Is a Stock Cooler Good Enough to Keep Your PC Cool?
In a lot of PC building guides, it’s often advised to buy an aftermarket CPU cooler and slap that on your PC. While that’s the safer approach for many PCs, especially more expensive ones, newbies to the world of custom PC building may be left wondering why that’s necessary, especially when some CPUs already come with a cooler in the box.
CPUs still come with stock coolers, and indeed, in the right PC, they can be a way to save a buck. But how good of a job do they do? And should you use one?
What Is a Stock Cooler?
Some CPUs, especially lower-end ones or those without an unlocked multiplier (which means you cannot overclock them to deliver more performance), typically come with a stock cooler in the box. This is simply a thermal solution in the processor’s box, sometimes with pre-applied thermal paste, that you can install on your motherboard to fire up your PC.
On Intel, these are present on locked-multiplier (non-K) variants of its chips, while on AMD, you can find them on Ryzen 5 and lower chips and also on G variants with integrated GPUs.
So, why do some CPUs come with a stock cooler while others don’t? In short, because there are certain price, performance, and, most importantly, thermal points where you’ll probably want to use an aftermarket cooler anyway because the stock cooler (probably) won’t do an amazing job at keeping things running cool.
Stock CPU coolers aren’t very complicated in their science—they’re low-profile air coolers, so they’re just a small heat sink with a fan. Depending on the thermal needs of the specific CPU you’re getting, though, some features on it may vary. The heatsink may be bigger on Intel chips, or it could have a copper bottom contact for better thermal transfer. AMD currently only produces one stock cooler design, the Wraith Stealth, which it ships with the Ryzen 5 5600X. However, in 3000-series chips, it used to add stock coolers all the way up to Ryzen 9 with different designs.
This makes sense—the further you go up in price, the hotter the CPU will run. But in any case, these are just going to be good for CPUs with up to a 65W TDP.
What about the higher-end chips, like the Ryzen 9 5950X or the Intel Core i9-12900K? Those run much toastier. And here’s when aftermarket coolers enter into play. There are several kinds of aftermarket cooling, and it’s just a matter of what works best for you in your specific scenario. You have aftermarket air coolers, which can be low-profile, similar to stock coolers (but with more heatsink space), or have a way bigger footprint like the Corsair A500 or the Cooler Master Hyper 212.
You can also go all-in with water cooling, whether you want to get an all-in-one (AIO) closed-loop kit that’s just an install-and-forget affair, or take the time and effort (and money) to put together a custom loop.
In the case of these chips, since users will likely spring up for an aftermarket unit anyway, CPU makers don’t really feel the need to add one. It’s a win-win situation—they save money, and you end up making a smarter purchase by not putting a poor stock cooler through its fiery demise.
Should You Use a Stock Cooler?
We talked about how some CPUs come with a stock cooler while other higher-end ones don’t. The general gist you can get from that is that the CPU manufacturer is already making that choice for you—if your CPU comes with one, it’s probably fine to use. That being said, though, that’s not necessarily a 100% accurate rule of thumb.
Generally, if you’re using up to a Ryzen 5 or an Intel Core i5, and you’re not going to overclock, a stock cooler is probably fine if it comes with your CPU. On PCs up to $1,000, saving the $50 or $100 that an aftermarket cooler will set you back, and investing it in another part is probably a good idea (how about some faster RAM, for example?). In many cases, you also need to factor into the formula actual case ventilation—if that’s not great, and your stock cooler is barely chugging along, your temperatures will rise.
Likewise, for a PC you’re not going to use for gaming or intensive CPU tasks—like a home or office PC—a stock cooler is also just fine to use. Again, there’s no need to go for anything beefier than that if you’re not actually going to use it.
Is an Aftermarket Cooler the Best Option?
Like we mentioned before, stock coolers aren’t great for everyone. Even if your CPU comes with one, there are certain scenarios where you’ll probably want to go aftermarket anyway.
If you’re going to run a Core i7 or Core i9, or something like a Ryzen 7 or Ryzen 9, an aftermarket air cooler might be in order. Noctua coolers are a great option, having everything from low-profile to higher-end stuff, and if you’d rather not spend a lot and still get something great, the Cooler Master Hyper 212 is an awesome choice.
Water coolers start becoming a necessity when you start getting into Core i9/Ryzen 9 territory, though, or if you’re planning to do some light overclocking. In most cases, you can make do by buying ones with a 120mm or 240mm radiator, while on the hottest chips, a 360mm radiator might be in order.
Finally, in systems going upwards of $4,000, it might be worth the time and effort to grab expertise and put together a custom water cooling loop to keep temperatures as low as possible. That will actually require active maintenance, so have that in mind before deciding.
Stock Coolers: Okay for Some, Not for High Performance
The fact that many chips are still shipping with stock coolers doesn’t necessarily mean everyone should be using them. As we’ve established here, they’re okay if you’re getting a lower-end system or if you’re not going to ask for much from your PC.
However, if you want to get the most out of it, it’ll quickly get limiting—and high temperatures are never great for your CPU.
Hopefully, you can now make a more educated purchase with this advice.
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