Date: March 16, 2007
Author(s): Rory Buszka
Thermaltakes slogan for their TMG cooler lineup is “Quality Life Starts With Silence.” We have been pleased with the cooling performance of their products in the past, but silence and good cooling ability are two difficult things to put together. Let’s take a look at how well both the A2 CPU cooler and AT2 GPU cooler perform in our tests.
In any high-performance computer system, proper cooling of heat-producing components is of critical importance. This isnâ€™t news at all â€“ CPUs since the 486 have required the use of some auxiliary cooling solution, and with todayâ€™s hottest processors kicking out in excess of 130W of thermal power, the heat dissipation requirements in modern PCs border on the ridiculous. The cooling needs of overclocked processors have left some enthusiasts resorting to complicated liquid cooling systems for their rigs, though for most applications direct air-cooling remains the simplest and most elegant solution for getting rid of the heat produced by CPUs, GPUs, motherboard chipsets, and memory.
A growing concern in the minds of PC consumers is the noise produced by the fans employed in system cooling. Extraneous noise sources impair concentration and increase stress, which can also lead to other physiological problems. Ideally, cooling solutions for heat-producing hardware components should be capable of keeping those components at a reasonably low temperature, while generating as little operating noise as possible.
Ostensibly, Thermaltakeâ€™s new Thermal Maximum Grade (TMG) line of products is one way to achieve that ideal. Thermaltakeâ€™s slogan for the TMG line reads, â€œQuality Life Begins With Silence.â€ The product line employs specific design practices intended to decrease noise output without sacrificing airflow. Thermaltakeâ€™s TMG line incorporates optimized fan blade and blower wheel designs, as well as â€œEnterâ€ bearing technology, which is a variation on the traditional sleeve bearing that includes internal spaces which contain additional lubricating oil.
The TMG line is comprised of fourteen models â€“ three coolers for AMD CPUs (A1, A2, A3), two coolers for Intel CPUs (i1, i2), two coolers for ATI GPUs (AT1, AT2), three coolers for NVIDIA GPUs (ND1, ND2, ND5), a waterblock cooler for ATI GPUs (AT3), two waterblock coolers for NVIDIA GPUs (ND3, ND4), and a slot blower (SL1). Overall, itâ€™s a comprehensive lineup. The VGA waterblocks include a ducted fan, but no heatsink â€“ in my opinion, some extra copper fins should have been added to the waterblocks if Thermaltake went to the trouble of including fans. However, as with all TMG products, Thermaltake assures us that the fans are quiet.
In this review, Thermaltakeâ€™s claims of low noise will be the primary focus, since this is the major selling benefit of the TMG line. The frameless 92mm fans used on the CPU coolers bear striking similarity to those used by Arctic Cooling on their popular low-noise thermal solutions â€“ itâ€™s obviously Thermaltakeâ€™s intention to produce a similar, competing product line. This double-header review will deal specifically with the Thermaltake TMG A2 CPU cooler, and the TMG AT2 GPU cooler. Will the TMG series deliver effective cooling with low enough noise levels to satisfy noise-conscious enthusiasts?
The exterior design of the Thermaltake TMG retail packaging is attractive, though it seems that Thermaltake still doesnâ€™t demonstrate the same command of the English language as many other Asian component manufacturers. The TMG boxes offer noise comparisons to standard references, in this case the stock AMD boxed CPU cooler and ATI reference cooler.
The box for the A2 CPU cooler also shows an exploded assembly diagram of the various parts involved, as well as their features and benefits. The A2 CPU cooler is packed in a cardboard box, while the AT2 is packaged in a PET clamshell package which thankfully didnâ€™t require scissors to open.
The A2 CPU cooler itself is packaged in a PET clamshell, with the socket clip and photo instructions loose in the box. This packaging looks sufficient to keep the cooler safe in transit, even in situations where the box might be severely disrespected. This packaging reflects clever engineering â€“ obtaining the most protection possible from the least material. Also included were a TMG-series case badge, and a treatise on a design philosophy called â€œKey 3 Spiritâ€.
