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Water Water Cooling - Wheres the Magic?
Date Posted: Sep 5 2006
Author: Joe
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Category: FAQ's, Editorials, Q&A's
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Water Cooling - Wheres the Magic? By: Joe
Water Cooling - Where has the magic gone?


Welcome to my first real industry editorial...

I was reading this thread in the Pro/Forums and it got me thinking about where we have been and where we are today with the H2O cooling industry. Now I know Cooltechnica who is a sponsor probably isn't going to be thrilled with my arm chair quarterback analysis of the industry or how people buy stuff, but this is the truth as I know it.


Now let me just explain where I stand on this before I start with my outlook on whats happening in the industry now. I haven't run a watercooled machine in nearly 3 years. I have found it impractical for what I needed. I have been running a Socket A machine since 2001 until this last weekend! So let's just say I am not the biggest power user on a machine currently. I just built a new rig, and it has an AMD 4600+ X2 CPU in it. Did I watercool this new rig? Nope. I have a CFA-633 device controlling 2 big 120x38 Papst fans on the case (a 6 year old Chenbro Jr Case), a Zalman 9500 HSF on the core, and an NV Silencer on the 7800GTX. You know what? the machine is quieter than my HTPC now and runs cool even under full load. So where does this leave watercooling or have anything to do with it? Let me explain.

Watercooling has entered a weird twisted place. At the same time it's moving into the mainstream (or has moved) but also moving to the fringe with general enthusiasts. Now people who would normally never have used water cooling seem to be buying ready to go kits, and the extreme cooling enthusiast are still building their own setups or modifying ready made setups from places like Cooltechnica or Swiftech or Danger Den. But the meat of the "hobby" -- the curious enthusiast -- or higher end system builder is seeing that the new machines and cores don't demand such an expense or time investment for solid cooling.

When you can get a $30.00 HSF that cools pretty damn good and nearly silent (Arctic Cooling Pro 64 or the Zalman 9500 and using some sort of fan control) and only a little off of what one of the cooling those Thermal Take passive water cooling systems do... makes you wonder how much the watercooling market is about practical cooling or catering to the uninformed with some seemingly magical cooling. Some would say that watercooling was never "practical" but in some ways it was. Most people who built cooling systems built rigs that were practical for their purpose. Yes they cost more, but they did something far and above what was provided with standard air cooling. Today that's simply not the case for "kits" you can buy at CompUSA, or Online for that matter.

The Magic?

Some would contest that the industry hasn't changed, that companies like Swiftech, Danger Den, Cooltechnica, etc... are all keeping the general enthusiast in this hobby alive and well. Some would say there was no magic in watercooling, it was always just simple business. That's wrong though. There was magic and a real curiosity out there to exploit watercooling and find out where it can get us. But, as with every journey, there's a starting and an end (or a point that you lose interest).

The Magic:


FrostyFox back in 1999 was the prime example of the magic that the industry had up until a couple years ago. A true garage inventor, designer, engineer. The sense of trying to do stuff that shouldn't be done, or people said couldn't be done was one of the thrilling or magical parts of this hobby. When I read Frosty's site back then, I was in awe. I was excited. I needed to get into this!


When's the last time you got excited or worked up about stuff like this:

The Mass Market:


You don't. Why? Because Watercooling has become a utility or a piece of hardware that is not exciting, not cool and edgy, and most of all not needed. I use the term needed in the sense of a lust or something that draws you in. The Swiftech kit is in there, because it is one that caters to a different audience than the other two. It is targeted towards the general enthusiast, someone who's more serious about their cooling needs. But still, there's no magic there.

Mainstream - the death of the niche

A co-worker who wanted to quiet up his HTPC bought a watercooling rig from newegg (the Thermaltake passive system). He was in awe and confused why I would water cool a computer a few years ago, now he sees the light... only we see different lights. It's great that new people are getting interested in watercooling, but they are interested in it for different reasons than the core niche that made up the industry a few years ago. He sees this as a great plug and play device that removes heat and sound from his machine. He doesn't really understand what happens in the device, why it happens, or what influences change its performance.

There's few new real enthusiasts getting into cooling as a challenge as we did back in the late 90's through about 2004 or so. The benefits of further enthusiast refinement or engineering on products, or doing home grown designs are SO small and come at such a cost now, that the down turn in the "magic" was inevtiable. Now since the only new products to be had that change or improve performance can come from companies, the thrill is gone. There's no more "Hey if I find this certain heater core I can get another 5C off the temps!". Because stuff has been engineered beyond now... beyond the enthusiast level.

This is great from an engineering standpoint, it means that the limit of what can be done with water cooling is being realized by people who can put way more into design and engineering than any guy in his basement. But it has missed a big change in the industry that has been coming for years that calls into question the investment made into these rather lower end cooling systems.

The KO punch?
Heat Pipes, Thermo siphons, etc... Self contained, maintenance free, high efficiency, compact (compared to a full H2O setup), inexpensive heatsinks.

Now there's no magic in products like this either:


But if we are just looking at cooling as a utility now, then why not do it cheaper, and easier? There is a challenge to be had in air cooling still. Doing it very quiet, and moving lots of heat, and doing it not so expensive.

There is the whole cooling rule of:

  • Good Performance (good cooling)

  • Quiet

  • Low Cost

  • Small Size


Pick Any 3.

As HSF design has progressed (which I would have to say in ways that are FAR more interesting than any H2O cooling system advance in the last 5 years) they have started to unravel that rule. You can get a Arctic Cooling Freezer Pro 64 for $29.00. It's very quiet, very good at cooling, and inexpensive. The Zalman 9500 is also very good but a bit more in the $60.00 range.

A friend who runs a passive H2O setup (supposedly silent) on a nearly same machine (same CPU, size case, etc...) came over and listed to my machine running while I had BF2 fired up. He was in awe, when my CPU temps were lower by 4C, the machine was QUIETER than his, and I had none of the hassle of plumbing a H2O system. How was this possible?

Fan control, and quality fans, and just overall a good cooling plan inside the case, controlling air flow. Devices like the CrystalFontz, or PWM Fan control on the motherboard are key for this.

Getting an Air cooled system quiet and efficient to me has many of the qualities we saw back when we were drilling out copper blocks to see if it helped cooling on H2O rigs. There's some magic there, not much, but some. The magic is different though, its more about simplicity and efficiency than it is lust for some new technology.

Conclusion

This is the first straight-up industry editorial I have written. The question referenced about the magic of the industry has got me thinking about what changed since I have been pondering this on and off for a few months now. Seeing many of the cooling MFG's from back in the beginning of 2000 all gone now, all the rapid paced development, and the new hot block or radiator coming out every 9 - 12 months has ended. Theres really nothing to draw the dreamers, or the would-be engineers into the field at this point.

H2O cooling is still very relevant, and important. But the big HSF mfg's seem to be getting ready to put the H2O folks on their heels a bit as they keep designing better and better products. New case designs have better air flow, which helps the HSF's work better... all things that didn't really exist in any large number back when H20 Started to pick up steam as a cooling technology. For the extreme overclockers, and the fringe of performance folks out there, H2O is still king and will be for sometime (including Phase Change cooling). But that market is so small a segment and the fact that today's CPU's aren't really lacking in speed even at stock speeds... means that alone cant bring H2O back to its previous glory days.

My final thought:
Before I'd drop $180.00 on a cooling system, I'd see what a $29.00 HSF could offer. .

Thanks to Brian S. And pHaestus for editing.
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