A water-cooled system, for when air isn't enough

CoolIT's Domino ALC provides consistent, effective temperature control

Pros: Good monitoring of processor temperature, supports overclocking
Cons: LCD display requires windowed computer case to view; hard to fit into smaller system enclosures
Performance: A
Ease of use: B
Features: A
Value: A+
Price: $80

Almost all computers are cooled by air these days. But the most efficient way to bring the temperature down is by using liquid, if you do it right.

The problem with using water to cool electrical equipment is fairly obvious. If you do it incorrectly, you can short out the device, sometimes in very dramatic — and dangerous — ways.

That, along with the complexity and price of such a system, has kept most feds out of the liquid-cooling pool. In the not-so-distant past, you practically needed an engineering degree to get a system properly configured with liquid cooling.

The Domino ALC from CoolIT Systems is an attempt to bring liquid cooling into the mainstream. It’s still a kit that requires some intermediate knowledge of how to remove and install physical components in a desktop PC. But it is extremely easy to use compared to most do-it-yourself projects. The hardest part could be uninstalling your existing air-cooled system to make room for the Domino ALC.

Of course, the first thing to consider is whether you want to give up your air-cooled system for a water-based one. If you are completely happy with the way your air-cooled computer is performing, you probably should leave it alone. In GCN Lab testing, computers that have been running for eight hours are slightly less efficient than when they were initially activated but not by a noticeable amount.

If you have an opportunity to get a water-cooled system out of the box, you might want to take it because it should be a lot more consistent at removing heat. But if your air-cooled system functions well, there is little need to upgrade.

But what about a PC that is reaching the end of its lifespan? If it is a little too slow to run the latest programs, you might face a large expense to replace it — something most people try to avoid. However, you could keep the system running new software for another year or two by using a technique called overclocking and adding a water-cooled system to prevent the PC from boiling over.

Overclocking is not an exact science and therefore requires some trial and error, but basic overclocking is not difficult. Any modern processor can be tweaked to go faster than its original design, a process called overclocking. For this review, we took a 1.5G Pentium 4 computer and overclocked it to 2G, a modest but measurable speed enhancement. But when we did this, the heat generated by the chip was off the charts. Had we continued using the existing air-cooled system, the processor would have quickly been damaged.

However, once the Domino ALC was in place, the chip’s temperature could be maintained at normal levels indefinitely. For $80, we increased the performance of the system by 33 percent. That’s better than buying a new one.

Installing the Domino ALC was not difficult. You will likely run into most of your trouble getting the old cooling system out, especially if the fans have been thermal glued to your old processor. But once they are removed, you simply screw the metal panel of the ALC directly over the processor, using the existing holes in a standard motherboard. The ALC kit comes with a couple of modified housings to accommodate different motherboard designs. We ran into a few that didn’t fit any of the included couplings, but structures for the standard Intel Pentium and Advanced Micro Devices motherboards are included.

A blue status LCD on the side of the ALC tells you the temperature of the coolant, the speed of the exhaust fan — which replaces your current fan — and the pump speed. The device apparently is designed for installation in a computer case with a large glass window because a solid case blocks your line of sight. The system works fine if you can’t see the display, but it would be better to know what’s going on. You could also leave the case open, although we don't recommend that.

We ran into a problem when we tried to install Domino into a small computer case. If you have a minitower, the cooling pipes can get crimped, partially blocking the coolant from reaching the processor and overtaxing the pump. So make sure you have plenty of room.

Once installed, the Domino ALC was able to hold the processor’s temperature at 23 degrees Celsius, or 73.4 degrees Fahrenheit, from bootup to shutdown over a period of eight hours with only a two-degree fluctuation. Temperature sensors placed on the processor confirmed it, though they were slightly warmer than the Domino ALC reported because the device’s temperature sensor is near the top of the water cycle where the coolant is coolest.

When the coolant is circulating, heat from the water is removed at the back part of the cycle and vented out of the system using a fan, much like an air-cooled version but with more precision.

If nothing else, the Domino ALC proves that water-cooled systems can be fairly easy to install and are more consistent in heat management than most air-cooled systems. Whether you want to attempt the installation depends on whether you need more reliable cooling for your computer or would like to extend the life of an older PC by overclocking the processor, which requires a robust cooling system.

CoolIT Systems, 866-621-2665, www.coolitsystems.com

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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