Top tier PC components produce a good deal of heat, and whilst it all ends up in the air in the end water cooling offers functional and aesthetic advantages when you’re planning your premium build. Whether you’re looking for a rock solid 240mm All-In-One cooling solution for your CPU, or you want to go all out with a custom water loop to really show off your skill and creativity, you need a case that facilitates your desired look and performance. In this article I’ll run through some great options for a range of form factors and water cooling solutions.
Primer: Water cooling – a solution to a hot problem.
A ‘traditional’ cooling solution for a CPU or GPU is a pretty simple device: A metal heat sink sits flush to the component to be cooled, and the increased thermal mass allows heat to move away from the component. Usually fins are used to increase surface area, whilst a fan helps to shift air away from the heat sink, increasing the temperature gradient and moving more heat away. You still see this set up on entry-level graphics cards and in the supplied intel and AMD CPU coolers and provided you’re not dealing with powerful components it works well. Higher power devices require heat pipes – these sealed pipes contain volatile liquid that evaporates at the hot side then recondenses at the cold side, using the considerable energy absorption of phase change to draw even more heat away. This cooler design is apparent in almost every aftermarket air cooler you can buy. But what happens when you need to overclock, you live in a hot climate, or you run demanding processes for long periods of time?
When you need to pull as much heat out of your CPU and GPU as possible there isn’t much substitute for water cooling. Adding water to the mix adds significant thermal mass to the cooling system meaning you can pull far more heat away from the PC before temperatures rise. It also allows you to pass that warmed water through a radiator, which can have a drastically larger surface area and bring more of the water into proximity with cold airflow to cool it.
A water cooling set up in its simplest form requires a radiator, a cold plate, piping to connect them, and a pump to drive water around a circuit.
The simplest route into water cooling is an All-In-One cooling system – ‘AIO’ – which combines the three components in a sealed system ready to install. Corsair, NZXT, Cooler Master and Deepcool all sell these systems. There is a range of radiator sizes, intended to combine with standard 120mm and 140mm case fans. Whilst 120mm AIO’s look like a convenient option to place at the exhaust location of your case, next to the CPU, we’d advise against it: A 120mm radiator doesn’t offer enough surface area to be a worthwhile upgrade over a good heatpipe air cooler. Any AIO should have a 240mm radiator as a minimum unless you’re working in a very space constrained system and a 120mm (or even smaller!) radiator is all you can fit.
The next step is a ‘custom loop’ involving a pump and reservoir system, custom radiators and waterblocks, and either soft or hard tubing and connectors to route the fluid between the components. If this is what you’re planning, then countless hours of tearing down GPUs, measuring thrice and then cutting your thumb, chasing leaks and tightening couplings await you. The reward? Rock bottom temperatures and the ability to create a truly stunning lean and clean aesthetic to your PC. EK are the market leaders in Custom water cooling equipment, alpha cool and Thermaltake offer sound alternatives. Whilst budget offerings from smaller manufacturers exists, when you’re mixing fluids with electronics it’s wise to consider the support and quality control on offer from the manufacturer to prevent things from going wrong.
So what are our recommended PC cases for watercooling in 2020?
Best PC Cases for Watercooling – My Recommendations
Best Case for a 240mm AIO Radiator
A 240mm Radiator is the most common and lowest cost way to get an effective water cooled set up. The Cooler Master Mastercase H500 is a chunkily styled and highly engineered case with a great range of cooling options. It’s supplied with a pair of huge 200mm front intake fans, making the top radiator location the obvious choice for a 240mm CPU radiator expelling hot air out of the top of the case. The case comes supplied with a choice of mesh and glass front panels as well as magnetic filters on all intakes, and a full sized tempered glass side panel to highlight the build inside. Cable management covers much like it’s namesake the NZXT H500 give you the ability to hide away unsightly straggling cables, whilst hard drive caddies add an air of class to 3.5” discs. The cooler Master H500 has topped testing for thermals particularly with the mesh front panel installed, making this case an excellent choice for anyone who wants the best cooling capacity for a powerful PC along with a highly configurable interior.
