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CPU Cooler Roundup – 22 Models Tackle Our QX6850

Date: June 24, 2008
Author(s): William Kelley

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.



Introduction

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.

Testing Methodology and Platform

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.


Scythe

Scythe Andy Samurai Master

The first cooler we took a look at from Scythe uses a top mounted fan design that allows air to be blown down through towards the motherboard. The included 120mm fan is very quiet and it does a respectable job on our stock speed tests. It was unable to complete the testing at overclocked settings, however.

The Andy Samurai Master features a compact design and doesn’t take up as much room as many 120mm fan-based coolers since the fan is mounted horizontal to the motherboard. Utilizing push pins for mounting made it simple to install and there is included hardware for all socket compatibility. This cooler can be found for around $50.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 6 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 6 out of 10

Scythe Mugen

The Mugen utilizes 5 heatpipes to pull the heat out of your CPU. The included 120mm fan is quiet and efficient as well. The mounting hardware included is simple to use and all current popular CPU sockets are covered. Size is something of an issue since the fan is mounted vertically, so you need to be certain your case has the proper about of space. This is a great cooler for the money since it can be found for around $50.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 8 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 8 out of 10

Scythe Ninja

The Ninja is one of the older coolers we put to the test. It has been out for some time, but is still rather decent. The mounting hardware is simple enough and all popular sockets are covered. The included 120mm fan is very quiet but somewhat weak as it was unable to keep our test CPU under the shutdown temperature when running full load overclocked. It does a respectable enough job for its current price since it can be found for around $45.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 6 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 7 out of 10

Scythe Ninja Copper

The Ninja Copper is the exact same cooler as the original Ninja with the exception of being an all copper design. It is literally identical to the original and even uses the same ineffective fan. It barely managed to keep the temperature under the 85C shutdown threshold when the CPU was overclocked, as well. The prices I found for it put it around $70 and I would not recommend it at any price over $50, if at all.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 7 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 5 out of 10

Scythe Shuriken

Up next is the Scythe Shuriken. This cooler is specifically designed for low-profile applications. While the low-profile design makes it a little more difficult to install, it is perfect for HTPC and very low height installations. The fan is quiet and effective enough to keep our QX6850 under 75°C at full load at the stock CPU speeds. In all fairness, it was never designed for or meant for overclocking so when it failed the overclocked test, I was not surprised.

Still, this is a great low-profile and lower budget cooler that does a very respectable job for such a small package. They can be found for around $35.

Installation: 8 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 7 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 8 out of 10

Scythe Zipang

Scythe took the horizontal fan design to the extreme with the Zipang. With the ultra quiet 140mm fan and simple mounting, I was honestly expecting more out of this cooler. It is definitely large and case space needs to be taken into consideration when pondering a purchase. The included mounting hardware was simple to use and covers all popular sockets. One other benefit is that the fan will also cool down the socket area and memory since it’s massive! These can be had for around $60.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 8 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 7 out of 10


Thermalright, Thermaltake

Thermalright Ultima 90

Thermalright is another well-known company producing high-end heatsinks for all sorts of PC applications. The Ultima 90 is no exception. Sporting a lower profile, this cooler is great for those of you with space limitations. The mounting design covers Intel 775 and AMD AM2 sockets and they even include fan brackets for 92mm and 120mm fans as well.

Installation is somewhat tricky but not ridiculous. Since there is no included fan, I used a Vantec Stealth 120mm fan for testing. This was a nearly silent solution and unlike many others, performance does scale well when using a high CFM fan, so I would recommend the highest CFM fan you don’t mind listening to it, for maximum effect. They can be found for around $45.

Installation: 7 out of 10

Cooling-ability: 9 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 9 out of 10

Thermalright Ultra 120 Extreme

Here is yet another example of how bigger can be better. Utilizing larger than normal heatpipes, this cooler is a beast. Using the same low noise Vantec Stealth fan that we used on the Ultima 90, this cooler put out some truly impressive numbers. It was able to run nearly silent yet maintain very low CPU temperatures even when overclocking.

It may not be the cheapest at around $65, but it is the best of the best in terms of performance when using a quiet fan. This cooler should still be on your very short list if you have a Quad-Core CPU and plan on pushing it to the max. Installation is also easy enough and the included Intel 775 and AMD AM2 hardware make it ready for your overclocking dreams.

Installation: 8 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 10 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 10 out of 10

Thermaltake Big Typhoon VX

As the oldest cooler tested of the bunch, I was not quite sure what to expect from the Big Typhoon. After being released almost 2 years ago, this guy has survived the test of time. Quite possibly the largest overall size of any other cooler, I did expect better of it. To me, the smaller heatpipes and mounting base just were not up to the task of handling my Quad 2 Extreme CPU.

While it did perform well at stock speeds, it was unable to complete the testing when overclocked. It was easy enough to mount and is compatible with all current sockets as well. Unfortunately, time has passed it by and for the price of $55, it just isn’t up to the job for Quad-Core overclocking.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 6 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 6 out of 10

Thermaltake Max ORB

Utilizing the horizontal fan design, the Max Orb is another oldie but goody. The mounting mechanism is quite simple to use and it will fit most popular CPU sockets. With a built-in fan controller, you can adjust the fan speed, albeit you must do it internally.

One thing I will note is that the fins were easily bent and my tests, one bend made contact with the fan. That aside, while able to handle stock speeds, it too was unable to handle my overclocking. They can be found for around $45, but there are better coolers available for the same amount of money.

Installation: 8 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 6 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 6 out of 10

Thermaltake V1

The last of the Thermaltake coolers we took a look at was the V1. With its all copper design, I was expecting more from this. Two large heatpipes, the too-small mounting base and all that copper just were not enough for my Quad-Core when overclocked. It did perform better than most at stock speeds, but it was quickly overwhelmed once the Vcore was turned up. It was easy enough to install and will fit all current sockets, but its $60 price tag is just not warranted as there are far better performing coolers for the same price.

Installation: 8 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 6 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 6 out of 10


OCZ, Noctua, Arctic Cooling

OCZ Vanquisher

OCZ’s budget entry in the cooler world is the Vanquisher. It uses a simple design and an 80mm fan to get the job done. As it uses the Intel push-pin design for mounting, it is simple to install as well. It is compact and moderately priced but don’t let that fool you. It packs quite the punch and the only real drawback was the noisy fan. They can be found for around $30.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 8 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 9 out of 10

OCZ Vendetta

The next cooler from OCZ uses a different approach to cooling. The heatpipes are directly applied to the processor instead of a copper pad in between like most others. Using a 92mm fan, it does quite well but again suffers from higher noise levels. The Intel push-pin mounting is used, again resulting in a simple installation. The fan-attaching mechanism was somewhat difficult to master, though. These can be found for around $40.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 8 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 8 out of 10

OCZ Vendetta 2

The redesigned Vendetta 2 took the original a step further. Utilizing the same mounting methods and direct die contact, they also upped the fan size as well to a quieter 120mm unit. Now with the quieter fan, they have given us a good and quiet midrange cooler. It is larger than the original so be sure you have the space in your case before picking this one up. They can be found for around $50.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 8 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 8 out of 10

OCZ Vindicator

The Vindicator is the first heatsink from OCZ. It too utilizes the push-pin mounting system and a quiet 120mm fan. It did struggle with the heat when the CPU was overclocked. It is quite large and you need to be mindful of space when considering this one.

As this is somewhat of an older cooler, availability is not as good and they are pricey, especially considering the lack of cooling power for Quad-Core CPU’s. I would not, however, hold this against OCZ since it was released before Quad-Cores were mainstream. They can be found for around $55.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 6 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 6 out of 10

Noctua NH-U12P

The Noctua NH-U12P is the first of the large coolers we tested. Equipped with a 120mm silent fan, this cooler is quite large. This model is a slight refresh of the original and comes with a stronger fan as well. The base and heatpipes are also now nickel coated whereas the original was straight copper.

