|Introduction & Specifications|
Water cooling has traditionally been considered an extreme solution, pursued by enthusiasts looking for the best cooling performance to squeeze every last drop of performance from their systems. For a long time this wasn't far from the truth and you were unlikely to find a water cooling setup that wasn't hooked up to an overclocked rig. However, in recent years watercooling has become ever more mainstream as evidenced by the number of manufacturers producing entry-level kits. These kits often provide ease of installation and operation at the expense of performance and cost. They also eliminate much of the knowledge barrier to entry to water cooling.
Since the early DIY days, water cooling has come a long way in terms of accessibility and exposure, but there are still many issues which prevent it from ousting traditional air coolers in the mainstream chip cooling market. Compared to air cooling, water cooling requires more maintenance and it's harder to install since most water cooling systems have over twice as many parts as an air cooling system, which generally only consists of a heatsink and fan. Many retail water cooling system kits also come unassembled to some degree which further complicates installation and opens up more chances for incorrect installation and user error.
While pre-assembled and all-in-one kits have done a lot to alleviate these problems, the increased accessibility often comes at the sacrifice of performance and they don't really address the largest problem with water cooling; the high cost. A competent water cooling system will usually cost from $150-$300 while a top-end heatsink and fan with somewhat comparable performance can be bought for only $70. The combination of high cost, increased need for maintenance and the do-it-yourself nature of water cooling is often too much for non-enthusiasts who tend to avoid it in preference for turn-key solutions, and who can blame them? It is for many of these same reasons that OEMs have not caught on to the idea of water cooling. The additional costs involved as well as the prospect of potential maintenance issues have caused many users and OEMs alike to avoid watercooling despite the numerous advantages.
Asetek saw an opportunity to address some of these issues and help bring watercooling further into the mainstream. They hope to do this with their simply named Low-Cost Liquid Cooling system (LCLC).
The LCLC may resemble other water cooling setups but it provides many features that set it apart from the pack. Asetek has attempted to address nearly all of the traditional disadvantages of water cooling compared to air cooling. It is a completely sealed system, which means it comes completely pre-assembled. This eliminates issues of assembly error and makes installation simpler. A non-toxic, non-flammable liquid and plastic tubing is used in lieu of silicone to eliminate evaporation issues, which means the system will not require refilling, reducing maintenance. This also makes a reservoir unnecessary, which makes the system simpler. To further simplify the system, the pump and cold plate (a.k.a. water block) have been integrated together into a single unit.
This means a basic LCLC configuration only consists of a pump/block unit and radiator (with cooling fan) connected by plastic tubing. This makes the LCLC significantly simpler and smaller than traditional water cooling systems and it also means it is small enough to easily accommodate just about any mATX case that can mount a 80mm, 92mm or 120mm exterior-access fan.
The LCLC is not a new product. We first caught wind of it way back at IDF 2006. The LCLC was originally designed for use by OEMs, which is likely why you haven't heard much about it since then. Another reason is that only recently in the last half year has it gained significant traction. The first big success came when HP integrated the LCLC into their superb Blackbird 002 gaming system. HP currently offers the LCLC in two different configurations in the Blackbird 002 LC and LCi models. We also found the LCLC under the hood of the Maingear Ephex during our review although that option does not seem to be offered by Maingear anymore. Late last year, the LCLC also started showing up at computer hardware retail websites so we thought it was high time that we got one in the labs for a full review.
|Design & Construction|
The Asetek LCLC is available in a variety of configurations to accommodate a wide range of systems. In its most basic form, the LCLC system consists of just two parts connected together by plastic tubing; a single-fan heat exchanger and a cold plate and pump assembly. Multiple additional parts can be daisy-chained to the system to allow for GPU and chipset cooling as well as multi-processor support. The makes the LCLC system very robust but unfortunately it is not designed to be user upgradeable.
The heat exchanger is available in several sizes to accommodate 80mm, 92mm and 120mm fans. This means the LCLC can have a very small footprint, if desired, which will allow it to squeeze into smaller cases including mATX and DTX setups. If the case has an exterior-access fan mount that can accommodate at least an 80mm fan, then it probably has enough space to install a LCLC system.
Dual-fan heat exchangers are also available that can mount two 80mm, 92mm or 120mm fans. These significantly larger heat exchangers can provide the thermal capacity needed for more complex LCLC setups, which may be required to cool higher-end overclocked systems.
The LCLC's pump is integrated with the cold-plate into a single unit. This design concept is used by many all-in-one water cooling systems and it has the advantage of reducing the number of pieces in a completed setup. The pump/cold-plate unit (herein referred to as the "CPU block") is connected to the radiator unit by plastic tubing.
