For the past three years, I've been water cooling my computer for ultra cool, ultra quiet performance. It's been a fun project, but it's also been extremely stressful and costly. It's time to move on.
Some of you have been following my water cooling saga over the years, but here's the short version of the story 'til now: I got the itch and tried an all-in-one unit. The itch got bigger and I tried a custom loop with a kit. The kit leaked a little (due to my own idiocy), but everything was OK. I expanded the loop, it leaked a lot (due to my own idiocy), but everything was OK. Then... it leaked a little more, through no mistake on my part, and ruined a $US300 video card. Yikes.
The Final Straw
I actually gave up on water cooling before I'd even discovered that video card's death. Until now, I had gotten by without breaking any parts, but water cooling still had its frustrations. The whole project, while fun, had just been incredibly costly, both in my time and money. Simple tasks like testing a new video card or moving the computer became huge projects, and every time I re-installed the loop, I had to futz with it until everything was set up properly. It became so much of a hassle that I told myself: one more issue, and I'm done.
So I knew my "final straw" was coming. I was already ready to quit. But just to make sure I followed through, the universe decided to make this issue a bad one. After returning home from a week-long trip, I found my PC acting strangely, only to find out — after a half hour of scratching my head — that one of my fittings had started leaking on the graphics card below. Because I didn't realise what was happening, I left the computer running as my graphics card got wet... which shorted out the card. If I hadn't already been dead set on quitting, I would have been then.
Learn From My Mistakes
Now that it's over, the whole thing feels a little bittersweet. It was simultaneously one of the most fun projects I've undertaken, but also one of the most frustrating. It produced my favourite video we've ever done here at Lifehacker. But it also made me feel like a bit of a failure — so many other people got this right, so why did I have so much trouble over the years? Not to mention all the time and money I put in, only to throw my hands up in defeat.
All that said: I don't rescind my previous recommendations for water cooling. I don't suddenly think it's a horrible project that everyone should avoid just because I had a bad leak. After all, my recommendation always included the caveats I mentioned above: It's expensive, it's a lot of work, and it does introduce a small but significant risk to your system. I just don't think I realised how expensive, how much work, and how I'd feel when that risk reared its ugly head. So, if you're still thinking about undertaking this, let me expand on these a bit more:
- You have to be willing to go top tier (at least for a custom loop). Custom water cooling is expensive. All-in-one loops from brands like Corsair are great inexpensive options, but if you're going to do it yourself, you have to go all in. Cheaper parts will be noisy, leaky and more frustrating to put together. I thought I could get by with a $US130 kit, but found that in order to do it right, I needed more expensive parts (like compression fittings, a separate pump, quality fans and so on).
- Your computer will occasionally be out of commission. Repairs and tweaks are complicated, and can take a while. If this were just my gaming machine, that might not have been so frustrating. But it was also my work computer, and while my work is mostly online — so data loss was never a worry — it would still set me back whenever I had to take the thing apart. Every hiccup meant working from the couch on a laptop for a day or two, which is far less comfortable (and productive) for me.
- Know that even if you do everything right, things can still go wrong. Almost all of the issues I had were my own fault, and if you follow instructions to the letter, you can avoid most of them. But things can still fail, through no fault of your own — even if you're using a pre-built, all-in-one unit. It's rare, but it happens. Like overclocking, don't undertake the project if you aren't ready to replace things when they break.
Some of you will have no sympathy for me, and that's fine. After all, I did put water inside my computer. It's an enthusiast project with a high cost and low practicality — not exactly a life hack in the traditional sense. And I'm not crying because my video card died — it was a risk I took on knowingly. But if you love DIY for the sake of DIY, and you love building computers, you may be interested in this project, and my recommendations haven't changed. I just thought sharing my story might help some on the fence. For me, the annoyances are no longer worth the reward.
What I'm Doing Instead
This wouldn't be a very good Lifehacker article if I just shared my (hard-to-sympathise-with) story and left it at that. We're all about the how-to here, so here's the practical takeaway: If you're scared off from water cooling now — or you always were — you can still get a cool, quiet system with air cooling. That's what I'll be doing.
I still haven't given up my commitment to a near-silent PC, so I've done some research and taken some advice from my favourite PC building guru, Linus Sebastian (see the video above). I've replaced my CPU cooler with a big honkin' dual tower cooler from Phanteks. I also hear good things about Be Quiet's coolers, but some of them are hard to find. Noctua's are also solid, albeit not quite as cool looking. Thankfully, you have lots of choices, and most coolers will work with any CPU and any fans. And with a little work, you can ensure those fans run at lower speeds when you don't need them, keeping the computer quiet as a mouse. (Linus even got rid of the CPU fans entirely in his build.)
Graphics cards are a little tougher. A lot of modern graphics cards actually have decent, quiet cooling — but you have to buy the right one. Reference cards are usually awful, so you want to buy from a brand like MSI or Asus, who make very effective, but very quiet, coolers. Some of the newer models (like those in Asus' STRIX line or MSI's Gaming line) will even turn the fan off for regular use, and only ramp it up for intense gaming. If you already have a graphics card, though, a quiet aftermarket cooler from someone like ARCTIC or GELID might be just the ticket. (Just make sure you buy one that is compatible with your card!)
Other than that, it's all about optimising your computer for silence. Air cooling has come a long way in the past few years, so with the right hardware and the right software tweaks, you can get your PC pretty darn quiet without sacrificing performance. It won't have quite the bling factor of water running through your PC, but it's a worthy replacement.