It’s time to look at the best low-profile CPU coolers that are on the market. With small computers trending, this is more relevant than ever. Whether you have a small gaming pc or plan to build a low-noise HTPC, cooling is essential.
In this article, you will find the top 3 best low-profile CPU coolers in 2019. These are the coolers that matter, that people choose between. I’ll help you choose the cooler for your specific need and guide you through the terms and what to think about when purchasing a CPU cooler.
Let’s get started!
Top 3 Best Low-Profile CPU Coolers in 2019
The rule of thumb when it comes to coolers is that size does matter and you should always go for the biggest one. This is true in most cases, even for low-profile coolers. I’ve chosen three different CPU coolers in all varying height. For whatever needs you have, any of these three coolers are a match.
All three CPU coolers were tested with an Intel Core i7-3770S CPU with a TDP of 65W. The system has 32GB of RAM and no graphics card. I ran Prime95 to load the CPU and used HWMonitor to see the average temperature of the CPUs.
The Noctua NH-L12S CPU cooler is a unique cooler that solves a problem many pc builders has noticed too late: RAM clearance. Getting some nice-looking RAMS only to realize that you cannot fit the CPU cooler is very common. The fan can be mounted on the bottom of the top if you need more clearance.
It’s one of the largest low-profile CPU coolers with the height being 70mm (or 85mm with the fan placed on top) as well as a 120mm fan. The fan has a 4-PIN connector, giving you the possibility to control the speed, which is between 450-1850rpm. The TDP of the fan is 95W which should be more than enough for most CPUs today.
How Does it Perform?
As the NH-L12S has a 120mm, it will perform much better than other low-profile coolers, which usually have a fan smaller than 100mm. It can also be seen when testing the CPU cooler. Under load, the i7-3770S is at 59 Celsius, which is more than reasonable for a CPU.
According to specifications, the noise level is 23.9 dB at maximum, but I do not have the equipment to test this, unfortunately. However, the noise would bother me if I sat next to the computer and tried to focus on something. On the other hand, I usually don’t have the CPU on 100% when trying to focus on a document or an article.
Why I Recommend it
The Noctua NH-L12S is a big cooler in this category and it also shows on the numbers. Because of its size and it’s TDP value, it’s a great CPU cooler for gaming rigs, where the CPUs generally go up to 95W. You can also find bigger RAM modules in many gaming rigs, making this cooler even better for that type of computer.
You can use it for the latest CPUs from both Intel and AMD, everything you need comes in the package. It takes some fiddling to mount it correctly but once it’s there, it’s set and forget. The fan is 4-PIN so that you can adjust the speed however you like it. Moreover, it has an affordable price. You can click here to find the Noctua NH-L12S on Amazon.
The fan is just 92mm big, which means that the fan will have to spin a lot to cool down a 95W CPU. Thankfully, the RPM of the fan is between 600-2500 so spin it should. Of course, it will get noisy with a CPU fan at 2500rpm, and the specifications say 30 dB for the C7.The Cryorig is a “true” low-profile cooler, with a height of just 47mm. For reference, the Intel stock cooler is 50mm, so this is just a tad smaller. And for being so small, it has quite the TDP at 100W which makes it an option for more powerful CPUs with 95W TDP such as the Intel Core i9-9900K (95W) or Ryzen 3 3700X (65W).
How Does it Perform?
With a 92mm fan, there is only so much that any low-profile cooler can do, and the Cryorig C7 didn’t show anything above usual. While mounted on my i7-3770S, the fans were spinning loudly but the temperature was at a nice 64 Celsius. It shouldn’t be a surprise to noon that a cooler with a TDP of 100W can keep a CPU at 65W cool.
But even if the CPU isn’t rated for so much as the cooler, the fan was spinning up a lot. It’s the big drawback of this cooler, the noise it makes. I can only imagine having a more powerful CPU under that… It’s a hard balance trying to find the perfect spot between noise and temperature.
