Cooling of the CPU has evolved a lot over the years, we have moved from a simple heatsink sitting on a fan to large towers of fins with heatpipes rising from the cooler plate resting on our CPU. The need for this was driven by the ever increasing temperatures of CPUs as we asked for more speed.
While the smaller, basic coolers are still in use you will be hard pressed to find a DIYer that will build a system using the stock cooler. They tend to be noisy and do not provide much besides the most basic of heat removal from the system. They get the job done, but lets face it, if we take the time to build our PC we do not want to settle for just good enough.
The tower style heatsink, as seen in the picture is pretty much the standard design now in use today for traditional air cooling. The method is simple, the heat pipes transfer the heat from the CPU up into the heatsink where fans blow air across the cooling fins, removing the heat from the heat pipes.
This style of cooler comes in many sizes and shapes with setups having anywhere from one to three fans on some of the higher performance models. The basic design however remains the same throughout with only minor modifications based on the shape of the heatsink, number of heatpipes and so on.
Because the basic design remains the same they all share the same limitation as well, the size and shape can make these difficult to install and the scan interfere with the ability to add RAM on some boards. The size also creates issues with some smaller cases forcing you to be very particular on the models you can select from. Another draw back is the fact that the heat removed from the heatsink is re-introduced into the cases air. This can potentially cause a small temperature rise within the case and thus could contribute to heat of other components.
On the plus side these units are usually very cost effective for the more basic models, cool much more effectively than stock coolers and despite having more fans they can actually be much quieter than a stock CPU cooler.
The new kid on the block is the self contained liquid cooler. The principles for this are based off the same principles that cool your cars motor. A small pump moves fluid through a cooling block that is on the CPU, the heated liquid is pumped into a radiator and air is forced through the radiator by a fan, cooling the fluid.
While the use of a liquid cooling system for a computer has been around for a while now the original method was to put together a kit with a number of parts. This was a scary task for many people as you where introducing a liquid into a system and assembling the various fluid path connections on the spot. You had to learn how to bleed the system of air as well as monitor the system for low fluid or leaks.
The new self contained units come preassembled and filled. The unit is completely sealed from the factory and the only assembly is the mounting of the unit. You do not have to worry about bleeding the air or the fluid levels and these units come with guarantees against leakages.
While the traditional air cooler has only a single mounting point, at the CPU, the liquid system must be mounted at the CPU and the back or top of the case for the radiator. While this might sound like more work it is often a much easier install than many of the more advanced air cooler. The smaller area on the CPU means the cooler is easier to work with and opens the space on the motherboard meaning there is no interference with RAM. The radiator traditionally replaces the rear exhaust fan on your case and is easy to mount, requiring just 4 screws to hold it and the exhaust fan in place.
These coolers provide really good cooling and do so with less fans, which means less noise. Now the less fans is something people overlook but think about it for a moment. A single fan tower heatsink cooler adds a second fan to the case, the fan for the cooler and you still have the exhaust fan. The liquid model replaces the rear exhaust fan with one of it’s own and adds no other fan. This means the liquid cooler will normally be quieter than the air cooling methods. The down side is that while the liquid cooler is very effective it will often not quite match the pure cooling potential of the larger, multi-fan, air coolers.
The radiator design however offers a neat benefit, the system evacuates all of the CPU heat from the case directly. By locating it as an exhaust from the case, all of the heat it has pulled from the CPU actually leaves the case straight from the radiator. This has the benefit of actually helping to lower the overall air temperature within the case. The amount this will help the air temperature is dependent on the cases air flow and your results will vary with different case designs.
The real drawback to the liquid solution is the cost. You can often find air coolers that can provide as much cooler for the CPU for less money. A good air cooler can often be found for as little as $30 but the liquid solutions are seldom seen on sales for less than $50.
When looking at these two coolers it is easy to get caught up purely in the idea of the CPU temperatures, that is their job after all. However I personally feel that this is a limited view. True the higher end air coolers can run the CPU cooler than liquid cooling solutions for less cost. However the difference we are talking about is usually only 2C to 5C in the extreme cases. These numbers might sound like a lot to some DIYers but they are not. In even the extreme case we are not talking about numbers where the CPU is going to have an issue. While the air coolers might offer a better temp to cost ratio, both systems are more than capable of adequately cooling the CPU.
Once we get over that pure CPU temp hump the differences become more apparent. The liquid solution offers easier installation, does not potentially limit RAM choices and is quieter. Add to this the fact that it could even provide a cooler overall environment to the PC and you can see why liquid is the choice I use in my personal builds.
Is one choice truly better than the other, I would say in the end no. Both have their pros and their cons. However I can say that I have found I am much happier with my builds using the liquid solutions.
With vacation starting next week I have kind of put a lot of projects on hold. You know how it is, you get started and find out it is not going to work the way you think and then you have to change plans mid stream to make things work. This always means it takes longer than you planned. So the stuff I have recently gotten in the look at and the various articles I had planned to write are kind of on the back burner until I return.
