The concept of home media centers (or HTPC) has taken deep roots owing to its synergistic principles. Relying on stable support of interested consumers, HTPC products have become one of the main driving forces in this industry. They are actively developing and demonstrate good expansion rates in their segment. There are plenty of various models in the market, but users often face a paradoxical situation in the market: absolute majority of HTPC devices are either apparently weak, barely able to play HD Video, or excessively powerful (for example, monsters from one famous retailer, based on SLI configurations and packed into huge Silverstone enclosures). There is practically no happy medium here, that is configurations that are really optimized for HTPC! Besides, typical HTPC products stubbornly ignore the priority of noiseless or at least low-noise operation. It's a nonsense for the image of computer media centers (their operating noise level is significantly worse than that of DVD recorders and other similar products).
Considering all these facts, experienced users are left no choice but to configure their HTPC on their own, if they want an ergonomic solution for a wide range of tasks (process audio/video/photos, watch movies, TV, etc), including gaming. Fortunately, it's not difficult to find main components, as a rule – the market offers quiet PSUs and hard drives (you can also consider HDD 2,5" models for notebooks), and ergonomic graphics cards ATI Radeon HD 4850/4870 with low-noise custom coolers (to say nothing of mainstream graphics cards with passive cooling systems), and HTPC enclosures to any taste and budget. But it's still very difficult to choose another important component – CPU cooler. Especially if you need a promising partner for top quad-core processors, which have high requirements to cooling systems.
So, in our today's article we'll examine three different coolers for HTPC products – Cooler Master V4, Scythe Shuriken, and Zalman CNPS8700 NT. The primary requirement to a component for media centers is its compact dimensions (it must not be higher than 90 mm) and hightech image (heat pipes and developed finning). These coolers qualify in these aspects, so let's proceed straight to their design and usability issues, and then we'll analyze the main point – performance of our today's contenders. Let's start the ball rolling!
Cooler Master V4 (UCI-L9P4-GP)
The first cooler to be reviewed today is a new product from Cooler Master with a strict and laconic name – V4 (UCI-L9P4-GP).
This cooler offers serious technical parameters despite its compact dimensions (112 x 108 x 75 mm) – a copper heat sink (63 x 48 x 5 mm, 37 x 38 mm at the base), four copper heat pipes (6 mm in diameter) and combined aluminum finning (some fins are integrated into the base), spiced up with a nice fan (92 x 92 x 25 mm, 2800 rpm, PWM control).
Thermal efficiency of the V4 is also very good. First of all, note the "symbiotic" finning that connects two "independent" fin-stacks (24 fins in each stack, 36 x 16 mm) and an additional heat sink (27 fins) linked to the base of the cooler. This configuration allows to solve three tasks on the road to better heat exchange – offload the cooler base by providing optimized heat release with the help of an additional heat sink, raise fin efficiency in this additional heat sink (one part of it works with the base of the cooler, while the other part contacts heat pipes), and form four additional heat release elements in "independent" sections. That is, V4 finning uses all its surface area (1600 cm2) for active heat exchange, and it can be as efficient as much bigger tower-like heat sinks.
Another advantage – all joints in the working medium are implemented with good old soldering, complying with all strict rules of technical etiquette. Thus, thermal resistance is minimized between pipes and the base of the cooler, between the base and fins, and between pipes and fins. Consequently, the entire heat sink becomes more efficient. This is especially important for the compact V4, when each minor thermal issue is relevant, and thorough configuration may lead to decent results.
The on-board fan also looks good (Martech DF0902512B2UN). It's notable for a neat combination of aerodynamic and electromechanical characteristics. Pay attention to the aerodynamic design – pronounced crescent blades, moderately aggressive angles of attack, and dome-like grid nozzle – these parameters speak clearly for impeller configuration designed for increased performance and noise reduction. There are no problems with the technical quality of the fan either – high-Q mechanics (double ball bearing) and neat electric fitting, which efficiently neutralizes structural side noise (the notorious electroacoustic effect, so called "engine popping", is not detected in the noise spectrum of V4).
Nevertheless, we've got some gripes with V4 usability that have to do with the installation procedure for the Intel LGA775 platform. The bundled retention module copies Hyper 212 in many respects. So it's still mandatory to remove a motherboard from an enclosure. Besides, it's not very easy to secure the cooler in a socket – it requires some manipulations with a screwdriver. Compact design of this cooler makes it difficult to adapt to Intel's reference retention module, but engineers from Cooler Master should have modified the working medium of V4 to facilitate the installation procedure.
However, the cooler is doing much better on the AMD Socket AM2 platform – the standard mounting bracket with a lever ensures easy installation, practically as comfortable as trivial manipulations with boxed coolers. V4 comes with a preinstalled thermal interface (highly effective thermal grease with composite fill agent based on aluminum oxide and nitride) and PWM control of fan speed (it will be useful, if a user is interested in using corresponding motherboard features).
