Liquid coolers were once the preserve of hardcore modders with money to burn: the kit was expensive and notoriously leaky, but it was the only way their high-end processors could cope with the heat generated from all-night gaming sessions.
Thankfully, times have changed. Today's liquid coolers are as sought after for their energy-efficient credentials as they are for drawing heat away from red-hot components. Noise reduction is a further benefit.
Now that affordable, easy-to-install and eco-friendly technology has made its way to the mass market, you no longer have to be part of the modding scene to add such hardware upgrades to your kit. Over the following pages, we'll show you how you can create a souped-up, liquid-cooled system that's also kind to the planet.
The process will make some noticeable changes to the way your system runs, but the upgrade itself isn't as fundamental or complicated as it might sound. Nor are you building a system from scratch. Instead, we'll show the process of retro-fitting performance-upgrade components to your existing system.
A wealth of components are available for cooling and silencing your machine, but we'll stick to the main three: as well as the liquid cooler, we'll look at a quiet-running power supply unit (PSU) and an eco-friendly graphics card.
Cooling kit used to be expensive and difficult to install. Most coolers had separate pumps, pipes and cooling systems. They required constant maintenance or there was a good chance they would spring a leak over your electrical components.
Today, a choice of low-maintenance and easy-to-install cooling kits is available. Most cost less than £100.
Two such cooling kits really stand out. We chose the £51 CoolIT ECO Advanced Liquid Cooling (ALC) system from Dabs for our workshop, as it's both hard-wearing and incredibly easy to install.
Another great choice is the Corsair Hydro Series H50. Like CoolIT's liquid cooler, the H50 is both small and affordable. It's also an all-in-one solution that's easy to install and there's no need to keep topping up the coolant. The Corsair liquid cooler is slightly more expensive than the kit we got from Dabs - we found it for £66 from Special Tech.
Power supply unit
The amount of power you need is determined by how much wattage your system draws. Many of today's PCs require a 500W PSU. For our workshop we used the Nexus RX-6300 630W, which costs £99 inc VAT from Quiet PC. This PSU has Active Power Factor Correction (APFC) - a feature worth looking out for, since it helps PSU efficiency and stability, reduces total harmonics and corrects input voltage.
This PSU is almost silent in operation and, according to QuietPC, has an 82 percent efficiency rating when drawing power from the wall outlet. As well as being better for the environment, the improved efficiency will make a difference to your electricity bills. Its modular cable layout makes installation easier; you only need to insert the appropriate connector. It will also help minimise cable clutter inside your system case.
Any new PSU should come with enough spare cables to install your various components. However, installing the new connectors to every component in your PC will make the installation more difficult. As we're retro-fitting, we don't have to take out all the cables in our PC. As long as the cables are in good condition we might as well use them. The new cables can be kept as spares for future use.
To get a silent-running system, seek out peripherals and components specifically designed for the task - some are made to run silently, while others are built for energy efficiency. The latter tend to run quietly too, as they draw less power.Zotac's Eco Edition cards are a good example. Overclockers sells the GeForce GTS 250 with 1GB of memory for £107. Importantly, this particularly card won't place a massive draw on power. Zotac lowers some of the clock speeds on the card without reducing performance. It draws a lot of power from the PCI Express slot, so it only needs one connector to power up. The card is also much smaller than most graphics cards, so it won't take up other PCI Express slots on the motherboard.
The result is a quieter, energy-efficient card that's still capable of most tasks you can throw at it.
If the 1GB Zotac Eco Edition isn't as powerful as you'd like, Overclockers stocks other cards in the same range that may fit the bill.
If you're not satisfied with only upgrading the essentials, there are several other alterations you can try.
Solid-state drives (SSDs) have no moving parts, thus generating less heat and noise than traditional hard-disk drives. They are expensive, however. Read reviews of the latest SSDs.
A quiet but less pricey alternative is Samsung's F Series ECO Green Ultra-Quiet range. These traditional hard drives are fitted with NoiseGard technology, making them incredibly quiet in operation. Prices start at £37 for a 500GB drive at QuietPC.
The PC case itself can be a significant source of rattle and hum. A noisy case could nullify your internal silencing efforts. The £135 Nexus Edge Full Tower PC Case has foam-based noise-absorption side panels, while the PSU sits on soft rubber pads to muffle resonance and vibration. Included in the case are three 14cm Real Silent fans. UK stockists include Special Tech, Scan Computers and Quiet PC.
