How to keep your PC cool for best performance

A desktop computer has two main characteristics: dust and heat. Diagnosing heat can be difficult because you can’t see it the way you can with dust. The key to avoiding any heat-related issues (besides cleaning your computer regularly) is to stick to some tried-and-true cooling principles. If you follow the basics, and then adapt it to your local environment and your PC’s requirements, you should be good to go.

How to measure temperatures

The best way to easily gauge if your computer is overheating is to monitor the temperatures reported by the CPU and GPU. If these two ingredients stay within the recommended temperature ranges, everything else should be fine.

For CPUs, this means keeping the processor below 80°C under load, but preferably much lower. The maximum operating temperature of a CPU is often above 80 degrees, but this is a good general benchmark.

There are many programs that allow you to monitor the CPU temperature, but we recommend Core Temp, as it is a lightweight program that does its job well. It will also announce a temperature reading for each CPU core that you can see at a glance in your computer’s system tray.

Graphics cards can get a little more toast to the processor, but ideally it stays below 85°C. Genuine software overlays from AMD and Nvidia can report the temperature of your graphics card. Another option that will work for everyone is MSI’s Afterburner.

If you want more detailed explanations, be sure to read our guides on how to read your computer’s CPU temperature and GPU temperature.

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stack of arctic case fans p12 Alaina Yee / IDG

Cooling a computer starts with two fans in a chassis. You can have more than that, but you want at least two. Some cheaper desktop or PC computers come with only one fan; You’ll want to install another fan if this is true for your system. One needs the inlet that brings cool air into the enclosure. The other is to draw hot air or move it out of the enclosure. (Here’s how to determine which way your computer fans blow.) Having a single fan doing one of these things will dramatically increase temperatures.

Where these fans are located depends on the chassis, but the intake fan is usually positioned toward the back of the case, near the CPU. It could also be at the top of the case, right above the CPU. This placement makes sense because the CPU produces so much heat that it needs to come out of the case, and the other main heat generator, the graphics card, is just under that.

The intake fan should ideally draw cool air from the front of the case, away from where the hottest components (and air) are. It all depends on your case, though, as the fan’s placement is determined by your chassis design.

If you only have a limited number of fans and they’re not doing their job, an alternative is to look at pulse width modulation (PWM) fans. These fans require a compatible PWM connector on the motherboard, and make it possible to control the fans’ speed via software or the motherboard’s BIOS. This enables the fans to speed up when it is too hot and slow down (or even stop) when they are not needed. PWM fans are used on graphics cards to improve power efficiency and cooling, and they can do the same for your system cooling needs.

You can find a no-frills PC case essential fan for as little as $5 on Amazon. Antec’s quiet P12 case fans are a household favorite and you can’t get one, not two, but five for under $25. Meanwhile, if you want to add a little bling to your setup, you can also buy five sets of Antec fans with RGB LEDs and PWM support for $60. Our guide to installing bag fans contains all the information you need to make sure you choose the right type for your particular setup.


lenovo legion c530 thermal rendering Lenovo

Chassis fans are used to achieve one of several situations: either positive pressure, negative pressure, or an equal balance between the two. Positive pressure occurs when there is more cold air entering the canister than exiting through the intake fans. Negativity is the opposite.

Computers built without much concern for the position or direction of the fan usually end up with a positive pressure environment. This is because there are a lot of unused cracks, crevices, and vents in the PC case where air can get in.

For a negative pressure setting, where more air is being pushed out than pulled in, you need to really think about the position of the fan and the direction of rotation. You want most fans (if you have more than two) to blow outside to push all that hot air away from your components.

The type of compression you really want depends on your needs. Some people in drier environments, where dust builds up easily, swear by the negative pressure environment of their computers.

Most people should aim for positive air flow. However, an equal flow of positive and negative pressure is the best bet for most people. When you have enough air moving through the enclosure from the outside, while you’re pushing really hot air out, you get the benefits of reducing dust buildup while keeping the air moving. However, the key is to make sure there are filters near the intake fans to prevent too much dust from getting into the air. If there are no built-in filters for your case, you can often make your own without much hassle.

Upgrade cooling components


Noctua NH-D15 CPU cooler.

The key to any cooling setup other than fans and airflow is the cooling hardware you use for your GPU and CPU. Graphics cards come with their fans. While you can upgrade your GPU to liquid cooling, this is an advanced topic – and an expensive one if you get it wrong. Most people leave the GPU cooling as is and look to improve the CPU cooler.

Many CPUs come with a stock cooler, or if you’re on a budget, you might get the cheapest serviceable CPU cooler you can find. But minimizing CPU fan usage is a mistake, because getting a better CPU cooler can help keep overall system temperatures lower.

A better coolant can absorb more heat, directing it toward the intake fans making the entire system more efficient. The problem with better CPU coolers is that they often cause problems for low-clearance cases. If oriented incorrectly, a large cooler may also prevent your RAM from installing properly.

One effective alternative to standard CPU coolers is the all-in-one (AIO) liquid cooler. AIO removes concerns about clearance, and most boxes have room for the masses that AIO requires. A dual-fan AIO is an excellent option for keeping your CPU cool, and these days it can often cost as much as a high-end air cooler.

Other considerations

computer case Ben Patterson / IDJ
electronic force

If improving chassis fans, negative versus positive pressure, and better component coolers don’t help your situation, there are still more considerations. First, your condition may simply not be ideal for your system.

Consider buying a new case that prioritizes cooling with better airflow and more fan space. You may even have to forgo the transparent side in order to get more air vents and splashes for the masses. Our explanation of how to buy a computer case can help you find the best case for you.

Also consider the ambient temperature in the room. It is a good idea to move the computer to a room with air conditioning if it is available, or a room in an underground basement. If neither option is available, “pointing a floor fan to an intake filter” can be surprisingly effective.

Keeping your computer cool isn’t always simple, but for most people who don’t overclock these steps should be enough to keep things from overheating.