GPU Active vs Fan vs Passive Cooling – What’s The Difference? (Is Liquid Best?)

Graphics cards have never been at a higher premium. We’re using them for everything from creative software to high on gaming. With all of this workload, how can you keep your graphics card cool?

You have plenty of options when it comes to keeping your graphics card cool. Passive cooling is the quietest and most affordable, but it can’t stand up to gaming and hard use. Active and fan cooling is a little bit noisy, but it can keep up with almost any amount of heat. Liquid cooling is the most effective way to cool your graphics card, but it is much more expensive and comes with the risk of a system-destroying leak.

Let’s cool down and take a look at all of the different ways you can regulate the temperature of your graphics card.

Why Your Graphics Card Gets So Hot!

Holding my Sapphire RX480 graphics card
Holding my Sapphire RX480 graphics card

When it comes to the components of your PC that get really hot, the graphics processing unit is at the top of the list. Your graphics card is under an incredible workload and that means it is going to be putting out a lot of heat. Before we get into the science behind cooling your graphics card, we have to look at why it’s getting so hot to begin with.

Your graphics card accelerates 3D Graphics processing for your PC. As graphics cards and the technology around them have advanced, they’re now used for other programming needs like creative software, artificial intelligence, and other needs.

When under load—that means being used—your graphics card can reach temperatures of 65° to 85° Celsius which is 149° to 185° F! Those are the normal temperatures and they get very hot to the touch!

Your GPU might be struggling with heating for a few reasons. GDDR6X memory, improper fan speed or placement, damaged or dirty fans, or even factors like background programs and malware can all overload your GPU. GPU performance is directly linked to how hot it gets.

In order to get the best GPU performance, you need the best GPU cooling.

The Different Types of GPU Cooling

Active Cooling

Active cooling means that there’s going to be some powered, moving components that are helping to cool down your graphics card. The most common example of this is a fan that’s cooling down your GPU while you’re gaming.

The goal of active cooling is to help create negative pressure inside of your PC case. This dramatically improves airflow which carries heat away from your graphics card and out of your PC case.

My partially built Ryzen 5900X build with 750W PSU and slightly older RX480 GPU
My partially built Ryzen 5900X build with 750W PSU and slightly older RX480 GPU

Active cooling does require extra power from your PC’s power supply, but the energy used by fans is negligible especially when compared to the energy used by the graphics card itself. Active cooling systems are typically found on more powerful systems or systems that are going to be under more consistent strain and usage.

The most popular form of active cooling is fan cooling, as we explore below.

Fan Cooling

Two AMD graphics cards an RX 480 and RX 6700 XT next to each other
Both AMD Sapphire graphics cards have active (fan) cooling.

Fan cooling is probably the single most popular way to cool a PC. The fans simply conduct air away from the GPU which picks heat up from your graphics card. The hot air moves the heat out of your PC and away from the graphics processor itself.

Fans come in a wide variety of styles and with just as many features. You can get a high-end fan that is whisper silent and features programmable RGB lighting or you can get a budget model that’s going to get comparable cooling, but it’s going to make some noise and not be as customizable.

Passive Cooling

A comparison between CPU and chassis fans
A comparison between CPU and chassis fans

Passive cooling systems, on the other hand, feature no power to moving components. They use the laws of physics to help conduct heat away from the graphics processing unit (out of the case), and cool air into the PC case. It will be the job of the PC case fans to get this heat out of your PC and vented into the room.

Passive cooling typically features copper tubing and metal fins. These pieces of metal pick up heat from the GPU and radiate it away from the processor and into the error that fills your PC case.

These are often the most affordable options and they can also be paired with fan cooling for even more heat mitigation. Passive cooling options aren’t always the best choice if you’re looking for maximum performance or you plan to put your GPU under a lot of strain.

One of the biggest options with passive cooling is that it is completely silent. You won’t have to worry about any fan noise if you have a system that uses passive Cooling.

Semi-passive Cooling

Quite dusty case fans
These case fans are attached to a fan controller to reduce (or eliminate) noise when the system is idle.

Semi-passive cooling systems combine the technology behind passive cooling and fan cooling to give you even more options when it comes to keeping the temperature down on your graphics processor.

Semi-passive cooling systems use a fan with a variable control speed that is connected to a passive cooling system. This allows the fan to completely shut down one under low loads reducing noise and energy consumption in your PC.

Semi-passive cooling systems tend to be fairly expensive. They get great results, but they also command a high price. Budget semi passive cooling systems have had a bad reputation in the past of not kicking it in time and being a little inconsistent.

Liquid Cooling

The last option we have to consider for cooling your graphics card is liquid cooling:

Transparent computer with liquid cooling and UV lighting effects
Transparent computer with liquid cooling and UV lighting effects

Liquid cooling takes the same technological approach of cooling your car’s engine and brings it into the PC. This uses liquid to carry heat away from PC components and help keep your system cool. There are few trade-offs when it comes to liquid cooling.

Liquid cooling systems are by far the most expensive. They require more components and more precision builds so you can expect to pay more for a high-quality liquid cooling system.

