I Put A Big Air Cooler In My PC And It's Working Pretty Great

Bless you, you beautiful eyesore.

Last week, I documented the constant low-level anxiety I had been feeling about cooling the CPU in my gaming PC. I'd spent a couple of years wrestling with all-in-one liquid coolers and had never found something that worked like I wanted. Well, good news: I've finally found something that does.

Last Thursday I replaced my Corsair H100i V2 liquid cooler with a big honkin' Noctua NH-D15 air cooler. The difference has been immediately noticeable, both inside and outside of my PC. On the outside, my PC is a tad quieter than it was, not that it had been all that loud.

It also looks weirder, with a huge metal contraption filling half of the glass side-panel. It's the inside stuff that really matters, however. With the Noctua installed, my CPU, an Intel i7 7700k, is running cooler by about 15-20°C. It's a huge improvement.

My Obsession With CPU Cooling Is Becoming A Problem

Everyone chases some kind of low-key but elusive white whale, a casual desire or goal that remains forever out of reach. For some, it's finding the best possible cup of coffee, or the perfect pair of jeans. For me, it's getting my PC CPU to run below 70 degrees Celsius while under load.

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CPU cooling is one of the great bugbears of PC gaming and a constant obsession for the tinkerers and customisers among us. (I love it, of course, like I love PC building in general.) Your CPU generates a lot of heat as it operates, particularly when doing intense operations like those required by most big video games.

It's essential to keep the processor cool, especially if you overclock your chip to run at a higher-than-stock frequency, since doing so generally requires increasing the chip's voltage as well. Increased voltage means increased temperatures, which require increasingly elaborate cooling.

If you install a stock CPU and don't plan to do any overclocking, you can probably just install the stock fan and heatsink that come with it. Most PC builders opt to use more elaborate cooling, though. Broadly speaking, there are two options: liquid or air-cooling. Air cooling is relatively straightforward: put a metal heatsink on the CPU to pull heat, then blow a fan on the heatsink to cool it off.

The stock cooler that comes with most CPUs is an air cooler, though most custom air-coolers are a lot bigger and more intense.

Liquid cooling adds a step to that. There's still a metal heat conductor that pulls heat off the CPU, but it has a pair of hoses running heat-conducting liquid over it. The liquid cycles over the CPU, absorbs the heat and gets pumped back through to a metal radiator, which, like the heatsink on an air cooler, disperses the heat from the liquid into the metal, which is cooled by fans.

Hardcore folks build their own custom liquid cooling setups, but it's now fairly common to buy pre-made "all-in-one" (AIO) liquid coolers from companies like NZXT and Corsair, which are easy to set up and carry a lower risk of malfunctioning and leaking coolant into your expensive PC.

Gotta admit, the AIO liquid cooler looks a lot more futuristic than the air cooler.

For years, I operated under the mistaken assumption that liquid cooling was superior to air cooling in some abstract way. I mean, obviously it was, right? It's more complicated! It involves liquid! How exotic! I was unfazed by my then-colleague Whitson Gordon's post over at Lifehacker about how he was quitting liquid cooling in favour of air cooling.

That wouldn't be me, no way. He had been struggling with a custom-built water cooling rig and I wasn't going to be that hardcore. I'd just get a prebuilt all-in-one. It would be fine.

I installed and used two AIO liquid coolers over the last four years; one that Cooler Master had sent me and a Corsair one that I later bought to replace it. I had read enough reviews and comparisons to have a faint sense that there wasn't a clear-cut performance difference between liquid and air, but I stuck with liquid all the same.

When I grew frustrated with how noisy the pump on my Cooler Master Nepton had become, I replaced it with a Corsair H100i V2. My CPU was cruising in the 70s while playing video games, which wasn't ideal but I decided was acceptable. I stopped rigorously stress-testing the CPU and decided not to think about it too much.

