I have been thinking a lot about cooling of PCs recently. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I replaced my Noctua heat sink with a closed loop water cooling system. To get the most out of this swap, I also did some work on optimising the air flow of my case, and tidying up the insides by improving the cable management and sealing up all the air vents that do not have fans on them.
Going back a few years, to when I built this system, I was generally not a big fan of closed loop water cooling. Firstly it didn’t really perform any better than a good heat sink with quality fans on it, while also costing more. There were also many reports of noisy pumps that were prone to failure. These things considered, closed loop always felt like the noob’s excuse to brag that his/her system was water cooled. Since then though, the quality of closed look water coolers have improved a lot. They now cool at lest as well as the high end heat sinks, they have better quality pumps and they are generally very quiet. Finally though, and perhaps most importantly, they allow for a much cleaner build.
The top of the line heat sinks today, are really massive affairs. The very best ones are so large, they will block access to everything on the entire upper half of your motherboard. Want to install more RAM? Well, be prepared to at the very least detach the fans, but possibly you will have to remove the entire heat sink assembly. Not a very pleasant job. With a closed loop water cooling solution though, you will have full access to everything. It doesn’t cover up the RAM slots, it doesn’t interfere with access to fan headers, CMOS reset- button or jumper, motherboard 12V or anything else really. Finally, this also should help improve air flow through your case, meaning that it’ll be easier to keep the other components, like graphics cards, nice and cool.
After installing my own closed loop water cooler, a Cooler Master Nepton 240M, optimising air flow and finding the ideal fan configuration for the radiator, (in this case, mounted on the inside of the radiator, pulling cool air from outside the case through the radiator) I have seen some definite improvements in overall system temperatures, not just CPU temperatures. Having a setup with only a single exhaust fan at the top rear of the case, and having all other fans collect cool air from the outside, allows for positive pressure inside the case, keeping dust to a minimum. This is especially useful in a case like mine, that doesn’t have dust filters for most of the fan grills.
It might sound like these measures have allowed me to overclock my CPU a lot more, but it actually has not. At least not by much. Unfortunately it seems as though my motherboard, an old Asus P6T Deluxe V2, does not want to operate at a base clock of anything higher than 180MHz. I have not been able to find out why, but increasing voltages does not make any difference. I have however increased by multiplier by one notch, from 20x to 21x, giving me a total CPU clock of 3780MHz, which is well above the standard 2660 of my i7 920. What is much more important though, is that my temperatures are much lower, with the CPU idling just around 40ºC and rising to around 65ºC at full load on all 4 cores. This is with the balanced fan profile in the BIOS, keeping the fans on the radiator consistently below 100% speed. In short, during idle, the system is now very quiet, and under full load, it is not loud enough to get annoying.
This brings me on to the subject of overclocking. As I am currently looking ahead a bit, to when I might be able to afford a new system, I try to keep an eye on what hardware would be best suited.
Of course I have every intention of overclocking my next system as well, as I not only find it a good way of gaining some extra performance, but being a bit of a computer nerd, I kind of feel that it is my duty to push my hardware past it’s default settings. As my current system is built around what used to be Intel’s high end platform, the LGA1366 socket with x58 chipset, I feel the most sensible upgrade path would be the LGA2011-3 x99 platform. To get an idea of what kind of overclocks are possible to achieve on this platform, I’ve been looking at other people’s results online, and something quite interesting struck me. Most people seem to post results of their systems running with disabled features (HyperThreading, SpeedStep, C-states and so on) and even with some cores disabled. I mean, in an overclocking competition, I could definitely see why this would be interesting, at least from a theoretical point of view, but would you really want to sacrifice these features just to get to brag about having the highest possible overclocks? Is there really any point in an of it self to prove that you have the world’s highest overclocked 5820k, when it requires you to disable every CPU feature, all but two cores and only run with a single stick of RAM?
My system currently runs with six sticks of Corsair 1600MHz DDR3 RAM. It also runs at stock voltage, with every CPU feature enabled, from C-states and SpeedStep (for reduced power consumption and temperatures) all the way to HyperThreading and TurboBoost (for increased efficiency and performance). Sure, I hit an overclocking wall due to the base clock issues, but would I really have wanted to push the CPU any higher if it means sacrificing these features?
