In this topic, I am going to cover some information about the top CPU air coolers that we can find today. Although the more enthusiast PC users prefer using water cooling due to the higher opportunities they offer for dropping temperatures and sustaining overclocking purposes, there are still some air-based coolers for processors, that are capable to ensure good cooling standards as well.
After all, not everyone wants or affords the hugest, power-hungriest, most core-gifted CPUs for advanced overclocking or content creation purposes [or simply for boasting about how powerful their PCs are 🙂 ]. And since Gaming users don’t really need their CPUs to have a high core count (having up to 8-10 cores is fairly enough for Gaming), needing their GPU configuration to be solid instead, then they may be interested in looking for a good Air cooler and mount it over the CPU socket.
And if you still trust Air Cooling enough, then let’s understand it better so that you can find your best CPU air cooler!
Air cooling was up for a long time!
In the history of modern computers, as the processors were heatening while running, they needed to be cooled right the way, and thus air cooling – based on fans and radiators – had to be invented for preventing overheating and subsequent damages. For many years, cooling the CPU via a fan that was mounted on a radiator placed above the processor was a good enough solution – I used this for more than 10 years myself, before starting to build modern PC configurations on my own.
As long as CPUs were not so powerful (high-cored, high-frequency, and consuming large numbers of watts per hour), cooling them by air was sufficient – remember the old times when we had processors like Pentium (first generations), or even more modern ones like those from the AMD Athlon XP suite – one processor, one core, one thread! We knew clearly that we had ONE processor.
And the cooler we were using for this processor was “self-intended” to be air-based. The fan needed to work continuously, and preferrably not to be very noisy (well, when this was starting to annoy us, the replacement with another air cooler was necessary). But any newly chosen cooler for the CPU was still on air!
Of course, at those times we were not aware of “overclocking” – the frequency that the CPU was bearing in its specifications was taken for granted. Some processors, however, allowed us to do some BCLK overclocking (like AMD Athlon XP), but after a certain limit the air cooler was not facing it out enough, and the computer was suddenly turning off (an intelligent move, right againt overheating).
Years have passed, computers further developed and improved, and CPUs got stronger, much stronger – and for their new needs, air cooling was becoming more and more useless, so that if we think today of the computers the high-end way, air cooling for CPUs is pretty obsolete and pointless.
Still, there exist even today some very good air cooling solutions for our CPUs, being able to handle the heat from a certain range of “stronger” processors, although we should surely opt out and go for Water cooling if dealing with the newest Threadripper behemots or top-tier Xeons.
And let’s not forget the fact that – after all – not everyone affords the very best, high-end, most core-gifted processors!
As a matter of fact, the top of the CPU pyramid comes to a pretty small user segment, while the so-called mainstream users afford, need, want, desire, aim at weaker processors, and some people may host pretty old PCs in their homes, with more than 10 years ahead of their generation release date.
In July 2011, my home computer had an AMD K7VM2 R3.0 motherboard with an AMD Athlon XP 1800+ CPU installed on it (with an air cooler, you guessed), and the BIOS date was April 2nd, 2001. And even today, some people may have “oldies” PCs in their households, and while they maybe don’t afford or target a newer computer, they may just look for a better cooler for their processors.
So let’s give them good ideas!
In spite of the fact that waters transfers CPU heat more efficiently than air does, there are brands that still make air coolers, which however are designed in an advanced mode when compared to older air coolers from the 2000s.
While older air coolers used an Aluminium radiator for dissipating the heat that was coming from the heat spreader of the CPU (and let’s not forget about the thermal paste in between the radiator and the CPU), enhanced air coolers being in today’s use feature copper pipes for better handling the heat and lower the CPU temperatures.
But why would Copper be better than Aluminum at doing this job?
Well, when measuring how performant at Heat Dissipation a material is, there is something called Thermal Conductivity. This simply means how well that material transfers this heat, that eventually has to be spreaded in the air around (which is why leaving the case open may be a good idea).
As of the unit of measure for thermal conductivity, we have Watts per meter Kelvin, or W/m*K . It means “watts per square meter of surface area” for one-Kelvin temperature gradient per unit thickness of 1 m.
That is a complicated definition from the Science field, but for us it is enough to know that the Watts per m*K we have, the better the heat dissipation is, and that’s good. So let’s simply call this W/m*K an “unit”, and the ability to dissipate heat as “power”. This power is the thermal conductivity.
