For a lot of enthusiasts, a full custom watercooling (or liquid cooling, if you prefer) can be essentially the final frontier. Closed loop coolers have been taking off in a big way, bringing watercooling to the masses, but sacrifices are made in the process. The overwhelming majority of closed loop coolers employ aluminum radiators instead of the copper and brass that are used in custom loops, and the pumps tend to be on the weaker side, presumably to both keep noise down and because there's really only one component to cool. I'm still enthusiastic about these products because they can offer excellent cooling performance without placing the undue strain on the motherboard that a heavy tower air cooler can, and they're typically a win for system integrators who don't want to risk shipping damage. Whether you like it or not, this is the direction the market is heading, although pure air cooling most definitely still has its place.

So why look at watercooling? First, establish how important noise is to you. Watercooling systems (and this includes CLCs) occupy an interesting middle ground. For pure thermal-to-noise efficiency, they're basically unbeatable, but if you want absolute or near absolute silence, you actually have to go back to conventional air cooling. The reason is that watercooling necessitates using a water pump, and while they can be tuned down for efficiency, they're never going to be dead silent. An air cooler will always be a fan plus heatsink; watercooling adds a pump.

Watercooling is so efficient because it effectively allows you to spread your system's heat load across a tremendously greater surface area. Water transfers heat exceptionally well, and radiators in turn will be massive, densely packed arrays of copper fins. By being able to spread that heat across one or multiple radiators, you also allow yourself to use multiple fans at low speeds. Alternatively, you substantially increase your system's heat capacity, so if you're looking to overclock a little more aggressively, watercooling may be the way to go.

In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons to go for it is actually the potential for watercooling graphics cards, especially in a multi-GPU setup. While the stock blower cooler for the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 is actually a work of art and does a stellar job of keeping that card cool, it simply can't hold a candle to a full-card waterblock that can absorb the heat from every heat-generating component on the card, especially the power circuitry. Suddenly you're not risking tripping the 780's boost clock thermal limits anymore, and the blower coolers aren't generating any more of a racket for your trouble.

Of course, building a custom loop is insanely daunting. This is the first time I've ever built one and while guides exist all over the internet, they all feel a bit incomplete in one aspect or another. There's also the fear of spraying coolant all over the inside of your case, or accidentally frying graphics cards when you install the waterblock, etc. It's also a decent amount of work, and it's not cheap. Truthfully, if I hadn't been able to put this together for AnandTech, I don't know that I'd have ever made the attempt. But the opportunity did present itself and now I can at least share the results with you.

The Components, Part 1
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  • cbgoding - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    It's a PWM controlled pump that's advertised to be able to scale speeds with temperature. I'd say at least a few people do it. "Absolutely useless" is a bit of a stretch, you can have it barely spinning along at 1200 rpm at idle, and be able to really crank the pressure when it counts. Some blocks, notably all of Swiftech's CPU blocks, respond well to increased pressure due to their absurd internal pressure drop. Now if you were using a Raystorm or HF or something similar, no, just leave it at the lowest setting and forget it.
  • mum1989 - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    sorry, but i'ts a big fail ! :

    Noise levels are worse with Liquid Cooling.
  • ShieTar - Tuesday, October 1, 2013 - link

    Yes. As anybody who ever built a liquid cooling system can explain to you, and as is clearly described in the article itself, the pump operation means that you always have a higher idle noise with a Liquid Cooling system.

    Not saying it can't be improved upon by picking a different pump, actively controlling it so it won't run at full speed all the time, and maybe placing it in a sound-damped compartment within your case.

    Of course, the air flow setup looks excellent for the air cooling case, but far less than optimal for the liquid case. I mean, first off you have the two radiators basically in series, the top radiator will have to handle the air which has been already heated by the front radiator and additionally by the components within the case. That will be much less efficient than having 2 radiators in parallel, each with his own supply of fresh air. On top of that, there seems to be a rear exhaust fan installed which pulls out the same air pocket which the top radiator is trying to feed off. Given that the rear fan has no added resistance of a radiator, it will probably completely starve off the top radiator.

    So yeah, I think a lot of steps could be improved about the setup described above, but calling it a "big fail" is just excessive. And most certainly, even the perfect water cooling setup will not show lower idle noises than the equally perfected air cooling system. Load: sure, Idle: never.
  • malkolm - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Nice article, thanks for the work and effort you put into this.

    As a few of the commenters here pointed out this is only one article with one cunclusion and one can easily find hundreds well written articles elsewhere.
    I builded like ~100 custom-watercooled systems in the past 12 years as liquid cooling here in germany is by far more a topic than in the US. A reason for this might be that the sensitivity to noise and the corresponding need for a very silent (to absolutely inaudible!) consumer systems evolved earlier due to the lack of noisy air conditioning. Whatever...

    What i want to point out is: Watercooling IS the only way to make a hardcore gaming system absolutely silent. The one i use atm consists of a i7-3930K and 2xGTX580 what maxes out to ~800Watts of thermal power while overclocked. So far i didn't figure out how it could be possible to cool such a monster reliable and very silent at the same time only with aircooling. I say its impossible, but maybe some might tell me how.

    "Watercooling" itself is quite a lie, because in the end its again air that interacts as the media between the hot system on the one hand and the cool environment on the other. What the water in the watercooling really does is to overcome the limited spacial offering right inside the machine to actually cool. Esentially the water only transports the heat to a place where it can be cooled much more efficiently: To the border of your case or even out of it (using an external radiator).

