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.
The novel color scheme resides solely on the fans, which are specifically designed for the task of pushing air efficiently through the narrow gaps between fins of a radiator. Noctua uses nine large, tightly packed blades that cut the air at a low angle to maximize the pressure. A separate family of more propeller-like fans is tailored for use on enclosure walls or with coolers that have wider fin spacings.
There are two different fan designs found on the trio of coolers that has been making the rounds on my test rack: the 120-mm NF-P12 and its P14 brother, which measures 140 mm across. Both models rely on the same core set of technologies.
Let’s start with the most obvious attribute: the pair of notches cut into the trailing edge of each fan blade. Noctua calls these vortex-control notches, and they’re meant to reduce turbulence, resulting in quieter, more efficient operation. The notches are staggered slightly from blade to blade to spread any noise they create across a wider spectrum to blend in more easily with background noise.
The DC motor charged with generating the actual airflow is a custom Noctua design. According to the company, the motor offers smoother transitions between its coils than lesser motors—another win for silence and efficiency. Noticing a trend here?
The oil-pressure bearing has also received some special attention in the form of a magnet that helps to stabilize the rotating axis and to prevent any abrasion during initial spin-up. Keeping the spindle pristine improves long-term stability, Noctua says, and it backs up the talk with an impressive 150,000 MTBF rating for the fans and a six-year warranty.
We’ll test noise levels in a moment, but before that, I should point out one disappointing characteristic of these spinners: they use three-pin DC headers that are incompatible with the temperature-based fan speed switching on some motherboards. Noctua was unhappy with the subtle switching noise it detected on the speed-control ICs associated with four-pin PWM fans, so it set about designing a quieter one for the Focused Flow fan we saw out on display at Computex. Unfortunately, that fan hasn’t hit the market yet.
The Focused Flow has integrated rubber bumpers, but Noctua relies on separate strips to dampen vibration noise with its current coolers. On the NH-D14 and C14, a slick clip mechanism is anchored to the fans with rubber stoppers that poke through the screw holes. The clips hold the fans securely to the heatsinks and are easy to fasten and remove, which is a definite improvement over the simpler design found on the NH-U12P SE2 and more than a few of the other air towers I’ve used over the years:
A bracket for all sockets
I led by talking about Noctua’s socket upgrade policy, so forgive me for taking this long to talk about the actual retention bracket that makes this possible. Out of the box, the bracket is compatible with all desktop sockets from AMD since Socket AM2 and from Intel since LGA775. The design is a simple one: two screws anchor the CPU block to posts that poke out of retention bars one screws into the motherboard.
On AMD sockets, the bars screw directly into the existing backplate. Spacers raise the bars to the correct height, and all one has to do is make sure they’re oriented in the right direction. Alas, this setup doesn’t provide the option of rotating a cooler’s orientation by 90 degrees to avoid specific clearance conflicts.
There are no such problems with the Intel retention kit, which has the luxury of slipping into holes arranged in a perfect square. The problem is, that square comes in three different sizes and with different back plates, so a more elaborate bracket is required. Noctua supplies a rubber-lined backplate with a pull-away section for sockets newer than LGA775. There are three distinct notches cut into each of the backplate’s arms to match different hole spacings, plus posts, spacers, and a set of thumbnuts to secure the retention bars to the mobo.
Don’t have a screwdriver? Noctua provides a rather lengthy one with each of its coolers. The long reach and thin profile is necessary to get at the retention screws on the block, which are inaccessible on all but the NH-C14 without removing at least one fan. On the C14, you can thread the screwdriver between the fan blades and the gaps built into the radiator itself.
Using these coolers primarily in my lab, where systems are pulled apart and reassembled on different motherboards sometimes several times in one day, I quickly found myself frustrated with the retention mechanism. Everything fits together nicely, and the screw threads tolerate multiple installations without losing their grip, but there’s a lot of pulling fans and fiddling with the screwdriver.
Most coolers of this size require some disassembly before they can be removed, so the Noctuas are hardly unique in this aspect—the retention system is just less than ideal for quick swaps. For the typical user, who will assemble his system once and then go months if not years before touching it again, the retention bracket will work just fine. Just keep in mind that you’ll need access to the underside of the CPU socket in order to add the backplate to Intel systems.
So, on to the coolers. Let’s start with the NH-U12P SE2, which is the cheapest of the trio at $63 online. This dual-fan air tower is a souped-up version of the original NH-U12P we faced off against a water-cooling system a couple of years ago.
The NH-U12P SE2 measures 4.7″ x 5.0″ x 6.2″ (120 x 126 x 158 mm) and tips the scales at 2.1 lbs (940 g). Noctua has even more detailed measurements for all the coolers available on its website, but the important one to keep in mind here is 1.6″ (40 mm), which is the distance between the base of the block and the lowest point on the radiator stack—the DIMM clearance, in other words.
Each of the NH-12P SE2’s 120-mm fans spins at 1,300 RPM by default. Noctua also includes in-line resistors that’ll knock the speed of each fan down to a low-noise 1,100 RPM or an ultra-low-noise 900 RPM. There are individual resistors for each fan and a Y-cable to connect both leads to a single motherboard header.
If one radiator and quad heat pipes aren’t enough, the NH-D14 provides upgrades on both fronts. This behemoth sells for a whopping $86, and it’s easy to see where the extra money is going: more pipes and a second radiator.
The NH-D14 links a pair of radiators with six heatpipes that blossom up from the CPU block. In between those radiators sits a 140-mm fan, while a 120-mm one clings to the outside of one of the cheese graters. There is 1.7″ (44 mm) of clearance under the radiator, and the side-mounted fan can be pushed way up either of the twin towers to stay out of the way of taller memory modules or VRM heatsinks.