About a year passed and a Monster Hunter: World crash a couple weeks ago caused me to re-evaluate my cooling. Due mainly to something funky in the way that game pushed my CPU, my temperatures had been soaring into the 90s, which is way too high for a CPU to be running during a normal gaming session.

As I wrote about last week, I went on a tear experimenting with my air-flow, radiator placement and fan orientation, all in a futile effort to get my still-fairly-new Corsair AIO to work like I thought it should. Eventually I decided to just order a big air cooler and see how that went.

That's the brace upon which the Noctua heatsinks rest. This part of installation was much easier than I was expecting.

Last week the Noctua air-cooler arrived and I quickly installed it. Right off the bat I was impressed with how easy it was to attach it to my CPU, given the fact that it's roughly the size of a barn. The backplate and anchor points that affix around my motherboard are smartly engineered, which makes the heatsink far easier to attach than the notoriously finicky x-bar attachment on the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo heatsink, for example.

I've used Noctua fans in the past (they're great), but never one of their cooling products and I've been impressed with how much care they put into everything, from the packaging to the instructions to the included adaptors and cables.

I set up all my case fans, now with exhaust fans running out the top and top-back of the case, two big honkin' fans blowing across the CPU heatsink and two 120mm fans pulling air in through the front.

My current (final?) arrangement. At this point I mostly just like photoshopping coloured squares onto things.

My CPU, a notoriously hot Intel i7 7700k, is currently running with a 4.8GHz overclock at 1.235V and it stays in the 60s during extended gaming sessions. A couple of times my fourth CPU core (reliably the hottest one) might momentarily peak at 70 degrees, but nothing above that. By way of comparison, my most recent AIO liquid cooler, the Corsair H100i V2, would regularly get into the mid-80s even with no overclock on the CPU.

The Corsair wasn't supposed to be getting those temperatures, which means something was likely wrong with it. What was the problem? I can't say for sure. It's still under warranty, so I may send it in for a replacement, just to see if I was indeed experiencing a malfunction.

It could've been that the pump was failing in some way, or that there was some blockage in the flow of the coolant. It could've been that I applied the thermal conductive paste incorrectly, though I've applied and re-applied that stuff so many times over the years that it seems unlikely. That unknowability is part of my gripe with liquid coolers. When they work, they work fine. When something goes wrong, it's hard to identify the problem.

The best thing about finding a good CPU cooler is that I no longer have to worry about CPU cooling. Finally, peace! I can empty out the part of my brain that had been obsessing over airflow and radiator cooling and make room for other things. At last, I can relax... until something new goes wrong and I'm back to obsessively tweaking and troubleshooting once more. This is PC gaming, after all.


Comments

    Last article you wrote asking for suggestions, the most popular answer was to buy a pc case that simply is designed to have better air flow. I was really interested if you'd do that and see the results. But oh well.

      To be fair, this was on the assumption that his AIO was actually working properly.

      Kirk is US based so probably doesn't read the comments here.

    Air cooling gets a bad rap, it's very effective when done right. Most water cooling is like RGB RAM sticks, it's flashy but not that significantly different in thermal dispersion. The top end of liquid cooling does beat out the top end of air cooling, but otherwise the main advantage is size.

    Also, Noctua coolers are excellent. Even the one you have there is probably overkill for the 7700K, you could lose the outer fan (ie. turn it into an N15S) and it'd still cool just fine, and almost silently.

      That should have read D15S, my bad. Shame we can't edit posts though, hey.

      I wouldn't remove the second fan (though it probably is overkill) because they run so quietly yo probably won't notice an improvement in sound level anyway. Graphics cards fans will be making more noise than the two Noctua ones put together.

        Oh yeah, I'm not saying he should, just that he could and wouldn't notice a difference.

      I don't know if it's still the case, but I assume it is: when I was doing my last PC build, admittedly four or five years ago because I haven't needed to upgrade the CPU since then (hoping to upgrade this year if Intel would just drop the i7-9700K) but not only was air cooling done right just as effective if not more effective than the closed liquid cooling loops, it was also significantly quieter for the cooling performance. That made a huge difference because when I built the machine it had to live in my bedroom.