The AT2 GPU cooler is larger than one might expect for such a unit, with a very tall cooling fin assembly. In the included accessory pack (the small black cardboard carton) were an instruction manual, mounting hardware, the â€œKey 3 Spiritâ€ paper, a Thermaltake TMG-Series case badge, the photo installation instructions, and a strip of pink bubblegum-like, adhesive-backed thermal interface pads for transferring heat from the cardâ€™s memory chips.
|Model||A2 (CL-P0373)||The names of the coolers in the TMG series indicate the chips whose mounting schemes each cooler is designed for. A stands for AMD; this cooler is designed for AMD CPUs.|
|Compatibility||AMD Athlon 64 X2 (Socket 939, AM2)|
AMD Athlon 64 FX (Socket 939, AM2)
AMD Athlon 64 (Socket 754, 939, AM2)
AMD Sempron (Socket 754, AM2)
|This cooler is compatible with every AMD CPU available today. Socket A users are left out in the cold, however.|
|Exterior Dimensions (H x W x L)||103mm x 102mm x 115mm||This is a sizeable cooler, but itâ€™s not enormous. Its design ensures that it wonâ€™t interfere with any surrounding components.|
|Heatsink||Copper Base, 4x 6mm Heatpipes, Aluminum Fins||The heatpipes are nickel-plated, so they match the finish of the aluminum fins. The fins are fine and closely spaced, and all the heatpipes exit and enter the base and fin structure on one side.|
|Fan Description||92mm square x 38mm tall; frameless; 7-blade impeller; 12V||This fan looks like the fans that Arctic Cooling uses on their most recent Alpine and Freezer models.|
|Fan Performance||300-2500RPM via 4-pin PWM connector; 35.14 peak CFM||This fan is capable of running extremely slowly. Whether it is effective in moving air at those speeds is another story. The 4-pin PWM connector is becoming more commonplace.|
|Noise Level||16 dBa||Itâ€™s hard to reconcile this figure with the airflow specification, especially for a 92mm fan.|
|Life Expectancy||50000 Hrs||Thermaltake offers a very long 6 year warranty, assuring you that the Enter-bearing motor will outlast just about any userâ€™s upgrade cycle.|
|Weight||385G||This cooler isnâ€™t what Iâ€™d call heavy, though itâ€™s no featherweight. Those with nightmares about an enormous heatsink ripping free from its mounts and going for a stroll inside their case can put those fears to bed.|
|Model||AT2 (CL-P0373)||The names of the coolers in the TMG series indicate the chips whose mounting schemes each cooler is designed for. AT2 stands for ATI.|
|Compatibility||ATi 1800 GTO/XL/XT (Crossfire)|
ATi 1900 GT/XT/XTX (Crossfire)
ATi 1950 XTX (Crossfire)
|This cooler is only compatible with ATIâ€™s upper-end Radeon X1800, X1900, and X1950 cards, though it will only work with cards based on ATIâ€™s reference design and cooler. This list is a veritable whoâ€™s-who of hot GPUs. This cooler doesnâ€™t block the Crossfire cable.|
|Exterior Dimensions (H x W x L)||34mm x 128mm x 161mm||This cooler is big, and tall. It wonâ€™t work in most HTPC cases, since it sticks out beyond the top of the card by a good inch.|
|Heatsink||Copper Base, 3x 6mm Heatpipes, Aluminum Fins, Aluminum Memory Plate||This cooler uses widely-spaced fins, which are more efficient when the fan is optimized for low noise and low airflow impedance, like the AT2â€™s blower wheel is. An extra aluminum plate surrounding the base conducts heat away from the memory modules.|
|Fan Description||80mm diameter x 25mm thick centrifugal blower||This blower uses a special reverse-swept vane design which is optimized for low pressure operation and reduced noise.|
|Fan Performance||1650RPM; 10.24 CFM||This fan operates at one speed, since it doesnâ€™t connect to the video cardâ€™s own power connector, but draws its power straight from a 4-pin connector.|
|Noise Level||16 dBa||Weâ€™ll see. This noise level should be inaudible even in a quiet room.|
|Life Expectancy||50,000 Hours||The Enter Bearing design is expected to last as long as anybody needs a cooler to last. Dust in the motor can reduce the fanâ€™s lifespan, no matter what bearing system is used.|
|Weight||345G||This cooler mounts securely to the video cardâ€™s PCB, and feels significantly lighter than the stock cooler, whose fins are â€˜skivedâ€™ from a solid block of copper.|
|Power Connector||4-pin Molex||This cooler draws its power directly from the power supply, via a 4-pin pass-through connector. Iâ€™d still prefer to see a 3-pin motherboard connector, however, or a connector like that used on the video card itself. The 4-pin connector is workable, though.|
First, letâ€™s take a look at the Thermaltake TMG A2, and see how its design features are intended to decrease noise production while maximizing cooling.
