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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  • EODetroit - Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - link

    The above is the best comment here. In the end, its all about heat radiation. If the air coolers have a better means for radiating heat than the water coolers, they'll win. Water usually did well because it radiated the heat outside the case and most importantly, they could have bigger radiators than the little HS&F inside the case.

    With the modern high end air coolers, the radiators are huge (even if they're inside the relatively hot case). With the water cooler setups you tested, the radiators are small (small for a water radiator, even if its radiating to the outside air). Therefore you don't really need to see the numbers to know what the result will be.

    To take advantage of water cooling, you need a big time radiator on the outside of the case... preferably with large fans that can push a lot of air through them without making a lot of noise. By testing radiators the size of a 120mm fan, you negate water cooling's biggest advantage.
    Reply
  • Lem - Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - link

    I kinda agree but...

    I somewhat disagree with the reasoning because heatpipes transfer heat a lot better than the water tubes we see used with water cooling systems.

    The only benefit of water cooling is basically the fact that you can transfer heat longer distances. This allows you to take advatage of big external heat sinks.

    If there were long and flexible heatpipes out there, we would not even consider water.
    Reply
  • GhandiInstinct - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    We need more important articles like these, as well as DDR2 comparisons and GPU comparisons....

    Anyway, I have one minor complaint, I wish the line graphs would be done away with as well as maybe labeling the names with a (AIR) and (WATER) so we know which performs best :)

    (It's very hard to tell with the line graph)
    Reply
  • Jethrodood - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    I cant believe such a long standing tech site would draw such naive conclusions in the realm of cpu cooling. /scratches head.. Reply
  • JAG87 - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    This has to be one of the worst articles ever. It was decent until the very last page, where conclusions are drawn based on two cheap beginner water cooling kits, and one test platform.

    First, don't say water cooling is bad when testing beginner All-in-one test kits. These are cheap, and they perform as much as they cost.

    And second, try keeping an over clocked quad core below 60c at load with air cooling. Take a 3.6 to 4 Ghz quad, thats 200W of heat. Try cooling that with air, just try.

    And you don't have to spend more than 300 for water cooling to beat air cooling. Example: Apogee GTX/Dtek Fuzion + MCR220/MCR320 + MCP655 + MCRES MICRO + 7/16ID tubing + a few zip ties = way less than 300 dollars.

    Why don't you split your review into pricing categories, and then you can draw a conclusion for each price category, instead of calling shens on water cooling. Make a sub 200 dollar section, a 200-300 dollar section, and a 300+ section, and run tests for each. Then you can say, hey sub 200 kits are a waste of money, 200-300 kits are the sweet spot for CPU cooling, and 300+ kits are only for people who wish to water cool more than just the CPU.

    Come on Wesley, we expect better from Anandtech.
    Reply
  • oopyseohs - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    And second, try keeping an over clocked quad core below 60c at load with air cooling. Take a 3.6 to 4 Ghz quad, thats 200W of heat. Try cooling that with air, just try.

    QFT

    I am by no means an advocate of water cooling, but I do appreciate the ability of water cooling to dissipate greater quantities of heat faster than air cooling. Maybe not faster (which is why you're getting better scores on a low TDP X6800), but more. I have tested the H20-120 Compact on QX6850's with Gabe and it's superiority to even the best air coolers is quite evident - even though it has just a single 120mm radiator.

    While I don't think this is "one of the worst AnandTech articles ever", as a previous poster so delicately put it, I think it does bring to light an important flaw in your testing methodology for coolers: that the Core 2 Duo just does not generate anywhere near the heat of the increasingly-common Core 2 Quad.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - link

    I'm currently typing on a system with a Q6600 on an MSI P35 Platinum board with the jumpers set to the 333 bus speed, giving a 3.0GHz quad core. Tuniq tower at around 1400RPM, running quad Prime95 Speedfan shows core temps in the mid 50*C range. Reply
  • rallycobra - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    does anyone have actual temp data to support this? At some point does the aircooling show a non linear response to additional heat and the temp shoots much higher than water cooling? I'm not sure how this is possible. Reply
  • rallycobra - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    I disagree. This is an excellent article. An $80 Thermalright 120 ultra has better thermals/noise/cost/install. And no chance of a catastrophy with fluid! If the data is reliable, and I believe it is, there is no sense in anyone spending $150 on either of these kits.

    I was thinking of getting the swiftech kit, since other reviews from less credible sources said it was better than any air solution, and then upgrading the radiator to a thermochill 120.3 and keeping the apogee drive. That is a $150 radiator with a $100 cpu block/pump.

    It appears to me that you need to budget about $300 for fluid to be better than air. If you are going to go through the effort, go big or don't bother. I'm talking a huge radiator. If swiftech releases a kit with a 120.2 radiator for the same price, that may make sense.
    Reply
  • Calin - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    Because this was a review of a pre-made, as-sold water cooling setup. You mentioned he compared installation time with the air coolers?
    The $50 and 15 minutes of installation for a top-end air cooler, compared to the hassle of buying all the afore-mentioned components and fitting them, for a $300 price point (maybe?)
    I'd say he got the right conclusion, and the article was sound. It was not intended to the water cooling experts, but to people that would (maybe) choose a somewhat simple to install $150 solution instead of a simple to install $50 solution.
    By the way, in all the list you put (Apogee GTX/Dtek Fuzion + MCR220/MCR320 + MCP655 + MCRES MICRO + 7/16ID tubing + a few zip ties), I only know for sure what zip ties are.
    Reply

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