How should you keep your CPU cool? The market offers two main alternatives: air coolers using a heatsink and all-in-one liquid coolers with a pump and a radiator. Radiators take longer to heat up than heatsinks, thanks to the additional mass of the water flowing through them, but are also harder to cool once they get hot. For quick work or gaming sessions with long breaks in-between, water coolers are better, but for prolonged workloads air coolers offer a better value.
Generally speaking, the more powerful your CPU is, the bigger and better cooler you'll need. This will vary across architectures depending on how efficient they are, how many cores, and at what frequencies your CPU runs. If your desktop PC needs a lot of power and you travel with it, you're likely to feel safer with a radiator that's attached to your case via 8 or 12 screws than with a huge chunk of metal hanging off your motherboard.
Another reason to use water cooling is if you have a slim case that doesn't have the space for a larger air cooler, or even for a fan near the CPU. On the other hand, a pump is much harder to replace than a fan if it broke, and while rare, the possibility of leaks within an electronic device can be scary. Regardless of which type of cooler you need, this guide will cover many great options at every size and price point.
- Best Air Coolers
- Best Low-Profile Cooler
- Best All-In-One Liquid Cooler
- Best Compact AIO Cooler
- Budget Coolers
- Socket TR4
Best Air Coolers
In all but the most demanding scenarios, the Thermalright Peerless Assassin 120 and its almost identical SE version will perform just as well as the best CPU coolers on the market, while remaining just as quiet, for less than half the price.
Starting at just $36, the cooler uses 6 copper heat pipes, two 120mm fans spinning at up to 1550 RPM, and a split-tower design to make sure that less air is lost along the way. Thermalright is a seasoned and somewhat forgotten company, but with such price differences between the Peerless Assassin and their competitors, concerns about warranty for the fans are arguably moot.
In most systems, the only reason not to give Thermalright a shot is if you have extremely tall RAM modules (more than 51mm). In that case, you should spend some more on the similarly performing Scythe Fuma 2 Rev. B ($66), which offers complete RAM clearance thanks to its asymmetrical shape.
The heavyweight champions
If you want to fully utilize one of the most power-hungry mainstream CPUs, you'll need one of the most massive coolers. Starting at $65, the DeepCool AK620 offers the best value with two 120mm fans that can reach 1850 RPM.
If you want the very best, you'll struggle to find an air cooler that performs as well as the Noctua NH-D15 with two 140mm fans ($100) at their max RPM of 1,500. Historically, the most controversial (and defining) aspect about Noctua's coolers has been their color scheme. These days, though, you can get the NH-D15's Chromax.Black version for $10 more.
If you value acoustic efficiency over top cooling performance, then you can't beat the Be Quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4 ($90). The cooler comes with two fans: one 135mm in the middle, and one 120mm on the outside for improved RAM clearance. When all fans spin at the same speed, the Dark Rock Pro 4 cools slightly better than the NH-D15 thanks to its 7 heat pipes, but only the 120mm fan is capable of spinning at 1,500 RPM -- the 135mm one is limited to 1,200 RPM.
More compact alternatives
If you aren't running any of the most power-hungry mainstream CPUs, you can also go with a more compact and lightweight cooler. In this case you have several good options, including the Be Quiet! Pure Rock 2 Black ($45), Arctic Freezer 34 eSports Duo ($53) and Noctua NH-U12S Redux ($47).
If you want to build a powerful system that also moves around a lot, you should check out the Noctua NH-U12A ($110), which uses two 120mm fans and a compact single-tower design, but makes up for that with 7 heat pipes and a max RPM of 2,000.
Budget coolers that are much better than stock
AMD's Wraith Spire is surprisingly good for a stock cooler, nearly matching Cooler Master's venerable Hyper 212 Evo, now selling at $45. On the other hand, Intel's stock coolers and AMD's Wraith Stealth are meant to be replaced by those who want to get the most out of their CPU.
If you want to improve upon what your stock CPU cooler offers for as little money as possible, here are 3 proven choices:
- Vetroo's V5 offers 5 heat pipes and a 120mm ARGB fan for $35.
