Thermaltake PW880i Liquid-Cooling System Review

Today we are going to talk about a new mass production liquid-cooling system from Thermaltake and compare its efficiency against one of the super-coolers. Find out from our new review, which one proves more efficient.

by Sergey Lepilov
09/17/2009 | 02:27 PM

Liquid-cooling systems are not such frequent guests in home systems even by computer enthusiasts. There are several reasons behind that. Firstly, air-coolers have currently become so efficient that the transition to a liquid-cooling solution is no longer as attractive as a few years ago and doesn’t provide a significant frequency boost during overclocking anymore. Secondly, since liquid-cooling system components are not so widely spread in the market and cost quite a lot, the user will think twice before deciding on a system like that. And thirdly, the complexity, much larger size and possible complications during work also do not contribute to the popularity growth of these solutions. Nevertheless, there is a still a substantial user group out there who pursue the intention to transition to liquid-cooling as painlessly as possible and they are the primary target for mass production liquid-cooling systems that should make this transition smooth, quick and effective. Not so long ago we discussed a pretty inexpensive and very simple liquid-cooling solution called CoolIT Domino, and today we are going to talk about a new product from Thermaltake called ProWater 880i.

Package and Accessories

 

Thermaltake PW880i liquid-cooling system is shipped in a large cardboard box with a convenient plastic carry handle:

The box is relatively heavy, so this handle is exactly what you need, especially if you need to carry it for some time.

The box is covered with photographs of the system, lists its features and bears a table with the system’s detailed specifications:

 

Inside the box there is a polyurethane foam casing with cut-out sections that contain all the system components. There is also a small cardboard box with accessories bundle:

Among them are a universal backplate with pads, clamps with screws and washers, retention kits for two types of platforms, thermal compound, plastic ties and even two pieces of double-sided tape. In other words, everything you might need to easily put together and install this system is right there.

With the accessories you also get a flexible polyvinylchloride hose 4 m long and 9.5 mm in diameter and special spiral tubing preventing the hose from folding:

 

There is also a small hermetically sealed canister with 1000 ml of coolant:

 

Besides water (93.4 %), this coolant contains propylene glycol (6.0%). It doesn’t require any distilled water to be added to it and is ready to be used immediately. The liquid, as well as the hose glow in UV light. Under no circumstances should you consume this coolant :)

Thermaltake PW880i comes with detailed assembly and installation instructions, an important notice, warranty policy slip and step-by-step instructions for water block installation:

The solution is made in China. At the time of the review we didn’t know the recommended retail price for this product.

Design and Functionality

Radiator and Fans Unit

The main cooling system unit – radiator with fans – measures 273 x 120 x 53 mm. The manufacturer doesn’t specify its weight, but subjectively this unit, and especially the radiator, is very lightweight. It is in fact pretty logical because it is made of solid aluminum.

 

The design of this radiator is quite common: traditional meshed comb structure with 1.5-2 mm intervals that is soldered to the channels:

There are two fittings coming out of the radiator, each 6.5 mm in internal diameter, that have been carefully covered with rubber caps:

The fitting nozzles rotate freely, which makes it easier to assemble the system.

The radiator is topped with two 120x120x25 mm fans. One of these fans has a complex plastic frame attached to it, which serves to hold the radiator on the system case panel.

The top part of this frame is removable (later on it will be clear why):

The nine-blade fans installed on the radiator are originally made by Everflow (R121225SH marking). According to Thermaltake’s own marking, their model name is TT-1225A:

 

The slide bearing should guarantee 30,000 hours of non-stop failure-free fan operation. The fans are powered via one Molex-connector of the power supply unit (the cable is about 400 mm long). Their rotation speed can be adjusted using a small regulator in the interval from 1000 to 2000 RPM.

The claimed level of generated noise is between 20 and 28 dBA, and the created airflow is not specified anywhere in the specs sheets.

Pump and Expansion Tank

The pump and expansion tank of Thermaltake PW880i form a single unit connected with a nozzle. If you remember Thermaltake PW850i liquid-cooling system, you can easily notice that this part remained practically the same:

I added “practically”, because this time they indicate the volume of the expansion tank in the official specs as 400 ml instead of 350 ml that used to be before. True, the new tank is a little taller than the old one:

 

However, the pump is exactly the same as the one used in the previous model. P501 model should pump 500 (±50) liters an hour and raise the water to at least 1.8 m.

There is a small yellow sticker on the pump itself that lists all its official specifications:

The ceramic pump bearing should last 80,000 hours (over 9 years of non-stop operation). The level of noise generated by the pump is promised to be no more than 16 dBA, which strikes me as somewhat too optimistic…

There is a special metal retention plate with holes in it that goes over the radiator. It serves to install the pump and expansion tank unit:

 

I am going to dwell on it a little later in this review.

