For many PC enthusiasts, liquid cooling has been little more than the norm. However, for much of the history of PC’s, it was simply out of the question for consumers. You had to have experience working with fittings, tubing, radiators, pumps, blocks and more. It was expensive, it was dangerous and it was inaccessible to the mainstream. However, over the past decade, through companies like Astek and others, liquid cooling has become more and more available and accessible. This was all made possible through the advent of what is called AIO– or “all-in-one” liquid coolers. Companies like Corsair, Cooler Master, NZXT and others took the concept of liquid cooling and condensed it down into a single package with little more than a few screws and a plug to get you started.
While it isn’t inherently important to customers, it is valuable to know at least some of the history behind AIO coolers. Large brands you’re familiar with will likely offer their own coolers, but many of them will be rebranded versions of existing hardware. Back in the day, companies would produce kits. Sometimes consisting of individual pieces of hardware, and other times a complete, all-in-one package. Among them, and most notably for today, was Asetek. Their hardware can be found in modern coolers from the likes of Corsair, Cooler Master and more. While these companies have also brought their own designs to the table, we all owe it to these brave few who dared to bring liquid cooling to the mainstream. What was once an enthusiast’s wet dream is now little more than another option on the market for cooling.
Why Go AIO?
The first question which comes to the mind of many is why even go for an AIO solution. Air cooling has proven itself as proficient enough, right? There are actually a handful of reasons one might consider an AIO over a traditional air cooler. We’ll go over them below.
- AIO coolers are often smaller than air coolers, allowing for better RAM compatibility.
- AIO coolers will subjectively give your build a more premiere, high-end look.
- AIO coolers can offer better cooling performance compared to most air coolers.
- AIO coolers can be very small, allowing you to use them in very small computer cases.
- AIO coolers can sometimes be easier to install and manage, versus their air cooler counterparts.
It’s important to note that, while some AIO coolers will outperform air coolers, all traditional coolers are only capable of bringing your CPU temperatures to as close to ambient temperature as possible. A high-end AIO will beat out most air coolers, but premium air coolers can match the performance of even the best AIO coolers on the market. However, these air coolers can often be incredibly cumbersome, overbearing and can even lead to compatibility issues with your RAM, computer case or potentially even motherboard. While the same can sometimes be said for AIO coolers, this is almost always due to radiator mounting support, and not the mounting support of the cooler itself.
What Do AIO Coolers Consist Of?
While the contents of every individual AIO cooler on the market will vary widely, most fit into the same category when it comes to contents. It will typically look as follows:
- 1x Pump/reservoir block combo.
- 2x Tubes
- 1x Radiator
- 1x Pump power cable
- 1+ Fan(s) (depending on radiator size)
In almost every standard AIO package, you’ll receive a pump/reservoir block combo (the piece which makes contact with your CPU, and which stores the liquid for the cooler), two tubes, one radiator and at least one power cable. Some coolers may come with additional cables, like USB plugs for additional control. However, all AIO coolers will, at the very least, have a pump power cable. These are almost exclusively 3-4 pin cables, which will look just like fan cables.
Also usually included in the box is the fan(s) provided for your radiator. These fans will be the correct size to match your hardware but are not always the best quality. These can be easily replaced.
What Do The Radiator Sizes Mean?
Before moving onto our chosen products, I wanted to quickly cover what the radiator sizes mean. Whenever you see a measurement like 140mm, 240mm, 280mm, etc, this is referring to the size of the radiator itself. This, however, does not refer to the thickness, but the diagonal size. Most radiators will come in at 30-55mm thick. The size of the radiator also almost always represents the supported fan size. When you read “dual 280mm radiator,” what that means is that it supports dual fans at 280mm or 140mm per fan. A quad 480mm radiator would support four 120mm fans, and so on.
It should come as no surprise that, given the liquid nature of these coolers, there is additional risk involved. Where a traditional air cooler only has one point of failure, you introduce yourself to a handful when liquid cooling.
The first of which is the pump. These are the most common point of failure on traditional AIO coolers. While they’re typically not known to fail early on, they do not last indefinitely. Your mileage will vary greatly but know that they are not a forever thing. Some have lasted four, five years, while others have failed after mere months. Luckily, this is usually covered under warranty.
The second point of failure is in the radiator. Now, radiators themselves are little more than fin arrays and mounting points for fans. However, most will have two (or more) connectors for tubing, and these points have been known to fail and leak after some time. Fitting can break, tubing can wear out, or any other number of things. This is far less common, but it still happens.
The last major point of failure is the tubing itself. Whether you’re working with bare rubber tubing or shielded tubing, you’re not immune to failure. There are no types of tubing that are immune to wear and tear, and some materials will degrade faster than others. Even in high-end custom liquid cooling setups, acrylic, and even glass, “hard line” tubing has cracked. It’s simply not a guaranteed thing to last. Steps can be taken to avoid failure in this area though. Avoiding kinking the tubing, moving it around too much, or forcing it into unnatural bends are all great ways to ensure your tubing survives the long haul.
