CPU cooling is a pretty hot topic amongst gamers (pardon the pun) as more performance usually results in the creation of more heat.
Despite thermal efficiency getting better and better with each new chip, there is still a need for a great CPU cooler especially if you want to extract the maximum from your rig through overclocking.
The amount of heat generated is a directly related to clock frequency, circuit metrics like material, voltage & complexity. While your gaming laptops can get away with basic heatsinks, a powerful desktop will need more.
Naturally, we’ve reviewed and tested some of the best CPU coolers currently available on the market and separated them by categories.
The term bigger is better is extremely apt when dealing with CPU coolers, in particular.
Whether you are on a budget or desire the maximum performance irrespective of the size, we’ve got your back.
Best Big Air CPU Cooler
Without beating around the bush, we can safely say that the Noctua NH-D15 is our favorite CPU cooler since it offers a great balance between price, performance & noise generation.
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The Noctua D-15 features six heat pipes with a dual fan setup. The fan size is 140mm and speed control is automatic like any other model. Socket compatibility extends to Intel & AMD which is a big positive for us.
During our testing, the i7s regularly idled around the 25-degree mark which is excellent. It’s much lower than the Cooler master MasterAir Maker which is our runner-up in this category. This is indeed a must-have option for those who like to overclock their processors and would like to have a relatively silent CPU at the very same time. During full 100% CPU usage the temperature still hovered around an impressive 40-45 degrees.
The D-15’s performance stems from the copper base plate being nickel plated which is soldered to the base. It’s all about efficiency when it comes to coolers, and the fins are fastened to the heat pipes which helps massively.
Pricing-wise it can be entirely subjective, but we’ve decided to list it as a Pro instead of a con because of the sheer level of performance on offer. Customer service is quite excellent which works well with the 6-year warranty on offer.
The D-15 is not perfect, however, due to its large size it sometimes doesn’t quite fit on certain motherboards. If you have taller RAM, then these can get very close to your fans. In some rare instances, (again motherboard dependent) you might have to be forced to move your graphics card to a PCI slot that’s lower to accommodate the DH-15.
In the car niche, when Ferrari came out with the F40 they said it would be tough for their engineers to top but they eventually followed it up with the 458 which turned out to be even better. Likewise, we could have very easily featured the NH-D14 (which set the standard back in 2010) on our list, but Noctua has topped that with the NH-D15.
Big Air Runner-up
As far as close 2nds go, it doesn’t get much closer than this between the D-15 and the Master air maker 8. The cooling on offer is just different to the D-15 by a degree or two. The Master Air takes advantage of an innovative vapor chamber which helps performance.
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At full load, you can expect your desktop to not go above 65 degrees which is extremely good even if you run the most demanding of tasks on an overclocked i7 7700K for instance. The Aesthetics are a winner, and if there were a coolest looking cooler award, this would certainly get our vote. The decibel levels are a max 23dB which is better than most in the market. This is also a facet in which the Master air beats the NH D-15.
Another positive is that you can swap between 120mm and 140mm fans which will be to the liking of many gamers. It is also a much more durable option than others with the ability to rack in 4 times more hours concerning fan life than budget or slim options.
As reported by most users too, the Master Air is as hard as it gets when it comes to installation. Another reason why this didn’t take the top spot is the price. You are pretty close to a liquid cooling option performance and price wise with the master Air and factoring in its massive size makes it a slightly less attractive option in our eyes.
Best Liquid CPU Cooler
If you are looking for the crème de la crème of cooling solutions then the Thermaltake is one of them. The best among the liquid cooling solutions in our opinion as it delivers extreme performance even during constant overlocking or video intensive environments. The setup is far from complicated and placing the radiator on the roof of the casing is best.
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Featuring 6 120mm fans this will ensure your processor plus your entire rig setup remains cool. The water 3’s all in one performance we found was as good as it looks. Socket compatibility was another one of its strong points as it works across Intel & AMD chipsets.
The smart fan controller was pretty well polished and had no functionality issues. The pumps quite reliable and the closed loop system will ensure you don’t suffer any leaks. Pure stats wise you are looking at 30ish degrees on idle and between 45 and 55 (Can go close to 70 with overclocking) depending upon the load. Many users also reported the CPU getting lower by 20C + after using the Thermaltake.
Pretty much nothing in the market is perfect and some do get close. Some of the things that hold back the Thermaltake which can be quite subjective of course is its price. It will cost you more than double the price of even the best air coolers. Another is that during idling it’s not very different to any other air cooler but it does shine through in the rough. As a result, if you don’t plan on doing any regular heavy duty gaming then our budget pick might be a better investment.
Best Budget All-in-one Water Cooler
Typically, liquid cooler and economical don’t fit in the same sentence but thanks to the Corsair H60 you can get amazing value for money. Excellent thermal efficiency coupled with a price comparable to mid-air coolers this is not only an economical solution in terms of price but in terms of space as well.
