The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Originally published 2002 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

I've written this CPU cooler comparison. It is, roughly speaking, the size of a cow. You can read it here.

In the course of writing, and regularly updating, the comparison, I have learned some general things about CPU coolers. Since there are about a squillion coolers out there that I haven't even seen, it helps to have some rules of thumb to tell you whether they're likely to work well or not. You can't count on being able to find a decent review of every cooler on the market.

The pics and links in this review are to coolers that are in my comparison, but the following rules ought to apply to everything.

Rule one: If a CPU cooler looks funkalicious, with...

Just Cooler P-1000

...laydown design with the fan on one end, or...

Thermaltake Dragon Orb 3

...a tubular radial-fin centre-fan layout, or...

Power Cooler PCH075 base

...some kind of wiggy rotary retention mechanism, then there's a good chance that it's rubbish. Or, at least, no better than any number of boring square coolers.

I've seen several Cool Looking Coolers that work well, or are at least OK value for money.

Thermaltake Golden Orb

Thermaltake's various Orbs, for instance; barring a rash of nasty core-crushing incidents when the old twist-lock Golden Orb was used on the then-new Socket A CPUs, they've all been pretty much trouble-free, performed well enough for all but the most extreme users, been well priced, and looked terrific.

But I've seen rather more groovy looking coolers that don't work well, and aren't good value. Something that looks...

Zen CPU Radiator

...like a turbo intercooler from Kaneda's bike in "Akira" is the computer-component equivalent of a concept car; probably for looking at, not for driving.

Global Win CAK38

Rule two: If a cooler has an all-copper heat sink of unremarkable design with an irritatingly loud fan on top, it'll probably work very well. It's possible to make a cooler like this and end up with a lousy product - use the wrong fin design and you can turn anything into a paperweight - but it's not likely that such a cooler will stink.

Whether you'll be able to tolerate the racket of a seven watt 60mm fan, though, is another question.

Power Cooler PCH137

Rule three: If a cooler's got a copper heat sink but a much less irritatingly loud fan, it'll probably work more than well enough for even quite serious overclocking, especially now that Northwood P4s and Palomino/Thoroughbred-core Athlons are lowering CPU heat output a bit. The slower fan will also be less likely to suffer from bearing death after a year or two. And, indeed, less likely to awaken the brain-hungry dead from their dreamless slumber.

Alpha PAL8045

Rule four: If a cooler has a gigantic heat sink with an 80mm fan sitting on top of it, and that heat sink is all-copper or has a copper slab in its base, then it also is likely to work well. Provided you can fit it onto your motherboard.

Arctic Cooling Super Silent 2000

Rule five: If a cooler has a normal-sized heat sink with an 80mm fan on top of it, funnelled down onto the sink with a "fandaptor" widget, then the cooler's performance is much less likely to excite you. Fandaptors are all inefficient; normal computer fans don't have much static pressure capacity, so they don't work well into a funnel. But 80mm fans are quieter than 60mm ones, all things being equal; that helps.

Rule six: A fan with twice the air flow won't give you twice the performance. It probably won't even give you 50% better numbers. More air flow is always better, but opening up your case ventilation so the air hitting the CPU heat sink hasn't been pre-heated by other components will get you better results than dropping a jump-jet fan onto the cooler and leaving the overall air flow lousy.

Rule seven: For similar reasons, twice as much heat sink doesn't mean twice as much heat dissipation. If the input heat were evenly spread over the whole heat sink base, then things might be different. But all socket PC CPUs contact their heat sink in a quite small area - a very small area, for pre-Tualatin FC-PGA Socket 370 and all Socket A chips - which means that giant heat sinks in general aren't nearly as good per gram as smaller ones, and giant all-aluminium heat sinks don't necessarily work very well at all.

P4s do all right with aluminium coolers, because their coolers are all large, and so's their contact patch. Small-patch CPUs, though, really need at least a copper base to spread the energy to a large heat sink.

The trouble with giant heat sinks is that the further away from the heat source you look, on your CPU cooler the size of a shoebox, the less of the heat will actually have managed to make it to that point. The outer fins on giant aluminium heat sinks commonly aren't doing much of anything. The heat path from the CPU to those fins is sufficiently resistive that they might as well not be there.

Rule eight: People keep e-mailing me and saying "I'm concerned about my CPU temperature, it's [Celsius reading from 50 to 90 degrees], what can I do?" They're usually asking about a Socket A CPU, because Athlons and Durons are currently the price/performance champions for the budget-conscious overclocker.

Well, I say in reply to these people, you can do nothing, if your computer doesn't crash all the time. No crashes, no problem. Maybe a too-hot CPU won't live as long as it otherwise would. Never mind; you'll almost certainly upgrade before the thing dies, anyway.

Most Socket A systems use CPU temperature sensors outside the processor; no two read the same. Even systems that use internal CPU temperature sensors can be bizarrely miscalibrated. And excessive heat will, at worst, just cause your computer to crash; it won't actually cook your CPU. If there's no CPU cooler at all then you can get Socket A CPUs to smoke up and kill themselves and their motherboard, but any degree of real cooling makes that functionally impossible.

What's the most important thing I've learned, though?

Probably this: Nothing gets thermal grease off stuff like naphtha lighter fluid.

And if the stain just won't budge, naphtha also makes it easier to destroy the evidence.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.

V-Pr0n

Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming

Pr0nBack!

Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies

A>B>C>A!

Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings

Alt-tCRASH

Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye

Filenames.WTF

The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords

Boing!

Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing



Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)