Friday, 1 November 2013

Watercooling - the good, the bad, and some recommendations

Watercooling has become very interesting to me as of late. The idea of having coloured liquids cooling the hottest parts of my PC made me seriously consider getting a fully blown watercooling loop for around £350.

Then, I made some considerations.

So, today's article will basically be about whether watercooling is worth it for you.


The Good
Watercooling has a number of positive points that may entertain one to give it a try. Aesthetics and performance are usually the two reasons that stand out when one is considering watercooling. I'll be going through both of these in this part of the article.


Aesthetics:
One would probably expect that a large amount of people who fork out in excess of £200 for a customized watercooling loop would own a windowed enclosure. Considering how much nicer a good loop looks than a traditional heatsink (there are exceptions) it would be somewhat of a waste to not show off your investment. This is why so many watercooling cases are being produced with windows nowadays - examples include the BitFenix Shinobi XL, the NZXT Switch 810, the Xigmatek Elysium and the Corsair Obsidian 900D. Watercooling loops with coloured fluid can set the scheme for any build quite easily - as can be seen below.













The image to the left highlights one of the most popular colour schemes, black and red. The striking contrasts between the usually black enclosure and the brightly coloured fluid are just one of the reasons why people would watercool for aesthetic purposes.


Performance:
The other, and to some more important, reason for watercooling is performance. Whether it be for a quieter system or a cooler system, there are obvious reasons for choosing a custom loop over a standard heatsink or all in one (AIO) watercooler. The temperatures can drop significantly with a high end watercooling loop, and with a 360mm or 480mm radiator there's nothing stopping you hooking up both the GPU and CPU to the loop for significantly decreased temperatures.

You can expect to see temperatures tumble, but what about noise. Again, this is all relative. The two parts of the loop that will cause the most amount of noise to be emitted are the Pump and the Fans. Different pumps will emit changing levels of noise, and most pumps these days have variable speed control - meaning you can choose how fast you want your pump to run. Fans can be hooked up to a controller, so they're not really a problem either. Just remember - less noise means less heat dissipation (general rule).



The Bad
For some, there are some negatives when it comes to watercooling. Cost, Maintenance and Risks are some of the negative factors of watercooling, although it is up to you to decide whether the positives outweigh these negatives.


Costs:
Watercooling isn't cheap. Costs can vary widely, but if you don't like spending money then watercooling may not be right for you. As a general guide, the cheapest CPU only loops will set you back around £130-£140. If you want a loop that can handle your GPU as well, you'll be looking at a minimum of £220. If you want a full cover waterblock for your GPU, that's £250. As you can see, it's easy for costs to spiral. Let's not forget that a top end CPU heatsink is about £60 these days - although performance is scalar with price.


Maintenance:
Another thing that may put people off watercooling is the maintenance that is required with a custom loop. Ideally, the coolant should be replaced every 6-12 months, and the radiator can become a dust trap if your case is not filtered properly. A custom watercooling loop isn't the kind of thing that you can just set up and leave for years - it will need care and attention. In a way, watercooling is like getting a pet. It's a big commitment and will certainly take up some of your time - but it's worth it in the end.


Risks:
One cannot deny that there are some risks with watercooling. Putting liquid in a case with £100's of equipment? It's certainly enough to make some people squirm. However, the risks are not as serious as one may imagine. If your loop does decide to spring a leak, it's not the end of the world. Pull the plug, unplug the motherboard and try and find the leak and cover it. Remove the components and place them near a radiator to dry out - chances are if you're quick they never got wet in the first place. Once again, it's a matter of whether the performance benefits are worth the risk to you.



The Recommendations
Judging by the fact you've scrolled this far down, you're either interested in watercooling or just curious about what I'm going to put in this part. Basically, for each part of the loop I'm going to do a little explanation, to help clear up some issues you may have.