Interestingly, the NH-D14 is missing the pair of thin metal rods used to stabilize the radiators on the C14 and U12P. Perhaps due to that omission, one of our D14’s radiators curves ever-so-slightly away from the CPU block, which is somewhat disappointing given the precise engineering on display elsewhere. Bending it back required more force than I was willing to exert on the toothy radiator with my bare hands.
All told, the NH-D14 weighs 2.7 lbs (1240 g) with appropriately plump 5.5″ x 6.2″ x 6.3″ (140 x 157.5 x 160 mm) proportions. The 140-mm fan spins naturally at 1,200 RPM, while the 120-mm unit ticks over 100 RPM faster. Both can be knocked down to 900 RPM with the included ultra-low-noise adapters.
Don’t have the vertical clearance for a tower? The NH-C14 cocks its radiator at 90 degrees and uses the fans to blow down on the socket. There are six heatpipes in total, and a separate support piece bears some of the weight of the radiator.
This comparatively low-slung design has 5.5″ x 6.5″ x 5.1″ (140 x 166 x 130 mm) dimensions, and you can lop about an inch (25 mm) off its height by ditching the top-mounted fan. For those who require more than the 1.5″ (38 mm) of clearance between the CPU block and the bottom-mounted spinner, the bottom fan can be removed to raise the roof on the RAM to 2.5″ (64 mm).
As on the NH-D14, the C14’s 140-mm fans rotate their blades at 1,200 RPM unless one attaches the resistor-based adapters. The low-noise adapter slows the fans to 900 RPM (which oddly qualifies for ultra-low-noise status on the D14), while the ultra-low-noise resistor cuts them to 750 RPM.
Despite having a single radiator, the NH-C14 sells for only $1 less than the D14. There isn’t much more metal here than there is on the NH-U12P SE2; the C14 weighs in at an even kilogram, or 2.2 lbs.
I’ve said more about these coolers than I expected to, and Noctua is to blame. The company’s website is rife with detailed technical explanations of its design philosophies, which makes me feel like a nerd in science class—in a good way. But talk is cheap, and it’s time to see how these coolers perform. For our comparative testing session, I set up an open test bench based on an X58 motherboard with an old-school Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.36GHz on 1.28V. This chip dates back to the original Nehalem launch, so it runs warm enough to be a good test of cooling performance.
To ensure low ambient noise levels, the rest of the system was outfitted with quiet components, including a silent SSD, a passively cooled graphics card, and one of Corsair’s AX650W PSUs. While one would enable automatic fan speed controls in a normal system, we’ve disabled them here to ensure an even playing field for all the fans. Cooling performance was tested at idle and under an eight-way Prime95 load using the app’s maximum-heat torture test. CPU temperatures were monitored using RealTemp, and we used the temperature of the hottest core (which was always core 0, by the way). For competition, we called upon a classic: a Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme with a single 120-mm fan. In its heyday, the eXtreme cost about the same as the NH-U12P SE2, making it a worthy opponent for the Noctua coolers.
At idle, there’s only a four-degree spread between the various cooling configurations. That delta grows to five degrees under load, so we’re not talking about huge differences in CPU temperatures.
Only the NH-D14 provides better cooling performance than the Ultra-120, and then only by one degree under load. That said, all three Noctua designs are within one degree of the Thermalright competition when running their fans at full speed. Adding in-line resistors to the Noctua fans only ups the temperatures by a few degrees at most.
Employing the low- and ultra-low-noise adapters has a much more pronounced impact on noise levels, which was immediately apparent in our near-silent test environment. To monitor noise levels accurately, a TES-52 digital sound level meter was placed 12″ from the edge of the system and out of the direct path of airflow. Since the fans were running at a constant speed, we only tested noise levels at idle.
My ears didn’t deceive me—there’s a huge difference in noise levels between the various fan speeds. Without the adapters in place, the NH-D14 and C14 are both louder than the Thermalright cooler. Throw resistors into the mix, and the noise generated by those coolers drops by an impressive 7-10 decibels.
The NH-U12P SE2 looks particularly good here, registering the lowest noise levels of the bunch with all speed settings. Noctua’s fans are so quiet that two of them generate less noise than the one fan Thermalright slaps on the Ultra-120.
These results are too limited in their scope to give us a exact read on where the Noctua heatsinks sit in the vast continuum of coolers currently on the market. I’m a little hesitant to draw definitive conclusions as a result, but a few things are pretty clear. The most obvious is the fact that the NH-D14 and C14 don’t offer substantially lower CPU temperatures than the U12P SE2, which costs about $20 less. I can see paying the premium for the C14’s unique profile, but it’s harder to make the case for the D14 unless you’re really worried about thermals. If lower temperatures are your primary goal, the all-in-one water coolers found in the D14’s price range are probably a better option.
For most enthusiasts, the NH-U12P SE2 provides the best balance of acoustics, cooling performance, and overall value of the three models. $63 may sound like a lot to spend on a CPU cooler when perfectly competent alternatives can be had for half the price. I doubt those cheaper offerings will be nearly as quiet, though. They won’t have six-year warranties, and good luck the next time AMD or Intel transitions to a new desktop socket.
Countless CPU heatsinks have passed through our labs over the years, and the NH-U12P SE2 is easily my favorite. I like the thing so much that it’s going into the new PC I’m slowly assembling for myself. Once that system is up and running, I’ll no doubt be tasked with another cooler review and have to pull out the U12P for comparative reference. When that happens, I’m going to go out and buy a new one instead. The NH-U12P SE2 is that good.