However over the last few weeks I have had a chance to get m,y hands on a few items that where not on the shows radar. In each case I actually purchased these items myself from stores so these are not typical review fare.
We will begin with the Coolermaster Hyper N620, a value priced CPU cooler. I had a build I was doing for a friend and he needed a little nicer cooler as he planned to overclock. The chip we used was a Phenom II 970 and the system was built in an Antec Three Hundred case with both of the front fans installed.
Priced at $23 this cooler looks like a steal, using a large heatpipe system with dual fans in an offset push/pull configuration. The fans have a nice blue lighting and the top of the heatsink has a sharp looking plate on it giving this heatsink a bit of bling. All this plus the Coolermaster name and reputation when it comes to coolers meant this was an easy purchase decision.
Opening the box I was impressed with the size of this heatsink. Usually at the $20 price point you get these small units that are usually nothing more than a glorified stock cooler. Reading the installation directions I was however a bit surprised at the mounting system. Now a back plate system for mounting is not all that new but at this price point is is not the norm. The real surprise though was the system is a bottom mount style, meaning the work of mounting is done under the motherboard.
When you are dealing with this price point the cases are only now beginning to get the cutouts that are needed for using these big third party heatsinks easily. The Antec Three Hundred has such a cutout but the AMD board is layout so that the top two mount points are still not open. This means you need to install the heatsink before going into the case. Not really that big of a deal but the bottom mount system like this is not one I think works easily.
Using Artic Silver compound we fired the brute up and began installing the OS. The fans where very quiet and this made it a perfect match for the near silent performance of the Three Hundred. The blue glow was softly visible in the room when dark through the top and side vents on the case and just barely through the front fans, the effect was very subtle and nice.
Once the OS was installed we fired up AMD Overdrive to run some stability testing and see how the temps where going to work out. I have to say the temps we got surprised me. In fact they did not much that we actually swapped out for a stock cooler to see if the numbers we where getting where real.
At idle the stock cooler was running at 34C when the system was idle. The computer was configured for Cool-n-Quiet operation so we left it idle for about 10 minutes to make sure we where getting true idle temps. The N620 was running at 31C when idle, a drop of three degrees. While this is about right for the price point I must say seeing a cooler with 6 heat pipes and dual fans I expected more.
Next we fired up the stability test to see what the CPU would get under load. We ran the test for 1 hour before we recorded any temps. The stock cooler was at 52C, warmer than I would like but stable. The N620 was at 49C, again cooler than the stock but still a lot warmer than I would have thought based on the design.
While the cost is reasonable the performance about where you would expect for the price point I must say I was disappointed. I thought we where getting this great value and the truth is we got a heat sink with just mediocre performance. Since there was a plan to overclock this chip we decided after this testing to go a different direction. Luckily we found the Corsair H50 on sale for $40 and snagged one. The difference was well worth the cost with the idle temp dumping to 24C (ambient room temp) and under load never breaking 40C.
Now don’t get me wrong there are some solid heatsinks you can buy for around $20 that get the job done and the Hyper N620 does get the job done. But for the massive size and pain in the butt installation I did not feel that the N620 was the steal I first thought it was.
Next up I found the other day that Staples now carries in store the Antec Bias Lighting Kit. The idea behind this kit is that when you use your monitor in a dark room it can cause eye strain, by simply adding a bit of white ambient light in the form of a soft glow behind the monitor you can not only reduce eye strain but actually improve the way your display looks.
The kit is very simple with 6 LEDs run long a strip of tape to hold them to the back of your monitor. At the end of the strip is a USB connection to give the lights power. The kit is rated for monitors 24” or less in size.
Now for this to be effective you need to be using your computer in a dark environment, we tried this in a well lit room and darker room and only in the darker room could you really tell any difference.
The lights did their job as advertised, giving my monitor a soft white halo around it. The effect was very pleasing but I will need more time to see if it actually reduces eye strain. There was however something I did not like, the lack of a power control.
A lot of the modern motherboards are starting to sue the recharge style features in the USB ports first introduced by Gigabyte. This means that in sleep mode or even powered off the lighting stayed on. The glow is soft enough that it is not really a big deal but for some people it could be an issue.
With a price of around $13 at local Staples this is a very in-expensive product so cost is not a big deal. As for how useful this is, that will be up to the individual. For me I like my computer gaming in a darker environment, hence I use lit keyboards and enjoy some nice case lighting. The ambient lighting this creates was to me a very welcome addition to my desk area. For someone in a well lit area this would not be useful in my opinion, the lights are just to dim for a well lit room to allow them to have effect.
With a low cost and subtle effect this is a pure personal choice type item, my personal choice however is that if you use your computer in a dark work area then this is a great deal.
Now for the next two week I will be on vacation and so the blog might go silent as well as the show. Do not worry we will back full tilt on June 3rd. I will try to get some blog entries done over the next two weeks but I will be sans-computer during this time and so can make no promises. In the mean time go out and enjoy the nice weather, I will be.