by Vasily Melnik
09/05/2005 | 10:40 AM
After the leading CPU manufacturers both proclaimed the end of their “gigahertz race”, users who wanted a really fast and quiet PC could give a sigh of relief. The most optimistic of them hoped that Intel would make Dothan processors widely available to the public, but this never happened, unfortunately. Instead of one heat-generator both Intel and AMD proposed two under one cap thus solving the problem of more performance with the simplest of arithmetic operations – addition! If it’s impossible to increase speed further by increasing the frequency of the processor, the overall performance will be increased through executing program threads in parallel. And it doesn’t matter that this parallel execution isn’t actually necessary for an ordinary home PC. Both companies need sales, and the new dual-core concept can ensure them.
Yet the biggest and hearty thanks for the introduction of the dual-core processors will certainly come from the manufacturers of CPU cooling solutions: the size of the processor has remained almost the same, but its performance and heat dissipation have increased. The performance issue may be arguable (average users won’t notice any speed boost in typical multimedia and gaming applications), while heat dissipation, beyond doubt, is much higher now. We are even lucky that the CPU makers didn’t double the heat generation of the whole thing after they had added the second core. But even as they are, the new dual-core processors are beyond the cooling capacity of such respectable solutions as Zalman 7000CU or Zalman 7700CU, for example. The latter can still keep the temperature of a dual-core Intel Pentium Extreme Edition (with a frequency of only 2.8GHz but based on the Smithfield core) at about 75-80°C under an ambient temperature of 20-22°C, but the 7000CU cannot do even that – the temperature of the CPU got higher than 85°C and we stopped further experiments with it.
The new processors are similar to the latest revisions of the Intel Pentium 4 on the Prescott core when it comes to cooling: the speed of heat transfer from the CPU core is vitally important. There are two possible solutions: coolers on heat pipes (with the base and the heat-spreader separate) or liquid-cooling systems. The price differs in two times between solutions of these two types: off-the-shelf liquid-cooling systems are about two times more expensive in average than top-end coolers on heat pipes.
We regularly cover available liquid-cooling solutions on our site, but today we’re offering you a review of four air coolers that represent the current state of the market quite well. Moreover, even Intel doesn’t seem to be going to abandon classic cooling systems in near future – the BTX standard describes air coolers, although of an unusual design. Besides such priorities as high efficiency and minimized noise, the manufacturers currently focus on the aesthetic qualities of their products, too. Even makers of low-end cooling systems have realized that people who shell out a nice sum of money for a CPU cooler should get a nice-looking product in return.
Well, Thermaltake has few competitors as concerns the appearance of its products – this company has always surprised us with its original design solutions. This tradition is continued in the new line of Thermaltake coolers which are going to look well in the now-fashionable system cases with a side window. The coolers reviewed below are large (this is another market trend, by the way), but fit perfectly into a standard ATX system case.
There can be numerous approaches to testing CPU coolers, but we think they must be inspected under real-life conditions, with a most advanced central processor.
We assembled a top-end modern PC to check up the efficiency of the coolers:
The system case from Thermaltake features a highly efficient and quiet system of ventilation. We performed our tests in two modes: Idle and Burn (two copies of the CPU Burn utility running). The CPU temperature was read with Motherboard Monitor 184.108.40.206. The room temperature was 21°C and remained constant throughout our tests. We used the same thermal paste for all the coolers (not the paste included with them).
The level of noise was evaluated subjectively, with the other fans of the computer halted, and is specially described for each of the participating devices. We don’t publish accurate measurements of noise since practice suggests that numbers alone do not allow to compare two different coolers correctly.
But enough of theory, let’s get closer to the coolers:
Click to enlarge
One of the largest cooler in the company’s model range, the Big Typhoon is a typical today’s cooler for the most advanced processors. Its size may be astonishing, if you haven’t bought a cooler for your CPU for the last couple of years. Its package alone could accommodate three or even four typical coolers as they made them just two years ago.
The packaging looks nice. Besides the cooler itself, it includes a small black box:
This box with the cooler model name on it contains universal fastening kit, two leaflets with instructions, and a pack of thermal paste.
The fastening kit allows installing the Big Typhoon on almost any modern mainboard without a screwdriver. Two rubber pads that repeat the shape of the metal fastening plates are enclosed into the kit to avoid damage to the mainboard.
These pads are not reusable, though. When you use them once, they become crumpled and too thin. The special smaller rtention fasteners are offered for mounting the cooler on Socket LGA775 mainboards with a high component density.
There are three parts:
Together they become a compact fastening device, a little larger in size than the cooler itself.
Despite the visually big dimensions and somewhat unconventional construction, the Big Typhoon is designed quite typically for cooling systems of that type.
