For a lot of enthusiasts, a full custom watercooling (or liquid cooling, if you prefer) can be essentially the final frontier. Closed loop coolers have been taking off in a big way, bringing watercooling to the masses, but sacrifices are made in the process. The overwhelming majority of closed loop coolers employ aluminum radiators instead of the copper and brass that are used in custom loops, and the pumps tend to be on the weaker side, presumably to both keep noise down and because there's really only one component to cool. I'm still enthusiastic about these products because they can offer excellent cooling performance without placing the undue strain on the motherboard that a heavy tower air cooler can, and they're typically a win for system integrators who don't want to risk shipping damage. Whether you like it or not, this is the direction the market is heading, although pure air cooling most definitely still has its place.

So why look at watercooling? First, establish how important noise is to you. Watercooling systems (and this includes CLCs) occupy an interesting middle ground. For pure thermal-to-noise efficiency, they're basically unbeatable, but if you want absolute or near absolute silence, you actually have to go back to conventional air cooling. The reason is that watercooling necessitates using a water pump, and while they can be tuned down for efficiency, they're never going to be dead silent. An air cooler will always be a fan plus heatsink; watercooling adds a pump.

Watercooling is so efficient because it effectively allows you to spread your system's heat load across a tremendously greater surface area. Water transfers heat exceptionally well, and radiators in turn will be massive, densely packed arrays of copper fins. By being able to spread that heat across one or multiple radiators, you also allow yourself to use multiple fans at low speeds. Alternatively, you substantially increase your system's heat capacity, so if you're looking to overclock a little more aggressively, watercooling may be the way to go.

In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons to go for it is actually the potential for watercooling graphics cards, especially in a multi-GPU setup. While the stock blower cooler for the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 is actually a work of art and does a stellar job of keeping that card cool, it simply can't hold a candle to a full-card waterblock that can absorb the heat from every heat-generating component on the card, especially the power circuitry. Suddenly you're not risking tripping the 780's boost clock thermal limits anymore, and the blower coolers aren't generating any more of a racket for your trouble.

Of course, building a custom loop is insanely daunting. This is the first time I've ever built one and while guides exist all over the internet, they all feel a bit incomplete in one aspect or another. There's also the fear of spraying coolant all over the inside of your case, or accidentally frying graphics cards when you install the waterblock, etc. It's also a decent amount of work, and it's not cheap. Truthfully, if I hadn't been able to put this together for AnandTech, I don't know that I'd have ever made the attempt. But the opportunity did present itself and now I can at least share the results with you.

The Components, Part 1
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  • St. George - Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - link

    If CPU temps can be controlled with good cooling, and if I am after max CPU clock, is there a max voltage for Haswell? ASUS says 1.35v, various threads suggest between 1.4 and 1.5v, but many others seem to suggest max voltage is only limited by how much heat you can take away. What am I missing? You seem to suggest that the reason you won't run at 4.7Ghz is because you pass from what feels safe, 1.3V, to what feels risky, 1.45V. I am running archi apps that need CPU clock. Thanks. Delidding netted me 31C.
  • spidey81 - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    I appreciate immensely the effort and thought put into this article. But to have someone new to the watercooling experience doing this wasn't the best way to go about it.

    For instance, and I'm sure this has been brought up, you compared results from different overclocks like it was apples to apples. Also, the radiators and blocks you used (although I have and use swiftech components) are inferior compared to other options available. Here's ( a titan/780 waterblock comparison that clearly shows not all waterblocks are created equal. In fact, the swiftech block was one of the poorer performers in the roundup.

    Although good for basic loops, the radiators used could have been seriously beefed up! There are plenty of thicker rads available that use slower fans and still outperform these. Using slower fans will obviously create a more silent build. I've been using RX series rads from XSPC and they are always near the top for most efficient and pure performance.

    Basically, what I'm saying is that watercooling isn't strictly slap a block on and "voila" it's a super overclocking silent beast. The component selection from blocks to pumps to tubing to fittings are all critical in meeting the goal of the build. Research goes miles and finding good resources in overclocking/watercooling communities are a must.

    I was excited to see this article and left disappointed after reading it. Watercooling is far superior to air cooling in nearly every instance. Silence and performance are there to be had, you just need to have the proper selection of components and the subsequent proper arrangement of them.
  • mapesdhs - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    I understand what you mean (paragraph 1), but in a way it's very useful, as it shows exactly
    the kind of issues someone new to watercooling is likely to encounter. Most guides and
    forums tend to assume a degree of existing familiarity. There's an information gap between
    being comfortable with top-end air cooling and dealing with reasonable custom water loops.
    As a newcomer to watercooling, half the problem is knowing what questions to ask. Forum
    threads can help, but they're frequently hindered by the odd one or two people who are
    very vocal but incorrect in their opinions, and of course it can be tedious in the extreme to
    wade through hundreds of posts to find all the various relevant bits of info (I know, I've done
    this with 3930K oc'ing).

