Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cooling your PC: Water Cooling

Disclaimer:  It should be noted upfront that this post mainly concerns cooling with an eye toward overclocking.  If you intend to keep all of your components at stock clocks, it's unlikely you'll need to bother with aftermarket cooling of any kind.  If your intent is to utilize aftermarket cooling to achieve a near silent PC, please ask in the thread for recommendations.

As mentioned in the last post, cooling your PC realistically comes down to Air or Water for those of us who don't feel like hacking up a refrigerator or utilizing Peltier effects.  If you decide on "Water," you need to know that you're looking at two options built on an identical process, with significant differences in design.  The decision comes down to a choice between a custom water cooling loop, or a "closed-loop" cooler.

Custom water-cooling encompasses a vast and varied market of products.  There are 4 main components for a custom loop, a radiator, a pump, a reservoir, and "waterblocks."  The function of the radiator, pump, and reservoir are relatively self-evident.  "Waterblocks" or just "blocks" are heatsinks applied to the various components in your PC for water to run through.  These include the most common components, CPU and GPU blocks, and more esoteric products, like waterblocks for motherboard chipsets, RAM, and even HDDs.  The basic idea of a water cooling loop is that a liquid (distilled water, or another liquid coolant) is pumped from the reservoir, through a tubing into waterblocks, where is draws heat away from the blocks and into the flowing liquid, which then leaves the blocks and enters the radiator, where the liquid is cooled, before heading back through the pump to the reservoir, etc. etc.

Because liquid is a significantly more effective conductor of heat than air, and because custom-loop radiators often have significantly more surface area than an air-cooler, water-cooling is a significantly more effective method of cooling your CPU and GPU(s).   Components like drives, RAM, and your motherboard chipset don't usually demand more than passive cooling, so they are usually the last components to be considered for inclusion in a loop.

The main advantage of custom water-cooling is that it's a more effective method of cooling PC components, especially in higher overclocks.  Because of the sheer surface area of some radiators, lower amounts of airflow are often required to go through the radiator, which results in many custom loops being quieter (relatively speaking) than higher end air cooling setups.

Disadvantages of custom loops include expense, which is usually significantly in excess of even the highest end of air-cooler designs.  A custom water cooling loop requires significant research to develop the knowledge and skills to ensure it is built correctly.  A custom loop also generally requires much more significant time investment in the building stage, first when installing the loop and then when leak-testing the loop.  Custom loops also require regular maintenance, in excess of the standard dust removal procedures, including regular refilling, and (depending on the liquid used an precautions taken) cleaning of the loop.

Recommendations:  Discussing and recommending custom water cooling kit could be an entire blog unto itself.  I'm not qualified to make particularly good recommendations on this score, but I can point you to some good resources if asked.

Closed-loop coolers and custom loops are based on an identical set of components.  Just like a custom loop, a closed-loop cooler has a pump, radiator, reservoir, block, and tubing.  The difference is that a close-loop implementation combines some of the elements (usually a reservoir/radiator combo and a pump/block combo) and then seals the entire thing up.

Closed-loop coolers are almost universally CPU coolers.  A few specialized GPUs are sold with closed-loop water coolers for cooling, but this is a relatively recent implementation that hasn't yet become widespread.  Asetek and Coolit are the OEMs behind the vast majority of closed-loop solutions, most (if not all) retail closed-loop implementations are rebadges of their products, or products designed and produced for the retailer by these OEMs.

Closed-Loop products are favored by many "boutique" PC retailers (like Cyberpower) as ideal solutions for gaming PCs.  They're often as quiet, if not quieter, than traditional air cooling setups, and allow them to advertise that the CPU is water-cooled without the time, mess, and expense of a custom cooling loop.  By virtue of their design, closed-loop coolers are much less prone to leakage than custom loops, and don't require maintenance (aside from standard dust removal measures).  Because the waterblock/pump assembly is so small compared to virtually any good air cooler, closed-loop solutions are excellent for situations where you wish to avoid RAM clearance issues, or have limited clearance above the CPU socket (as in many small-form-factor cases).

