Best CPU cooler: 12 top coolers reviewed and rated

We review the best CPU coolers on the market

Enermax ETS-T40

Enermax

Thermaltake Water 2.0 Extreme

Water 2 0 extreme

Twelve coolers, a bucket load of thermal paste and plenty of overclocking action. But what have we learned?

The first thing you should appreciate is that water-cooling isn't the magic solution to giving you instant access to epic overclocks. At least, no more epic than you'll achieve with a decent air cooler.

Admittedly, the gap between air and water when it comes to overclocking will grow if you really put your back into the fine-tuning. But in our view, the advantage of water when it comes to achieving really high clocks isn't worth the price premium.

Part of the explanation for that is conventional liquid-cooling is ultimately subject to the same limiting factor as air cooling, namely ambient temperatures. You need some kind of refrigeration or Peltier system to overcome that.

Liquid cooling still has a place though. The reason to go with water is to achieve lower operating temps for less noise. What's more, a decent closed loop water cooler tends to have longer legs than an active air cooler since they're that little bit less sensitive to dust than an air cooler. In fact, if you locate the radiator outside of the chassis, you can give it a bit of a buff without cracking open the case.

As it happens, reduced dust build up is also a key advantage of passive air cooling, along with zero noise emissions. However, as our benchmarks show this month, even a comically oversized passive cooler can't compete with very modest active air coolers, much less water coolers, when it comes to performance.

With that in mind, it's the hilarious but ultimately almost pointless NoFan CR-95C that brings up the rear this month. Put simply, relying on convection for cooling makes for some horrible temperatures. Just as important, several of the active coolers here produce extremely low noise levels. There's just no need for a desktop computer to have a completely silent CPU cooler.

Next to fall, if largely on a technicality, is the Antec Kuhler H20 920. Thanks to a fault with the fan modulator that caused its two 120mm windmills to spin at full speed, it's hard to know what it's really capable of.

From here we get into a much closer contest. The Scythe Katana 4 was interesting in that it underlined the downsides of going for something smaller in the air-cooling category than the default 120mm option.

However, it's the Enermax ETS-T40 and Thermaltake Water 2.0 Extreme that really set themselves apart. The Enermax performs well beyond its pay-grade and makes the oversized Zalman CNPS14X look a little silly. It also proves you can have great cooling without the compromises that come with really massive coolers.

Meanwhile, Thermaltake's Water 2.0 Extreme, which takes the water-cooling spoils in this test, is pricey, but then liquid-cooling is a bit of a luxury, so why not have something a bit special? It's built to last, is a great performer and it's even better with that USB interface and control software. In short, it's a proper bit of kit.