The Best Case Fans for your PC

The Best Case Fans for your PC

CG Director Author Alex  by Christopher   ⋮ 
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In this article, we’re going to teach you all you need to know to purchase the best case fans for your needs.

After going through all relevant case fan specs and what they actually mean, we’ll also give you a selection of our top four picks. Along the way, we’ll also discuss things like the difference between PWM and non-PWM fans, when you need dedicated fan controllers, and more!

Let’s dive in.

What You Need From Your Case Fans

First, let’s go over technical specifications and what they actually mean.

Common Sizes

The first thing you’ll need to know before buying a case fan is what size you need. Larger fans can push more air more quietly, but not every case is going to have room for a 200mm+ fan size. Some cases may not even have room for the standard 120mm fan size, but those are outliers for the standard ranges of Mini ITX to Extended ATX cases.

The “mm” measurement stands for millimeters, and measures one of the fan’s four equal sides. (Not their radius or diameter, as you may be led to believe.)

This standard is followed by every case fan manufacturer in the industry, and it also leads to a mere “120 mm fan” being a lot larger than it actually sounds– usually slightly larger than the palm of an adult male.

Case Fan Size Comparison CGDirector

120 mm Fan Size

The smallest of the “Big Three” measurements, and the most ubiquitous. 120 mm fans are by far the most commonly-used form factor for case fans across all sizes and price ranges, and are even seen in high-end cooling solutions.

For instance: most All-In-One liquid cooling solutions and large air coolers will come with one or more 120 mm fans included and pre-mounted to the heatsink or radiator, in order to ensure the best possible heat dissipation.

If you’re building in or upgrading a Mini ITX/Micro ATX PC build, then 120 mm fans will usually be your best bet. If larger fan sizes are supported, though, we recommend opting for them instead. As said prior, larger fans can push more air more quietly.

Use Case:

140 mm Fan Size

140 mm is the second most-used case fan type, but isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as 120 mm. For one, they’re less likely to be compatible with the increasingly-shrinking PC cases populating the market today.

But even in cases that are compatible with both 140 and 120 mm fans, most users will opt for 120 mm instead. While we can’t ascertain the exact reason for this, we’d reckon it has something to do with lower prices and more familiarity.

Use Case:

  • Larger PC cases, starting from some Micro ATX machines and moving up to Mid-Tower ATX, Full Tower ATX, and Extended ATX Towers
  • Supported liquid cooling radiators, custom loop or otherwise

200 mm Fan Size

200 mm is the third most-used case fan type, but is yet more obscure than 140 mm fans. You’ll most frequently see these as pre-installed in specialized Micro ATX/Mini ITX “cube” cases as intake fans, where sheer size helps compensate for otherwise-lost cooling potential.

If the case can’t stack two 120 mm fans up front, chances are a single 200 mm fan will be used instead.

Full ATX towers that offer 200 mm fan support are rare, but do exist and are currently being sold. On the offchance that you’re looking for one, MasterCase H500 may be what you’re looking for.

Master Case 500 - 200mm Fan Size Compatibility

Image-Credit: CoolerMaster – 200mm Fan Size Compatibility

Use Case:

  • Either the smallest, most specialized ITX/MATX cube cases or the largest, most extravagant ATX Full Towers
  • (Often at least one pre-installed where supported)

Uncommon Sizes

While the following fan sizes we’re about to discuss here are a bit…out of the scope of this article and our recommendations, we still feel like they’re worth mentioning.

Outside of the Big Three, you may see some other case fan sizes out there- usually smaller sizes, like 80 mm.

Where these come in handy are in particularly compact cases that are too small for even, say, a 120 mm exhaust fan. These are usually seen in super-small Mini ITX, Mini STX, or Mini ATX cases, as well as some slimline prebuilt PCs.

At times, you may even come across fan sizes larger than 200 mm, but the use cases for these are few and far between.

Before buying any case fans of any size, verify your case specs and compatible fans. Even if you’re using a prebuilt PC with an obscure pre-installed fan with an equally-obscure size, chances are it’s worth looking into a replacement that’s capable of more.

Corsair, for example, states clearly what type of Case Fans are supported in their respective PC-Case Manual:

Corsair Case Fan Compatibility Manual

Image-Credit: Corsair Manual

Don’t expect to see extra features like RGB outside of the standard Big Three case fan sizes, though.

What is PWM?

PWM stands for Pulse With Modulation, and in the context of case fans, refers to fans that are controlled via this method.

