High-End CPU Coolers Roundup: The Battle for Silence and Efficiency

Nowadays computer users pay attention not only to performance of their PCs, but also to such characteristic as external design, high stability and silence. Given that modern computers produce incredible amount of heat, coolers play one of the biggest roles in making the PCs comfortable to work on. Today X-bit labs attempts to find out the best among the best from CoolerMaster, Gigabyte and Zalman.

by Anton Shilov , Alexey Stepin
02/24/2005 | 05:58 PM

Despite of the fact that the latest processors require tremendously efficient cooling solutions to work stably, the market of coolers is probably stagnating these days: there are leaders and there are those who are trying to catch up with the top makers. None of the cooler manufacturers have invented any principally new heatsinks in the last two or three years, so, all we have now is to witness how companies like Zalman or CoolerMaster are polishing off their products and technologies introduced years ago.

 

Nevertheless, for actual users the stagnation means almost nothing: we still need to find coolers for our particular needs and requirements, such as efficiency, low noise levels or any other.

These days the industry is transitioning not only to new types of interconnections, e.g., PCI Express, and memory, for instance, DDR2, but also to new types of processor sockets – particularly to Socket 775 and Socket 939 for Intel Corp.’s and AMD’s platforms respectively. So, in case you are upgrading today, you need to find yourself a proper cooler, as your previous one can probably hardly be used for contemporary microprocessors.

We picked up three coolers among the finest available today from CoolerMaster, Gigabyte, Zalman and a previous-generation product from Zalman – CNPS7000-Cu with the company’s ZM-CS1 retention mechanism that allows installing this Socket 478/Socket 754 cooler onto new Socket 775 mainboards.

Zalman CNPS7700-Cu: The Grandeur

First Glance

When you grab a Zalman CNPS7700-Cu packaging you realize that you are holding a solid product: firm packaging, 918 gram of copper as well as bundled accessories, such as Fan Mate 2 that regulates speed of the fan, definitely deserve applauds.

The casing and product bundle leave a good impression: Zalman supplies everything you possibly will require during installation, including sufficient amount of screws, washers and other things of that kind. As usually, Zalman supplies a tube of its own CSL-850 thermal grease, but now the firm provides a very small tube which lasts an installation or two, which is hardly enough for a typical upgrade cycle on a single mainboard for an enthusiast.

Zalman’s CNPS7000-Cu comes with FanMate 2, a revamped version of FanMate, which is bigger (it makes it more convenient to use) and can be mounted outside the PC box, allowing user to control the speed of the fan without opening the case. A lot of companies, including big names like Thermaltake, supply fan controllers that can be installed into 3.5” bays these days, which positively simplifies lives of those who want to control their CPU fans, but Zalman so far has not offered anything like this. Well, FanMate 2 is here to solve the described issue.

Specifications

Design

The design of Zalman CNPS7700-Cu is already very well known: Zalman has been using this type of heatsinks for about a couple of years now with the CNPS7000-series of coolers and most recently with its graphics cards cooling solutions. The round heatsinks with multitude of fins have deserved great reputation among end-users for their huge efficiency and Zalman’s smartly-engineered fans with reduced noise.

Still, huge coolers have a number of drawbacks. Firstly, they can hardly be installed into small cases and onto mainboards with PCB design that uses high capacitors with CPU power supply circuitry or any other tall components, such as MCH heat-spreaders. Being wider than the CNPS7000-series, the CNPS7700-series imposes additional requirements for sufficient amount of space inside the PC. The second drawback is weight: 700 – 900 grams is a lot and when you transport a system with such cooler inside, you have to be really careful (on the other hand, X-bit labs once had to fly our Intel Pentium 4 testbed to a different location and CNPS7000 along with our mainboard survived the flight fine, being held by some additional materials).

The base of Zalman CNPS7700-Cu is made of pure copper and is able to rapidly absorb heat from the CPU. Given that copper is one of the best conductors, and the fact that fins are basically parts of the base on the CNPS7700-Cu, efficiency of the model should be high.

