Water-Cooled GPU: Is Water Cooling a GPU Better?

Water cooling isn’t just for CPUs anymore! GPU water-cooling kits are becoming increasingly popular and accessible, making them an excellent way to improve your computer’s performance.

But how much do they improve performance, and do they really work? First, let’s look at the history of liquid cooling and how much it impacts your computer’s overall performance. 

The History of Water Cooling: Where Did It All Start? 

While it might seem unusual initially, water cooling predates air cooling in computers.

During the early days of computing, air cooling was simply inadequate for handling the heat densities of early computer components. So, there wasn’t much choice. It was either water cooling or no computer. 

One of the earliest documented water cooling uses was in IBM’s System 360 computers. The process became popular in the 1980s when supercomputers started to be produced and innovated.

Unfortunately, these super-dense systems generated a lot of heat. Since the systems were new and still being innovated (they’re still being innovated today!), liquid cooling was necessary to keep the components from overheating and becoming damaged. 

Nowadays, components have much lower heat indexes, and the technology for air cooling has significantly improved, allowing more freedom with which to build your systems regarding cooling.

For most users, air cooling is going to be all they strictly need, which is excellent news for any budget PC builders who don’t have the money to spend on a water cooling kit. 

The highest level of liquid cooling is using liquid nitrogen to give components a cryo bath and instantly reduce the temperatures of the components.

However, liquid nitrogen cannot be stored in a reservoir (yet) and pumped through a system. So the only way to cool your system with liquid nitrogen is to continually pour more liquid nitrogen into the cooling system, which renders you unable to use your computer.

Therefore, consumer-level liquid cooling will be done with water. 

Is Water Cooling Necessary? 

For light to medium-heavy task loads, air cooling should be more than adequate, especially if your case is outfitted with other fans to transfer heat away from the components.

However, water-cooling is typically used for high-intensity tasks like gaming, video editing, photo manipulation, and artificial intelligence. These tasks are known offenders for high heat density in components as they require a lot of power to keep them up and to run. 

Is Water Cooling Better Than Air Cooling? 

Water cooling is statistically more efficient than air cooling.

To understand how water cooling is more efficient, we’ll take a deep dive (pun intended) into exactly how these systems work. Liquid cooling systems are similar to those used to keep car engines from overheating.   

Typical water cooling systems have several moving parts that allow them to function. The reservoir stores water as it pumps through the tubes in the system, allowing the computer to continue pumping water while it’s in use and preventing the water from becoming too warm from proximity to the components (which would hamper its effectiveness.) 

The reservoir is attached to a pump which pumps liquid through the tubes running through the system to the components that need to be cooled. When the liquid reaches a part that needs to be cooled, the water will be funneled into a “water block” that sits atop a liquid cooling plate on top of the chipset. 

The cooling plate transfers the heat from the component to the water, which is pumped out of the water block and back into the reservoir. Finally, a radiator takes the heat and pumps it out of the system, keeping the system cool. You’ll also need some nuts and bolts to secure all the components of your new cooling system. 

Initially, water cooling was only available for CPUs, and GPUs had to make do with their preinstalled fans. However, in recent years people have been using water cooling increasingly often.

Water cooling GPUs used to be a relatively rare occurrence that required real technological skill. But nowadays, you can just buy a kit and install the components by following an instruction booklet.

How Much Will Water Cooling Improve My GPU’s Performance? 

Every GPU has a series of hardcoded limits within its drivers. These limitations are designed to prevent additional damage to the component during use.

The most notable one here is the temperature limitations. When a GPU reaches a certain temperature threshold, the GPU will bottleneck itself to prevent damage. 

A “bottleneck” is precisely as it sounds: an artificial narrowing of data transfer and processing limitations, like liquid passing through the neck of a bottle. When a GPU reaches its heat threshold, the bottleneck can be as much as a 15% reduction in efficiency to prevent the GPU from getting any hotter. 

Bottlenecks are particularly troublesome for those choosing to overclock their graphics card. Overclocking is a process by which a user artificially increases their component’s clock speeds—the speed at which the component processes data. 

Both CPUs and GPUs can be overclocked, and overclocking will naturally cause the unit to run hotter than running it at the stock clock speed. Therefore, it’s highly recommended that you invest in water cooling if you intend to overclock your CPU, GPU, or both. 

Investing in water cooling ensures that your overclocked units will stay under the temperature threshold while still being able to output the same level of power.  

EKWB did a series of tests using an RX Vega 64-bit card to process 4K graphics with and without a water block to see how the water block affected performance. In this test, the card reached temperatures over 80° Celsius with air cooling but stayed in the mid-30s when the unit was water cooled.

The water cooling also seemed to affect the card’s overall performance, even marginally. The water-cooled GPU was around 10% more efficient than the air-cooled GPU, with some settings reaching almost 20% more efficiency! 

Now, supporting a water-cooling system requires additional power draw during idling and task loads. Still, the power draw on the water-cooled system is only slightly higher than that of the air-cooled system.

For example, when idling, the air-cooled system used a power draw of 74 watts compared to the water-cooled system’s 71 watts. The difference between the two when processing 4K video was 375 watts when air-cooled and 396 watts when water-cooled. 

Is Water-Cooling Your GPU Worth It? 

Benchmarking is the easiest way to tell if your GPU needs water cooling.

PC Mark 8’s stress tests are an excellent measure of your system’s performance and operating capacity. When running these tests, you’ll want to pop open your computer’s Task Manager. Then select the GPU tab and observe the graphs that show your GPU’s performance.  

What you’re looking for is a sudden drop in performance following a spike in temperature. For example, suppose your GPU starts to bottleneck when performing an appropriate stress test. In that case, you may want to consider investing in water cooling for your GPU. 

Final Thoughts 

While water-cooling your GPU might be fancy and new, it’s not yet necessary for most tasks—and likely it never will be.

On the other hand, water cooling might be an excellent buy for people that are putting their computers under excess stress.

Still, unless your stress tests reveal a heat-related bottleneck, you may never notice the difference between water cooling and air cooling.