PWM is a method used to control a multitude of electronics, but in the context of PCs, it’s mainly for case fans and coolers.

Interestingly, some (CPU) air coolers can be upgraded by simply replacing the fan that’s already on it and add a better one- or even an extra one on the other side, to help pull or push air through the heatsink.

Add Case Fans to CPU Radiator

PWM Case Fans ona CPU Radiator

Depending on the size of the heatsink in question, this replacement/addition can often be a 120 or even 140 mm case fan.

Pulse Width Modulation itself can be a little complicated to explain, but all you need to know is that it essentially functions by constantly turning the signal on and off, resulting in fine control of the power going to the component in question.

So, you’re probably wondering- why bother with PWM fans?

The answer is control.

Specifically, PWM enables you to control things like fan speeds, or RPM. Without PWM, your fans will simply run at full speed all the time, which also means full power consumption and the loudest noise profile.

PWM fans may cost a little bit more, but the extra money spent is almost always worth it:

We do not recommend buying non-PWM case fans.

If you’re wondering how RGB factors into this…we’ll dive into that one a little bit later.

What is RPM?

RPM, or Rotations Per Minute, is a measure of fan speed.

The higher the fan speed, the more air the fan will push or pull, but the louder the fan will be and the more power it will consume in your system. The opposite is also true: if you can run your fan at lower speeds, you can make your system a lot quieter…but it won’t be cooled nearly as well.

A big reason to buy PWM fans is so that things like your RPM can be automatically controlled by your system, so your fans run quiet when not much is going on, and only ramp-up during intense tasks.

With the right automatic fan control curve, fans should only get loud during heavy gaming tasks or intense CPU Rendering & GPU rendering tasks.

The BIOS (Basic Input Output System) of your Motherboard usually controls the fan curves that can also be manually adjusted as can be seen in this Gigabyte BIOS:

Fan Control Curve Gigabyte Bios

Image-Credit: Gigabyte

You can also choose to create your own fan control curves with the right applications. This is particularly recommended if you want to keep a quieter PC, and even more-so if you happen to be using a liquid cooler.

What is CFM?

CFM stands for Cubic Feet per Minute, and is a measure of airflow into or out of the case.

The higher the CFM, the better the airflow– and therefore, the cooler your temperatures. In order to reach maximum CFM, though, you’ll need to either ramp-up to max RPM/fan speed via fan control, or be using a non-PWM fan that runs at full speed all the time.

When shopping for case fans, CFM is an important metric to look out for.

Your average 120 mm case fan will offer anywhere from 40-50 CFM, with particularly good ones offering 50-60 CFM and higher. Higher CFM is technically possible at this size, but would in turn require ridiculously high RPM, power consumption, and noise levels.

Static pressure and high airflow fans

There are actually two different kinds of PC case fans: static pressure fans, and high airflow fans. There are also a number of fans that occupy a sort of hybrid position, offering both high airflow and at least decent static pressure, but those are a bit rarer.

If you’re like most people, your instinct is probably to go straight for high airflow fans and forget the rest. After all, isn’t the whole point of a fan to ensure good airflow?

Yes, but…static pressure is important too. To understand why, we’ll need to explain the concept of static pressure.

Essentially, static pressure isn’t about the speed that air is being pushed or even the amount. Instead, static pressure is about the force with which the air is being pushed. In many scenarios, high static pressure fans will provide much better performance than high airflow fans despite much lower CFM.

This applies especially to things like heatsinks and radiators, but can also apply to many intake fan positions.

The growing popularity of solid-material front panels with side or bottom vents means that you’ll actually want static pressure fans in a “pull” configuration here, since they will be able to pull in air with the most force.

Case Fan CFM Airflow

High Airflow in this Corsair ML140 Case Fan

For exhaust fans, a focus on high airflow/CFM is your best bet.

Decibel (dB) measurements and noise

As you may already know, decibels are a measure of sound. What you may not know is how loud decibels actually are, so we’re going to provide you with a reference chart, based on information from NoiseHelp.com and a Yale study.

  • 0 – 10 decibels is extremely quiet, borderline inaudible. The sound of a pin dropping is estimated at roughly 10 decibels.
  • 10 – 20 decibels is quiet, becoming slightly audible at the high-end. The sound of rustling leaves is estimated at 20 decibels.
  • 25 decibels is roughly the level of whispers.
  • 35 to 40 decibels is the sound of the suburbs at night, or a running river.
  • At 55 to 65 decibels, you get noisy– the fridge kicking on in the middle of the night, normal speaking volume, etc.