While the TMG lineâ€™s other CPU coolers bear strong resemblance to the Arctic Cooling Freezer and Alpine models, the A2 and i2 heatsink/fan use a more original four-heatpipe design, with airflow in a direction perpendicular to the motherboard. The 92mm fan is a frameless design, similar to those used by Arctic Cooling. Itâ€™s also uncommon in that its airflow is directed in the opposite direction from the motorâ€™s label â€“ downward toward the fins. This fan isnâ€™t a standard part, so itâ€™s not replaceable.
However, the fanâ€™s bearings employ Enter bearing technology, which stores extra lubricating oil within the bearing assembly itself. The additional reserve of lubrication within the Enter bearing is meant to give the Enter bearing a life span thatâ€™s competitive with that of ball bearings. The Enter bearing is actually a technology developed by one of Thermaltakeâ€™s fan OEM partners, Everflow. Why go to all this trouble for sleeve bearings? Ball bearings contain more internal components, which rub together and create additional operating noise. Sleeve bearings, however, rely on fluid dynamics to suspend the shaft within the journal, eliminating contact as long as thereâ€™s lubrication available to the bearing. For that reason, this design should theoretically produce less bearing noise than a ball-bearing motor.
The TMG A2â€™s fin structure is elevated above the processor core, allowing the coolerâ€™s exhaust to be blown across the memory and voltage regulator modules which surround the CPU socket. The aluminum fins are tightly packed, which is great for increasing the convection surface area, but this also increases the airflow impedance provided by the fin structure, making it harder for the fan to push air efficiently through at low speeds. The base of the heatsink is copper; some polishing marks are visible, but overall the surface finish is decent. The base of the cooler also has a grey-colored thermal paste applied, which is most likely a silver-based compound (due to the grey color). I was tempted to wipe this stuff off and use Arctic Silver 5, but instead I elected to measure performance using the supplied thermal grease.
The supplied clip rides inside a channel on the TMG A2â€™s base. One end of the clip simply provides a hook for the socket lug, and the other end uses the familiar flip-clip arrangement found on the AMD stock cooler. The clip wasnâ€™t difficult to install, though Iâ€™m not so sure about the clip design â€“ though the pressure created by the clip provided enough friction to hold the cooler firmly in place, Iâ€™d be much more reassured by a design where the clip was physically attached to the coolerâ€™s base. Our test motherboard is an ASUS A8N-SLI Deluxe, and the processor is an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+.
Overall, the installation was a simple process. Physically, the TMG A2 positively dwarfs the stock AMD cooler, though the design didnâ€™t threaten to interfere with any of the motherboardâ€™s onboard components, thanks to its elevated fin structure. Next, letâ€™s look at the installation of the TMG AT2 cooler.