Air’s power is tiny – 0.024 units.
The Arctic MX-4 Thermal Compound has a power of 8.5 such units (it’s better than MX-2 which has only 5.6 units!).
Aluminium is rated with 205 units. Much better (Aluminum radiators were really needed as a part of the CPU cooler).
Copper has a greatest power: 385 units! Now we know why the latest Air coolers for CPUs contain a network of copper pipes. Aluminium has not disappeared entirely, in fact some low-cost coolers still use an aluminium base in the structure of the heat-piped cooler, so we can talk about a copper-aluminium mix.
When we use air coolers with copper pipes, the correct position is to ensure the direct contact between the pipes and the CPU heat spreader, where comes also the thermal compound.
I remember that when I came across such an air cooler for the first time, my first try to install it was by placing its aluminum base (the “bottom”) on the CPU, exactly the way old Aluminum radiators did. But to my amazement, this aluminum base was larger than the CPU socket and was impairing the installation of the RAM modules, so it was definitely something wrong about it. Fortunately, later I figured out that the correct way to install this Cooler Master Hyper 212 cooler was “by the pipes side”.
An interesting feature that has been already used for enough years with both air and liquid coolers is the PWM – pulse width modulation, where fans use a special integrater circuit that allows their rotational speed to vary according to how much heat there is. Based on the temperature around, the cooler fans rotate faster or slower, rather than having permanently the same speed. This may save energy and provide less noise when the CPU is not heavily loaded.
There are special PWM headers (3-pin or, in a more modern implementation, 4-pin) on the motherboard, and fans are connected to them via appropriate PWM connectors (they come with the fans themselves, fans have wires!).
And the BIOS configurations of many modern motherboards provide a setting that is called Smart Fan mode – which is tightly connected to the PWM technique. When certain temperature thresholds are reached, the fans that are connected to the motherboard (be it from the CPU cooler, from the case fans or from somewhere else) are instructed to run at a specific percent from their maximum rotational speed (explained below). Users can also manually adjust the percentual rates for the fan rotation.
And of course, when there are small temperatures and little to no CPU workload, low fan speeds are preferable – no waste of energy needed. And it’s also quieter :). Again, this applies for both air and water cooling environments! Fans are used everywhere, purposes differ.
Other useful parameters that we need to know when choosing an air cooler are:
- The diameter of the fans – it may be like 100 mm, 120 mm, 140 mm; the greater, the better;
- Their rotational speed, measured in RPM (rotations per minute); by example, 1500 RPM is a very good speed;
- Their airflow, that has two different units of measure, depending on which measuring system is preferred (metric vs non-metric); we can measure the airflow of a cooler either by cubic meters per hour (m³/h) or by cubic feet per minute (CFM). Conversion rates: 1 m³/h is ~0.589 CFM, and 1 CFM is ~1.699 m³/h.
When compared to Water Cooling, in terms of price, space, power consumption, and noise, CPU Air coolers have great advantages. You may spend up to $100-150 on a very performant air cooler, whereas custom water cooling systems can go towards $500. Then, an air cooler does not need additional tubing, a pump, a reservoir, and a laaaarge radiator with up to 4 fans of 120mm sizes like some liquid coolers do.
Sometimes, air coolers may be a bit too high for fitting into the case, but by leaving the case open this problem is solved, not to mention that the heat is better dissipated when the case is not closed.
Besides, an air cooler has less electrical components: one or two PWM fans, while the water cooling system not only can have 3 or 4 fans, but there’s also a pump… And the noise all those fans make in a water cooling system can go beyond 40 dBA, while we will see below that a top air cooler will stay under the 25 dBA threshold.
And processors that have, say, up to 8-10 cores (very suitable for gaming users, not to mention beginner PC users) are not very, very powerful. They may work very well under an air cooler too. Top air cooling systems are undoubtedly budget-friendly options, when compared to top water cooling builds.
Another fact that we must not forget about is the CPU socket compatibility. A CPU cooler, be it liquid or on air, must give us the possibility to mount its screws properly, right in the screwholes that are placed on the motherboard around the CPU socket. And since there are many sockets, when choosing a cooler for your CPU aka the brain of the computer, you have to know which socket the CPU belongs to, and to read well the socket compatibility list for the cooler you want!
