Even the most seasoned PC builder can forget to add a CPU cooler onto their build list—it’s easy for cooling components to slip the mind. But while a CPU cooler might be less flashy than one of the best graphics cards, it’s crucial for any build.
You do need a CPU cooler in your gaming PC, because it’s what keeps your CPU running cool enough to churn out those all-important frames without succumbing to a self-induced heat-death.
But there are many kinds of CPU coolers, such as liquid and air coolers, and some CPUs come with their own stock cooling solutions, so there are still decisions to make.
And these decisions shouldn’t be overlooked, because a good cooling solution is key to a healthy and happy gaming PC.
How does a CPU Cooler Work?
The CPU is like the brain of the computer because it’s what processes all the instructions that the operating system and applications give to it. But all this processing generates a lot of heat, and this is especially true for the best gaming CPUs given how powerful they are.
This heat can damage the CPU if left unchecked, which is where a CPU cooler comes in. A CPU cooler—you guessed it—cools the CPU, and it does this by aiding heat transfer away from the CPU and into something else, which is usually surrounding air or liquid.
A CPU cooler will always have a baseplate (or ‘cold plate’) that sits on top of the CPU’s Integrated Heat Spreader (IHS), with thermal paste lathered between the two for better heat conductivity. The heat will then travel through the cooler’s heat-conductive material and dissipate into the surrounding air or liquid.
Is a CPU Cooler Necessary?
Every PC needs a CPU cooler, and not having one can be a recipe for disaster. In fact, if there’s no CPU cooling fan plugged into your motherboard’s CPU_FAN header, your PC likely won’t let you boot at all.
Even if you do have a CPU cooler, if it isn’t adequate for your processing workload your CPU might overheat and either throttle itself or shut down to prevent damage. As such, it’s important to figure out which cooling solution matches your needs.
Types of CPU cooler
All CPU coolers transfer and dissipate CPU-generated heat into something else, and this ‘something else’ is either the surrounding air or cooling liquid. So, there are two basic types of CPU cooler: air coolers or liquid coolers.
An air cooler takes the heat from the CPU, transfers it through some heat-conductive pipes, and then into a heatsink that has lots of thin, metal fins to provide a large surface area. To aid heat dissipation, one or more fans are attached which blow air across the fins.
A liquid cooler takes heat from the CPU and transfers it through pipes that have cooling liquid pumping through them. This liquid then runs through a radiator, which is a block that has lots of thin pipes running through it. Fans blow through the radiator to cool the liquid by encouraging its heat to dissipate into the air.
There are three types of liquid cooler. The most common is an AIO (‘all-in-one’) cooler, which has the baseplate, pump, pipes, and radiator pre-connected with cooling liquid already inside. An AIO cooler is easy to set up—all you need to do is fit it to the CPU, attach the radiator to the PC case, and plug in its power connectors.
Another, less common type of liquid cooler is a ‘custom loop’ cooling setup. This works essentially the same way that an AIO cooler does, but it doesn’t come pre-connected, meaning you must connect all the pipe segments together and feed the cooling liquid into the loop system, as well as install and fit a pump and reservoir.
The least common type of liquid cooling solution is a submerged cooling setup. Reserved for only the most experimental tech enthusiasts, this setup involves submerging your entire PC in a non-conductive liquid like mineral oil.
Liquid vs Air Cooling
An AIO CPU cooler is the most common and convenient kind of liquid cooling solution. Deciding between one of these and an air CPU cooler can be difficult, because there are pros and cons for both.
For most gamers, a decent air cooler should be more than sufficient for keeping your CPU nice and cool while gaming. Even many budget air coolers these days are good enough to keep your CPU well under its maximum temperature threshold while playing any game at stock CPU speeds.
Air coolers are also a great choice for the PC building novice. There’s little need to worry about radiator placements, potential leaks, or short lifespans. Once you’ve installed the cooler on top of your CPU and plugged its fan into the correct header, you should be good to go. They’re also cheaper than AIO coolers and are therefore great for budget builds.
On the other hand, a decent AIO cooler should keep your CPU even cooler than most air coolers can, which gives you more headroom for overclocking. And, of course, you might prefer how an AIO cooling setup looks through your case’s windowed side-panel.
If you want the best bang for your buck and you won’t be overclocking your CPU, a good air cooler is likely a better option. But if you want more temperature headroom for CPU overclocking, or if money’s no issue and you like how it looks, an AIO cooler is a great choice.
Stock Cooler vs Aftermarket
If you want liquid CPU cooling, you’ll have to get an aftermarket solution because CPUs don’t come with a liquid cooler. But if you want an air cooler, you’ll have to decide whether a CPU’s stock cooler will be good enough for your needs.
Fortunately, most people buying a new CPU won’t have to make this choice, because most CPUs that a gamer will want don’t come with a stock cooler these days. Intel’s current-gen ‘unlocked’ CPUs—the ones with a ‘K’ at the end of their SKU identifier—don’t come with a cooler. And out of AMD’s current CPU generation, only the Ryzen 5600X and 5600G come bundled with a cooler.
This might be a blessing, though, because stock coolers aren’t very good in comparison to aftermarket ones. AMD’s Wraith Stealth and Intel’s Laminar stock coolers should be good enough to keep your CPU under max temps while gaming, but they won’t keep it anywhere near as cool as a decent aftermarket cooler.
Whether it’s a DeepCool Gammaxx 400, a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo, an Arctic Freezer 34 eSports Duo, or something else, a well-respected, budget, aftermarket air cooler should cool your CPU much more efficiently and effectively than a stock one.
Do You Need a CPU Cooler?
Unless you have a penchant for inflicting heat-death on your beloved components, a CPU cooler is absolutely necessary for any PC. It keeps your CPU from getting so hot that it throttles its performance or shuts down, and, most importantly, it stops your CPU getting damaged or losing some lifespan.
A stock air cooler should be sufficient if you’re only using your PC for light gaming and general desktop tasks. But if you want to keep your PC nice and cool while gaming, it’s best to opt for an aftermarket cooler.
A good aftermarket air cooler is perfect for most gamers’ needs, because it should keep your CPU well below its maximum temperature under any reasonable workload, providing your CPU’s running at stock settings.
But if you’re planning on overclocking, or if you simply prefer how it looks, an AIO liquid cooler makes more sense because for its extra cost it should cool your CPU even better than comparably priced air coolers. And it should be easy to set up, unlike custom loop liquid cooling solutions.