Graphics card cooler
If you want to use a more powerful graphics card, a graphics card cooler will keep the noise police at bay. Modern cards are noisy because the small fan has to spin at an obscene rate to keep the card cool.
We recommend Arctic Cooling's Accelero Twin Turbo Pro (£25 inc VAT). Its fans improve airflow and reduce noise.
Test your CPU temperature
Once you've added energy-efficient components to your computer, you'll want to check on how cool the processor is running. You can do this by consulting the Bios. This is the first thing to boot up when you switch on the machine.
The Bios has a limited set of instructions to tell your operating system how to boot up. It also offers a set of monitoring tools that provide simple diagnostics on your hardware, including temperature readings from your processor.
Look for the 'splash screen' before Windows loads that tells you to press a Function key to enter the Bios - this is usually Esc, F10 or F12, but it varies from PC to PC. Likewise, the Bios used by PC vendors differs, but all will have an option to read your CPU temperature and make voltage changes that can reduce heat.
However, be warned that the Bios is not to be trifled with - it's quite possible to kill your machine with a few simple settings alterations. We recommend carefully adjusting the temperature settings and managing heat using an excellent diagnostics tool called SpeedFan.
This program works on most Windows configurations and reads your most important system component's temperatures, including the graphics card, the processor and the internal system temperature and core heat. SpeedFan also gives you total control over fan speeds and voltages, so you can optimise your kit for cool running.
SpeedFan can run in the Taskbar, providing an instant readout of important temperatures.
Liquid-cool your processor
Step 1. Power down your PC, unplug it from the mains and discharge any static before opening up the case. You'll need easy access to the processor and will have to remove the old heatsink and fan. Take out every component and wire that's in the way. Label each wire as you go, noting what it plugs into.
Step 2. Thermal paste is usually applied between the processor and heatsink in order to ensure the best heat conductivity between the two components. An easier option is to choose a heatsink with paste pre-applied, such as the CoolIT ECO ALC we're using here.
Step 3. Next you need a retention bracket, which sits over the processor and allows a heatsink to be screwed in. Note your processor and motherboard models and use a search engine to find a suitable bracket. Our CoolIT ECO ALC supports most Intel and AMD processors manufactured in the past five years.
Step 4. Select the correct backplate from the retention bracket kit, adjust its size if necessary and then attach it to your CPU. If yours is an AMD setup, you'll need to unscrew and swap the Intel brackets attached to the ECO ALC for the AMD ones, then screw the heatsink on to the backplate already on your motherboard.
Step 5. Remove the old heatsink and three-pin connector to reveal the processor. The ECO ALC heatsink can be screwed on to the installed backplate and retention bracket. Connect the new three-pin fan plug to the motherboard. If the heatsink isn't securely attached, you can frazzle the processor in no time at all.
Step 6. Most liquid-cooled kit has a separate fan and pump to keep your processor cool. The pump has one pipe to carry cold liquid to the CPU and another to take hot liquid away. Unscrew and remove the old fan, then install the new one. Be sure to install the fan correctly or the pump won't be able to do its job properly.
Step 1. Uninstall the drivers for your old graphics card to prevent a conflict with your new card. Most new graphics cards are recognised by Windows and their drivers are automatically installed. Go to Control Panel, Uninstall a program. Double-click your graphics card driver, then click Yes to uninstall it.
Step 2. Power down your PC, unplug it from the mains and discharge any static before opening up the case. Remove any screws or clips that may be holding the existing graphics card in place, then gently prise it out. Remove the two four-pin power connectors that run to the PSU.
Step 3. Hold your new graphics card with the fan at the bottom. Locate the clip on the righthand side after the PCI Express connection bridge. Now push the card in from the right. The Zotac card we're using draws less power than the card it's replacing. Now screw it in at the back to secure it.
Step 4. Boot up the machine, cancel Windows' automatic driver installation and then install the drivers from the disc that accompanied your new card. Reboot the PC to allow the graphics card to be recognised. You should now have an energy-efficient, quiet graphics card powering your system.
Step 5. Now let's install the new PSU. Unscrew and remove the old unit. Note down which power cables go to which components before you pull them out. Unplug the 24-pin ATX connector attached to your motherboard and the five-pin ATX connector located near the processor.
Step 6. Fit the new PSU. We're using a Nexus RX-6300. First plug in the ATX leads. The Nexus comes with a six-pin PCI Express connection for our graphics card, but you'll need to plug in leads for the fans and optical and storage drives. Screw the unit into place, close the PC case and reboot.