Radiator:
The radiator is one of the key parts of any watercooling loop. It, along with the pump, effectively decides how much heat your loop can dissipate. As a sweeping generalization, the larger the radiator, the larger the amount of heat that can be dissipated. There are two variables in terms of radiators - dimensions and fin density.

The dimensions of a radiator are made up of two variables again. How many fans it is designed for, and how thick it is. A 240 radiator can take dual 120mm fans each side, hence the '240' designation. A 280 radiator is capable of taking dual 140mm fans each side, hence the '280' designation. The deeper the radiator, the more heat it can dissipate due to a larger fin surface area - this is however dependent on the fin density, which is explored next.

Fin Density is a measure of how many radiator fins there are for every inch of the radiator. Radiators with a lower fin density are designed for quiet operation, as the fan used can be run at a lower speed. Radiators with higher fin density are designed for higher performance users, as there is more overall surface area for dissipation - however a fan with more static pressure is needed - i.e. a fan running at a higher speed.


Pump:
The pump is effectively the beating heart of every watercooling loop, quite literally. It's job is to force water through the radiator and water blocks as fast as it can, keeping a flow of freshly cooled coolant going through the water blocks. It is one of the main sources of noise in the loop, and can cause excess noise through vibrations if not dampened properly. The quicker it can pump water the larger the amount of heat that can be dissipated, therefore the cooler the components. However, as usual increased speed means increased noise, so it is up to the user to find a compromise. Pumps can be coupled with tops to increase performance, however this is not a requirement. 


Reservoir:
The reservoir is where all the water goes when it is waiting to be pumped around the loop again. Usually attached directly to the pump, there are two popular reservoir types - tube and bay. 

The Tube reservoir is basically what it says on the tin. A big acrylic tube that sits inside the system and contains all the excess coolant as it waits to go around the loop once again. This option is usually favoured by those looking for a colour scheme based loop.

The other type of reservoir is the bay reservoir. Again, this does what it says on the tin, as it were. It's a reservoir that sits in a 5.25" bay, allowing the user to easily see their coolant levels from outside the case. This option is more popular with people who have cases without side windows.


Waterblocks:
The waterblocks are the main cooling components of the loop. Their job is to transfer heat from the chip to the coolant, where the heat can be dissipated later on. There are CPU waterblocks and GPU waterblocks, with GPU blocks being available in two different forms: GPU only blocks and full cover blocks. GPU only blocks cool the graphics chip itself, whereas full cover blocks cool the RAM and VRM as well - meaning higher core and memory overclocks are made possible.


Fans:
Fans can make a big difference in a watercooling loop. Generally, you'll be looking for fans with high airflow and static pressure, as they'll be forcing air through a very restricted path. The way you set up your fans can also have effects - i.e. whether you set your fans to pull through the radiator, push through the radiator, or have fans either side to push and then pull air through the radiator. 

Most radiators take advantage of either 120mm or 140mm fans - their are positives and negatives for each. 120mm fans generally have less surface area, so higher static pressure and lower airflow is the norm. However, 140mm fans make more noise at comparable speeds, so you can usually expect lower static pressure and higher airflow - it's swings and roundabouts. 


Tubing:
Tubing is the stuff that is going to be taking your coolant around the loop. There's more chance for aesthetic choice here too, as clear tubing allows you to see the coolant, and coloured tubing allows you to use plain fluid or distilled water with a biocide, which usually ends up cheaper in the long run.

It's measured by outer and inner diameters (OD and ID), so 16/11 tubing will have an Outer diameter of 16mm and an inner diameter of 11mm, therefore will have a wall of 2.5mm. The thicker the wall, the less likely the tubing is to bend, however a thicker wall usually means a smaller ID - meaning restricted flow. If you have a small enclosure and tight bends in your loop, then you may want to consider a thicker walled tubing.


Coolant:
A matter of opinion, but you can use either standard distilled water or premixed fluid as your coolant. Personally, I'd always stick to distilled water and a kill coil, as there are some horror stories about using a premixed fluid. However, if you really want a coloured fluid, Mayhems' premixes are generally held in the highest regard.


