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Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

Date: September 6, 2010
Author(s): Rob Williams

The summer might be about over, but the need to keep our graphics cards cool is one that never goes away. To help make sure that our GTX 200 cards are running at their best, Zalman has released the VF3000N cooler. It offers an abundance of fins and copper, a lot of room for airflow, and a surprisingly easy installation process.



Introduction

When someone is evaluating their options for getting their PC to run cooler, one of the first places they tend to look is at CPU cooler. But today, it seems like that should be one of the last places to look, since today’s CPUs are more power efficient than ever, resulting in temperatures that rarely reach dangerous levels.

Our graphics cards haven’t enjoyed quite the same perk, though. While they’ve continued to experience die shrinks and lower power consumption, the performance is continually beefed up and in many cases, today’s GPU cores can run almost twice as hot as a current CPU under hard stress.

Between AMD and NVIDIA, users of cards from the latter have been on the rough end of the stick, as the company’s GPU dies have been overly large across the past two generations, and while they are powerful, the larger dies result in a lot more heat, and with them fitting into the same form-factors, they’ve proven difficult to keep cool.

As a result, there have been many after-market coolers available for consumers who don’t mind investing in improved cooling, while also seeking lower noise. Let’s face it, today’s NVIDIA cards do have the tendancy to whine at load, and whether it’s whining because it’s dying from the heat, I’m not sure. But it’s still annoying.

Closer Look

To help combat the big bad boss that is heat, Zalman recently released its VF3000 series of GPU coolers. The VF3000N which we’re looking at today is designed for GeForce GTX 200 cards (260 – 285), the VF3000F for GTX 400 (460 – 480) and finally, the VF3000A for HD 5800 (5830 – 5870). We’ll be checking out the VF3000F in the near-future, but for now, its the VF3000N that’s in our sights.

All three of the VF3000 models look identical on the surface, with fins dominating the design, and a thin shroud designed to help tie the aesthetics together. Whether the design appeals to you or not will depend on your tastes, but it’s hardly ugly. I kind of like it. The fact that the entire unit is light (430g) doesn’t hurt, either.

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

Taking a look at the opposite side of the cooler, it’s easier to get a grasp on its design. Almost in the direct center is the ultra-smooth copper base, which has numerous heatpipes wrapped into the center of the unit and then leading out to each end. The VF3000N is clearly aiming for top-rate heat dissipation.

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

A better view of the end of the heatpipes and cooler can be seen here:

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

The cooler’s shroud is held on with four screws – two on each end – and can be easily removed for when the time comes to clean the dust out of the fins – which will surely build up over time.

Here’s the cooler without its shroud:

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

Because bling is king, the two 92mm fans include a blue LED, and are rated for speeds of 1300~2500RPM and noise levels of 18dBA~32dBA. At the top-end, the fans will be audible, but if your PC is anything like mine, having many internal fans and hard drives, the noise likely isn’t to be too noticeable during heavy gaming.

With our look at the cooler’s design out of the way, we can move right into a look at the installation and performance.

Installation and Testing

As this is the first GPU cooling review we’ve done in quite a while, we’re still ironing out our methodology. So, this review will act as the base for things to come. Since GPU cooling is quite important as far as we’re concerned, we’re interested in publishing regular looks at the various solutions available.

Because this cooling review will be somewhat of a “one-off” (due to the fact that this cooler is for a last-gen card), we lack any sort of comparison – except to the stock cooler. In future reviews, we’ll have roundups and the like in order to develop those important comparisons.

To help push our GPU’s hard for testing, we utilize OCCT 3.1.0, which in our experience proves to be the most effective way to stress the card hard. It’s comparable to LINPACK for CPU stress-testing, in that the test is likely overkill, but it gives us the worst-case scenario which is good for obvious reasons.

After the PC is booted up and reaches the desktop, it’s left to idle for five minutes, at which point GPU-Z is loaded up to track temperatures. We then run a 15 minute run of OCCT’s GPU stress test, which is more than enough to push GPUs to their breaking point.

Since I use a GeForce GTX 285 in my personal PC, I decided to perform the testing there. My build isn’t the best, with a bit of a rats nest going on, but both the stock cooler and this one were in the same situation for testing, so it’s of no issue. A picture of the final install is shown at the end of this page.

Component
Model
Processor
Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition – Quad-Core, 3.20GHz, 1.30v
Motherboard
Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD5 (Rev 1.0) – X58-based, F5 BIOS
Memory
Kingston HyperX – 12GB DDR3-1333 7-7-7-24-1T, 1.60v
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 285 1GB
Audio
ASUS Xonar Essence STX
Storage
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11
Power Supply
Corsair HX1000W
Chassis
Cooler Master CM Storm Sniper
Display
Dell 24" 2408WFP
Cooling
Thermaltake V1
Et cetera
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit

Before jumping into the test results, let’s first get this thing installed, shall we? I admit that at first, I was a little overwhelmed as to the complexity of the entire setup… it’s far from being an all-in-one cooler that you simply slap on the card. Don’t believe me? Check it out:

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

The reason for all of the individual pieces is that the cooler supports the GeForce GTX 260, 275, 280 and 285, which can have slightly differing layouts. That said, you won’t get the VF3000N installed in 15 minutes, but rather closer to an hour. We’ll see if that hour is worthy with a look at our results later.

