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Best Chill For Your Rig: Air, Water or Peltier Cooling?

Updated on March 20, 2011

Heat Is Your PC's Worst Enemy. Conquer It!

As CPU manufacturers increase the number of cores and the computing power of their processors, it is virtually inevitable that the extra added byproduct is heat, and lots of it. Some CPUs are infamous for doubling as blast-furnaces with Intel's Prescott and Pentium D series idling at temperatures that most other CPUs only reach at full load.

I once witnessed with my own eyes one of these nefarious Prescotts, a 3.6 Ghz Pentium 4 HT 560J LGA775, running a virus scan and hitting 109°C on a properly calibrated temperature probe. Yes, I know that violates all the laws of computer engineering, but the bottom line is that I saw it, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Tuniq Tower 120, one of the best massive CPU air coolers.
Tuniq Tower 120, one of the best massive CPU air coolers.
Thermaltake produces a range of water coolers. Silent Water is one of their entry-level systems.
Thermaltake produces a range of water coolers. Silent Water is one of their entry-level systems.
CoolIt Eliminator incorporates water and TEC in one unified package.
CoolIt Eliminator incorporates water and TEC in one unified package.
... or you can go completely crazy and cool your rig with Liquid Nitrogen!
... or you can go completely crazy and cool your rig with Liquid Nitrogen!

However, CPUs are not the sole generator of killer heat inside your case. GPUs are really only first cousins to CPUs and when it comes to heat-generation ability they are easily their equal. Especially now with the AMD/ATI R600 and the nVidia 8800 series of DX10-compatible GPUs which break new ground in processing ability and steel-smelter temperatures, cooling your expensive components has taken on a whole new urgency and many of these GPUs require their own specialized water or TEC solutions. Gone are the days when you could just rely on the stock HeatSink & Fan (HSF) that came with your CPU and some weeny 80mm case fan to keep all your works cool. Cooling is now a huge factor that can severely impact the performance, reliability and even lifespan of your system.

It's a very simple concept and one that some people have taken to extremes. The cooler your CPU is operating, the faster it runs! You can take pretty well any CPU on the market, get it to a lower temperature than your friend's identical system, and kick his butt on any benchmark you want to throw at it.

That's why some extreme enthusiasts have gone all the way to Liquid Nitrogen to cool their rigs in an attempt to set a speed record. The current record-holder among enthusiast-level CPUs is an Italian team that reached 5011MHz on an Intel C2D X6800 by literally freezing it in a nice, chilly -147°C bath. Before you think that this could be an option to cool your overheated system, keep in mind that by the end of the speed test most of the electronic components were destroyed by the liquid gas, so unless you have an uncle in the computer business, it might be a good idea to stick to more conventional cooling solutions. Similarly, there have been computers set up that are fully immersed in vegetable oil and all sorts of wacky and highly impractical cooling techniques. They're best left to the rabid cooling looneys who must have a faster processor at any cost.

Every CPU and GPU is equipped with an HSF. If you remove the HSF, the CPU will fry within seconds. An HSF's performance, whether fitted on a CPU, GPU or Northbridge, is the result of two important factors: Airflow and Surface Area. If you compare two heatsinks, the one with the greatest fin surface area will likely outcool the one with lesser area, and the one that has the most air flowing through it will be the most effective. This is not only relevant to air cooling systems but also to water and TEC as we shall soon see.

Air Cooling

Every CPU and GPU comes from the manufacturer with some sort of HSF attached to it. Generally these HSFs are adequate to keep the processor within normal operating temperatures given various IFs:

IF the CPU/GPU is not overclocked.

IF the case offers ample cooling.

IF you are not running the processor at 100% load for long periods.

IF your ambient temperature is under 23°C.

IF you're lucky.

It makes absolutely no sense at all to walk out of the store with your nice shiny new Intel QX6800 quad-core CPU that just set you back a thousand dollars and place its ongoing survival exclusively in the hands of a $3 HSF. That's why one of the first things that enthusiasts/prosumers/gamers do is toss the stock HSF and replace it. The most popular choice is specialty air cooling. It's the same concept as the stock HSFs but offers much greater Airflow and Surface Area.

