PC Cooling Buying Guide
One of the biggest areas people usually overlook when building a c...
PC Cooling Buying Guide
One of the biggest areas people usually overlook when building a computer system is the
cooling. Once they've got the latest and greatest components picked out, it's a rush to the store to grab
them. They buy a case and the no name fans that come installed in that case are typically all that
computer system may see in it's lifetime. Little do most people know, but some quick research into
cooling products and methods for your computer can help with many different aspects of it's
performance. There seems to be two major sides that people choose between when cooling a computer
system, and a third more extreme method that I'll touch on briefly near the end. The two I will talk
about now are the silence vs. performance ways of cooling.
Those who choose silent cooling typically do so for specialized situations. These can be settings
such as home theater computers that need to be “invisible” in the component rack, or recording studio
computers that need to be quieter than a whisper to prevent really sensitive condenser microphones
from picking up fan noise during quieter recordings. Although I test and review lots of products from
both categories, I can categorize my current computer in the “silent pc” realm of cooling. I've chosen
this method because of a hobby of mine that requires a very quiet computer. Owning and operating a
part time recording studio, I know just how sensitive some microphones can be and how crucial it can
be for a computer in a studio to be dead silent or else it can lead to high-paying clients complaining and
needing to redo a recording. When it comes to building a silent cooled computer, the cheapest method
to use is air cooling. I often get complaints about this opinion from water cooling die-hards, but both
have their pros and cons. Although water cooling itself reduces the amount of fans you need, it puts a
higher maintenance schedule into play as well as hard to eliminate audible vibration noise from the
pump being used. For day to day users who don't want to have to deal with all of this, you can achieve
a near dead silent computer just from a well chosen case, fans, and cooling components. Let's outline
the key areas you need to look into when purchasing components for this method of cooling.
Bigger really is better. This applies for both fans and heatsinks. Larger fans move more air
when compared to a smaller fan of the same RPM. For a smaller fan to move as much air as a larger
fan it must work harder, thus spinning faster and creating more noise. If you stick to mainly 120mm
fans then you can move a lot of air at a lower noise level. When buying a case these days, it isn't hard
to find one with 120mm fan intakes and exhausts. Don't worry about case side fans and top fans, just
make sure the case can hold a 120mm intake and exhaust fan. We'll talk more specifics on these fans in
just a bit. For silence you will also want to look into lower RPM fans, like those which are under
The second area to watch for size is with heatsinks. Using a larger heatsink with heatpipes will help
disperse the CPU's heat faster and more efficiently than a smaller one. Smaller heatsinks, like those that
ship with new CPUs, don't have any sort of heatpipes to help transfer heat away from the CPU faster
and out into the open air. If you get a larger heatsink then it will disperse heat faster by using a larger
fan on it (I always stick to 120mm, I'll tell you why later) and by allowing the case's exhaust fan to
remove that extra heat from the case interior.
Watch out for unrealistic noise claims! When fans and other cooling components are tested for
noise, they are tested in an ultra-silent isometric chamber. Although you may think it's perfectly quiet,
these chambers will still have a small amount of noise that the measurement microphones will pick up
(this is typically a very low 15dB or less). For those who aren't familiar with the logarithmic scale of
decibels, here's an example that will deem relevant to us: a human whispering right in your ear is
around 13dB. Believe it or not, I have seen some fan companies rate their fan's maximum noise levels
at 10-11dB. With a rating like this, I should not even be able to hear them at 1m away, but most of them
were equal or louder than fans with ratings in the 15-17dB range from other manufacturers!
A reputable name in this field is Nexus Technology. They give the exact testing setup and iso
chamber noise figures behind the sound ratings of all their products. Among silent PC enthusiasts,
myself included, their fans have proven to be some of the quietest out there.
In both cooling categories I'm going to recommend that you look for a thick, sturdy, and well
built steel case. Although it may be heavier than those inexpensive and light aluminum counterparts, a
solid steel case will help with eliminating vibration noise and cutting down on internal noise such as
hard drive and DVD Rom spin that may escape through thinner panels.
Choose your internal hard drives carefully. You may think that this has little to do with cooling,
but hard drives can actually play a large role in your system's overall heat. Try to keep the hard drives
that are in your computer to a bare minimum. I'm going to recommend two hard drives maximum
because you can space them out nicely in front of the intake fan. Go with bigger capacities if you need
to, but keep in mind the more drives you stack in there, the more radiant heat that is going to escape
into your case and make the whole silence thing a task that is hard to achieve. Touch your computer's
hard drive after it's been running for a few hours, it's probably a lot hotter than you think! I have also
noticed a large increase in heat on larger capacity hard drives as well.
If you're into trying out new technologies, Solid State Drives (SSD's) are hard drives made with
the exact same technologies that your USB flash sticks are. Having no moving parts, these drives
consume far less power and output a ton less heat than previous mechanical models. Although their
capacities aren't too huge right now and the prices are still high, these would be the ultimate way to go
in a silent system to keep heat and power usage down.
For extra storage, look into eSATA external hard drives, these will give you nearly identical
performance to an internal hard drive but you can keep it separate from the computer in it's own cooled
case, and use it only when it is required.