Fittings:
Fittings are available in two forms - compression and barb. Compression fittings are more expensive but I find they have a better grip than barbs - some tests have also shown that compression fittings offer increased performance over barbs.




So there, that's it. I hope you have been able to learn something here, and please do tell me if I've made a mistake - I'm here to learn too!

Best Regards
Luke

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Choosing case fans - it's not as simple as you think.

Case fans. They're the basis for system cooling, as they keep a flow of fresh, cool air flowing through your system. However, choosing a case fan is not as simple as buying the most expensive one on the basis that it'll be the best, but evaluating three different statistics:

-Noise. Often found measured in dB-A. This is a measure of the attenuated noise that emits from the fan itself. Those looking for a quiet system should try and keep this as low as possibe, but less noise usually means less airflow and static pressure.

-Airflow. Often found measured in Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM). This is a measure of the amount of air that a fan can pass at a given speed in one minute. The higher the CFM measure, the more airflow there is in your case, as a generalization. We'll go into this further later on.

-Static Pressure. Often found measured in millimeters of water (mm-H2O). Static Pressure is effectively a measure of how forcefully a fan can drive it's airflow, hence why high static pressure fans are good for radiators and heatsinks, as the airflow is easily impeded. 


Part 1: Intake Fans
Intake fans are basically any fans that will be used to push air into the case. These are generally found at the front, side and bottom of many cases. In order to push air into the case, they must pull air through the front. This is usually through a mesh or vents (depending on your case). 

For example, a BitFenix Shinobi case uses two mesh strips along the front of the case to draw air in through. This is difficult due to the low surface are that air can be drawn in through, therefore more static pressure is needed.

Meanwhile, a case like the Antec 300 uses a large front mesh to draw air in through. This is easier due to the much larger surface area that air can be drawn in through, meaning static pressure is not as important.

So, for intake fans we should be looking for HIGH airflow and MEDIUM static pressure. A few recommended fans can be found below:
-Akasa Apache Black Series (Quiet at full speed but with audible clicking)
-BitFenix Spectre Pro Series (Quiet yet audible at full speed)
-Corsair SP Series (1450rpm version is quiet, 2350rpm version is loud)
-Yate Loon D12SL Series (Quiet at low speeds - some stores sell fake Yate Loons)
-Zaward Golf III Series (Innovative blade design means silence at low speeds)

These recommendations are made from professional reviews and personal experience of some of these fans. Most, if not all of the above recommendations, are available in both 120mm and 140mm formats.


Part 2: Exhaust Fans
Exhaust fans are any fans that are used to pull warm air out of the case. Generally found at the top and rear of many cases, they are often unrestricted and therefore Static Pressure is not as important as airflow here. 

Generally, exhaust fan mounts are only grilles, rather than having dust filters and such things that would impede the flow of air. Therefore, in most cases you want exhaust fans to have HIGH airflow. More recommended fans below:
-Aerocool Shark Series (Quiet at full speed, silent with 7v reduction cable)
-Corsair AF Series (1450rpm version is quiet, 2350rpm version is loud)
-Noiseblocker Blacksilent Series (As the name suggests - very quiet fans)
-NZXT FZ Series (High airflow with acceptable noise levels)

Once again these recommendations come from professional reviews and personal experience. Again, most of the above fans are available in both 120mm and 140mm formats. 


Part 3: Heatsink and Radiator Fans
When it comes to selecting fans for heatsinks and radiators, you're getting involved in a whole different scenario. This is because there are a number of variables. Seeing as you're reading this far, you probably know about radiator fin density (how many fins there are per inch). Higher fin density means more static pressure is needed, and lower fin density means high static pressure becomes less important - the same is the case with conventional heatsinks.

