In the nineties, the words ‘low profile’ and ‘cool’ were most likely used to describe Johnny Depp or a modded sports car sitting on Pirelli tires. Fast forward to 2020 where Depp is no longer a marketable actor and absurd amounts of computing power can be packed into a case the size of a toaster.
Nowadays, it’s pretty safe to say that we have not exceeded the expectations of most sci-fi writers. We’re not living in a dystopia, androids do not dream of electric sheep but big brother is watching (…so there’s that). Still, we live in marvelous times.
Still, the toaster-size cases are what we want to focus on.
Mini-ITX builds are yet to be commonplace, although enough case designers and manufacturers have been making them to warrant companies (who specialize in computer thermoelectric cooling) to create more specialized cooling options for them.
CPU stock coolers are cool (for lack of a better word) but you may be looking for something with more efficient heat dispersion and lower noise generation. Well, we’ve found five coolers with those qualities.
Top 5 Low Profile CPU Coolers
Mini-ITX cases don’t have a lot of room, which makes your cooling options a little limited. You’ll find that all the coolers in this guide are air coolers since low profile liquid coolers are rare and expensive.
Near the end of the article, we’ve also included a short buying guide detailing some key points worth looking out for when choosing a CPU Cooler. So what’s the best low profile CPU cooler for your MITX PC? We hope to answer that question in this guide.
Best Choice: Noctua NH-L9x65
Pros & Cons
- Low noise generation
- Great build material
- Very easy to install
- Excellent scope of delivery and additional accessories
- Includes an AM4 mounting kit at no extra cost (as of 2020)
- Comes only in one color which may clash with your other components.
- The SecuFirm2 mounting system can be a little tricky to work with.
- Four heat pipes
- SecuFirm2 multi-socket mounting system
- 6 year warranty
- Dimensions without fan (HxWxD): 51 mm x 95 mm x 95 mm | 2” x 3.7” x 3.7”
- Dimensions with fan (HxWxD): 65 mm x 95 mm x 95 | 2.5 x 3.7” x 3.7”
- Weight without fan: 340 g | 0.74 lbs.
- Weight with fan: 413 g | 0.91 lbs.
- Material: Copper and aluminum
- Socket Compatibility: Intel LGA2066, LGA2011-0 & LGA2011-3 (Square ILM), LGA1156, LGA1155, LGA1151, LGA1150 & AMD AM2, AM2+, AM3, AM3+, FM1, FM2, FM2+ (backplate required), AM4
Noctua NH-L9x65 Review
Noctua makes most of their fans in a brown and cream-white color scheme. I actually like it. It reminds me of a salted chocolate and caramel mousse. I’m a huge fan of desserts, however, you may not be. It’s one of the reasons they’re so unique. It’s not a huge issue if you don’t plan on showcasing the insides of your computer.
The cooler is a bit bulky for a low profile cooler. It may not fit comfortably into your MITX case. Pay close attention to your case’s clearance specs. You’ll need a clearance of at least above 65 mm.
During initial set up, the SecuFirm2 mount may require you to remove your motherboard completely to screw the mount on from the back. Some users may find this annoying but once you’ve inserted and secured the mount, it will be smooth sailing from there on.
The mounting system makes aligning the heat sink to the CPU a lot easier. The bracket only requires two connections while most coolers will need four. Even with just two connections, the cooler feels secure and firm.
Noctua CPU coolers have a reputation for producing great scopes of delivery. With the cooler, you get the fan, a low-noise adapter, an excellent high-grade thermal paste, the mounting kit, and a case badge.
It’s compatible with a wide variety of CPUs. As of 2020, it also comes with an AM4 mounting kit, where previously you had to buy one separately. In terms of quality and performance, it outpaces any stock cooler. It’s a little on the pricey side for a cooler this small but well worth it.
Premium Pick: be quiet! Dark Rock TF
Pros & Cons
- Very Quiet – nearly inaudible
- Well-built and aesthetically pleasing
- Comes equipped with an AM4 mounting kit
- Compatible with a wide variety of sockets
- Excellent scope of delivery
- A little pricey (but well worth it)
- Bulky for a low profile cooler – may not fit all motherboards even if the sockets are compatible.