Default Water Block and Thermaltake PWB100 (CL-W0168) Water Block

The CPU water block included with Thermaltake PW880i is made of purified copper and weighs about 336 g:

 

It measures 58x58x35 mm. it comes with the universal retention plate already preinstalled on top of it. This plate fits all contemporary sockets. The water block looks quite common and we don’t know anything about its internal structure. Nevertheless, we should specifically mention exceptional evenness and finish quality of its base:

Thermaltake, however, provided us not only with their new PW880i liquid-cooling system, but also with a new Thermaltake PWB100 processor water block that is not included with the system, but according to the manufacturer, is more effective than the default one.

PWB100 will be selling in a small cardboard box:

 

It comes bundled with three types of retention, clamps, screws, SilMORE thermal compound and installation instructions:

PWM100 also looks quite common: copper base and black plastic cover with an incoming and outgoing fitting covered with rubber caps:

 

Unlike the default water block, we managed to take PWB100 apart and take a peek at its internal structure that is pretty interesting:

 

The central part of the water block copper base consists of numerous round copper pins. Note that they are a little shorter in the very center (there is something like a hollow in the middle) compared to the rest of them. Keeping in mind that the incoming fitting is located right in the center of the water block, we can suppose with high level of probability that the cooling liquid enters in the center of the water block, gets distributed over its entire internal area and returns to the cover along the external edge of the block:

The base surface of PWB100 is not as shiny as that of the default block, but its ia slo impeccably even:

 

I believe that the main drawback of the PWB100 is its retention mechanism. Unlike the default water block included with Thermaltake PW880i that is installed using very reliable and secure screw-on retention going through the mainboard PCB, PWB100 is installed onto LGA775 mainboards using common plastic push-pins. Besides the fact that these push-pins are very hard and inconvenient to push in until locked, they also bend the PCB and do not provide the same pressure as the screw-on retention. The only advantage is that they can be removed and installed fairly easily, but I doubt that anyone would really care about it, since installing liquid-cooling systems like Thermaltake PW880i usually requires taking the entire system apart anyway. In other words, it is a real pity that PWB100 doesn’t come with a more reliable and secure retention…

Compatibility and Installation Tips

The installation procedure for the new liquid-cooling system is fairly simple, but takes quite a bit of time. For example, it took me 40 minutes, although I was also taking pictures of every step. There is a manual included among the accessories or available on the official company web-site (PDF-file, 5.13 MB). Thermaltake PW880i installation starts with the placement of its major components, where the order doesn’t really matter.

The pump and expansion tank unit can be installed inside or outside the system case on the radiator of the liquid-cooling system:

 

I decided to choose the second option, which seemed to me to be more convenient. The base of the pump can be unscrewed and a shock absorbing pad needs to be stuck to where the base used to be. After that you have to attach the metal plate to the pump with two screws and then place the whole thing on top of the radiator. Use another pair of screws to fasten everything:

 

Since only the pump is attached to the retention plate, the pump and expansion tank unit is not quite straight up when it is in place:

The next step will be installing the radiator with the pump and expansion tank on it on the system case. This is only possible if the latter has a special spot for 120, 90 or 80 mm fan available. You should insert special mounting spindles into the retention holes for the fan and then attach the plastic frame with retention grooves to them:

 

By the way, there are two types of mounting spindles bundled with the Thermaltake PW880i system: short ones (15 mm) and long ones (30 mm), so the users can actually decide themselves how far away from the back of the system case to put the radiator with the fans.

Once the frame is installed, the unit including the radiator, fans and pump with the expansion tank should be hung on the back of the system case:

All major components are installed. Now all we have to do is install the water block onto the mainboard, connect all hoses and fasten them with clamps. We have already briefly described the installation of the PWB100 block. As for the default Thermaltake PW880i water block, it is installed with a backplate, spindles with washers and screw caps:

 

After that you put the pre-measured and pre-cut pieces of hose and tighten them with clamps:

 

This is what Thermaltake PW880i looks like fully assembled and installed onto the system case:

 

I didn’t use only one system component: the Flow TX liquid flow indicator:

I didn’t find anything really useful in watching tiny rotating red fan and decided that there is no need for additional resistance in the liquid contour created by Flow TX. You can control the liquid flow by the sound of the working pump.

Technical Specifications and Recommended Pricing

Testbed and Methods

All tests were performed inside a closed system case. Our testbed was identical for all coolers throughout the test session and featured the following configuration:

During this test session we managed to overclock our 45nm quad-core processor with the multiplier set at 21x and “Load-Line Calibration” enabled to 3.97 GHz (+48.8%) using the weakest cooling system of the today’s testing participants. The nominal processor Vcore was increased to 1.3625 V in the mainboard BIOS.

The memory voltage was at 1.62 V and its frequency was around 1520 MHz (7-7-7-14_1T timings). All other parameters available in the mainboard BIOS and connected with CPU or memory overclocking remained unchanged (set to Auto).

All tests were performed under Windows Vista Ultimate Edition x86 SP1. We used the following software during our test session:

So, the complete screenshot during the test session looks as follows:

The stabilization period for the CPU temperature between the two test cycles was about 10 minutes. We took the maximum temperature of the hottest processor core of the four for the results charts. The ambient temperature was checked next to the system case with an electronic thermometer with 0.1 °C precision that allows monitoring the temperature changes over the past 6 hours. During our test session room temperature was unusually high and stayed at 25.5-26 °C.