Enthusiasts prefer to use silicone tubing for water cooling since it is cheap, easy to work with and easy to install. Unfortunately silicone tubing is permeable and this inevitably leads to evaporation over time, which means the user needs to add more water and coolent to the system periodically. Since Asetek installs all the tubing at the factory, they are able to use plastics for tubing, which is more difficult to work with since it is more rigid than silicone. Plastic tubing is resistant to evaporation and this makes the LCLC nearly maintenance free. The tubing is also ribbed which makes kinking nearly impossible.
The CPU block used by the LCLC is fairly compact and it easily fits inside the footprint of a Core 2 era Intel stock cooler that nearly all cases are designed to accommodate. The intake and exhaust tubes exit from the top of the unit, which increases the effective height. Luckily the tubes protrude from one side of the unit, rather than the center, so the tubing can be bent off to one side in such a way that the vertical clearance required for the cooler only increases by about half an inch.
Also protruding from the top of the CPU block are two wires. The yellow and black straight-pair wire has a standard molex connector and provides power to the pump. The green and black twisted-pair wire ends in a standard 3-pin fan connector which provides the motherboard with information about the pump. This information appears in the BIOS and fan monitoring software under the "CPU fan RPM" field, although we presume the number corresponds to the RPM of the pump's impeller. Throughout testing, the pump reported an average RPM of 1250. This is a nice feature since it allows the motherboard to monitor the health of the pump and it also works with standard fan failure warning alarms, either in the BIOS or through software.
The LCLC's CPU block does not have any built-in mounting hardware. In order to mount the unit on a motherboard, a separate mounting mechanism is required. There are several mounting mechanisms available, each designed for a different socket type. In the case of LGA775, both screw-in back-plate mounting and push-clip mounting are available. An advantage to this mounting system is the CPU block can be mounted in any direction, which may come in handy in cramped installations.
Our review unit came with a push-pin mounting mechanism which has the advantage of being easier to install since it doesn't require the motherboard to be removed from the case in order for a back-plate to be fitted. The mounting mechanism is ring-shaped with evenly spaced "teeth". These teeth perfectly match the ones on the CPU block. To install, the mounting ring is slid onto the CPU block, then the ring is turned in either direction so the teeth lock. Finally, the completed assembly is installed on the motherboard in the same manor as a standard Intel stock cooler. The entire assembly is very secure once installed, although we would still recommend the screw-in back-plate version if you frequently move your computer.
The LCLC supports GPU cooling with the water-block assembly shown above. It is significantly smaller than the CPU block since it does not house its own pump. Multiple GPU blocks can be daisy-chained in the same LCLC system to support SLI and Crossfire setups. The GPU block only cools the GPU itself. RAM and power regulation circuitry is cooled by a separate heatsink assembly with a shroud and fan, not unlike a standard double-height stock cooler, as you'll see on the next page. The LCLC currently supports the GeForce 8800 series and the Radeon 2900 XT. Asetek also just announced support for GeForce 9800GTX and 9800GX2 setups.
Both the CPU block and the GPU block have copper cold-plate surfaces. Both water blocks come with a thick layer of thermal paste pre-applied at the factory. Once the thermal paste is cleaned off, we can see that the cold-plate surfaces are very smooth. The CPU cold-plate has faint, circular machining marks while the GPU cold-plate surface is perfectly smooth.
Our review unit is configured with a single-fan 120mm heat-exchanger, single CPU block and a single GPU block, as seen in the pictures below. Like the rest of the system, the heat-exchanger unit is well built and fairly compact. It is about an inch thick and has mounting holes on both sides.
Overall, the LCLC system seems to be well constructed. Everything felt sturdy and the materials appear to be of high quality. We liked that the pump can be monitored by the motherboard and we are also pleased that the cold-plate surfaces are very smooth.
|Functionality & Installation|
The LCLC works in a similar manner as most other water cooling systems and it should have similar thermal characteristics. In a standard water cooling system, the cold-plate in the CPU block makes direct contact with the CPU and absorbs heat, much like a heatsink. A pump pushes water through the CPU block. The water makes direct contact with the inside of the cold-plate and in the process, absorbs heat from it. The flowing water then carries the heat through the tubing into the next component, which may be a pump, heat exchanger or another CPU/GPU block. Eventually, the heated water will arrive at the heat exchanger (A.K.A. radiator), where it is cooled by the air before it leaves to start the cycle again.