Look into a high efficiency 80%+ power supply. Since high efficiency power supplies use the
power they take in more efficiently, less of it goes into waste heat (wasted power ends up becoming
excess heat in a power supply because of either cheaper components or poor design). A high efficiency
power supply will not only save you money, but it will help reduce another of those key areas in your
system that generates a lot of heat. A reputable company in this field is Seasonic and they are known
for some of the best and quietest high efficiency power supplies in the market!
For home users who aren't into high-performance computing, the silence option is often a very
good way to make your computer seem “invisible” in day to day life. If you're building a system for
extreme silence, it is also a good idea to make sure that all your components are still sufficiently cooled
and are running in safe temperature ranges.
The chipsets on motherboards and add-in graphics cards are typically cooled by one of two
methods; either heatpipes and passive heatsinks or smaller heatsinks and fans on each component for
added cooling capacity. If you're building for silence, look into motherboards and video cards that are
passively cooled. They may not be able to take any overclocking, but they are designed to run perfectly
safe with the way they are designed and will not output any noise at all.
The person out for performance cooling has a slightly different set of options to look into. This
person doesn't care about noise as much but they want their computer to be as cool as it can. These are
the people who often game or overclock, pushing their system to higher limits and stressing
components right to their breaking points. If this is the category you fall into, take a careful look at my
next few points:
Airflow is a key consideration here. You want as much airflow as you can get from your fans to
keep those components cooled. This is what's being measured with CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute).
Some fan manufacturers have fans with massive airflow ratings, think leaf blower noise with those fans
though. You probably won't need something that extreme, but try to stay away from the lower CFM
rating that most silent advertised fans have. Look around and research specific models that interest you,
it's often not hard at all to find a fan with good airflow that doesn't sound like a leaf blower.
Shopping for big heatsinks is one of those crossover components from the silent category. If
you're wondering why I recommended sticking with a 120mm fan on your heatsink, it's because it can
be easily replaced and upgraded. If you find a nice heatsink that appeals to you and will fit on your
system, find out the specs of the fan on it. You'll probably want to replace it with a higher performing
fan for added cooling. While you're shopping for heatsinks, now is a good time to look into the
materials they're made out of. Most good heatsinks will have a copper base with aluminum fins. Better
quality heatsinks will be manufactured entirely of copper but will also be a little more expensive. If
you've ever wondered why copper heatsinks, or those with copper bases are so popular, it goes back to
grade 10 science class. Remember, that one you slept through about conductors? Copper conducts heat
better than aluminum. By drawing heat away from the CPU much faster, it can stay cooler overall.
In the silent cooling category I recommended staying away from cases that have extra fans
other than the standard intake and exhaust. When you're looking for high performing cooling, now is
the time to open your mind to different case designs. Extra side fans will help cool video cards and hard
drive bays depending on their placement and top fans will help draw heat away from DVD/CD burners
and your power supply's exterior.
Those building with a situation that calls for the best cooling possible will want to look into a
motherboard and video card who's components are cooled actively with fans. With the fans helping to
remove the heat significantly faster, it will allow the components to be stressed more because you won't
need to worry about them taking a while to cool down as may happen when using a simple passive
Whether you're building for performance or silence, it never hurts to include a fan controller in
your budget as well. Inexpensive accessories like that will allow you to turn down those loud fans when
you aren't doing high-performance computing that requires powerful cooling.
If you're a more experienced user and are very comfortable with the insides of your computer,
then you may want to cross over into the more “extreme” cooling categories if you're looking for high
Water cooling will eliminate almost all the component fans in your computer, replacing them
with tubes of water, and waterblocks in place of those large heatsinks. Water is pumped through an air
cooled radiator which then goes through all the tubes to the waterblocks on the components where it
draws the heat into the water and back through the radiator for re-cooling. If you want an example to
relate this to, think of your car's radiator and engine. Although a system like this is good for extreme
cooling at a lower noise level, it does require a bit more maintenance with having to bleed any trapped
air, and clean the system every few months. So although this is a great way to add higher performance
cooling at possibly a lower noise level, it definitely is not something for everyone and it won't
eliminate all your system's noise. If you like to tinker and you aren't afraid of a challenge, this method
will always add some fun, and of course a “wow factor” into your quest to build that personal
supercomputer you've always wanted.
So there you have it, the key steps to finding a cooling solution that is right for you. None of the
components required to do this are expensive and it's something almost everyone comfortable enough
to hold a screwdriver can do themselves. Let me give you a quick wrap-up:
* Choose a nice large CPU heatsink with a 120mm fan. This will offer quiet operation and allow
you to replace the fan depending on your cooling needs.
* Stick to large fans, hopefully with most being 120mm because these will be quieter and move
more air than smaller fans.
* Fan placement will vary depending on your situation. Don't go overkill with fans if you're
building a system for quiet cooling! If you want performance cooling, then extra fans will be
something you want to look into.
* Buy a sturdy steel case to help dampen and eliminate internal noise such as vibration
(something common with cheap and thin aluminum case panels).
* Hard drives create lots of heat so make sure they are cooled with a sufficient intake fan.
Keeping the number of internal hard drives lower will help reduce ambient heat in the case but
the final call in this is up to you and your system needs.
Author: Steve BlackwellClose