A PC Case With Water Cooler
In a past article "A Home-Grown Water Cooler for 115 Dollars" we showed just how easy and inexpensive it is to build an efficient water cooling system. In response to this article, numerous readers contacted us requesting us to test an entire PC system (fully assembled). Understandably, not everyone wants to piece together a water cooling system on their own, especially if it consists of numerous components. What's more, you also have to spend quite a bit of time getting the right components. And even if you have the right components, the assembly often poses problems - standard PC cases are not meant to be used with a water cooling system, so installing one involves drilling holes and removing components.
The barebones system from Koolance. Everything is installed inside the case apart from the hardware components.
A PC Case With Water Cooler, Continued
Cosmetics: A flap on the front of the case conceals the USB and audio ports.
The PC case from Koolance that we tested is factory-fitted with a water cooler and so, offers a one-stop alternative to building your own solution from scratch. At first sight, the high-quality case makes a good impression - no sharp edges or signs of shoddy workmanship. Numerous screws and a complex construction involving a large number of components suggest a lengthy and costly assembly procedure.
View inside the case from Koolance as it was delivered to us.
Anyhow, this exciting case caused quite a stir in our lab, and we made sure to equip the PC with the very latest components (AMD Athlon 1000, GeForce 2 GTS, AMD reference board with DDR-SDRAM), and then we ran the system at full capacity in conjunction with the water cooler. From the outset, we had very high expectations for this product - it is visually impressive and leads the onlooker to believe that no expense was spared in its construction. Furthermore, we compared the Koolance system with our own water cooling system, which achieves virtually optimum cooling results (taking the comparatively low cost into account). In other words, we expected the Koolance solution to go head-to-head with our own mighty homemade solution.
The Main Components
A number of special features in the Koolance system become apparent immediately - Koolance does away with both a power supply fan and a case ventilator. Instead, the power supply unit is cooled with water. A further highlight is an additional cooling element, which is designed to cool the graphics chip. This feature sets Koolance apart from the competition, which employ a conventional water cooler and usually only equip the processor with a cooling element.
Basic configuration of the Koolance system: The heat exchanger which is filled with water is located at the base of the PC. The water is pumped to the cooling elements for the CPU, graphics card and power supply unit.
T's crossed and I's dotted: All the necessary bits and pieces are included in the package.
To examine the system in detail, we completely stripped it down. The illustration above shows the basic configuration of the Koolance system and how it works. A heat exchanger integrated into the foot of the case contains the water that is circulated using a pump.
Highly complex: The barebones system from Koolance consists of a large number of individual components. Below: You can't miss the huge heat exchanger.
Fitting The Components
As in our previous tests of cooling elements, we used the same hardware, which essentially consists of an AMD reference board (760 chipset) with AMD Athlon 1000, GeForce 2 GTS and 256 MB DDR-SDRAM of memory.
This is how the fully equipped system looks with an AMD motherboard plus components.
This photo clearly shows how the CPU and graphics card are jointly cooled.
To allow the graphics card to be cooled, it's necessary to remove the factory-fitted heat sink or fan. This isn't so straightforward with all types of cards. For instance, the GeForce 256 and the GeForce X2 present real problems. With these cards, the cooler is firmly glued on.
Initial Operation: Problem #1
Version for the American market: The power supply unit only accepts 110 volts.
During the first attempt to hook up the system from Koolance to the mains, a further obstacle had to be overcome. The power supply unit in the product we received was only designed for 110 volts - this is not much use for our European lab, and the version we tested didn't have a conversion switch. We fixed ourselves up with a voltage converter, but you should be aware of this issue upfront. Koolance does, however, offer a version for the European market, which includes a power supply unit for 230V. You just have to make sure to get the right version of the product depending on which region you are in.
Voltage converter for devices destined for the American market: The transformer supplies 110V from the 230V power supply.
Once the correct voltage supply had been ensured, we fired up the computer. Its extremely quiet operation was particularly striking - neither the pump at the base of the PC nor the fan made any noise whatsoever. To perform our test, we started the usual benchmarks such as 3D Mark 2001, Sysmark 2000 and Quake 3 Arena. After about 20 minutes the computer crashed. We found that a great deal of heat was being generated inside the PC case, which was partly due to the absence of a case fan. The temperature on the CPU surface was - according to BIOS and contact-free laser measurement - approx. 45 degrees. This means that the cooling efficiency of the Koolance water cooler is significantly less than with a conventional cooler, which consists merely of the traditional heat sink combined with a fan. As a point of comparison on the subject of traditional coolers, readers may wish to refer to our recent review of 46 coolers: Can't Touch This! - A Comparison of 46 CPU Coolers.
Much too hot: The chip on the graphics card heated up to over 59 degrees (underside of graphics card) after approx. 20 minutes, causing the system to crash.
Paradox: Despite proper installation, the GeForce 2 GTS doesn't deliver its true performance.
Stuck fast: The connections for the lines on the CPU element are firmly secured by hose clips. In the event of a problem, replacing the hoses involves a lot of hard work.
The reason for the system crashing was, however, not the processor, as is so often the case, but the graphics card. At a temperature of 59 degrees on the underside of the graphic chip, the otherwise stable GeForce 2 GTS simply ceased to run. Further tests also produced the same outcome - the cooling efficiency of the Koolance system is so poor that the PC crashed after about 20 minutes of operation. We observed the following: the cooling water heats up successively per time unit until the graphics card stops working. To get to the bottom of this problem, we painstakingly stripped down the cooling system into its individual bits and pieces.
