Dude, you just clicked through to a review of a CPU heatsink. Are you sure you want to do this? You know, there are plenty of good books you could be reading, instead. There are plenty of good games you could be playing, too, and some great movies out there. Heck, if I were you, I'd just be re-watching the latest Breaking Bad right now. Seriously, can you believe Walt?
Okay, so traditional CPU cooling is kind of a solved problem. You grab a few heat pipes, bend them into something approximating a U shape, and stack a bunch of aluminum fins (or copper ones, if you're feeling fancy) between them. You throw in some kind of universal mounting scheme that works with the latest Intel and AMD sockets, and then you slap a 120-mm fan (or a couple of 'em) on the fin array.
Bada-bing, bada-boom, you've got yourself a modern CPU heatsink. So, where's the room for innovation?
There isn't much happening on the functional side of things, that's for sure, but we've come across an interesting development on the cosmetic front. See, Enermax has put out a couple of tower-style coolers that feature a newfangled color coating. Enermax won't say exactly what the special sauce is, but it calls it TCC, short for Thermal Conductive Coating. According to the company, the coating can "create better velocity of thermal transference and prevent oxidation on the contact surface." (Yes. "Velocity of thermal transference." There are some born wordsmiths in Enermax's marketing team.)
Simply put, this coating is supposed to help, rather than impede, cooling performance. It also means Enermax's ETS-T40 heatsinks are available in black and white as well as the usual metal hues:
Nice, huh? Here's the full lineup:
The standard ETS-T40 over on the left flaunts its aluminum fins and copper heat pipes au naturel. Asking price: $34.99 at Newegg. The ETS-T40 White Cluster in the middle has a white coating and costs $49.99. The ETS-T40 Black Twister on the right has a midnight hue and is also priced at $49.99. In other words, you're asked to pay a $15 premium for the funky TCC coating. That doesn't amount to much in the grand scheme of things, and $49.99 is still a pretty reasonable price for a decent-quality, tower-style heatsink. Especially one that looks this good.
Mmm. Even the quad 6-mm heat pipes are coated for a more uniform look.
Okay, so the pipes aren't coated everywhere. They're designed to come into direct contact with the CPU, and Enermax leaves the, uh, contact zone un-coated. I guess there's not much sense in applying a fancy color coating something that's going to be slathered in thermal paste and squished up against the CPU's heat spreader. Bare copper may also make better contact with the CPU without a layer of color coating, thermally conductive though it may be, in the way.
If you look carefully at the picture above, you'll notice the ETS-T40 White Cluster and Black Twister come with slightly different fans. Both fans are part of the ED122512H series, just like the one on the un-coated version of the ETS-T40. These are all 120-mm spinners with PWM connectors and magnetic Twister bearings. The EDH122512H-PDL on the White Cluster adds white LEDs, a three-way toggle to set the peak PWM speed, and a little switch on a wire (pictured above) to turn off the light show. The EDH122512H-PAL fan on the Black Twister features blue LEDs, no toggles or switches whatsoever, and fan blades that are flat, translucent, and fewer in number. By contrast, the blades on the other two versions of the fan are thinner and have a bumpy shape. Enermax calls 'em Batwing Blades.
Fan design minutiae don't really concern us, though. What we're really curious about is whether Enermax's claim about thermal conductivity checks out. Do the white and black versions of the ETS-T40 perform just as well as the un-coated one? Can you be the PC enthusiast equivalent of a fashion victim without making your $300 CPU overheat? Let's find out.
To assess the performance of these coolers, we strapped them to a Core i7-3770K on an open test bench. The processor was installed in a Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H motherboard, which also played host to 4GB of DDR3-1600 RAM and a Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition graphics card. In the interest of simplicity, we left all firmware options to their stock settings, and we allowed the motherboard to regulate fan speeds automatically.
Our test involved letting the system warm up for 10 minutes and then launching AIDA64 to track temperatures and fan speeds. At this point, we let the system idle for another 10 minutes, ran a 10-minute CPU load, then let everything cool down during a final 10-minute stretch. Our CPU load consisted of Prime95's large FFT torture test, which should have given our processor a good workout.
We tested the White Cluster with its peak fan speed set to 1800 RPM, to match the others. Since the stock fan on the Black Twister has differently shaped blades, we tested the Black Twister first with its stock fan, then with the fan from the regular, un-coated version of the ETS-T40. Oh, and we used our own, silicone-based thermal paste rather than the one Enermax throws in the box. Ours is easier to clean.
I'm not sure why the white fan had a higher speed at idle. It was perceptibly louder, too... might have been a dud. Either way, the peak fan speeds and temperatures under load were pretty much the same across the board, give or take a few RPM here and a couple degrees there. That means the color coating—and the differences in fan blade style—didn't have a substantial impact on cooling performance. Heck, the black cooler did slightly better than the un-coated one.
Clearly, then, there's no downside to mixing things up in the color department, at least with this particular line of coolers. That's terrific news for those of us with windowed cases and a desire to impress.
Now, we do have one beef with these heatsinks. Their mounting mechanism is kind of awful. There are too many parts, too many screws, and too many brackets. Also, the back plate has three unlabeled screw holes in each corner, and we were supposed to use the holes in an asymmetrical pattern for our LGA1156 socket. See the picture in our gallery. The manual outlined the screw distribution, but it did so from the wrong angle, as if we were supposed to peer through the circuit board during the installation process. Ugh.
To make matters worse, we ran into a strange problem with the first motherboard we tried, an Asus P8Z77-V LE Plus. Somehow, the board wouldn't boot with dual-channel memory when any of our ETS-T40 heatsinks was installed. We tried all kinds of remedies: using different RAM, moving DIMMs around, using a different ETS-T40 variant with a different mounting bracket. Nothing helped. However, as soon as we swapped in the stock Intel heatsink, everything was peachy. We had no issues with our Thermaltake Frio, either, even though it has a similar, tower-style design. Perhaps the ETS-T40's retention mechanism was tighter and warped the circuit board, or perhaps a component of the mounting hardware shorted something. Either way, this isn't something you want happening outside of a test lab overflowing with spare parts.
That little quirk—and potential fluke—aside, the ETS-T40 series is a nice change of pace from the usual drabness and conformity of modern CPU heatsinks. Their cooling performance is good, the pricing is reasonable, and after a couple of tries, you'll probably wrap your head around the mounting mechanism. Given the propensity of PC cases and motherboards to adopt black or dark-gray tones, there's something to be said for having the option to color-coordinate. Since there's no penalty for doing so, you may as well indulge your inner interior decorator. Why not, right?