Retention Mechanism, Installation Procedure

Zalman gives enough accessories for CNPS7700-Cu installation on different platforms, including clips and backplates for setting up the device with different platforms.

The retention mechanism of Zalman CNPS7700-Cu for Socket 478 resembles that used on other coolers from the company, thus, the installation method of the CNPS7700-Cu on mPGA478 chips remains unchanged. When it comes to newer platforms, namely Socket 754, Socket 939 and Socket 775, Zalman has to offer a set of backplates, nipples and bolts for extended reliability.

Zalman CNPS7700-Cu installation on a Socket 478 mainboard is not a problem and takes around 10-20 minutes. By contract, setting up the CNPS7700-Cu on any platform that requires installation of backplates – these are both AMD64 platforms and Socket 775 mainboards – takes much longer, as you need to remove the mainboard from the chassis provided that your computer chassis do not have a special opening on the backside for easier installation of backplates. The whole process is pretty much complex one, it still takes about half an hour. Still, this is not a drawback of Zalman CNPS7700-Cu, but a requirement of modern platforms.

Unfortunately, backplates Zalman supplies did not fit our Intel Desktop Board 925X well: wires from the capacitors that belong to CPU power supply circuitry did not match special openings on Zalman CNPS7700-Cu’s backplate. We had to “modify” those openings to be able to install the cooler.

It should be noted that Zalman provides exceptional manual that guides users through the process of installation.

Zalman CNPS7000-Cu with ZM-CS1 Retention Mechanism: Former Champ Gets New Duty

First Glance

Zalman’s CNPS7000-Cu is a previous-generation model from Zalman intended strictly for Intel Pentium 4 processors in mPGA478 form-factor as well as AMD Athlon 64 chips in PGA754 packaging. It gives the same good impression as the current high-end model CNPS7700-Cu with its packaging that contains everything you may need. The main question for owners of the CNPS7000-Cu today is whether they should upgrade to the larger CNPS7700-Cu when upgrading their CPUs or not. We’ll find out later.

Unlike Zalman’s coolers, the ZM-CS1 comes in a rather unpretentious packaging that contains necessary bolts and nipples besides the bracket itself, which is made of anodized aluminum.

The original FanMate bundled with Zalman CNPS7000-Cu is a nice little device, but which cannot be mounted outside the PC case. As a consequence, whenever you want to adjust your fan’s speed, you need to open the case, which id definitely a job you wouldn’t like to do even one time a day.

Specifications

Installation Procedure

The model CNPS7000-Cu should be installed on Socket 478 and Socket 754 platforms and does not require any backplates unlike the newer cooler from Zalman. Therefore, typical installation process does not take a long time and hardly requires a lot of skills. However, if you plan to use the CNPS7000-Cu with a new Socket T mainboard along with ZM-CS1 clip, you’ll have to go through the same difficulties as you would have with the CNPS7700-Cu: before installing the ZM-CS1 retention mechanism you will have to remove your mainboard from the case, which is a relatively long process.

We would also like to note that installation of the ZM-CS1 clip requires very high precision when installing: it took us some time to find the right position for the bracket when installing it.

In spite of possible issues, the ZM-CS1 does what it is meant for: it gives the CNPS7000-Cu a new life and duty: to cool down LGA775 central processing units.

CoolerMaster Hyper 48 KHC-L91: Tranquil Perfection

First Glance

CoolerMaster has been on the forefront of the thermal solutions market for years and has well-earned reputation as a provider of efficient and quality coolers as well as computer cases.

The model Hyper 48 KHC-L91 is currently one of the top models from the company and has a number of peculiarities that deserve close attention: a large heatsink made of copper with extremely thick fins, four heat-pipes and 90mm low-speed fan. Will such device be able to cool-down a powerful Intel Pentium 4 processor made at 90nm process technology? It seems so!

CoolerMaster KHC-L91 wrapping looks good, but unpacking the cooler itself is not that comfortable: curved plastic packaging is pressed very well and there are no chances to open it without hassles.

Just like any other makers of high-end coolers, CoolerMaster puts loads of necessary things inside the box: a tube of silver thermal grease, retention mechanisms for various sockets, screws and a manual.