It consists of a copper foundation, heat pipes and a large plate heatsink. An exclusive 120mm fan from Thermaltake with a rather low rotational speed of 1300rpm is cooling down this construction.
The speed of the fan seems to be low, but it creates a sufficient air stream to cool the heatsink and almost all top part of the mainboard with such components as the chipset’s heatsink, memory modules, and the CPU’s voltage regulator. The reverse side of the graphics card even gets some air from that fan.
There is nothing dramatically new about the heatsink design:
It has a massive copper sole with heat pipes and a heat-spreader with aluminum plates. This is a classic design with an optimal combination of size, weight and efficiency. For example, it would be in vain to use copper ribs here since the heatsink would become too heavy for some mainboards.
The heatsink consists of two parts each of which serves three heat pipes. Both parts are additionally clamped up with the frame the fan is fastened to.
The sole finish quality is average:
The base is matte and you can see traces of the milling machine. Well, modern processors with their own heat-spreading caps are satisfied even with such poor processing of the cooler’s base. If you are not fighting for every degree, you won’t have to polish it additionally.
This cooler mounts on the CPU socket quite easily:
Thanks to the convenient fasteners and to the heatsink being lifted up on the heat pipes, the Big Typhoon can be installed very quickly and without much trouble. It will suit especially well for mainboards that have many components around the CPU socket or those that have a large heatsink on the chipset’s North Bridge. The shape of the base and the enclosed fasteners permit to put this cooler on almost any mainboard, whatever component layout it may have. The only limitation may be the system case – anything smaller than a full-size ATX case will not do.
The system fitted into our Thermaltake Armor with ease. Well, this system case can surely accommodate any existing cooling system.
Subjectively, the Big Typhoon leaves a nice impression. Yes, it is large, but it has a very convenient fastening system and weighs little, and doesn’t practically create any problems during the installation. It should do well in our tests, considering the total of its characteristics.
Well, yes, the numbers are most impressive: a temperature of 63°C under full load is an excellent result for such a hot CPU! The idle temperature needs no comments – the processor is virtually cool. Bearing in mind that you cannot fry your CPU up with ordinary applications as two copies of CPU Burn do, we are absolutely sure that this cooler won’t let the fastest of today’s CPUs die from overheat even on a hot day in a room without an air conditioner. We are also sure about the Big Typhoon even if your computer is assembled in a system case of the classic design.
The noise from this cooler is almost inaudible in a classic system: 1300rpm isn’t as high a speed as to create any big noise, while the long heat pipes suppress all vibrations. When the system fans are halted, you can hear a low rumble of the cooler’s bearings. You can hush even this noise up by reducing the cooler speed to 1000-1100rpm: the noise vanishes completely at a minor loss in efficiency.
By the way, the Thermaltake Big Typhoon is a good long-term investment, besides being an excellent cooling solution. Even if the heat dissipation of processors keeps on growing up at the current rate, this cooler will most probably live through one or even two platform upgrades.
Highs: Excellent cooling, easy fastening, almost silent operation
Lows: No drawbacks noticed
Conclusion: If you need an effective air cooler for any modern platform, this one is going to be an excellent choice.
Average retail price - $42
Next goes an original construction with a queer name, Sonic Tower. It is a large passive heat-spreader – a brave solution, in view of the level of heat dissipation of modern processors. Most manufacturers don’t take such risks but equip their products with low-speed fans at least. So why “Sonic” when the passive design is completely silent? The manufacturer must have just run short of names – an earlier product of the company got the more appropriate name “Silent Tower”.
The package is the same size as the Big Typhoon one:
The contents of the package are similar, too:
The only difference is the two additional brackets to mount a 120mm fan. These brackets didn’t fit into the cardboard box which contains a user’s manual and retention components:
The fastening system for this cooler is made in such a way that the heatsink clamping bar can be used for any platform. You even get fastening brackets for the K7 platform, but they use the mounting holes around the socket (the heatsink is very heavy, so it’s dangerous to fasten it to the socket). You get a special hexagon for the enclosed hex-headed screws.
The heatsink has a typical design:
Roughly speaking, it is a Big Typhoon turned upside down and with a larger ribbing area. The aluminum ribs begin almost at the cooler’s sole – not quite conveniently and may cause problems with the mainboard.
Like with the previous cooler, the sole finish quality is quite average:
Thermaltake still didn’t dare make a totally passive cooler, without even providing an opportunity to put a fan on it:
The neat holes in the heatsink ribs are here for aluminum angles any 120mm can be fastened to. The angles are secured with screws, and you can’t avoid deforming the top ribs a little during this operation:
This doesn’t affect the efficiency of the cooler since the air from the installed fan doesn’t come to this part of the heatsink anyway. Here’s the cooler with an angle screwed to it:
When you have two angles on, you can fasten your fan. But as I looked at the rather large bottom part of the heatsink I got some apprehensions about its fitting onto the test mainboard:
The bottom angle ran into the chipset’s heatsink, making the installation of the cooler impossible. So, I decided to leave only the top angle on.
