Best CPU Air Cooler 2018
So if you are building a PC these days then you are going to want at least a semi-competent CPU cooler to keep things nice and chilly. Especially if you buy an Intel CPU because the cheapskates don’t even include a CPU cooler in the box!.
Even if you aren’t overclocking we would still recommend at least the budget CPU air cooler on this list. Keeping your CPU at reasonable temperatures not only prolongs the life of your CPU, but will keep you from experiencing any throttling effects in order to keep your CPU cooled.
What Makes an Air CPU Cooler Good?
So in order to assess which CPU cooler is best we need to know what makes them work.
So our goal here is to conduct the heat away from the CPU as quickly as possible. In order to do this, we attach heatsinks which consist of a plate which makes contact to your CPU, then pipes which conduct the heat up to lots of fins which spreads the heat out to the highest surface area that it can within the area used.
We then need to get the heat away from those fins so we attach a fan (or two) in order to get fresh cool air running over the fins. This will blow the heat into the rest of your case which is why it is so important to then have case fans which will help to flow that hot air out of the case so it can dissipate in the surrounding air.
So this leaves us with multiple options to optimise how much CPU cooling we can do. Typically the more fans, pipes and the larger the heatsink then the more CPU cooling will occur. There are more intricate details such as fin density and the pressure the fans output, but generally the larger the cooler and the more fans the better.
This presents a problem though in that you won’t always be able to fit a massive heatsink in your case. It can get in the way of tall ram sticks and may not even fit inside the case at all.
Larger CPU air coolers with more fans also naturally incur a higher cost. So you essentially need to find a balance of what you can afford, what you need and what will actually fit in your case.
Best Overall CPU Air Cooler – Noctua NH-D15
The Noctua NH-D15 is a behemoth of a CPU cooler, but this is a big part of why it’s so good. The Noctua NH-D15 has a massive heatsink with 2 of Noctua’s class-leading 120mm fans.
The Noctua NH-D15 is the highest performing Air CPU cooler on the market right now. But certainly isn’t the cheapest and is edging into the water cooling price range. Although this will outperform most budget CPU water coolers.
The strength of the NH-D15 though is also its downfall. The size can cause problems for some builders and will require you to use low profile ram in order for it to fit. You may also experience height issues with thinner cases.
If you have the budget for a CPU Air cooler though and have a gaming case and ram that can accommodate this behemoth, then this is going to be the CPU cooler for you.
Unmatched CPU Air Cooling
High quality quiet fans
Huge design may get in the way of other parts… or not fit at all!
Best Budget CPU Air Cooler – Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO
This is an easy choice. The Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo has been around for years and has been well established as the best bang for buck cooler among the gaming and PC building community.
This cooler should fit most cases and shouldn’t get in the way of your ram. If it does then you can switch the side the fan sits on to compensate. You can also add another fan to the heatsink for extra performance.
The fan that comes packaged isn’t the best, but isn’t the worst either. Some people choose to replace the fan with a higher quality, quieter CPU fan. However, we would say that if you are buying the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo CPU cooler then you won’t be going for the absolute highest overclocks and would be content with the included fan.
Best bang for buck
More compatible size
Included fan isn’t as quiet as the Noctua fans.
Best Mid Tier – Phanteks PH-TC12DX
The Phanteks PH-TC12DX isn’t the quietest, cheapest or the highest performer. This CPU cooler sits right in the middle of all of those. It is essentially a smaller and cheaper alternative to the Noctua NH-D15.
The Phanteks CPU cooler comes with a couple of decent fans strapped to either side, which are more than quiet enough for almost everyone and do a great job of cooling down that medium sized heatsink.
Because the Phanteks PH-TC12DX isn’t quite as large and has fans on either side it should be more compatible with more people. Worst case scenario you will just have to remove one of the fans if you have a smaller motherboard with tall ram. But it at least has that flexibility, where the Noctua Cooler doesn’t.
More flexible sizing
Great bang for buck
None that we can find!
CPU Air Cooling Push vs Pull Fan Configuration
This is a common question among the community and a lot of tests have been done and almost all of them come to the same conclusion… It really doesn’t matter, at least in regards to raw performance.
Essentially you are still passing the same amount of air over the fins so it really doesn’t matter at all if you configure your fans to push or pull the air over the fins.
One little thing that these test fail to mention though is the convenience that comes with having your fans in a pull configuration. The reason being that dust will build up on the opposite side to the side you have your heatsink fan on. This means that you can clean your heatsink fins without removing the fan!
This doesn’t really apply so much to the Noctua NH-D15 because it has double heatsinks with a fan in the middle. But if you have a typical single heatsink with 1 fan then we would recommend configuring it in the pull configuration, even if it’s just for the sake of convenience.
Air CPU Cooling vs Water Cooling
There are a number of pros and cons by going with Air CPU cooling over Water cooling.
Typically CPU Air coolers are going to take up a lot of space directly above your CPU which can cause compatibility issues with tall RAM modules and will sometimes not fit in smaller cases at all.
However, a water cooling loop can be just as large or in a lot of cases the heatsink will be even larger. The upside though is that the heatsink isn’t fixed to being placed on top of the CPU. This means that it can be placed elsewhere in the case, or even outside the case altogether. This means that if you were to set up a custom water loop then you can have as small or as large a heatsink as you need.
CPU Air Cooling Pros
- Cheaper than water cooling
- Less moving parts to go wrong
- No risk of leaks
CPU Air Cooling Cons
- Large heatsinks can get in the way of other parts
CPU Water Cooling Pros
- Higher potential for cooling.
- Remote heatsink + fans can be easier for compatibility
- Can typically be run quieter than air coolers.
CPU Water Cooling Cons
- More complicated setup (especially if its a custom loop)
- More things to go wrong
- Could potentially leak… Water + Computers = Bad!
For the average consumer, any of these coolers will likely put a smile on your face. You just need to assess just how much cooling you need/want and then get one from this list that fits your needs and budget. If you just need something better than stock, or if you bought an Intel CPU and the cheap skates didn’t give you a CPU cooler then the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO will likely do the job and do it well.