A few years ago any discussion of which was better - water or air - would inevitably end in the conclusion that water was better than even the best air coolers. In fact, many would have considered it heresy to even raise the question. We are told from many directions today that water cooling is superior, and yet there are few direct comparisons of the performance of water and current air cooling.

There have been many advances in air cooling in the last few years - so much so that the best current air coolers bear almost no resemblance to yesterday's air coolers. The top air cooler of yesterday was a configuration with a small, whining, top-mounted fan with a heavy copper heatsink and no heatpipes. This is a far cry from today's best air coolers. Now the most successful of current air cooler designs feature heatpipe towers with quiet side-mounted 120mm fans blowing toward a rear exhaust.

The multiple liquid-filled heatpipes and the large, quiet, high-output fans in use today have taken air cooling to new performance levels. Our testing here at AnandTech supports the vastly superior performance of the heatpipe tower compared to the older air cooling designs. With these results in mind, it is time to revisit the question: is water cooling still the best performer?

Certainly the reasonably priced self-contained water coolers have provided mixed test results compared to the top air coolers. The small Xigmatek AIO provided good results for its size, but the larger Evercool Silver Knight was somewhat disappointing in performance. It was reasonably clear in test results though, that the self-contained units could compete in the notch below the top of the tested air coolers, but not the top air coolers of today. None of the self-contained water coolers really cooled better or could reach the same high overclocks we saw with the best air designs. This raised the question of how "real" water cooling systems would compare.

Water cooler designs have not been completely static while air cooler design has been evolving. Water cooling manufacturers have been working toward simpler designs that are less intimidating for the average computer enthusiast. This involves several different approaches. Some look to move all of the water cooling components inside the case while others are looking at new ways to move water cooling outside the case; we will be looking at both approaches today, the former with the Swiftech H2O120 Compact and the latter with the Corsair Nautilus 500. Whichever approach they have taken, the water cooler manufacturers claim combining complete top-line pumps, waterblocks, reservoirs and radiators has resulted in top-line water cooling results with a much easier installation than traditional water cooling.


The Swiftech H2O-120 Compact combines water cooling components inside the case. Swiftech reduces the traditional four components of a water cooling system to two components. The water block and water pump are combined into the Apogee Drive Block and the radiator and reservoir are combined. By merging components the H2O Compact requires just one set of connecting hoses in the water cooling system.

According to Swiftech this simplified water system still uses the top individual components in the combined components so performance is not compromised. The simpler H2O-120 Compact also claims much easier installation, with just 15 to 20 minutes required for a complete internal installation. All of this water cooling performance also comes at a cheaper price than is typically seen with a water cooling kit. The H2O Compact was just introduced and is selling for around $150, but Swiftech tells us they expect the street price for the H2O-120 Compact kit to settle in at around $129.


The Corsair Nautilus 500 uses a different approach to easier installation. Components remain similar to the more traditional water cooling parts, but everything except the CPU water block is integrated into an external cooling appliance. This also reduces water connections to two tubes for a much simpler and faster installation. Corsair claims the Nautilus 500 can be installed in 8 minutes, which is certainly as fast as most air cooling installs.

The Corsair Nautilus 500 also comes at a cheaper price than many other water cooling kits. Where most kits are in the $200 or higher price range, the Corsair sells for about $150 or even less. This places the Nautilus 500 in the same basic price group as the H2O-120 Compact.

Both Corsair and Swiftech claim they have not compromised in quality or performance with the simpler-to-install systems. Both say they combine top-line pumps, water blocks, reservoirs and radiators to insure top-line water cooling results with a much easier installation than traditional water cooling. In fact it appears both Corsair and Swiftech use similar components in their systems that are arranged in different configurations.

The big question then is performance. Do the Swiftech H2O-120 Compact and Corsair Nautilus 500 actually outperform the top air coolers? Are they quieter than today's best air coolers as advocates of water cooling claim? These are not frivolous questions since either water system costs two to three times the price of the top air coolers. Finally, are there other advantages to these water systems that make them a better choice even if performance is less than standout? Do the Compact H2O and/or the Nautilus 500 claim the title of best cooling system tested at AnandTech?

Swiftech H2O-120 Compact
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  • MercenaryForHire - Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - link

    Folks, this is a review of off-the-shelf watercooling components. Not a customized, modded, build-it-yourself Hoover Dam setup. And the conclusions drawn I think are valid - if you want good results from watercooling, be prepared to fork over some significant coin, or source the parts yourselves and DIY. Reply
  • jebo - Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - link

    Exactly. I find it interesting how all the water coolers are crying that AT said "Air is better than water". Well, the fact remains, that if you compare a $70 air cooler to a $150 water cooler, air is > water. You need to spend $300+ to get a h2o system that is better than a $70 air cooler. At that point, the cost concerns become prohibitive. Reply
  • psychotix11 - Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - link

    Part of the problem with this review is that it's managed to convince novice users that it does require 300+, which is either a distortion of truth to make a point, or ignorance about basic water cooling.

    Pump - 65, apogee GT - 45, double rad - 50, misc crap (tubing, fittings, fans) - 20.

    For exactly around 200 bucks you can construct a loop that will demolish any air cooling on the market. You could even toss another radiator into the swiftech kit and keep it under 200.

    For 300 bucks you could toss in a 3x120mm rad, upgrade the CPU block, and liquid cool the NB and go even farther.

    For a 300+ configuration the sky is the limit.

    Also I've noticed the numbers they get don't match what other reviews have put out for a lot of the items used.
    Reply
  • Nickel020 - Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - link

    As aigormola stated, ~200$ watercooling setups will beat any air cooling. A dual radiator doubles the heat dissipation capacity and is like 10$ more than a single.
    And don't forget that you can keep you watercooling setup for like 5 years, while you usually get one 50-80$ heatsink and fan every time you upgrade your PC.