The "best" CPU air cooler debate is the subject of ongoing wars between computer enthusiasts. The "cooler to buy" changes on an ongoing basis and the absolute best one this month may not even appear on the Top 10 list next month. As of right now, the consensus among enthusiasts is that the top three air coolers are:

Tuniq Tower 120

Scythe Infinity (or Ninja Plus)

Zalman 9700

These air coolers have a street price of around $50-$70 and for the vast majority of enthusiasts/prosumers/gamers, are going to be more than good enough to take care of their CPU's cooling needs. If that's a bit steep for you, a completely underrated air cooler is the Arctic Freezer which provides performance comparable to the Big Three and at about half the price.

Water Cooling

Water has a quality that air cannot match, and that is specific heat: the amount of heat per unit mass required to raise the temperature by one degree Celsius. The specific heat of water is 1 calorie/gram °C = 4.186 joule/gram °C, which is considerably greater than any other everyday substance. For instance, the specific heat of water is 10 times that of copper.

Your first reaction would be that placing flowing water next to operating electronics is a really dumb idea. In the bad old days when enthusiasts were jerry-rigging their own water cooling systems by using aquarium pumps and hand-made waterblocks that may have been the case. Leaks were everywhere and many a system went to the Happy Silicon Playground in the sky after being exposed to some coolant leaks. These days the vast majority of water cooling systems are so well engineered and manufactured that if they are installed by scrupulously following instructions leaks no longer need to be feared.

Most manufacturers also ship various fluids with the system, either preloaded into the sealed piping components, or to add to the distilled water. These additives:

- Encourage anti-corrosion characteristics to fight the "battery" effect of two different metals in an electrolyte solution.

- Limit the reduction in water's high viscosity.

- Maintain an alkaline pH of around 9 to slow down microorganism/algae growth.

- May contain algaecide to further inhibit algae.

There is no way to make a list of the Top Two or Three Water Cooling Systems as everyone has their own preferences, however, some of the leading manufacturers include:

Cooler Master







TEC Cooling

A TEC (thermoelectric) cooler, also known as a Peltier after the name of the inventor, is based on a very strange phenomenon of electricity. Mr. Jean C.A. Peltier was the first to realize that if you passed a current through a junction which was formed by a pair of different materials, you'd get a temperature change. One material would get cold and the other would get hot.

At first this seems like the answer to every hot processor owner's dreams. Set up a TEC with the cool side towards the CPU/GPU, get some current flowing through it, and the heat generated by the processor will be pushed outwards by the TEC's hot side while the cool side pulls it in, keeping your CPU nice and chilly.

Yes, that is how it works but there are drawbacks. The single most important one is that once you cool a processor below ambient temperature whether by TEC or any means, you're going to get condensation. Water droplets on your motherboard are not exactly recommended by your manufacturer as water and electronics don't mix. In order to get around these problems some manufacturers are shipping various neoprene pads to isolate the motherboard from the drip drip drip around the CPU. A couple of manufacturers go so far as to recommend that the entire motherboard be coated in silicone or nail polish... something that I wouldn't do if they held a gun to my head.

Regardless, TEC offers significant benefits in keeping your CPU cool, and differs from air and water cooling in that it is the only one of the three that can keep your rig below ambient air temperature.

The picks of the TEC crop as of the time of writing are:

Vigor Monsoon II

Titan Amanda

Although note that there are a batch of hybrid coolers which mix TEC and watercooling (Ultra Chilltec, CoolIt Eliminator, et al.) now hitting the market that may offer an even better alternative by allowing the TEC to cool the liquid rather than the CPU.

Which is best for you, Air, Water, or TEC?

If you are a fairly conventional computer user, don't bother with Water or TEC. Get a really good, top-rated air cooler and strap it to your CPU (and always use Arctic Silver Thermal Compound). Make sure that your case has plenty of airflow, and that means at least one 120mm fan or two 80mm (and more is always better) and you should be just fine.

If you are overclocking or using your system to fold proteins all night, you should be considering a good quality water cooling solution. These will likely set you back over $200, but they will be worth it for the peace of mind that you will have in knowing your CPU will be humming along at optimum operating temperatures.

If you are the kind of computer enthusiast who has to have the best at any cost then you might want to put up with the significant precautions necessary to run a sub-ambient TEC. Condensation can kill a system dead, but as long as you are aware of that and are willing to go the extra mile to protect your system from water, TECs can offer the best cooling performance in the enthusiast/prosumer/gamer arena.


Check out hundreds of Hal's PC Technology articles in these categories:


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