When building a new gaming PC or upgrading your existing one, there are many factors to consider when choosing a CPU cooler.
Gaming can cause CPUs to run at full load for long durations. Your CPU will throttle itself without adequate cooling, and your FPS will plummet. I'm guessing you don't want your game to get choppy right when the battle intensifies.
Will you be overclocking the CPU? That will increase the amount of heat generated.
Do you have any space constraints? You'll want to make sure your cooling solution will fit.
Do you want it to look incredible? That might cost a little more.
Let's dig into the most important factors to consider when choosing a CPU cooler.
Check out my Recommended CPU Coolers below.
An air cooler can be adequate for a gaming PC if you don't plan to overclock your CPU. However, not all CPU air coolers can dissipate the same amount of heat. Coolers should indicate their supported heat dissipation (TDP) in watts (e.g., 180 W).
Games and other CPU-intensive tasks can keep your CPU at the higher end of their TDP ranges, so you'll need at least a larger air-cooled heatsink with one to two fans to avoid CPU throttling.
Even if you aren't overclocking the CPU, you could opt for a liquid cooling solution if you want to keep noise levels to a minimum.
If you plan to overclock your CPU, your success will be dependent on how well you can keep it cool. Inadequate cooling will either cause it to throttle to a slower speed or could cause the CPU to be damaged.
You may achieve some level of overclocking with a good air cooler. However, if the cooler is struggling to keep the CPU cool enough, your fans will remain at their maximum speed, which could be a little noisy.
Liquid cooling can generally achieve better TDP levels compared to air cooling. Additionally, liquid cooling allows for a quieter system, depending on the radiator size, fan size, and the number of fans used.
A CPU cooler's TDP (Thermal Design Power) rating indicates how much heat it can dissipate in watts. If the cooler can't keep your CPU cool enough, your CPU may throttle (slow down), and your cooler will constantly run at full speed.
Intel CPU specifications indicate this power dissipation number as "Processor Base Power" and "Maximum Turbo Power."
For example, the Core i9-12900K has a TDP of 125–241 watts, depending on the workload.
A CPU cooler can still work with a lower TDP rating than the TDP of a CPU. However, the CPU will eventually throttle itself to a lower frequency to allow itself to cool.
The CPU may not achieve or maintain maximum turbo speeds without adequate cooling.
Types of Coolers
Air coolers use a combination of heatsinks and fans. They are the cheapest, but also the loudest.
A Closed-Loop Cooler (CLC), also called an All-in-One (AIO) cooler, is a type of liquid cooler. All-in-one liquid coolers provide a more straightforward setup in a single pre-built package.
Liquid cooling can provide even better TDP performance at lower noise levels but are more expensive and take up more room. The noise level and ability to cool your CPU will depend on the liquid cooling solution's radiator size and the number and size of the fans.
Find AIO Coolers on Amazon (affiliate link).
Open-Loop Coolers are also a type of liquid cooler, except you construct them yourself. They allow for more flexibility in building your perfect cooling solution but can also be more complicated to set up. Open-loop systems give you the flexibility to cool additional devices, such as your graphics card's GPU.
More fans typically mean better cooling. However, they also mean more noise.
Larger fans are typically quieter than smaller fans, as they can move the same amount of air at lower speeds.
If a cooler is struggling to cool a CPU, it will run at its maximum speed, which will be louder.
Fan noise levels are measured a dB. Lower dB values are quieter.
You can often configure your motherboard's BIOS to use specific fan speeds at particular temperatures. This configurable fan speed allows you to have a near-silent computer while your computer is idle.
CPU coolers can have various mounting brackets to work with different socket sizes. Make sure that your cooler comes with a compatible mounting bracket.
The easiest way to find a CPU cooler that will work for your computer is to search by socket type. For example, Intel's 12th generation Core i9 12900K uses an LGA 1700 socket, so you would search for an LGA 1700 CPU cooler. In some cases, such as when a new socket size is released, there may not be many compatible coolers. In these cases, you can often purchase a separate mounting/retention kit to work with the new dimensions.
Before buying the biggest cooler possible, ensure that your case and motherboard configuration have room.
Also, ensure that other components on your motherboard won't interfere due to size constraints. For example, do your memory modules (DIMMs) have tall heat spreaders?
Dual-fan coolers often take up quite a bit of room. Liquid cooling solutions typically position fans at the top or bottom of the case.
Some CPU cooler fans come with LED lighting. Similarly, liquid cooling pump heads can also come with LEDs or even LCDs!
If you want to turn off the lights when they get annoying, make sure your CPU cooler has that option.
In general, air-based coolers will be lower cost than liquid cooling systems.
CPU coolers that support a higher TDP are also typically correlated with a higher price.
The more advanced lighting features tend to also come at an extra cost. You can decide between a practical, low-cost solution and a dazzling light show.
Best AIO Liquid Cooler: Enermax Liqmax III 360
- This Enermax liquid cooler has an excellent cooling capability with a 360-watt TDP (Thermal Design Power).
- Supports a variety of CPU sockets, including Intel LGA 2066, 2011-3, 2011, 1700, 1200, 1366, 1156, 1155, 1151, 1150 and AMD AM4, AM3+, AM3, AM2+, AM2, FM2+, FM2, FM1.
- Quiet operation at 14-27 dBA.
- You can get the LGA 1700 Enermax Mounting Kit for LIQMAX III on Amazon (affiliate link) or request a free LGA 1700 mounting kit via the LGA 1700 Mounting Kit Request Form.
- Make sure your computer case dimensions support this, as it will take up a decent amount of space!
Best Dual-Fan Air CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-D15
- Dual 140 mm fans provide 220-watt TDP (183 NSPR) of cooling capability.
- Supports a variety of CPU sockets, including Intel LGA 1700, 1200, 1150, 1151, 1155, 1156, 2011, 2066 and AMD AM4, AM3, AM3+, AM2, AM2+, FM2, FM2+.
- Quiet operation at 24.6 dBA.
Runner Up - Dual-Fan Air CPU Cooler: Thermaltake TOUGHAIR 510
- The TOUGHAIR Series is compatible with a wide range of CPU sockets, including Intel LGA 1700, 1200, 1156, 1155, 1151, 1150, and AMD AM4, AM3+, AM3, AM2+, AM2, FM2, FM1.
- This CPU cooler doesn't have any fancy LED lights, but the dual 120 mm fans do a great job of cooling any CPU.
- Suppose you think this cooler will take up too much space. In that case, Thermaltake has a few single-fan TOUGHAIR variants which use different orientations.
- This CPU cooler has a 2000 RPM max speed for optimal cooling.
- 180-watt TDP (Thermal Design Power).
Want to brush up on other new technologies to consider when building a computer? Check out these articles:
- CPU Coolers:
- Graphics Cards:
- Power Supplies: