What better way is there to find out which CPU coolers excel than to throw them at our ultra-hot Intel QX6850? We took 22 different models and did just that. Some surprised us, some didn’t. What we were left with were five different models that deserved our Editor’s Choice award.
One of the most important but often overlooked aspects of a new PC build is the CPU cooler. When you add the fact that many people want to overclock their processors to the moon, you have a recipe for disaster when a sufficient cooler is not selected. But for stock speeds and low room temps, AMD’s and Intel’s current boxed offerings are usually decent if money is tight.
But stock coolers are often loud, and noise nowadays is a major issue with people. A few years ago, people didn’t think twice of running multiple high CFM fans to keep things cool at any cost. I’ve personally built a few PC’s in my lifetime that sounded like a hovercraft. Now, we’ve come to expect silence, and not only that, but for efficiency as well. While case airflow does have an impact, the cooler itself must be up to the task as well.
Of course, you also need one that fits. The CPU area of the motherboard is often crowded with heatsinks and heatpipes. The memory can also be quite close as well. There is just not enough room sometimes to put anything but a stock cooler on, or the mounting mechanisms that companies dream up just take up too much space.
There is no perfect solution since their function also includes keeping the surrounding area and voltage regulating circuits cool as well. This is where the design tends to play the biggest role in how well they can do their job of keeping your PC alive no matter how much heat you throw at it.
Since we are testing 22 coolers together in this review, I will not go into great detail about each. The importance was placed on making sure that the playing field was level and that all coolers were put through the exact same amount of abuse. I also chose to use an open air testing rig instead of putting each one inside of a chassis. But bear in mind… the better the case airflow, the more efficient your cooler.
I wanted to be certain to put as much heat into them as possible. So what better to use than a Quad-Core? I also chose a motherboard that had extensive cooling for the surrounding voltage circuits since that heat dump should be taken into consideration when overclocking. Many coolers do just fine on an open platform with a stock cooler at stock voltage, but as soon as you add even 0.1V, the temperatures can rise dramatically.
I carefully chose the software environment to run under. I used Prime 95 and CoreTemp 0.97 along with CPU-Z 1.44.1 throughout my testing. As for OS, Windows XP was chosen, with all of the latest available updates applied.
I chose my environment very carefully. I did not want any outside influences on the airflow and I wanted to make certain I could keep my ambient temperatures as stable as possible. I was able to maintain the temperature between 68F-70F throughout the entire testing regimen. The room I used also had no fans running along with no heat ducts to raise or lower the temps at any time. I set the motherboard on a flat wooden desk with "12;” standoffs to ensure that there was no latent heat trapped under the board at any time. I allowed the test rig to cool off for 1 hour between tests. Each test was run twice to check for consistency as well.
It’s also important to note that we used OCZ’s Freeze thermal paste throughout all of our testing.
One thing I want to mention about the processor used is that it runs warm. Unlike a lot of the G0 stepping Q6600’s, this guy runs like a furnace. I thought it was the perfect CPU to use for this test because of that reason. It will run 85°C all day long without a hitch, so we knew we could rely on it in more than one regard. But, because we don’t recommend you to run your Quad-Core at those temps for too long, we set that as our max temperature in the BIOS. If a cooler passed that point, it was considered a fail.
All coolers used for this review passed while the CPU was running its stock speed of 3GHz and stock VCore of 1.3V. The motherboard used has superior voltage regulation as well and there is no measurable V-Droop when fully loaded. I then set the CPU multi to 11X, resulting in a CPU speed of 3.67GHz, and the VCore to 1.4125V in bios for the overclocking tests. Again, I want to make sure people realize just how much stress overclocking a Quad-Core is for the motherboard and how much heat the motherboard power circuits also churns out while running this way. This is where the big boys shine and where the “should have run” units were left behind.
If you plan on running your Quad-Core under 3GHz, you can pick almost any cooler made and it will do the job. When you want the absolute highest overclock you can achieve, you need to pay attention to our charts later in the article.
One final note, I could not mount any of the 3 coolers supplied by Zalman to the test motherboard due to clearance issues with the surrounding heatpipes. This may not be a concern for some motherboards, but since most new boards come with some sort of heatpipes around the CPU, be certain you explore the ability of any cooler you pick to fit in the area.