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The H60 features a 120mm fan which functions around 2000 RPM and many users have reported to the sound to have increased progressively over time but otherwise, it’s not too loud. Raw temperature stats wise you are looking at a 30 degree approx. at idling and 60 to 65 during intense gaming.
The installation is easy but many users did mention that the mounting screws or instructions regarding what screws to use provided by corsair were a tad confusing. Overall, if you are looking for a liquid cooled solution and don’t want a big bulky air cooler then the H60 is a reliable high-performance alternative.
Best Mid Air Cooler
The Arctic freezer i-32 can help keep your CPU temperatures low. This is by far and away our pick for the best midair cooler as the temperatures it was able to maintain on idle were around 27-30 degrees which was not too far away from room temperature too.
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The mid sizes segment might not be the most popular but is certainly our favorite since you get a great balance of price and thermal performance. If you happen to overclock your processor, you will probably see temperatures around the 70-degree mark which is more than reasonable for a processor running full tilt for an extended period.
The fan is a simple 120mm PMW fan which comes with a controller. This might seem pretty standard, but it’s the quality of the heatsink itself that makes the Freezer i32 such an excellent desktop cooler. If you seek liquid cooling but have budget constraints, then this would be a formidable backup.
AMD users look away! As this is probably the only weakness as such of this option as it is only compatible with Intel sockets. It works with 2011, 1155, 1150, 1156, 1151 sockets. On most motherboards that have the sockets specified the i32 works well. Despite it sometimes getting close to other components we didn’t need to shift RAM and graphics cards to different slots.
Best Slim Air Cooler
As far as low profile coolers go you need something that punches above its weight concerning the size to cooling ratio. The Scythe we felt does a good job of offering consistent cooling performance while ensuring you don’t have to buy a new case to keep your desktop cool.
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The SCBSK-2100 has five double-sided heat pipes which offer good cooling. This low profile option is just 58mm tall which makes it a good fit even in some narrow cases. This is a slight double edged sword though in a sense because it’s more comprehensive than other options which may hinder other motherboard components. The fan is super slim and is a 120 PMW fan.
Raw performance wise it is unable to match larger or dual fan options but still gets the job done to most people’s satisfaction. The temperature is usually around 45-50 degrees on moderate use which is not close to the D-15, but it’s all about trade-offs. There is a nickel plating on the base or the copper sink which comes into contact with the strips which prevents corrosion and facilitates better heat transfer.
Thanks to the complicated mounting system you might have to disassemble a lot of your computer to get this on your motherboard despite it being listed as compatible. The only major con in our eyes is related to this aspect. The functioning even when gaming at high resolution on a 6th gen i7 is somewhat less noisy.
Overall, it’s still quite a competitive option to consider when talking about CPU air coolers.
Best Budget Air CPU Cooler
Just like we promised right at the start, this list isn’t just for those with an unlimited budget. For those looking to gain a lot of cooling performance with a limited budget, the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO is the way to go. We’ve gone with the four heat pipe version although Cooler Master does have a 2 & 3 heat pipe alternative because it gets you the biggest bang for your buck.
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After taking a look at the 120mm fan, the curly transparent blade design was an eye catcher and doesn’t have the funky look of the Noctua which we touched on earlier. Despite the innovative blade design, we are not sure that it impacts the cooling so much as many traditional designs also get the job done well.
Searching for a budget alternative when it comes to cooling is always a bit risky. As these are quite large devices and if you frequently overclock your processor you need to make sure the air cooler can consistently do the job.
During setup despite a neat video on the product page explaining how to do it. It was quite a hassle, and the fan + heatsink does stand quite tall.
Motherboard compatibility is quite decent with it supporting many Intel sockets such as 2011, 1366, 775, etc. AMD socket compatibility is also a boon with it supporting FM1, AM2 & AM2+, and AM3 & AM3+.
Concerning core performance, it maintains your processor at about 47~ degrees during moderate gaming. This stat is not the best in the world but is certainly good for a budget option considering its only 10 degrees over and costs about a 3rd of the price of the best on our list. (At the time of writing)
Another important aspect for gamers is fan noise, the 212 EVO is very quiet, and this can be down to the fact that the spin speed is lower than most others out there.
Budget Air Runner-up
If your stock fan just broke and are looking for an upgrade then the DEEPCOOL offers an enticing alternative for a very low price. During heavy gaming, you can expect temperatures of about 60 degrees which is may not be the lowest but still miles better than the plain old CPU fan.
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SO what makes this a good option compared to the EVO 212 well a similar thermal efficiency is achieved with 2 heat pipes instead of 4 on the Deepcool ice blade. The fan blade size is just 80mm which is quite a testament to the heat sink quality. Its price was also lower at the time of writing. The temperature maintenance & noise generation levels are quite similar to the EVO 212.
You are probably wondering why this is a runner-up. Well, its compatibility with different sockets during our testing is one reason. Another is that the materials used in the construction were not as good as some of the high enders or the 212 EVO. As reported by multiple other users the locking connectors on the base were not quite firm. The installation is easy but staying on was a concern for most folks.
