Sub-$20 CPU Coolers: A Reader's Roundup

Cooling
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by Andrew Butitta ("dragoth")

Editor's Introduction

by Mike Chin

In mid-summer, "dragoth" sent me an email with the header "Any interest in reviewing some (donated) inexpensive CPU coolers?"

Long-time reader of the SPCR, big silent PC enthusiast. Lately, I've been helping folks over at http://reddit.com/r/buildapc put together PC builds. A question that invariably comes up these days is: How can I make my new PC quiet without spending huge amounts of money.

I usually point folks to SPCR for advice on silencing their new PC, but the biggest debate usually centers around the CPU cooler: Is it possible to find a "silent" CPU cooler (ie: significantly quieter than the Intel / AMD stock coolers) for less than $20?

I thought I'd take the plunge and picked up a half-dozen cheap CPU coolers from Newegg, ranging in price from $8 (yes, really) to $17.

I've finished my testing and am currently writing up a long review post on them, but I have no objective way to measure how loud they actually are. If SPCR is interested, I'd be willing to ship the whole lot to you for review. There are some stinkers in there, for sure, but some surprises as well.

I'd like one of these coolers back for use in my home theater PC (a particular one; I don't want to say which one to avoid flavoring your review). The rest could be handled in the normal SPCR donated-hardware manner if you'd like.

My reply: Interesting idea. I'd like to read your review. Knowing your conclusions won't affect our sonic analysis in any way; the SLM and test gear readings don't get affected by what I read. Do you want to send me an advance copy? I'd be interested in posting your piece as a guest article, perhaps with measurements from our lab. This would be a nice illustration of subjective/objective sound analysis.

The Upshot: After testing the chosen coolers, Andrew wrote up his review, then shipped all the samples to SPCR. We ran the fans on all of the coolers through ASUS Fan Expert 2, measuring them for Sound Pressure Level (SPL in dB, "A"-weighted at 1m distance) at the precise speeds dragoth did his testing. Recordings were also made at these fan speeds. All of this data was then incorporated into the review.

This is not a standard SPCR review. It does not follow our standard testing procedures, nor use our standard test equipment. So it's not possible to compare the results for these coolers with our standard review coolers. It is a reader's roundup with supporting acoustic test data from SPCR, collected with our usual high standards.

A quick scan of SPCR reviews shows that most of our reviewed coolers are at least 2x, 3x or 4x the price of the ones chosen by Andrew; they are in different leagues. SPCR has always focused on the best quiet coolers, and in general, they tend to be the highest performance & most costly.

Still, if you're seeking an effective and really inexpensive cooler, Andrew's roundup should be quite useful. The 65W TDP of the Intel C2D used for testing is no lower than that of CPUs used in current HTPC systems, so the analysis here is quite relevant.

My thanks to Andrew B. for his effort and initiative in the project.

* * *

Andrew Butitta is a 30-something computing enthusiast living in Madison, WI. He's been tinkering with PC hardware for over 20 years now -- his first PC was a hand-me-down 486 SX33 which he eventually upgraded to an Am5x86 133 with a 2MB VLB video card and 16MB of RAM. Pressing individual VRAM chips into sockets will be a memory he says he'll cherish forever.

His current PC is a very quiet (and very Noctua-filled) Silverstone Fortress with an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 and nVidia GTX 770.

Andrew is a longtime reader of SPCR and a big fan of the push for silent computing.

Prelude

One of the most frequent questions a PC builder asks is "How can I make my PC quiet without spending a ton of money?"

The answer invariably focuses on the CPU heatsink and fan, as the stock units included with Intel and AMD CPUs, while adequate, leave something to be desired on the noise front.

About a year ago, I had tried to quiet down my home theater PC with an Arctic Cooling Alpine GT rev.2. That experiment ended in disappointment with the GT's cooling power turning out to be rather lackluster unless the fan was turned up to such a degree as to make the stock cooler seem attractive once more.

When I offered this opinion on an online forum for new PC builders, an opposing viewpoint was raised: the Alpine GT has a number of good reviews, but if it wasn't a great cooler for that price, what was?

With that in mind, I decided to find out what the best cooler under $20 would actually be.

I purchased the following coolers from a major online computer parts reseller:

  • Arctic Cooling Alpine 11 Pro Rev. 2 - The Arctic Alpine 11 GT has a larger brother, and that's the Alpine 11 Pro. I was curious if the sins of the offspring originated in the father, so this $17 unit was the first cooler on the list.
  • Rosewill RCX-Z90-AL - At just $8 at the time of purchase, this was the least-expensive Socket 775 / 1156 / 1155 / 1150 cooler in the reseller's stock. I had to try it.
  • Gelid CC-Siberian-01 - $10 at the time of purchase, it was one of the cheapest coolers available on the site, lacked any substantial review presence online and used a promising-looking design.
  • SilenX EFZ-92HA2 - A fairly radical-looking cooler, especially for its $10 price, the SilenX had some minor review presence online, but nothing about how it performed with its fan undervolted for noise reduction, which was my major concern.
  • Zalman CNPS7000V (AL) - The originator of the SilenX's design, Zalman was the first to try the radial fin cooler back in the early 2000s. Zalman's made numerous versions of this cooler, some incorporating copper fins and some including heatpipes. This is the cheapest version of the CNPS coolers at $15.
  • Logisys MC2002GX / Deep Cool GAMMAXX 200 - This $15 tower cooler used a promising conventional U-shaped heatpipe design and was intriguing if only for its price.
  • Cooler Master Hyper T2 - This $17, twin-looped-heatpipe tower cooler carried a major brand name. I was curious to see how Cooler Master's lowest-end cooler performed against the competition.

I also had my two existing coolers to compare these units to:

  • Intel stock cooler for Conroe / Core2 Duo - I cleaned up and dusted off my old stock cooler with the intention of finding out if it could actually hold its own against some low-end competition.
  • Arctic Cooling Alpine 11 GT Rev.2 - The cooler that started it all. Even though I was ready to throw this cooler in a fire, I decided I should instead throw it into the review and let it burn itself up on its own merits.

An Introduction

Primarily, what I'm examining are classified today as "low-profile," "value," or "traditional" CPU coolers. But if you take a step back in time (say, to about 2002), you'll see that a number of these coolers can trace their origins to high-end coolers of an earlier time period. Take a look at the ThermalTake Golden Orb or Volcano 7 to see what I mean. They wouldn't look out-of-place in this roundup at all.

Why 2002, though? Well, in February of 2003, Cooler Master turned the CPU cooling world on its ear with the release of the Fujiyama. Well, not really, but that was the earliest mention I could find of a heatpipe desktop CPU cooler. In April of that year, CpuMate released their "Achilles" DIA-21500, possibly the great-granddaddy of today's modern tower heatsink with its side-mounted fan and u-shaped heatpipes.

As I mentioned, most of these coolers fall into the traditional cooler category, and accordingly, their performance is going to be somewhat lackluster. A few, as you'll see, try some rather innovative techniques to make up for their technological deficits, while others stick to the tried-and-true formula of "bigger is better."



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