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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  • Gul Westfale - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    watercooling is still worth it ig=f you have th emoney; th etwo setups tested here are not exactly the best coolers available. also, the statement in teh article that watercoolers are quieter than aircoolers is ridiculous, after all a watercooler still has a fan thta blows air through the radiator, and that fan is jst as quiet (or noisy) as an aircooler... unless you go witth zalman's fanless reserator design.

    i'm afraid the conclusion of this article tries to tell you that all watercoolers perform like these two here, but that is simply not so. other, better systems include the aforementioned zalman reserator, the koolance exos, and several more advanced setups from swiftech. if you are interested in this, frozencpu.com is a good site to do some window sopping :0
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    We state you will likely need to spend more than $300 to possibly outperform current top air coolers. We have recently tested several systems near that price point and stand by that statement based on our tests results.

    We did not say water cooling is quieter, we just said many reviews over the years have stated water cooling to be the quieter solution. As we showed in our review that is no longer thacase unless you buy a much more expensive water system. If you read carefully you will also see we found the water pump to be the biggest noise maker and not the radiator fan.

    Finally, water cooling will have to be eons better than air if we need to spend more tha 6 times the top air cooler price just to match performance of the best air coolers. The only compelling argument in favor of water in our opinion is the ability to add video cooling blocks and possibly chipset blcos to a water system - but that cost is also high.

    You CAN buy or build a superior water system if you spend big bucks, but as one expert water cooler showed me in his tests results he had yet to find a water cooling kit that outperformed the best air coolers. His own monster water cooler was a custom built and very expensive water cooling system. If I need to go to those prices I can buy phase-change coolers that have a chance of creating sub-ambient CPU temperatures.
    Reply
  • haelduksf - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    I'm sorry, but I don't believe you. I'm running a $200 loop, with CPU *and* GPU blocks, and getting 34 degree load temps (folding) on my q6600. Nothing special- 240mm rad, fuzion CPU block, Silverprop GPU block... frankly, you must be doing something wrong if you can't do better on water than on air.

    Plus, as others mentioned, this loop will cool any computer I own for the next 10 years, which no air cooler can claim.
    Reply
  • mpc7488 - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    Nice article Wes, and good way to phrase it - water cooling solutions under $300 cannot outperform top air coolers. Reply
  • Nickel020 - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    quote:

    Finally, water cooling will have to be eons better than air if we need to spend more tha 6 times the top air cooler price just to match performance of the best air coolers. The only compelling argument in favor of water in our opinion is the ability to add video cooling blocks and possibly chipset blcos to a water system - but that cost is also high.


    But you also need to consider that you'll use watercooling for a long time. I just recently bought my watercooling, but my 45$ waterblock was already available 3 years ago, lots of people that bought it then for a Athlon XP/754 system are still using it on a Core 2 today, and it's still very good. In the last 4 years I've had 3 different 50+$ air coolers in my main rig, that kind of adds up as well.
    Watercooling is a big initial investment, but pump and radiators will last you 5+ years and waterblocks last several years as well. If you're a guy that buys one 50+$ heatsink a year, then watercooling is only marginally more expensive (if at all) then air.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - link

    The only reasons to upgrade to a newer cooler (air or water) is if either the performance is significantly better, or the cooler does not support whatever socket you move to in the future. These factors are the same for air or water, so in theory both should have a similar lifespan. If water cooling sees improvements in the next few years the way air has in the past few years, you would probably upgrade your water setup sooner than you think as well. Reply
  • KeypoX - Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - link

    that is not true i bought the koolance case/water cooler years ago and it was no match for my current air cooler. On top of that the water block i had bought the 200 koolance was dropped and no longer supported for newer chip sets.

    I had a athlon 2600xp OC with the water cooler but it wasnt as good as air. And it had to much upkeep and a TON of noise.

    Reply
  • RamIt - Monday, September 17, 2007 - link

    What happened to paet two of the micro atx motherboard roundup? Reply

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