Choosing a graphics card can be time consuming – some of them can have over 30 different models – so picking the right one can be understandably difficult. It is important to note that before actually buying something you should determine what type of cooler fits your case best in terms of airflow.
Generally speaking, there are four types of coolers on graphics cards – blower, open-air, AIO or ‘all-in-one’ water cooler, and a full water block for use with a custom liquid cooling loop. The last option is a very specific use case scenario; chances are that if you want a water-block you already know what you’re doing. Blower, open-air, and AIO coolers are far more common and can be used in almost any build. It is important to know the benefits and drawbacks of these cooler types to understand which one would fit your rig best.
These are the coolers used on most reference video cards; when AMD or Nvidia launch a new GPU the official reference card will most often be cooled by a blower cooler (apart from some of AMD’s flagship cards, i.e. 295×2 and Fury X). The single fan design is fairly simple – it sucks air in through the single fan in the front of the card and blows it out of the back. It is important to note that even though all blower-type coolers use a single-fan design, not all single-fan cards are blower-style.
Exhausting air out the back of the card helps in cases with poor airflow since there is no hot air blown into the case; conversely, it is exhausted outside of the chassis. On the other hand, the volume of that air is usually so small that the single tiny fan must spin much faster to cool the GPU properly, meaning most blower style cards are susceptible to higher temperatures and noise levels compared to their competition. Blower coolers are generally most useful in mini-ITX cases and/or multi-GPU setups, where there is not enough case airflow available to sustain an open-air cooler design.
Open-air is undoubtedly the most common cooling type found in aftermarket cards. If reference cards are made by the chip manufacturers, then aftermarket or AIB (add-in board) cards are produced by companies such as EVGA, Gigabyte, Sapphire, MSI, XFX, and many others. Even though these companies make blower-style cards as well, open-air is where you will find the most variety.
The logic behind open-air cards is simple – a cooler with a single, double, or triple fan that blows cold air from the outside onto a heatsink – either directly or indirectly cooling the GPU. The radiator usually consists of fins that have heatpipes running through them. Blower-style cards use smaller heatsinks, which is one of the reasons why their cooling capacity is much smaller. To better understand how coolers and heatpipes work we recommend watching this video from GamersNexus.
When the cold air heats up, it is then exhausted in all directions – mostly inside the case. This means that the case must somehow remove the accumulating heat, otherwise it will start circulating inside the chassis and heat up all the other components. A proper airflow system is important in all cases, but especially in smaller ones if an open-air style cooler is inside. At least one intake and one exhaust is a good rule of thumb for every system regardless of the GPU, and open-air cards make this all the more important. Consistent airflow throug chassis will help supply cold fresh air to both the video card and the CPU cooler, resulting in cooler temps on the video card due to the more aggressive cooler design and adequately cooled parts surrounding it.
AIO coolers have one big benefit over any air cooled card and that is exhaust control. Blower style cards tend to run hotter than the open-air and AIO models, while liquid cooled designs tend to be on par with the best open coolers. More importantly the external radiator design has one main function, giving you the exhaust outside the case benefit of blower cards with the performance of open air cooling. This makes AIO cards very appealing to users with limited airflow that still want to get the most out of overclocking their video card.
The downside of an AIO cooler is definitely its price – these usually go for 15+% over the base MSRP of the reference cards. So if a GTX 1080’s MSRP is $499, then the AIO GTX 1080 Sea Hawk X (pictured) will be $600+. Another problem that may occur at some point (especially problematic with used AIO cards) is pump noise, failure, or in the worst and rarest cases – a leak, which can kill the whole system. Fortunately, a graphics card is usually the most often upgraded component in a build, so you will switch out the worn and torn water-cooled GPU for something more fresh before it fails. But the possibility is still there.
It is important to know that all of the aforementioned coolers will allow the GPU to do its work, just depending on the case airflow it will be either a few per cent better or worse. For most users the open air cooled cards offer the best combination of thermals, noise, performance, and value. You can see this reflected in the industry, with the vast majority of cards being made/sold having open air cooler designs.
Blower cards and AIOs can of course be beneficial when airflow is restricted or for cards where the AIO design beats out all but the most overpriced air coolers, as long as you’re willing to accept the thermal and auditory consequences of a blower card or the cost and maintenance increase for an AIO.