    Dustin you're right pointing out that you essentially have to add a pump to the system as a noise contributor when using watercooling, but you're wrong with the assumption that this automatically leads to additional noise. Of course youre screwed with a big pump like a laing D5, but there are a lot of pumps out there that are designed not to be heared in a completely silent environment.
    Back ~15years as the whole pc watercooling stuff started people were looking for a decent pump. What they ended up with were waterpumps designed for aquaria in livingrooms. Esentially one of the best available waterpumps nowadays are (modded) waterpumps from Eheim: A specialist for aquaria ;)
    Derivates from this (like the Aquacomputer Aquastream XT) can't be heard outside of the case. In a 0.5m distance apart my noisemeter shows 0.0sone , so i would call this inaudible.

    As for the radiators, what you need ist area. The only thing better then lots of cooling area is...even more cooling area. As a rule of thumb systems i sell as silent have !at least! (100mm)² radiator area per 100 Watts of expected maximum thermal output.
    Cooling area is the only real advantage of watercooling over conventional aircooling, so use it! For a conventional single CPU / single GPU configuration a few radiators mounted to your case are enough. For a system like you use here in this article i would strongly recommend an external radiator (like the Watercool MoRa3).

    Considering these things (pump and area) everything else than what you found out and concluded would have been magic. If you REALLY want to go for silence one has to rebuild the cooling parts.

    At the end a few sidenotes regarding watercooling:
    -> watercooling helps save energy! each of my GTX580 uses about 40Watts less energy when used in my watercooled system (approx. 40-45°C GPU-temperature) than aircooled (80+°C). This more than makes up for the lousy ~5W needed for a waterpump.

    -> You learn to allways cary a pipe wrench in your emergency bag for pc repairing;)

    -> External cooling with an external radiator opens the field for put every(! except for optical drives if you need one) component with moveable parts away from your computer, your desk or even the same room. Once the tube system is completely filled one single small pump can drive meters of tube and many liters of water. In summer my radiator is planted outside my house in a shadowy corner so my room doesnt get heated by my computer at all.
  • malkolm - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Oh and what i forgot to mention and comes into my mind while reading the comments and complains about no fullcover parts for nvidia and so on:

    The hardware situation in the EU seems to be completely differnt from the US. Here we have plenty of companies in the small market of watercooling. A brief look at newegg forced me to post this link:
    Not for advertisement, but only to show some of you what you really CAN buy, provided you know where to look at it.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Phobya DC water pumps are also great, cheap-ish, powerful enough for most normal systems (CPU+ dual GPU), small and quiet. I would never use a Laing without some serious noise dampening involved.
  • mapesdhs - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Given the level of experience you've referred to, I would be most interested if you could
    write an article about these issues, covering the additional aspects of watercooled
    builds you've mentioned which are not dealt with in the article, such as external units, etc.

    As it happens, I'm in the process of building a 3930K setup with four 580s (for AE), only
    air cooled atm, but I was thinking about switching to a watercooled config next year, mainly
    for the GPUs (the enormous Phanteks cooler already does a good job of running the CPU
    at 4.7). So, would you be up for writing some kind of article? I'd be happy to include it on
    my site, full credit, etc., or maybe Anand would be interested?

    Dustin has done a nice job of writing an introduction to this field, but there are always so
    many more questions someone new to watercooling will want to ask. Starting off with a
    closed loop kit isn't complicated (I've built two with H100s) but moving to a custom loop
    can be rather daunting. The number of 'additional' relevant points made by numerous
    posters shows just how broad this subject is.

    Btw, re choice of CPU, once again I'm ever more convinced that a used 2700K is still
    a better buy. :D Last one I bought (150 UKP on eBay) took mere minutes to get it
    going at 5.0 with an old used Venomous-X on an ASUS M4E. Delidding is not for
    the faint of heart...


    PS. A heartful thanks to all those posting comments! When it comes to sensible/useful
    comments worth reading (as opposed to the usual CPU/GPU flame wars), this has to
    be one of the best comment threads I've come across. Hmm, perhaps those who end
    up meddling with watercooling are just more sensible in general? :)
  • mapesdhs - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    NB: I was referring to malkolm.
  • cjs150 - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    A few points about water-cooling

    1. It is fun. You get your hands dirty (or wet!) in actually building what you want not want the manufacturer wanted for the price.

    2. It is not cheap.

    3. Pick your case carefully, look at forums for what others have done.

    4. A water cooled system is spot cooling: ie it cools only those spots where you have a water block. Air cooling is more general - as long as you have air movement you have a cooling effect. It is vital you have some air movement to cool things such as memory, hard drives.

    5. Custom loops should be designed with both air bleeding and drainage in mind.

    6. If you have a powerful GPU than a water cooled system will be a lot quieter than running on air.

    7. A dremel is your friend !
  • willis936 - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Great article. It's a very rational look at things that are all too often romanticized. Everyone wants that 5GHz 4770k and a fancy water cooling kit but it's important to stop and ask yourself what you're really interested in. While I'd love to see an article analyzing everything about delidding from when it started, the myths, the logic, and of course lots and lots of testing, I doubt I'll ever see it done because it comes close to stepping on some political toes.

    Personally on air I could hit 4.2 @ 1.2v on a 4770k before running into thermal boundaries and a delid got me to 4.5 @ 1.3v with stress test temps in the 70s. To get to 4.6 stable I need literally at least 1.45v which results in thermal boundaries. Even if a delid with a custom water loop would keep that temp under control it's a long ways to go for a tiny bit. Money would be better spent on a binned chip that could hit 4.8 on air. That's the nature of the beast and thank you for addressing it and giving people a realistic look at what haswell OC is like. All of the reviews always talk about engineering samples which doesn't give a down to earth idea of what a retail sample will be like.

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