Disadvantages for closed-loop products include price/performance.  Many budget-friendly air coolers will match or outperform a significantly more expensive closed-loop cooler.  In general, the best air-coolers will outperform the best closed-loop coolers.  Depending on case design, the reservoir/radiator may cause clearance issues with various components.  A closed-loop cooler is not competitive with custom water cooling loops.  A custom loop generally has more liquid, a better pump, less restrictive blocks and tubing (which improves liquid flow and cooling capacity) and significantly more radiator surface area.

Recommendations:  I prefer the newer generations of Corsair closed-loop coolers.  They combine solid installation (as opposed to the ludicrous circular ring mount of earlier efforts) with solid performance and a fairly good range of prices.  The H60 is a basic thin-rad, single fan setup.  The H80 has a thicker radiator and 2 fans.  The H100 is the highest end, boasting a 240mm radiator and 2 fans (with a max of 4 fans for push/pull).  If you want a closed-loop cooler, pick the one that best fits your needed level of cooling and maximum level of expense.

Cooling your PC: Air Cooling

Disclaimer:  It should be noted upfront that this post mainly concerns cooling with an eye toward overclocking.  If you intend to keep all of your components at stock clocks, it's unlikely you'll need to bother with aftermarket cooling of any kind.  If your intent is to utilize aftermarket cooling to achieve a near silent PC, please ask in the thread for recommendations.

Cooling your PC comes down to a pretty simple decision: Air or Water.  For those inclined to nitpick, there is also:

Phase Change
Peltier (TEC)
Liquid Nitrogen
"Bong" Water Cooling
Mineral Oil Bath

These options are extremely expensive and very time consuming, and all require at least some modification to case and components.  Phase Change, TEC, and LN cooling are all sub-ambient cooling methods (that is, they cool the processor to below the ambient temperature of the room) and as such can produce potentially damaging condensation, which requires the application of insulation and other motherboard modification to ensure safe operation.

As you might be able to tell, this leaves air or water cooling (or some combination of the two) as the only really feasible options for most home builders.  We'll start with air cooling.

Air cooling is a relatively simple setup.  You should start with a solid case for air cooling.  Some cases (the Corsair Obsidian 700D/800D for example) are very water cooling oriented, with relatively unimpressive air cooling performance.  Cooler Master's HAF series of cases are good air cooling performers, as is the CM690 II (which is also a solid mid-tower for custom water cooling).  Lian Li makes some good mid-towers with adequate intake and exhaust setups.  Fractal Design's R3 and Arc Midi have room for a very nice air cooling setup.  Silverstone's FT02 is a good, but very expensive, option.  After choosing your case, component cooling is your next stop:

CPU:  There are a boatload of different options for air cooling your CPU.  At lower budgets, the Cooler Master Hyper 212+ is a favorite, and the Xigmatek Gaia has recently arrived to solid reviews.  For a bit more, the Scythe Mugen 2 or 3 is a good option, as is the Xigmatek Balder (an updated, push/pull compatible version of the well-liked Black Knight cooler).  On the high end are the Prolimatech Megahalems and Thermalright Venomous X.  If you really want to go for broke with air cooling, the Noctua D14 or Cogage Arrow are your go-to coolers.

GPU:  Your graphics card comes with a perfectly acceptable cooler already applied.  Depending on the make and model of the card, it might be a relatively staid reference cooler, or a tri-fan non-ref monstrosity that just demands that you overclock.  Whatever cooler your card ships with will suffice for the clocks it ships at, unless your case is some kind of heat-trapping, dust laden hellhole.  Aftermarket GPU cooling options also exist, though I don't know enough about them to recommend one above another.

Drives:  Generally speaking most internal drive bays are placed by the front intake fans to receive cooling.  There's generally little need to do more here, unless you have high density internal 3.5' bays and are really loaded up on drives.  In such a case a couple of fans ghetto mounted to the side of the cage opposite the intake fans will likely improve airflow enough to maintain safe drive temps.

Motherboard:  Most enthusiast motherboards are heavy enough on power phases, with big enough heatsinks that they can be cooled passively by whatever air flows over the motherboard via case fans.  Side intake fans, downdraft CPU coolers, and small fans for chipset spot cooling are all good options if your motherboard is overheating.

RAM:  If your CPU cooler allows for it, you can purchase RAM with nice tall heatspreaders, which will help more efficiently disperse heat.  Corsair and others do sell special fan attachments for RAM spot cooling.

