Yes, we just can't get enough - time for another CPU cooler shootout! Believe it or not, with the two coolers we're testing here today, TBG has now tested over 30 coolers since our first cooler shootout back in May of 2015, meaning we're keeping up a brisk 10 coolers per year pace! We've tested so many coolers, in fact, that we've run out of categories to cover, given that we've conducted shootouts on 120mm coolers (twice!), 140mm coolers, low-profile coolers, and liquid coolers.
To keep things interesting, this shootout is going to be completely different. If you're looking for pedal-to-the-metal overclocks and maximum fan speeds, you can look somewhere else. That's not what this review is all about. We're going to be taking two moderately-priced, ultra-low profile coolers, namely the SilverStone AR11 Cooler and the Noctua NH-L9i Cooler, and running them at their minimum fan speeds in order to compare them to the stock cooler that ships with the dual-core Pentium G4620 CPU. The goal: to find a cooler that improves the overall user experience for people who aren't pushing the limits of 4K gaming, video production, or 3D modeling. You know... the majority of PC users.
So sit back and get ready to learn a thing or two, because we sure did! Special thanks to SilverStone for providing a sample of its new AR11 Cooler and to Noctua for providing a sample of its NH-L9i Cooler, both featured in this review.
So, as we were saying, we used a Pentium platform to test our coolers. There's nothing hard-core about this system, other than the fact that it's really, really small. In fact, it's the smallest PC ever created that can fit the stock Intel CPU cooler. Here are the specs of the system:
- CPU: Intel Pentium G4620
- Motherboard: AsRock H110M-STX
- SSD: Samsung SM951 256GB
- RAM: Crucial 2x4GB DDR4-2400 SODIMM
- Case: SilverStone VT02
- Power Supply: SilverStone AD120-STX
- Operating System: Windows 10 Flash Drive
Why did we choose such a small platform? The answer is simple: we wanted to test how ultra-compact coolers would function in systems that they are truly intended for. Sure, you could pop one of these little models into a hulking tower case, but you'd be wasting your time and money. Much better cooling is on offer at far less money from big tower coolers. But not everyone needs a big tower cooler, or a big tower PC, for that matter. So we're going with an STX system that is shockingly small.
And here's the thing: the STX format, which debuted in 2016, is on its last legs, and it just never caught on with consumers, despite TBG's best efforts to promote it. People are stuck in an old-fashioned (i.e., circa-Steve Jobs era) way of thinking: do I need a tablet, laptop, or big desktop? Left out of the mix is the fourth choice: a desktop smaller than a laptop that's also more powerful. Oh well, such is the fickle world of tech...
So back on track, let's talk about the features of the coolers we're testing today. We'll start with the standard Intel Pentium cooler. We specify "Pentium" because this is truly a cut-rate model. It has exactly zero ounces of copper in it, and is practically light as a feather (it weighed in at 170g on our scale), and stands just 47mm tall. While Intel used to ship some copper-infused coolers with its high-end "K" series quad-core processors, it has increased its profit margins by stripping them out of the box all together, and honestly, we're not sure what Intel is shipping with its standard Core-series processors, because we haven't purchased one in a long, long time. So, is this cooler the one that ships with every current Intel CPU that actually comes with a cooler? We're not sure, but we are sure of one thing: it's a lightweight. By the way, this is in stark contrast to what AMD is shipping with all of its Ryzen CPUs nowadays, i.e., truly capable coolers.
Now, how about the two after-market models we have on hand? Well, let's start with the standard bearer: the Noctua NH-L9i. First introduced in 2012, it has been often imitated, but never replicated. It stands a diminuitive 37mm tall, but weighed in at a rather surprising 407g on our scale. With its 95mm x 95mm footprint, it is designed to fit absolutely anywhere an Intel cooler could go, but you may be wondering, why did Noctua not push it all the way up to the 47mm height limit of Intel's model? Well, we have some answers for you, but you'll have to wait until we get to the results!
Finally, we have SilverStone's brand-new AR11. A member of the value-packed Argon series of coolers, this model stands at exactly 47mm tall, and also has a 95mm x 95mm footprint, making it a direct replacement for Intel's stock cooler. It weighed in at 297g on our scale, meaning it packs in an extra 100g over the Intel cooler, but falls far behind the Noctua, despite being 10mm taller. This of course begs the question: what's more important, heft or height? Fear not, dear reader, because we have the answer for you, and it took a little digging to figure out!
By the way, our test procedure was quite simple. We ran our Pentium at its stock 3.7GHz clock rate (of course, since it can't be overclocked), and we tested our coolers at idle and in four high-stress applications, measuring both noise levels and temperatures. We wanted to run the fans on each cooler as close to 1000RPM as possible, but since neither the Intel nor the SilverStone fans could go that low, we just settled for the lowest fan speed available. We've indicated the fan speeds that the coolers ran at in our benchmark charts you'll see on the following pages. The ambient temperature was kept at 70° throughout our testing.
With that introduction out of the way, let's dive in and install our coolers!