The LCLC operates in exactly the way described above, except the pump is integrated into the CPU block, rather than being a separate unit in the chain. The GPU is cooled in the same manner as the CPU, but as previously noted, the graphics memory and power regulation components are cooled separately by a heatsink, fan and shroud contraption similar to a double-height reference cooler found on NVIDIA and ATI cards.
LCLC GeForce 8800 GTX Cooling Assembly (top, bottom, shroud removed)
The graphics card cooling assembly used by the GeForce 8800 GTX cools the card's memory and power regulation chips. It does this with a single, large heatsink that covers nearly the entire card. However, it only makes contact with the components it is meant to cool. The assembly has two copper heat-pipes, one for each row of RAM chips. The heat-pipes help bring heat up to a large fin array. A blower-style fan and shroud assembly is used to direct air through the cooling fins and out the rear of the system. Overall, it works largely in the same way as the GeForce 8800 GTX reference cooler, except there are less heat-pipes and a large hole where the GPU is supposed to be, to make room for the GPU block.
We already discussed how the CPU block is installed on the previous page so we will not go through it again. The GPU block installation is a bit more involved. First, the stock cooler needs to be removed and the GPU surface cleaned of thermal paste residue. Then the cooling assembly needs to be prepped for installation.
GeForce 8800 GTX (cooling assembly, bare card, cooling assembly installed)
The shroud on the graphics card cooling assembly needs to be removed. This allows access to the GPU block retention ring which comes pre-installed on the cooling assembly. The retention ring is slid on the end of the GPU block and locked into place by a small key on the ring. Then the graphics cooling assembly is installed on the graphics card. Next, the GPU block is installed on the cooling assembly using the retention ring. At this point, the GPU block should be securely attached and making direct contact with the GPU (don't forget thermal paste!). Finally, the cooling shroud is re-installed. These steps need to be repeated for each graphics card.
It is best to install the cooling assembly and GPU block on the graphics card before the CPU block(s) is installed. This makes the process easier since the LCLC isn't yet attached to the motherboard. Once the graphics cooling assemblies are installed on all graphics cards, install both the graphics card(s) and the CPU block(s).
The last thing to do is install the heat-exchanger. This step will greatly depend on the configuration of your case. Most cases will have a rear exhaust fan mount that can be used. The heat exchanger is attached to the fan mount using the provided screws. Finally a fan needs to be mounted on the head exchanger with the included screws. Overall, installation is fairly straight forward. This is especially true if the LCLC system does not include graphics cooling, in which case it isn't much more involved than a standard heatsink installation. Proper installation may require a lot of bending and twisting but we never encountered any kinking in the tubing.
|Test Setup & Methodology|
This page contains an explanation of the test methodology and the specifications of the test system used to perform the tests which produced the results on the next page.
For our thermal tests, we used two air coolers for reference in our CPU temperature tests and the stock GeForce 8800 GTX reference cooler for GPU tests. We chose the Intel stock cooler and a large, heat-pipe based air cooler; the Silverstone NT-06. For all tests, a Scythe S-FLEX SFF21D (800 RPM) was installed on the LCLC's heat exchanger. All other coolers used the fans they are packaged with. The Silverstone was tested twice, once at 750 RPM and a second time at 2640 RPM (max speed for stock fan). All thermal tests were performed on an open-air test bench. All testing was performed with the CPU and GPU at stock frequencies.
Two separate tests were performed. The CPU was stressed with Everest's built-in stress test function. This stresses the CPU and system memory, but the graphics card is idle. This simulates a common scenario during CPU intensive tasks and we believe that Everest's stress test does a good job of stressing the CPU. This test should result in peak CPU temperatures and it was used to measure CPU cooling performance.
The second type of test performed was a real-world gaming test using Call of Duty 4. This test was conducted with all graphical settings set to their highest available levels at a resolution of 1920x1200. Anti-aliasing was set to 4x while anisotropic filtering was set to 16x. Call of Duty 4 is not the most stressful game for hardware currently available (that distinction obviously belongs to Crysis), but we believe it provides a good representation of a fully-stressed system. This test was used to measure GPU cooling performance. The CPU temperatures from this test were not measured, but they were generally below those from the first test.
Temperatures were measured with Everest Ultimate Edition. CPU temperature accuracy was double-checked with Core Temp, which matched perfectly. For all CPU results, the recorded temperature is the hottest of the two cores in the Core 2 Duo E6850 used for testing.
For all tests, the test was allowed to run for 15 minutes at which point Everest begin monitoring temperatures. After another 30 minutes, the average temperature that Everest had recorded over the proceeding 30 minutes was recorded. There was a 30 minute cool-down period between tests where the system sat idle.
