Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Roundup: Six Sub-$40 Performance CPU Coolers Compared

Remember when overclocking was all about getting more performance for less money? It's hard to do that when you're spending top dollar on premium heatsinks and fans. Today we round up six true value-oriented coolers that could help unleash hidden speed.
Our tests continuously show the benefits of overclocking on system performance, where a few simple adjustments often allow tweaked mainstream hardware to outperform even the most expensive factory-spec’d parts.
And yet, many buyers overclock in search of value rather than breakneck speed, and that value can vanish fairly quickly if you have to buy premium aftermarket heatsinks and fans to support ambitious overclocking efforts.
The good news for value-seekers is that today’s CPU air coolers perform so well that more expensive options are—in most cases—no longer needed. This editor has even found several instances where a big heat sink and fan beats a similarly-sized liquid-cooling configuration priced nearly twice as high.
While some air cooling components can be expensive, the majority should fit into all but the tightest budgets.

Of course, the cheapest way to go is using the cooler that comes with boxed retail processors. But those are often barely adequate for running the CPU at stock speed. That's why we're taking a look at the next level in CPU cooling: a group of six new $20-40 “universal” models that could help you turn just about any modern CPU into a performance monster.
Value/Performance CPU Cooler Features
 Corsair A50Deepcool Ice Matrix 400Gelid Tranquillo
Top Height6.56"6.35"5.95"
Base Height1.57"1.90"1.15"
Center to Front2.18"1.87"2.35"
Number of Fans111
Fan Size120 mm120 mm120 mm
Weight23 Ounces22 Ounces23 Ounces
AMD OrientationUpdraftCross flowUpdraft
Intel Sockets775, 1156, 1366775, 1156, 1366775, 1156, 1366
Web Price $38  $38  $35
Value-Performance CPU Cooler Features
 Rosewill RCX-ZAIO-92Xigamtek GaiaZalman CNPS10X Performa
Top Height5.38"6.19"6.00"
Base Height1.56"1.40"1.50"
Center to Front2.25"2.07"2.25"
Number of Fans111
Fan Size92 mm120 mm120 mm
Weight17 Ounces22 Ounces27 Ounces
AMD OrientationUpdraftCross flowBoth
Intel Sockets775, 1156, 1366775, 1156, 1366775, 1156, 1366
Web Price $20  $30  $35

Corsair is the only brand in today’s comparison to include a non-PWM fan with its package. Most enthusiast motherboards now support both PWM and voltage-based fan speed controls, but it’s a feature to keep in mind for the few motherboards that lack this capability.

Well-known for its quality memory and power supplies, Corsair has also been the purveyor of high-quality cooling devices for several years. The A50 might be its biggest concession to value, with a large surface area that hints at its possible performance potential.

Corsair uses a direct-touch heat pipe design to reduce latent heat, with a finely-sanded finish to maximize surface contact. Only three heat pipes are present, but all of these are slightly oversized compared to typical designs.

A 2000+ RPM 120 mm cooling fan, thermal paste, universal LGA mounting bracket, AMD mounting clip and fan-slowing resistor wire finish out the installation kit.

The I-shaped hold-down bracket is attached to the top of the cooler’s base using screws, reducing the effort needed to hold various components in position while thumb-nuts are installed over the LGA mounting bracket’s adjustable studs.

AMD users will unfortunately find that the clip only installs front-to-back, making this an updraft cooler on most motherboards. The preferred cross flow orientation is limited to Intel motherboards and those few AMD boards that have the mounting bracket turned sideways.

Deepcool’s product arrived with the most elaborate design we’ve seen, from the shape of the cooler’s fins to the multi-compartmented box in which it ships.

The Ice Matrix 400’s base and heat pipes appear to be plated in either tin or nickel, either of which would be adequate for preventing tarnish of the copper parts beneath. Deepcool refers to its ultra-flat base finish as “micro polished,” but it appears to have been finely sanded prior to plating.

The Ice Matrix 400 includes Deepcool’s signature low-noise rubberized fan in addition to thermal paste, extra fan clips for a second fan, mounting hardware, and power adapters. AMD-based platforms, LGA 1156, and LGA 775 motherboards get full support plates, while LGA 1366 users must make do with a set of large, plastic-faced support nuts.

Four standoffs secure the socket plate for both AMD and Intel installations, using plastic washers to protect the motherboard surface. The heat sink’s brackets are attached to its base using a single screw, while two spring-loaded screws on each bracket connect it to the standoffs.