The TMG AT2 is an extremely large cooler, with a slow-rotating blower fan that promises minimal noise production while still offering high-performance cooling. The AT2 model is only compatible with ATI-built X1800, X1900, and X1950 cards, or other cards using the ATI reference design and cooler. Our test card is an ATI X1800XT, built by ATI.
While the speed of the ATI reference coolerâ€™s blower fan is regulated by the card based on the GPU core temperature (a step in the right direction), even at low speeds the blower motor produces an annoying buzzing sound, and itâ€™s not hard to understand why some would seek a quieter option. The ATI reference cooler is mounted to the card by four screws at the outer corners of the copper slug, and an additional four smaller screws clamp the GPU core to the back of the cooler. The ATI reference cooler uses eight foam â€œbubblegumâ€ pads to transfer heat from the memory modules as well.
For memory cooling, the TMG AT2 cooler includes a strip of eight new, pre-cut thermal transfer pads. Each pad is adhesive-backed on one side. On the back side of the AT2 cooler, a large aluminum plate transfers heat from the memory modules to the copper block that sits directly atop the GPU core.
The AT2 cooler attaches to the card using one fewer screw than the stock ATI cooler. Thermaltake includes plastic washers for each of the seven screws, to prevent the flow of electric current, eliminating the possibility of a short-circuit that could kill the card. The original cooler didnâ€™t use any washers, so Iâ€™m not entirely sure why theyâ€™re necessary for mounting the AT2. Still, itâ€™s better safe than sorry. Youâ€™ll need a small Phillips-head screwdriver to remove the old cooler and install the new one â€“ a typical Phillips-head driver wouldnâ€™t fit into the screwsâ€™ heads. The AT2 card uses three 6mm copper heatpipes to transfer heat from the GPU core to the very end of the fin structure which, as you can see, sticks out past the top edge of the card by about Â¾â€, or roughly 2 centimeters. Did I mention this thing was big? Well, it is.
The AT2â€™s blower wheel is 80mm in diameter, and uses the same Enter Bearing technology as the rest of the Thermaltake TMG line. As you can see here, the AT2 has a much larger fin structure than the AMD stock cooler, and the AT2â€™s blower itself is larger than that of the AMD stock cooler. However, weâ€™re not looking for a major improvement in cooling here â€“ rather, weâ€™re looking for the cooler to work more effectively while producing less noise.
The blower vanes are reverse-swept, which is useful for pushing air into low impedances with low noise levels. There isnâ€™t much room around the outer edge of the blower wheel â€“ typically, centrifugal blowers have a gradually-widening duct around the fan, to allow it to develop airflow all around its circumference. The AT2 simply has an opening away from the blower into the fin structure. While the AT2â€™s blower wheel operates, waste airflow can be felt coming from the sides of the blower that are not ducted into the fin housing. For this reason, I donâ€™t think that the AT2â€™s special-design blower wheel operates as efficiently as it could.
The AT2 doesnâ€™t receive its power from the video cardâ€™s onboard header â€“ rather, it plugs straight into a 4-pin Molex connector. The cardâ€™s own thermal control features go to waste as a result. This cooler only operates at one speed. Iâ€™d rather have a 3-pin motherboard connector.
Now that both TMG-series components have been installed, letâ€™s take a look at how well they cool, and how well they achieve low noise. Should you consider these components for a silent PC?
For this review, Iâ€™m using my friend Zachâ€™s machine again, which you may remember from my earlier review of the Antec SOLO case. Itâ€™s not the most blisteringly high-end machine, though it does have significant potential for heat generation with its AMD dual-core processor operating at 2.2GHz, and a hot ATI X1800XT graphics processor.
ATITool was used to stress the CPU, Northbridge, and GPU, and the same test with default settings was run for each configuration tested. For each temperature measurement, the motherboardâ€™s onboard data acquisition system and internal thermistors were used. Through all testing, Cool nâ€™ Quiet features of the motherboard were enabled, as they will likely be in actual use. ASUS Q-fan was disabled, so that the CPU cooler would always run at the fanâ€™s full speed. Under load, temperatures were allowed to stabilize for 10 minutes during each test. The three-speed case fan was set to HIGH speed during thermal testing.