The installation hardware for all socket compatibility is included and is easy to configure. There are also 2 fan speed reducers included for those seeking as close to silence as possible. The larger size may be an issue with smaller cases, so please bear that in mind. They can be found for around $60.

Installation: 8 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 9 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 9 out of 10

Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro

The Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro was very easy to install thanks to the removable fan and the use of the stock Intel push-pin design. The effective use of moderately sized heatpipes and a shrouded fan really make this cooler extremely effective.

The best part is that this is one of the best bang-for-your-buck coolers out there today. They can be found for roughly $25 and they perform really well. It’s not too tall as well so it should be considered if space it tight. For this cooler to perform as well as it did and how quietly it ran, I would dare say it is the best possible ‘under $40’ cooler available.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 8 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 9 out of 10


ASUS, Sunbeam, SilverStone

ASUS Silent Square PRO

The Silent Square PRO is one of the more feature-packed coolers. It is packaged with a digital fan controller and a large pile of hardware for all socket compatibility. The mounting hardware took some concentration and thorough reading of the instructions, but it was not too bad.

At stock speeds this cooler performed quite well with the fan on high. It was slightly noisy, but overall nothing worth ‘whining’ about. It was unable to handle the test CPU at the overclocked settings, most likely due to smaller-than-average heatpipes. They can be had for around $60.

Installation: 7 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 7 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 6 out of 10

ASUS Silent Square EVO

The Silent Square EVO is very similar to the PRO model. The only discernible difference is colors and a slightly more powerful fan. It comes with hardware for all socket compatibility and uses the same mounting configuration as the PRO. It was able to do a good job at the stock CPU speed without a lot of noise as well. It was unable to handle the overclocked settings again due to the smaller than average heatpipes. They can be had for around $60.

Installation: 7 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 7 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 6 out of 10

ASUS Silent Night 2

The Silent Night 2 is a completely different design than the other ASUS coolers tested. The fan was very quiet and did a good job cooling the stock-clocked processor. It too, however, was unable to handle the overclocked speeds used for the testing.

ASUS really needs to step up the size of their heatpipes. While none of their coolers used were specifically rated for the Core 2 Quad Extreme processor we used, it would make an average product better with such a simple change. It also used the same mounting design as the other ASUS coolers. They can be found for around $55.

Installation: 7 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 7 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 6 out of 10

SilverStone NT08

Up next is the new SilverStone NT08. The included mounting hardware was somewhat unique and it should fit all S775 and AMD systems. The included fan was also unique with its blue blades and worked very well with very little noise. One thing I wasn’t ready for was the incredible cooling-ability this package gives. I’m not sure when it will be released to the public, but it can keep up with the best of the best, so stay tuned for more info when it becomes available.

Installation: 9 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 10 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: N/A

Addendum: SilverStone e-mailed us to let us know that they have decided to not release this cooler.

Sunbeam Tuniq Tower 120

No roundup would be near complete without including the venerable Tuniq Tower. This cooler has set the standard for some time and still holds its own against newer competitors. The mounting hardware isn’t the most user friendly, but once it is installed it does work well. It is very large so be sure to take that into consideration.

The fan is slightly noisy when set to maximum, but the included PCI slot mounted fan controller helps tame it when you don’t need maximum CFM. Other coolers may beat it by a degree or two, but there is no denying it is still one of the best performers. They can be found for $50.

Installation: 7 out of 10
Cooling-ability: 10 out of 10
Performance-Per-Dollar: 10 out of 10


Results

Now that we’ve completed taking a look at all 22 coolers on hand, let’s put each and every one through our gruelling tests! Before we jump right into the results, I’ll list our tested system specs once again. For specific testing methodology, please refer to the first page of this article.

Our first results graph shows the top-to-bottom results for our tests at stock speeds. Load temperatures are valued more than idle, so the list is sorted with that in mind. Each cooler was able to keep the CPU under the 85°C threshold – a good sign.

With twelve having the ability to keep the load temperatures under 60°C there is no clear-cut winner. About the only consideration in choosing amongst them would be noise and size. As you can see from the graph below, even the lowest performing cooler performed admirably.