It should look pretty awful to buy a new cooler (or any new pieces for your PC, spoken in general), and at the time of mounting it, instead of just mounting and enjoying your new stuff, you see that it’s simply not mountable! It’s like buying a SATA HDD drive for a motherboard supporting only old IDE drives (and I speak by experience).
Words are enough, it’s time for us to run into several examples:
Some air coolers with great performance
One of the brands that are still concerned about CPU air cooling systems is Noctua. Although I just mentioned a Cooler Master a little earlier, Noctua is pretty worth talking about.
There is a very good air cooler coming from Noctua: the Noctua NH-D15 Dual Radiator Quiet CPU cooler. This is a dual-tower air cooler that has six copper pipes and two NH-A15 140 mm fans, that feature PWM support for automatic speed control. It looks like a two-level “Burger” with a copper base, two aluminum cooling radiators with fins (like old Aluminum radiators), the 6 pipes, and at the top of each aluminium radiator (Fins) there is a fan.
Having 2 different fans and the copper pipe system is clearly an advantage over other coolers, thus improving the heat dissipation. Also, as for the CPU socket compatibility, this cooler supports a large palette of processors – people who know the names of the CPU sockets must consider this list:
- 775 / 1150 / 1155 / 1156 / 1151/ 1366 / 2011 / 2066 /AM2 / AM2+ / AM3 / AM4 /FM1 / FM2
We cannot see the TR4 and TRX4 AMD Ryzen Threadripper sockets here, because those are pretty large, but anyways the supported processors are well enough. The AM4 socket currently provides a flagship CPU (AMD Ryzen 3950X) that has 16 cores and 32 threads, and on the 2066 socket we can see up to 18-core CPUs like Intel Core i9-10980XE.
However, in my opinion, those flagship CPUs have to be carefully used while on air cooling, and without too much overclocking eagerness. Gaming users who need smaller CPUs will feel good with Noctua NH-D15, that is an improved version of the well-awarded NH-D14 standard.
Its maximum acoustical noise is 24.6 decibels or dB(A). It should be no problem – it’s not very noisy.
The rotational speed of its two fans is up to 1500 RPM (±10%), and the airflow is up to 82.5 CFM. But that’s not all! This advanced CPU cooler features also something that’s called Low Noise Adaptor, abbreviated as LNA. This accessory lowers the maximum noise, speed, and airflow of the cooler, when activated.
So, when the LNA is used, our Noctua cooler has a lower consumption: maximum 1200 RPM, 67.9 CFM, and 19.2 dBA.
It has a six-year warranty! Great piece.
A beautiful picture of it:
You can have this cooler for a somewhat around $100 US price. When I become a member in a specific affiliate program, I will also post affiliate links and pictures.
For the moment, the links I am posting are for illustration purposes, and for directing you to the products without me having any earning commissions. Things come at the right time.
Another masterpiece of the Air Cooling world is the Cryorig R1 Ultimate, obviously manufactured by Cryorig. It also comes with a Copper base (which is nickel-plated), two Aluminum fins, two 140 mm XF140 fans, and as for the copper pipes, there are seven of those, each one of them having a 6mm thickness. So we can say that the copper part of this cooler is even more developed than that of the Noctua NH-D15 above, which features “only” six such pipes!
Naturally, it has PWM support (and the cable!), installation instructions, mounting screws, acoustic vibration absorbers, and a noise level ranging between 19 and 23 dBA. The rated speed of its two 140 mm fans is from 700 up to 1300 RPM ±10 % (so I think there is also some room for 1400+ RPM top speeds…). The cooler also has a Low Noise Adaptor, that determines lower speed and noise when active.
Its airflow is good: 76 CFM. The Cryorig R1 Ultimate air cooler for CPUs supports various sockets, like 2066, 2011(-3), 1150, 1151, 1155, 1156, FM1, FM2/+, AM2/+, AM3/+, and AM4.
A suggestive image of this Ultimate cooler can be looked at here:
The prices for this item vary, depending on where you want to buy it from. It may cost under $100, it may be some more. We have to pay attention to shipping fees too. But obviously, this is not an extremely costly piece.
Again, Threadrippers are excluded, because they are too big. Also, the 28-core Intel Xeon W-3175X Desktop CPU is too large, so there’s clearly no way you can use these air coolers with the world’s most powerful CPUs for Desktop.
I said earlier that some air coolers may have a height that would impair users’ ability to close the PC case. Depending on each one’s preferences, a chassis-opened PC may be cooler or it may look disturbing, although – in my opinion – when we leave the case open we give a better chance to heat dissipation.
