Liquid Cooling – Is It Worth It?

If you are constructing a computer in 2021, deciding between a liquid-cooled system and an air-cooling system can be a difficult decision. There are many differences between the two that you should be aware of. Liquid cooling may not be right for you, depending on your circumstances, and it is important you know all the deciding factors. In this article, I will be covering the advantages, and disadvantages of liquid cooling a computer. I will also be covering the difference between an AIO (All-in-one) liquid cooler and custom loop liquid cooling.

Before we dive into the details, I have included a short video from Bitwit, that briefly explains what you need to know before investing in a liquid cooler.

What PC Components Can Be Liquid Cooled?

The two components that can be liquid cooled are the GPU (graphics card) and the CPU (processor). It is quite simple to liquid cool a CPU nowadays using an AIO (all-in-one) liquid cooler. AIO’s include instruction manuals to properly assist you with installing your liquid coolers without any issues.

This process is slightly more complicated for liquid cooling a graphics card, however. To liquid cool a graphics card you must be willing to sacrifice the warranty on it. This is because it is required that you remove the stock graphics card cooler. This then voids the warranty on your GPU. It is also quite difficult to find AIO liquid coolers for graphics cards. So, if you are trying to liquid cool your GPU, you may want to consider installing a whole custom liquid cooling loop.

AIO vs Custom Liquid Cooling

The first thing to know about liquid coolers is the two different types of liquid cooling solutions. AIO (or all-in-one liquid coolers), and custom liquid cooling loops. AIO liquid coolers are the most common type of liquid coolers and are sold at most PC part retailers. They are considered cheaper and easier to install than custom loops. A good example of these is the NZXT Kraken series.

On the other hand, custom liquid-cooling loops are generally more expensive as you need to acquire more parts. These types of liquid coolers aim to include both the GPU and CPU within the loop. That way you can keep both components cool while also running at extremely low noise levels.

AIO Liquid Cooling

The first type of liquid cooling that I will talk about is all-in-one liquid cooling or AIO liquid cooling. This type of liquid cooling is the most reliable as you simply just need to find an AIO liquid cooler that matches your requirements. AIO liquid coolers are more efficient at cooling your CPU than most CPU air coolers.

 AIO coolers do come in GPU versions as well, allowing you to liquid cool your GPU. However, these are quite hard to find. GPU liquid coolers also require that you purchase the exact one that matches the build of your specific graphics card.

Something to be aware of is your case size, as you will need to mount a radiator onto one or more of your fan slots. I recommend that first time adopters begin with an AIO liquid cooler, as they are much simpler to install and maintain than custom liquid cooling loops.

Custom Liquid Cooling Loops

The other type of liquid cooling is called a custom liquid cooling loop. A custom loop requires a lot more patience and research, as it will require you to acquire all the materials and assemble the loop correctly. Making a custom loop is a difficult process and you should do a great amount of research and planning before attempting to create one. In general though, custom liquid cooling loops look awesome when properly designed and assembled.

Building a custom cooling loop can be expensive, time consuming and stressful. So, this process of custom liquid cooling is only recommended if you are a PC enthusiast. Custom loops contain a lot of parts that are required for a well performing system as listed below.

  • Water blocks
  • Fittings & Tubing
  • Radiators
  • Coolant
  • Pumps
  • Reservoir

Overall, I recommend that users interested in liquid cooling first try an AIO liquid cooler. Then, you can decide whether or not to pursue the enthusiast approach of a custom loop.

Advantages of Liquid Cooling

There are many advantages a liquid-cooled PC system gains over an air-cooled system. These advantages include:

  • Less noise production
  • Nicer aesthetics
  • Improved PC power through overclocking
  • Increased lifespan of PC components

Quieter PC

One of the advantages of a liquid cooling system gives you is decreased noise production. Liquid cooling systems allow for better cooling in your system, and thus you can run your air fans at their lowest/quietest setting. Because of this, there will be less noise from your PC. The liquid coolers themselves hardly make any noise at all and all the noise produced is from the fans equipped on the radiator.

Aesthetics

In terms of aesthetics, liquid cooling provides a much more customizable and sleek appearance. When you look at a liquid cooled PC next to an air-cooled PC, there is a clear winner in terms of aesthetics. An airflow CPU fan can look large and clunky in comparison and throw off the aesthetic appeal of your PC build.

Liquid coolers will often come equipped with customizable RGB lighting, such as the NZXT Kraken series.  There are tons of different styles, and brands available for AIO liquid coolers as well, so be sure to find one that matches what you are looking for. Since liquid coolers are more expensive, you want to make sure you get the perfect one for you!

Custom cooling loops have an even more intense professional style to them. They contain custom tubing and reservoirs that allow for a much more expansive design. And generally look more impressive than any AIO liquid cooling PC rig!

