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There are a number of questions that pop up in the mind if you have never built a PC: what exactly is a low profile CPU cooler and why do you need one? If you do, what is the best low profile cooler to buy for your computer; and even if you have gotten one, how do you attach it to the CPU?
Nothing wrong even if you are starting now, as you’ll probably be in the good hands of hordes of online PC hardware component experts. So a low profile cooler is basically the desired replacement of the stock CPU fan that ships out of the box. The stock models are large, loud, and less efficient. Therefore, buying better coolers is an extra cost you will almost always bear.
Buying The Best Low Profile CPU Coolers on The Aftermarket
Primarily, you will need low profile coolers when you have a major space concern. This could either be due to additional expansions you are putting in place. But mostly, it could be due to the motherboard and CPU form factor you have picked. Mini ITX PCs are congested on the insides, and they also need better cooling solutions that their larger counterparts. This is where low profile CPU coolers from the aftermarket become all the more relevant.
We’ll discuss these further in our buyer’s guide section below. But when buying any cooling solution there are some given aspects you need to track, other than the form factor. Most importantly, you have to relate your CPU TDP i.e. the heat output expectation of your CPU as the fan capacity should be higher or matching, to say the least. Moreover, keep in mind that fans with higher power will reduce more of the hot air. But in turn, they can also be noisier. Therefore, it will have to be a middle ground between noise production and heat dissipation.
Low Profile CPU Coolers – Buyer’s Guide
In a layman’s language, TDP is the amount of heat your computer is expected to produce. Naturally, you will need to know that in order to put a number on how good the low profile CPU cooler needs to be. For instance, the best cooler for i7 8700K will need to be a powerhouse. The TDP (thermal design power) of certain processors like this one can rise to as high as 90W, requiring a more powered cooling system. Make sure you know your chips before you spend anything on the cooler.
Conventionally there used to be a greater number of 3-pin connectors. But those don’t let you configure and control the fan performance from the motherboard. Therefore, if you wish to modulate you will either have to buy an additional controller for the 3-pin based CPU cooler or switch to a 4-pin connector model. This allows the fan to send speed information to the motherboard which can then govern it.
Yes, noise is always bad, but how much noise will be a concern to you? The question is important because in the quest to get an extremely quiet CPU cooler you might end up spending much higher than needed. For instance, a gaming rig used in LAN parties doesn’t actually need a fan as quiet as one needed by a media machine. As a rule of thumb, smaller fans are noisy and they get worse when the RPM is higher. Nothing that a 120mm fan or above should worry about.
Let us first clear this misconception that higher RPM will always equate to better performance. While more revolutions per minute does mean the fan goes faster, you will also have to add heatsink capacities and fan size limitations to the mix as they greatly impact how much cooling the fan can get you. In other words, RPM is subjective to the fan size: bigger fans will work well with lower RPM too, and in turn, you get a quieter solution. This is important because one of the biggest problems with higher RPM fans is higher noise production.
Overall Best Performer
Noctua NH L12S 120mm PWM
Building on a variety of performance an build quality elements, the Noctua CPU cooler is just as good as you’d expect Noctua products to be. With zero efforts of looking good, the PWN connected system houses a large 120mm fan and industry-leading quality of the material.
We know Noctua CPU cooler models to outperform most of the competition, and this is no different. You have a bigger fan at 120mm, with a build quality that is superior. Noctua’s NF-A12x15 PWM fan is also known for optimizations against highly demanding heat production. It is primarily their optimizations that have made the fan as quiet as it is given the size and speed.
Talking of, the fan can garner and RPM of up to 1850. This isn’t the best in the lot as Cooler Master above gets close to 2500 RPM, but 1850 is, nonetheless, more than sufficient. In order to further improve the fan’s efficiency, the heatsink has been mounter on top of the fan which sticks to the bottom. Resultantly, the hot air gets a stronger upwards or downward push.
As the low profile CPU cooler boasts a gigantic six-year warranty, the company has also made sure consumers won’t need it as much. Your fan’s thermal compound is the first thing that pushes you to a replacement. But in the case of Noctua NH L12S, you are greeted by NT-H1 thermal compound which is acclaimed for its durable performance.
Additionally, unlike some of the other CPU air coolers, you get support for Intel as well as AMD sockets. The range is wide and includes everything from Intel LGA115x, LGA2011, LGA2066 & AMD AM2(+), AM3(+), AM4, FM1, FM2(+). Which means compatibility should be the least of your concerns when building or upgrading the rig.
At just 70mm, the cooler is specifically built to fit all HTPC cases since even with the fan the complete setup is quite compact. Moreover, there are four copper pipes, that are more efficient at dissipating heat than other materials. Unless you are av avid overclocker, and the limits of the rig are going to be fully tested, the Noctua NH L12S will hardly budge.
Best Cooler with RGB
Cooler Master MASTERAIR G100M RGB
The Cooler Master MasterAir series goes on to include some of the most prolific cooling solutions. However, as not all of them are low profile coolers, we have picked out the best in their lot. The G100M pushes more heat out thanks to aluminum stack fins and heat columns.