    Great result. Glad to see you went with Noctua. Their coolers might be massive but they're outstanding quality. Make sure you keep an eye on it though. You'll probably need to clean the blades on the fans and probably the fins on the actual cooler every now and then because they accumulate dust. When that happens they don't work as efficiently or as quietly. How often you'll need to give them a clean depends how dusty your environment is.

    I like your airflow more now too. It's basically the same setup I have in my tower and it's worked for me for over a decade. Simple and effective.

    As for water coolers. A big part of that problem is working out how much heat you're producing and how much your radiator can dissipate. That along with the volume of water and the speed of it's flow makes water cooling a bit of a fine art.

      A dust filter on those intakes should solve the dust problem, but with the 3 exhausts and only 2 intakes it probably won't be positive pressure, making the dust worse (unless the exhausts are running a low RPM).

        Even with dust filters it still accumulates it's just a matter of how fast. I pull the filters off my case regularly to clean them and they gum up really quick but I have dogs bringing in a ton of dust.

        I also meant to highlight the fan in the centre of the heatsink since it's mostly hidden from view it's easy to miss when cleaning.

    Used to have the top down noctua on a m-atx mobo. Looked hilarious, ran silently, and even my ram was noticeably cooled.

    I remember back in the day they used to hang with all but the biggest liquid solutions, but were always quieter. Glorious lumps!

      Pretty sure I had the same one, they are fantastic.

    I bought a 4790k for the release of Witcher 3, put a closed loop water cooler on it, and regretted it ever since. No matter how I positioned it it was nosier and hotter than any other PC I had built. I bought a silent case and now it's not a problem, but I'll definitely be going air cooling for my next PC. All my previous builds has Zalman fans and I think my future builds will too

    Personally, I favour liquid cooling, but it's good to see that you went with Noctua for your air solution. As has been said above, cleaning the dust is the only real drawback and a minor one at that.

    I tried the Corsair H100i v2 for a brief time and then reverted back to the original H100i. The v2, while coming with more powerful fans, doesn't allow for custom curves in Corsair Link (now iCUE) while the v1 did, allowing you to implement a smart cooling solution that amps up only when CPU temps begin to rise. I now use the H150i Pro 360mm in a pull configuration in the front panel. However, my CPU is a 4770K at 4.4, so it probably doesn't see as much stress as yours, though the H150i keeps it at an easy low 30's normally and seldom exceeds the low 50's during gaming.

      Note- my PC uses a smart cooling scheme via iCUE. When not under stress, the fans only spin at around 40% to hold that low 30's temp, and then increase from there to 100% accordingly to compensate for rising CPU temp.

    Don't forget Noctua fans have a 6 year warranty too!

    Noctua fans are a must if you want excellent air cooling, nice write up.

    I had a Corsair AIO which l was noisy and didn't do a very good job of cooling. Air cooling FTW.

    Looking at the old setup with the water cooler in there, I wouldn't be surprised if the problem was simply airflow direction. If those fans were pulling air into the case and over the radiator then they'd be dumping heat right above the CPU. Granted the exhaust fan at the back should be clearing it, but one fan out isn't going to do the job. If they were pushing the heat out the top as extra exhaust then it was probably sucking up more of the heat from the GPU than the rear exhaust fan was. The radiator was also a long way inside the case and probably radiating heat back into the CPU just from proximity.

    I bet that cooler would work fine in a larger case with better airflow.

    Must have been something wrong with the H100 to get those temps. Most AIO's will perform marginally better than air coolers once temps have plateaued. This will take longer on an AIO than an air cooler, which gives AIO's a head start. For long gaming sesh's there's probably not that great a difference. I prefer AIO because it does perform a little better, the radiator and fans are easier to clean and the block doesn't put a heap of flexion on the mobo when it's mounted vertically, as most are these days.

    You'll get even better results by changing the TIM under the IHS with a good quality one.

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