So we can get this out of the way fast: the installation process for the Noctua NH-L9i and SilverStone AR11 was painless. All you need to do is apply the thermal paste (we used the paste included with each cooler), and then hold the cooler on the CPU while screwing four screws through the back of the motherboard. That's it. Indeed, the only way it could have been any simpler were if they used pushpins like the Intel cooler, which would mean you wouldn't need to remove the motherboard. That being said, we've always found Intel's pushpin system pretty unreliable and a bit hard to engage, meaning you can get a bad cooler seating and not know it. So we don't mind the fact that we had to take out our motherboard for each test. Note that as with most ultra-compact systems, there's no access to the back of the motherboard. Like we stressed in the introduction, our test conditions were meant to replicate what users of these coolers would actually experience. If you're installing these coolers in a big ATX case, you're doing it wrong.
With that said, the Noctua was even easier to install than the SilverStone, for two important reasons. First, the manual is simply unbeatable. Noctua always gets it right in this regard, and no other company comes close, especially SilverStone, which continues to put out manuals with barely any text and tiny diagrams. The other issue with the SilverStone is that the tiny rubber washers that keep the rear screws from shorting the motherboard aren't pre-attached to the screws like they are on the Noctua (which uses captured washers that won't fall off). This is just a small step, but it again shows that Noctua goes out of its way to make things easy. And actually, there's one more thing Noctua does completely right here: it gives you a full tube of its NT-H1 thermal paste, which makes application extremely easy (and guarantees you a few uses). Like most other manufacturers, SilverStone goes with a plastic packet of paste, which is hard to tear open, difficult to apply precisely, and messy to store for a second application. It's the little things that count, especially when these two coolers are so close in price (they're just $2 apart as of our publication date).
One thing we do want to point out, however, is that you're getting a lot more cooler for the money with the SilverStone, which is at left in the photo above. Well, at least you're getting more height. Both it and the Noctua use a 15mm-tall, 92mm-wide fan, so their height difference comes down entirely to the fin stack. As we mentioned on the previous page, however, the Noctua is far heavier, meaning it either has a denser fin stack or is using a heavier material (more copper, less aluminum perhaps?). In any event, what really matters is performance, and we'll get to that on the next page.
Before we do, though, we want to make a few observations about how these coolers actually fit in our system. We'll start with the Noctua NH-L9i, pictured here. As is visible at the front edge of the cooler, the tolerances have to be very precise to make this kind of product work. That's why we're so careful about our cooler selection in ITX (and smaller) PCs in our Small Factor PC Buyer's Guides. The Noctua sits just above the motherboard's aluminum heatsink, and nearly brushes the I/O port assembly. Put another way, simply being the same nominal length and width as the Intel stock cooler does not guarantee a good fit.
The SilverStone cooler was similarly tight, in fact, it actually sat right on top of that motherboard heatsink, meaning that if either the motherboard or cooler were just a millimeter off their specs, it wouldn't have seated on the CPU properly. Luckily, in our installation, it worked out just fine. Another thing we want to call your attention to is just how high the SilverStone heatsink is. Like the Intel cooler, it's 47mm tall, but unlike the Intel cooler, the fan blades sit right at the top of the assembly (the Intel cooler has a big fan guard that places the fan quite a bit lower in the assembly). So although the AR11 cooler fits in this chassis, it just barely does, and the fact that the fan is placed so close to the top of the chassis is going to have ramifcations for our performance results, as you'll soon see.
Here's one last look at our coolers, each neatly nestled in our compact system. As a reminder, this is an STX system, which is as small as they come, and given that the heatsinks take up about 1/3 of the entire chassis, they make a pretty big statement despite their small size. One more shout out to Noctua for always taking the extra step in terms of fit and finish - note that its sleeved black cable looks quite a bit more "pro" than the bare multi-colored power leads on the Intel and SilverStone fans.
All right, on to performance testing we go!