One of the big decisions that you need to make when picking parts for a computer is whether you want to use air or water to cool your system. Computers have two key parts that produce a lot of heat, the CPU and GPU, the Central and Graphical Processing Units respectively. This heat needs to be efficiently taken away from the processor to protect it from overheating, which can cause permanent damage or even break the processor.
The traditional way to dissipate heat from a processor is to use air cooling. For the highest efficiency, a modern air cooler consists of four parts, a base, heat pipes, the heat sink, and a fan.
The base is directly attached to the processor with a layer of “Thermal paste” to ensure that good contact is made. It is made of a metal that is very good at conducting heat, such as aluminum or copper.
Heat pipes are generally made of copper but are hollow and contain a liquid designed to boil when heated, the vapor then rises through the heat pipe and condenses before sinking again. The change in phase of the liquid to vapor and back again is an extremely efficient way to transfer heat, much more so than if the pipe was made of solid copper. The heat pipes are used to transfer the heat from the base to the heat sink.
The heatsink is the main part of the cooler and consists of a set of thin metal sheets known as a “fin stack”. A heat sink is designed to have a high thermal capacity – the ability to absorb a large amount of heat. The fin stack layout is designed to maximize the surface area of the heat sink so that it can efficiently transfer heat to the air blown over the fins by the fan.
An alternative way to cool your computer is through a liquid cooler, there are two types, the AIO and the custom loop. An AIO water cooler is an All In One solution, they are pre-built, sealed, and can be directly installed and used. A custom loop must be manually constructed from the parts in situ in the computer case and then manually filled with water. Custom water cooling can be more efficient but comes at the cost of greater complexity, a higher chance of leaks, and requires occasional maintenance. AIOs on the other hand don’t require maintenance as they are sealed units.
Water cooling follows a similar concept to air cooling. A base or water block conducts heat from the processor, water circulated by a pump transfers the heat from the water block to the radiator which is cooled by the air blown over it by the fans.
Water cooling isn’t necessarily better than air cooling, with top-end air coolers being able to compete with high-end water-cooling systems. The different layout of the heat sink can help keep other components cooler as liquid cooling radiators are generally placed where the airflow inside the computer exits the case, whereas an air cooler heats up the air inside the computer case.