We decided to quantify this feeling: we know that aftermarket coolers are better, but how much better are they? We set up our test bench, took a popular Intel CPU, and compared the stock coolers to a basic extended CPU cooler from Cooler Master. This is hardly an exhaustive survey, but it should be able to show how much benefit a small extra investment at the beginning of the PC building can do.
Intel’s old, small stock cooler
This small cooler with an 80mm fan top mounted fan is part number E97379. It’s an extremely basic solution, supplied by OEM component Foxconn and at this point probably installed in millions of desktop computers. If you bought an Intel heatsink in the last ten years or so, you probably have this cooler.
Intel itself has moved on to a slightly more robust design for its latest generation of heatsinks (see below), but since this one is so widespread, we decided to include it in our comparison for the sake of completeness. Were we to try extended sessions of gaming or other visual rendering with this setup, the processor would likely raise its security and shut down the system after an hour or so. Again, this combination of powerful CPU and minimal CPU cooler is not recommended by Intel, but it shows how easily the older stock cooler design can hit its performance. After all, this article was actually inspired by my rather old homebuilt PC (with the same E97379 stock cooler on a CPU that it was packaged with) often overheating and shutting down during intense gaming, necessitating an upgrade.
Intel’s new, large stock cooler
This more advanced cooler design from Intel is probably what you received for free with a Core series processor using LGA 1151 in the last two years. It’s part number TS15A, and while it uses the same cylindrical design with the top-mounted fan as the smaller cooler, the cooling surface is three to four times larger, giving a greatly expanded cooling surface. The fan itself seems to be the same size, but it’s capable of reaching a much higher RPM under load (and it’s easily three times higher than the smaller cooler as well). The thermal compound applied to the cooler is also different, being much more fluid and spreadable than the type on the smaller cooler.
The larger cooler is a much more robust solution, and even in a closed case with decent airflow, it should be able to run advanced games or media tasks for several hours without crawling up to the throttle. But a cramped case (like a Mini-ITX build), poor airflow setup, or just a hot environment can make things a little more difficult.
A cheap cooler Master aftermarket cooler
The Cooler Master Hyper 612 is a pretty typical design for an aftermarket CPU cooler: six big beefy copper heat pumps run from the CPU plate up to the heatsink, which has about a bazillion layers of thin metal to dissipate heat and a big ol’ 120mm fan to shoo it away. It operates on the same basic thermodynamic principles as stock coolers, on a much larger scale, filling up free space around the CPU section of the motherboard and a full-sized ATX case to boot.
So what does $35 and about half an hour of installation get you? Cooler Master actually lets the CPU idle at a slightly higher 28 degrees Celsius, then it quickly shoots up to 68 degrees under the reference load. It doesn’t take long for this to happen – about five seconds – but once there, Cooler Master resolutely refused to let the CPU get any hotter during the test. The stability is impressive, although the actual thermal advantage of the larger cooler is only about six percent. And with a larger fan that pushes more air over a larger surface, the Cooler Master is significantly clearer than both large and small Intel coolers.
Based on these results, Cooler Master is incrementally better than Intel’s latest stock cooler and dramatically improved over its smaller older design. The difference probably isn’t worth it if you have the larger Intel cooler (unless you want to do some overclocking or noise reduction), but it’s definitely worth an upgrade from the smaller stock cooler.
But if you’re running a newer processor with a more advanced cooler design, you have more options. With the extended heatsink in the larger Intel cooler, keeping the CPU a comfortable distance from the maximum recommended temperature, an upgrade is somewhat less necessary. AMD’s “Wraith” cooler, included on recent Ryzen CPU designs, would be a comparable upgraded version. Be sure to know which stock cooler you are getting when ordering a new CPU.