How to optimise your PC's cooling
15th Apr 2012 | 07:00
Give your PC a health check and ensure more power from your system
How to optimise your PC's cooling
Building a PC may be as easy as putting a child's playset together, but optimisation is a dark art. One scientist recently estimated that there are as many variations of different settings in your computer as there are neurons in the human brain.
OK, we just made that up for the purposes of this article, but the point stands. Optimising your PC takes much time and patience, as well as a solid understanding of how it's put together and how it works. And a screwdriver.
'Optimisation' itself is a bit of a blurry term, but we're going to assume that you want to do one of two things to your PC: make it faster, or make it quieter. There is some middle ground between these two paradigms - a fast PC doesn't have to be loud and, likewise, a quiet PC doesn't have to be slow.
Optimising a gaming PC means that it should run faster and have more room for ludicrous overclocks. System stability is key here, and the focus of a gaming PC is on vast amounts of airflow at the cost of quietness. Of course, quieter fans will make a big difference, but gaming cases' large fans tend to generate quite a lot of sound.
On the other hand, a quiet PC will tend to run warmer, but its silence makes it ideal for installation in a living room. Here underclocking, rather than overclocking, can prove useful as it means that the internal fans can be tuned lower, and make a little less noise as a result.
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Bear in mind, too, that modern PCs are difficult to break, and most settings and components can be readily returned to their original state. With that in mind, prepare to unleash a faster and/or quieter PC.
Let's get down to brass tacks here. Before you start fiddling with fan speeds and CPU voltages, you'll need a computer. Otherwise you'll be fiddling with fan speeds in mid-air.
Whether you're buying an off-the-shelf PC or assembling your own, the most important thing to consider first is the case, or chassis. Cases generally come in two species: the quiet but warm and the ugly but cool. Quiet cases generally look sleeker, with no visible air intakes or giant glowing fans, but their silence comes at a cost: you'll often find that due to lower airflow the temperatures within these particular beasties are higher than their more gamey counterparts.
The ugly but cool cases often consist of little more than a vaguely cubic steel mesh into which you hang your motherboard and components. These cases are designed with performance in mind, and the huge air intake and output they're capable of means that all the innards stay nice and chilly.
There are some cases that straddle both the quiet and the cool. Thermaltake's BMW-designed Level 10 cases separate each component into its own section in order to provide better cooling and less noise - but the less said about this £200 poorly-performing behemoth, the better.
Cooler Master's more sensible Cosmos series includes both decent airflow and noise-dampening side panels, but the latest - the Cosmos II - will set you back a whopping £350.
On the budget side, there are bargains to be had for around the £100 mark. Cooler Master's HAF series includes an incredible amount of cooling, and we've been impressed with what we've seen so far.
The HAF 932 - which has been around since 2008 - is still an amazing piece of kit, and it's £109. Antec's Performance One cases use as much noise dampening technology as possible, and you can pick them up for around £90.
There are other considerations when buying a case. Ever wondered what those strategically-positioned giant holes on the motherboard tray are for? They're not to save manufacturers splashing out on precious metal, Polo-style - they're for cable management.
Before you start putting components in your PC, it's a good idea to thread your SATA and power cables through these holes and zip-tie them in place. This ensures your airflow isn't akin to drying your hair through a pile of wet spaghetti.
Fans are - obviously - the things that deliver the airflow into and around your case. Quieter cases tend to have fewer, whereas gaming-oriented cases feature enough to drive a field of wind turbines. The majority of cases have extra spaces for fans, too, but it's important that they're facing in the right direction.
Prevailing wisdom is to (somewhat euphemistically) suck little and blow lots, so larger fans should be directed out of the case. It's also a good idea to make the front fans suck and the top and rear fans blow - that way you've got a constant airflow in one direction.
This may be an obvious point, but if you're installing case fans it's important to know which way they're going to blow. Generally speaking, air blows out of the side of the fan with the support arms and label, and air flows away from the curve of each blade.
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If you really want to see what's happening to the air in your PC, it's a good idea to invest in a packet of smoke matches (£1.22 for 25 from www.toolstation.com). These produce more smoke than a beer garden - light one and hold it in front of a powered-up case to see where the cooler air is going, and if there are any vortexes where cold air is getting trapped. Just make sure you turn off your smoke detectors first.
The majority of cases also come with hard drive fans seated at the front, but their effectiveness is debatable. Hard drives have been designed from the ground up to operate without cooling fans, and the majority of failures are likely to be due to floundering mechanics rather than overheating.
If you've got three or more hard drives, heat accumulation could be a problem, but moving a single hard drive to a non-cooled location could result in better airflow to the rest of your PC, with the added bonus that it's not flowing over a lukewarm drive.