So, to generalize, you're looking for fans with HIGH static pressure and HIGH airflow. Once again, you can find a list of recommended fans below:
-Corsair SP Series (1450rpm version is quiet, 2350rpm version is loud)
-Noctua F12 Series ('Unique' colour scheme - brilliant fans nonetheless.)
-Scythe Gentle Typhoon Series (The Ultimate Radiator Fan - enough said!)
-Yate Loon D12SL Series (£5 for a fan with great static pressure - once again, enough said!



So, I hope I have at least done something to spread a little light on the shady area of PC fans. One thing to always remember is don't trust the manufacturer. If their claimed specifications were always correct, the Coolermaster R4 would be the best fan in the world. 

If you do have any questions, don't hesitate to leave a comment!

Regards
Luke

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Fiddling with GPU voltage - what does it do?

If you're like me, you'll never be happy with buying a CPU or GPU and leaving it alone. It's the same reason why people spend heaps of cash on extra cooling, the pursuit of more performance by pushing a component to make it faster than it was when you got it.

This is overclocking. 

So, what is overclocking to me? To me, it's more of a thrill than a necessity. At the moment, I can play all the games I want just fine at stock clocks, but I have an innate yearning to push the components further, because I want to. It's that simple. Overclocking is a little like chocolate. You don't need it, you want it.

So, as you might be able to tell from the title of this post, I'll be doing a quick exploration into what effects tweaking the voltage has on certain aspects of the GPU.


Testing Methodology

So, what's going to be happening? 
Basically, I'm going to be using my Asus HD7970 DirectCU II GPU in this test. It's a card I've grown to love and it has one of the best cooling units on any retail card available. I'm going to test it on two different voltages, 1.100v and 1.150v. I'll be keeping the clocks at 1000 MHz on the core and 5600 MHz on the memory, and measuring FPS and Temperatures on both cards after 10 minutes on FurMark (99% GPU Load).

So, lets get started!


Tests

TEST 1:

Specifications
Core: 1000 MHz
Memory: 5600 MHz
Chosen Voltage: 1.100 V (Actual monitored reading was 1.042 V)
Fan Speed: 25%

Temperatures
Start Temp: 30 C
End Temp: 77 C

Performance
Lowest FPS: 61
Average FPS: 62
Highest FPS: 76


TEST 2:

Specifications
Core: 1000 MHz
Memory: 5600 MHz
Chosen Voltage: 1.150 V (Actual monitored reading was 1.089 V)
Fan Speed: 25%

Temperatures
Start Temp: 30 C
End Temp: 82 C

Performance
Lowest FPS: 60
Average FPS: 62
Highest FPS: 76


Conclusion

I hope that those results have made clear my findings. That's a 5C difference with the same clocks, fan speed and room temperature. That's not something to dismiss, as 5C is actually quite a sizable difference, as one could easily achieve a higher clock rate at the same temperatures with a lowering of voltage.

What must be remembered though is the possible drawbacks of having your voltage set too low - instability can become a major problem with the voltage being set too low. Just remember, while overclocking is fun and useful, always be cautious, and know when you've gone far enough.

I'd just like to give a special thanks to the guys at the 79xx owners page at overclock.net, they were a great help during my testing.


Best Regards
Luke 

NZXT Sentry Mix 2: The best value fan controller out there?

It's a conundrum that many of us PC enthusiasts face these days. Building a performance system requires adequate cooling, and that can be quite loud at times where it doesn't need to be. 

However, there are solutions. 

Fan controllers that fit in a 5.25" bay at the front of your PC can give you full control over how loud you want your fans to be. Quieter during low-intensity tasks, faster for heavier applications.

The one that I chose for my system was the NZXT Sentry Mix 2, available for £25.99 at the time of reviewing (http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=BB-002-NX).

Lets get started with the review!


Appearance

One of the things that is immediately noticeable when viewing the Sentry's exterior is the use of sliders rather than knobs. Personally, I prefer this approach, as the protrusion of sliders is a lot less than that of the knobs, making them harder to accidentally snap off . It also makes it easier for you to have all of your fans at the same speed, as they are far easier to line up than knobs.
You may also note the illumination on the numbers, a feature which I like, considering my system is set to a black and red colour scheme. The colours can be set to red, white, green, orange and blue, and can also be set to turn off completely.



