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Life in the lab with Noctua's CPU coolers

Investment-grade luxuries

Modern PC hardware has a shorter shelf life than the average teenage idol. While it's common for CPUs, graphics cards, and other components to remain serviceable for years after their initial releases, most retire to closet file servers, auxiliary BitTorrent boxes, and other secondary systems far removed from the limelight of an enthusiast's primary desktop. Can you blame them? With each fresh generation of parts comes better performance, lower power consumption, quieter cooling, and tantalizing new capabilities. The aging stars of yesteryear just can't keep up.

Obviously, the turnover in some component categories is higher than it is in others. Playing games on a three-year-old graphics card involves more trade-offs than living with a case of the same vintage, for example. Cases can remain in their prime through multiple upgrade cycles, which is why we tend to recommend spending a little extra money on a good one. After living with a handful of Noctua heatsinks for a few months, I'm inclined to put CPU coolers in the same category.

That sentiment might surprise you given the socket specification changes we've witnessed in just the last few years. Although AMD has maintained the same basic heatsink retention system since Socket AM2 debuted with the original Phenom, Intel has altered its retention hole pattern twice since the Pentium 4 arrived on LGA775. The upcoming Sandy Bridge-E replacement for six-core Gulftown CPUs will ride in an LGA2011 socket with yet another retention scheme.

Some cooler makers offer upgrade kits that can be purchased to adapt older heatsinks to newer sockets. Noctua has upgrade kits, too, but you don't have to pay for 'em. Send the company a proof of purchase for your original cooler and another proof for an LGA2011 motherboard, and you'll be shipped a socket upgrade kit free of charge.

We were pleasantly surprised to learn about this free upgrade program when we met with Noctua at Computex in Taipei, Taiwan this year. Noctua seemed to be the only heatsink maker at the show not pimping a line of iPad accessories, gaming headphones, or multi-button mice, so we actually spent a fair bit of time talking about PC cooling. Impressed with what we heard, we decided to subject Noctua's latest CPU coolers to service in the Benchmarking Sweatshop to see how they would fare. Shortly thereafter, a rather large box arrived containing the NH-U12P SE2, the NH-D14, and the NH-C14 (which are arranged from left to right in the picture above).

In some respects, these coolers use radically different designs. Numerous attributes are consistent across all three, however, including price tags that put these products firmly in premium territory.

Let's tackle the similarities first, starting with the interface between the heatsink and the CPU. As you can see in the picture above, Noctua doesn't polish the CPU block to a mirror finish. The surface is flat, but it features an array of tiny grooves designed to encourage the uniform dispersion of high-viscosity thermal compounds. Noctua claims there's a higher risk of uneven compound dispersion with perfectly smooth surfaces, at least with the thicker thermal paste that's common these days. Presumably, the grooves are less ideal for use with thinner thermal compounds that are applied with a brush rather than squeezed from a syringe.

To ensure a consistent thermal interface, Noctua solders the heatpipes not only to the wrap-around CPU block, but also to each of the attached radiator fins. All of the fins feature flat profiles devoid of the golf-ball-style dimples that have appeared on some aftermarket heatsinks. Dimpling can add surface area and improve aerodynamics, but Noctua says it experimented with different surface treatments and ultimately preferred the neutral characteristics of the flat profile. That's not to say that the fins are free of shaping, however. The serrated edges of the fins that make up the NH-D14's radiators look like they've been designed to shred flesh.

Indeed, all three coolers feature different patterns on the edges of their fins. I suspect there's an aerodynamic explanation behind each pattern, but Noctua wouldn't share it with me. While the company was more than happy to provide detailed answers to most of my technical questions, it wasn't keen on revealing all of the secrets behind its designs.

The company did, however, comment on materials, noting that the price of copper has risen quite a bit over the years. Although it's become more expensive to do so, all of Noctua's heatsinks continue to use copper pipes and blocks.

While some heatsinks seem eager to show off their tanned copper pipes, Noctua wraps them in nickel-plating. This plating is added to prevent oxidization, which reputable Google sources tell me can reduce copper's ability to radiate heat to the surrounding air—but not so much to other metal surfaces making direct contact. Nickel plating has better long-term heat transfer properties, and it happens to look pretty slick.

When combined with the bare aluminum fins, the nickel-plated pipes and blocks complete a sterile symphony of elegant industrial design... embellished with fans pulled from Captain Antilles' closet. How's that for an obscure Star Wars reference? The beige and maroon coloring permeates all of Noctua's fans, and it's a little unusual to say the least. Noctua is an Austrian company, and the Europeans do dress a little differently than us North Americans, who pick up on trends months or years later—see the current epidemic of skinny jeans.

Those colors will have to catch on for one to have any hope of matching Noctua's fans with the rest of one PC's components, although I can see some complementary hues in Asus' Sabertooth motherboards. Props to Noctua for doing something distinctive on the aesthetic front while maintaining an understated profile. I have to admit, the retro-space-age vibe of these things has really grown on me.