You don’t need to stick with the traditional design of a CPU cooler. The G100M offers a completely unique addition to what your PC rig will look on the insides. With the RGB fan perched on top to give it a disc like a shape, this one takes notes from extra-terrestrial ships more than CPU cooling solutions.
Seeing how it pays attention to design elements, one might worry if performance is as good. We have done the hard work for you on that too. Albeit at a higher 130W TDP, it has a 92mm fan which is exactly the same as the infamous Noctua NH L9i or our favorite Cryorig C7 above.
Interestingly, it ditches multiple heat pipes to use one large copper column of about 6 to 7 times the standard size. While this will directly channel the CPU heat up to the cooling mechanism, the air produced is also has a positive impact on other unconnected hardware components that are installed close by.
Moreover, you get to control and modulate the RGB lighting on the fan and the RGB ring as it has a PWM connector and a dedicated RGB controller. Connectivity options are also not limited as you can use it with Intel LGA 2066 and AMD AM4 both. Do keep in mind, however, that the height of the CPU cooler is 74.5mm to be exact, which means you will need sufficiently larger space inside if you wish to fit in the Cooler Master CPU cooler.
Best Budget Low Profile CPU Cooler
So ARCTIC claims that this fan is better than its competitions by 10 Co while performing under the same conditions as them. This is not just a marketing tactic as the ARCTIC Alpine 12 CO is a very remarkable 92mm CPU air cooler.
The radial design completely contacts with the die of your processor and provides great cooling. The aluminum fins do a great job of dissipating heat while the fans high RPMs rapidly cool down the fins and the heatsink at the same time.
The ARCTIC Alpine 12 CO has a dual ball bearing design that significantly expands its life span compared to sleeve bearing and ball bearing designs. The fan speeds can go as low as 250RPM to 2700RPM which can be controlled by your BIOS.
Compared to the ARCTIC Alpine 11, the Alpine 12 CO consumes less than half the power while maintaining 2000RPM fan speed, which is a huge deal, as everyone knows, the more power is consumed, the more heat is generated.
With price as low as $11, you will not find a low noise and high performing fan than the ARCTIC Alpine 12 CO. It ticks all the boxes for being one of the best low profile CPU coolers out there. The only problem we have with the fan is not a performance-based issue, it is more of a compatibility-based one since this fan is only compatible with Intel Processors.
There is no way to mount this fan to an AMD CPU if there was a mounting bracket or any such adjustment than this would be a perfect fan.
So the fan on the CPU cooler is only about adjustable from 600 to 1600RPM, that is not a lot of speed for a 120mm fan, you can find much better fan speeds. But the best part is the fan is easily swappable, you can install one of Noctua’s high performing low noise, high RPM and Static Pressure fans. But the stock fan does work pretty neat as well, however, having the swapping option is a great thing.
The fan itself is a hydraulic bearing fan, it has a way better life than most sleeve and ball bearing fans, it has the low noise of 13.8 dB(A) which can reach up to a 30 depending on how much you are revving the fan speed. Not ideal for low noise operations.
Even with the 1600RPM max speed, it has a great airflow of 54CFM and a solid max Static Pressure of 1.36mm-H20. So the fan quality is not bad, it will greatly reduce the heat and has a good airflow going on regardless of the limited fan speed.
Another good thing about it is the 6 heat pipes, usually, CPU coolers have 4 or 5, the addition of one greatly improves cooling performance helping the heat spread easily from the copper base. The copper base is also a great option as it helps dissipate heat faster.
The design of the fan is great, it easily fits the micro form factor PC builds and leaves enough clearance for other components. If only they improve the fan quality, chances are this brand would top the CPU air cooler charts.
Great Looking CPU Cooler
It isn’t just the round aluminum design of the fan and the heatsink that makes it stand apart. Due to the efforts put into the form factor, this CPU cooler is possibly the thinnest you will get at just 27mm (or negligibly over one inch). This is great for the most congested CPU cases.
Even in the rest of the dimensions, Thermaltake Engine 27 is one of the smallest low profile coolers out there. But all those style statements had to come at a price. There are cheaper models out there that can reduce the heat better than this one. For instance, the now unavailable Cryorig C7 and C7 CU, both cost less and are cooler than Engine 27.
Specifically, when the Cryorig C7 can reduce heat to 53 degrees with load, TT will not be able to get it under 59 degrees. In other words, you could take the liberty of picking a hotter solution if you are sure your rig is used in a very cold region in general. Or, if your rig isn’t actually very notorious in heat production. During the testing, it was able to stay true to the 70W TDP management, but we all know that isn’t the best there is.
On the flip side, however, its 200RPM setting is quieter than Cryorig C7 (36.5 dBA to 42.1 dBA) and also a number of other models like Thermalright XP-200 Muscle and Noctua NH L9i. Overall, we’d say that it isn’t a bad choice, but rather a runner up to other similarly priced and similarly sized models. You’d be picking it up for “satisfactory” performance and “impressive” looks. Not the other way around.