Liquid cooling systems are also designed for high-end PCs. You might not see meaningful value out of a liquid cooling system unless you have a cutting-edge gaming PC or a PC that’s going to be under a lot of strain.

Then there’s the risk of a leak. If your liquid cooling system leaks, you could accidentally destroy the components of your PC or even cause a fire.

Which GPU Cooling System Is The Best?

There are five key factors that you should consider when it comes to picking the right GPU cooling system for your PC. We’re going to look at the cost, ease of installation and maintenance, the size of the cooling system, how much noise it generates, and—most importantly—how much heat it can handle.


Passive cooling systems tend to be the most cost-effective and can even be included in some low and medium budget GPUs. However, it’s important to point out that many fan cooling systems are just about as affordable, especially when you’re buying budget models.

Semi-passive cooling takes the price up a little bit. This is because the fan has to be a little bit more complicated in order to completely shut off and know when to turn back on without your PC overheating.

The single most expensive way to go about cooling your PC is liquid cooling. While you can find budget liquid cooling systems out there, we don’t recommend it.

If your budget fan fails, your PC will likely just shut down due to an overheat error and then you can safely replace the fan. If your budget liquid cooling system critically fails, your PC case can be flooded with coolant – or in the best case, you’ll spend a long time tracking down and fixing any leaks:

Liquid cooling systems are definitely an area where you don’t want to cut corners when it comes to cost and quality.

East of Installation and Maintenance

Now let’s talk about the ease of installation and maintenance for each of these different approaches to cooling your GPU.

Passive cooling has by far the easiest installation and maintenance. You don’t need to do anything besides occasionally use an air duster to get any dust, pet hair, or debris off of your copper pipes in metal cooling fins. Passive heat sinks often come pre-installed or simply installed by applying some thermal paste and then sticking your heat sink on.

Active cooling, semi-passive cooling, and fans are slightly more complicated. You’ll need to measure your available space in your PC case to ensure that your cooling system fits, although thankfully many graphics cards have perfectly good fans already fitted. You’re also going to need to do slightly more maintenance to ensure that these fans operate correctly.

This includes regularly dusting off the fan blades to make sure that they can still effectively move air out of your PC case.

Liquid cooling systems have the most complicated installation and maintenance. They can also take up more room than other systems in your PC. Liquid cooling is best handled by experienced DIY PC builders.


Me measuring up available GPU space inside my mini ATX case
Me measuring up available GPU space inside my mini ATX case

Size is an important consideration when you’re picking how you’ll be cooling your graphics processor. You need to make sure that your cooling technology fits in your PC case and allows you to easily access your other components.

Passive cooling systems are the smallest and tend to take up the least space. Fans and other active cooling can take up a lot of space as higher-end fans get bigger and bigger – sometimes requiring 4-5″ of width. However, fans tend to be easy to manage and you can find plenty of information online about a fan that will fit your PC case, your overall build, and your graphics card.

Liquid cooling systems tend to be the largest, but they distribute that size throughout your PC case. You can put your liquid cooling reservoir and an empty section of your PC case and have a relatively streamline set of connections In the case itself.


Passive cooling systems make no noise which is a huge plus in their favor. Fans can get very noisy especially when you use budget models, but high-end fans are often whisper quiet.

Tip: if the fans come built-in to the graphics card (as is often the case), be sure to check online reviews – and particularly YouTube – to hear how loud the fans on a graphics card get during a long gaming session.

Liquid cooling systems tend to be quieter than fans, but larger liquid cooling systems use loud pumps which can make it even more noisy than a fan.

Heat Mitigation and Temperature Control

CPU memory and GPU usage when rendering a video
Temperatures and hardware usage when rendering a video.

The right heat medication for you depends on how much strain your graphics card will be under. The passive cooling system could be a great choice for people who don’t intend to do any gaming or use any creative software.

Fans can handle most any workload, but they are technically out performed by liquid cooling systems. Liquid cooling gives you by far the best results, but whether or not you actually see any performance gains might depend on how hard you’re pushing your graphics card.

The Best Thing You Can Do For Cooling Your GPU

The single best thing you can do to improve the temperature regulation of your graphics card is to improve the overall temperature regulation for your PC. Here are a few quick steps for keeping your PC cool:

  • You’re going to want to regularly dust off your fans, motherboard, and other components. Dust is a great insulator and dramatically increases the heat in your PC.
  • You should also check to make sure that your fans are properly installed in order to achieve negative pressure inside your case.
  • You should use software that allows you to check the heat of your CPU and graphics card, such as HWMonitor. This is a great way to get heat benchmarks and make sure that your system is staying within safe temperature ranges.
cropped A picture of me Tristan
About Tristan Perry

Tristan has been interested in computer hardware and software since he was 10 years old. He has built loads of computers over the years, along with installing, modifying and writing software (he's a backend software developer 'by trade').

Tristan also has an academic background in technology (in Math and Computer Science), so he enjoys drilling into the deeper aspects of technology.

Tristan is also an avid PC gamer, with FFX and Rocket League being his favorite games.

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