Deepcool is one of only three brands in today’s roundup to support cross flow orientation for most AMD motherboards. While this is perfect for a majority performance configurations, the few platforms with sideways mounting brackets will be limited to an updraft configuration. Because Intel processor interfaces are square, the cooler can be installed either way on these boards.

Always looking for a value crown, Gelid’s premium cooler comes at a decidedly mid-market $35 price.

Four heat pipe appear to be gold-plated to reduce ugly oxidation, while the base itself is unplated to prove the highest level of thermal transfer. Extreme flatness and smoothness punctuate the company’s quality pursuits, while dimpled fins increase turbulence and surface area for improved heat transfer.

A unique sink design directs airflow down the Tranquillo’s center, while encased sides further reduce wasted pressure.

Gelid includes support plates for LGA 1366, 1156, and 775, plus AMD socket clips. A 120 mm fan, fan clips, and thermal paste complete the installation kit.

A single screw secures a mounting bracket to each side of the Tranquillo’s base. Intel users will be pleased to find that four spring-loaded thumb screws complete the installation, while most AMD users will be upset to find the clips only fit on the sink’s front and rear edges. The vertical bracket of most AMD motherboards forces an updraft orientation, while the square pattern of Intel hardware allows the sink to fit either way.

Rosewill sent the only 92 mm cooler in today’s roundup, in hopes that the RCX-ZAIO-92’s low $20 price would allow it to at least take a value win.

Three slim heat pipes are soldered to a super-flat and finely-sanded copper base that’s only slightly rougher than most of its higher-priced competitors. Universal Intel LGA brackets are factory installed. Because LGA 1156 is thinnest of the supported socket types, it gets the least mounting pressure.

Removing the Intel mounting brackets allows AMD users to apply an included clip. Also included are an installation guide and a packet of thermal paste.

The RCX-ZAIO-92 fits Intel motherboards in the same manner as Intel’s retail-boxed coolers. Twisting the push-pins down locks them in place, while twisting them ¼ turn counterclockwise releases them.

The AMD clip fits only from front-to-rear, limiting this cooler to an updraft orientation on most AMD motherboards.

The most impressive thing about Xigmatek’s Gaia might be that the company rolled most of its former improvements into a single $30 product.

The Gaia stats off with one of the smoothest direct-touch heat pipe bases that we’ve seen, a design that certainly reduces latent heat, while supposedly reducing CPU temperature. Our tests don’t measure latent heat, but CPU temperature will be a big part of the evaluation.

A groove directs airflow down the sink’s center, while partly-enclosed sides also help to reduce pressure loss. Unlike the similar effort from Gelid, Xigmatek’s Gaia is designed to support fans on both the front and back, if desired.

A universal support plate fits AMD sockets as well as LGA 1156, 1366, and 775. Xigmatek adds enough rubber pins to support a fan on each side of the Gaia, but only one is included in the package.

Long screws and spacer nuts attach the socket support plate to the motherboard, while the cooler’s mounting brackets are attached to the cooler base using smaller screws. The brackets engage the support plate’s screws using a second, shorter set of nuts.
AMD installation follows this same procedure, though the rectangular bracket allows the cooler to fit only one way. For most motherboards, the result is the preferred cross flow orientation.

Zalman is better-known for quality than value, yet the firm surprised us by providing its high-end Performa cooler with a moderate $35 Web price.

Zalman’s finely-finished copper base connects five heat pipes to a uniquely-designed sink. Screws at the edge of the base clamp mounting brackets in place.

The CNPS10X Performa includes two sets of AMD hardware, in addition to a universal socket support plate and LGA 1156/1366/775 brackets. Four clips support up to two fans, and an optional resistor wire for the included fan reduces its speed and noise.

After attaching the proper brackets to the heat sink and nuts to the support plate, the CNPS10X simply bolts in place. The same procedure is used for bolt-through brackets on both Intel and AMD motherboards.

Bolt-through installation allows the proper cross flow orientation on AMD motherboards. Users with oddball bracket orientation or those who really want an updraft configuration can achieve the desired result using an included retaining clip, rather than bolt-on brackets.