- Decoupled fan mounting
- Dual nickel-plated heat sinks
- Dual Fans
- 3-year warranty
- Overall Dimensions without mounting material (HxWxD): 162.6 mm x 140 mm x 130.8 mm | 6.4” x 5.5” x 5.14”
- Total Weight: 810 grams | 1.74
- Material: Copper (base) and aluminum (fins)
- Socket Compatibility: Intel 775/ 1150/ 1151/ 1155/ 1156/ 1366/ lga2011(-3) square ILM/ 2066, AMD AM2 (+)/ AM3 (+)/ AM4/ FM1/ FM2 (+)
be quiet! Dark Rock TF Review
be quiet! is such a gimmicky company name. You have to break grammatical rules just to spell it. However, you’d be making a huge mistake if you judged them solely on their name.
be quiet! is a German company that specializes in the production of PSUs, cases and cooling solutions for desktop computers. They’ve been around for over 16 years and have been maintaining a lead in the German PSU market since 2007.
So now we know that be quiet! has a great reputation but does the Dark Rock TF CPU cooler live up to it? In terms of looks, The Dark Rock TF has an all-black finish. From the pipes to the heatsink bracket, it’s dressed up like Wednesday Addams at a funeral. The only thing darker is episode 3 of season 8 of Game of Thrones.
It looks mean enough to complement any transparent panel case set up. Once again it’s important to note that although this is a low-profile cooler, it may not fit all MITX or compact PCs because of its size.
You’ll need a clearance of around 170 mm. It may also encroach on surrounding components so you need to bear that in mind if you plan on purchasing this cooler. The reason why it’s so bulky is that it comes with two fans (referred to as wings) and two heatsinks. It’s like a heatsink sandwich or fan slider.
You can leave one of the fans out though but it would feel like somewhat of a waste after spending so much money on it. In terms of scope of delivery, the Dark TF includes a fan cable splitter, thermal paste, a wrench, support plates and standoffs for ILM, AMD and LGA 2011 setups. The mounting kit uses standard screws instead of studs.
The difficulty of installation differs from socket to socket. For instance, LGA 2011 installations are far more complicated. Otherwise, this is a versatile and efficient cooler. A true testament to German engineering.
Best Value: Cooler Master GeminII M4
Pros & Cons
- Uses direct contact heat pipes
- Low noise generation
- Not ideal for cooling (like most low profile coolers)
- Accompanying installation instructions are badly written
- No AM4 compatibility
- 4 direct contact heat pipes
- HTPC compatibility
- Long life sleeve bearings (fan)
- 40,000-hour life expectancy
- Overall Dimensions (HxWxD): 137 mm x 122 mm x 59 mm | 5.4” x 4.8” x 2.3”
- Total Weight: 290.2 grams | 0.64
- Material: Copper (base) and aluminum (fins)
- Socket Compatibility: Intel LGA 1366, 1151, 1150, 1155, 1156, 775 *
- AMD FM2+, FM2, FM1, AM3+, AM3, AM2+, AM2, AM1
Cooler Master GeminII M4 Review
If you’re a gamer worth your salt then you should be familiar with Cooler Master. They’ve been producing cases, PSUs and coolers since the early 90s.
Not only is the GeminII M4 the most affordable option on this list but it’s also the most compact and most likely to fit into your MITX rig. It stands at just 2.3 inches. To increase thermal conductivity, it uses direct heat pipe contact through its base. This allows it to move heat away from your processor quicker.
Its short stature can be attributed to the compact heat pipe layout and the incredibly thin fan. The heat pipes are laid out in both a U and C shape while the fan is only 15mm thick. The fan itself is made out of standard plastic and with a long life sleeve bearing. It’s a small cooler but it’s still uncharacteristically quiet.
While it’s sufficient enough to keep your CPU cool under normal stress, it will not be able to cope with the heat generated from overclocking. It supports a wide range of socket types and installation is pretty standard.
Compared to other coolers, the scope of delivery is abysmal. You’ll have to purchase your own cooling gel/paste as well your own conversion mounts and setups that require them. So if you’re using AM4, you may have to consider other alternatives. Is it worth it though? Does it perform better than stock coolers? The answer is a resounding yes.
If you're a fan of Cooler Master... coolers, then we can also recommend taking a look at the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO which we featured as the overall best value cooler in our other article.
Most Durable: Noctua NH-L9i
Pros & Cons
- Awesome scope of delivery and accessories
- Well built
- Comes with well-written instructions – easy to install
- Features a six-year warranty
- Very quiet
- CPU socket compatibility a little limited
- Color may clash with the rest of your components
- 100% RAM and PCl3 compatibility
- Uses SecuFirm2 multi-socket mounting system
- 6 year warranty
- Includes Low-noise adapter for automatic speed control
- Dimensions without fan (HxWxD): 23 mm x 95 mm x 95 mm | 0.9” x 3.7” x 3.7”
- Dimensions with fan (HxWxD): 37 mm x 95 mm x 95 | 1.4 x 3.7” x 3.7”
- Weight without fan: 345 g | 0.76 lbs.