All testing was performed 4 consecutive times, over 3 different days at different times of the day. The results of all 4 test iterations were averaged to produce the numbers provided in the graphs. This was done to reduce the effect that slight variances in ambient temperature (which can change throughout the day) had on our test results. Ambient temperature throughout testing was maintained between 21 and 22 degrees Celsius.
Please refer to the previous page for an explanation of the methodology and test system used to produce the results found on this page.
While the CPU is idle, all of our cooling configurations performed fairly well. The LCLC produced the best thermal performance, although just barely. The Silverstone NT-06 at its maximum RPM produced thermal performance nearly equal to the LCLC. The Intel stock cooler unsurprisingly came in last place, with nearly 4C higher temperature than the LCLC.
We see a similar situation during the Everest stress test, during which both CPU cores were maxed out at 100% utilization. The LCLC and Silverstone NT-06 at 2640RPM keep pace with each other and produce the best thermal result, at 45C. This is significantly better than the nearly 60C that the Intel stock cooler was able to achieve.
While 60C is hardly a dangerous temperature level for a Core 2 Duo, 45C is much better. At 45C, all systems should have perfect stability. The lower temperature achieved by the LCLC will also extend the life of the processor compared to the Intel stock cooler. During the Everest stress test, the GPU temperature rose from an idle temperature of 56.3C to an average of 58.6C. This is because the GPU block receives the heated exhaust water from the CPU block before it reaches the heat exchanger to be cooled.
While the system is idle, the LCLC was able to cool the GPU much better than the stock cooler. However, once the system was loaded with Call of Duty 4, both the stock cooler and the LCLC performed roughly on par. The main advantage of the LCLC over the stock cooler while under load is in acoustics. While under load, the stock cooler's fan increased speed and became louder and more noticeable. On the other hand, the LCLC's noise level was unaffected and remained very quiet.
Note that the LCLC has a greater thermal delta between idle and load than the stock cooler. This is because the stock cooler's fan speed is thermally controlled and increases in speed when the graphics card is under load. On the other hand, the LCLC's GPU block is cooled by the heat exchanger. The fan we used on the heat exchanger is not thermally controlled and remains at a constant speed. This means the stock cooler has greater cooling ability while under load, while the LCLC's cooling ability remains constant. Hence the higher thermal delta. This can be remedied with a thermally controlled heat exchanger fan.
With the LCLC installed, the graphics card's memory is cooled with its own heatsink and fan based cooler and is thermally separated from the water cooling system. Since the heatsink doesn't need to cool the GPU, which is taken care of by the water cooling system, the memory and voltage regulation circuitry receives all of its attention. This resulted in fairly good thermal performance. While idle, the LCLC cooled the graphics memory about 10C lower than the stock cooler. When the system was loaded with Call of Duty 4, graphics memory temperature increased significantly but remained well below the stock cooler.
The graphics cooling assembly fan is powered by the graphics card via a 4-pin connector. However, only 2 of the 4 pins are being used and the fan is not thermally controlled which means it stays at a constant speed. This helps explain the temperature delta difference between the LCLC and the stock cooler.
Acoustic Performance: We did not take detailed acoustic measurements for this review since the LCLC does not come with a fan for the heat exchanger, therefore the noise level of the system will depend on the fan used. However, the pump and graphics assembly fan both produce noise but they are extremely quiet. The noise level of both the pump and the graphics assembly fan were below the ambient noise floor of our test lab which means they are effectively 'silent'. We were not able to detect the sound of the pump or graphics assembly fan over the noise produced by the power supply fan, from 1 meter away. In comparison, the GeForce 8800 GTX stock cooler is clearly audible.
Throughout our tests we used a Scythe S-FLEX SFF21D 120mm fan to cool the LCLC's heat exchanger. In this configuration, the system was extremely quite, and the only noise we were able to detect from 1 meter came from the S-FLEX, power supply and hard drive (while seeking). We believe it would be possible to use an even quieter fan and still maintain respectable thermal performance, however a fan is necessary. Without a fan, CPU and GPU temperatures both rose beyond 80 degrees Celsius over a period of 10 minutes.
The Intel stock cooler's fan was much louder than the S-FLEX. The Silverstone NT-06 comes with a speed adjustable, extra-deep fan (35mm instead of the standard 25mm). At 750 RPM it is nearly silent and only slightly more audible than the S-FLEX. At the max speed of 2640 RPM, the Silverstone fan reaches mini-vacuum cleaner status, both in the volume of air being moved and noise level. The fact that the LCLC was able to outperform the Silverstone with a much smaller fan is testament to its superb cooling efficiency.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: The LCLC performed very well in all of our thermal tests. The LCLC outperformed the Intel stock cooler by a significant margin both while the CPU was idle and during the Everest stress test. With an 800 RPM Scythe S-FLEX installed on the heat exchanger, it was able to keep pace with the Silverstone NT-06 using a 2640 RPM screamer. This is an extremely impressive result that shows how efficient water cooling is. Also note, that had we used a more powerful fan, the LCLC's performance would have been even better.