Case Fan Noise Measurement

For case fans, “silent” fans are considered to be below 20 decibels, average fans are anywhere within the range of 20 to 30 decibels, and loud fans are anything louder than that. Most of the fans that we’ve listed below fall into the quieter ranges, sans our final niche pick.

RGB and LED fans

RGB and LED fans are case fans with…well, LEDs for lighting.

RGB is a specific category of LED case fans that allow their colors to be customized in various ways, while LED fans come in a single color.

An interesting point to note about RGB and LED fans is that very few seem to be designed for high airflow, and are instead made for static pressure.

While we aren’t sure of the exact reason for this, we’d reckon it has something to do with added weight/different manufacturing processes for fan blades that also need to carry and reflect light.

RGB and LED fans do not boost performance in any way, but chances are you knew that already 🙂

RGB Case Fans

Image-Credit: Thermaltake

They also aren’t a sign of higher build quality, either. Only opt for RGB/LED fans if you want the aesthetic benefits, as that is their only actual benefit. If you aren’t trying to show off the inside of your PC, then extra lighting of any kind is purely superfluous.

In the case of RGB fans, you’ll also need to make sure that you have an available RGB header on your motherboard:

RGB fans will come with two cables: one for the fan itself, and another for the RGB lights within. PWM by itself isn’t enough for controlling RGB lighting effects, and you’ll also need a compatible RGB connector on your motherboard.

If you don’t have an RGB connector on your motherboard- or if you don’t have enough for all of the RGB fans you want to install- then you’ll have to invest in a fan controller.

Fan controllers and multi-fan setups

If you need to use a fan controller, chances are it has something to do with multi-fan setup woes, especially if you’re building with a more modern motherboard.

While older systems will require fan controllers for even single-fan RGB setups, modern mid-range motherboards (like AMD AM4 x570 Motherboards) tend to have at least one, sometimes two dedicated headers for RGB devices.

However, even if you aren’t using RGB…investing in a fan controller might be necessary. This is especially common when building with Micro ATX or Mini ITX motherboards, which don’t have very many connectors for fans.

Case Fan Controller

Image-Credit: Silverstone

In summation, buy a fan controller if any of the following points describe you:

  • You want to install more case fans than your motherboard will otherwise allow
  • You want to install an RGB fan, but your motherboard does not support the feature
  • You want to install more RGB case fans than your motherboard will otherwise allow

If you have no interest in RGB and just want more fans in your system, we recommend the SilverStone 8-Port PWM Fan Hub.

If your focus is on RGB, then you’ll want to go with a controller matching the brand of whatever you pick. (ie if you pick Corsair, get their iCue Commander controller.) Until everyone agrees on a common standard for RGB lighting and control (please, guys), brand-matching fans and controllers is pretty much a necessity.

Best Case Fans – Our Picks

Now, it’s time to go over our top picks. We’ve selected a Value pick first, with no real extras but fairly superb airflow and decent static pressure for the price. After that, we have a Quiet pick, an RGB Performance pick, and an incredibly powerful RGB Niche pick. Now, we’ll provide detailed specs and discuss each of the products in detail:

Value Pick – Noctua NF-P12 redux

 

Noctua NF-P12 redux

Image-Credit: Noctua

  • Size – 120 mm
  • Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM) – 71 CFM
  • Max Rotations Per Minute (RPM) – 1700 RPM
  • Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) Support – Yes
  • Static Pressure or High Airflow? – Hybrid
  • Estimated Max Noise Level – 25.1 decibels
  • RGB Support – No

First and foremost is our Value pick, which is a 120 mm fan with really good airflow and…okay noise levels.

The Noctua NF-P12 redux is a fan with a dominantly-grey color that should blend into the aesthetic of most cases, and boasts a truly impressive 71 CFM rating. It also provides decent static pressure, which means that it should work well pretty much anywhere inside your PC: intake, exhaust, coolers, radiators…you name it.

If all you want is a cheap, no-fuss cooling solution for your PC, then this is it. It isn’t particularly quiet, but it isn’t particularly loud, either. It boasts truly impressive raw airflow, it’s cheap, and it comes from a reputable manufacturer- what more could you want?

Quiet Pick – be quiet! Silent Wings 3 Cooling Fan

 

bequiet silent wings 3

Image-Credit: beQuiet

  • Size – 140 mm (120 available)
  • Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM) – 59.5 CFM
  • Max Rotations Per Minute (RPM) – 1000 RPM
  • Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) Support – Yes
  • Static Pressure or High Airflow? – Static Pressure
  • Estimated Max Noise Level– 15.5 decibels
  • RGB Support – No

Our quiet pick comes from the aptly-named be quiet! Manufacturer. We’ve chosen their Silent Wings 3 Cooling Fan as our top pick- specifically the 140 mm model, though a 120 mm variant is available as well, should you want it.

