Heat is the bane of the overclocker. More than almost any other factor you can think of, heat is what limits the potential of your hardware. Even if you prefer to leave your hardware at stock then heat can still contribute to the lifespan of your components. With fiscal considerations being up-most in most peoples mind then getting the most you can out of every item is a primary consideration.
Not so long ago we would all gladly trade any amount of noise for good temperatures because the speed increase from overclocking was so large as the stock speeds were so low. As technology brought rapid improvements in the stock speed of processors, as well as the introduction of digital media, more and more people sought silence as their primary focus rather than absolute performance.
Thankfully with the invention of tower heatpipe coolers it was possible to have great temperatures and, because you can choose your own fan, silence as well.More and more companies have taken this method of CPU cooling and produced their own varieties. However due to the nature of the design they're all very similar.
The alternative, apart from LN2 or other very esoteric cooling types, is to go water cooling. However water cooling can be a bit of a minefield if you're new. Many types of tubing, fittings, radiators etc etc all mean that, assuming you've got the room in your case and the time to leak test and the swathes of cash necessary, it's still a bit adventure.
So what if you want something different from the norm? What if you could combine the qualities of a water-cooling setup, with the price of a good air-cooler?
Enter Corsair with the H50, designed in combination with Asetek. Does it really offer everything?
The H50 Up Close
Packaging can really help us want a product, or alternatively deflate us. It's curious that in such a results driven business as PC hardware we can be affected by something that actually ends up in the cupboard. As always though, care and attention taken on packaging can hint towards care and attention spent on the product.
The H50 comes in a very sturdy box with all the essential information neatly laid out.
Opening it up the first thing that greets you is a huge warning about not RMA'ing this to the shop you brought if from, but to contact Corsair. Although I'm sure that it's good business practise it doesn't instill confidence. Once that is dispensed with we have the H50 itself.
The first thing that strikes you is the weight of the CPU block. I'm sure that a lot of time has been taken to make sure than the pipes attach securely to the radiator but given the radiator weighs almost nothing, and the block weighs about the same as a particularly lardy elephant, I would recommend you exercise a lot of restraint when handling it prior to installation.
Special mention has to go to the writers of the documentation. It's brilliant. I'd almost go so far as to say it's the best documentation we've seen. Seriously. It's amazing. Clear. Concise. Stunning.
On the right We can see the notches on the outside of the pump/sink combo. The reasons for which will become clear on the next page.
If there is one element of a liquid cooling system that is under-rated by those who don't know, and a black art even if you do, is the radiator. After all there is no point having liquid if there is nowhere to dissipate the heat.
I don't pretend to understand the finer points of fins per inch. However there is a clear balance between airflow and surface area needed. If you have one fin then the surface area is too low, and if you don't have any gaps then airflow is too low. From a purely visual standpoint it looks about right. Of course testing will sort the chaff out from the wheat.
Corsair have got ever base covered regardless of which platform you use. On the left is the AMD baseplate and retainer. On the right we have the Intel one. Yes, one.
This is why there is only one. The bracket has holes in place for all three of the slight spacing differences in the Intel motherboards. Although it does make us wonder why Intel felt the need to move the screw holes a couple of millimetres.
Finally the base of the H50 has pre-applied thermal paste. Thankfully not of the stodgy variety we expect in pre-applied pastes. You can also see the efforts Corsair have gone to to make sure that there wont be any leakage. Last time I saw that many screw-heads in a confined space I was locked in Tom's shed.
The Simple Installation Procedure
Installation is so simplistic we thought we actually show you. After all, to look at the base of the H50 it's not immediately apparent how you can attach this.
We'll demonstrate on the AM3 platform, although the method is identical on Intel motherboards too. Install four bolts into the backplate. These are profiled to fit snugly into slots which double as a bolt allowing the tightening to occur.
The retaining ring has multiple latches around the outside which will slot into the base of the main part of the Corsair H50. On the outside of the ring are four oval slots into which you put four of the eight plastic risers.
Here you can see we're rightly using the AMD ones which are easily identifiable thanks to the lack of two screw holes.
These secure into the retainer with a clip ensuring that it's not a one time fix and so you can transport the H50 to an alternative platform should you need to.
This gets loosely screwed into the motherboard via four long screws. This is a slightly awkward part of the procedure as the holes in the risers are exceptionally low tolerance and getting the screws through is a little bit of an effort.
Finally the pump and heatsink section gets slid through the gaps and turned slightly so the notches line up. The whole shebang is then tightened and you're ready to go.
