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CPU Coolers Explained – A guide on how CPU Coolers Work

 

A CPU cooler is probably one of the most crucial components on any PC system. Without this, the CPU would overheat and render your PC unusable, and can even cause irreparable damage. This guide will aim to explain the differences in CPU coolers, how they work, and ultimately give you the knowledge to choose the correct one for your build.

 

TDP – Thermal Design Power

 

Firstly, it is beneficial to understand what TDP is, and how it will affect your cooler choice. TDP stands for ‘Thermal Design Power‘ and is a measure of how much heat the CPU will output when under load (not to be confused with power consumption). This is measured in watts, and every CPU & cooler will have this rating. Depending on the CPU, the TDP will be different, so this is where the choice of cooler will come in.

Example –  the newly released (at the time of writing) Intel i7 8700 has a TDP of 65W, meaning under load the maximum heat it will output is 65W. The i7 8700K however has  TDP of 95W. A cooler rated to withstand 95W will be fine for the i7 8700, however it will be on the limit for the i7 8700K, so probably wouldn’t be the best choice.

It’s very important to take notice of the TDP when choosing a cooler, as not only does it affect your CPU, but can also affect cost – higher TDP rated coolers tend to be more expensive, so if you have a low wattage CPU you don’t need to spend a huge amount on a beefy over-the-top cooler.

 


Air vs Liquid Cooling

 

All Coolers work on the principle of heat transfer. The goal is to draw heat away from the CPU and dissipate it, to ensure no thermal damage can occur to the CPU.

 

Air

Air cooling is the most common, cost-effective, and some would say reliable way of cooling a CPU. It consists of a heat-sink, fan, radiator and/or cooling pipes. Depending on the model and rated TDP, your cooler will contain heat pipes attached to the radiator, or just a radiator.

The way an air cooler works is very simple:

  • The CPU generates heat, which is transferred to the heat-sink in contact.
  • If your CPU has cooling pipes, such as the BeQuiet Shadow Rock Slim (see above image), they will run through the heat-sink in contact with the CPU. These pipes are filled with a liquid – in the case of the BeQuiet SRS, ammonia.
  • As heat is transferred from the CPU to the heat-sink, the liquid inside gets warmer, which rises up the pipe and into the radiator.
  • The cooler fan will blow cool air through the radiator, while the case fan will draw hot air away. This in turn will cool the liquid, making it drop back down towards the heat sink, repeating the process.
  • This process is the same with coolers that don’t have heat pipes, such as the Alpine Arctic – the only difference is heat will be dissipated from the metal with the help of the fan. These coolers are only suitable for lower temperature CPUs – the Arctic is rated at a max of 95W.

Because an air cooler only has one moving part – the fan, cost can be kept low (depending on brand and model), and is reliable. Most coolers are easy to repair too, as the fans generally are removable and replaceable.

Liquid

 

Liquid Cooling works off the same principle as air, it just goes about it in a different way. There are a few ways of liquid cooling, however in this example we’ll focus on all in one, or AIO coolers. These are the most common, easiest to setup, and an option we have available on our Music PC systems. Other liquid cooling methods such as custom loops work in the same way.

An AIO cooler consists of a fan(s), radiator, pump, liquid, and pipes. They in which they work is also very simple.

  • Liquid, usually water is in a constant loop throughout the cooler. It travels down one pipe into the pump, where the heat-sink is located and the heat from the CPU is transferred.
  • The hot liquid is pumped back up another pipe into the radiator, where the fans are situated.
  • Depending on the setup, the fans can either be blowing in cooler air through the radiator, or exhausting the hot air. Either way will help dissipate the heat from the radiator, and cool the liquid.
  • The liquid will then travel back down the first pipe and back into the pump, where the process repeats.

Liquid cooling can offer better performance than air coolers as they are generally rated at a much higher wattage, for example, the BeQuiet Silent Loop shown above is rated at 270W max TDP, whereas the Shadow Rock Slim is rated at 160W max TDP. This is why liquid cooling is the preferred choice by gamers who overclock their CPUs, however is also a good choice for naturally high-wattage CPUs. The only downside to AIO coolers is the price. A simple AIO cooler will cost around the same as a high-end air cooler, but is well worth it for the extra performance.

 


Copper vs Aluminium

 

As previously stated, coolers work by transferring heat away from the CPU. How efficient this is depends on the material. There are two primary materials used in CPU coolers, and both have different properties.

Aluminium

Aluminium can be found on a wide range of coolers, and is a good material to use as it is very light. It’s also cheaper then copper so the cost of the cooler can be kept as low as possible. Due to the density of aluminium, it is able to dissapate heat more efficaitly than copper, which is why it is widely used for the radiators.

Copper

Copper is slightly heavier than aluminium, and more expensive, however it has better cooling properties. Copper has a higher thermal conductivity than aluminium, so is able to transfer heat away from the CPU itself more efficiently.

Because of the properties of these materials, it’s not uncommon to find a combination of the two – copper for the heat-sink to ensure optimum heat transfer, and aluminium for the radiator to ensure optimum heat dissipation.

It is worth stating that this is not a rule – lots of research is done into the manufacturing of coolers, so will be constructed in a way to provide the best cooling possible, depending on intended use. The points outlined above are a common method of doing so. There are also other materials used in the making of coolers, for example, the heat-sink of the BeQuiet Silent Loop is plated with nickle.

 


Thermal Paste

Thermal paste is a high-temperature conductive compound that sits between the CPU and cooler, to ensure there is a solid connection between the two components. This will ensure heat is transfered away from the CPU as efficiently as possible, so the better quality thermal paste, the cooler your CPU will run.

At Inta Audio we offer Artic MX-4 thermal paste on our systems, which is regarded as one of the best on the market (look at the reviews if you’re not convinced)!

Thermal Paste works by filling the tiny gaps in between the CPU and cooler. These surfaces are not completely flat and smooth, even though they may look it, meaning there will be microscopic pockets of air in between the two components when they are pressed together. This will cause those sections of the CPU to heat up, causing a loss in performance, or worse, irreparable damage to the CPU.

The paste fills in these gaps, meaning no air can be trapped and heat can transfer easily.

Side Note: Modern Intel CPUs have an in-built temperature monitor which can shut down automatically once a certain temperature is reached. This is to prevent as much damage as possible, however it renders the PC unusable as it will constantly shut down without warning.

 

 

We hope this guide has helped you better understand how coolers function, and also hope it makes choosing a cooler a lot easier in the future.

If you need more assistance please give one of our technicians a call on – 02476 36 98 98
Or email us at – cs@inta-audio.com

Click HERE to view our Music PC range.

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