved knowing our unanswered questions get addressed.
  • Onus