Why I Recommend it
The Cryorig C7 will not blow your mind. It will not be the quietest part of your computer. It will not break any records. But it will keep your CPU cooler than the Intel stock cooler and it looks much better at doing so. And if you want it to keep quiet, you can set your own PWM curve and keep your CPU a little hotter for a quieter computer.
I am surprised at how high the TDP is on this thing. If you have the Ryzen 3 3800X, you will need to look elsewhere but all other CPUs (with some exceptions of course) will work with the C7. Cryorig has priced it competitively, giving you a lot for what you pay for. It also supports both Intel and AMD (AM3 & AM4) out of the box. You can click here to find the Cryorig C7 on Amazon.
Noctua NH-L9i CPU Cooler
This is a cooler that is great for HTPCs or in a home server (which is where I use this cooler). The noise of the fan is not loud and Noctua is famous for trading some degrees for a quitter fan. Again, great for HTPCs. Because of the design of the cooler, there are different models for AMD and Intel. The L9i is for Intel while the L9a is for AMD.The fact that Noctua is the king of cooling is a surprise to no one. One of the ways they show it is by building the smallest CPU cooler possible, the NH-L9i. This low-profile CPU cooler measures only 37mm in height with a 92mm on the top. The recommended TDP from Noctua is 65W and no overclocking, which means that I would not use this for gaming.
How Does it Perform?
Take a ruler and see for yourself how small 37mm is and you will start to wonder how a cooler that small, with fan included, could cool anything. But it can. My i7-3770S reached a maximum temperature of 67 Celsius, which is not bad at all for this type of cooler. It is a bit higher than the Cryorig C7 but on the other hand, this cooler is much quieter.
The fan has a 4-PIN connector and can be controlled to have a less or more aggressive fan curve depending on what you want. It was a bit tricky to mount because there is nothing that locks the board and the cooler together until the first screw. You will also have to apply thermal compound yourself. Noctua sends a small tube of their NT-H1 witch is a great thermal compound.
Why I Recommend it
I chose this cooler for my home server. It will stand in a corner of the apartment and I don’t want it to make any noise or be noticeable. Because of that, the case is small and the NH-L9i is a great low-profile cooler for this type of use.
The price is okay. You pay the premium price for buying a Noctua-product, but you get the benefits from doing so as well. The footprint of the cooler is also very small so it will not be a problem for big RAM modules.
A Guide to Low-Profile CPU Coolers
Interested in learning more about CPU coolers or still not sure which cooler to get? In this section of the article, you’ll learn more about how to choose a cooler, why 4-PIN fan connectors are better than 3-PIN and what TDP is.
Cooling might not be the sexiest or most fun in computer building, but it’s extremely necessary. Many skip this part completely and go with the Intel stock cooler or the AMD Wraith (AMDs stock cooler) but I would argue that purchasing an aftermarket cooler and keep lower temperatures on your CPU will make it live longer and who doesn’t want that?!
How Does a CPU Cooler Work?
I think that most of us understand how a CPU cooler works. The heat from the CPU is being transferred to the cooler, where the heat is being transferred to the air. Most of this is true but if you dig down a bit more, you realize that there is much more going on with a CPU cooler.
The metal on the CPU is called IHS (Integrated Heat Spreader). The job of the HIS is to spread the heat from the CPU over a bigger area. From there, the heat is then transferred over to the cold plate, which is the big metal part at the bottom, on the CPU cooler through the thermal compound. The compound is there to cover microscopic gaps between the HIS and the cold plate.
From the cold plate, the heat will move onwards through heat pipes that have contact with the cold plate. Inside the heat pipes, there’s an evaporator and the pipes are filled with liquid made of ammonal and ethanol. When this liquid is heated, it will turn into gas instead and will move upwards, bringing the heat with it.
Going up, the heat pipes make contact with the fins, which is the big silver (usually) plates on the heatsink. Each fin has a large surface area, allowing the heat to spread out. From there, a fan will blow air on the surface area, cooling it down. This will, in turn, cool down the heat pipes as well. This results in the gas being condensed and turns into liquid again.