Specifications

Design

While the overall design of the CoolerMaster Hyper 48 KHC-L91 cooler resembles that of conventional coolers – it does not employ any new shapes, like curved fins – it is pretty clear that the company has used numerous design tricks to make the Hyper 48 KHC-L91 significantly more efficient than other “conservative” coolers.

The base of the cooler is made of pure copper in order to quickly absorb CPU heat. The heat-pipes are placed just above the base, quickly transferring heat to the upper side of the cooler that has more fins which are cooled-down by a low-speed fan from Delta, a well-known maker of fans and PSUs. It should be noted that the KHC-L91’s copper base itself is very impressive: it is about 8mm in height and has a good contact with fins, which should ensure that the heat transfer between different parts of the cooler is organized in the most efficient way – using heat-pipes and copper fins. The construction itself is relatively simple and seemingly efficient, but only actual tests will reveal if it is better compared to rather exotic coolers from Zalman and Gigabyte.

CoolerMaster Hyper 48 KHC-L91 weighs 864 grams, which is a lot; nevertheless, retention brackets the manufacturer provides give the impression to be tough enough to hold this huge weight.

Retention Mechanism, Installation Procedure

CoolerMaster offers two types of retention mechanisms with its Hyper 48 KHC-L91 product: one for Socket 478 and Socket 754/939/940 platforms, another is for Socket 775 mainboards. Both types of brackets require you to install them along with the mainboard, thus, in case you are setting up the KHC-L91 into a computer that is already assembled, you’ll need to spend additional time uninstalling the mainboard from the chassis.

Unfortunately, CoolerMaster does not provide a really comprehensive handbook with its product – the pictures in the manual are somewhat undersized and in case you are not an experienced computer enthusiast, you may find it a bit thorny to install the KHC-L91 cooler. Still, the process of setting up is not really tricky.

Still, the Hyper 48 KHC-L91 proved to be the easiest one to install on Socket T among participants of our roundup: it was really rapidly and effortlessly. CoolerMaster’s engineers definitely deserve a credit for the retention mechanism of the device.

Gigabyte 3D Rocket PCU22-SE: Skyrocketing Cooling

First Glance

Gigabyte, who is mostly known for its mainboards and graphics cards, makes coolers of rather untraditional shape which it calls rocket coolers. The products do look impressive and unusual in their large plastic boxes, but the main peculiarity of Gigabyte’s 3D Rocket coolers has always been compatibility with virtually all types of platforms that are available on the market.

The package traditionally includes a set of things that may be needed for hassle-free installation: clips, bolts, nipples, a tube of thermal grease from Shin Etsu as well as a setup guidebook in different languages. Unfortunately, the latter does not provide fine illustrations, even though with some general knowledge you should be able to conduct the process of installation easily.

The process of unpacking the product is easy and does not require any use of force, as in the case of CoolerMaster’s cooler.

Gigabyte gives a special adapter that reduces its fan’s voltage to 9V and decelerates its speed so that to make it a bit quieter. Maybe, the idea is not bad, but perhaps it was more logical to integrate a heat sensor inside the fan and adjust the speed dynamically? Well, on more expensive models Gigabyte provides a 3.5” panel that allows controlling the speed of the fan.

Specifications

Design

The general principle used by Gigabyte engineers is basically the same as used by developers of the CoolerMaster Hyper 48 KHC-L91: copper base quickly conducts heat that is then transferred to upper side of the cooler by heat-pipes. The peculiarities of Gigabyte’s 3D Rocket PCU22-SE are different to almost any cooler available on the market: the copper base itself is very thin and fully depends on the efficiency of heat-pipes as only heat-pipes connect the base to the fins made of anodized aluminum.

Instead of typical fan Gigabyte uses blower – a type o fan that intakes air from upper side of the cooler and then exhausts the airflow through the fins on the lower side of the cooler. Gigabyte has, in fact, modified its 3D cooler’s design from the previous models: the 3D Rocket PCU22-SE has a special piece of film installed on top of the cooler to prevent air intake from the top inlet. The move can be logically explained:  the company wanted fins on the top side of the cooler to be ventilated when the blower sucks in air from the case. The idea is understandable and is aimed to improve efficiency.