Graphics cooling performance was also good. In the case of both the GPU and graphics memory, the LCLC was able to significantly outperform the stock cooler while the graphics card was idle. While under load, the LCLC performed on-par with the stock cooler. However, this was largely because the stock cooler is thermally controlled by the graphics card and the fan significantly increases in speed while the graphics card was under load, therefore increasing in noise level as well as cooling capability. If the LCLC was equipped with a thermally controlled fan connected to the motherboard, which could increase its speed when the system is loaded, the LCLC would have performed better.
Overall, we are very pleased with the LCLC's performance. It easily outperformed all stock cooling solutions and kept pace with a high-end, heat-pipe equipped air cooler with an extremely powerful (and loud) fan. All with a very quiet 800 RPM fan that was barely audible.
In the recent past, watercooling had long been considered an enthusiast solution, superior to air cooling, for obtaining optimal cooling performance. Another popular reason to get watercooling, especially in earlier times when air coolers used loud 80mm high-RPM fans, was to build a quiet system that still maintained decent cooling performance. The situation today is quite different. With the introduction of fluid-filled heat-pipe technology to computer heatsinks, both of these reasons for getting watercooling have been eroded by newer, more efficient heatsink designs. The current crop of top-end super air coolers compete very well with many watercooling systems in terms of both performance and noise, although not necessarily at the same time and not with the same air cooling product. If the two primary advantages watercooling had over air cooling solutions are seemingly a thing of the past, why would anyone still get water cooling?
While the performance gap between high-end air coolers and water cooling has closed somewhat, water cooling remains significantly more flexible and scalable. Air coolers depends heavily on existing airflow within the case and a poorly cooled case can cripple even the best of air coolers. Air coolers are also sensitive to the size of the enclosure since cooling capacity is directly linked to the volume of air within the case and the flow rate of air through the case. Water cooling systems are generally oblivious to both of these issues since thermal capacity is linked directly to the volume of water in the system, and not the air. This means the performance of an air cooling system would suffer in a smaller mATX enclosures while water cooling would soldier on, oblivious to the size of the case.
Although top-end air coolers can now perform nearly as well as a quality water cooling setup, water cooling still remains more thermally efficient. While water cooling's remaining advantages of better thermal efficiency and flexibility is enough to drive interest and sales for performance enthusiasts, these reasons alone aren't enough for mainstream consumers and OEMs to consider water cooling as an option. Given the numerous disadvantages such as higher cost, more involved installation process and increased maintenance, it simply isn't worth the effort for some users to bother with a water cooling setup unless they planned to install it in an especially hot system.
Although Asetek isn't the first company to try to bring water cooling into the mainstream and to OEMs by challenging its traditional disadvantages, they are the first company to successfully attack water cooling's primary problem; high cost. For the first time, it is possible to purchase a performance water cooling system for the same price as a high-end air cooling setup. While we were unable to find a MSRP for retail available units, you can currently find a basic LCLC system with a single-fan heat exchanger and support for a single CPU for only $70. There are a few other water cooling kits available for around $100, but none of them can claim to be performance products. The fact that HP saw it fit to use the LCLC in their flagship Blackbird 002 gaming system speaks volumes about its performance.
Asetek has also mediated and eliminated other traditional issues with water cooling such as maintenance and difficulty of installation. The LCLC is an all-in-one, pre-built system. While you lose the ability to upgrade the system in the future, the LCLC offers a turn-key solution that is straight-forward to install. Since the system is filled and sealed at the factory, you don't need to worry about leaks and plastic tubing means there is virtually no need to refill the system, reducing maintenance.
Water cooling has always been a niche product. But Asetek hopes to change that with the Low-Cost Liquid Cooling system by addressing the core disadvantages of water cooling compared to air cooling and in our opinion they have succeeded. The LCLC is a quiet cooling solution that is more flexible and efficient than air cooling, but most important of all, Asetek has managed to achieve price parity with high-end air coolers. For the price of a high-end air cooling setup, you can now purchase a performance water cooling system. It is for these reasons that we are recommending the LCLC. The LCLC caters to many different types of users, from performance enthusiasts and overclockers to casual users who just want a quiet system.