Having one of the best CPU coolers not only protects your chip from catastrophic meltdown, it will give it more room to breath. That's especially important with the latest chips from Intel and AMD, which both love to stretch their legs with extra cooling capacity. The good news is that you don't have to spend a huge amount of money on this absolutely vital component.
These are the current best CPUs for gaming to build your rig around.
CPU coolers generally come in two varieties. The first is an air cooler, which comes with a big metal heat sink that pulls heat away from the CPU, then blown away by a fan. Before you pick an air cooler, you need to consider your CPU socket type, RAM clearance, your PC's case dimensions, and the airflow in your machine.
The other, more extravagant option is liquid cooling, with the most common being the AIO (all-in-one) variety. Liquid cooling is often a more efficient choice and can lead to some flashy-looking components with wild RGB lighting options and even OLED screens. If you're feeling especially courageous, you could also create a full custom water cooling loop, which can include GPU as well as CPU cooling, but that way lies tube-bending and a whole lot of installation effort—though the result of all that work is pretty cool.
We've listed our favorite air and AIO coolers below, which cater to high-end and budget builds. 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 only fits 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 Platinum is a definite improvement, but NZXT's infinity mirror CPU block design was and remained one of the most beautiful RGB implementations we’ve seen in any product. It wasn't 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 and 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 on 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, 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 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 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.
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 heat pipes, 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 that the cooler itself isn't a 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.
When you’re looking for the best liquid cooling options available, efficiency and effectiveness for 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 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, making for a spotless lighting setup. Combined with three addressable RGB fans, the ML360R cools well and runs quietly 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.
Best CPU cooler FAQ
Q. How do you test CPU coolers?
A. 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.
Q. How do I choose the CPU cooler that's right for me?
A. 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 (and then took them away again), we'd never recommend a stock cooler to any PC gamer. Still, those on tight budgets now don't necessarily need to consider an aftermarket air cooler. If you have a little 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 infrequent occurrence, anyways.
Q. How does liquid AIO cooling work anyway?
A. The coolant passes through a closed-loop via a plate that's attached to your CPU, and in combination with the attached radiator and fan, it cools the CPU. It's simple and a hundred times easier to install than a full water-cooling loop.