Before we get into the installation of each cooler, we thought we'd give you a chance to view our Unboxing Video, which provides more detail on our testing platform of choice, and also highlights some of the unique features of each of our liquid CPU cooler contenders.
To further assist readers who'd like to use any of the other coolers we tested, we're providing a few installation notes for each model below.
Noctua originated the concept of a truly premium cooler, and the NH-D15 is its very best model. AMD was wise to partner with Noctua to arrange that highly-capable, AM4-compatible coolers were available at Ryzen's launch in March 2017. Alas, the AM4 edition of the NH-D15 had two problems out of the gate: it sold out immediately (taking weeks to restock), and to make sure that AMD owners were getting an up-to-date package, this AM4-only SKU was released. That means despite costing the same as the original NH-D15, it does not include brackets for any Intel CPUs, nor older AMD CPUs.
Luckily, the AM4 bracket was designed to perfection by Noctua, and this cooler took us only 20 minutes to install, making it the quickest (if not quite the easiest) installation in our roundup. Getting the bracket installed was simple, dropping the D15 into position was not. The D15 is extremely large, and it must be installed without its fans attached to provide access to the mounting bolts. Getting those fans and their associated clips on can be a huge hassle when it's inside a system. It wasn't too bad in our Thermaltake case, which has massive headroom above the cooler, but in other cases, getting those fans on will probably lead to some cut knuckles and maybe a few curse words too. Connecting the fan power leads to the motherboard fan headers can be similarly challenging - we recommend you attach them before clipping on the fans. One last problem was that the front fan sits right above the RAM slots, and we had to raise it 8mm to allow it to clear our high-profile LED RAM heatsinks. That made the cooler a total of 173mm tall, which is going to push the limit of many cases in terms of width. To its credit, Noctua includes a tube of its excellent NT-H1 thermal paste, which is very easy to apply, and should be enough for at least two, if not three applications.
Overall, if you like the "mouthful of metal" look, Noctua NH-D15 SE-AM4 cooler provides it, but this model isn't nearly as elegant as the rest of the coolers in Noctua's air cooler lineup.
Arctic Liquid Freezer 240
Oh, goodness, where do we start? This cooler was an absolute beast to install, taking a total of 40 minutes, the longest in our test. The crux of the problem is the dual sets of fans. To mount the radiator, which itself is bigger (at 38mm thick) and heavier than any other radiator in the test, you have to hold the radiator in place, while simultaneously holding two fans above it, and then screwing in eight screws from above through the fans and then the radiator. Of course, this is after you've already attached the lower layer of fans, making the whole contraption just incredibly ungainly.
Making matters worse were the absurdly-long fan leads - each of the four fans had a power lead that was about 18 inches long, which created a massive amount of cable spaghetti for us to hide behind the motherboard. We simply can't imagine what Arctic was thinking with these - were they surplus from some other product line? Maybe the idea was that in most case, this giant cooler would have to be mounted in front, but even then, you'd need 12 inches at most, and this could be taken care of with a simple extension cord, rather than making every fan into its own extension cord.
While Arctic includes its well-regarded MX-4 thermal paste, it comes in a squeeze packet, which is far messier and harder to use than a syringe tube like most of the other contenders in our group. It just feels downmarket, and while this cooler is a bargain at $90, it isn't cheap. There were a few other peculiar design choices too. The Liquid Freezer is the only cooler in our roundup that does not have positionable hoses; they are fixed into the cooling block. And shockingly, the Arctic logo has been silkscreened upside-down on this block. Yes, we installed it as recommended in the manual, and yes, it is shown with an upside-down logo. You could certainly install it right-side up (with the hoses at the top of the block), but doing so may cause performance to suffer, as the liquid would be trapped in the bottom of the block.
So yeah, we weren't impressed with Arctic's installation or aesthetics. Performance, on the other hand, was another story, as you'll soon find out.
CoolerMaster MasterLiquid 240
CoolerMaster does everything right with this bargain-priced cooler. It took just 25 minutes for us to install, and it was by far the easiest, beating out even Noctua's air cooler. First, it's the only cooler to use AMD's standard AM4 retention bracket, meaning you don't have to take the time to remove it and replace it with a proprietary one. The cooling block is simply lowered between the two sides of the AMD bracket, and is hand-tightened using a standard AMD clip mechanism. Attaching the fans to the radiator was similar to other models, but we really liked the rubber anti-vibration pads they had, a feature only the much more expensive Thermaltake offers.
Just two minor installation notes. First, the thermal paste CoolerMaster provides is really runny, making it extremely hard to use if the system is standing up vertically. You really need to lay the system on its side to prevent it from running right off your CPU. It's probably not the best stuff in the world, but as with all the models in the test, we used the supplied paste. Secondly, the hoses on this cooler were a bit shorter than the other coolers in our test (at 37cm long), wo we installed it with the hoses at the rear of the case to avoid stretching them unnecessarily.
