PC Basics 101: What are AIO Coolers?

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Cooling solutions for PCs have evolved through the years as chips and circuitry components generate more and more heat from processing more and more information.

On the one hand. The trusty ol’ aluminum fin-stack fan-powered air coolers answered the challenge by introducing bigger stacks, better fin-design optimization, and of course, more efficient static pressure performance.

But on the other side, are the sleeker, visually sexier AIO coolers. If you ever need something that can make your higher-end system “cool” both physically and figuratively, then this is the temperature control hardware that you will need.

 

How do AIO coolers work?

AIO stands for an all-in-one, and true to its name, an AIO cooler is designed to provide multiple cooling solutions for your entire setup. Skipping overly technical explanations, it mainly works by introducing a fluid, as a means of channeling heat away from your CPU. A copper base plate captures CPU-generated heat, which is then transferred to the coolant inside. The heated coolant is pumped out via tubes into the radiator, where installed fans lower its temperature to be reintroduced again back into the system (to capture more heat).

Hmm, so AIO coolers are water coolers, right?

Well, yes and no. For one thing, the fluid used for AIO coolers is typically a combination of some thermally conductive liquid and pure water. Second, unlike custom liquid cooling loops, AIO coolers are standardized, meaning that they are smaller in scale, and are built so that they can be compatible with many different types of systems without significant modifications to either the cooler itself or the case it will be installed on.

Oh and, because the radiator along with its fans is often mounted on one side of the PC case, it doubles as another source of airflow for the entire system. Hence, all-in-one. Place it upfront or above, and configure the fans to suck in air from the outside. Or, what is usually the better setup, is to flip the fans and push air outward, so that heat from both the PC and radiator are pushed outside the case.

As for default configurations, AIO coolers are usually determined by their radiator size, which in turn is determined by the size of fans that would fit into them. For example:
(NOTE: AIO coolers generally use static pressure fans, or fans optimized for pushing air through a medium.)

  • 120-rad (radiator) means an AIO unit with a radiator that can fit a single 120mm case fan.
  • 240-rad means a wider unit with a radiator that can fit two 120mm case fans.

And… that’s about it really. Here’s an even more broken down step of its normal operation:

  1. CPU does work and gets hot
  2. That heat is transferred to the base plate
  3. The base plate then transfers heat to the coolant
  4. The coolant travels tube via pump towards the radiator
  5. Fans on the radiator cool the coolant
  6. The pump reintroduces a new coolant to the base plate, completing the cycle.

How to install AIO coolers?

To install most AIO coolers, you need to follow these simple, straightforward steps:

  1. Check the side you are going to install the radiator. Make sure that there is enough clearance for the radiator itself (width and thickness), the case fans, and other hardware that might potentially use the space behind it (such as GPUs).
  2. Choose a tubing orientation. If the radiator is installed vertically, the part of the tube on the base plate should be higher than the one leading to the radiator. Make sure to check for other hardware clearances as well (PSU cables, for example).
  3. Screw the base plate into the cooler mounting bracket of the CPU as per the specific instructions provided by your AIO cooler. (The motherboard should preferably be installed on the case already)
  4. Install the fans behind the radiator, then mount the radiator for proper screwing at the panel/side of your choice.
  5. Lastly, connect the fan plug of the AIO to the (location) appropriate header. All other extra features (RGB, miniature LCDs) should also be checked at this point.

AIO coolers versus air coolers

The biggest argument for AIO coolers, when compared to air coolers, is relative performance.

… for a good long while at least.

Nowadays, AIO coolers and modern air coolers are more or less the same when it comes to the average cooling performance required to prevent CPU thermal throttling. Yes, this extends even up to the most notorious solar furnaces of the CPU product stack line today.

Nonetheless, there are still a few notable pros and cons of AIO coolers when pitted against the traditional PC cooling solution:

Pros:

  • Hardware positional clearance – with only a base plate to screw in your CPU mounting holes, you don’t have to dedicate a big area of your case just to keep your CPU cooled. Higher-end motherboards, for example, may have beefy VRM heatsinks that can limit the maximum size of your potential air cooler
  • Fits smaller and special form-factors with negligible performance drawbacks – again, the combination of a smaller base plate and a freely positionable radiator works wonders in many weirder PC cases, such as Thermaltake’s Tower case series, or the previously controversial NZXT H1 case.
  • Potentially less noise – while AIO coolers do typically use static pressure fans, the bigger radiator and liquid cooling system allow for slower fan RPMs, leading to lower noise levels for about the same, or better, rate of temperature control.
  • Looks nicer – liquid AIOs generally just look so much cooler (pun intended) than traditional, blocky air coolers. Some models even have fancy, configurable base plates for even better rig swag.

Cons:

  • So much more expensive than air coolers – if all the above pros are of no issue, there is just no reason for any PC builder to invest in an AIO. Especially when very cost-competitive coolers (among other air coolers) like the Arctic Freezer 34 eSports Duo can cool super high-end builds just as effectively.
  • Zero risk of leaks – horror posts online showing leaked AIO coolers destroying their systems are a very, very small minority. For the whole generational life of your system (until it becomes effectively obsolete), good AIO coolers can usually last without any hitches. That being said… the probability of a cascading failure is never zero. As for air coolers, the worst they can do is a broken fan, which would simply throttle the CPU down, or auto-shutdown the system to prevent component damage.
  • Can last almost indefinitely – apart from the easily replaceable mounting fan, air coolers are basically just a hunk of aluminum. Keep it well dusted, and it will last indefinitely. Well… there’s the issue of their mounting brackets becoming obsolete for future motherboards, but companies like Noctua and Arctic have recently proven that it is a very solvable issue.
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