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7/26/2009
01:23 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Wolfe's Den Vlog: Build A Liquid-Cooled Intel Core i7 PC

A liquid-cooled PC is like the Hummer of computers, which is why I've always wanted to build one. (Plus, it provides ample thermal support for overclocking.) This latest project came about because I wanted to top my last two quad-core builds -- 2008's QX9770 and 2007's QX6850 box -- and also because I wa

A liquid-cooled PC is like the Hummer of computers, which is why I've always wanted to build one. (Plus, it provides ample thermal support for overclocking.) This latest project came about because I wanted to top my last two quad-core builds -- 2008's QX9770 and 2007's QX6850 box -- and also because I wanted to check out the new Intel Core i7 processor. Click ahead to see a short video of the project's first phase, where I unbox the Thermaltake BigWater 760is liquid cooler.Early on, I assumed the project's biggest challenge would be working with the Core i7, because it's got a new socket, and also because it upgrades the RAM from DDR2 to DDR 3. (The LGA 1366 socket replaces the familiar LGA 775, which has been around for many years, right through the most recent Core 2 Quad processor family.)

But the wind was taken out of those sails last fall when I found my pizza guy putting together his own Core i7 920 PC without any problems. The takeaway is, building these things is now so routine your average hobbyist can do it with no problems. (Though I always seem to run into walls, like when I had to upgrade the BIOS on my QX9770 build, because the motherboard wasn't playing nice with the DDR2 RAM.)

Anyway, so I have to admit that the idea of liquid cooling has always sort of repelled me, mainly because my computers reside in my relatively organized home office, rather than in some basement geek cave where leaks would go unnoticed amid the beer stains.

But I do a lot of video editing, which goes smoother the more processing power you can apply to it. I'm starting off with a high-end chip, the 3.33-GHa Core i7 Extreme Edition. (It's probably obvious, but I should state that this is a quad-core device.) True, I've got a standard heat sink which can probably keep it within spec, but I'd also like to try overclocking, for an added performance boost for my video editing. So liquid cooling seems a must.

On the technical side, I found it interesting that, unless you have a lab fully outfitted with thermal sensors -- I don't -- the impetus for liquid cooling is almost more anecdotal than technical. For example, I had difficulty finding out how much hotter (or even, if) the 3.3-GHz Core i7 runs than the lower-end, 2.66-GHz Core i7 920. When you check the Intel documentation, all five desktop Core i7 SKUs are spec'd at a 130 W thermal design power (TDP) limit. Dialing up the processor profile, Intel has set the appropriate case temperature limits as 45.5 degrees C at idle (12W) and 67.9 degrees C at full-out load (130 W).

So, in theory, according to the spec, the thermal profile of the Core i7 Extreme Edition isn't different from the other processor SKUs, and it shouldn't be any harder to cool, assuming you use a slightly bigger heat sink. Also, I have to say that my previous experience indicates that, as long as you use an ample case with a good basic heat-sink-and-fan combo, and some case fans to route air in and out, you're not going to have any problems. Intel chips are well spec'd. (On the other hand, I haven't really gotten into overclocking.)

OK, so let's begin. For the cooler, I'm using the Thermaltake BigWater 760is liquid-cooling system.

My first step was to unbox the BigWater 760is and see if I could make sense of all the tubing. Eventually, I did read the directions. Quite frankly, though, if you're the type of person who relies on the instructions, you've got no business messing around with this stuff. They're even less helpful than are Ikea's.

The most important item to check for is to make sure you've got the proper bracket adaptor to make the BigWater 760is's cooper heat sink block to the top of the processor. For the Core i7, you need a socket LGA 1366 adaptor. The thing sticks to the motherboard with one of those superglue-infused 3M strips, so I guess I have one shot to get it right.

Then there's the uber-worry of all water-cooled PC builders. Namely, I don't want to spill the coolant -- aka toxic antifreeze -- all over the floor. (Hey, did you know that the antifreeze component is actually NOT what transfers heat way from a hot processor? Turns out whatever is the coolant. Ethylene glycol, or whatever other alcohol is used serves only to keep the fluid from freezing or evaporating.)

The fan-and-radiator assembly, which is "cooler" of the liquid-cooling unit, fits into one of the PC case's hard-drive bays. You have to have some outside access so that air can circulate. Or, more precisely, air circulation becomes much more of an issue than with a traditional heat sink and fan set up, so I'm also concerned about how that will go when I do my actual build.

OK, so I spend most of my unboxing session setting up the shots for the short video I'm about to show you. At the end of the day, I had an audio track which explained things nicely, and then I had to cut the video to match that soundtrack. I almost succeeded.

For Further Reading

Build The Ultimate Quad-Core Desktop With Intel's QX9770

Build A QX6850 PC Without Busting Your Budget

Here's a post containing a video I did back in February, where I unboxed a Core i7 motherboard and an Intel X-25 solid-state drive. Click to go to the video.


Follow me on Twitter: (@awolfe58)

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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.

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