    Your comment about component selection being 'critical' is a good example of what I mean.
    Unless one already has some experience with this, how does one make the right choices?

    Thus, I can understand why those already familiar with watercooling (especially someone
    with considerable knowledge/skill) might be disappointed with the article, but for beginners
    it will definitely be useful, ie. discovering potential pitfalls and mistakes.

    A parallel article by someone with more experience but using the same CPU/GPUs/mbd/etc.
    would be fascinating.

  • Menetlaus - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    I would also love to know what the retail cost of the watercooling parts/kit used in this build.

    If the cost is $800-1000 as estimated above, then the overall cost for the full system would be in the $4k range.

    Bang for the buck is terrible on a full, custom, watercooling setup as the $4k watercooling system was typically less than 10% faster for 33% more money.
  • The Von Matrices - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    I'd say your estimate on the entire system cost is about right. My guess is that Switftech sponsored this article and the author was either barred from stating the price or not curious enough to price out the components he was given. Custom water loops are a pretty terrible value if all you want is increased performance. Even though there are a lot of people who praise them, few who build them really consider the extreme cost since it's easy to get hooked into assembling it and forget about the price. Custom liquid cooling should only be used in three situations:

    1) You want the absolute best performance you can get at the current time.
    2) You want an extremely powerful but quiet system (mid-range systems can be quieted much less expensively with better air cooling).
    3) You care about aesthetics and showing off your case (the "cool factor")

    If you're only looking for increased performance, the best option to save money is just to forego the custom liquid system and use the money to upgrade the system's components more often. That will provide more consistent performance increases for the same amount of expenditure. The quietness argument is only valid if you have multiple video cards; any system with a single video card can be quietly cooled by replacing the stock video heatsink and using a better CPU heatsink and system fans. The aesthetic argument can't be reasoned with because that's a personal judgment, but generally people who use custom liquid loops for aesthetic purposes aren't particularly concerned about the price.
  • sunnyjuicedrink - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Thank you for the great article. I have one question that many people seem not to address in water cooling guides: how do you take a build apart? I've never built a water cooling system before, but I like keeping my PCs for a long time and upgrading individual parts. Is this possible, or is the deconstruction process cumbersome?
  • cjs150 - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Sunnyjuicedrink: Upgrading can be easy as long as your loop allowed for draining the system. Obviously if you change motherboard then components may be in slightly different places so your tubing may need replacing, simply changing the CPU is straightforward. Changing GPU can be awkward as you will probably need a new GPU waterblock and location of inlets on the block may not be the same as previously (although that just means some new tubing). All components (usually) work on a g1/4" socket
  • Sadrak85 - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    After reading the whole thing (you did a lot of work here!), here's some points from the peanut gallery:
    1) I don't think it's just the lousy TIM under the IHS for the 4770K. I think part of the blame is to the integrated voltage modules, which more and more, I believe was included solely to allow partners to buy cheaper motherboards for their laptops and desktops.
    2) Thanks to IPC, that 4.4 GHz Haswell should perform (roughly) like a 5 GHz Sandy Bridge, and for what it's worth, 5 GHz Sandy Bridge chips were also rare.
    3) To easily attach tubing to barbs, boil water, put the end of the tubing into the water until it also reaches the boiling temperature, then slip the hot tubing easily onto the barbs. When it cools, it will be on there VERY well; in fact, you would likely have to cut it to remove it, but the huge forces need not be applied.
  • DanNeely - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    The FIVR has more to do with Intel's mobile first strategy. It lets the CPU ramp/drop voltages much faster (order of magnitude???) which helps stretch battery life out by increasing the amount of time the CPU can spent at minimum power levels. Desktop systems get them by default because it's easier for Intel to use the same power regulation design everywhere.
  • mokre - Monday, September 30, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the article. I'd like to suggest a couple of things:

    First, have a look at the fans you were using; I suspect for the radiators the fans do not have enough static pressure to move air through the rad, which is likely why you had to turn the fan speeds up. A buddy of mine has the same setup, but two gtx titans instead, in the same case, with slightly lower radiator capacity, and his temperatures are in line with yours, but noise-wise his system is much more quiet.

    Second, using a wrench on the fittings is probably not a good idea. While you can certainly tighten them properly, it could damage the fittings or worse yet, strip the threads on the acetal material used on the waterblocks (but only if you overtighten).

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