Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Thermalright's Shaman VGA Cooler: The Quiet Giant?

Thermalright's Shaman is the largest VGA cooler we've ever seen. Having recently reviewed three competing aftermarket graphics cooling solutions, we're eager to find out if size really matters when it comes to overclocking the ultra-hot GeForce GTX 480.
After we wrote our last VGA cooler roundup, Thermalright brought its newest entry in this segment to market: the Shaman. Thermalright claims two world firsts for this cooler: the first VGA cooler designed to accommodate a 140 mm fan and the first VGA cooler with eight 6 mm heat pipes.
Of course, we're always looking to put claims of superiority to the test, so we're itching to compare this unit to some of the products reviewed in the past.

Let's have a look at how Thermalright's new VGA cooler stacks up against the competition:

Arctic Cooling
Accelero XTREME Plus
Dimensions:160(L) × 132(W) × 38(H) mm290(L) × 104(W) × 56(H) mm212.5(L) × 110.5(W) × 65(H) mm239(L) x 98(W) x 51(H) mm
Weight:500 grams
(without fan)
622 grams759 grams430 grams
(without fans)
Fans:Single 140 mm fanThree 92 mm fansTwo 92 mm Case FansTwo 92 mm Fans
Power Cables:Single Motherboard
Fan Header
Single Graphics Card
Fan Header
Two Motherboard
Fan Headers
Single Motherboard
Fan Header
Copper Cooling Block
Aluminum Heat pipes
and Cooling Fins
Copper Cooling Block
Copper Heat Pipes
Aluminum Cooling Fins
Copper Cooling Block
Copper Heat Pipes
Aluminum Cooling Fins
Four mounting hole size options:
Radeon 3870/4800/5800
and GeForce 250/9800GTX,
GeForce GTX 200 series,
GeForce GTX 480 and 8800,
GeForce GTX 460
Radeon 6950/6970
GeForce GTX 570/580
Five compatibility set options:
VR001-Multiple Radeon/GeForce Cards
VR002-GeForce GTX 200 series
VR003-GeForce GTX 470/465
VR004-GeForce GTX 480
VR005-GeForce GTX 460
Six mounting hole size options:
43 mm, 51 mm, 53 mm,
58 mm, 61 mm, 80 mm
VF3000F: GeForce GTX 480
VF3000F: GeForce GTX 465/470
VF3000A: Radeon HD 5800 series
VF3000N: GeForce GTX 200 series

From the raw specifications, we can see that the Shaman's 140 mm cooler does stand out amongst the crowd. A large fan has the potential for higher airflow combined with lower RPMs (and consequently lower noise) compared to smaller fans. Of course, the drawback is the significantly larger size of the cooler, standing more than 20 mm higher than the next-largest competitor, and even higher when the fan is attached. As a result, the Shaman won't fit in anything smaller than a full-width case with at least 6 3/4" inches of clearance from the motherboard.
Enough statistics for now though; let's have a closer look at Thermalright's VGA cooling beast.

Just like the competition that we'll be comparing it to, Thermalright's Shaman VGA cooler is able to work on a number of different graphics cards. It is compatible with most high end Radeon HD 3800- to 5800-series cards and most high-end GeForce cards from the 8800 series, GTX 200 series, and GTX 400 series.
The Shaman will also fit the new Radeon HD 6950/6970 series and GeForce GTX 570/580, but the Radeon HD 6850/6870 is not compatible.

The Shaman cooler weighs 500 grams, but tips the scales over 660 grams with its mammoth 140 mm fan attached. This is heavier than the stock cooler and most aftermarket options, but it's surpassed by the 759 gram DeepCool V6000.

There are a lot of heat pipes to transfer heat from the cooling block--eight, to be exact, the most on any VGA cooler to date, according to Thermalright. To cool them down, the 140 mm fan can push up to an advertised 73 CFM of air at a low 21 decibels. While the entire cooling assembly appears to be aluminum, the cooling block is actually nickel-plated copper.

The understated cardboard box is classic Thermalright packaging, and inside we find the cooler, 140 mm fan, instructions, sticker, and assembly package containing the hardware we'll need for installation.

With the reference GeForce GTX 480 cooler removed and the contact surfaces cleaned appropriately, the RAM and VRM heat sinks must be applied. This is where the Shaman delivers its only disappointment, as the thermal tape isn't strong enough to stick to the small VRM components. The RAM sinks stick well enough, but Shaman owners who want to keep the critical VRM components cool will need another strategy, such as stronger thermal tape or thermal adhesive. We try to avoid thermal adhesive when possible because of its permanent nature.
A representative of Thermalright let us know that they are aware of this problem and that the company prefers to stay away from super-sticky tape, as it can break components if the heatsinks are removed. Thermalright says it'll supply Shaman buyers with replacement sticky tape if they request it. While it's nice that that the company acknowledges the issue we encountered, it's disconcerting that the VRM heatsinks will not stick the way the product is being shipped.

While we'd prefer to use the VRM heat sinks included with the Shaman, we look to a separate Thermalright product to solve our VRM cooling woes: the VRM-G2 cooler.

