Installing the Contenders
Before we go into detail on the installation of our six coolers, we wanted to give you a brief summary of the two main types of cooler mounting systems on the market today. The first is a cooler that uses plastic pushpins to engage a locking mechanism behind the motherboard, without requiring access to the back of the board. These were extremely popular in the days when cases did not have motherboard cutouts that allowed access to the back of motherboard while in the case, and are still used on Intel's cooler, as well as many lower-priced aftermarket coolers.
The other type of mounting system uses a metal bracket behind the motherboard through which four metal screws are affixed. Since at least 2010, most cases have a cutout, so this type of mounting mechanism is now a lot more convenient to use, as the motherboard does not have to be outside of the case to attach it. Note that while we did not test one, the stock AMD cooler actually uses a variation of the metal bracket design, rather than pushpins.
The Stock Intel Cooler
We're starting off with the simplest cooler, the stock Intel cooler. It's a low-profile aluminum-finned cooler with a copper base, features nothing in the manner of heatpipes or other extravagances. The comparatively-tiny fan measures about 80mm across, making it by far the smallest fan in our roundup. Because we’ve had experience with this cooler on numerous occasions, it only took about 1 minute to install. It’s a very straightforward process, and simply requires pushing the four push-pins through the motherboard's mounting holes to lock the cooler into place. Intel pre-applies thermal paste to the bottom of the cooler, making it very easy to use on the first install, although after that, you'll need to purchase your own thermal interface material, as the paste cannot be used more than once.
While installing the Intel cooler is quite simple, it’s not a fool-proof procedure. The main challenge is that the push-pins can go through the motherboard without locking into place. To the right you can see the rear of the motherboard, with one push-pin, highlighted in the upper-right, not fully locked in. When not locked in, the cooler won’t make solid contact with the CPU’s heatspreader, and temperatures could skyrocket quickly. Always make sure the cooler cannot be pulled up from the motherboard after installation, testing each corner one at a time.
The Noctua NH-L9x65
Next up is the Noctua NH-L9x65, a cooler that could work perfectly as a drop-in replacement for the Intel cooler in most PCs, save for those that have very little clearance above the CPU area. The NH-L9x65 is very easy to install, but unlike the Intel cooler, does require that a bracket be inserted through the back of the motherboard. Thus, you either need to install it before the motherboard is in the case, or your case needs a cutout to allow access to the back of the motherboard (most modern cases have this feature). As with all of the coolers in this roundup, we installed the NH-L9x65 while the motherboard was in the case, and after the Intel cooler, it was by far the simplest to install. It was the only aftermarket heatsink we tested that could actually be bolted on without removing the fan, although we'd suggest unclipping the fan anyway to make sure you don't break a fan blade while bolting it down.
The graceful Noctua NH-L9x65 looks like it was tailor-made for this motherboard:
The NH-L9x65 uses a 92mm fan, which makes it a lot larger than the Intel fan in diameter, but not so much in profile, as it’s just 14mm tall. What really makes the cooler more effective, though, is the much more robust heatsink assembly, which includes four heatpipes and a fairly substantial chunk of fin material. That being said, it still conforms to the Intel footprint, and easily slots into place in our test system. Note that the fan and heatsink do overlap more motherboard components than the Intel cooler, but are raised up enough to avoid touching them. Whether they’ll avoid the components of every motherboard is unclear, but we’d guess it will work for just about all models.
You really can't see Noctua products without scratching your head a bit at the color choice that has become Noctua's calling card. Some people don't like the brown on beige color scheme of its fans, but there's no doubt that it's unique and recognizable, immediately identifying the fan being used as a high-quality product. Ironically, Noctua markets an "Industrial" line of fans that uses a more stylish black-on-brown color motif, despite the fact that style probably carries a lot less weight in industrial applications!
The Noctua NH-U12S
Next up is Noctua’s mainstream entry in this roundup, the slim and sleek NH-U12S. Based on a fairly standard tower design and employing a 120mm cooler, it looks like many of other models in the ultra-competitive 120mm field, save for its distinctive brown and beige fan. But look closer and you’ll see that it uses five heatpipes, more than most 120mm heatsinks, and it of course also inherits Noctua’s excellent mounting mechanism. While you do have to remove the pre-installed fan to actually bolt the heatink onto the bracket, it’s easy enough to do so even within the tight confines of a case due to the narrow dimensions of the NH-U12S. Getting your fingers around the fan clips is no issue at all.
As you can see below, the cooler installed without a fuss, just clearing our four tall memory modules, and avoiding interference with motherboard heatsinks and expansion slots. For a long time, 120mm-based tower coolers dominated the market, as going to a larger fan often meant inviting all sorts of potential pitfalls regarding compatibility. That isn't true as much anymore, because many motherboard manufacturers have moved the full-size PCIe x16 video card slot down to the second position on ATX boards, where it's nearly impossible to be hit by a CPU cooler. That being said, in addition to still being the largest form factor we recommend for micro ATX systems, there are other advantages to having a slimmer 120mm cooler, starting from the moment you start the installation process. Indeed, this was by far the easiest tower heatsink we’ve ever had the pleasure of installing, beating out the larger models in this roundup as well as other 120mm models we’ve tested in the past.