Scythe Shuriken (SCSK-1000)
The next cooler to be reviewed today is a Scythe product called Shuriken (SCSK-1000).
Even though it's very short (just 64 mm), Shuriken comes up with an imposing technical complex formed by a copper base (50 x 36 x 2 mm), additional aluminum heat sink (72 x 56 x 26 mm), three copper heat pipes (6 mm in diameter), wide aluminum finning, and a special low-profile fan (100 x 100 x 12 mm, 2200 rpm, PWM control).
Just as in case of V4 from Cooler Master, the large additional heat sink offloads the base of the cooler and reduces thermal resistance between the base and pipes. The structure of heat pipes is intensified by six heat release elements (both halves of U-bent pipes take part in heat transfer, almost like in tower heat sinks). The heat is dissipated from large finning (54 fins, 105 x 15 mm, 0.2-mm thick, placed at 2-mm steps). As a result, the combination of these three aspects forms a "working body" with developed surface area of heat exchange (about 2000 cm2).
However, a detailed inspection of Shuriken reveals questionable technical solutions, which are disappointing rather than inspiring. First of all it concerns the way heat pipes are connected with fins – pipes are just partially embedded into fins (with apparent deficit of heat exchange) instead of traditional embedding (when fins are spindled over pipes and interact with them through the entire area of contact). In addition to halved interaction between pipes and fins, the situation is aggravated by incomplete contact with the fin-stack as such (about a quarter of each of the six elements is "poised in the air" right where the fan generates the most intense air flow). These nuances are hardly innovative – limited thermal contact between pipes and fins cannot contribute to minimization of thermal resistance and can have a negative effect on Shuriken's efficiency.
The fan (YLTC SY1012SL12H) does not look very convincing either. We have no gripes with its technical quality (good plain bearing and normalized electric fitting), but its aerodynamic configuration is too much of a compromise. Frankly speaking, it leaves much to be desired (low-profile impellers cannot provide a good combination of performance and noise ergonomics due to their design, so even some optimizations in the SY1012SL12H fail to improve its performance portrait). We approve of Scythe engineers, who tried to make Shuriken as short as possible, but a fan with a bigger impeller would have been more appropriate here.
What concerns usability, Shuriken has no serious problems – it comes with a user-friendly multi-platform retention module (supporting Intel LGA775, Socket 478, and AMD Socket 754/939/AM2) with a fast and convenient installation procedure. Besides, this cooler comes with bundled thermal grease (highly efficient composition of aluminum oxide and nitride) and PWM control.
Zalman CNPS8700 NT
The last cooler to examine today is a High-End representative of Zalman – CNPS8700 NT.
It has a peculiar look, different from all other coolers – along with an imposing all-copper design comprising a base (40 x 35 x 5 mm), two heat pipes (6 mm in diameter), and two radial fin-stacks (122 x 50 mm), this cooler also features bright finish (all functional surfaces are nickel-plated) and a nice fan with an open impeller (110 x 110 x 25 mm), spiced up with blue LEDs, traditional for modded products.
The main feature of the CNPS8700 NT is its dense two-stack finning (86 fins in each stack) with developed heat exchange surface area for a compact heat sink (3300 cm2 – almost a record-breaking value). The on-board fan also produces a good impression. It offers balanced parameters both in aerodynamic design (optimized impeller) and electromechanics (neat electric fitting of the engine plus double ball bearing of good quality), trying to conform with High-End requirements.
We should also mention a special bowl-shaped configuration of finning, which usage is justified in the CNPS8700 NT: as is well known, the main drawback of an open impeller (that is a fan working as a propeller) is a weak flow characteristic (low static pressure and resulting air flow speed). But if such a fan is install inside radial finning, an open impeller may be used to advantage. Our cooler under review is based on this idea – pronounced turbulent streams at the fan edge blow through outer edges of fins and contribute to ventilation of inner parts of the finning, providing better heat exchange between pipes and fins. So we have all reasons to assume that modifications of thermal ideology used in Zalman CNPS7000 and CNPS7700 must do only good to the CNPS8700 NT.
Meanwhile, configuration of this cooler still has some minor but irritating problems. First of all, fin placement is too dense – the average fin step is no more than 2 mm even at the outer perimeter, and it narrows down to 0.5 mm inside the bowl (directly under the "work field" of the fan). Whatever you may say, this clutter seriously hampers ventilation of the heat sink and practically cancels advantages of interaction between an open fan and the finned bowl. Another sin of this cooler is nonoptimal distribution of heat pipes – their joints with the fins are too close to the fan, while the bottom edge of the fins is too far from points of thermal contact and does not participate in heat exchange. Frankly speaking, we expected Zalman engineers to be more careful with thermal details – they are too experienced to make such mistakes!