Personally, I feel that such sacrifices subtract from the glory of a good overclock. I have no issues with system stability, and due to the good cooling, I often see my CPU boost to nearly 4GHz (3960MHz) during gaming and even during benchmarking. To me, this gives a sense of the CPU running at very healthy settings. Even with my recent graphics card upgrade, going from a Radeon HD6870 Crossfire setup, to a single R9 280X, mainly for the larger VRAM, I still know that my CPU is not the weakest link in this system. As a matter of fact, if I were to guess, I’m pretty sure the CPU would be able to keep up with something as powerful as a GTX980 SLI combo. Unfortunately I am in no position to test this, as I cannot afford to buy such a combo, but still. I’m impressed that my 2008 CPU is still running strong after all these years. It shows how fantastic of a job Intel did with the Core i-series architecture.
So, what about this future system then? What is the point I’m trying to make?
Well, to get to that, I’m going to have to go back to the subject of cooling, and more specifically water cooling. Just as I used to not like closed loop water cooling, I have always had a fascination for custom water cooling builds. In my opinion, that is what “real” water cooling is all about. Sure, these days the closed loop systems are really good options for any PC user who wants to get the most out of their system, but if you are a real enthusiast, then custom loop is where it’s at.
Or is it really?
I’ve been doing a lot of research on water cooling over the years, and despite never having had a custom loop myself, I do feel that I am qualified to put such a system together, and make some fair assumptions of the requirements for different system setups. And now we are getting to the point. Although I would never deny that custom loop water cooling has a place in the world of enthusiast computing, I am finding it exceedingly hard to defend having it. Sure, it will allow you to push your hardware further than you could with less exotic cooling, and it can allow for a very quiet setup if it is done right, but at a very high premium. A custom water cooling loop simply to cool the CPU, simply does not make sense to me. If that’s all you are after, then you may as well go for a top of the line closed loop system. It will save you money, and probably cool well enough. When you start adding GPU blocks to the loop though, it soon becomes more interesting. Cooling the graphics as well, would allow for not only increased graphics performance, but also get rid of the, very often, noisy graphics card cooler. In a high end system with dual graphics, it would probably keep the overall case temperatures down as well. The cost of a custom loop water cooling setup like this would be pretty high unfortunately. In fact, it would be so high, that you could probably get the same performance improvement from spending the same money on better hardware. Sure, if you already have the best hardware money can buy, then adding water cooling to it could take it to another level, but that would be a fringe case anyway, as most people, not even overclockers, tend to buy the absolute most expensive hardware, preferring to get a better price to performance ratio.
Some people will of course argue that a custom water cooling setup can stay with you for years to come, even as you upgrade your hardware, but this is only partially true. As soon as you replace your graphics card(s), you’d have to get new waterblocks for those. And can you be sure that your CPU block will be compatible with the next platform you might have? It is possible, at least with a conversion kit, but there is no guarantee. How would you convince a customer for example, that getting you to build a high end water cooling system for him would be worth the cost?
All in all, I think with some thought put into hardware choice and well designed case cooling, you’d get much better value out of having a closed loop system on your CPU, and graphics fitted with some high end 3rd party cooling, such as Gigabyte’s Windforce series of cards, or Asus’ DirectCU cards. You’ll get quiet operation and at least some headroom for overclocking the GPU.
Why then, do I still want a custom water cooling setup in my next system?
At the end of the day, a PC is more than just a tool. At least to me it is. To me, it is what a sports car is to a petrol head, it is what a vintage Stratocaster is to a guitar nerd. It’s a hobby. It’s a thing you spend hours on every day. It’s something you build, tweak and upgrade for your own enjoyment. This is where both heat sinks and closed loop water cooling just doesn’t match up to a custom built water cooling system. It is something that makes your system more interesting, it is something that allows you to add an extra dimension of personality to your system, just like the colour co-ordinated hardware, the nearly excessive attention to detail in managing cables, and the windowed side panel. Sure, ultimately, it might not be cost effective, it might not add value to the system to anyone but yourself, but it is the kind of thing that gives the item value in a different way. I know some people like to say “it is only a thing, they aren’t really worth anything in the grand scheme of things”, but when you put time, effort and ultimately some sort of care (even love?) into the process of building a system, it DOES become valuable. Just like that handmade occasional table your grandfather made 65 years ago or the painting your parents have on their wall, your computer can be an elaborate work, if not of art, at least it can become more than just a meaningless “thing”.