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How does CPU cooling work?

When the first processors were developed, they ran at much lower clock speeds, so CPU cooling was not even required. A 32-bit 386 processor, for example, ran at 12 MHz to 40 MHz clock speeds. A modern processor like the Intel Core i5-10400F - a good, all-round workhorse CPU - runs at a base frequency (clock speed) of 2.90 GHz, and thus reaches extremely hot temperatures. Unless cooled, the CPU would overheat and shut down (or worse), so with the advent of more powerful processors (using x86 architecture) came the first heatsink and fans, to ensure CPUs stayed at optimal operating temperatures.

The basic principle of CPU cooling is convection. This is when heat moves from a hot object to the molecules of gas, air or liquid near its surface. When the gas, air or liquid is forced into movement, this is called forced convection, and is the process of replacing heated molecules with cooler molecules.

An example of forced convection is an air CPU cooler. With air cooling, the processor's integrated heat spreader (IHS) makes contact with the flat baseplate of a heatsink using thermal paste. This ensures maximum contact between the two and absorbs all of the heat from the CPU. The heatsink is a block of heat-conductive metal (such as aluminium) with narrow-spaced fins that allow air to pass between them. Fans constantly blow cool air onto the heatsink, which cools the attached CPU. In essence, if the heatsink stays cool, the CPU stays cool.

With liquid cooling, the principles of thermodynamics first come into play: when two objects are in contact and different thermal properties, and the heat from a warm object moves to a cooler object. Basically, the cooler object becomes warmer, and the warmer object becomes cooler. You can experience thermodynamics by placing your hand on the cool surface of a steel sink for several seconds. Your hand will feel cooler when you take it away, but the sink will be a little warmer from your body heat.

In a liquid cooler, a baseplate is connected to the IHS with a layer of thermal paste, just the same as air cooling. The metal surface of the baseplate, however, is part of a waterblock, instead of a heatsink. The waterblock is filled with a liquid coolant (though many people just refer to it as water), and this coolant absorbs heat from the baseplate (and CPU). The coolant constantly moves through the system (or loop) through a tube to a radiator. The liquid coolant is exposed to cool air inside the radiator, dissipating the heat over a larger surface area (convection). Fans then move the heat away from the radiator and out of your case chassis. Cool liquid is then transported back to the waterblock. This cycle continues, keeping the CPU at a consistently cool temperature.

With all of the above, variable speed pumps and fans add to the equation, so that only the required cooling is delivered to the CPU. When the CPU works hard, it heats up, and variable speed CPU cooler fans and pumps ramp up the cooling to accommodate.

Which is best - air cooling or liquid cooling?

Air cooling is a very cost-effective method, first and foremost, and modern coolers are capable of getting optimal performance from a CPU, even under heavy, CPU-intensive workloads. The only drawback is that hot air is exhausted inside the chassis, increasing ambient temperatures. Using tower CPU coolers can improve overall performance and keep temperatures low, though air cooling usually means you need to spend extra on good airflow, exhausting the heat as effectively as possible inside from the case.

Liquid cooling using All-in-One (AIO) coolers or custom cooling loops is a much more effective way of cooling a CPU. Heat from the CPU does not remain inside the case, and is transported out through the radiator fans. Ideal for any CPU-intensive work, especially gaming - where the CPU works overtime using turbo clock speeds - liquid cooling is an excellent choice for any build.

Do all CPU coolers fit all motherboards?

Space: The layout of your motherboard, case and other components will primarily determine if your CPU is compatible. For instance, if you do not have the available space to mount the radiator in an AIO liquid cooler, you cannot use one. The design of a CPU tower cooler also might mean it will not fit your motherboard alongside other components like RAM modules or the I/O ports. Be sure to check the dimensions of your CPU cooler along with how it mounts to your board, and how much space you have around the CPU socket.

Sockets: Many CPU coolers are 100% compatible with the majority of popular socket types. Some CPU coolers are specific to a socket type, and this information can be found in the specifications.

Where should I mount a liquid cooler?

The jury is well and truly out on this, but mounting an AIO liquid cooler can be done at the front or top of your case, as long as the pump (CPU and waterblock) is lower than the radiator inlet. This way, any small air bubbles will rise to the top of the radiator, and be kept away from the tubing.

Who makes the quietest fans?

Most specialised CPU cooler manufacturers produce fans with near-silent bearings and fans, using vibration-isolating elements to reduce noise. Look for a CPU cooler with around 25db(A) or less acoustic (noise) levels at full speed for almost inaudible operation. Some top brands for ultra-quiet fans are: -

Does CPU cooler help FPS?

Absolutely, yes. A processor will throttle the amount of performance depending on the temperature of the cores. By mitigating this with a good quality tower fan cooler or AIO liquid cooler, a processor no longer needs to throttle - and will work at higher speeds.