V3 Components claims it can deliver innovative technologies to rival the performance of liquid cooling. We test these claims on an overclocked Haswell-E.
What if you could apply the principle of your USB-powered desktop beverage cooler on a grand scale to keep your CPU cooler? V3 Components is the latest company to embrace a concept so often left to hardcore enthusiasts, explaining that its Thermoelectric Cooler can be even safer than the liquid systems it hopes to outperform. But what are the benefits and risk? If TEC can make things colder than ambient temperature (something liquid can’t do on its own), why isn’t everyone using it?
A quick look back at its predecessor explains that a special type of semiconductor draws heat from one surface and displaces it to another. That same 2007 article shows a cooler that was designed with a very larger TEC capable of producing sub-ambient temperatures in fairly-hot hardware, along with a thermal control designed to prevent that from happening. Condensation is not friendly to unprotected electronics, but thermal modulation on that unit caused it to hum as power was rapidly cycled on and off. The Voltair doesn’t have that problem.
Here’s how the V3 Voltair V3TEC120-FC01 compares to our most-powerful air-only CPU cooler:
That $74 price certainly looks competitive to Noctua’s big cooler, though V3 Voltair’s fans are smaller. Those smaller fans allow a narrower installation width for additional clearence of fans or cards, depending on how close to the top of the board your socket is. And speaking of sockets, the Voltair fits the full range of Intel square-pattern LGA’s as well as replacing rectangular-hole-pattern AMD mounting brackets.
Building With The V3 Voltair
Understanding that the top side of the TEC element is hot, and the bottom cold, a quick look underneath shows that the Voltair has two separate heatsinks, an inner sink to cool the hot side and an outer sink to warm cold side. This might seem a little counter-intuitive, but it does appear to be an effective way to reduce the condensation problem. The cold side should never be more than slightly cooler than the air inside the case. And, just to make sure that those outer heat pipes make good contact with the CPU, they’re flattened, machined, and polished.
Beyond basic condensation, the two-part sink also addresses a second potential hazard of TEC coolers. Element failure can open or short the circuit, causing it to either quit transferring heat or worse, get hot on both sides. In the past, liquid cooling gurus would sometimes place a TEC element between a water block and CPU and assume the risk of a burned processor if the TEC failed. By placing a second set of heat pipes between the TEC element and CPU heat spreader, V3 Component has reduced the amount of heat that would get from a shorted-out TEC to the CPU. In other words, if the cooler ever fails, a normally functioning PC should have enough time to detect the heat problem and shut down. The system could potentially remain running off the outer sink alone in the more-likely event of an open circuit, though the reduced cooling capacity could cause an overclocked system to crash.
Two sets of base brackets allow the Voltair TEC CPU cooler to fit Intel’s square LGA and AMD’s rectangular socket mounting patterns. We installed the Intel version.
Two sets of standoffs are threaded to fit either LGA 2011 (v3) brackets or the V3-supplied support plate. Those who need the support plate must add it to the back of the board, behind the socket.
The cooler then threads onto the standoffs. V3 Components makes this a little easier by screwing the vans onto the black heat sink shroud, where the black things that looked like caps in previous photos were actually thumb screws.
The TEC uses two power pins from an old drive power connector, while the fans are both spliced together to occupy a single 3-pin-fan header.
A potentiometer controls fan speed via voltage, within a range of around 940 to 1750 RPM. It replaces any of the case’s empty expansion slot brackets.
The fan shroud can now be slipped over the heat sink and secured with thumb screws, and its fans plugged into the fan controller.
Alternatively, builders who prefer thermally-referenced firmware fan control could plug the fans into the motherboard instead. The important thing to note here is that 3-pin fans require voltage-based speed control, rather than relying on the PWM signal. Some motherboards support voltage-based control, others don’t, and many support this older method on some headers but not others.
How We Tested
We’re using our 2015 Reference PC minus its open test bed (and obviously the reference cooler) to test the H220-X in a closed system. The CPU frequency is up to 4.2GHz in today’s test.
Test System Components
Software And Drivers
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 347.52|
|Chipset||Intel INF 184.108.40.2067|
|Prime95||v27.9, AVX FFT length 8K, continuous for at least 2 hours|
|RealTemp 3.70||Maximum Temperature, All Cores Averaged|
|Galaxy CM-140 SPL Meter||Tested at 1/4 m, corrected to 1 m (-12 db), dB(A) weighting|
Since we’re not testing the capacity of a case, but instead testing the capacity of a CPU cooler inside a high-airflow case, the graphics card will be allowed to idle throughout today’s test.
The premise of V3’s Voltair is that it could potentially provide liquid-cooling performance levels without the risk of leaks, but it doesn’t quite catch up to the two 2x120mm liquid coolers we’ve recently tested. Perhaps a single-width radiator would be more appropriate? For perspective, Noctua’s NH-D15 big air cooler is larger than both of the liquid coolers and has two oversized (150mm) fans.
The Voltair doesn’t have a secondary RPM reading, but its single reading is close to that of the NH-D15. We’re looking forward to a little quiet.
The Voltair is noticeably noisier than the NH-D15, falling between the quiet-liquid H220-X and inexpensive-liquid Captain 240.
Mid-pack noise pairs poorly with a slight temperature increase to give the Voltair a third-place cooling-to-noise ratio. That’s important, since we believe this to be the true measure of overall performance.
V3 Components has but one component, the Voltair cooler, that it hopes will provide the cooling power of a liquid cooler without the associated risk from leaks. That kind of comparison ignores that we’re using liquid when we can to reduce the alternative risk of a cooler breaking the motherboard. Experience tells us that the odds of a big air cooler either breaking a board or coming loose during shipping are far greater than that of a closed-loop-liquid cooler causing damage from leaks. Even the worst of our closed-loop systems leaked so slowly that its coolant dried before it even touched another component, but perhaps V3 Gaming was thinking of vented open-loops?
Three ounces heavier than Noctua’s NH-D15, the D15 is Voltair’s most significant competitor in today’s test. Both coolers have the same associated risk of weight, and neither have any coolant to leak. The Voltair has the potential benefit of a TEC element, while the NH-D15 has the proven benefit of larger fans.
The V3 Voltair also has the benefit of a huge price drop over the past few months that make it cheaper to buy than the NH-D15. That reduced price gives it the value win in spite of its mid-pack performance, and its narrower width (compared to the NH-D15) could help it fit into more systems.
On the other hand, its TEC element didn’t appear very effective at reducing our CPU temperatures. It ran hotter than the NH-D15 and made more noise. Yet there’s always the chance that an overclocked Haswell-E processor wasn’t what V3 had in mind, and the TEC it chose might simply be too small. We did a quick unplug/replug test and found that the Voltair’s TEC alone requires 68 to 74 watts, for what that’s worth. That’s a fairly low load by extreme cooling standards, but with a fairly high impact on system efficiency. If deciding between big air with or without TEC, we’d rather pay the extra $15 for the NH-D15 and make it up in savings on our electric bills.