It may seem that the air that is sucked through relatively hot fins in to cool down the rest of the cooler will not be as cool as it would be in case it was taken in from the top side of the cooler. Nevertheless, our testing revealed that Gigabyte’s scheme is absolutely correct and the most efficient one for the particular case: the film definitely does its job well.

Another potential drawback is that the heat-pipes and fins of the 3D Rocket PCU22-SE are made from different materials – the former are made of copper, the latter are made of aluminum. Different materials that are mechanically, and not very precisely, connected to each other do not favour great heat transfer from one conductor to another.

A bright side of the 3D Rocket is relatively low weight – only about 490 grams.

We’ll find out whether the abovementioned fears have their impact on Gigabyte’s 3D Rocket PCU22-SE performance, but now let us take a look at retention mechanisms Gigabyte provides for its cooler.

Retention Mechanism, Installation Procedure

A good thing about Gigabyte’s 3D Rocket PCU22-SE is tremendous ease of installation. Only in case of Socket 775 systems it is required to use retention mechanism which installation obliges to fix certain screws from the backside of the mainboard. Other types of sockets, namely Socket 478, Socket A, Socket 754/939/940 use default retention brackets to mount the 3D Rocket PCU22-SE.

Still, we would like to point out that the bracket for Socket 775 is made of very soft plastic which deforms as screws are screwed in, which makes the installation a not that trivial task.

While the manual is not as good as the one provided by Zalman, the installation itself is pretty logical and even a simple guide by Gigabyte seems to be enough to set up the 3D Rocket PCU22-SE cooler pretty quickly.

Testbed and Methods

To test the coolers from CoolerMaster, Gigabyte and Zalman we decided to utilize two of our test-systems we use for testing graphics cards: the one based on Intel Pentium 4 560 microprocessor.

The system was configured as follows:

Testbed:

Software:

This time we decided not to overclock microprocessors in an attempt to find out which cooler is better, but to monitor and log chips’ temperatures while they were performing demanding tasks or running special software designed to test stability and thermal dissipation. Temperature logging allowed us to see how efficiently the cooler can transfer heat off the CPU as well as to reveal peak temperatures.

We used open testbed to test the coolers, we did not use actual PC cases because every case has different airflows inside and our review would not be absolutely representative. Temperature in the lab was around 18 – 19 degrees Celsius (64.4 – 68 degrees Fahrenheit).

Testing procedures were as follows:

Noise Level

The most quiet CPU coolers among participated were CoolerMaster Hyper 48 KHC-L91 as well as Zalman CNPS7700-Cu (when set to work on minimal speed). Both could not be distinctly heard when our test bed was operating: PSU cooler, GPU cooler and HDD definitely did so lot noise that both CPU coolers seemed to be utterly quiet in front of all those devices. Zalman’s CNPS7000 was a bit noisier: on minimal speed it was louder than the CNPS7700. But that still was a very silent operation.

Unfortunately, when set to maximum speed, both Zalman coolers turned out to be pretty noisy.

Gigabyte’s 3DRocket PCU-22SE was very noisy when set to maximum rotation speed of 2900rpm and moderately noisy when the special cable decreased it to 2400rpm.

Performance Overall

Let’s see how the coolers actually do their primary job: cooling of our Intel Pentium 4 560 (3.60GHz) CPU. What we should keep in mind is that Intel’s Prescott processors have individual parameters and start to engage thermal throttling at about 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit). This means that every cooler should be able to keep the CPU temperature below or inline with that level at any time.

It is obvious that Zalman CNPS7700-Cu is the most efficient cooler among tested: nearly 1 kilogram of copper and a huge fan definitely do their job. However, it is efficient only when the fan is spinning at full speed, which is pretty noisy. When we set the fan at its minimum, we notice that performance of the CNPS7700-Cu is pretty low; it is still enough to cool-down our Intel Pentium 4 560 processor: the chip did not reduce the speed, but in some cases this may not be enough for you. Probably with FanMate 2 you’ll be able to efficiently find noise/performance ratio based on your demands, but the “peak” situations look just like we’ve just described.