Improved PC Power

In terms of PC power, a liquid-cooled system consistently outperforms air cooling in terms of overall PC temperatures. Additionally, your computer temperatures can directly impact the performance and power of your PC. By achieving lower temps, you can overclock the pc component that you want, and therefore increase the power of your PC. To be able to overclock, you will have to access your BIOS or be able to use some sort of 3rd party PC monitoring software.

Overclocking

Since liquid coolers provide users with lower CPU/GPU temperatures, you can boost your PC by performing a process called overclocking. You can either overclock your GPU, to result in increased graphical performance. Or you can overclock your CPU, to achieve greater processing power. It is possible to overclock other PC components as well, but the GPU and CPU are the two most common.

Overclocking is the act of increasing the clock rate of your PC components. As with most things that increase performance, there is a trade-off for overclocking. Being that the PC component you are overclocking will consume more power and thus produce more heat. Therefore, PC users should opt to achieve low temperatures before overclocking to prevent any possibility of parts overheating.

To overclock your PC parts, you must first access your computers BIOS or download and use external overclocking software. The BIOS is a settings page which contains vital PC options that will appear after pressing F2 when powering on your PC. Depending on your motherboard manufacturer, the BIOS menu layout will vary, so it is difficult for me to know exactly where the overclocking menu is in your BIOS. Therefore, I recommend the use of a 3rd party overclocking software such as MSI Afterburner. This way, its much simpler to overclock your PC and you do not need to restart to access overclocking features.

 For a more detailed explanation on how to overclock your computer check out this video from PC Gamer.

Increase Lifespan of PC Components

The most common way that PC parts deteriorate is from overheating. The higher temperature that a PC component runs at, the shorter the lifespan of that component. PC components that are liquid-cooled run at lower temperatures which in turn allows for an increased lifespan. Generally, AIO liquid coolers are rated for more hours and tend to last longer than air coolers. With all of this taken into consideration, liquid coolers can directly increase the lifespan of the PC component it is attached to.

Disadvantages of Liquid Cooling

Although there are many advantages to liquid cooling, it also has its fair share of disadvantages. Liquid cooling can be more expensive and less reliable than air cooling. While air coolers are generally more cost-efficient and have less potential for issues than liquid coolers.

Cost

In terms of cost, liquid coolers are generally more expensive than air coolers. There are a few exceptions here when comparing the highest quality of air fans against the cheapest AIO liquid coolers, but this is generally not the case.

CPU liquid coolers typically range around $70 – $120 for the most cost-efficient versions. While air-coolers are included with the CPU as stock fans. These stock CPU air coolers are not very productive, however, and I recommend always buying a separate CPU cooler. Aftermarket CPU air coolers are usually less expensive than the cheapest of liquid coolers, starting at around $30 for a decent one.

Possible Malfunction

Although liquid coolers are widely considered to be more efficient at cooling your PC system, they are also considered riskier. All-in-one liquid coolers nowadays rarely ever malfunction and are often supported by good warranties. These liquid coolers, however, still pose a risk of leaking or malfunctioning.

Where leaks and malfunctions become more prevalent is within custom water-cooling loops. It happens often that amateur or first-time builders will make a mistake somewhere during the lengthy process of building a custom loop. Since the custom loop takes so many parts there are many places for error when making one. If you decide to go with a custom loop, it is very important to do the proper research and planning to ensure you are successful.

Maintenance

Unlike air coolers, liquid cooling systems require occasional maintenance to ensure they are still running efficiently. The maintenance required for AIO liquid cooling systems can vary, but typically only require you to change the thermal paste applied to the CPU every so often. Any additional maintenance details should be listed within the AIO coolers user manual.

Maintaining a custom liquid cooling loop, on the other hand, requires a lot more work and operation maintenance. It is often that users want to hop onto their computer to enjoy some free time, so having to perform a lengthy maintenance process to ensure your computer is running properly can be a turn-off for some users.

User performing maintenance on their custom liquid cooling loop

Whether you are getting an AIO liquid cooler or planning to build your own custom loop, it is important to understand the maintenance required to ensure the coolers keep operating properly.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, liquid cooling provides a plethora of advantages to improve your PC build. Being whisper quiet, improving the overall look of your PC, and providing extreme low temps are just a few of the notable improvements compared to air cooling. These advantages, however, come at the expense of a higher price point. Liquid coolers can range anywhere from $60 for the entry-level AIO’s, to hundreds of dollars for the more enthusiast-level coolers. If you are interested in adopting a liquid cooling system, an AIO liquid cooler for your CPU would be a great place to start. As these AIO’s are the most easily accessible and the most cost-efficient for new adopters.

Ever since getting my NZXT Kraken X62, my PC has been performing extremely quietly and I am able to overclock my CPU. If you: want a quiet PC, are wanting to overclock your PC, or simply enjoy the appearance of liquid coolers, then liquid cooling is well worth it!