Without the bottom angle the cooler was easily mounted on the CPU socket and fastened there. I took the fan from the Big Typhoon for this test – it is the exact size and is rather quiet. As I supposed, one angle proved to be quite enough to fasten the fan:
Problems arose as I tried to put the whole construction onto the mainboard:
The Sonic Tower with a fan blocked completely the first memory slot. In my case, the memory stick could be plugged into the neighboring slot, but you may have problems installing this cooler on mainboards with a higher component density.
Besides that, note the position and the height of the chipset’s cooling system on your mainboard. The ribs of the Sonic Tower are placed rather low, creating some problems with mainboards of a less than Full ATX form-factor.
This cooler fits ideally into Thermaltake Armor:
The heatsink is right against the exhaust fan – an ideal situation for a passive cooler. The airflow from the system case’s two 120mm fans is strong enough for the cooler to work normally without its own fan. If you want more efficiency, use an additional fan:
This seems to be the most efficient scheme: the air from the intake fan goes through the heatsink and is immediately exhausted. This solution will hardly compete with the Big Typhoon, but the developers don’t seem to have set such a competition as their goal.
I’ll give you numbers for two modes: with and without the additional fan.
The performance of this cooler is impressive: only 72°C in the passive mode! With the installed fan this cooler performs just like the Big Typhoon (this is quite natural since both coolers are similar in design but differ a little in the heat dissipation area).
Of course, the ability of this cooler to work without a fan is its trump, and it just doesn’t have alternatives in its price category. However, the advantages of the Sonic Tower may be negated unless you have a high-quality system case with good ventilation in the CPU area.
I wouldn’t regard this cooler as a real alternative to the Big Typhoon. With or without the additional fan, the chipset’s heatsink, the MOSFETs of the CPU voltage regulator and the memory modules remain without air cooling. I didn’t notice these elements to become dangerously hot during my experiments, thanks to the excellent ventilation the system case provided, but I won’t vouch for other configurations.
It’s simple with the noise factor: there’s no noise at all in the passive mode, and with the additional fan the cooler was as loud as the Big Typhoon from which I had borrowed that fan. And I think it doesn’t make sense to use the Sonic Tower with a fan – you’d better purchase a Big Typhoon in this case that offers much better functionality.
So, Thermaltake successfully proves that passive cooling systems can be used on modern processors. But even if you’ve got a good system case, an air conditioner in your room would be desirable when you’re using this passive cooler with a top-end dual-core processor.
Highs: Passive heatsink, good fasteners, rather low price, permits to install a fan
Lows: A number of installation-related problems due to the big dimensions of the heatsink
Conclusion: One of the best passive cooling systems available on the market
Average price - $30
Thermaltake Silent Tower is a classic implementation of the heat pipes based cooler concept and has been selling for long already. The package looks small in comparison with the two above-described products:
It contains the cooler and a box with fastening components:
The contents of the box are almost the same as you get with the Big Typhoon:
The only things that differ are the user’s manual and the thermal paste.
As I said above, this is a classic design – a rectangular heatsink with three heat pipes.
The base is rather small, so you won’t have problems installing the Silent Tower on your mainboard.
Its sole is polished like the soles of the previous two coolers:
As expected, the cooler quite normally sat on the mainboard.
There’s a big distance from it to the chipset heatsink and to the memory modules.
This cooler doesn’t dominate the interior of the system case:
There’s even too much room around it if you compare it to the other three tested coolers. How does this affect its efficiency?
The Silent Tower performs quite well – its time-tested design isn’t obsolete yet. Despite the much smaller heat-transfer area, this cooler is just a little worse than the leaders. Besides being the fastest cooler in this review (2500rpm), it is equipped with an originally shaped fan with side slits for higher efficiency (as the manufacturer claims). Well, the efficiency of the cooler is really high, but there is one more characteristic I haven’t yet mentioned – noise. In a system case with classic 80mm fans that work at the same speed this cooler won’t be conspicuous. In my tests, however, it was quite audible against the background of the almost silent system fans. Thus, this cooler will suit well for a standard configuration, but if you’re building a very quiet computer, you’ll have to adjust it a little.
So, the Silent Tower is a classic design suitable for midrange systems. I wouldn’t recommend it for fastest processors due to high level of noise and the availability of more efficient solutions. If you don’t bother about noise, you can make changes to this cooler to improve its characteristics. On the other hand, you can purchase a Sonic Tower for the same money and avoid the need to redesign anything.