Overall, the TMG coolers delivered solid cooling performance, keeping the CPU and GPU significantly cooler than their respective stock coolers. The cooler upgrade was more beneficial to the GPU, with its temperature dropping 14 degrees when compared to the stock ATI cooler; the CPU dropped 7 degrees as well when compared to the stock AMD cooler. Itâ€™s safe to say that these coolers provide a worthwhile drop in temperatures when compared to the stock coolers.
Fairly impressive as well was the drop in system noise after installing the TMG coolers. The most significant noise reduction was with the change from the stock ATI cooler to the Thermaltake TMG AT2. The AT2â€™s blower generated a soft whoosh of airflow, and a barely-detectable whine produced by the blower wheel itself. Any noise contributed to the AT2â€™s noise signature by its blower motor, however, was inaudible. Personally, Iâ€™d prefer to use the AT2 with a variable-speed or automatic fan controller, or splice its leads into the old connector on the video card itself, in order to use its onboard thermal control function for complete silence when idling.
The A2 cooler on the processor sounded much like any case fan while running at full speed, though with ASUS Q-Fan enabled, and the fan spinning at about 1500 RPM, it was virtually inaudible as well. Iâ€™m a stickler for noise, and Iâ€™m known among my enthusiast friends to have an almost obsessive aversion to computer noise. However, I could certainly live with the noise level produced by the A2 cooler, when used with the motherboardâ€™s automatic fan control function.
One concerning thing I noticed upon firing up the A2 cooler for the first time was a very high-pitched metal-on-metal whine. This went away after about five minutes of operation, however. Iâ€™m not sure what this means, or whether you should be concerned by this. If the whine doesnâ€™t go away, itâ€™s an almost sure sign of absence of lubrication in the motor. Also, Thermaltake claims that the A2â€™s fan is spring-mounted, much like the similar Arctic Cooling products (whose fans mount on compliant rubber studs), but Thermaltakeâ€™s spring-loading method doesnâ€™t provide any true isolation, since the fans are still retained by plastic studs. It would have cost Thermaltake less to simply attach the fan with the plastic studs alone.
In summary, the TMG coolers appear to perform decently for their price, but more importantly, they deliver fairly well on their claims of lower operating noise. While the most obsessive silent-PC enthusiast may not be satisfied, most users will enjoy peace and quiet along with improved cooling. The claim of 16dBa operating noise levels is almost certainly false in the case of both the A2 CPU cooler and the AT2 GPU cooler, unless some method of reducing their fan speed is used. At full speed, forget it. Still, both coolers I tested from the TMG series were quiet enough that itâ€™s not hard to imagine them being used in a system where low noise is a design goal.
The TMG series represents Thermaltakeâ€™s latest effort to produce a product that will be accepted by those seeking to reduce the noise from their computers. Other products that Thermaltake has branded â€˜silentâ€™ in the past have not lived up to their branding (save, perhaps, for the Big Typhoon). There has alwatThe Thermal Maximum Grade series really seems to be different, however, delivering genuinely quiet noise levels when used with speed control, like that found on most newer motherboards. All the products in the TMG series use the same 92mm axial fan and centrifugal blower design (except for the waterblocks), so the noise assessments in this review most likely hold true for the other products in the TMG series, though thermal performance will almost certainly be different for coolers having a different heatsink design.
Should you choose the Thermaltake TMG series? If youâ€™re obsessive about silence, Iâ€™d suggest you look somewhere else, but if a less-than-absolute degree of silence is acceptable for your next rig build, these thermal solutions are some of Thermaltakeâ€™s best to date when it comes to quiet, while providing significantly better thermal performance than the stock cooling solutions.
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