Test System Configuration
CPUIntel Core i7-870 (2.93 GHz, 8 MB Cache), O/C to 4 GHz (20 x 200 MHz), 1.388 V
MotherboardEVGA P55 SLI E655, P55 Express PCH, BIOS A39 (10/23/2009)
RAMCrucial CT2KIT25664BA1339 (4 GB), DDR3-1333 at DDR3-1600 CAS 8-8-8-24
GraphicsDiamond Radeon HD 5870 1 GB, 850 MHz GPU, GDDR5-4800
Hard DriveWestern Digital VelociRaptor WD3000HLFS, 300 GB, 10 000 RPM, SATA 3Gb/s, 16 MB cache
SoundIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking
PowerCorsair CMPSU-850HX 850 W Modular, ATX12V v2.2, EPS12V, 80 PLUS Gold
OSMicrosoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64
GraphicsATI Catalyst 9.11
ChipsetIntel INF

We retained the configuration from January’s LGA 1156 cooler tests, so that readers could compare these new models to competing 2009 parts.
Benchmark Configuration
Prime95 v25.864-bit executable, Small FFTs, 8-threads
RealTemp 3.00Highest core reading at full CPU load (60 minutes)
Highest core reading at 30 minutes idle
Acu-Rite thermal probeThermal probe on VRM chokes, touching MOSFET sink, Ambient temperature at 6" from motherboard front edge
Galaxy CM-140dBA scale at 0.25 m, corrected to 1m values (-12 db)

After testing each cooler with its stock fan, we threw on our own 2500 RPM fan to separately evaluate the performance of its heat sink. The second test doesn’t apply to Rosewill’s RCX-ZAIO-92, however, since the since the bracket does not support our reference fan’s 120 mm frame size.

Zalman’s CNPS10X Performa leads the way in as-purchased temperatures, though it appears its win is due entirely to a higher-airflow cooling fan. Corsair, Gelid, and Xigmatek reach identical temperatures with our reference fan attached, in spite of vastly different fin and base designs.

VRM temperature is mostly affected by airflow and fan height, since the lowest fan position allows the motherboard’s voltage regulator to receive the greatest amount of air. Rosewill’s shorter RCX-ZAIO-92 does well here, matching Zalman’s higher-flow CNPS10X Performa.
We ran into a bit of trouble while testing Deepcool's solution: after watching our first motherboard’s voltage regulator go up in smoke, we had to lower our ambient temperature to 10 C to finish testing on a second, identical motherboard. All results reflect measured temperature minus ambient temperature, but the other solutions were measured at a far-more-realistic 20 C.

While initial tests might have caused us to believe Zalman had the fastest fan, Corsair’s A50 edges it out. This chart is shown in reverse order, since higher speeds tend to generate higher noise, a factor we will consider on the next page.

Lower is better when it comes to noise, so our noise level chart is arranged with the quietest solution on top. Because our meter is accuracy-rated at 30 decibels and above, all measurements were first taken at ¼ meter, and then corrected to an industry-standard 1 m distance.

Gelid rates its 1500 RPM fan at 25.5 decibels, and our tests show that number to be valid at slightly less than 26 db (which we rounded up). The Xigmatek Gaia isn’t far behind at 27 decibels.

Low noise keeps the temperature-to-noise ratio in Gelid’s favor, and Xigmatek again takes second place. It appears that Gelid’s dimpled cooling fins just might have a bigger performance advantage than Xigmatek’s direct-touch heat pipe design.

No high-value cooler comparison would be complete without a chart that compares cooling to price, and this is where budget candidate Rosewill was hoping to take its crown.

A Web price of only $20 puts the RCX-ZAIO-92 on top, but not by the 100% difference we’d expect to see had it actually cooled as well as its pricier competitors. Though it was somewhat hot and noisy on our Core i7 test system, we could recommend the Rosewill unit specifically to Core i3 overclockers with extremely tight budgets. Unfortunately, its installation method doesn’t allow cross flow orientation on most Socket AM3 motherboards.
Xigmatek’s modest $30 Web price allows the Gaia to take second place in value, without the big sacrifice in cooling performance and noise seen in the low-cost Rosewill product. A look back at our cooling charts also shows that it was the cheapest cooler to provide adequate performance for our overclocked Core i7-870 processor. That might not mean much to owners of lower-heat dual-core chips, but pairing a second-place value score with a second-quietest noise measurement makes it a winner in our books. It’s also the cheapest cooler in this roundup to support a proper cross flow installation on most AMD motherboards.
We can’t quite justify presenting our value award to the product that took second place in our value charts, but Xigmatek certainly deserves some credit for a cooler that fits more boards correctly, supports hotter processors thermally, and does its job quietly. And so the Xigmatek Gaia gets that honor… annotatively.

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