Design Review: Heat Exchanger Plus Fan
The heat exchanger is located at the bottom of the case.
Since the two cooling elements for the processor and graphics card did not exhibit any abnormalities, nor could its conventional type of construction produce any faults, we searched for the reason for the poor cooling efficiency in the heat exchanger. The heat exchanger is located beneath the base of the case.
Far too small in size: The three miniature fans are not capable of generating a sufficient air flow for the heat exchanger.
Useless: The right-hand fan blows air ineffectively against the metal wall of the heat exchanger. Only the two other fans transport the air flow along the cooling fins of the heat sink.
The problem is clearly visible in this photo: The right-hand fan blows against the wall of the heat sink.
Koolance has, however, performed its work well in one respect: Great care has been taken in assembling the system, and what are in some cases hand-built components have been worked to fit exactly in place.
Size Isn't What Counts: The Heat Exchanger
The solid heat sink does virtually nothing. Ultimately, the water merely stands in the cooling tank instead of moving round the circuit. Other heat sinks from the competition perform much better.
In view of the large capacity of around 1.5 liters, the pump design (on right in the photo) is far too puny.
The heat exchanger of the Koolance system is composed of a solid aluminum heat sink. The simple design prevents the water from circulating inside the cooler, meaning that the water is left to stand in the cooling tank. This is one reason why the system does not produce effective cooling and heat dissipation. What is more, the cooling fins are far too big, resulting in a small cooling surface that does not allow the heat to be efficiently dissipated.
Ray of hope: This plug permits the cooling water to refill without leaking.
Mini Fans Versus Heat Sink Hulk
The pump is located inside the heat sink. Because of its miniature format, it only has a low pump capacity.
Some striking features are the minute fans which are supposed to ensure the perfect cooling of the heat exchanger: A normal CPU fan, such as you would find on most basic cheap and cheerful PCs, absorbs more power than all three of these fans put together. We measured a power input of 0.64 Watt per fan, which yields a total power of 1.92 Watt. And this is supposed to efficiently cool a huge heat sink measuring approx. 35 cm in length and 18.5 cm wide? Weighing some 3 kg, it is also on the heavy side. At this stage, we soon came to the conclusion that there are some serious design issues! How are three mini fans that produce an extremely low air flow supposed to cool a volume of water of around 2 liters?
Using Water To Cool The Power Supply Unit
The pump is located inside the heat sink. Due to its miniature format, it only has a low pump capacity.
With most power supply units, the integral fan cools the components with an additional blast of air. Koolance has removed this fan and foolishly replaced it with a cooling element for water cooling. As a result, the heat builds up beneath the tower, thereby generating additional heat inside the case. Numerous modern motherboards are fitted with a passive cooler, which relies on air flow. Neither the standard fan for the power supply nor the passive cooler for the motherboard are provided in this case.
The assessment for the barebones system from Koolance is fairly harsh: Despite the fact that it is a water cooling system, the cooling efficiency is very poor, with the result that our test configuration quit working after 20 minutes. The reasons for this are as follows: a pump which is far too small, located inside the heat exchanger, only produces a low volumetric flow. Plus the heat sink of the heat exchanger is anything but well designed, with the result that the water is unable to even circulate and thus have a cooling effect. The manufacturer has devoted far too little attention to the three fans, which should in fact produce a higher air flow. In practice, these miniature fans may indeed be quiet, but they can hardly cope with the vast amounts of heat from the heat sink. In addition, the temperature sensor switches on the fans upon reaching 35 degrees - but users are left on their own to decide where to position the sensor. Since no suitable holder for the sensor is provided, there is a risk of a total system failure.
The most critical weak point: The excessively small fans cannot handle the vast quantity of heat.
If you compare the barebones system from Koolance costing up to 250 dollars with the water cooler we constructed ourselves, the outcome clearly speaks in favor of the homemade system. Our system achieves a cooling temperature of 24 degrees - provided that the same requirements apply and that identical hardware is used. Even the best conventional cooler (see cooler comparison: Can't Touch This - A Comparison of 46 CPU Coolers) from Swiftech (MC 462) achieves a cooling temperature of 30 degrees - and this is with the aid of a large heat sink made from solid copper.
A final word about the Koolance system: the system we tested gives the impression of being a flashy piece of equipment, operating on the principle that lots of technical sophistication coupled with a good visual appearance is enough to coax the buyer. Obviously, there is money to be made selling powerful cooling systems, and the profits must be better compared to numerous other components found in the PC these days.
Our Suggestions To Koolance
It is possible to bring the system up to snuff bit by bit. The first step would be to replace the three miniature fans with larger and more powerful versions. This would produce a high volumetric flow for the heat exchange process. Ultimately, the system only crashes in its present state because the cooling performance is inefficient. In addition, optimizing the shape of the heat sink is also a possibility: More cooling fins closer together enlarge the radiation surface and create the conditions required for better cooling efficiency. The undersized pump should be upgraded to produce a higher delivery rate, which could also boost the cooling efficiency. A further flaw is the positioning of the heat exchanger beneath the PC case, as this causes the entire PC tower to heat up. Finally, the heat sink constitutes a very large radiation surface that quickly heats up the components inside computer.