The first step for installation is to remove the old cooler and clean up the remaining residue. You’ll need to clean the memory chips, GPU die and also the NVIO (chipset to the left). To start things off, I used a couple of Q-Tips and then my fingers to scrub off as much of the residue as possible. Afterward, I put a bit of rubbing alcohol on some paper towel and gently cleaned up to as good a state as possible. The end result wasn’t so bad!

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

After the card is cleaned up, you’ll need to install the various heatsinks that are included with the kit. The first one I recommend installing is for the NVIO, since once in place, it’s secure and won’t accidentally be knocked out during the installation of the others. Afterward, the FET heatsinks are likely the best to tackle, followed by the many small memory heatsinks.

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

With all of the heatsinks installed, the job is almost done. You’ll need to take four “nipples” and screw them into four outward holes (is this a hardware porno?), and then put a rubber ring on each, to give a bit of a cushion for when the cooler is secured to the card.

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

At this point the cooler can be attached to the card, and once done, the card’s backside will have the four screws visible and ready to use. Before securing the cooler, you need to put down a PVC washer on each of the exposed screws, and then attach a spring to each of the fixing nuts. Then it’s just a matter of screwing the nuts into place, and ta da, the job is done.

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

Here’s the card in its completed form:

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

The VF3000N has a downside, but it leads to an upside. As you can see in both the above and below photos, the cooler is a bit taller than the reference, so rather than simply taking up the room of two slots, it instead bumps that up to three. That’s the downside… the upside is that because of its larger frame, the cooling-ability should be superb.

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

The above picture doesn’t reflect it, but once the GPU is installed into your PC, you need to connect the included fan controller that allows you to throttle the fan depending on what you want… silence or improved cooling ability.

With everything installed and ready to go, how well does Zalman’s nifty-looking cooler compare to the reference?

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

With the VF3000N utilizing the lowest fan speed possible, the GeForce GTX 285 dropped 13°C at idle, and 16°C at load. In this fan mode, the card is barely audible – only heard if you have your chassis door off and are at almost ear-level with the card. During my tests, the hard drives reading data were louder.

With the fan cranked to its maxed point, the temperatures at idle decreased by another 3°C and had a much more significant 8°C drop at load. Given that most hardcore gamers will prefer to keep the fan maxed for the best performance and stability, we can effectively say that the cooler dropped the temperature by 24°C at load, and 16°C at idle. Given that we were dealing with 96°C load temperatures beforehand, this is quite nice performance.

Final Thoughts

Zalman’s VF3000N is quite a nice cooler for GTX 200 cards, and for its ~$59.99 price tag, it looks to be well worth a consideration. But, there are some things to consider before leaping at that purchase. The first might be the question of whether $60 is worth the 26°C temperature drop that we saw. Answers to that will surely differ from person to person.

The VF3000N is great from an aesthetics perspective. As a whole, the design is rather simple, but it looks good with a sharp-looking shroud and blue LED fans (if you like that sort of thing).

From the noise perspective, the VF3000N is excellent. At a low fan level, the card is almost not even there… easily overshadowed by other components in your PC. At high, it’s clearly noticeable, but at that point, it can be assumed that you are gaming. And if that’s the case, the noise isn’t likely to be noticed due to speakers or headphones being used.

Despite the number of components that comprise this cooler, it was surprisingly easy to install. Certain parts were tedious, especially the memory chip heatsinks, but tedious doesn’t always equate with difficult. There were simply 16 of them to apply, and you must be careful when setting them on a chip if you want to have a clean look.

Zalman VF3000N GPU Cooler

For the bad, the first and most notable problem with the VF3000N is with the fans. In order to have them function, you must use the included fan controller, which as a whole isn’t large, but it still makes for a clunky setup. The cable for said fan controller is long, so it makes keeping a clean interior a bit of a chore.

Then there’s simply the fact that in order to lower or heighten the speed of the fans, you must use this controller, and in order for that, you’ll need to run it through to the exterior of your chassis. In my case, I ran it through one of the water-cooling holes since they are unused.

Ideally, the card should have mechanisms in place to control the fans on its own, like reference cards do. The upside is that this at least does give the user some control, and the ability to use low fan speeds even while gaming it up.

Another large concern is the fact that the VF3000N doesn’t take up just two slot spots, but three. While it’s easy to understand that Zalman was striving for the ultimate in cooling ability, given that the three were taken up, I was hoping to see performance a bit better than what I did.

In fact, I was a bit surprised that the temperature differences weren’t a bit greater, especially with the fan on low speed, given that there is so much extra airflow and a more efficient design at hand.

These are the only real complaints I have with the cooler though, so if you don’t care about using up three of your slots and the manual fan control, the cooler proves to be quite an interesting and effective one. The price isn’t outrageous either, so if you’re looking for a fairly clean solution to lower your card temps by up to 25°C, the VF3000N is worth a look.

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