The Noctua NH-U12S is big, but not so big that it becomes hard to handle.
The Thermalright Macho Rev. B
Next up is the massive Thermalright Macho. It’s likely the biggest cooler you’ll find in its price range, coming in just over $50 (which is actually a bit less than the NH-U12S). It uses a 140mm fan, however, which puts it in a different category all together. It’s taller, wider, and much deeper (Thermalright makes a slim version of the Macho called the True Spirit 140 Rev. A, which uses the same fan and six-heatpipe design, but with a much slimmer heatsink). You’re getting a lot of heavy metal for your dollar here, but it does come with a cost – installation is a pain. The bracket assembly wasn’t as straightforward as Noctua’s, requiring a bit more juggling of parts while affixing screws – almost to the point where two hands weren’t quite enough. Thermalright includes a nice long-reach magnetic screwdriver in the package, which is a great bonus, but happens to be necessary, as you actually have to lower a screw down through the hole in the middle of the heatsink, and wouldn’t be able to do it without a magnetic screwdriver. It was a bit hard to line up the screw with the screw hole given that it’s entirely out of sight – it definitely took some trial and error.
Next came the challenge of affixing the fan using the somewhat clumsy fan clips – which are the opposite of Noctua’s, attaching to the heatsink and then clipping onto the fan. As it happens, this arrangement turns out to be a bit more awkward to work with in practice. And then there was the issue of RAM clearance. The Macho is offset such that it leans back away from the RAM slots a bit, but that didn’t stop its 140mm fan from actually pushing into one of our RAM modules. Again, this is a worse-case scenario given the height of our RAM, but depending on the motherboard manufacturer, a few millimeters in one direction or the other could mean the Macho fits perfectly or entirely blocks a RAM slot. So there’s a bit of luck of the draw here. All told, the Macho definitely lives up to its name – it’s not shy about its bulk, and at about 2.5 times the thickness of the Noctua NH-U12S, it will have its work cut out for it in justifying all its bulk. What it won't have to justify, however, is it's cool white on black color scheme, which will look good in just about any build. Thermalright used to pride itself on some really oddly-colored fans, not all that different from Noctua's. We like the white on black a lot better, Thermalright!
The Thermalright Macho Rev. B is a hefty cooler, pressing right up against our first stick of RAM.
The Noctua NH-D15
Just when you thought the Macho was the biggest air cooler you could fit in a PC, along comes the Noctua NH-D15. This cooler is simply enormous, and when fully suited up with dual fans affixed to its dual towers, is probably the biggest tower heatsink in the world. At over 3 pounds, it’s also quite a hefty contraption, although it’s still quite elegant; Noctua is known for its engineering prowess, after all, and this model is no exception. Of particular note are the cutouts seen in the heatsink when viewed in profile, as shown below, which easily clear even the tallest of memory modules. The same cannot be said, however, of the second fan, which is included in the box and is seen affixed to the heatsink in the photo to the right. While Noctua lists this as a 165mm-tall heatsink, we must take issue with this specification. We simply cannot imagine a single enthusiast-grade RAM kit that could fit under the external fan without lifting the fan above the lowest position, thereby increasing the heatsink height over 165mm.
We could certainly argue for and against the merits of tall heatsinks on RAM, but unfortunately for Noctua, it’s not in a position to change the RAM market on its own. Simply put, our RAM was not compatible with the NH-D15 in its default configuration. Luckily, our high-end G.Skill modules actually have removable heatsink fins, which once detached, lower the profile to that of a standard RAM kit. Even so, the external fan still needed to be raised about 8mm above the heatpipes and internal fan, thus making the heatsink 173mm tall in our modified scenario. We would encourage Noctua to revise its specifications to note the height of the heatsink when actually installed in a system with an average set of enthusiasts RAM modules, which is what one would expect in a system utilizing a heatsink in this price range. In our photo below, you can see the massive heatsink assembly installed, with an inset photo of the raised fan in the right-hand position, sitting just on top of our modified (lowered) RAM heatsinks.
The Noctua NH-D15 is gigantic, filling nearly the entire upper half of our case! Note inset photo of raised fan:
You may think that mounting the heatsink in the other direction (vertically) would help in this regard, but due to the width of the heatsink, and the fact that the sides are not sculpted out like the front and back, the compatibility was even worse. The heatsink itself hit the RAM, and again, we needed to remove the heatsinks on two of our RAM modules (in this case, the ones closer to the CPU). And unlike with the fan, there is no way to raise the heatsink to compensate – if the RAM doesn’t fit underneath the heatsink, you won’t be installing it in your system. Noctua suggests this orientation as an alternative in its clear and very concise installation manual, but gives no indication of which one would be preferred. Based on our testing of the heatsink in both orientations, the unequivocal answer is as follows: do not install this heatsink in the vertical orientation. While we’re spoiling the surprise that awaits you on the pages that follow, the sad truth is that the NH-D15 will underperform its much cheaper, much smaller brother the NH-U12S when used in this configuration. We made sure to test it like this not just because Noctua suggests it as an option, but because a lot of builders make the mistake of orienting heatsinks from a variety of manufacturers in this orientation. For reasons that we’ll explain later, it's the wrong choice every time.