The noise level of each cooler was measured after 1:00 AM in a closed room about 20 m2 big using CENTER-321 electronic noise meter. The measurements were taken at 1m distance from the closed system case. During the acoustics tests all four 120 mm case fans were slowed down to ~520 RPM. In this mode the background noise from the system case measured at 1m distance didn’t exceed ~33.3 dBA. When the system was completely powered off, our noise meter detected 29.8 dBA (the lowest on the charts is 30 dBA). The subjectively comfortable noise level is around 34.5~35 dBA, and the subjectively comfortable noise level is at 34.5-35 dBA.

We are going to compare the cooling efficiency of Thermaltake PW880i against that of Thermalright IFX-14 ($79.90), as it is the today’s most efficient air cooling solution. This comparison seems to be the most logical, because it will determine the justification for preferring this liquid-cooling solution to an air-cooler. The latter was installed onto the CPU using its default retention with a few additional metal washers and was equipped with two Noiseblocker NB-Multiframe MF12-S3HS fans ($23x2) working in quiet mode at 1170 RPM and at maximum rotation speed of 1830 RPM.

 

Now let’s proceed to the test results and their analysis.

Cooling Efficiency and Acoustic Performance

The results of our tests are sorted out in order of increasing cooling efficiency. When the cooling efficiency was equal (read – the same CPU temperature under peak load) the preference was with a quieter system. So, here are the results:

It is obvious that the cooling efficiency of Thermaltake PW880i is extremely close to that of the best super-cooler in the today’s market equipped with two high-quality fans. I have to say that this is a fairly weak result for a custom liquid-cooling system put together from thoroughly selected components. However, as for a mass production liquid-cooling system, the outcome is actually quite nice, especially keeping in mind that the total cost of the air-cooler with the fans is around $125. The alternative PWB100 water block really does improve the cooling efficiency by about 3 °C in quiet as well as maximum rotation speed mode, which allows Thermaltake PW880i to catch up with the super-cooler in efficiency. It is interesting that in idle mode the liquid-cooling cools the CPU better than an air-cooler.

As for the acoustic readings, we can’t really flatter Thermaltake PW880i much, because the pump is quite noisy. It produced 39.6 dBA of noise, which is not in a comfortable or even moderate acoustic range. Of course, the location of the pump during the test session had definitely something to do with this high noise level. I am sure that if we put it inside the system case or place on something soft and shock absorbing, its crackling sound will be easier to deal with. Nevertheless, we would like to see Thermaltake finally take care of this issue, because the same exact pump model is shipped with the third liquid-cooling system from Thermaltake in a row that we have already tested. The fans turned out surprisingly quiet: at 1020 RPM we couldn’t hear them at all against the background of the quiet system case (33.0 dBA at a 1 m distance). No cracking sounds of any kind. And at maximum 1980 RPM rotation speed the fans generated 41.9 dBA. For your reference, Thermalright IFX-14 with the fans at 1170 RPM was also inaudible against the system case noises, and at 1830 RPM produced 38.7 dBA of noise.

Conclusion

First of all, I would like to talk about the price of Thermaltake PW880i liquid-cooling system, because it is the price that determines marketing success or failure of the liquid-cooling solution. However, when we were working on the article, we couldn’t find any info about Thermaltake PW880i MSRP. As for retail we only came across one single place where they sold it for $298. Since the previous Thermaltake PW850i Pro model was available for only $119, the current price on Thermaltake PW880i looks extremely high (although we do realize that we can’t really make any final conclusions according to one single offer).

At the same time, let’s recall the results obtained on Thermaltake PW850i Pro. Compared to them, PW880i is a significant step forward, because back in the days the liquid-cooling system was totally defeated by Thermalright SI-128 SE and today it runs neck and neck with Thermalright IFX-14 super-cooler equipped with two super-fans. In my opinion, this is very high efficiency for a mass production liquid-cooling system. Moreover, it has every chance of becoming even more efficient if you replace some of its components. We are going to return to this topic very soon in one of our new articles.

In conclusion I would like to point out some drawbacks of the new system. The pump is extremely noisy and I personally do not quite understand why the largest cooling solutions manufacturer can’t afford to design or order a quieter pump for their systems. No doubt that the default CPU water block bundled with Thermaltake PW880i needs to be replaced with PWB100, which needs to be equipped with reliable screw-on retention instead of plastic push-pin clips. I would also like to propose using a copper radiator instead of an aluminum one and including a VGA water block with the bundled accessories, but I am not sure that this will ever be done.

In conclusion I have to say that despite the drawbacks pointed out above, we should give Thermaltake due credit for universal design (i.e. compatibility with all existing platforms), for easy and convenient assembly and installation process with two possible locations for the pump and expansion tank unit, and finally for very high-quality fans.