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April 13, 2002 - by Mike Chin
It is a computing axiom that you can't have fast and quiet; certainly
not without resorting to elaborate and exotic cooling systems these days. This
is due mostly to the hot multi-gigahertz CPUs from both AMD and Intel, which
have likely caused a average increase in PC noise output of at least 2 dB/year
since 1999, as discussed in this article about noise
emission trends in electronic equipment. Recently, after reading about the
higher efficiency of Intel's 0.13-micron Northwood core P4s, I decided to put
the axiom to the test: Can a P4 be made to run silently at 2-Ghz using non-exotic, inexpensive techniques?
Attempting to answer this question was a great excuse to succumb the siren call
of speed glorious speed - once again.
In every PC project, one has a strategy, whether improvised or carefully planned
out. My approach this time was mixed. I needed the P4, a motherboard for it,
and DDR memory. But I had enough other components lying around that could be
used. I also wanted to prove at least to myself that making a quiet computer
does not necessarily mean spending a lot of money on specialty products.
I hoped to use an existing case, modified for excellent airflow so that case
fans would not be necessary, with a decent PSU powerful enough for the current
demands of the P4 but not too expensive. Hopefully, the retail P4 heatsink and
fan would be quiet enough to be used. If necessary, I would replace the PSU
and heatsink fans with quieter ones or run them at low voltage.
The P4 and other New Goodies
A retail Intel P4-1.6A was purchased, along with a MSI 645 Ultra 333 (SiS chipset) motherboard and a 256 MB stick of generic PC2100 DDRAM. The P4-1.6A is a 0.13 micron core CPU with 512K of cache introduced just a few months ago. It has been touted as the new Celeron 300A for its extreme overclockability.
First, a picture of the siren herself. The part number is SL668. It was packed
on 01/31/02 and made in Costa Rica. The most surprising aspect of the CPU is
its size. The photo doesn't show the scale, but it is TINY, measuring just a
bit over 1" square. Intel calls the metal piece that covers over 90% of the
top surface a heat spreader. The large contact area helps the heat from
core to be dissipated out to the heatsink more efficiently. It also protects
the die from damage during heatsink installation - a problem too often seen
with the AMD socket-A CPUs. The other surprise is the modest price: In late
February 2002, at a local Vancouver shop, it cost just Cdn $235 plus taxes,
which worked out to around US$165 in total.
Initially, I was led to believe that the power dissipation of this P4 at its
rated 1.6 GHz clock speed and 1.5V core voltage is 38.7 watts. That's the number
touted all over the web: more than 20 watts lower than the equivalent clock
P4 of the previous 0.18 micron Willamette variety, and 10W lower than the power
rating of the AMD T-bird 1GHz in one of my systems.
Later, I learned I was misinformed.
There are 2 versions of the P4-1.6A. According to Intel's
documentation about the P4, my 1.6A SL668 is a normal 46.8W 1.6A.
At time of writing, all retail box P4-1.6A are the 46.8W variety.
The low wattage 38.0W P4-1.6A is part # SL62S, designated as an OEM part. However,
OEM versions of the Northwood core P4 cannot be found anywhere locally in Vancouver
or on the Internet. Local retailers said the price difference between the two
versions is so small they felt there was no point ordering the OEM, especially
considering minimum ordering requirements.
This meant I was dealing with 9 watts more than expected. Pretty much the same
wattage as my 1 GHz T-bird. Grrrr! Still, I had managed to silence the T-bird,
NOTE: Added June 14, 2002
According to one source, the actual power dissipation of the two P4 versions discussed above is the same; they are the same processor. The lower power version simply can't handle as much peak power before burning up. Average power dissipation and thermal efficiency is the same.
The Retail P4-1.6A Package
The retail Intel heatsink-fan (HSF) that came with the CPU is more impressive than expected.
The heatsink is fairly large at 2.75"D x 3.25"W x 1.375"H, with 25 fins
on a contoured base that is thicker in the center. The all-aluminum heatsink
weighs ~300 grams, and the fan & mounting clip add ~75 grams. A thermal pad
was attached to the base. I removed it with the help of an old credit card,
then baking soda, dish soap and a sponge with water. With fan detached, of course.
The bottom surface is not mirror-polished like many expensive heatsinks but
smooth enough that I didn't feel there was any need for lapping.
