Liquid Cooling vs Air Cooling

May 13, 2021 | Guides | Atila Gobor
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Why the Need for Cooling?

Before we tackle the liquid cooling vs air cooling debate, we first need to establish why we even need cooling in computers. Heat is one of the biggest enemies of all desktop computers. Due to the impedance of the electronic circuits in chips, heat is constantly generated as a form of energy loss. This waste heat needs to be removed to keep components within acceptable operating temperature limits. If not, overheating disrupts components’ performance, shortens their lifespan, or even permanently damages them.

This short air vs water cooling guide will explain how both titular types of cooling work and discuss their advantages & limitations. Read on to find the best cooling solution for your needs.

Two Major Forces in Computer Cooling

There are two main options to efficiently and safely remove excessive heat from computer components. The cheaper and more commercial is the use of an air cooler, which typically includes a heat sink to transfer the heat from the component and a fan to provide additional airflow for cooling. The more recent and advanced technology is liquid cooling. It requires water blocks on the components you wish to cool, a water pump, a water-to-air heat exchanger (a radiator + fans), and a liquid reservoir. In this case, the liquid travels safely through the cooling system, takes the heat from PC components in the process, and delivers it far away from them for much more efficient cooling.


             Custom loop liquid cooling system

An air cooler – a fan and a heat sink (left) vs. a liquid cooler – a water block, a pump, tubing, and a radiator with fans (right).

The Use of Liquid in Computer Cooling

Liquid cooling components for desktop computers were not commercially available until the end of the 1990s. Everything was homemade, primarily from car radiators and aquarium pumps. Makeshift water blocks were connected with different kinds of PVC or silicone tubing.

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Very old and simple liquid cooling parts.

Over time, the rise of desktop PC computing power has brought along increased thermal density and thermal dissipation of chips. This has also led to the growing popularity of the more powerful liquid cooling. Today, we all have access to high-performance commercial liquid cooling components through specialized local retailers or online stores.

Air VS. Liquid Cooling what is better

Modern CPU water block – EK-Quantum Magnitude 115X with sophisticated flow design.

Liquid Cooling in Modern Computers

There are two main reasons why people nowadays turn to liquid (also known as water) cooling – performance and aesthetics. A water cooling loop can also bring a third significant benefit: quiet operation. But this heavily depends on the setup and the use of the computer, so it is not always achievable. The lesser the cooling power, the harder all the crucial components have to work, which creates more noise. The surface area of the radiator, the pump, and the size and number of fans have the biggest impact on silent operation. If you choose the right high-quality components along with a case that can fit them all, high-performance with silent operation is definitely achievable.

Aesthetics is a vast and subjective topic in general, and it is no different when it comes to liquid cooling. In our world, it covers everything from a simple, clean build to elaborate mods with multiple graphics cards, hard tubing, complex lighting, and much more. The use of liquid solutions provides countless customization options, which allows each end-user to create a unique water cooling setup. Liquid cooling builds are often true pieces of art. And we enthusiasts know that nothing brings more pleasure than owning or building a unique liquid cooling loop. If you are interested in the art of custom loop building, you can check our Featured Builds & Mods section.

full-13A full-4A full-2A
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A work of art that shows the beauty of liquid cooling.

How a Water Cooling Loop Works

Water has a higher specific heat capacity and thermal conductivity than air. As such, it is 2-10 times (depending on the situation and the setup) more efficient in transporting heat away from heat sources such as computer CPUs, graphics cards, chipsets, hard drives, and others. The liquid flows through water blocks, which are directly connected to heat sources, and then through the tubing to the radiator with fans, where it is efficiently cooled. The pump pushes the liquid through the system, repeating the cooling cycle over and over to allow computer components to perform at an optimal level constantly. You can find more details in the How Liquid Cooling Works section of our website.

Although the term water cooling is often used for liquid cooling systems, it is not actually pure water that runs through them. We use purpose-made coolants based on water (with special additives), which bring many crucial benefits to a water cooling loop. Quality coolants have a high thermal capacity, low viscosity, and low cost while also being non-toxic and chemically inert to prevent corrosion. You can read our Coolant Maintenance blog for more information on the crucial functions coolants perform in liquid cooling loops.

Blog - Why to change a PC coolant - Liquid cooling loops

Color coolant in an EK liquid cooling loop.