With all that out of the way, we’ve gone ahead and picked out our favorites when it comes to AIO coolers. You’ll find a variety of products with a range of sizes, features and more. Make sure to consult your computer case’s specification on radiator support before buying!
|Name||Radiator Size||RGB||Socket Support|
|NZXT Kraken X62||280mm||Yes||Intel LGA 2066 / 2011-v3 / 2011 / 1366 / 1156 / 1155 / 1151 / 1150|
AMD Socket sTR4 (via included bracket in AMD Threadripper package) / AM4 / AM3+ / AM3 / AM2+ / AM2 / FM2+ / FM2 / FM1
|Enermax Liqtech TR4 360||360mm||No||AMD TR4 / SP3|
|EVGA CLC 280||280mm||Yes||Intel LGA 2066 / 2011-v3 / 2011 / 1366 / 1156 / 1155 / 1151 / 1150|
AMD Socket sTR4 / AM4 / AM3 / AM2 / FM2 / FM1
|Corsair Hydro Series H115i||280mm||No||ntel LGA 2066 / 2011-v3 / 2011 / 1366 / 1156 / 1155 / 1151 / 1150|
AMD Socket AM3 / AM2 / FM2 / FM1
|Cooler Master MasterLiquid 240||240mm||No||Intel LGA 2066 / 2011-v3 / 2011 / 1366 / 1156 / 1155 / 1151 / 1150 / 775|
AMD Socket AM4 / AM3+ / AM3 / AM2+ / AM2 / FM2+ / FM2 / FM1
NZXT Kraken X62 280mm
- RGB lighting
- Great cooling
- CAM software is iffy.
Visually, the Kraken X62 is stunning. With its sleek design, RGB lighting and modern look, there’s very little to dislike here. Additionally, NZXT hasn’t gone out of their way to screw up in any major way with this release. It looks good, it works very well, and it will fit practically every build aesthetic, given the RGB nature of its lighting.
Not all is perfect, however, as NZXT’s CAM software has proven to be quite troublesome for many-a users. From crashes to simply not detecting the cooler, many users, even myself included, have run into bugs regarding their lighting software. Unfortunately, the software is required if you wish to change the lighting on the cooler. It works, but not always.
Lastly, some customers reported that the stock fans are rather noisy. Although, this mostly seems to be a case where your mileage may vary. Luckily, replacing them is a breeze. The only real downside to this cooler is its price, as it is very expensive. However, you mostly pay for what you get.
There are also 360mm, 240mm and 140mm versions available, called the Kraken X72, X52, and X42 respectively.
Enermax Liqtech TR4 360mm
- Very large radiator
- Affordable for its size
- Fantastic cooling
- Threadripper (TR4) only
Let’s first get this out of the way: this cooler only supports Threadripper CPUs. That is very important to remember.
This cooler is… impressive, to say the least. It’s a full block style design, which is intended to cover the entire IHS of Threadripper CPUs. What you gain from this is more even heat dissipation and ultimately better cooling. Because of its very niche socket support, (TR4) it’s also very affordable. The largest– and arguably best price-to-performance– variant is cheaper than other, smaller coolers. However, one of the reasons for this is due to its lack of lighting support. While this won’t matter to most, many coolers in this day and age are shifting towards RGB lighting. When you’re paying quite a premium for the cooler, it’s nice to get all the bells and whistles to boot.
This cooler is dark, it’s mean and it’s impressive. It can handle Threadripper without breaking a sweat, or your bank. There is also 240mm and 280mm variants available if your case can’t support 360mm.
EVGA CLC 280mm
- RGB lighting
- Good fans
- Fair price
- Passable cooling performance (for the price)
Don’t get the wrong idea. This is a good cooler, and there’s nothing wrong with it. The cooling performance is, simply put, middle of the pack. It’s got RGB lighting in the EVGA logo, it comes with fans that are better than most out-of-the-box fans, it comes in at a very fair price, and its competitive pricing can really help it gain ground against other, better coolers. It supports most modern CPUs, sans for large exceptions like Threadripper and other such CPUs, and you can’t really go wrong with it.
It also comes in 120mm and 240mm variants, giving you a few options to choose from depending on your scenario. If you’re looking for something a little more budget-friendly but you don’t want to sacrifice features, this is a safe bet.
Corsair Hydro Series H115i 280mm
- Good stock fans
- Good cooling performance
- No RGB (for the price)
Corsair’s product line of AIO coolers is older than some people reading this guide. There’s a good reason they’re on this list: their products are good. Their product line is extensive, and they have everything from budget coolers up to their more premiere lineup. It wasn’t unrealistic at all to see computer builds running their H50 and H60 several years ago. They were affordable, they outperformed air coolers at the price point, and they looked cool. Nowadays, Corsair sits among the top of the class when it comes to products. While their H115i may not come with RGB lighting, it makes up for it by offering good stock fans out of the box, a very aggressive block design, and very good cooling performance. Make no mistake, the H115i is a fantastic cooler. It’s just starting to show its age among newer coolers with more non-essential features. The funny thing is? It’s not even that old.
Cooler Master MasterLiquid 240mm
- Decent cooling performance (for the price)
- Good stock fans.
To say there are no cons to this product is only slightly a misnomer. While it isn’t perfect; its design is bland, it’s only adequate for cooling, and it lacks any premium features, it’s also very, very affordable. Where other 240mm coolers come in at a much more premium price, the MasterLiquid 240 stays very accessible with its budget-friendly price. It’s only really beaten out by air coolers at its price point, and even then it’s a close race.
There are several variants in the MasterLiquid lineup, including 95mm, 120mm, 280mm and more. For the most part, they’re all very budget-oriented but will not leave you especially wanting when it comes to cooling potential. It’s a very impressive lineup.
We hope you enjoyed our picks for the best CPU Liquid Coolers! While this list may seem a little bit on the bare side, we tried to include as many different manufacturers as possible, and focus on different products depending on different budgets. All of the coolers listed above have size variants and should allow you to find the perfect cooler for your build. Whether you’re into over-the-top RGB lighting, a more muted aesthetic, something more function-over-form, or anything in-between, you’re sure to find it above!