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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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 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 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.

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 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

No comments:

Post a Comment