Aside from fans, hard drives are likely to be the loudest things in your PC. Many cases come with noise dampening mounts for your hard drives, which stop their annoying rattle reverberating around the whole PC. If your case lacks the requisite dampening, you can pick up a case of rubber grommets (£2.25 from www.toolstation.com) and wrap them around the hard drive mounts within your case.
Making your PC even quieter
For even more silence, acoustic dampening panels can stop your PC sounding like a tone deaf teen metal band practising in a steel shed. These increase the sound absorption surface area within your PC, so sticking them to your case's side panels can make a huge difference. You can get these from www.quietpc.com (whodathunk?), along with foam blocks that can be inserted into drive bays to absorb even more unwanted noise.
At the core of your PC lie the graphics card and CPU, and these can generate enough heat to turn your PC into a rodent sauna. Stock cooling generally does the job, and often higher end graphics cards - such as Sapphire's Vapor-X AMD series - include better coolers to handle the higher temperatures generated by overclocking.
However, sometimes stock cooling simply isn't enough, and upgrading heatsinks can make a big difference to your machine's operating temperatures and your system's noise emissions - even if you haven't overclocked the graphics or processor chips.
CPU coolers are generally compatible with all CPUs, and Enermax's ETS-T40-TA did a brilliant job of reducing the heat, while looking fairly bling at the same time.
GPU coolers are a different kettle of floating points, though. Installation isn't as easy as merely installing a CPU cooler, because graphics cards consist of numerous parts and screws. Each cooler has to be bespoke to the card itself, too.
If you're experiencing overheating problems with your graphics card that haven't been solved by simply optimising your case's cooling, your first port of call should be to try to return it under warranty. If that fails, invest in a new cooling system for the card - but be warned that they can cost rather a lot of money, and may void your warranty.
Not to be overlooked, the PSU is an important part of your PC. Apologies if we overlooked you, PSU. You want one that's going to give you a bit of leeway when it comes to upgrading, without delivering more power than you're ever likely to need.
The incredibly handy PSU calculator analyses the power needs of all your components and suggests a suitable PSU wattage. PSUs are, in fact, fairly crude bits of kit, so go for one with 80+ certification to ensure it's running with reasonable efficiency.
PSUs also tend to generate rather a lot of heat and noise, and their installation is something of an art form in itself. Some cases position the PSUs at the top, where heat can escape easily, but we're not too keen on the idea of the heaviest computer component being perched above some of the weakest.
The bottom is a better option, and some cases give you the choice of placing it with the fan facing downwards. Just make sure you hoover your PC's parking space thoroughly before you put it down, unless you fancy a PSU full of dead woodlice and stale Twiglets.
While we're on the subject, keeping your PC free of dust is pretty crucial. Gamier cases tend to suck up dirt like a Sunday tabloid, and it's worth opening your case every now and then to see what's going on inside.
A can of compressed air can work wonders on a dust-infested case, but failing this stick a sock over the end of a vacuum cleaner and suck away at its lowest setting - this will provide enough suction to remove fan-clogging, heat-inducing dirt without loose components ending up in your cyclone cylinder.
Now that we've sorted out the more practical elements of your PC, it's time to get under the hood and see just how well your techbox is working. CPUID's incredibly handy HWMonitor is completely free to download from www.cpuid.com. It's a Format fave, and it shows temperatures and voltages for just about every element of your computer.
While your computer's idle it'll show low temperatures, so boot up a graphics-intensive game (that is, something other than Q*bert) with it running and see how high those temperatures get. You can expect your machine's idle temperatures to hover around the 30-40°C mark, maxing out at 50°C under load.
Whether or not temperatures higher than this actually shorten the lifespan of components is contestable - anecdotal evidence suggests that it takes a monstrous amount of overclocking to blow a processor.
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The next step is to download SpeedFan from www.almico.com. This isn't quite as user-friendly as HWMonitor, but it lets you adjust fan speeds from within Windows. The 'Speed01' to 'Speed04' settings correspond to the fans within your system, with 'Speed04' usually controlling the GPU fan. You can set percentages here - lower each one and observe the temperatures until you find the sweet spot between coolness and quietness.
Both AMD's Catalyst and Nvidia's System Tools let you control your machine's fan speeds too, along with more advanced features like overclocking and underclocking. We won't go into the specifics of over and underclocking here, but both techniques can make a significant difference to a PC's performance.
Underclocking can be particularly useful on loud PCs, because lower temperatures mean you can tune your fans to lower speeds. Even the most ancient of computers can be given a new lease of life with the optimisation tips described here, and they apply to pretty much everything from a 386 right through to a Core i7. A properly optimised PC that runs smoothly is a heavenly thing, and you'll feel an immense amount of satisfaction if you know your PC is running at its best.