Advantages of air cooling include relatively simple installation (in that only a CPU actually requires you to do more than simply install the component correctly).  For a fairly simple method, performance is generally quite solid, especially with newer components.  From a price/performance standpoint, it demonstrates solid value.

Disadvantages mainly have to do with air cooling's limitations.  While it has improved over the years, there are practical limitations to air cooling that cannot be circumvented.  The sheer size of air cooling (tall RAM heatsinks, big passive chipset heatsinks, massive CPU coolers, and double and triple slot GPU coolers) can cause clearance issues if not properly planned for.

So what we've seen so far is that air cooling is the most common, and in some senses the most versatile type of PC cooling available to you.  We'll be taking a quick look at water cooling soon.

Beyond the Basics

What kind of computer are you building?

For most (if not all) of you, the answer will be "one to play games and do some other stuff on," and that's perfectly alright. A gaming PC does a damned fine impression of a jack of all trades. They have enough CPU/GPU horsepower to keep up with Photoshop, transcoding/encoding of video, to watch HD video, and to web browse and use productivity apps without trouble. You might not be rendering a lot of 3D graphics (well, not quickly) but a well-built "gaming" PC will cover the vast majority of any user's needs.

But there are also other builds you might be looking at; supplemental, purpose built computers that will give you the ability to do things you couldn't or wouldn't want to do with your gaming PC. The thread isn't necessarily there just to help you build your latest Crysis-crushing monstrosity, there's a lot of knowledge on offer for other kinds of builds:

Home Server/NAS: I've gotten to the point where I feel like any home network that doesn't have at least some form of networked/shared storage is basically an entirely useless exercise. Even a shared folder on a PC is better than nothing. However, what you really want is a Server/NAS (Network Attached Storage) for use on your home network. A Server/NAS is going to give you a space on your network to store media (music, movies, maybe ebooks) system backups and basically anything else that you want to share across your network, or don't want to keep on an internal drive. You'll even be able to stream media to computers connected to your network. A full-fledged home server is on the more substantial end in terms of functionality, you can run a website or FTP server from one, or set up remotely activated torrenting along with loads of other services for media streaming on your network and the like. Comparatively speaking, a NAS is generally more simple and less feature rich, particularly in terms of user interaction with the system, but popular open source (FreeNAS) and for-purchase options (unRAID, for example) have a number of add-ons and features available that allow them to do many of the things you might expect from a system running a full-fledged server OS, without the full server OS.

A Server/NAS can be a very basic 1 or 2 drive machine built out of an older PC you don't use anymore, or it can be a small form factor purpose-built machine that can hold 5 or 6 drives. It can even be a tower or rackmount build designed to hold 15-20 drives in hot-swap bays. And after you make the initial investment in building the server, additional storage is significantly cheaper than buying external drives (another common backup/storage strategy).

HTPC: Your entertainment center is the natural habitat of the HTPC (Home Theater PC). An HTPC can come in many different forms, from a small, low-powered, mostly passively cooled machine to a larger build that can incorporate full-sized components. Primarily, an HTPC is connected to your home network and the internet, so you can stream shared content on your network, or get your media fix via the internets. An HTPC can even supplant other devices if you include a Blu-Ray drive or a TV Tuner. If you build in enough horsepower, you can even use yours as a kind of game console. Naturally, you can use essentially any PC as an HTPC (just hook it up to your TV via HDMI), but a purpose-built machine will integrate better aesthetically with the rest of your A/V equipment, and may be quieter or otherwise better for use in your entertainment center.

Workstations: Computers for professional work (high-end photo and/or video editing, 3D graphics work, CAD, etc.) often have significantly different hardware demands vs. a run-of-the-mill PC. CPU horsepower is more highly prized, so this is the natural habitat of the 2700K, or basically anything on LGA2011. Depending on what you're doing, you might want specialized video cards designed for 3D modeling, high end rendering, or even GPU compute. Workstations often vary in component choice significantly based on what you need, so you'll want to spend some time in the thread narrowing down your needs and what hardware will work best for you, but the end result is that you won't have to overpay for a Mac Pro.

If you have any interest in a build like those above, or maybe something even more esoteric, please join us in the thread!