For those of you who prefer a modern air cooler, and at the same time accept a computer with the case opened, let’s take a look at the following product:
The Cooler Master MAZ-T8PN-418PR-R1 MasterAir Maker 8 CPU Air Cooler (well, quite a long name…) is a black cooler whose impressive dimensions and large CPU socket compatibility will surely find a way to make certain users content, if they choose it!
If you aren’t exactly willing to opt for a liquid cooler that takes extra space, but still want a powerful air solution with strong looks, then this product is good for you.
It offers support for a large list of sockets:
LGA2011-v3, LGA2011, LGA2066, LGA1366, LGA1156, LGA1151, LGA1155, LGA1150, LGA775, AM4, AM3+, AM3, AM2+, FM2+, FM2, FM1.
Its dimensions (length, width, height), given in millimeters, are 135 * 145 * 172 mm. Isn’t it big? 🙂
When looking at this cooler, it looks like a mirrored one-fan cooler with an Aluminium fins part. In fact, it’s a dual-fan whose fans are placed on the opposite sides of the fins area.
When it comes to the copper pipe system, we are impressed again: there are eight (8) heat pipes. Its heat snk material also provides a 3D vapor chamber!
Both its fans are 140 mm in diameter, with a 25 mm thickness. Their speed varies between 600 and 1800 RPM with a 10% margin (well, this speed is greater than in the other examples from the post). The fans support PWM, meaning that they are intelligent and know when to rotate faster or slower, and are called Silencio FP PWM fans.
Their airflow, however, arrives at “just” 66 CFM (other models get above 70), but overall, given the parameters of this cooler, it looks really good as an Air-based solution for the CPU.
Depending on the workload, the noise level of this cooler ranges from 8 dBA to 24 dBA. That’s not disturbing, is it? As a comparison, some water coolers get to almost double this value of dBA. I have such water coolers at home!
In its whole, this Master Cooler masterpiece weighs 1350 g, that’s 3 LB with a good approximation. Then again, some liquid cooling systems may pass the 10 LB threshold (heavy radiators…).
The warranty the cooler comes with is 5 years. That’s another proof of its quality!
The Master Air Maker 8 cooler also features a nice red LED!
See it pictured here:
And now, we have one question: is there any air cooler for AMD Ryzen Threadrippers?
Answer: Yes, there are some! I am going to tell you something about one of them:
The Noctua NH-U14S TR4-SP3 cooler was specially designed for two AMD big sockets: the TR4 and the sTRX4, thus being suitable for all the three generations of Threadrippers. It is also good for AMD Epyc’s SP3 chipset, the server counterparts of the Threadrippers. It results that this cooler is targeting the top-tier AMD processors and there’s no room for Intel [anyway, AMD is already stronger than Intel when making CPUs 🙂 ].
Unlike the two examples cited above, Noctua NH-U14S TR4-SP3 uses only one 140 mm PWM fan (NF-A15 PWM). It has six copper pipes (that are large!), its base is also made from nickel-plated copper, and has aluminium cooling fins. Time for an image:
It has a Low Noise Adaptor (LNA), the maximum rotational speed of its single fan is 1500 RPM (or 1200 with the LNA), and we also keep that “plus/minus 10%” margin when considering these limits. Its maximum airflow rate is 82.5 CFM (67.9 CFM with LNA), and the maximum noise level is 24.6 dBA, or 19.2 dBA with LNA active. The same parameters as in the case of the Noctua NH-D15 Dual Radiator above.
The cooler also has a six-year warranty. We can consider it as a Threadripper-adapted variant of the NH-D15, having only one fan, but a solid network of pipes and, from what the product pictures look like, the Aluminium fins zone is empowered too!
And a nice detail about Noctua coolers: their fan blades are brown. Like chocolate!
We can find very good air coolers for processors, even nowadays when the CPU power has increased very much and sophisticated liquid cooling systems are everywhere. Air cooling is still a living industry, and it’s capable of providing good pieces for cooling the CPUs of basic PC users, middle-class ones (referred to as mainstream, generally), and partly for high-end users & enthusiasts too – that Noctua masterpiece for Threadrippers is an example.
Besides, top CPU air coolers have very reasonable noise levels, and also give their owners some chances for overclocking.
Cheaper, smaller and quieter! And pure Gaming users may go for them.