- Weight with fan: 420 g | 0.92 lbs.
- Material: Copper (base and heat pipes) and aluminum (fins)
- Socket Compatibility: Intel LGA1150, LGA1151, LGA1155, LGA1156, AMD AM4 with NM-AM4-L9aL9i
Noctua NH-L9i Review
You should not be surprised to find another Noctua cooler on this list. If you’re going to give your product a 6-year warranty, you must be very confident of its durability.
Once again the cooler sports a dessert colored fan with the latest self-stabilizing oil-pressure bearing (SSO2). Which makes the fan run smoother and quieter than the competition. So it doesn’t just look like chocolate, it runs like it too.
A common disclaimer you’ll see for low profile coolers is that they’re not made for overclocking. CPU coolers this small aren’t optimized for CPUs with more than 65W of thermal design power (TDP).
Because of a smaller heat sink, the NH-L9i is shorter than the NH-L9x65, which means it’s compatible with more MITX cases and HTPCs. This thing is a near-perfect square. It will not encroach or push against the RAM or PCle slots.
It fully conforms to AMD’s keep-out-zone specifications. Although the NH-L9i supports more cases with less clearance than the NH-L9x65 does, it doesn’t have the same range of socket compatibility.
After all, it was made for Intel LGA115x based systems. Once again, you get to experience Noctua’s awesome scope of delivery. Just like the NH-L9x65, it comes with an LNA, a high-grade thermal paste, a mounting kit, fan screws and a metal case-badge.
It’s not too pricey and you’re getting great value for money here. If you’re looking to replace your stock cooler, then this is a definite upgrade.
Best Design: Thermaltake Engine 27
Pros & Cons
- Uses air bearings
- Gorgeous design
- No AMD Support
- Only cools up 70 Watts
- Comes with a low noise PWM Fan
- Radial fin arrangement
- Forty fan blade design
- Overall Dimensions (HxWxD): 27 mm x 91.5 mm x 91.5 mm | 2” x 3.7” x 3.7”
- Total Weight: 310 g | 0.74 lbs.
- Material: Copper and aluminum
- Socket Compatibility: Intel LGA 1156 / 1155 / 1150 / 1151
Thermaltake Engine 27 1u Review
Thermaltake is primarily known for its gaming PC cases. As a matter of fact, they produce some of the best open-air PC cases on the market. But they’re also well-recognized for their peripherals and cooling devices - like the Engine 27.
The Thermaltake Engine 27 is designed in such a way that it looks like a rotating heat sink. Instead of traditional plastic fan blades, the fan has forty metallic fin-like blades. But the forward-thinking doesn’t stop at the aesthetics. The fan uses air dynamic bearings, which means there are no physical bearings to wear out over time.
The heat sink fins are arranged around the fan so heat is effectively dispersed side-ways. While the design may look gnarly, it may encroach on surrounding components and it may not fit your motherboard at all.
Installing the cooler is a little difficult. You have to apply real pressure in order to force it to mount on the CPU bracket. The fan retention clips can also be hard to snap and unsnap. If you plan on upgrading your CPU anytime soon after installing the cooler, you’re going to have a hard time removing it.
This is an Intel-only cooler. It’s compatible with LGA 1156, 1155, 1150 and 1151 sockets. It will cool up to 70W TDP so we do not recommend it for overclocking. In terms of scope of delivery, it comes with a mounting bracket as well as pretty decent thermal paste.
So let’s run down the list. It looks better, performs better and is a lot quieter than your stock cooler. At an estimated life span of 50 000 hours, it will last longer too.
Low Profile CPU Coolers: Buying Guide
In most cases, you can simply keep your stock cooler but if you’re looking for better performance and something a little quieter, you may benefit from replacing it with a third party cooler. Even some of the best gaming CPU manufacturers have stopped packaging their processors with a cooler because most users swap them out anyway.
You don’t have to understand the basics of thermodynamics to choose a good cooler (even though this knowledge is a plus). However, it does get a little trickier if you’re trying to purchase one for a MITX or compact set up. In this buying guide, we hope to iron out a few terms that you may find confusing and help you discover a few new ones.
Scope of delivery: What You’re Getting?