Reeven Naia 240
The Naia 240 took us 30 minutes to install, and while not difficult, it was a bit trickier than the CoolerMaster. That's because it does require the removal of the stock AMD retention bracket and backplate. Plus, the Reeven bracket uses odd bolts that must be slid into tiny little notches - it would be easy to miss this if you're not paying close attention, which would lead to an improper installation. The bracket is secured with thumbscrews that are truly thumb-only, without indentations for a screwdriver. We always think it's best to give users the option to use a screwdriver in case they don't have good dexterity or can't easily reach their fingers into the system. Furthermore, it guarantees a tighter fit.
Luckily, everything else was simple, and Reeven provides a tube of thermal paste as well as a spatula to help spread it - a nice touch, although we still prefer the "pea-sized" drop method. Adding to the time it took to get this cooler installed was the fact that we filled its reservoir with a combination of red and blue dye to tint it a shade of violet, which looked great in our system. Reeven is the only manufacturer providing this type of unique customization in an all-in-one cooler, and we really, really like it. The cooler block is transparent, and four white LEDs shine through from behind. Later on in this article, you'll be able to see what this looks like in actual use.
There were just two issues we had with Reeven's design choices: the fans seem to be low-cost sleeve bearing Reeven Coldwing 12 models, which have a much shorter rated lifespan than Reeven's own fluid dynamic bearing-equipped models, and the tubes are not sheathed, meaning they look a bit cheap in comparison to the slick implementations on the CoolerMaster and Thermaltake models.
ThermalTake Water 3.0 Riing RGB 280
The Water 3.0 took us 35 minutes to install, not because it was more difficult than other models, however. In fact, ThermalTake's Water 3.0 is based on a time-tested design, and the cooling block and radiator utilize a very standard Asetek design. A lot of people may not realize that the vast majority of liquid CPU coolers on the market are licensed under patent by Asetek, including both the Arctic and Thermaltake in our roundup, but extending to Corsair, Cryorig, EVGA, Fractal Design, NZXT, and even Intel. That means the radiator and cooling block used in this model looks and functions identically to others, right down to the cooling plate itself (being identical to the one on our Arctic cooler). Like the Arctic Liquid Freezer 240, it reuses the standard AMD backplate (although not the retention brackets), but unfortunately, unlike the Arctic model, the manual doesn't actually specify that you need to reuse that bracket (and that your motherboard may in fact not have one if you got it second hand).
Speaking of the manual, Thermaltake actually included a few too many manuals, and it all came down to providing the extra AM4 compatibility in the box. First was the "Water 3.0 Riing RGB 280" manual, which failed ot include any mention of AM4. Then was a re-written "Water 3.0 Riing RGB" manual that had all the same information, plus details of the AM4 installation. Finally, there was an AM4 upgrade kit manual, which seemed completely unnecessary given that the AM4 instructions are actually included in one of the other two manuals. We're betting this is simply a result of having to switch over an existing SKU to include AM4 compatibility. The updated manual may not have been ready in time, so Thermaltake is likely slipping it into boxes that already contain the old manual plus an AM4 upgrade manual. We hope Thermaltake will eventually ship this model with just one complete manual, because it literally took us at least 10 minutes trying to figure out which manual to follow. Also making things a bit more time-consuming was the separate RGB breakout box, which controls both the speed and lighting on the included Riing fans. On the other hand, there was one time-saving element of this installation: thermal paste comes pre-applied, unlike any other cooler in this roundup. This is great for convenience, but it does mean you don't get a second shot at installation!
As we mentioned on the previous page, one of the most critical factors in determining the ease of installation of a liquid cooler is the case you're working with, and we really have to give Thermaltake credit for a job well done on its View 31. No, it doesn't use the most cutting-edge design, but it's a design done right, with a huge amount of headroom up top (where coolers ought to be installed, as opposed to the front panel). Alas, we know a lot of cases that advertise this type of compatibility really don't have it. For example, we installed the Reeven Naia 240 in our SilverStone PM01 case for some testing you'll learn about later in this article, and it actually touched our motherboard heatsinks, meaning we had exactly 0mm to spare! Neither the Arctic Liquid Freezer 240 nor the Thermaltake Water 3.0 280 would fit in the top of that case, despite it being marketed with this type of compatibility. The same holds true for our Phanteks Enthoo Pro M and other mid-sized Phanteks cases. So beware, and if you're building your a system from scratch, always consult our DIY PC Buyer's Guides for advice on cases and coolers that work well together!