About the only thing to note is that the instructions wisely say to install the radiator first. For the benefits of clear photography we didn't do this for this guide, but we'd definitely recommend it. The pipes aren't very flexible at all so mounting the cooler on the motherboard first will make the radiator flap about way more than we'd like. So backplate, motherboard, radiator, cooler is definitely the order of install.
Speaking of the radiator. Corsair need the H50 installed with the airflow effectively backwards. What is the standard exhaust port becomes the intake drawing cool air across the rad. Now we'll have much more to say about this decision later on, but it's something to be aware of.
Test Setup and Results
Both setups had identical component except, naturally, for the motherboard and processor.
ASUS HD5850 Top
Cougar 1000CM PSU
AM3 : MSI 890GX and AMD X4 620
i7 : Biostar Tpower X58 and i7-920 C stepping
For our tests we built the systems exactly the same. Temperatures were taking using CoreTemp. The Idle temperatures were taken after half an hour of sitting at the Windows 7 desktop. Load temperatures were taken right at the end of a 30 minute Prime95 run.
The stock results on both systems were taken with, unsurprisingly, everything at stock. For our overclocked test the i7 was running at 3.6GHz @ 1.35v and the AMD was at 3.2GHz @ 1.40v. During all of our tests the pump was connected directly to a 12v supply and we made sure we tested with the room around the 20°C mark.
Most importantly because of the price point of the H50 we wont be comparing it to bespoke water cooling systems as they cost at least four times as much. So we're going to be just treating it like a very high-end air cooler when analysing the results.
And what high end coolers would they be I hear you ask. Well as this is a pricey bit of kit we are testing against a Prolima Megahalems which is one of the more popular coolers around. To make sure we don't skew the results by sticking a Delta or something similar on we will be using a Xilence Red Wing which is a very reasonably priced average fan. Of course no high-end test would be complete without putting it up against the absolute daddy of coolers, our reigning champion, the Noctua NH-D14. It's a couple of quid more than the H50 but we already know what a monster it is and so should provide a stern test for the H50. After all if Corsair are serious about this being the end to all your cooling needs, it has to be the best doesn't it.
As you'll recall Corsair want what is naturally the exhaust port on a PC to be the intake for the cool air to keep the water temperatures down. We have therefore tested in this way, but have also tested in a more natural exhaust position. Thanks to our large and well-ventilated ATCS 840 we wanted to see if it would really make a difference or if Corsair are just being prima donnas and demanding we rearrange all our airflow to accommodate the H50.
Let's start at the top, balls to the wall. No fannying about, how much cooling potential does the H50 have? We put everything as fast as it would go, donned our ear protectors and began running the tests.
As you can see there isn't much difference whether the cool air is dragged in or pumped out. Although the idle temperatures are higher than we'd like to see, especially for the noise level of the fan, it actually handed the loaded overclock test a lot better than its svelte size would have you think. It beat out the Megahalems but gets roundly spanked by the Noctua NH-D14. Even more surprisingly the Noctua with it's two fans was still quieter than the Corsair H50.
While we're deafening ourselves we'll have a look at the AMD results. These aren't the main focus of todays test because AMD processors run nice and cool in comparison to the mighty house-warming gift that is the i7 920, but nonetheless we know that often our AMD fans get overlooked because of the relatively little heat the Phenom series put out.
The results bear this out with absolutely no need to run an exhaust test because with the fan drawing air in as Corsair demand the X4 640 doesn't begin to break out in a sweat.
It's OC3D Sensible Hour
Having mopped the blood up from our ears it is time to go back to the way we test all our coolers. Naturally the water still needs to be pumped and so the pump is left attached to our 12v source. This is our "how you'd do it" test. After all, it's pointless us testing endlessly in arctic conditions to give a good result if as soon as you get it home and install it in a default state it's nowhere near. With the room still at the same temperature but a much less intrusive fan speed our idle and Prime95 load testing gave these temperatures.
Admittedly much higher than we saw with the 100% test, but considering the noise levels a little temperature is alright. You can see that our overclock, and the 0.2v increase in the core it entails, starts to reach the limits of how much you can cool with such a small radiator. But if I tell you more I wont have anything left for the conclusion. So read on Macduff...
Testing the Corsair H50 was a mixture of the good and the strange.
Let's start with the stupendous.