Before you Buy
When we talk about temperatures, the acceptable performance values for a great cooler is usually below 59C, for a good one below 70C when running at full speed. If you see any figures stated below the 35-degree mark, it’s probably when the PC is idle. Typically in design, yes, the more copper heat pipes a cooler has, the better as they do a great job of transferring the heat quickly. During testing the ambient temperature also changes which affect the CPU temperature to an extent as well.
How we tested them
We made sure to check a number of cooling solutions including the ones mentioned on our others’ list below, to ensure you received the best of what was on offer.
Fitting on different board & tower configuration
I suppose this section is quite self-explanatory we tried on the various air coolers on different motherboards to check its proximity to essential components like RAM, graphic cards and the likes. It’s quite common that some of you guys have an SLI setup for your rig. In these cases, you need to opt for coolers that never force you to move your graphics card to a slot below. RAM proximity is okay as long as there is no risk of contact.
The ease of the process was also essential to us. If it’s just too complicated, then the consequences of getting the assembly wrong are just too high meaning we’ve scored it quite low on our ratings. Some manufacturers do a phenomenal job of giving out video demos of the fitting process which is a big positive.
Cross compatibility between AMD and INTEL was a huge positive, and the cooler’s ability to cater to the new socket models were also tested.
Another minor aspect was the thermal compound that comes along with some of these coolers. It’s entirely a myth that these supplied by the companies are not as effective as the ones bought separately. We changed the paste on a couple of models and tried out best to use identical paste levels and found no substantial performance difference as such.
Gaming at ultra-high res
This is another section that’s quite self-explanatory. Most of our tests we conducted with a 6th Gen i7 6700K, 32GB of RAM. We put them through multiple hours of gaming on a ultrahigh resolution to ensure the cooling performance is stable over many hours. All that made the cut provided a safe & stable temperature range with the Noctua being the best with it barely getting over 50 degrees without overclocking.
It was quite interesting to note the different approaches companies have taken to achieve the highest heat transfer efficiency possible.
This also gave us the perfect opportunity to monitor noise level with most lying between the 8 & 32dB mark when on idle and full tilt respectively. Something we found to be very acceptable even at full capacity. The dual fan models were, of course, runaway winners regarding sheer core functionality.
Note: We did not close the case at any point during the testing process as we found that there are simply too many case options to cover to provide a satisfactory answer to the question “will it fit in X, Y or Z cases.”
This isn’t something we tested too much, but it’s more of an extension of the fitting process. If we hadn’t mentioned this explicitly in a review, it means that the cooler didn’t have any issues on this front. Weight was important for us considering that most are technically sideways for extended periods. A lot of the fans like the D-15 were designed assuming that you don’t move your rig around a lot. The manufacturers above have made good use of aluminum components to ensure you get the lightest solution that doesn’t add any unnecessary stress onto your CPU.
Be quiet! Pure Rock Slim
Another budget variant was offering high performance. Its high points are its noise generation. It operates quietly even during the most demanding of gaming sessions. A good fan solution for entry level and novice gamers who don’t like to squeeze every inch of performance from their rig. The price is quite competitive, and it has many similarities concerning performance numbers to the EVO 212 and the DEEPCOOL. The decision to choose between them can solely boil down to what your number 1 preference is whether its noise level or cooling performance.
The runner-up in our mid-range category. With a 180 TDP and 4 high-performance heat pipes and a 140mm PMW fan, one could very easily swap this with our main pick. The H5 is quite large, but the thermal efficiency is fantastic. It keeps your CPUs well below 65 degrees even when loaded fully & you are multitasking heavily. The installation can require you to disassemble your whole motherboard though. A pretty straightforward process, however. The 19 to 23dB noise level statistic provided by Cryorig is spot on as well, which makes it another quiet option under load. Another positive is that the build quality is exceptionally sturdy and this offers excellent value for money.
Old but gold. The Noctua consists of 6 high-performance heat pipes and dual bearing fans that provide outstanding performance while lasting you many years. Its compatibility with newer sockets and its ability to clear RAM slots is one reason the ND-15 is way above this model on our list. Nonetheless, if you have one of the compatible slots and are looking to replace your old CPU fan, then the D-14 is something worth considering. Its performance can be top notch, but it’s quite large and bulky. Many users report their CPU temps dropping by a whopping 30 degrees after using this.
Phanteks U-type Dual tower heat sink
This model utilizes cold plasma spraying coating tech along with nanoparticles to enhance thermal conduction. It has a high-temperature threshold. The fans are a 120 PMW fan which is pretty standard. This might be a good option if you are not regularly into the habit of overclocking. Unlike the D-14, for instance, you might not get temperatures below 65 degrees when the CPU is pushed to its maximum. On a moderate workload, you can expect the heat to stay in the mid-40s which is quite healthy for your processor.