Functionality

The fan controller itself gains power from a pair of Molex 4-Pin connectors, and claims that each fan channel can handle up to 30W. In practice, this means that you could get more than one fan on each channel - I tested with 6 1350rpm LED fans on one channel and all seemed fine - so if you want to control more than 6 fans, don't be put off, all you need to do is invest in some fan splitter cables - these can be picked up for as little as £1 each. Be careful though, as you have to make sure all the fans that you daisy chain don't exceed the channel max. of 30W.
The controller also uses PWM sized fan connectors - so even PWM fans can be connected and controlled easily, although I recommend that you leave PWM control on CPU heatsinks to the motherboard. It can reduce fan power to as little as 40% - so there's no doubting that you can make your current fans a lot quieter. The unit itself is well built inside, with no inclination to think that something might disconnect if pulled too hard.



Conclusion

Overall, I really like the NZXT fan controller. Easy to connect and easy to use, it does the job of controlling your fans very well, and for that I have to give it a GOLD recommendation. Good job NZXT.

Scores:
Appearance: 9/10
Functionality: 9/10

HardwarePilot Score: 18/20 (90%)

Monday, 28 October 2013

The BitFenix Shinobi XL: Massive potential, not such massive abilities (Review)

Today I'll be giving my opinions on BitFenix's Shinobi XL - an enlarged version of the popular Shinobi. The Shinobi XL is currently available for £129.99 at the time of reviewing (http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=CA-076-BX).


Exterior


When you see the case for the first time, it does provide a bit of a shock. The sheer size of the thing is unbelievable - especially considering I had got myself used to the CM Storm Scout I was using last. 

The design is very similar to the original Shinobi - one of BitFenix's most popular enclosures. It features mesh strips which run along the front and top of the case and the BitFenix logo at the front of the case. Both the strips and badge are available in different colours from most established PC hardware stores - I got mine in Red from OverclockersUK. 

The front and top of the case is coated in BitFenix's signature 'SofTouch' surface treatment. This gives the case a much more premium feel than many I've used. Be careful though - I've found that the surface may be easy to scratch due to the unique texture of the coating.

In terms of ports you get four USB3.0 ports and a 'SuperCharge' port, as well as the standard Audio input and output ports. 'The SuperCharge' port is basically a standard USB slot that, instead of being connected to the USB ports on the motherboard, is connected to a SATA cable from the power supply. It's designed with the purpose of charging your electronic devices much faster than the standard USB slots, at the sacrifice of data transfer in its entirety. The power button is sturdy, and, although difficult to depress with my sausage fingers, the Reset button is a welcome low profile addition.

Moving to the side of the case we find the party piece of the selected case - a large acrylic window that isn't tinted - allowing you to easily see your system.



Interior


The case is called the Shinobi XL for exactly that reason - it's extra large! With full XL-ATX motherboard support it's unlikely you'll ever need more space than this in a case. 

The case possesses 5x 5.25" drive bays and the removable 3.5" drive cage houses 7 bays for storage drives. There is an adapter included that allows you to both fit a 3.5" bay device and use a 5.25" bay for a 2.5" or 3.5" storage device, should 
you want to completely remove the drive cage for better case airflow.

The case also features a good number of cable management holes, of which all are fitted with rubber grommets. I much prefer cable management with grommets, as they aid the pursuit of a cleaner, more refined look. On the subject of cable management, it's an absolute doddle in this case. With 32mm of space behind the motherboard tray, I was able to hide every last cable from my non-modular 850W PSU behind it, once again helping with case airflow.

