The winter is over, and the temperature in our dwellings and computers is steadily rising up. It’s now the critical moment for the cooling system of your PC because it has been easier for it to do its job under low ambient temperatures.
If you were using a traditional air cooler through the winter and were quite satisfied with its noise and performance characteristics, you may find yourself having to increase the fan speed in the warmer weather to improve the cooling. The noise from the cooler increases at that, too, probably up to an uncomfortable level.
The main parameter of a cooling system is efficiency which is the ratio of performance to noise. The system is the more efficient as it keeps the temperature lower and produces less noise. From the end-user’s point of view, there is such a parameter as price appeal that should also be accounted for. It can be measured by dividing the cooler’s efficiency by its price. So, the best cooling system is one that delivers high performance at low noise level and at a low price. Unfortunately, the market currently offers either high-performance or quiet or cheap systems –the user can only have only two of these parameters at once at the very best. This formula works for air as well as liquid-based coolers. Phase-change systems are positioned somewhat differently than consumer-class coolers and are usually super-efficient, very expensive and quite noisy.
In this review we are interested in liquid-cooling systems which are generally more expensive than air coolers but have one important advantage over them. We mean that the heat-absorbing and heat-dissipating elements are separated in a water-based cooler. You have surely seen the latest models of air super-coolers which have a considerable weight and size and a fan with a diameter of 80-90 or even 120mm! Sometimes there are even two fans installed. Such a gigantic design helps improve the cooling efficiency. The performance gets higher while the noise remains at the same or lower level than with the coolers for processors of earlier generations. The price of new air coolers has grown much higher, though. But besides the CPU, there are many other hot components inside the system case: the graphics processor, mainboard’s chipset, memory, power elements on the mainboard and the graphics card. The CPU cooler not only blows hot air at them, but also creates strong turbulence in the internal airflows, thus reducing the efficiency of the system fans and worsening the cooling quality. And finally, the power supply is yet another component that demands intensive cooling. In most system cases the power supply is located at the top of the case, i.e. at the hottest part of it. The components of the PSU are cooled with the air the CPU cooler has already heated up. It means the PSU has to drive more air through itself by increasing the speed of its fan and, accordingly, its noise.
The second advantage of a water-cooling system is that you can install several heat-absorbing elements in your computer. Water-blocks are usually mounted on such components as central and graphics processors and mainboard’s chipset, but there exist more exotic water-blocks for the hard drive or memory modules. Enthusiasts even make water-blocks for the MOSFETs and power supplies. The water-cooling system usually works well with just one pump and radiator at that, while each air cooler in your computer needs its own heatsink and fan.
The heat-absorbing element of a water-cooling system is typically very small. The water heats up in it and is then driven into the radiator which can be placed anywhere, either inside or outside the case. You can even hang it out of the window if you wish. The size of the radiator is virtually unlimited, and it can be made larger to cool the water more effectively. Some systems to be reviewed here come with impressively large radiators and lack any fans altogether. They are usually referred to as passive, which is not exactly true as they have one active component, a water pump.
The compact size of the heat-absorbing component may be most important for very compact, yet powerful computer systems that cannot accommodate a huge air cooler, but wouldn’t be cooled well by a small one.
Today, there are more companies involved in water-based PC cooling manufacture, so there are ever more available products each month. A few years ago you could count up the available factory-made systems by the fingers of one hand and their price was often far higher than their efficiency, but now you’ve got dozens of cooling kits to choose from. We have managed to get together 16 systems for our today’s comparative review. This is far from being a comprehensive selection, yet our tests will give you a clear enough picture of this market as it is today.
So, each system is characterized by its price, performance and noise level. We know the price of each kit, so we are set to learn more about the other two factors.