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


Our previous conclusion—that the best reason to use a compact liquid cooler is to make it easier to reach cable connectors that surround the CPU—is once again proven in today’s comparison. The biggest cooler wins, even though it’s an air cooler, and the second-biggest air cooler provides the same cooling performance as the slightly thinner liquid cooler when both are configured with the same high-speed fan.

Another interesting fact is that all three coolers functioned within 1° Celsius of competitors when the same fan was used. Appealing features of Rosewill’s FORT120, such as its direct-touch heat pipe design, appear to have little impact on actual performance, since its larger sink could fully account for such a small performance advantage.

A third interesting result was that turning the exhaust fan backwards provided little benefit in CPU temperature and significantly increased the air temperature at the front of the motherboard. This is our punishment for violating the thermal principles of ATX mid-tower design. Defenders of the concept could point out that many cases have significantly more ventilation through the top panel, via two 120-140mm fans or a single larger fan, but the fact that most people don’t own those cases is something to keep in mind when trying to make nearly-universal recommendations.

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