Scope of delivery refers to what you’re getting in the package. This can include or refer to the product itself and its accessories.
Pulse Width Modulation PWM: More Intelligent Cooling
PWM fans use an integrated circuit to help dictate the speed of the fan depending on how much cooling a chip (GPU or CPU) needs. This is more power efficient and it will also generate less noise and vibration, especially at low speeds. It also means your fan will last longer because of less strain on the bearings.
To benefit from this feature, you have to ensure that your motherboard has a PWM header and in most cases, the right software to control it. Your average motherboard will come with at least one 4-pin PWM header. High-end models usually have a maximum of six.
Fan Bearings: How long will your fan last?
Most modern coolers are HSFs (Heat Sinks and Fans) and your fan does most of the heavy-lifting. The fan’s bearing(s) will determine how long it will last and how smooth it will run. When it comes to PC cooling, there are five types of bearings you’re bound to encounter:
Sleeve Bearings: You’ll find that most cooling fans use these. They’re also used in toys and everyday appliances. Their wide use is because they’re cheap and easy to make. They use oil-based lubrication to reduce friction at high speeds. They will last you over 30,000 hours at an average temperature of 50 °C. They’re relatively quiet, especially at low RPMs.
Ball Bearings: These are popular because of their replace-ability and ease of repair. They last longer than sleeve bearings. They can also handle higher temperatures than sleeve bearings. However, they’re considerably louder than sleeve bearings especially as time goes on. They’re also generally more expensive.
Rifle Bearings: These are not dissimilar to ball bearings but they’re quieter and have nearly the same life span.
Fluid Bearings: These are the quietest because of their use of fluid cycling technology. They also last the longest with a maximum estimated life span of 300,000 hours
Magnetic bearings (aka maglev): In this type of bearing, a fan is rotated or repelled through magnetic levitation. This has many advantages. For instance, low friction which means your fans suffers from less wear over time. You’ll rarely find this type of bearing being used in low profile fans. They aren’t cheap to make and sell.
Socket Compatibility – Can it Fit Your MOBO?
This should be the first thing you look at when choosing your cooler. Since a cooler isn’t made to fit all sockets and CPUs, you need to ensure that your cooler is compatible. It’s more common to find Intel-only coolers than it is to find AMD specific coolers. Currently, the most common Intel sockets are: LGA 775, LGA 1156, LGA 1366 and LGA 1155. The most common AMD sockets are: AM2/AM2+/AM3/AM3 and F/FM1/FM2.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do CPUs Need Coolers?
CPUs need coolers, even if you’re not planning on overclocking them. They usually come with their own stock coolers. It’s unnecessary to replace the stock cooler unless you’re planning to overclock the CPU or you just want a quieter cooler. A CPU without a cooler can overheat and burn out. A cooler is absolutely necessary.
If you’re looking for a non-low profile cooler, you should definitely pay a visit to our best CPU cooler guide. It has a wide range of coolers, from top-down coolers to liquid and tower coolers.
Do AMD CPUs Come with Coolers?
Yes, most AMD CPUs come with coolers. For instance, the Ryzen 3 2200g comes with AMD’s Wraith Stealth cooler which is a pretty decent cooler. It’s featured in our list of the very best AMD CPUs for gaming. If you’re in the market for a great processor, do pay a visit to that guide.
Is Liquid Cooling Better?
Liquid cooling is better than air-cooling. It’s more efficient in displacing heat because it uses water/liquid which has better thermal conductivity than air. It’s also a lot quieter but way more expensive.
If you're interested in what we just mentioned, we can recommend reading through our Corsair H60 review. Although it's not as quiet as some of the models on this list, it's definitely worth considering.
Can I use any CPU cooler?
Unfortunately, you cannot use just any CPU cooler you want. It needs to be compatible with your motherboard’s socket type and CPU. Your cooler also has to conform to the amount of clearance your case and motherboard has.
If you’ve ever spent time working in a cramped area with barely any ventilation, then you must understand how the components of an HTPC feel when there is subpar cooling. In this guide, we explored the best low profile CPU coolers you could possibly get for your compact and small form factor PCs. The more popular smaller and compact builds get, the more diversified the market will become.
You can expect to find a wider variety of cooling options for MITX cases in coming years. Hopefully, there will be more options for overclocking. But for now, in terms of low profile coolers, these are the best options you have. I hope you’ve found this guide helpful. Thank you for reading.
- Overheating Processor Troubleshoot, Intel Support