In terms of cooling, you get three fans with the case - a 230mm at the front, a 230mm at the top and a 120mm fan at the rear of the case. This is promising, until you remember that there is no front mesh, just two mesh strips for the fan to draw air in through. This is very restrictive, and due to the low static pressure of the 230mm fan the airflow is barely noticeable if you put your hand in front of it - even at full speed. BitFenix claim that the 120mm fan can throw 43.5 CFM of air at <20 dB-A, although I feel this may, as usual with manufacturers claims, be a little exaggerated. I also feel that the same is the case with their 230mm fan, which apparently is capable of passing 97.8 CFM of air at <20 dB-A.

The case itself is capable of taking a 360 Radiator at the top and a 360 radiator at the front - although be wary! Installing a 360 radiator at the top will mean the top 5.25" drive bay is blocked, and the installation of the 360 radiator at the front depends on the bottom blanking plate for fitting - so be careful not to snap it off.

If you want silent cooling, this case isn't for you in its standard form. No integrated fan controller means that you either put up with the fans at full speed or fork out another £20 for a fan controller. If you choose to stick with the standard fans and no controller, you'll be subjected to a very noticeable noise level. If you choose to go with a fan controller, you'll be blessed with the ability to control the noise levels, but you'll be sacrificing airflow. If you do choose to go with a fan controller, I hold the NZXT Sentry Mix 2* in very high regard 
(review soon).

In terms of fixing the complete lack of airflow coming from the front of the case, the best thing to do would be to bag yourself a pair of Yate Loon D12SL-12** fans for £5 each and replace the front fan with those. The increased static pressure will mean they can draw the air through the restricted passage a little easier.



Conclusion

The Shinobi XL is a brilliant piece of kit - there's no doubting that. However, I can't give it full marks simply due to the cooling inefficiencies at the front of the case and the lack of an integrated fan controller. Although it kept my system cool, the fans were clearly audible, so I had to fork out £25 for a new fan controller - worth it, but I shouldn't have had to buy a separate one. I loved the design, but if that wasn't important for me I most likely would have gone for the NZXT Switch 810.

Scores:
Exterior: 9/10
Interior: 9/10
Cooling: 6/10

HardwarePilot score: 24/30 (80%)

Finished Build:




*NZXT Sentry Mix 2 Fan Controller: 
http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=BB-002-NX&tool=3

**Yate Loon D12SL-12 120mm Fan:
http://www.watercoolinguk.co.uk/p/Yate-Loon-120mm-D12SL-12-1350-RPM_239.html


I hope you enjoyed reading this review. Please take a look around my blog, and I'll be posting more reviews soon!

Regards
Luke

AMD forces the hand of Nvidia as prices of GTX7xx GPUs are dropped (News)

As expected by many gaming enthusiasts around the globe, Nvidia have responded to the recent release of the AMD R9-290X by dropping prices of their GTX770 and 780 cards, as well as releasing the price for their upcoming 780Ti Graphics Card.

The R9-290X was met with generally favorable reviews, with many commenting on its ability to beat even the almost doubly expensive Nvidia Titan. However, in a move that was obviously coming, Nvidia have slashed the prices of their current high-end cards by up to $150.

The 780 will face a decrease from $649 to $499, while the 770 will be dropping from $399 to $329, bringing them closer to the lower priced AMD cards. 

They have also released pricing information for their response to AMD's 290X - the GTX780Ti. Designed to be the fastest available single-GPU card on the market, it has been given an RRP of $649 - the same as the 780 before price cuts.

The size of these price drops do beg an interesting question. If Nvidia are simply able to drop prices by $150, then it does get you thinking about how much of a markup these companies are making on the cards.

One thing to remember at this time is the deals you can get on cards such as the GTX680 and HD7970 - both still very formidable gaming cards - now available for as little as £200 in some stores.


I hope you enjoyed reading this post - please feel free to have a look round at other posts and reviews.

Regards
Luke

Welcome to my PC blog

Hello,

Either you've wandered here by mistake, or you have an interest in PCs and Hardware and want to learn more. Whatever the case may be, welcome to my blog! I'll be looking to do reviews, news updates and general rumour updates.

Regards
Luke