Everything you need to know about AIO Coolers in 2021

One of the main things you’ll need to take care of when building your new PC is cooling. And while cooling in general is a rather complex category, we’ll actually be focusing only on cooling your CPU. To make things even more interesting, we’ll be focusing on a type of cooling that is becoming increasingly popular nowadays – AIO coolers. Without wasting any more time, let’s take a look at what they are and why you should consider them.

What are AIO coolers?

AIO actually stands for “all-in-one”, because AIO coolers actually have all the components you need in a closed loop that’s simple to use. To better understand this, let’s briefly discuss the process of water cooling on a CPU.

The first thing you’ll need is a water block. This block goes on top of your CPU, and is what delivers the coolant to the CPU itself. Now, mounting the radiator that keeps the coolant cold right on top of the water block isn’t all that practical. You want it somewhere out of the way, and close to an intake fan. That is why you have tubing that goes from the water block to the radiator. Also, that is why radiators come with fans attached to them. They’re meant to be mounted on one of the vents of your case.

Close-up of a liquid CPU cooling system from Corsair.

To get all of these things, you have two options. The first one, which is arguably more difficult, is to go for a custom water cooling loop. This requires that you really know what you’re doing, and is a hefty investment. Water blocks are expensive, and so are the radiators and pumps that move the coolant itself. Add to this the maintenance you’ll need to do every couple of months, and the risk of leaks, and it’s not really worth it unless you know what you’re doing.

The alternative is AIO solutions. All-in-ones take the complications of building everything yourself and sourcing components, and give you an all-in-one solution that you just install and use. They’re made for CPUs, but you can often buy a bracket and use one on your GPU as well. They do come with a few advantages, and a few disadvantages, so let’s take a look at those next.

There are both pros and cons

We’ll start things off with the good things – AIO coolers are incredibly easy to install. They’re not harder than an air cooler. All you need to do is install the water block on the CPU (using the supplied brackets, of course). Then install the radiator on one of your case’s fan mounts. Connect it to your motherboard (or a fan hub, or whatever else you’re using), and you should be good to go. Simple as that.

Performance is also great in general. This does depend on what you’re comparing it to, and what kind of AIO you’re using. But when you compare them against air coolers, any decent AIO is going to get you better temperatures than the best air coolers. We’re talking about noticeable differences, especially if you’re using a CPU with a high TDP, or if it’s overclocked. But the gist of it is, an AIO cooler performs great even when your CPU is under load.  

Size matters, too

To make things even better, they’re pretty compact. The water block itself is usually rather small. This helps quite a bit with compatibility, especially when you’re looking at RAM sticks with high profile heatsinks. The fact that you don’t have a large pump to move the coolant also means you can use these in a smaller case, without an issue.

Then there is the price. On one hand, they’re definitely more expensive than an air cooler, but the performance more than justifies the price. On the other hand, they’re far cheaper than building a custom water cooling loop. Even if you opt to go for one of the pricier models with multiple fans and a larger radiator, you’ll spend less. They strike a pretty nice balance, and usually come with a good price-to-performance ratio.

And last but not least, you’ve got maintenance and reliability. When it comes to those things, they’re as simple as an air cooling system. All you should do is keep the fans clean and dust-free, and they perform at their best. Oh, and unlike a water cooling loop, where a lot of things can go wrong if you aren’t careful, AIO coolers are rather reliable, and have no leaks or pump issues.

What are the cons?

On to the not-so-nice things. We mentioned the price as a pro, but if you don’t really need the additional performance for your specific use, they’re a pricy alternative. You could probably spend the difference in price elsewhere, and get yourself a nice air cooler instead. Don’t underestimate air: it’s still a reliable way of cooling.

And the other potential negative aspect is the radiator thickness. This may not be a problem for mid tower or full tower cases. But users who have a smaller, compact case should keep it in mind. To add to this, there are some motherboards with a slightly more crammed layout. They move RAM slots and the CPU socket a bit higher up – if your radiator is at the top of the case, you may not have room for everything. It’s a matter of seeing whether or not AIO coolers work for your specific system.

Product image of an AIO cooler from Corsair.

How do you choose out of all those AIO coolers?

If you’ve decided that an AIO cooler is the right solution for you, you will want to choose the right one. There are far too many options for this to be a simple task. So, let’s take a look at a few things you could do.

The first thing is to consider placement. This will have a lot of impact on what size you can go for. Not all cases can fit large radiators with multiple fans. To do this, consider where in the case you would like to mount the radiator and fan. Then, see how many (and what size) fans you can install. Most modern cases will allow you to fit a 240mm or 280mm radiator without a problem, but for larger ones, you’ll need a case that can accommodate them.

What size do you go for?

Once you know what kind of AIO coolers you can fit, it’s time to choose the right dimension. This is a matter of balance, because while a larger AIO usually means better cooling, it also usually introduces more noise. You should consider your CPU, and see how much cooling you actually need. The sweet spot tends to be either a 240mm or a 280mm radiator, which means either two 120mm fans, or two 140mm ones. This provides sufficient cooling for most scenarios, while being compatible with most cases. But if you don’t need that much, you can opt for a 120mm/140mm option, or if you need more and have the room, by all means go for a 360mm model.

Last but certainly not least, consider the quality of the AIO coolers you’re looking at. Nowadays just about any cooling brand has an AIO option you can go for, but since this is an important component and it adds liquid to your system, it pays to consider the actual quality. For example, NZXT’s Kraken X series are some of the most popular options out there, and so are Corsair’s H series and Cooler Master’s MasterLiquid models. If you’re on a budget, consider some of DeepCool’s options, and if you want to go all out,  by all means check out EKWB’s lineup. There’s something for everyone, but as we mentioned, it’s worth spending a bit more.

Should you go for it?

With good AIO coolers becoming rather affordable, getting one is actually a great idea. It’s an even better idea if you’re dealing with overheating problems with your CPU, or if you want to quiet down that massive air cooler that’s been making a lot of noise. Of course, if you’re overclocking your CPU, AIO coolers are a must. It’s just a matter of choosing the right one.

Need help finding some great AIO coolers to start your browsing? Consider checking out our recommendations, over in our article on the Best AIO Coolers.

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