The first thing you might notice is that, yes, this is the quietest fan on this list. At a rating of 15.5 decibels at even its maximum speed, this isn’t a fan that’s going to distract you with loud noises while you’re chugging your PC through hardcore rendering or gaming tasks.

However, the second thing you might notice is that its CFM is relatively low- just under 60 CFM, in fact. While this is certainly good, it also isn’t great– why does it push less air than our budget pick?

For one, it’s a static pressure fan. So while it pushes less air overall, it pushes air harder, which makes it particularly ideal for intake from mostly-sealed front panels, or pushing cool air through a radiator/heatsink.

But also…it’s sort of an intrinsic downside of “quiet” fans. For quiet fans, you have to lower the maximum RPM and, with it, maximum airflow. This isn’t specifically the quietest fan on the market, but it also pushes a lot more air than the quietest fans on the market.

We chose this one for the best compromise between raw performance and quiet operation.

RGB Performance Pick – Deepcool RF120 RGB Cooling Fan

 

Deepcool RF120

Image-Credit: Deepcool

  • Size – 120 mm (140 available with alt. pick)
  • Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM) – 56.5 CFM
  • Max Rotations Per Minute (RPM) – 1500 RPM
  • Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) Support – Yes
  • Static Pressure or High Airflow? – High Airflow
  • Estimated Max Noise Level– 25 decibels
  • RGB Support – Yes

Now for our RGB pick!

Our main RGB pick doesn’t come from any big names like Corsair or Thermaltake (not yet, anyway). Instead, we’ve selected the Deepcool RF120 RGB Cooling Fan. This is because, even when compared to competing models from Corsair and other manufacturers, it has superb airflow…for an RGB fan.

RGB, like quietness, is another one of those things that impact fan performance. Other manufacturers primarily provide static pressure fans for this reason.

Static pressure fans are great, don’t get us wrong. However, if case cooling is your primary concern, and you aren’t dealing with a sealed front panel…then using a proper High Airflow fan for intake/exhaust is generally the best move.

The Deepcool RF120 RGB Cooling Fan boasts compatibility with modern RGB headers on your motherboard and an included (albeit simplified) RGB controller. Since Airflow is the primary concern for most users, this is the decision we’ve gone with.

Want a Static Pressure alternative for radiators, coolers, or intake? Or just want better RGB? Get the Corsair LL140 / LL120 instead

RGB Niche Pick – Thermaltake Riing Plus 20 RGB TT Premium

 

Thermaltake Riing 200mm

Image-Credit: Thermaltake

  • Size – 200 mm
  • Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM) – 117.98 CFM
  • Max Rotations Per Minute (RPM) – 1000 RPM
  • Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) Support – Yes
  • Static Pressure or High Airflow? – Hybrid
  • Estimated Max Noise Level – 29.2 decibels
  • RGB Support – Yes

Last but not necessarily least is our RGB Niche pick, the Thermaltake Riing Plus 20 RGB Premium Edition.

This is a beast of a 200 mm fan, boasting incredible RGB support, ultra-high airflow, and great static pressure. It’s perfect for pretty much any scenario…where you can actually fit the behemoth inside. Micro ATX cube cases and certain full-sized ATX towers are most likely to fit a fan of this size.

If you’re able to buy a case that can support a fan like this, we highly recommend going for it. The sheer airflow you can get with even one of these fans is truly impressive, and we’ve even seen some cases that can take two. We don’t think we’re exaggerating when we say this is the biggest, best RGB fan we’ve ever seen– and a fan controller comes bundled with it!

 

That’s about it! Need help choosing a Case Fan or PC-Build? Let us know in the comments 🙂

Christopher Harper - post author

I have been a passionate devotee to technology since the age of 3, and to writing since before I even finished high school.

These passions have since combined into a living in my adulthood, and has made writing about myself very satisfying.

If you need any assistance, leave a comment below: it's what I'm here for.

2
Comments

Artur Valverde

Hey! Thanks for the guide. All I miss is loud (somewhat) fan that performs well.
I would go for this model: https://www.amazon.com/Noiseblocker-NB-eLoop-120mmx25mm-Silent-Bionic/dp/B008RO6640

What do you think?

Best,
avp

Thanks Artur! 🙂