Author: Justin Koziol
Editor: Devin Zuczek
Take a look at the current and future trends of water cooling.
Water cooling has come a long way since its humble beginnings in garages and basements of hardware enthusiasts in the mid 90s. Cooling manufacturers started picking up on this new trend around the turn of the century and have since fine-tuned this art form into what we know and are accustomed to today. So, where exactly is the computer water cooling industry at, and what new advances are coming in the near future?
When it comes to CPU water blocks, there have been some changes in terms of design elements and construction materials in the past few years. Gone are the 3-inlet designs that made their way to market a few years ago. 2-inlet (technically, one inlet and one outlet) water block designs reign supreme today due to their ease of use… that and the fact that 3-inlet systems only offered negligible improvements, if any.
Copper is still the predominant building material, due to its excellent ability to draw heat away from its target (the processor). On the inside of the block is where we are seeing the most change. Early water blocks were fabricated from chunks of copper but as time passed, we began to see experimentation with the internals of these blocks. The reasoning behind this was to create more disturbance of the liquid inside the block, which in turn would result in better heat transfer.
There is a fine line here between disturbance and disruption where you end up impeding the ability of the liquid to flow smoothly and thus, defeat the entire purpose. Today, we seem to have found the sweet spot between the two in using a series of hemispherical copper pins. These pins increase surface area, create disturbance while still allowing the system to flow smoothly.
Another area of change in recent years is the use of clear acrylic tops on water blocks. This is done for aesthetics more than anything, but it does have a few benefits. With a clear top, you are able to see the internals of the block without having to actually open it up. This can be useful for maintenance purposes… to check for any algae growth or other debris that might be trapped inside the block and hampering overall performance. Not everyone is into this new trend or even cares what their water block looks like, so for those users, there are still several “covered” block options to choose from.
Something that is a relatively new concept is the GPU cooling. Early video cards were able to get by with passive cooling. As time progressed, cooling fans were added to newer cards to help keep operating temperatures under control. In the past few years, graphics card manufacturers have continued to push the envelope on sheer processing power and as a result, heat output has increased exponentially as well. While most all modern, high-end cards are able to function with the coolers they ship with, you certainly better have good case cooling… oh, and overclocking is usually out of the question.
GPU blocks are not as popular as CPU blocks, so it can sometimes be hard to find just the right one to fit your application and needs. Typically, most GPU water blocks only cool the core of the video card. RAMsinks are usually included to passively cool memory chips and other hot-spots on a card. But, there are some newer blocks, such as those for 8800GTX cards, which not only cool the GPU core, but the memory and HSI (High Speed Interconnect) as well.
Even the liquid used in water cooling systems has changed a good bit over the years. Early adopters often used distilled water and sometimes mixed in antifreeze from the local automotive store. Now there are several different additives that you can add to your cooling loop. Those wanting to show off their system often add UV reactive dyes to the loop, which will glow brightly when exposed to ultraviolet light. Other additives boast non-conductive properties, so in the event that your system springs a leak, the liquid will not short out your computer components. Still other products promise anti-corrosion and anti-bacterial properties. Simply choose the additive that best meets what you feel is the most critical for your system.
As with most “commercialized” technologies, we are starting to see a lot of combination, or all-in-one products. By that, I mean sheer cooling performance isn’t the prime focus of a given water cooling kit. For example, popular water cooling manufacturer Swiftech has recently released the H20-120 Compact Water Cooling Kit. As the name implies, precedence is given to a small footprint while potentially sacrificing cooling ability.
Water cooling is also going mainstream in other ways as well. Many reputable computer manufacturers (DELL being one example) have recently decided to implement liquid cooling systems into some of their high-end PCs. This may seem like a good idea on paper, but is it really? Does the average computer user really need a water cooled computer, or is that just asking for trouble down the road?
So, what lies ahead in the near future for water cooling? With the recent advancements and improvements in simple air cooling technology, water cooling will still be a viable option but users may not have the edge they once had before in terms of sheer cooling performance. There are a few innovations happening now that I think are really exciting; one being the use of TECs (Thermal Electric Coolers) in conjunction with a traditional water cooling system. This is not really all that new, as enthusiasts have been doing this for years, but the mainstream market has just recently adopted this idea and I think there is some serious potential here.
One thing is for sure: water cooling as we once knew it has certainly changed. Gone are the days of homebrewed systems using spare automotive parts and sheer creativity.