The Corsair Hydro H100i
Finally, we get to the liquid cooling category in our roundup. While we’ve only tested one model here, it happens to be one of the best-selling models ever released, so we think it’s fairly representative of what enthusiasts are using nowadays. The Corsair Hydro H100i is an all-in-one cooler with a CPU block, dual hoses, a 120mm by 240mm radiator, and dual 120mm fans. While there are larger 140mm by 280mm models, as well as 120mm by 360mm models, the 240mm size will fit in a much wider variety of cases. Of course, a single-fan 120mm or 140mm model is even easier to fit in most cases, but given the small difference in price, we’d recommend 240mm models every time. Most 120mm and 140mm models will barely outperform cheaper, simpler air-cooled models, while 240mm liquid coolers are in an altogether different class.
Below you can see the big H100i installed, with its heatsink block affixed to the CPU and its hoses routed to the back corner of the case, where they meet the 240mm radiator. Of course, separating the heatsink from the radiator and fans does have one major advantage – there’s almost no chance for interference with motherboard components, RAM, or the video card, and furthermore, little risk of damage during transit, because very little weight is hanging off the motherboard. On the flipside, not visible here is the mess of cables that we had to contend with to set up the H100i, including fan power cables, pump power cables, and USB controller cables. They’re all tucked away here, but we want to be clear that it adds to the complexity of the installation. We also found the mounting bracket to be pretty unintuitive, as it required a huge amount of force to tighten on correctly. Corsair's newer H100i GTX addresses this issue, while tweaking the design in other ways as well.
The Corsair Hydro H100i is relatively complex, but looks ultra-sleek once it's installed.
A Word on Applying Thermal Interface Material
Given the number of cooler installs and uninstalls we did to write this article, we gained a pretty good understanding of the ins and outs of thermal interface material (TIM) application. First off, we should mention that we used the same TIM for each cooler, Arctic MX-4, except for the Intel cooler, which was tested with the pre-applied TIM that we bet 99% of users will rely on. Every cooler includes TIM, either pre-applied as a solid paste, or contained in a tube as a gel-like material. We’d like to single out Noctua here for including a generous portion of its excellent NT-H1 TIM with every cooler, regardless of cost. Intel and Corsair pre-apply a single use paste, and Themalright provides a very small amount in a plastic pouch, which isn't as convenient to use as Noctua's syringe applicator. We like MX-4 a lot, but if you're getting a Noctua cooler, just stick with the NT-H1 that it comes with. As an aside, the best selling TIM is Arctic Silver 5, which for some reason has become the "go-to" TIM in the industry (probably because it was one of the first that was widely available). Back in the mid-2000s, we used it too, but to be honest, it isn't that good. It's sticky, hard to apply, and loses effectiveness over time as it becomes brittle. We don't recommend it.
We’ve included before and after photos to illustrate exactly how much TIM to apply, and how it should spread once you bolt on the cooler. You may have read previously that the right amount of TIM to apply would be “pea-sized” or “rice-sized” or perhaps multiple grains of rice. Well, you can see above the amount we recommend, which is probably about the size of a pea, maybe a bit smaller. But it’s not just the amount that matters, it’s how you go about setting the cooler down on top of the TIM that counts.
To the right, you can see how the TIM appeared after removing the huge NH-D15 cooler. In this case, it worked perfectly – it helped that by this point we had a good feel for how to install the D15, which is about the hardest air cooler to install due to its tremendous bulk. There’s a little overflow on the top and bottom, but that doesn’t affect performance, and it’s what you’d expect when pressing a circular dot of TIM onto a square surface. All in all, we'd call this a pretty ideal TIM application. Our first attempt wasn't quite as good, because the cooler slid around quite a bit, pushing the TIM to one side before we were able to bolt it down evenly. We've said it before and we'll say it again - generally speaking, the bigger the cooler, the more challenges it can present during the installation process, and the issue of TIM spreading incorrectly is just one of them.
One last thing – you may wonder how we got our CPU cleaned up between each TIM application. The answer is simple – rubbing alcohol and a cotton swab (or low-lint paper towel). The alcohol strips the TIM right off, without leaving any residue, as it evaporates immediately. It’s really quite easy, actually, and won’t harm the electronic components of your motherboard, nor lead to any rusting of metal parts. We've included a photo to the left to show you exactly how it works. Yes, there are commercial products you can buy that are "specially forumulated" for removing TIM, but in our opinion, you're wasting your money with them.
With all that said, it’s time to move onto our performance tests.