By the way, usability of the CNPS8700 NT is not peachy either: installation procedures for the AMD platform are quite simple (the bundle includes a special mounting frame to fix the cooler in a socket), but the Intel platform is not that friendly, and a screwdriver becomes of prime necessity. All operations will take much time and effort – you'll have to remove a motherboard from an enclosure, install a mounting plate for LGA775, and only then install the cooler in a socket.
As a result, technical image of this cooler is somewhat confused – on one hand, we have aesthetic design and generally good thermal parameters; on the other hand, configuration problems and mediocre usability. This is not enough to cross the CNPS8700 NT out of the High-End list. But we still feel pessimistic about its functionality.
Well, we've cleared up questions of technical design and usability issues, there is no need to elaborate. It's time to address the main aspect of our article – test results of Cooler Master V4, Scythe Shuriken, and Zalman CNPS8700 NT!
You should really read about our new procedure for testing premium-class coolers to get the idea before you browse test results.
First of all, let's see how our contenders perform in the silence mode (conditionally noiseless domain, reference noise - 23 dBA).
Diagram 1. Temperature readings (CPU core temperature, conditionally noiseless domain)
Diagram 2. Thermal resistance (conditionally noiseless domain)
Just a few coolers can work in this mode – this group traditionally includes only High-End products, which allow to adjust fan speed in a wide range, including low rotational speed. So the fact alone that our contenders can work with minimum fan speed speaks volumes – noise characteristics are quite important in their functionality. Fortunately, performance of Cooler Master V4 and Zalman CNPS8700 NT is not disappointing – they cannot compete with Noctua NH-U12P and Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme, of course (they are in totally different weight categories), but they fare well against Thermaltake Big Typhoon. At the same time, Scythe Shuriken falls out of the ranks and works practically at its limit – operating temperature of our processor crosses the dangerous mark of 100°C, which is close to critical overheating.
Now let's have a look at the situation in the low-noise domain, where we selected not only High-End products, but also several Mid-End products – Cooler Master Hyper TX2, GlacialTech Igloo 5750 PWM, and Scythe Mine Rev. B.
Diagram 3. Temperature readings (CPU core temperature, low-noise domain)
Diagram 4. Thermal resistance (low-noise domain)
As we can see, the situation remains the same in many respects – our contenders improve their thermal efficiency, but they still cannot catch up with coolers designed for standard enclosures. Besides, Scythe Shuriken is lagging way behind here: its results seem to be affected not only by its weak fan, but also by careless design of the heat sink.
Let's have a look at the results demonstrated in the ergonomic domain (noise reference mark – 31-32 dBA).
Diagram 5. Temperature readings (CPU core temperature, ergonomic domain)
Diagram 6. Thermal resistance (ergonomic domain)
The situation is more smoothed-out here – Cooler Master V4 catches up with Hyper TX2 (it's a very good result, taking into account a significant difference in their designs), and Zalman CNPS8700 NT gets close to the High-End CNPS9500 LED from the same manufacturer. What concerns Scythe Shuriken, there are no reasons to be optimistic again – it demonstrates the worst efficiency among our contenders and confirms its problems in thermal configuration of its working medium.
In conclusion of this section we publish comparative diagrams of temperature readings and thermal resistance for nominal/reference configurations of today's contenders (maximum fan speed), a diagram with temperature readings of near-socket inductive elements (low-noise domain), as well as efficiency-noise ratings (low-noise and ergonomic domains).
Diagram 7. Temperature readings (CPU core temperature, nominal/reference modes)
Diagram 8. Thermal resistance (nominal/reference modes)
Diagram 9. Temperature readings (temperature of near-socket components)
Diagram 10. Efficiency/noise ratio
Cooler Master V4, Scythe Shuriken, and Zalman CNPS8700 NT are definitely designed for compact enclosures. They perform very well in our today's tests. Moreover, they can even compete with bulky High-End products in their performance. The most attractive product today is Cooler Master V4. It demonstrates acceptable efficiency practically in all fan speed modes, including noiseless operation, it features a good set of technical properties. Spiced up with a reasonable price tag, it can be recommended for top quad-core processors from Intel and AMD. Zalman CNPS8700 NT also looks good with its attractive balance of efficiency and noise ergonomics, supplementing it with aesthetic High-End content. Unfortunately, Scythe Shuriken is an outsider. This cooler demonstrates weak thermal efficiency, which limits its usage only to "cool" processors with TDP below 45-65 W.
We can only wish Cooler Master, Scythe, and Zalman every success in designing compact cooling systems for ergonomic home media centers. They have still very much work to do in this field! As for us, we'll keep tabs on this segment.
Cooler Master coolers provided by Pirit
Scythe coolers provided by Scythe
Zalman coolers provided by Zalman
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