(Click to view alphabetical list)

Once we turn up the heat, we quickly separate the men from the boys. It’s no surprise that the Sunbeam Tuniq Tower 120 and the Thermalright Ultra 120 Extreme were on the top of the list. What did surprise me was how well the Silverstone NT08 did. Staying within 1°C during testing shows it is a top tier cooler and is ready and able to quench the heat of a highly overclocked Core 2 Quad CPU.

The Noctua was the only other cooler able to stay in the 60°C’s when the clocks were turned up, while the OCZ Vindicator came real close to losing the battle with the QX6850.


(Click to view alphabetical list)

You might wonder why so many failed the overclocking test. The heatload of a Quad-Core is very intense. Once it reaches a certain point, it rises rapidly. Many were able to stay below 80°C for up to 40 minutes of the testing, but they eventually succumbed to heat and caused the system to shutdown.

So I would not call them bad coolers. I would instead state that most were not even designed for the heatload and would not recommend them for overclocking purposes. If you are an avid overclocker, stick to the top 5 for the best results.


Final Thoughts

First off, I want to thank all the companies that supplies heatsinks for our testing. I also want to thank OCZ for supplying copious amounts of their Freeze thermal paste for our roundup. It proved easy to apply and clean off, and we plan to use it again in the future.

This article can be considered the first of many cooler roundups that we plan to do. In the coming months, we’ll see what new coolers have hit the market and add them to the 22 we’ve tested here. There are many exciting models coming out now and within the next few months, so I look forward to testing them out first-hand.

I also want to add that Zalman did provide us with the 8700, 9500 and 9700 coolers, but they were not compatible with our test motherboard. The heatpipe on the ASUS P5E3 motherboard would just not allow the mounting hardware to work. While they are still decent coolers, with the popularity of heatpipe based motherboards, Zalman needs to redesign their mounting methods.

Secondly, I want to stress the fact that our test bed and test methodology really put the maximum stress on all these coolers. Also, many of them were either created before the Quad-Core CPU was mainstream or they were just not designed for the Core 2 Quad Extreme that we used for testing.

Given the stock speed of 3GHz, even most of the coolers that failed will still work well for the casual overclocker. Add to that equation a high-end PC case with great airflow and your results can vary from ours. My testing was meant to punish the weak and reward the strong so that you got the best idea of just how good the current crop of coolers is.

The two biggest surprises of all my testing were the Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 PRO and the OCZ Vanquisher. For their price range, they are amazing coolers. They were able to beat quite a bit of the competition while remaining the cheapest on the market. The Freezer 7 PRO is definitely the top dog for under $30 and has been as cheap as $20 on sale. If you have a limited budget, it is this editor’s choice.

The next surprise was the SilverStone NT08. For a still unknown product, it performed amazingly well. As of press time, the little information I could find for it did not state much and I am not even sure if they still plan on releasing it. If they do and release it for around $50, there will be a serious new contender for the top spot.

Addendum: For whatever reason, SilverStone has decided to not release the NT08. Why we received it at all is beyond us, but it’s too bad this very efficient cooler won’t reach the market.

As for the Thermalright Ultra 120 Extreme and the Tuniq Tower 120, the results were pretty much as expected. These coolers trade blow for blow and are even still amongst the best possible air cooling-solutions to date. Considering the Tuniq Tower 120 can be had for $50 I must award it the overall editor’s choice for our testing.

The most important thing I would stress when looking for your next CPU cooler is to make certain you have all your priorities in mind when shopping. The Tuniq may be the best, but can it fit in your case? Are you overclocking? How quiet do you want your system? Do you mind removing the motherboard to install a cooler? Exactly what do you expect from you new cooler? Those and any other questions MUST be raised before you buy or you can easily be disappointed with your choice. Always remember that bigger is not always better.

Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 PRO
Superb Value, Very Good Performance

OCZ Vanquisher
Superb Value, Good Performance

SilverStone NT08
Great Performance

Thermalright Ultra 120
Superb Performance

Tuniq Tower 120
Great Value & Superb Performance

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