The same can be said about the CNPS7000-Cu: it easily cools down our processor when working at maximum speed, but the temperature of the CPU when it operates at minimum speed is very high, even in open system.

Still, we would like to point out that the advantage CNPS7700-Cu has over predecessor is significant, hence, if you use the CNPS7000-series, plan to upgrade to a more powerful microprocessor, but want to have a Zalman cooler – the CNPS7700-Cu is definitely your choice.

At the same time, CoolerMaster Hyper 48 KHC-L91 did nearly the best possible job without making much noise, which is an admirable result. Looks like heat-pipes are no longer a kind of a luxury for coolers, but a compulsory technology for today’s heatsinks, provided that a 3000rpm or higher speed is not planned to be used.

Gigabyte 3D Rocket PCU22-SE also did a good job in almost all the cases and in both of its modes. The engineering efforts of Gigabyte’s developers deserve a praise: the film on top of the cooler definitely makes it definitely a lot more efficient. Furthermore, this cooler, that performance inline with rather expensive products from CoolerMaster and Zalman, does not cost a lot. Still, keep in mind, this cooler is a pretty noisy one.

Performance Indepth

For your convenience, we include a more detailed results of our tests in graphs that show temperature at any particular time of our tests. This helps to determine efficiency of heat conductivity within the cooler.

The results of the measurements surprised us: Zalman’s and Gigabyte’s coolers demonstrated very slow and gradual increase in CPU temperature, which means that their bases can very rapidly absorb the heat from the chip. By contrast, CoolerMaster’s cooler showcased pretty slow absorption of the heat from the central processing unit.

CoolerMaster Hyper 48

S&M Software

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Half-Life 2 demo

Zalman CNPS7700 max

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Zalman CNPS7700 min

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Zalman CNPS7000 max

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Zalman CNPS7000 min

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Gigabyte PCU22-SE max

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Gigabyte PCU22-SE min

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Gigabyte PCU22-SE max (cover off)

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Gigabyte PCU22-SE min (cover off)

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Conclusion

The best cooler among the models we tested today based on performance and silence criteria is CoolerMaster Hyper 48 KHC-L91. It is not only utterly silent, but thanks to advanced design and heatpipes can cool-down even the hottest chips very efficiently. Furthermore, the KHC-L91 also boasts with easy installation. Basically, CoolerMaster Hyper 48 is something that you install inside your PC and… forget about it: no noise, no overheat problems, nothing you should worry about. It has his own drawbacks, not very rapid heat transfer from the base is one example, but they are not critical.

Zalman CNPS7700-Cu proved to be respectable successor of the CNPS7000-Cu product: it is capable of cooling-down high-performance chips and even flow the air over other components located close to the CPU socket, which is an advantage, even though it won’t be the most efficient cooling for them. The disadvantage is that Zalman’s 120mm fan produces rather distinguishable noise when operating at maximum speed. Perhaps, some of you will use the cooler at minimum speed when working in office applications and boosting it up when playing games or perform other demanding task.

Given rather tricky installation procedure, we would consider Zalman CNPS7700-Cu cooler as something for enthusiasts who spend a lot of time with their PCs, rather than for users who just want a quality cooler.

Zalman’s CNPS7000-Cu introduced long ago is still a player today with ZM-CS1 retention mechanism. In fact, the CNPS7000-Cu has been cooling-down our Intel Pentium 4 560 processor for about 8 months now without any problems. We used it at the maximum speed, but it was still capable of cooling-down the chip it was never intended for. Basically, the CNPS7000-Cu is one of the best coolers, provided that it is not really expensive at a retailer near you, for processors up to 3.20GHz. Unfortunately, there are some difficulties with installation of Zalman’s coolers.

Gigabyte’s 3D Cooler PCU22-SE also impressed much: being not very expensive, this device manages to work nearly as efficiently as far more pricey products from CoolerMaster and Zalman. Unfortunately, the cooler itself is pretty noisy compared to those mentioned. Still, it may end up as one of the best in its price-class.