Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • A quality mid-range air cooler can match high-end 240mm and 360mm AIOs when paired with AMD CPUs.
  • This applies to Intel CPUs, too, as long as you don’t use them for heavy all-core workloads with power limits disabled.
  • There’s nothing wrong with buying an AIO liquid cooler, as long as you’re aware that it won’t provide major improvements in thermals and CPU performance compared to air coolers.

Many PC builders believe that only an AIO liquid cooler can keep their future Ryzen CPU reined in, but the truth is that a quality air cooler can keep pace with any AIO out there. If you know a little more about how these AMD CPUs produce heat, it will all make perfect sense.

Air Coolers Deliver The Same Performance as AIOs For Considerably Less Cash

When the AMD Ryzen 7000 series debuted in 2022, many were spewing bum steers about these CPUs being hard to cool down and that nothing short of a high-end AIO liquid cooler would keep them under control. Despite their thick integrated heatspreader (IHS)—the layer of metal covering the CPU die—that impairs heat dissipation, the Ryzen 7000 CPUs don’t require a high-end cooler, even the flagship models such as the Ryzen 9 7950X.

As it turns out, they are very power efficient, especially in gaming workloads, and designed to deliver maximum performance at temperatures up to 95 degrees Celsius. In other words, as long as you pair your Ryzen CPU with an excellent mid-range air cooler, you’re golden. That might fly in the face of high-perfomance CPU wisdom, but you need to think about AMD CPU cooling a little differently.

As the Hardware Canucks YouTube channel recently demonstrated in their excellent Air vs. AIO cooler comparison, even a quality mid-range air cooler can deliver the same or better performance than many AIO liquid coolers. This applies to both the mid-range offerings, such as the Ryzen 5 7600X or Ryzen 7 7700X, and the flagship Ryzen 9 7950X.

When paired with the 7950X, a sub-$40 air cooler can tame the CPU to about 92 degrees Celsius–which is lower than even some pretty solid 240mm AIOs such as the Lian Li Galahad II Trinity—allowing it to reach only about 30MHz lower clock compared to the best AIOs on the market. And that’s under a full, all-core workload.

In other words, you shouldn’t spend hundreds of dollars on a high-end AIO for your Ryzen CPU because you can get the exact same performance with a mid-range aftermarket air cooler. The difference compared to flagship 240mm AIOs, such as the ASUS ROG RYUJIN III, which sports a price of $229, is negligible.

The result is similar when you pit a mid-range air cooler against 360mm AIOs, as demonstrated in TechPowerUp’s Thermalright Phantom Spirit 120 EVO review.

This means that you can spend $35 on the Thermalright Phantom Spirit 120SE—my recommendation if you’re looking for a powerful air cooler that doesn’t break the bank—and have almost $200 left for an upgrade. $200 is the price difference between the RTX 4070 Super and the RTX 4070 Ti Super, which packs 4GB more memory and is faster than the 4070 Super by about 20 percent on average. That’s a nice GPU upgrade if you ask me and will make a much, much bigger performance difference overall for the same money.

What About Intel CPUs?

The Intel Core i5-14600K CPU on a table
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

When it comes to Intel CPUs, things get complicated. If you plan to buy an Intel CPU, including options like the Core i7-14700K, Core i9-14900K, or their 13th gen counterparts, and use it exclusively for gaming, you can get away with a solid air cooler.

Even the 14900K’s gaming power consumption is, in most cases, less than 200W, with only a handful of titles pushing it above 200W. That’s not a problem for the best air CPU coolers on the market, since they can keep Intel CPU thermals under 75 degrees Celsius at 250W, as shown in TechPowerUp’s review of the Thermalright Phantom Spirit 120 EVO.

On the other hand, if you want to buy a Core i7-14700K or Core i9-14900K and use it without power limits for heavy all-core workloads, it’s worth spending extra for a performant 360mm or 420mm AIO. While even a beastly AIO won’t stand a chance against an unleashed high-end Intel CPU, the best AIOs will allow it to use more than 350W of power before thermal throttling, compared to air coolers that top out at about 320W.

If You’re Set on Buying an AIO, Buy It for the Right Reasons

All of the above doesn’t mean I’m completely against the idea of pairing a Ryzen CPU with an AIO liquid cooler. What I’ve been trying to do is explain to prospective buyers that they shouldn’t get an expensive AIO for their AMD or Intel CPU solely because they believe it will deliver better performance and lower thermals compared to air coolers.

This isn’t the case, and you shouldn’t pay a premium for the level of cooling performance you can get with a much more affordable air cooler, all-core workloads without power limits on high-end Intel CPUs notwithstanding.

On the flip side, if you’re aware that an AIO won’t deliver any noticeable improvement, but you still like the looks of an RGB-heavy AIO inside your PC, go for it. There’s nothing wrong with having an RGB party in your PC case, as long as you didn’t build one on the false belief that an AIO would improve your CPU performance.

The same applies if you simply prefer AIOs over air coolers. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if you don’t like those chunky heatsinks, feel free to buy an AIO instead. PC builders planning to assemble an SFF PC should aim for an AIO because the majority of modern SFF enclosures are designed to house AIO liquid coolers, and are usually too slender to accommodate anything aside from ultra low-profile air coolers. Last but not least, if you’re building a custom-loop PC, there is no reason why the CPU shouldn’t be a part of that loop.

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By John P.

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