I’ve always wanted to build a watercooled case. A few years ago, I wanted to build a silent PC and loved silentpcreview.com, but now with water cooling becoming much more turnkey, it makes some sense to go all water cooled and make your machine silent overclockable. Tom’s Hardware has a pretty good guide, but the main decisions are getting a case that is big enough, deciding if you want to do GPU cooling too or just CPU cooling.
For GPU cooling, the main problem is that you have to remove the cooler that is already on the card and that seems scary. But with the CPU, you have to get an external heat sink anyway, so it is much easier. So the main things to consider when water cooling are:
- Getting a case that can fit all the water reservoirs and things
- Figuring out if you are doing completely custom or using already assembled solutions
I had thought that the PNY GPX680 was going to solve all my problems as it had watercooling for the CPU and the GPU and you could SLI the thing as well. But alas, it is out of production. So the choices are now to either get a GPX670 and modify it myself or use a quiet GPX670 like the ASUS and then go with just CPU cooling.
Three Radiator Semi-Custom in ATX Case: Swiftech Edge H20-X20
That’s what I’ll explore here thanks to help from a Tom’s Hardware review of water-cool capable cases. While I would have liked to build a small micro-ATX with just water cooling, I think since this is our first build, we will start with a larger case but still go for quiet. These are monster cases by the way at 25-40 pounds each!
Swifttech H20 X20 EDGE. This is a nice kit so you don’t have to assemble everything yourself. Basically, instead of a monster heat sink on the CPU, there is a small plate, then big tubes to a flat reservoir and then 3 5.25″ fans to keep it all cool. Pretty compact really. This thing isn’t completely seales, you do have to cut and clamp things, but it will look very nice and custom in the case itself when you are done.
At least with the motherboard they had (a Sandy Bridge X79), the NZXT Switch 810 fitted best. All of these ATX cases have loads of disk and other space that really aren’t need which is why it would be wonderful to find a mini-ATX solution instead.
Tweaktown did a test with the similar kit, the H20-320 and it showed it had the lowest operating temperature of a huge variety, but it was one of the noisest at the highest level. So again, it shows that it is super effective but not necessarily quiet with three fans running at full bore at the edge of the case.
It is complicated to get this right for the simple reason that water can leak and destroy your computer. Extremeoverclocking.com has some good techniques for testing this step-by-step to prevent it. They do recommend things like don’t buy kits, just buy the pieces youself. Maybe this is true 🙂
Sealed Unit CPU Only
If you don’t want to crack your own stuff open, then your choice is to use sealed unit systems where you don’t have to worry about filling or cutting tubes or clamping. For us, this seems like a reasonable compromise. Get an air cooled but quiet GPU like the ASUS version of the GTX-760 and start with just a simple sealed unit like the Crucial H100. This is a two fan wide radiator (called 2x120mm). Tom’s Hardware liked the Crucial H100 the best but you need the right case. It reduces noise from 43db to 33db. Doesn’t sound like much, but that’s quite a big difference particularly with fan control based on CPU temperature. They do note that one issue is that you want a motherboard that doesn’t have problem with its voltage regulator if it doesn’t get air cooling from the CPU fan. The ASUS Maximus IV for instance doesn’t. With nice cool CPUs at 40C, you get amazingly low system noise levels of 35dB even with the GPU running air cooled:
However vs a traditional air cooler, it turns out that these things are not much quieter than a really good air cooler. The reason is pretty simple. They don’t actually have that much water reservoir so all you are really doing is just moving the place where the cooling happens to outside the chassis. With a truly massive (that is two pound) cooler like the ThermalRight Silver Arrow, you get the same temperatures and the same noise as the Corsair H100. So at the Medium fan setting of the H100, it keeps this test CPU at 49.9C identical to the Siver Arro while the noise of the Silver Arrow is actually lower at 38.8dB vs 43.8dB. To really get great cooling you need to have a much larger unit than the 2x120mm of the H100, which is why there really isn’t a free lunch.
You either need a massive water reservoir or a really big fan array (like 4x120mm) to make water cooling quieter. And of course if you have a 2 pound chunk of metal attached to your motherboard, you do have to wonder what happens if you drop the computer or something, that’s alot of weight next to delicate PCB board.