The VRM-G2 is specifically designed for the GeForce GTX 480, and it's certainly an impressive piece of cooling hardware when you consider its VRM-specific nature. It can even be fitted with an 80 mm fan, if the user wants to purchase one separately. This makes sense, of course, since the VRM gets very hot, and keeping it cool is a critical strategy for overclockers.
The large VRM cooler is an interesting heavy-duty solution to VRM cooling, but it may have trouble fitting in some cases (we needed to modify our test bed to accommodate it). It should be noted that the VRM-G2 costs $35 alone at frozencpu.com, and it's separate from the cost of the Shaman. Before you start sinking this much money on aftermarket air cooling, consider what you could sell your existing card for on Ebay or a forum, and what it might cost to simply buy your way up to more guaranteed performance. After all, the VRM-G2 and Shaman, together, cost an additional $115 beyond what you've already paid.

With the VRM problem addressed, we can continue with the Shaman installation, an easy task that involves only four screws and a bracket on the rear of the card. The Shaman dwarfs the large GeForce GTX 480 PCB and makes the card appear even more formidable. Now that we have the hardware installed, let's see what it can do to keep the GF100 cool and quiet.

We’re testing idle and load temperatures, in addition to noise levels. The graphics load we’re using is the brutal FurMark stress test at 8x AA.
The Shaman is benchmarked against products from our recent VGA cooler roundup, including the Arctic Cooling Accelero XTREME Plus, the Zalman VF3000, the DeepCool V6000, and the reference GeForce GTX 480 cooler.
All sound and noise tests are recorded in an open test bed. Results always change on a per-case basis, as every type of chassis has its own unique airflow. Noise results are recorded with a decibel meter positioned two inches above the graphics card.
  Test System
MotherboardAsus M4A785TD-V EVO Socket AM3, AMD 785G, BIOS 0410
ProcessorPhenom II X4 970
3.5 GHz, Quad-Core, 6 MB L3 Cache
CPU CoolerCooler Master Hyper TX3
MemoryCrucial DDR3-1333
Dual-Channel 2 x 2048 MB, 669 MHz,  CAS 9-9-9-24-1T
GraphicsGeForce GTX 480
700/1401 MHz GPU/Shaders, 924 MHz GDDR5 Memory
***all clock rates set to reference specifications for the purposes of benchmarking***
Hard DriveWestern Digital Caviar Black 1 TB
7200 RPM, 32 MB Cache SATA 3Gb/s
Software and Drivers
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 7 x64
DirectX VersionDirectX 11
Graphics DriversGeForce 258.96
Benchmark Configuration
FurMarkVersion: 1.6.5, Stability Test - Xtreme Burning Mode, 8x AA

Thermalright's Shaman sails past the competition by a large margin when it comes to our thermal measurement. Simply put, the Shaman offers twice the performance of the stock cooler, and bests excellent aftermarket options by at least 10 degrees Celsius.
These are unquestionably impressive results, and Shaman's raw cooling ability can not be denied. Having said that, ultimate cooling performance isn't nearly as meaningful if the accompanying acoustics leave you deaf. Let's check out the noise performance next.

The Shaman not only delivers superior cooling capacity, but it does so quietly. The huge 140 mm fan doesn't need to spin quickly to push a significant amount of air through the large cooler, and as a result the near silence doesn't require a compromise in thermal performance.

Thermalright's new Shaman graphics card cooler delivers irrefutably superior cooling and noise performance compared to the competition we've tested. All it really asks for in return is a lot of space and a notable monetary investment. It's admittedly large, but shouldn't be so sizable as to be problematic in a majority of full ATX enclosures.
The Shaman can be purchased for $80 from frozencpu.com, and at this price the Shaman is a solid value compared to competing VGA coolers that we tested, products that are all priced similarly. The Thermalright representative suggested that it will be available on Newegg.com in the near future for a few dollars less.
(Ed.: Extra emphasis is put on the comparison above because we have to remind you that superior thermal performance does not guarantee your graphics card is going to overclock significantly higher. Deriving an extra $80 worth of value from a board that simply might not want to operate any faster is difficult using any of these products. You'd be infinitely better off saving up for a second GeForce GTX 460 or Radeon HD 6850 used in SLI/CrossFire.
With that said, perhaps you're simply trying to quiet down a card you have no interest in replacing. Fair enough. Who're we to tell you where to spend your money? Be warned, though, knocking 10 degrees from your load temps doesn't translate to an extra x MHz of headroom, especially if you don't have control over your card's voltage settings.)

There is only one real problem that we have with the Shaman, and that's the bundled VRM heatsinks that suffer from thermal tape too weak do the job. While this can be fixed with better thermal tape or thermal adhesive, the problem is unacceptable for a critical cooling component like the VRM.
Yes, Thermalright offers the VRM-G2 dedicated VRM cooler, and it can be used as an alternate VRM cooling solution on the GeForce GTX 480. This is an interesting product in its own right and is quite attractive for overclockers. Priced at $35, however, this is a sledgehammer for a job that calls for a claw hammer. It's also quite large, and can create even more case compatibility issues than the Shaman itself, due to the large offset cooling surface.
In the final analysis, we cannot deny that the Thermalright Shaman VGA cooler has market-leading potential, and there probably isn't a better graphics card cooler available on the market. Having said that, it deserves to have a bundled VRM cooling solution that simply works out of the box. Be sure you're buying aftermarket graphics cooling for the right reason, and you won't be disappointed by what this product can do.

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