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These are the current best CPUs for gaming to build your rig around.
There are essentially two types of CPU coolers to choose from. The first is an air cooler, which has a big metal heat sink, normally with a huge fan, that pulls air away from your processor. You’ll need to check a few things before settling on an air cooler: CPU socket type, RAM clearance, and your PC case’s dimensions. If you’ve found a good fit, however, CPU fans are often the quieter choice—the volume should be noted on the box and this is certainly something you should check before committing to a purchase.
The second option is a liquid cooler. The most common is often known as an ‘all-in-one’ or AIO. As the name suggests, these pass coolant in a closed loop via a plate attached to your CPU, which pulls heat off your precious components and around a radiator where that heat is dissipated. Liquid coolers tend to be more efficient and are generally the flashier option with RGB lighting or even small OLED screens attached, but are often more expensive.
You could also create a full custom water cooling loop if you’re feeling brave, which can include GPU as well as CPU cooling too, but that way lies tube-bending and a whole lot of installation effort. But damn, it can look seriously cool. Pun not intended. But it works, so it’s staying.
We’ve listed a good selection of air and AIO coolers below, which cater to both high-end and budget builds, and will help keep your gaming PC running cool. If you’re looking for other ways to help increase your system’s ventilation, you can check out our guide to the best PC fans.
Best CPU coolers
Corsair was one of the first hardware manufacturers to bring all-in-one liquid coolers to market. It’s only fitting that its latest cooler has dethroned our previous king. The H115i has always been a strong contender for the throne of best liquid CPU cooler, only narrowly beaten by NZXT’s Kraken X62.
The updated H115i Pro is a definite improvement, but NZXT’s infinity mirror CPU block design was and still remains one of the most beautiful RGB implementations we’ve seen in any product. It hasn’t been until seeing Corsair’s latest contender, the H115i Platinum, that we’ve been able to let the Kraken go. But the new NZXT Kraken Z63 is in the lab now so that might change in the coming weeks…
For now though it’s all about the excellent Corsair AIO. The H115i Platinum is available in black or a stunning white with a set of addressable RGB LED fans and CPU block. It’s a real head turner in any build but also has excellent software and performance to back it up.
It may be one of the most expensive air coolers we’ve tested but Noctua’s flagship NH-D15 is our top choice for high-end air coolers. Based off of the company’s award-winning D14, the NH-D15 performs just as well as a handful of all-in-one liquid coolers and even beats a few of them both in performance and noise levels. The cooler features a dual tower heatsink and comes with two high airflow 140mm fans.
Even working at 100 percent speed the cooler ran quieter than just about all of its competitors. If you aren’t a fan of liquid cooling or don’t have the space to mount a radiator, the NH-D15 is about as good as it gets for air cooling. The only downside we could find is its bulkiness which could potentially cause problems with tall RAM modules clearance.
EVGA’s latest CLC liquid coolers are our favorite mid range pick because of their excellent performance per dollar. Matching cooling of the latest chip-chillers from Corsair and NZXT, the 240mm CLC costs a fraction of the price while only sacrificing on a few features. The included fans can get very loud at full speed, but we found the cooler to run well enough without ever reaching those levels.
While you won’t get the fancy addressable RGB lighting you’d find in NZXT, Thermaltake or Cooler Master’s latest designs, the EVGA CLC does have the same sleeved tubing and a single RGB light on the pump head that can be controlled through the software. If you don’t care for all of the bells and whistles, EVGA’s CLC 240 offers exceptional performance with little compromises.
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Corsair was one of the first manufacturers to bring all-in-one liquid cooling to the masses. Nearly a decade after the company first launched its Hydro series, Corsair is once again leading the charge with the updated H60 as our top choice for liquid cooling on a budget.
Often priced $20 cheaper than our best high end air cooler, the 120mm H60 offers nearly identical thermal and noise performance at a fraction of the cost. The updated cooler features a white LED illuminated pump head, 120mm radiator and one of Corsair’s latest 120mm PWM fans. Our tests put the performance of the new H60 far ahead of its other 120mm competitors and even in line with a few 140mm and 240mm coolers.
Cooler Master’s budget-friendly Hyper 212 CPU cooler has been around for well over ten years now. With experience like that it comes as no surprise that the newer Hyper 212 Evo has become a renowned pick for affordable performance. Priced around $30, the latest update to the Hyper 212 Evo features four direct contact heatpipes, an improved aluminum heatsink and a 120mm high airflow fan.
From our testing we found that the Hyper 212 Evo reduced CPU temperatures by up to 20 degrees celsius when compared to stock cooling. Another added benefit is the fact that the cooler itself isn’t a whole lot larger than a stock one, meaning it tends to stay out of the way of larger RAM modules. With such a low price point, we can’t find any reason why we’d stick to a stock cooler over this.
Noctua is a brand that has become synonymous with high performance air cooling. With their iconic brown fans and premium build quality, the company’s coolers often find themselves at the top of our testing charts. The NH-L12S came in as our best choice for a compact cooler that’s designed for mini-ITX and small form factor builds. It’s extremely low-profile, measuring as low as 70mm with the slim 120mm fan installed underneath the heatsink.
In high-profile mode, the fan is installed on top and provides more than enough clearance for most RAM modules. While we wouldn’t use the NH-L12S on a performance CPU with a TDP higher than 110W, it’s very quiet and provides a significant boost over stock coolers so we’d highly recommend it for all HTPC and small form factor builds.
When you’re looking for the best liquid cooling options available, efficiency and effectiveness when it comes to heat dissipation are of utmost importance. The best way to approach this is to use a radiator with the largest surface area possible. For most modern mid-sized cases and full towers, this means a 360mm radiator. Equipped with three 120mm fans, these coolers take up quite a bit of space and can be relatively costly when compared to a single 120mm liquid cooler.
Cooler Master’s 360mm MasterLiquid ML360R is our favorite choice. It features a beautiful CPU block design with a muted centerpiece logo which makes for a really clean lighting setup. Combined with three addressable RGB fans, the ML360R cools well and runs quiet while providing some sexy lighting for your whole build.
The GamerStorm Deepcool Assassin III may sound like someone’s terrible username, but it’s an impressive big-air cooler. This big boy houses twin cooling towers, seven heat pipes, and a pair of quiet 140mm fans. For less than $100, you can get yourself a quiet CPU cooler with exceptional thermal performance. Surprisingly, there’s no RGB lighting, making the Deepcool Assassin III a rather tame looking piece of hardware despite the flashy name.
CPU cooler buying advice
Like most components, choosing the right CPU cooler depends on several variables, including performance requirements, case compatibility, budget restrictions, and aesthetics. To find the best CPU coolers, we test performance using Prime95 and a mixture of modern PC games for extensive stress testing. Our top selections were made based on thermal performance, noise, value, and overall feature sets.
If you aren’t sure whether you need an air cooler or a liquid cooler, it comes down to budget and compatibility. Until AMD released its Wraith coolers, we’d never recommend a stock cooler to any PC gamer. Still, now those on tight budgets don’t necessarily need to consider an aftermarket air cooler. If you have a little bit more spending room, liquid coolers can offer a whole lot more—from advanced RGB lighting to intelligent software control.
Some of you may be wary about putting liquid near your expensive components, but rest assured all of the coolers recommended in this guide are backed with excellent warranties that will cover you in the event of a manufacturer failure—a colossal leakage is an incredibly rare occurrence, anyways.