MaximumPC also reviewed the Corsair H100 in a roundup and liked it. It fit into a ThermalTake Level 10 but had to put the radiator on the outside with fans pushing air out. Maybe not the most durable location, but it worked.
HardOCP also did a review. As an aside thermal paste is very important to get good conduction and they use Noctua NT-H1. What it shows is that compared with other water cooled units, it is the most efficient, but it is very loud with the ideal four fans operating (2 push and 2 pull) at it’s maximum setting. What is shows is that at full overclock, water coolling is quite efficient compared with a air cooling Thermalright HR-02 Macho which runs at 47C vs 41C for the Corsaig H100 Push/Pull at low.
But in hoise level, the ThermalTake is essentially at ambient noise of 39dB while the Corsair is much much louder at 48dB for push and 57db for push/pull. This is because the fans are just much louder when there are two of them vs one.
Overclockers Club compared actual performance at load and concluded the same thing, the H100 was the most efficient of all the systems at cooling, so if you need really cool and don’t mind loud, go for the Corsair. Of course, normally you don’t generate such high loads, so the thing will normally operate much cooler. And as they mentioned finding a case that could handle it. This was a good.
Mineral Bath Cooling
Another solution might be to go completely different and go Mineral submerged where the entire chassis goes into a mineral bath. It is an amazingly cool looking thing but more importantly with 3 x 3 x 120mm fans, it is going to be very quiet too.
The statistics show that it takes a long time to bring to temperature and you can run it at low fan speed.
Finally there are water chilled systems where the water is actually cooled vs. just running with fans at ambient. This is less drastic than an aquarium in that you don’t do full immersion but expensive. There aren’t many reviews of this though. But Gadgetreview.com seemed to like it and said it was basically silent at low which makes sense give nine fans running.
You still need a CPU cooler for this as the heat has to get dissipated into the mineral bath. Hexus did a 7 cooler roundup for the Ivy Bridge processors of inexpensive (less than $80 coolers):
But the really cool ones tend to be loud with 2000 rpm fans buzzy. That standout is the be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2 which is both efficient and quiet.
They also did a review of Sandy Bridge cooling systems which should be reasonably transferrable to the Ivy Bridge. Legit Reviews also did a Sandy Bridge review and concluded the same thing
In this test anything under 30dB is ambient quiet with a good case and the Noctua NH-D14 with its two fans and reasonable noise seems to be the winner at 46C at full load and 28dB noise.
SilentPCreview says it cools well but not quiet silent which is OK for a big gamer PC and rates in 9.5/10 at the very top although they haven’t reviewed a fan since 2010, guru3d reviewed it in 2009 and it was clearly the best at cooling.
Frostytech seems to have the most comprehensive reviews and put the Noctua into the top 10 for cooling but actually said the smaller NH-C14 cooled slightly better and is another two fan system and liked the Spire Thermax Eclipse II (although it has a problem with keeping its fan in place) and the Coolermaster TPC-812 better although the differences were less than a degree. Studying this chart, you can see that cooling-wise, eliminating the ECT and the H100 and H80 which are water cooled exotics, the Spire at 150W assuming we are overclocking a 77W nominal part (at 3.8GHz), the spire is louder but giving up 2C the Noctua is much quite (46.6dB) vs. Spire (56.9) and the Tuniq Tower 120 Extreme is pretty unique with 43.5dB for 14.1 differential because it is simply massive so you need to make sure your case is tall enough to fit it. Otherwise the NH-C14 looks like a good choice if you can stand the width of that model. The Noctua NH-D14 while a degree less efficient is square so easier to fit in the case. Newegg reviews report the Tower 120 Extreme is hard to mount (not surprising given its size). And Overclockers Club found the reverse that the NH-D14 was more efficient than the NH-C14 and easier to install as it is not as flat.
The Noctua NH-D14 is right now $90 at Newegg, $86 from Cooltech via Amazon and $82 from Platinum Micro via Amazon or direct.
Thermal Test* (°C)
Thermal Test (°C)
|Noise Level (dBA)
||Prometeia Mach2 GT
||Thermax Eclipse II (2-fan)
||Tower 120 Extreme
||HPJ-12025 Transformer 4 (2010)