Gaming Build: Guide to CPU Coolers

Gaming Build: Guide to CPU Coolers

Building a PC is now more accessible than ever. There are many ways to find compatible parts, and a quality rig can typically last you longer than any console. As someone who, primarily, has been a console-based gamer for most of my run, I understand the perception that building a PC is intimidating or complex—so much so that I've gamed on consoles because I think they're as close to "plug-and-play" as is possible today. Luckily however, building a PC is not as difficult as you might think; the hard part is doing the research and figuring out what you want from your machine. With a little bit of know-how, you'll come to see the connections between different parts are straightforward.

If you've read our guide to CPUs (and if you haven't, I highly recommend starting there first) we know that CPUs draw a ton of power and when left unchecked, can spike your PC's internal temperature pretty significantly. High temperatures can lead to a number of problems like massive slowdowns in performance, shutdowns, or even worse, damaged components.

This brings us to the next logical step, which is to invest in a cooling system for our CPU. The purpose of a CPU cooler is to mitigate that heat and keep CPU temps at a reasonable level and prevent overheating. CPU coolers use a number of different elements, like fans or radiators, in combination with thermal paste at the point of contact with the CPU to draw heat away.

There are a few things to know when buying a cooler, regardless of type. First you need make sure it’s compatible with your CPU and your motherboard's socket type. Many coolers, thankfully, come with both types of brackets, so you'll have the parts to install whether you have an AMD or Intel®-based setup.

Usually, you can find the socket type and compatibility in the specs for all of these components but, if you're not sure, you can always check a tool like PC Part Picker to help plan your build and determine compatibility. Another thing to keep in mind is that the size of your cooler can affect how loud or quiet it sounds while running.

Generally, the larger a cooler is, the more efficiently it cools. Cooling performance can be measured by its (Thermal Dynamic Power) rating, which is something to note regardless of which one you choose. You can often find the TDP rating listed in the specs of the processor and cooler. You always want your cooler to be rated higher than the CPU to ensure it cools properly and won't throttle the rest of your system.

One quick aside: if you recently purchased a Ryzen CPU, you may not even need to buy a cooler unless you're planning on doing some serious overclocking. Some Ryzen processors ship with a cooler right in the box and, although they won't blow you away with their cooling performance, they'll still get the job done pretty reliably. However, if you want the best CPU performance possible, an aftermarket cooler will be absolutely essential.

Types of Coolers

There are three main types of coolers widely available: air coolers, all-in-one (AIO) coolers, and liquid or open-loop coolers. This guide will take a closer look at them and will give you some context that'll help you pick the right one for your build. One quick disclaimer is that since open-loop coolers are pretty unfriendly for beginner builds, we won't be examining them too closely this time around.


Air coolers utilize fans and heat sinks to cool your CPU. They also come in a variety of different fan sizes and configurations, including single- and dual-fan setups. One of the best things about air coolers is how easy and relatively straightforward they are to install. Unlike other types of coolers, air coolers are only attached at the point of contact with your CPU. Of course, they can also be fairly bulky, so you'll want to be mindful of your case dimensions and make sure you have enough clearance to install one comfortably. 

Cooler Master Hyper 212 RGB Black Edition CPU Cooling Fan
Cooler Master Hyper 212 RGB Black Edition CPU Cooling Fan

Now let's talk about performance and budget. These days, the best air coolers can rival the performance you get from most other setups, with the exception of maybe a fancy liquid-cooling setup. They're absolutely great for most PC builds and if you're being budget conscious, this category will be your best bet. Don't mistake budget for compromise, however, because air coolers are some of the most-efficient CPU coolers, period. Maintenance shouldn't really be too much of an issue with air coolers either, so if you're looking for a set-it and forget-it solution, start here. Just to reiterate, the biggest takeaways when shopping for an air cooler are to be mindful of size, noise, and performance if you suspect you'll be doing some serious overclocking. If you’re building a midrange machine that you're just going to use for games and other light tasks, an air cooler is way more than capable of handling whatever you throw at it.


That brings us to the next category of coolers, known as All-in-One or AIO coolers. The basic underlying principle to know is that liquid is more conductive than air. The way these coolers operate is very similar to the radiator in your car! You might be surprised to learn that an "all-in-one" cooler is, technically, both a liquid cooler and an air one. They work with a water pump that attaches to your CPU via a cold plate at the point of contact. There is liquid inside the loop that is continuously being cooled and cycled out through tubes that are attached to a radiator with fans on it. The loop in an AIO cooler is an example of a "closed-loop" and one of the key things that differentiates this from a "proper" liquid cooling setup. I think it's one of the things that makes AIO coolers pretty ideal. While they might not be as effective as a custom water loop, they're way simpler to install and offer cooling performance that's good enough for the majority of gaming builds.

NZXT Kraken 360 RGB AIO Liquid Cooler with LCD Display
NZXT Kraken 360 RGB AIO Liquid Cooler with LCD Display

AIO coolers are usually a bit more expensive than their air-cooler counterparts, but they can vary in efficiency and performance a ton, based on the brand, size or features. They also come in different configurations. You'll often see AIO coolers that come in "240mm" or "360mm" variants, which just refers to the number fans and the size of the radiator. Generally, you can safely assume that the larger the radiator on an AIO (or custom water loop), the more efficiently it'll be able to cool. It’s also a good time to reiterate that, as with everything else when it comes to building, ALWAYS make sure your parts are compatible and you have enough clearance. Fancier AIO coolers even have bells and whistles like additional LCD screens, such as this cooler from NZXT but whether or not that's worth it is entirely your decision because it is more for aesthetics than function. AIO coolers offer a great blend of performance to value and can fit into your case's design aesthetic a lot more seamlessly than a bulky air cooler and, for that alone, they're worth considering.


This finally brings us to liquid cooling, sometimes also referred to as a custom water cooling loop. Liquid coolers are a bit more complicated and involved, so I really don't recommend them if it’s your first build, but we'll go over the basics of them here. Water cooling loops work similarly to AIO coolers in that they circulate liquid to cool your CPU. The main difference here is that there's a lot more liquid and more components involved. They're also the quietest of the cooler types, in addition to being the most customizable― you'll need to cut and fit custom tubes to build it out. This usually means you'll need a great deal of space to set one up to fit the tubes, radiator, reservoir, and more.

Without a doubt, you’ll get the best performance with a water-cooling loop but, unless you're trying to overclock an absolute unit of a CPU, they're absolutely not "necessary" for the average gaming build. Not only are they not for everyone, but they can also be quite a bit more expensive to purchase and maintain. Ultimately, there's no denying that they look incredible, and building a PC that incorporates one is bound to be a rewarding experience for those who want to take up the challenge.

To recap, air coolers and AIOs are accessible to beginners and, for most builds, they're easy to install and they perform reliably. There are many great options since they're the most widely available on the market. The next step up would be a custom water loop for the absolute best performance in terms of heat dissipation and unparalleled customization options.

With a better understanding of some of the above factors, you should have no problem finding the right CPU cooler for your build. This is by no means a comprehensive guide and is really meant to help you get started with the basics―and that's not even factoring in cooling the rest of your system.

I hope I've been able to explain that no component in a build exists within its own bubble. Choosing one part will affect your choice of others and, while that can seem confusing at first, for those willing to put in a bit of time, piecing together your PC part by part can be worthwhile and rewarding in the end! Not only will you save money in the long run, but you’ll also have a more granular understanding of how it all works together.

Let us know how your building journey is going in the Comments section, below!