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How we test CPU coolers

Last Updated on May 24, 2024
You can trust PC Guide: Our team of experts use a combination of independent consumer research, in-depth testing where appropriate - which will be flagged as such, and market analysis when recommending products, software and services. Find out how we test here.

CPU coolers are probably just as important as the CPUs you put in your PC. When was the last time you gamed without a CPU cooler? Exactly. CPU coolers are imperative to day-to-day operation and we’re dedicated to finding the best coolers we can. Our standardized and repeatable benchmarks allow us to tell you exactly what value your CPU coolers bring to the table.

If you want to know how we test all of our components, you can find out on our PC Guide Labs page.

The test setup features the following components:

  • Core i7-14700K
  • RTX 4070 Ti
  • 64GB Dominator titanium @6400MHz
  • ASUS ROG Maximus Extreme Z790
  • Power supply Cooler Master MWE v2 1050w

To be tested completely, the coolers must be installed to the above system and any compatible drivers or accompanying software installed. A lot of CPU coolers will not function properly without accompanying software, giving you more control over the device. We have chosen an Intel CPU, as Intel tends to run a little hotter than its AMD counterparts.

What’s in the box and aesthetics

Firstly, the contents of the box are assessed, we do this to check the compatibility of the cooler with other popular motherboard sockets. This is because manufacturers usually include backplates and fixtures to support multiple sockets. We should also find fans and a radiator if We’ve opted for an AIO.

We consider the size, weight, dimensions, and build quality of any item and delve into the materials it is constructed from. It is important to note that some materials are more thermally conductive than others, heat pipes, radiators, and heat sinks need to be made of a thermally conductive material. Other tertiary components of a CPU cooler, like fans, are free to be made of whatever materials suit the manufacturer.

Equipment and items needed to test

Firstly, we use software to monitor the system temperatures and to synthetically test the CPU. We also use a couple of games to test the cooling efficiency of the CPU cooler whilst gaming.

Software

  • hwinfo
  • CPU-Z
  • Aida64
  • 7-Zip
  • MSI Afterburner
  • Rivatuner
  • (CPU cooler software)

Hardware

  • Test bench
  • CPU cooler
  • Temperature probe

Games

  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • Days Gone

Testing

CPU-cooler-being-tested-using-the-test-bench-PC-Guide
PC Guide test bench with a CPU cooler being tested – Original image by PC Guide

Testing CPU coolers accurately can be a little difficult even under the best of conditions, as ideally, everything should be kept at the same ambient temperature. We do our best to control the conditions we work in, but we can’t always get perfect conditions. This is why we give less weight to the change in ambient temperatures and focus more on the CPU temperatures.

We test the Cooler’s cooling capacity in a variety of synthetic repeatable conditions, these include tests that put the CPU through strain, causing it to heat up. We use CPU temp averages and CPU temp max readings in HWinfo to take this information. These tests include:

  • Testing (idle)
    • While idle, record the maximum and average temps over 5 mins on both maximum and balanced fan settings, also record the temperature of the air coming from the back of the radiator, in addition to the fan RPM.
    • Repeat the same steps for idle on max fan speeds
  • Testing (Aida)
    • Repeat the same recording steps, just this time record the values at the end of a 5-minute Aida stress test. This time, also note the maximum throttle percentage. 
    • Do this for both balanced and maximum fan settings 
    • Record the liquid temperature during the stress test and note it down
  • Testing (7 zip)
    • Use the 7-Zip compression benchmark (10 passes) 
    • Record the max, and average CPU temps along with the air temperature exiting the cooler. – do this on balanced settings for fan speed.

These tests are designed to put the CPU through its paces and cause it to heat up. We use tools like HWinfo to monitor the temperature of the CPU closely. If there is any software that comes with the CPU cooler, we will also use that for a more accurate reading. We also make note of the fan RPM at the time of testing.

We also place temperature probes out the back of the radiator or heat sink, to measure the air temperature coming out of the cooler. This is to gain an idea of how much heat the cooler is moving, and how quickly.

  • Testing (games)
    • Load up the Cyberpunk benchmark, and test on 1080p low settings to ensure the CPU is getting a decent workout. 
    • Record the max and average temps along with the air temp exiting the cooler – do this on balanced settings for fan speed.
    • Load up Days Gone, and go for a run around the benchmark area for 2 minutes while measuring temperature.
    • Record the max and average temps along with the air temp exiting the cooler – do this on balanced settings for fan speed.

Here is how we lay out the results we have gathered from the benchmarks:

example of CPU cooler benchmark results

Scoring

We have a well-thought-out scoring structure when it comes to CPU coolers, as the most important thing about a CPU cooler is whether or not it cools.

Cooling capacity (60%)

How well does the CPU cooler cool the CPU? This has a high weight because it’s the primary function of the component.

Aesthetics (15%)

How good does the CPU cooler look? does it have LED fans? Or an LCD screen? The cooler takes front and center in your system and it must look the part, as well as play it.

Software (15%)

A lot of CPU Coolers are accompanied by proprietary software like iCUE and Armory Crate, this software must work and it is easy to use. There’s no point scoring a good product highly if the software is cumbersome and hard to use.

Build quality (10%)

Materials play an important part in a component’s longevity, so we have to ask. Is the CPU cooler made from high-quality materials? How is the durability of the component?

The testing process

When the CPU cooler first comes in, it’ll go to the video team for photography. This is where all the images of the product are taken to display in our reviews. Next, the cooler goes to our dedicated benchmark and reviewers, where the first step is to assess what’s in the box, and the build quality of the different components.

Jack testing a CPU cooler on the PC Guide test bench – Original image by PC Guide

Next, the CPU cooler is assembled in its entirety, with our reviewers taking notes on the process. Some CPU coolers take more assembly than others, and an air cooler has far fewer components than a 360mm AIO, for example. Finally, and most importantly, the cooler is tested as per our CPU Cooler SOP. A document written by us to ensure every CPU cooler test we do is as fair and unbiased as possible.

Our test benches are comprised of the best and most up-to-date equipment on the market, to ensure an accurate representation of where the industry is. One advantage of this is to give the coolers we test a “worse case scenario” for them to fight through. You will be surprised at how many older CPU coolers still hold up today.

Recent CPU Cooler reviews

Jack Howarth, a Tech Writer at PC Guide, is deeply passionate about technology. He started his journey during college, earning an Extended Diploma in ICT, and CompTIA A+ later in life.

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