Best Case for a 280mm AIO Radiator
A 280mm Radiator AIO provides a huge amount of cooling surface area, combined with the quiet but powerful operation of a pair of 140mm fans. Phanteks have long built cases with great water cooling support and the Enthoo Evolv ATX is no exception. This full-sized ATX case boasts front and top mounting locations for 240mm, 280mm or 360mm radiators making it one of few cases to give you options for 280mm radiator placement. The top location has a slide out tray to make fitting the AIO radiator simple and they’ve given thought to clearances meaning the top mount radiator location won’t foul tall RAM sticks. The case will grow with you too, as it’s supplied with custom loop reservoir mount locations and plenty of routing options for pipework, as well as remote pump locations in the ‘basement’ PSU shroud. The other features of this case enable a versatile range of builds with multiple hard drive locations as well as PSU and front panel dust filters. Manufactured entirely from 3mm aluminium yields clean and industrial looks, and it’s available with a choice of a windowed, full glass, or opaque side panels depending on your preference.
Best Case for a 360mm AIO Radiator
The Obsidian 500D is a signature premium case from Corsair but maintains a ‘mid tower’ form factor. The look is clean and slick with a pair of tempered glass side panels that swing out for easy access to the internals and a neat central cable routing to ensure the build won’t look cluttered. Radiator placement options are numerous but include 360mm front radiator support, and for a simple cooling solution for a powerful CPU such as a Ryzen 3900X or Intel i9-9900K a 360mm AIO fits the bill perfectly. This case will allow you to make full use of a 360mm AIO such as the Corsair H150i Pro or the frankly awesome (if over the top) Asus ROG RYUJIN 360. At $165/£150 this isn’t the cheapest of cases but given the features and build quality the price is fair and you can be sure of excellent cooling capability when combined with a 360mm AIO.
Best Case for Custom Loop Watercooling
If you’ve decided on a full custom cooling loop for your next build, then you’re likely agonising over what case will best present your handiwork. The Lian-Li PC-011 Dynamic is an evolution of the PC-O11, a pretty unique case with dual chamber design with one side encased in tempered glass. It has been remodelled to incorporate a laterally mounted 360mm radiator, providing ample cooling capacity for a full loop even if you choose not to use the additional top mount radiator location. The visible side of the case provides a huge amount of room for ‘activities’ with pipework, pumps, radiators and RGB fans. The compartmentalised design keeps the showy parts of the build clean of the less pretty components like a PSU and hard-drives in order to ensure the custom loop is pride of place. With so little else to dictate the placement of components, you’ve got free reign to build a loop you can really be proud to show, and that’s why this case gets our recommendation for a full water cooling custom loop build.
Best ITX Case for Watercooling
Venturing into the compact world of ITX builds might make you think you’re not going to have room for watercooling: On the contrary, powerful CPU’s in small spaces need all the help they can get in shedding heat, and to address this some tiny case designs like the 12-litre NCASE M1 have built-in 240mm radiator support. This can be used with an off the shelf AIO, or else built into a very compact custom loop. Just ensure your radiator is slim enough – NCASE recommend using a Swiftech’s H220 or Cooler Master’s Glacer 240L. It has been built and improved upon through enthusiast feedback to ensure that it caters to a wide variety of components and configurations. If packing a hot CPU, full sized GPU and a 240mm radiator into a case not much bigger than a shoebox appeals to you, then the NCASE M1 should be at the top of your list.
If you don’t need something quite as small as the M1, then the NZXT H210 is a development of the ever-popular NZXT H200 and supports a 240mm Radiator at the front of the case: A great option if you want compact rather than truly small, but still need a powerful CPU cooling solution. It’s also keenly priced at $80/£80.