For a lot of enthusiasts, a full custom watercooling (or liquid cooling, if you prefer) can be essentially the final frontier. Closed loop coolers have been taking off in a big way, bringing watercooling to the masses, but sacrifices are made in the process. The overwhelming majority of closed loop coolers employ aluminum radiators instead of the copper and brass that are used in custom loops, and the pumps tend to be on the weaker side, presumably to both keep noise down and because there's really only one component to cool. I'm still enthusiastic about these products because they can offer excellent cooling performance without placing the undue strain on the motherboard that a heavy tower air cooler can, and they're typically a win for system integrators who don't want to risk shipping damage. Whether you like it or not, this is the direction the market is heading, although pure air cooling most definitely still has its place.

So why look at watercooling? First, establish how important noise is to you. Watercooling systems (and this includes CLCs) occupy an interesting middle ground. For pure thermal-to-noise efficiency, they're basically unbeatable, but if you want absolute or near absolute silence, you actually have to go back to conventional air cooling. The reason is that watercooling necessitates using a water pump, and while they can be tuned down for efficiency, they're never going to be dead silent. An air cooler will always be a fan plus heatsink; watercooling adds a pump.

Watercooling is so efficient because it effectively allows you to spread your system's heat load across a tremendously greater surface area. Water transfers heat exceptionally well, and radiators in turn will be massive, densely packed arrays of copper fins. By being able to spread that heat across one or multiple radiators, you also allow yourself to use multiple fans at low speeds. Alternatively, you substantially increase your system's heat capacity, so if you're looking to overclock a little more aggressively, watercooling may be the way to go.

In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons to go for it is actually the potential for watercooling graphics cards, especially in a multi-GPU setup. While the stock blower cooler for the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 is actually a work of art and does a stellar job of keeping that card cool, it simply can't hold a candle to a full-card waterblock that can absorb the heat from every heat-generating component on the card, especially the power circuitry. Suddenly you're not risking tripping the 780's boost clock thermal limits anymore, and the blower coolers aren't generating any more of a racket for your trouble.

Of course, building a custom loop is insanely daunting. This is the first time I've ever built one and while guides exist all over the internet, they all feel a bit incomplete in one aspect or another. There's also the fear of spraying coolant all over the inside of your case, or accidentally frying graphics cards when you install the waterblock, etc. It's also a decent amount of work, and it's not cheap. Truthfully, if I hadn't been able to put this together for AnandTech, I don't know that I'd have ever made the attempt. But the opportunity did present itself and now I can at least share the results with you.

The Components, Part 1
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  • piklar - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    soz was half asleep, thanks for clarifying that I meant meant 1.280 - 1.30V for 4.6ghz with 4770K with H80. Reply
  • Razorbak86 - Wednesday, October 02, 2013 - link

    No problem. I'm pretty familiar with the voltage range, so I understood what you meant. I have a de-lidded 3770K OCed to 4.8 Ghz (offset) under water, and my voltage maxes out at 1.40V at load. Reply
  • Gigaplex - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    The power/temp/sound results aren't particularly useful without a comparison of OC air vs OC liquid at the same OC levels. We can't tell if the CPU is hotter on liquid vs air due to higher voltages or the GPUs heating the liquid. Reply
  • prophet001 - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    I thought this too. It would be nice to see metrics for identical OC settings on air and liquid. Seems like that would give more of an indication about how the cooling setup itself is performing. Reply
  • The Von Matrices - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    I enjoyed reading your article. I have owned a custom loop for three years, and after recently upgrading to Haswell, I can say that my overclocking experience mirrors yours. There is just no advantage to using a custom liquid cooling system versus a good air cooler or closed-loop liquid cooling system.

    I have also had the same experience with PWM splitters, and I think the blame comes down to the splitter itself. The splitter I have (it looks very similar to the one you tested) doesn't have the pins fitting very tightly in their connectors. Frequently, inserting the female connector into the male socket will result in the pins of one or the other pushing themselves out of the connector instead of mating with the other side, and you have to push the pins (or wires if the pins are just slightly out) back into the connector in order to establish the electrical connection.