Complex physics in the form of fluid dynamics are behind liquid cooling. But the good news is that we have studied it in great depth when designing our high-performance liquid cooling solutions so that you don’t have to. If you are nonetheless interested in the matter, we encourage you to look into fluid dynamics in greater detail. For this article’s purpose, it is enough to say that turbulent flow is better for cooling efficiency than laminar flow. The latter creates a thin insulator layer close to the walls of the tubing and consequently decreases cooling effectiveness. This is why we intentionally increase the turbulence with proper flow rate and use jet plates or other turbulators in our water blocks.

laminar flowturbulent flow

Water Cooling vs Air Cooling

We have already mentioned that liquid cooling is more efficient than air cooling due to the cooling medium’s higher thermal conductivity. This brings amazing additional benefits such as higher overclocking potentials and improved performance, lifespan, and reliability of PC components. It also explains why liquid cooling is the first choice of more and more modern PC users. Gamers, graphic content creators, data scientists, cryptocurrency miners, and many others all seek high performance and reliability of use, making water cooling the better solution for their needs.


Where Can Water Cooling Make the Most Difference?

Water cooling can significantly improve the performance of all the crucial PC components. But modern graphics cards and CPUs generate the most heat, so this is where liquid cooling can throw its biggest punch today.

Blog - Air VS. Liquid Cooling

A stock (air) cooler on the left and an EK Full-Cover water block on the right.

Any full-cover water block takes care of high GPU temperatures, extends the GPU’s lifetime, and gets rid of the “my-stock-fan-just-died” problem, which is very common. With liquid cooling, you can raise the clock of the GPU and get better performance in games. And we all love high frame rates and smooth gameplay! Above, you can see the clear difference between a graphics card that uses the stock air cooler and the same card with an EK Full-Cover block installed. More on how to get better performance out of your graphics card in one of our next blog posts!

High-performance CPU water blocks, such as EK’s Velocity and Magnitude, do similar for the heart of the PC – the central processing unit. Overclocking potential and improved performance & reliability of the CPU when facing demanding tasks are the benefits that attract more and more PC users to liquid cooling.


Does Liquid Cooling Also Create Less Noise?

As already mentioned, noise levels depend on many things, including the computer’s setup and use. But liquid cooling in general reduces noise levels when compared to air cooling. Simply because it is more effective, which is why the loudest parts of the cooling system, such as fans, don’t have to work at such high frequencies.

Any Limitations To Liquid Cooling?

Liquid cooling is our passion. We obviously favor the idea of liquid cooling over air cooling. But we want to be open about the limitations of liquid cooling – there are two.

Cost is the first. Liquid cooling does come with a price tag. There are no shortcuts in life, and there are no shortcuts in cooling either. If you want the best results, it will cost more. But our liquid cooling solutions are available in various price ranges to suit different customers’ needs and ease the transition into the world of liquid cooling.

The second potential limitation is that liquid cooling, in some instances, takes more time to set up. But it’s no harder than building a PC, and you can use regular tools to assemble both. EK offers very detailed instructions for all of our components and kits. Plus, the additional work is not necessarily a disadvantage, as many enthusiasts enjoy the opportunity to create unique cooling loops from components by themselves. EK also offers other options for liquid cooling beginners, which are much simpler and quicker to install, and a very popular choice for the first steps into the liquid cooling world.

Blog - Air VS. Liquid Cooling

A simpler liquid cooling AIO solution (left) vs. a liquid cooling loop (right).

EK All-In-One (AIO) are plug & play liquid cooling solutions that are easy to install and require no maintenance. These are often the very first choice for those who want to taste the cool benefits of liquid cooling.

EK Kits are basically an out-of-the-box liquid cooling loop, providing you with everything you need (components, tools, and detailed instructions) to guarantee compatibility. A great choice for those who are ready to take a step further and install their own liquid cooling loop – but with components that are hand-picked by our experts.


How About Safety?

We sometimes hear beginners’ concerns about the safety of using a liquid cooler in a computer. Water spills and leaks can occur, but components today are much more reliable than they were 15 years ago when everything was more or less DIY. Using high-quality cooling components and following the instructions & good practices prevents such issues during the setup. And once liquid cooling is installed and tested, you can pretty much run your computer as you typically would. Occasional inspections of the loop are recommended, and we do provide our users with many maintenance tips in our articles and blogs.

Conclusion

Consider this article an introduction to the basics and benefits of liquid cooling. We hope that we kept all the information clear and accessible since our goal was to avoid a dense technical manual that is hard to read.

There will be more articles to come, with more detailed and targeted topics. We will cover everything the liquid cooling world offers and do some cool stuff like myth-busting, too. We are well aware that the internet these days offers a lot of contradictory information, which can be confusing to those just starting their water cooling experience. Stay cool until then!

And if you’re ready to start your liquid cooling journey, we suggest you first check the EK All-In-One.

No loop building, no special maintenance – just performance & fun!