Whoever did the manual and installation instructions for this needs to be signed up by every other company around. Sure some things, graphics cards, gaming surfaces etc, don't exactly need huge manuals. But nearly every motherboard on the planet has documentation more notable for what it doesn't tell you than what it does. Peripherals by the dozen have features untapped thanks to poor manuals or, even worse, PDF ones. CPU Coolers, by virtue of their function, are the one bit of kit more than any other than has a job far more lofty than their slender price tag would have you believe. The importance of having a good contact is vital, and a secure mount even more so.
Thankfully despite this being a cooler with multiple mounting options the documentation for all of them is crystal clear. Even a half-blind ape could install this without issue. Even reading comprehension isn't a must because of the wonderfully descriptive illustrations.
Build quality is also very high. The packaging is high quality and the mounting hardware fits exceptionally well together. This definitely isn't a product that is a jack of all CPU sockets and master of none. We've been testing this H50 for a while now as the main cooler in one of the OC3D rigs, and in the time we've had it we've not had a single issue at all with the pump or the fan.
Noise levels are good. The pump makes hardly any noise at all which was the primary concern in such a compact unit. Certainly nothing you'd notice over your case fans or indeed the fan that comes with the cooler. Speaking of the fan, it isn't too bad. It's kinda middle of the pack when it comes to volume. When we ran it flat out it was, as is to be expected, madly loud. But when set to more realistic speeds it's neither loud nor quiet. Thankfully like any 120mm fan you can swap it depending upon your needs. So if you want the CFM of a Delta, or the silence of a Noctua, and everything in-between, the world is your Oyster. Of course a fan on top of the already fairly hefty price tag might be a step too far.
The main meat in any cooler is the temperatures. Here it's fair to middling. Corsair take great pains to point out that, because of the H50s pricing, it's not competing with a pukka water-loop, rather it's against the high-end air coolers. It just doesn't quite cut it with those. It's priced just north of £60, which puts it up there with practically any air cooler you can think of, and yet the temperatures aren't really as low as either we'd hoped, or as low as the high-performance pure-air coolers.
It's not really as simple as that though. Sure Corsair don't want us comparing it to a Laing/Black Ice 360 type setup and rightfully so. But it can't just be compared to air coolers because it's not one of those either. There is a huge amount of stuff here for your money. The radiator alone contains as much metal as most tower coolers and we haven't even figured in the complex heatsink/pump arrangement. So although it appears over-priced compared to its air-cooled cousins, actually it's good value. Even when overclocked we didn't bust through the 80°C bracket we stop testing at. Sure it was close, but this is a short water-loop and so there isn't swathes of space for the water to cool before it hits the hot copper again.
Finally the main good/bad point, and about the same topic. One of the key selling points of the H50 is that enormous tower coolers take up enormous space and put a huge strain on the motherboard due to their ever increasing weight. Claims nobody would dispute. The H50 nearly avoids this issue by barely being larger than two 120mm fans in the cooling end, and leaving untold amounts of space around your CPU. This is ripe for good airflow to your exhausts allowing the cold air to flow in forward and low, and the hot air to be expelled high and rearwards. The way it's been time-proven to be best. Hot air rising and all that.
So why do Corsair insist we use it as an intake? In our none-too-small CoolerMaster 840 the differences in temperatures were negligable and certainly not worth the arsing about it took to reroute our airflow. Maybe if you've got a tiny teeny case their wont be enough cold air coming in to keep the H50 working at its optimum, but then all you're doing is pumping hot air across your MOSFETs and RAM. Which isn't wise either. It's certainly solving one problem by creating an entirely different one.
In the end we have mixed feelings. It cools ok. It's quiet enough. It gives reasonable temperatures. It's pricey compared to similar performing competitors but cheap for what it is. It's almost the perfect definition of the H50 itself. It's a water-cooler that is marketed to the air-cooling brigade. In trying to be all things to all men it's not quite anything to anyone. If you want silence, the crown still belongs to the Noctua NH-D14. If you want performance, it's the Noctua again. The Noctua is a couple of quid more expensive but a great improvement. The Megahalem/Cheap Fan combo has similar performance, but is a tenner cheaper, so if you wanted a particular type of fan you've around £15 to play with. Also by virtue of being purely air it's much easier to relax about and allows you to route your airflow as you like, rather than as Corsair demand.
If you want a good looking cooler that doesn't take up masses of space on the inside of your case and gives reasonable temperatures, we can recommend the Corsair H50. It's unquestionably good. It's just not quite at the top of the mountain.
Thanks to Corsair for the sample, you can discuss our results and many others in our forums.