Eight Low-Profile CPU Coolers For Your Compact PC, Reviewed

Test Settings And Methodology

One point of testing all these coolers is to find one that really allows overclocking in tight spaces. The problem is that cramped PCs are usually warm without even beginning to overclock. Given the problems of small enclosures and the lack of custom-fit solutions (such as the one found in my boss’ Tiki), I picked the O/C settings from our ASRock M8 review.

Test System Configuration
CPUIntel Core i7-4770K (Haswell): 3.5-3.9 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache, LGA 1150, Overclocked to 4 GHz at 1.05 V
MotherboardAsus Z87-Pro Rev 1.02, BIOS 1007 (05/17/2013)
RAMG.Skill F3-17600CL9D-8GBXLD (8 GB) at DDR3-1600 C9 Defaults
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics 4600
Hard DriveSamsung 840 Series MZ-7PD256, 256 GB SSD 
SoundIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking
PowerCorsair AX860i: ATX12V v2.3, EPS12V, 80 PLUS Platinum
Software
OSMicrosoft Windows 8 Professional RTM x64
GraphicsIntel 9.18.10.3071
ChipsetIntel INF 9.4.0.1017
Benchmark Configuration
Prime95v27.9, AVX FFT length 8K, continuous for at least 2 hours
RealTemp 3.70Maximum Temperature, All Cores Averaged
Galaxy CM-140 SPL MeterTested at 1/4 m, corrected to 1 m (-12 dB), dB(A) weighting

Another market for compact cooling is found in home theater systems, where stock cooling solutions might be too noisy. Thus, acoustics are an important consideration in today’s analysis.

The cooling capacity versus noise debate brings up a point made by one of our readers in our recent closed-loop cooling finale. Some products achieve their best cooling-to-noise ratio at a fan speed that’s significantly below maximum. Other coolers behave as if they need more powerful fans to reach their full potential. Readers suggested that we retest everything using a common fan arrangement, but that doesn’t work in a low-profile device comparison where many of the test subjects can’t hold a common fan configuration, or would no longer fit within the low-profile theme using standardized fans.

We don’t like playing favorites, but we also don’t like punishing a company for adding the extra capacity of a 3600 RPM fan when the product operates optimally at 1800 RPM. On the other hand, it would be arbitrary to pick our own fan speed and apply it to all products regardless of design factors.

So, I’ve left it to manufacturers to decide what speed to use. If the product includes a two-speed selector, I test both speeds. If it includes a resistor wire, I’ll use it. If it’s an analog controller, I’ll test the top and bottom speed settings. At this time, I cannot find a fairer method to compare cooling to noise other than to rely on the hardware included with the cooler.

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  • LePhuronn
    Zalman CNPS2X conspicuous by its absence - 28mm tall cooler that claims to be able to shift 120W?
  • Sayken
    Nice
  • tiu_sergiu
    There must be 2 winners
    Nocturna NH-L12 is best quality (Don't forgot about 6 ears of warranty)
    and Zalman CNPS8900 Quiet Smart Buy
  • Haravikk
    I'm a bit surprised by the Noctua offering, as they do have a much smaller only (37mm tall) but then I expect they wanted to use as much space as possible to ensure a good score.

    Also the NH-L12 I believe is compatible with Noctua's NF-A15 which is a 150mm PWM fan with 120mm mounting holes. In my perfect small form factor case I'd swap one of those as the top fan and just use a 150mm side vent as the only exhaust for the case, with other vents as intakes over the major components, or maybe leave off the top fan in favour of fitting an 200mm fan if space allows. That being for a high performance small case anyway, anything more modest I'd probably just go for the 37mm option.

    Another favourite option is Prolimatech's Samuel 17 cool (45mm) plus one of their 140mm x 15mm Ultra Sleek Vortex fans for a total height of ~60mm, which still tops out under 2.5"