Finally, the liquid runs down the edge of the heat pipes, down to the cold plate where it once again turns into a gas and the cycle repeats itself. That is why a bigger heatsink is often better, as it has more surface area and can cool more heat at the same time.
Space & Compatibility
For a CPU cooler, you always want the biggest possible and preferably multiple fans. The simple reason for this is that a bigger cooler than dissipate more heat. Having multiple fans will also let you run them slower while still moving more air, making less noise. Some system builders even have the fans off until the CPU reaches a certain temperature.
But then there is the spacing issue. It is not just the height that can be problematic but around the CPU as well. Many boards have the RAM slots close to the CPU which can cause clearance issues as well as VRAM heatsinks on other sides of the CPU.
When it comes to height, it has everything to do with what case you choose. Most case manufacturers tell how big your CPU cooler can be in the specifications (along with max GPU length etc.) and from there, you should find a cooler. There are also water-cooling options but that has to be covered in another article.
Compatibility is another issue that you face when purchasing a CPU cooler. The layout of a socket isn’t always the same. Intel and AMD are never using the same socket but sometimes, it can be a difference even when it’s the same brand. Maybe, you have heard about Intel 1155, 2011 and AMD AM4? These are sockets.
In 99% of the cases, the mounting for the cooler is no different while staying with the same brand. An exception to this is the enthusiast platforms (Intel X399 and AMD Threadripper) which usually has another layout. But you need to make sure that the cooler supports the platform you have/plan to get, or else it will not fit.
3-Pin Vs 4-Pin Fan Connectors
A crucial part of cooling is the fan. A fan can have two types of connectors, a 3-pin or a 4-pin connector. It doesn’t matter if your fans and your board have different connectors as they are compatible with each other. Most cases come with 3-pin connectors and that is generally the standard type of connector.
Each pin has its function. The first one is the power, the second one is ground and the third one is the signal. The signal is measuring the speed of the fan and reports it back to the motherboard. That is why you can see the RPM of the fan in bios or certain programs.
The fourth pin is the controller. It’s usually called Pulse Width Modulation, or simply PWM. If both the fan and the motherboard support PWM (4-pin support), you can control the speed of the fan in greater detail. Normally, a 3-pin fan can’t be adjusted more than a step or two and never under 50%.
A PWM fan, on the other side, has a minimum and maximum RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) and can be controlled in that range. This means that you can have your fans spin slowly and make very little noise until they are needed, and they will ramp up.
When it comes to CPU coolers, the fans that come with, are often PWM fans. If both your fan and your motherboard have 4 pins but you still can’t control it, you may need to enable PWM in your BIOS, as per default, it’s usually disabled.
TDP of the CPU
Thermal Design Power, or TDP, is a term that is often used when discussing coolers. It’s a form of standard between CPU manufacturers and CPU cooler manufacturers, that is making it easier for us as consumers.
TDP on a CPU is how much power the CPU will generate while TDP for a cooler is how much power the cooler can dissipate. You want to have a cooler that has the same, or higher, TDP than the CPU. What happens otherwise is that the CPU will generate more heat than the cooler than dissipate, resulting in an overheated CPU.
There are of course more factors than just the value of TDP, like airflow in the case, coverage on the HIS, what type of fan(s) and so on, but it’s a good value to use to get an understanding of how effective a cooler is or how much heat a CPU is generating.
A low-profile CPU cooler is often more important than a normal cooler, as they are used in tight spaces with limited airflow. That’s why it’s important to choose the best low-profile CPU cooler that fits your needs the best, to maximize the effectiveness of the cooler.
Hopefully, you have a hum of which cooler that is the best for you now and maybe you have learned a few more things about CPU coolers that you can use to make an educated guess or simply brag to your friends about it.
Whatever it may be, good luck with your computer build!