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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  • psychotix11 - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    But water cooling has never been about the best price for the buck. The same can be said of any high end parts. Extreme intel, amd FX, 8800gtx, SLI, none of this makes sense for the price you pay.

    Water cooling falls right into that category. If you really want it to show it's teeth load up an 8800 SLI system, build a custom loop at the 300 and 500 price point, water cool everything, and then compare temps.

    Obviously it's going to cost a lot more, but this is a given.

    You're article seems to hint that air cooling is better then water cooling, this isn't the case at all. All it shows is that high end air cooling is a better value then a water cooling kit designed for a novice on a budget.

    As for "might" and 300, that's wrong as well. My apogee gt + lian DDC, + mcr 220 2x yate loons push, pentosion did drop my temps over a tuniqu tower. The water blocks on the 8800's with an mcr 320 moved even more hot air out of my case and temps dropped more. That CPU loop costs less then 300.

    So, DDC pump $65, mcr 220 45, apogee gt 45, and about 30 bucks for fans, tubing and anti corrosive. Brings you to about 200, hardly the 300.
    Reply
  • EODetroit - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    Next time water cool the video card as well, and compare it against the CPU and video card on Air. OC both the video card and CPU and see how far they go. Then measure system noise. I agree with your conclusion that if you're only going to water cool your CPU, that you might as well go with a new air cool instead. But the CPU isn't the only expensive, hot, noisy thing in the case. In fact, the GPU is for many or most of us more expensive, hotter, and noisier.

    You shouldn't pretend the GPU isn't there. Water cool it as well and compare it THEN against air cooling.
    Reply
  • Lonyo - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    You forgot another element of one of your watercooling setups.
    It's external.

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE try looking at other temperatures, e.g. graphics card, motherboard, HDD, when doing these tests.
    The heat has to go somewhere. With an air cooler it stays inside the case before passing by the graphics card and getting pushed out the back of the case.
    With an external watercooling setup it gets transferred outside without going over the graphics card/motherboard, and hence internally other components beside the CPU should in theory be cooler.

    My view is that the main advantage of watercooling is the low CPU temps combined with lower internal case temps, since I wouldn't think of running water with an internal radiator.
    Reply
  • Nickel020 - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    I don't understand how you reached the conclusion, that good air cooling is better than sub 300$ water cooling by testing two sub 150$ water cooling kits.
    I have recently upgrade from a lapped Scythe Infinity to a 300$ wattercooling setup and at a maximum fan speed of ~1300 rpm (two fans dual radiator) the watercooling beats air by 10K but is little bit noisier since the fans sit at the top of the case. At 7V it's less noisier than the Infinity and still about 5K cooler.

    Please test a real 200+$ watercooling setup before drawing such conclusions. The test clearly shows that cheapw atercooling isn't worth it, but starting at about 200$ watercooling will beat air cooling if you choose good components.
    Here's a link to jstu about the ebst setup for 250$:

    http://www.petrastechshop.com/pecoel.html">http://www.petrastechshop.com/pecoel.html

    The waterblock is one of the ebst available, the Swiftech radiators are great for the price and with a modded top the Laing pupm is very quiet and has a excellent performance.

    I'd very much like to see Anandtech finally review some proper water cooling!

    PS: The review is otherwise very nice, finally a good review that compares low end watercooling with top-end air cooling.
    Reply
  • poohbear - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    quote:

    Please test a real 200+$ watercooling setup before drawing such conclusions. The test clearly shows that cheapw atercooling isn't worth it, but starting at about 200$ watercooling will beat air cooling if you choose good components.
    Here's a link to jstu about the ebst setup for 250$:

    http://www.petrastechshop.com/pecoel.html">http://www.petrastechshop.com/pecoel.html


    dude, that link shows it's $250!!! i can get the thermalright 120 extreme for $65... the choice seems like an absolute no brainer to most.
    Reply
  • retrospooty - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    "'d very much like to see Anandtech finally review some proper water cooling!

    PS: The review is otherwise very nice, finally a good review that compares low end watercooling with top-end air cooling."



    Agreed. It would be great to see a full review, including a few high end kits, cooling graphics cards as well, since that IS how they are used.

    This is a high end "best of the best" air cooler against 2 low end "mediocre" water kits.
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    We have also tested two kits closer to $300 in price from top water cooler manufacturers and they did not beat our top air cooler results. The Infinity was not a top performer in our test results unless it was driving a dual push-pull fan configuration. Stock it was slighly worse than the two water coolers we tested in this review.

    Also, Intel, Swiftech, Thermalright and others have now found that a convex base improves cooling performance mounted to current Intel CPU caps which are manufactured not flat to improve cooling performance. Lapping your Infinity prbably did no harm but lapping a thermalright would likely decrease performance. Swiftech in the past was a strong advocate of flat mirro-finish bases, but they now use the intentionally bowed plate on their top water blocks to improve cooling and overclocking.
    Reply
  • Nickel020 - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    Well the problem with watercoolig is that no big manufacturer offers a good kit, you absolutely need to mix and match parts from different manufacturers.
    Go to the forums here or at xtremesystems.org and everybody will confirm that a *well chosen* 300$ watercooling will beat any air cooling. You just need the right components, like in the ones in that kit.

    And I know about the lapping/bowing, I lapped my CPU as well and got a 13K lower temperature with both lapped than before. A bowed cooller usually has the advantage since almost all heatspreaders are concave, therefore a convex cooler is needed to make a good contact. But if you lap both CPU and cooler you're usually better off if you do it right.

    I would love to see you review a watercooling setup with good components, there almost no reviews on the net comparing good watercooling to top-end aircooling.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    quote:

    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?


    I think the real questions are . . . is it really worth the Hassle/danger/cost.

    Even a $300usd water cooling system is not a good water cooling system, and one that uses less than 1/2 tubing/waterbloccks etc, is not a good water cooling setup.

    Anyhow, I am not an advocate of water cooling, and I have been saying air is better than water for a long time now (couple of years), not because of cooling performance alone, but because of the three things mentioned above . . .Hassle/danger(or risk if you like)/costs. Building a top notch cooling system would set you back about $400 a year ago, now, probably more like $500-$600, but I wouldnt know for a fact, beause water cooling for PCs is like 4x4's with a 128 inch lift kit, its made to compensate for something, perhaps a small . . . CPU( or more likely something else) ?
    Reply
  • poohbear - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    well i'll be damed, i never considered watercooling cause it was too exotic and expensive, but it seems there's no point considering it to begin w! the best aircoolers are quieter AND run cooler than watercooling. Thanks for showing this fantabulous change of events anandtech. Reply

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