How To: Take Your 600T Build up a Notch

The 600T is a great case for cable management, with its grommeted cutouts and capacious behind the tray area, so it's easy to do a solid job with what I'll call "practical" cable management.  That is, cable management that gives you the practical advantages of unrestricted airflow and less tangled mess in your PC internals, but likely isn't particularly concerned with aesthetics.  The purpose of this how-to is to give 600T owners an idea of how to knock things up a notch from mere practicality.  Our goal is to arrange our internals in such a way that all the practical benefits of cable management are retained, while simultaneously achieving a "clean" internal aesthetic (one that will look great when viewed through your case window, 600T SE owners!).  This isn't exhaustive or definitive, there are loads of modifications that you can do (with or without tools) that can help you achieve an aesthetically pleasing PC (internally and externally).  I'm going to focus mainly on some very basic concepts that can help with getting a "clean" look.

Every clean build starts with cable management, so below are some rules, tips, tricks, etc. that should assist in really nailing that part of your build.

Make sure you've got the right tools for the job.  Grab a lot of zip-ties (I prefer black), enough to tie down your cables 2 or 3 times over.  Trust me, you'll be changing or moving or adding cables to various bundles behind the tray, and you don't want to run out of zip-ties.  Also pick up some side-cutting pliers.  Many pairs of needle-nosed pliers have side cutting blades as well, but I prefer a pair with just blades for cabling work, they're easier to use overall.  If you like, you can pick up a few cable tie-down dealies, but I've found those already present in the 600T to be adequate.

Minimize visibility of cables coming from the PSU.  Pull those cables all the way through the grommet, don't leave any extra cables or slack hanging around there.  If you have a non-modular PSU and can't fit everything behind the tray, get the cables bound up tightly.  Keep the bundle near the back of the supply, but not directly on the PSU vent (if it has one there).

Try to keep those cables away from empty spaces in the motherboard tray.  Your objective is always to minimize the visibility of cables, even if they're completely out of the way of airflow. 

Minimize the slack in your cables as they come out from behind the motherboard tray.  So, if it takes 4 inches of cable to reach whatever socket it's powering, you should see only 4 inches, not 6.  Once again, we should see as little of the cables as possible.  Don't worry if the cable has to make a pretty sharp turn to make it into the socket, cables in quality PSUs have good, thick wires that can handle serious abuse, so a couple of bends are not a big deal.

Buy SATA cables of the length you need.  So an 18'' cable is probably most appropriate for your optical drive, but you can likely get away with a 12'', 10'' or shorter SATA cable to your storage drive(s) depending on positioning.  This isn't a huge deal, but it can help keep cable clutter down just a bit, as you won't have a lot of extra slack to bind up and keep out of the way.

If you'd like to take your cabling up another level, you can invest in sleeved extensions.  These are special cable extensions where the individual wires are single-sleeved and heatshrinked into the sockets.  This can provide a particularly good looking cabling job, but you'll have to deal with the additional length provided by the extensions.

If you [i]really[/i] want to kick things up a notch, you can sleeve your PSU.  If your PSU has hardwired cables, you'll have to void the warranty to accomplish this.  If you have a fully modular PSU, and can obtain a spare set of cables, you can have a set available (should you have to RMA the supply) and an extra set to sleeve.  Some online stores offer sleeving services, and PC related forums with strong modding communities sometimes have members who will sleeve your PSU for a fee.  Alternately, you can purchase the sleeving material and heatshrink and do the job yourself.  It's time consuming and tedious, apparently, but if you do it right the results are hard to argue with.

Also consider some other steps.  If you're only running 3 drives, take out one of the cages.  If you're up for it, you can take the front cover of the case off and remove the stand that the drive cages are mounted on.  You won't be able to have drives there, but if you only need 1 cage you can just move it to the designated spot next to the PSU.  Consider forgoing an internal optical drive, instead use an external drive.  It's easier to use (mine sits closer to me, right on my desk) and makes the PC look a bit better.  Alternately, you can buy a drive cage that fits in your 5.25 inch bays, and have your internal optical drive paired right above your drives, completely clearing the floor of the case, and (depending on the drive cage you use) giving you a 120mm fan in some of your optical bays.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this isn't meant to be a definitive look at what to do with your 600T.  Still, putting some of the basic steps here into practice can give you an idea of what a little time and elbow grease can accomplish, even without lots of modification to the original case.  And, really, if you're spending ~$150 on a PC case, I feel like you should definitely put some effort into the "looks" side of things.