    Two note as well is that are is worth mentioning: First, all video card full cover water blocks are designed with a particular PCB layout in mind, usually the reference PCB, so you have to be very careful which video cards you buy since they are not all compatible with the full cover blocks available. For example, for about the past six months there have been no more reference design AMD HD 7970s available on the market, so if you wanted to water cool the new 7970 you bought then you were out of luck (unless you wanted a MSI lightning, which one or two manufacturers make water blocks for). Second, while clear tubing looks great at first, it usually does not age well and begins to either turn yellowish or show water cooling fluid as it gradually gets dirtier over time. i would recommend solid color tubing if you want a system to look good with minimal maintenance.

    The biggest issue with this article is that you never stated the costs of the water cooling components. The system you built I estimate has about $800-$1000 in water cooling components. It is important to note that the system does not have to be that expensive, particularly if you're not especially concerned with aesthetics. Barbs cost about half the price of compression connectors, and if you have 10 of them in the system that's about $100 saved right there. If you frequently upgrade graphics cards, you can use core-only water blocks and separate VRM and memory heatsinks. The initial cost is about the same as a full cover water block (~$120 for a good full-cover block versus $80 for a MCW82 + $40 for the VRM/RAM heatsink plate) but every time you replace the graphics card you only have to replace a $40 VRM/RAM heatsink plate instead of a $120 full cover water block. And you can eliminate all the quick disconnect fittings for another $80 savings.

    I appreciate you documenting your experience!
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Unfortunately Swiftech has stopped selling monolithic plates for vram/vrm cooling on nVidia cards (allegedly due to their deal to make OEM watercoolers for eVGA). They still sell them for AMD cards; but on the nVidia front you're back to taping/gluing individual sinks onto each component. Reply
  • r3loaded - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    I enjoyed reading this article, but I'd add that you'll see a huge drop in CPU temperatures (like, 20 degrees) if you're able to delid your 4770K and apply a good quality paste under the heatspreader. It's risky but worth it if you're careful.

    If only Intel hadn't decided to cheap out and abandon soldered heatspreaders as on Sandy Bridge and earlier.
    Reply
  • kasakka - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Those load temps seem awfully high for the CPU. I can't help but think that maybe the CPU waterblock isn't properly mounted, has too much or too little TIM between it etc. Back when I was overclocking a watercooled C2Q 9550 the idle and load temps didn't change much and were around 40-50 degrees. Surely the current Intels would provide better temperatures?

    I stopped watercooling mainly because it would've been expensive to upgrade all the blocks when I went to Ivy Bridge. Turns out there is barely any noise difference between the water cooling and today's best air coolers, meaning I'm very happy with the near-silent setup I have now (3570K @ 4.5 GHz, Phanteks PH-TC14PE, Asus GTX660Ti w/ stock cooler) so purely from a noise level point of view water cooling isn't necessary anymore.
    Reply
  • Jackie60 - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Well that was a very informative monumental waste of time and effort and would have been money too if it wasn't for Anandtech. This tells me don't even ever think about water cooling unless in a small prison cell for a long time. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    I'm glad you finally tackled custom water cooling in an article here on Anandtech! :D And for the first one, it wasn't half bad.
    There are a few things I would add though. It is highly unlikely in my experience that someone investing the time and money into a custom water cooling rig would not delid the CPU or use a IVB-E CPU. That should help increase OC headroom quite a bit and bring down temperatures. That doesn't mean that it can't be done with air cooling, but since that is infinitely easier to do, fewer people would invest the time/money to delid a high price CPU or get a high price platform like IVB-E.
    But then again, watercooling just for the CPU has been dead since we stopped having 100+W CPUs. If you ask in any WC forum whether to custom cool the CPU, you will always get the response "It's not worth it just for that".
    I also think that people have a wrong idea about custom WC. If you are not interested in the challenge it poses, then it isn't for you. The benefits (quieter running while providing better performance) are there, but they aren't great enough to change from air cooling if you don't enjoy the risk and the building and selection process.
    If you plot a chart with performance/noise ratio, the water cooling rig can always be better than any air cooling that is available. It can also run components cooler at the same overclock, which increases their potential life span. However, these things come at a steep cost and may not be as necessary for many.
    But it is very nice to have my AMD 7970 run at 1250/1650 at ~44°C and barely have any high noise than in idle. :D
    Reply

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