Highs: Small size; good efficiency; simple installation
Lows: Rather noisy fan
Conclusion: A good implementation of the classic cooler on heat pipes
Average retail price - $29
The last item on our list is the PIPE101 rev.2 model. It is an unusual marketing solution to sell a heatsink alone while it is supposed to be used with a fan (unlike the Sonic Tower, the PIPE101 must be equipped with a fan). Well, some people may find this solution justifiable – you can choose a suitable fan yourself. This approach also seems right because Thermaltake products is originally intended for PC enthusiasts. The heatsink is rather small, just like its package:
The package contains the heatsink and a small box with the name of the product:
That box contains fastening components, a user’s manual and some thermal paste:
The fastening kit is quite convenient, without such unnecessary things as back-plates for the mainboard (the cooler is small and not very heavy). It’s all more traditional, like clips for Socket 478:
Brackets for Socket LGA775:
And screws for Socket 939:
In the latter case you don’t even have to remove the standard fastening frame as it doesn’t hinder the cooler installation.
You use a standard clip to put the PIPE101 on Socket A:
The manufacturer doesn’t seem to think that half a kilogram of weight of the heatsink alone requires fastening through the holes near the socket. On the other hand, not all Socket A mainboard have such mounting holes.
The heatsink itself is made of copper and is equipped with four heat pipes:
This is a classic design, although the purpose of the heat pipes is not so evident. The heatsink is a single whole anyway, so they only facilitate heat transfer from the heatsink sole to the top of the ribbing. The sole is not ideally finished, just like the ones of the other tested coolers:
As I said above, modern processors with heat-spreading caps don’t actually require the base of the cooler to be ideally flat. But considering the small size and low cost of this cooler, it may become popular among Socket A users for whom the quality of the sole is quite important. On the other hand, users who are not satisfied with the stock cooler won’t think it a big deal to finish the base of the PIPE101 with their own hands.
To perform my tests I put a 92mm fan from Thermaltake on this cooler. The fan has a rotational speed of 1800rpm.
In theory, a faster fan would affect the performance positively, but the noise from the cooler is quite audible even at 1800rpm and I didn’t want to create another noise-generator in the computer.
When assembled, the cooler is quite compact and poises no problems as you install it into a modern system case.
The PIPE101 looks very small. It is simply lost in comparison with the system 120mm fans. As for its efficiency, it performed quite well in my tests:
74°C for such a smaller cooler with an average fan seems to be a good result. Of course, I can’t recommend it for top-end processors (the 74°C result was achieved at a rather low room temperature, so you must have an air-conditioner to repeat it). Thermaltake PIPE101 rev.2 is going to be a good choice for a midrange system with a not very advanced CPU. Judging by its price, it is targeted exactly at that market sector.
As for noise, it depends on the fan you install. The noise from the fan I chose was no louder than that of the default system fans. When they were halted, a low noise from the cooler could be heard. So, you don’t have to worry about that much. The noise from this cooler is going to be inaudible in an ordinary system like I used in my tests. In other cases, it will depend on the type of the installed fan.
The users of the Socket A platform are going to appreciate the PIPE101 the most. It is quite capable of cooling any processor for that platform, remaining absolutely quiet.
Highs: Small size; classic fasteners; you can choose which fan to use
Lows: Nor the best design for cooling modern top-end processors
Conclusion: A good cooler for midrange systems
Average retail price - $30
I should acknowledge that the coolers all passed the tests. Here’s a summary diagram:
You can see two distinct groups here: the leaders can keep the temperature below 65°C under load whereas the other coolers can’t get below 72°C. There’s one real loser here, Thermaltake PIPE101 rev.2. It can’t compete with modern solutions that feature massive heatsinks and even its all-copper design with heat pipes cannot help – the heat dissipation area is just too small. As for the Sonic Tower’s 72°C in the passive mode, this result should not be compared with the PIPE101 for obvious reasons.
In fact, it is the Sonic Tower that deserves to be called the best in this test session – a passive heatsink capable of handling such a hot CPU is a very rare thing on the market, especially at such an appealing price – it just doesn’t have competitors in its price category. The only thing that can stop a potential buyer is the size of that cooler. If you don’t want to bother about the size and the possible problems with its installation, but you need a good air cooler, consider the Big Typhoon. Costing $10 more than the Sonic Tower, it represents a classic design, has almost the same heat dissipation area and offers good functionality. As for the difference in price, it is quite understandable - $10 is the price of one 120mm of that class.
I can’t recommend the Silent Tower or the PIPE101 as universal cooling solutions – they should not be purchased for top-end processors.