Liquid Cooling vs Air Cooling
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. With every generation of CPUs and GPUs, manufacturers are making higher and higher transistor densities to achieve better performance. 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 and limitations. Read on to find the best cooling solution for your needs.
Two Major Forces in Computer Cooling
Two main options exist 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. Liquid cooling is a more recent and advanced hardware cooling technology. It requires water blocks on the parts you wish to cool, a water pump, a water-to-air heat exchanger (radiator + fans), and a liquid reservoir.
In this case, the liquid travels safely through the cooling system, takes the heat from PC components, and moves it far away from them for much more efficient cooling. The heat is taken by the coolant and is then spread out through the big radiator surface. Fans then remove that heat at lower speeds as the heat is more spread out.
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.
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, which led to the growing popularity of more powerful liquid cooling. For example, the latest top-end CPUs reach 300 watts, while GPUs approach 600 watts, and the numbers go even higher with overclocking. The good news is that we now all have access to high-performance commercial liquid cooling components through specialized local retailers or online stores.
Modern CPU water block – EK-Quantum Velocity²with sophisticated flow design.
Liquid Cooling in Modern Computers
There are two main reasons why people nowadays turn to water cooling, also known as liquid 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 computer use, 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 the water-cooling world, it covers everything from a simple, clean build to elaborate mods with multiple graphics cards, hard tubing, complex lighting, and much more. Liquid solutions provide countless customization options, allowing each end-user to create a unique water-cooling setup.
Distribution Plates also play a big part in custom PC water cooling. Also known as Distro Plates, these are typically compact solutions that serve as a reservoir, coolant routing to your components, and often include a pump as well. With the use of distro plates and the EK-Matrix7 standard, creating custom water-cooling loops becomes more accessible and provides more possibilities for a more streamlined building of stunning custom loops.
Note: More information about EK-Matrix7 later in this article, but we highly recommend checking out the video below to better understand how the EK-Matrix7 concept works and why it is changing the current PC liquid cooling landscape:
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 out our Featured Builds & Mods section.
Another great way to get introduced to custom PC water cooling is to check out our Shop the Loop page. You can explore some of the world’s best liquid-cooled PCs and custom loops and get actionable inspiration for building your own masterpiece.
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, etc. 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 levels 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 water-based purpose-made coolants (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 post for more information on the crucial functions coolants perform in liquid cooling loops.
Color coolant in an EK liquid cooling loop.
Complex physics in the form of fluid dynamics is behind the liquid cooling concept. But the good news is that we have studied it in great depth when designing our high-performance liquid cooling solutions so you don’t have to. If, however, you are 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 tubing walls, consequently decreasing 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.
Water Cooling vs. Air Cooling
We’ve already mentioned that liquid cooling is more efficient than air cooling due to water having higher thermal conductivity. This brings amazing additional benefits such as higher overclocking potentials and improved performance, lifespan, maximum boost time, and reliability of PC components. It also explains why liquid cooling is the first choice of an increasing number of modern PC users. Gamers, graphic content creators, data scientists, cryptocurrency miners, and many others seek high performance and reliability, 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.
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 eliminates the common oversized-stock-cooler problem. 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.
High-performance CPU water blocks, such as EK’s Velocity² and Magnitude, do similar for the heart of the PC – the central processing unit. What is attracting an increasing number of PC users to liquid cooling are the following benefits: improved performance with higher boost clocks that are sustained for much longer, increased reliability, and the CPU overclocking potential when facing demanding tasks.
Does Liquid Cooling Also Reduce Noise Levels?
As mentioned, noise levels depend on many things, including the computer’s setup and use. But liquid cooling generally reduces noise levels compared to air cooling, simply because it is more effective as the heat is cooled by larger surfaces and exhausted out of the case. This is why the loudest parts of the cooling system, such as fans, don’t have to work at such high frequencies. Luckily, users can now easily get a proper liquid-cooling-friendly PC case that supports bigger radiators and easily achieve near-silent operation.
Are There 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 not much more complicated than building a PC; 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 scratch by themselves.
To make custom loop building easier and more intuitive, EK has introduced the EK-Matrix7 standard. Since PC liquid cooling became widely available, there was only one standard across the entire market: the G1/4 “thread. Now, we are able to add a new dimension, where the height of products and the distance between ports are managed by 7mm increments.
This water-cooling loop design concept enables you to spend less time planning the loop and bending tubes and makes building a liquid-cooled PC easy and fun, just like playing with toy bricks.
EK also offers other options for liquid cooling beginners, which are much simpler, quicker to install, and a prevalent choice for the first steps into the liquid cooling world.
A simpler liquid cooling AIO solution (right) vs. a liquid cooling loop (left).
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 fantastic benefits of liquid cooling.
EK Kits are an out-of-the-box liquid cooling loop, providing you with everything you need (components, tools, and detailed instructions) to guarantee compatibility. An excellent 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.
Shop the Loop kits enable you to get and/or copy an entire custom loop from our example builds with only one click. Every part of the loop has already been chosen for you, and keep in mind you can use almost any PC hardware and still be able to copy the build. Our technical support is here to help you modify the cart to fit your components.
How About Safety?
We sometimes hear beginners’ concerns about the safety of using PC liquid cooling. 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 and best practices prevents such issues during the setup. And once liquid cooling is installed and tested – check out our Leak Tester here – 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.
Consider this article an introduction to the basics and benefits of liquid cooling. We hope that we made 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. We know the internet provides a lot of contradictory information, which can confuse 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 out the EK All-In-One for no loop building or special maintenance – just performance and fun, and also visit our Shop the Loop page for endless water-cooling loop inspiration!