A basic overview of liquid cooling systems and options. We discuss the differences between premade kits and custom designs, as well as what to pay attention to if you're going to buy or piece together a watercooling system for your PC.
Watercooling vs Liquid Cooling
This is merely a terminology discrepancy. When a person is referring to the act of using any kind of liquid to cool a computer instead of the traditional air-cooling method, they will often use the term "watercooling" and the more accurate "liquid cooling" interchangeably. You may run into individuals who feel that you should only use the term "water" if you're actually using water in the system, but most will catch your drift whether you say "watercooling" or "liquid cooling", so don't stress about it too hard. In computers, usually a liquid that can hold more heat and is less likely to conduct electricity if it gets loose, instead of water.
Liquid Cooling Kits
There are a lot of different watercooling kits out there on the market if you look in the right places. These kits are designed to make it possible for most moderately hardware-literate individuals to implement a liquid cooling system in their desktop computer. Simply buying one of these kits, though, does not guarantee that it will work with your setup. Most come with various brackets to be able to adapt to modern CPU sockets, but if you don't check for compatibility you may find that you've wasted a big chunk of change on something that won't work with your system. You also need to ensure that there is room in your computer case for all the components of the kit. Most basic kits come with one radiator (approx. 140x180mm), a reservoir that may sit inside the case, mount to the side, or mount in a 5.5inch drive bay, a waterblock for the CPU, and some tubing and fluid.
Liquid Cooling Cases
There are some cases out there from big name case manufacturers that are designed specifically for liquid cooling, but cases carrying that designation are usually at the expensive end. A roomy mid-tower or standard full tower will usually work just fine for your liquid cooling needs, and if you buy something inexpensive you don't have to feel bad when/if you decide to take the dremel to it and make some homegrown modifications. The main feature that allows a case to be marketed as for liquid cooling are holes that allow you to run the fluid tubes in and out of the case.
Most people who really want to get in and get dirty with a real liquid cooling system aren't going to purchase a kit. The ability to customize something like this is infinitely important if you want the best possible results. Thankfully, there are a few companies out there who specialize in designing nothing but liquid cooling system components to meet an enthusiast's unique needs. You can choose to piece together your own waterblock, pump, radiator(s), tubing, fluid, and reservoir from premade parts or your own ingenious fabrication. Mechanically inclined people will often use computer oriented cooling blocks inside the computer, than scavenge a radiator from an air conditioner or car's heating system. In our next article discuss what to look for when buying (or designing) your custom liquid cooling system components.