    The review is fine, but the conclusion is the worst one I've seen in 5 years of reading reviews at AT. It's just plain wrong and will mislead a lot of people.
    Reply
  • aigomorla - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    First off, your picking the subject area which holds the most debate. Its a common ground fact that a 120x1 radiator will be lacking. Your test subjects were in fact both 120x1 radiators. One was made of ALU and the other Copper.

    Your looking at entry lvl water cooling and using it as a comparison of middle class custom setups.

    If you look at the swiftech APEX 220 series, you'll see your statement at the end not hold true.

    The direct drive released by swiftech on a 120x1 platform, as well as the corsair nautilus is not the best grounds to claim such statements. The reason is the lack of the radiator.

    120x2 radiator setups such as the swiftech Apex220 setup will eat the two coolers you listed and also any air setup you could possible throw. This unit is also modestly a bit over 200 dollars. Last price checked at jab-tech showed it to be 209 dollars for the complete setup.

    Also your making a lot of potential people who are interested in h2o migration think twice. Your passing more myths on watercooling then i can think of. If you feel i am wrong in any statement, i recomend you contact Gabe, owner of swiftech and tell him you would like to give the company a chance to prove how powerful h2o cooling can be by giving you a sample of there APEX 220 system. Im sure Gabe will be all over it.

    Also, you need to retract your statement about the 300 dollar mark. 200-300 is considered mid tier water cooling and no air can match to that calibur.

    @ the guy who was about to migrate to the MCR320. Go ahead, and dont look back. This review only proved the power of 120x1 radiator. Its very lacking, however the moment you step up to a beefier radiator, 120x2 or 120x3 in your case, you'll see all the air people left behind in your rear view mirror. 2x the cooling power for the 220, and 3x the cooling for the 320.

    Lets not even get into the power of a thermochill PA120.3 Believe me, its a very very big margin once you get there.

    I am the creator of the watercooling thread sticky over at anandtech forums, and i was VERY disappointed in this article. The members over at Xtremesystems think this is a joke. These are the guys who are the front run pioneers in h2o cooling.

    I ask polietly that you remove that comment of the 300 dollar being topped by high end air until you've tested an APEX 220 unit. All you have done was test 2 low end units in h2o and based a final conclusion.
    Reply
  • walltari - Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - link

    Very interesting review a pretty tough discussion but everybody forget one thing. You look only on very expensive kits useally common in U.S. or western Europe. I live in Czech republic (Eastern Europe) and I see another choises. I have completly watercooled PC. Radiator 2x120, pump with expansion and filling tank, CPU blok, GPU blok, Chipset blok, 2x HDD blok a this kit i bought for 210$. In this price you coudn´t buy ale these aircoolers and have same results. (I bought it form company www.viscool.com). I hear, and that´s the problem, that everybody have, DVD-rom.

    In the review author hit the problem of the noise. Really the pump is the most noisest thing. I´m interested in building watercooled systems for three years and at first it is neceseary eliminate vibrations. The differnce is that my system and systems of this firm is waterpump included in watertank. This solutions lower noise to minimum level. They have 2 watertanks, one, included in kit, is smaller and second, which they made especially for me, because o my larger and more powerfull pump.

    PS: Sorry for my english, I´m beginer
    Reply
  • rotNdude - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    Which direction was the fan blowing on the Swiftech kit? Since you mounted the rad off the back of the case and the fan appeared to be in the case, was it exhausting air or pulling ambient air?

    Also, how much fluid was actually added to each cooling loop?

    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    We used the existing case fan IN the case exhausting air. We also used the fan that came in the H2O-120 kit blowing air in the same direction. There is a 1-1/2" to 2" space created by the Radbox so air was being drawn in form the sides of the rad box.

    The pre-cut tubing in the Swiftech kit is about 10" long each. We used 12" tubes to reach the external RadBox mounted Readiator/Reservoir.
    Reply
  • Jodiuh - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    Thank you guys very much for using this universally accepted tool. I've always wondered why the temps for Thermalright's Ultra 120 Extreme were better than what I could achieve. There's 4 factors here:

    -ambient (20C-22C vs 24C-26C)
    -temp monitor (NV vs core temp)
    -fan (1600RPM vs 1200RPM)
    -load app (farcry vs orthos blend) <--this might not matter

    I'm currently loading an E6400@3500 between 62C-66C w/ 1.475 in bios (1.43 actual) when running orthos blend.

    Thanks again! Maybe orthos blend could be used in future or even ran again on past coolers?
    Reply
  • rochlin - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    These results totally make sense if the laws of physics have anything to do with it.
    There are some advantages to water cooling vs air, but you have to take advantage of them:
    Heat dissipation and the high specific heat of water: Because the dissipation of heat is separated from the CPU, you can have a bigger and more efficient heat sink than you can ever fit on top of a cpu.

    Also, because the heat dissipation (heat sink) is outside of the case, you can use the presumably cooler air outside the case to cool the heatsink.

    The point is, the water needs to be cooled. If the heat sink/fan setup cooling the water is no better than what you attach to your cpu, then the system will NOT cool your cpu any better. You will be recirculating relatively warm water back to the cpu.

    A sensible approach would be to build a giant heat sink. It could be aluminum (cheap) and big enough so the WHOLE case could sit on top of it. A channel for the water would zig zag under it. This kind of heat exchanger (like used in solar water systems) would cool the water much much more than anything you could fit inside the case.

    The relatively small heat exchangers in the two tested units just aren't going to outperform the terrific Themalright 120 Extreme heatexchanger unless your air temps inside the case get out of hand. The advantage of the heat transfer capability of water is WASTED unless you cool it down with a better heat exchanger outside the case.
    Reply

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