The fan design is much like that on previous Intel processors where
the housing is a single-piece mold that clips tightly to the HS. Compared to
photos of stock HSF on other P4s I have seen (see the 2nd photo on right), this
fan looks smaller. I believe the fan & the heatsink have been changed for the
0.13 micron Northwood.
The standard core voltage of the NW P4 is 1.5V, compared to 1.75V of the older 0.18-micron core Willamette P4s; power dissipation has dropped by approximately 25% for processors of the same speed. For example, the nominal power spec for the 'Willamette' core 1.6G P4 is 61W while that for the P4 1.6A is 46.8W.
So perhaps because of the reduced cooling requirement Intel reduced the fan
size, and perhaps the heatsink? If so, it is unfortunate for HSF silencing,
as smaller diameter fans always whine more while delivering less airflow, and
smaller heatsinks require more airflow for the same level of cooling.
Examining the fan closely, it appears that something of the augmented
fan technology of the Millennium Glaciator and the PBL Panaflo fans may
be in use here. There is little or no frame to speak of, as both in / out flow
sides are almost completely open.
Considering its small 60mm blade size and 3000-rpm speed, it's not that noisy. It's rated at 0.16A, made by Sanyo-Denki, and has a part number (109X9412T5H036) that looks like one of Sanyo-Denki's. I could not find this part on their website nor Intel's, so can only guesstimate that the CFM is in the mid-20s, and its dBA spec around 30. It is whinier & noisier than my reference quiet fan, the 80mm Panaflo FBA08A12L, rated at just 21 dBA.
The HSF mounting clip is a clever affair that uses two cam action levers to
clamp the heatsink tightly to the motherboard, sandwiching the CPU in between.
The levers are in a plastic frame that comprises half of the mounting clip.
The other half is a plastic frame that is already on the motherboard, around
the CPU socket. It is a bit fiddly with the MSI motherboard because of capacitors
mounted close to one side of the plastic frame. But all in all, HSF mounting
is relatively simple and stress-free, unlike many of the clipped HSF for socket
CPUs, especially with the added security of the protective metal heat-spreader
cover over the core.
An animated GIF shows how this works -- not a great sequence, but gives you the general idea. (If the pic below is not animated, hit the browser refresh or reload button -- the GIF is set to repeat 10 times, then stop so it doesn't drive you batty.)
Bowing to Pressure
Still this setup is not without problems. So much pressure is applied that
the motherboard actually gets bowed directly beneath the CPU socket. That's
right: the motherboard gets bent. It worried me when I noticed it, so I did
some web research to see if there was any reference to it.
Dan of Dan's Data said in a review of P4 heatsinks:
Intel have tried to convince people that bending the bejaysus out of their
motherboard is a good thing, because if something smacks the computer then
the CPU socket's less likely to pop off the board... I remain unpersuaded...
These coolers don't actually break anything, at least in the short term. They
just look as if they ought to.
At Intel, digging through the P4 support area, I came across this
document, which says:
...the thermal solution provides controlled compression on the processor
and socket. This compression results in curvature in the motherboard... It
is normal to observe a bow or bend in the motherboard. The level of bow or
bend depends on the motherboard material properties and component layout.
PDF document showed this photo, presumably to reassure (!?) the alarmed
What can be said? The pressure applied to the motherboard seems excessive.
Intel even cautions about making sure the distance between the back of the mobo
and the case is adequate to accommodate this bowing. Modifying the mounting
bracket to reduce the pressure would probably help motherboard longevity if
you plan to play around with fans, heatsinks, etc.
I did come up with a solution to reduce the bowing; more on that later.
Intel P4 HSF Shuffle
One month after the purchase of the above retail P4 package, I purchased a
second one, ostensibly the same package as the first. In early March, Intel
caused some excitement among hardware nuts when they released photos of a new
heatsink they said would soon be shipped with P4. The photo showed an AVC Sunflower
HSF, which had already been reviewed as an excellent performance HSF. So I had
hopes that my 2nd P4 might be so equipped.
Alas, no such luck. What I got instead was a plain-Jane rectangular block HSF
- Weighed 250 grams, or about 50 less than the previous one
- Had a slightly larger, less whiney but noisier fan; in fact, the older
fan shown in the photos above.
What gives? I don't know. Intel's attitude seems to be: They'll take what we
give 'em. They don't have a choice.
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