- ID-Cooling's SE-214-XT offers 1 less heat pipe, but sells for $20.
- If you don't want RGB, the Thermalright Assassin X120 starts at $20 without it.
You may think that AMD's Threadripper CPUs are harder to cool than most mainstream CPUs, because of their extra cores, but in fact their larger surface area makes up for those as long as the cooler is designed to utilize it. That's why Noctua is able to get away with a single 140mm fan and a compact design in its $90 NH-U14S TR4-SP3, possibly the most acoustically efficient cooler for AMD Threadrippers.
If you still prefer a split-tower design, the Dark Rock Pro 4's TR4 edition is almost identical to the one recommended above, and usually costs the same as its competitor ($90).
Best Low-Profile Cooler
The market is filled with low-profile CPU coolers, because they are cheap to produce and fit into every case. The problem is, most of them aren't much better than stock coolers, if at all. If you want top gaming performance in a small package, your best bet is the $50 Scythe Big Shuriken 3 Rev. B, released in 2022. At only 67mm of height, it has 5 heat pipes and a slim 120mm fan. It also offers complete RAM clearance and a neutral color scheme.
If you have a bit more vertical space and reasonably short RAM modules, you may be better off with another entry from Noctua: the NH-L12S ($60). Its slim, 120mm fan can be installed on top of the fins, to give extended clearance for RAM modules up to 48mm tall and improve cooling performance; or underneath the fins, so the overall height is only 70mm.
If you need an even shorter cooler and your CPU is efficient enough, Noctua offers the 37mm-tall NH-L9a (for AM4 systems), NH-L9i-17xx (for modern Intel systems) and NH-L9i (for older Intel ones) for $45 each. All versions are available in black for an extra $10, and can be adjusted for AMD's current AM5 platform with an $8 adapter.
Best All-In-One Liquid Cooler
Radiators marketed as "360mm" may sound better than those "280mm," but this naming scheme only takes into account the combined length of the fans, and ignores their width. Spinning at the same speed, two 140mm fans will cool almost as well as three 120mm ones, while making less noise, being easier to maintain, and fitting into cases with 5.25" bays.
At $110, we can't ignore the Arctic Liquid Freezer II 280, the winner of the CPU coolers category at the 2022 European Hardware Awards. Its two 140mm fans are capable of spinning at speeds between 200 and 1,700 RPM. The pump itself is kept cool by a 40mm fan, which helps cooling the motherboard's VRM as well. An ARGB version, with fans that can reach 1,900 RPM, is available for $125. With 6 years of warranty, this is a great value.
Alternatives at different price points
If you have a mainstream CPU or a relatively small case, but still want a liquid cooler, ID-Cooling currently sells its Frostflow X 240 for $56, and the LED-equipped Snow version for $1 less. The two 120mm fans, which can reach 1,800 RPM, start at 700 RPM to compensate for their size. At these prices, 2 years of warranty are good enough.
If you want something a bit flashier and money isn't a problem, look no further than NZXT's $224 Kraken Z63. Its LCD display on the pump is more than a gimmick, as it can make it easier for you to know if the pump fails. A 6-year warranty makes this cooler seem like a safer purchase.
Best Compact All-In-One Cooler
If you have a Mini-ITX case such as the Cooler Master Elite 130, where space and airflow around the CPU are severely limited, a 120mm radiator may be your only sensible choice. Such a radiator isn't going to cool as well as ones that are twice or thrice its size, but it can still be a worthy improvement upon a stock cooler.
Out of the single-fan radiators on the market, the Enermax Liqmax III 120 seems to offer the best value by far at $60.
With a dual-chamber pump, it makes sure that the hot water that's pushed toward the radiator doesn't get mixed with the cooler water pulled out of it. Unlike most of the radiators its size, the fan has a variable RPM of between 500 and 2,000. A 5-year warranty period makes it a perfect choice. The RGB version is available for the same $60, but its fan can only reach 1,600 RPM.