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Arctic Cooling ATI Silencer 2 VGA cooler

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Since our review of the original VGA Silencer a year ago, Arctic Cooling wised up to the demand for similarly quiet cooling for all kinds of VGA cards, not just selected ATI cards. Hence the recent release of their second generation of video card coolers, called ATI or NV Silencers, eight models in all to cover almost all the current cards from the two VGA giants. A close look and listen of the ATI Silencer 2 installed on a Sapphire 9600XT.

November 8, 2004 by Sean Boyd with Mike Chin

Product
Arctic Cooling ATI Silencer 2
Manufacturer
Arctic Cooling
MSRP
US$33

Sean Boyd is one of two Vancouver-area volunteers who recently began to assist in the SPCR lab regularly with equipment testing and with various ongoing projects. A British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) graduate in Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology, Sean built a multi-channel voltage controller for the lab and has been using that device along with an anemometer, a precision sound level meter and careful listening to further the SPCR Fan Project. This is Sean’s first article, a review of one of the many models of Series 2 VGA Silencers recently released by Arctic Cooling. Several other models are in the review process.

— Mike Chin, Editor / Publisher, SPCR

INTRODUCTION

After Mike heard about the horrible sounds produced by my Sapphire 9600XT‘s stock heatsink fan, he suggested I try the Arctic Cooling ATI VGA Silencer. He was quite enthusiastic about the original Arctic Cooling VGA Silencer, and we were both interested in seeing if the new generation would be even better. Anything would be better than the stock cooler.


The bane of my existence: The Sapphire 9600XT stock fan and “heatsink”.

Video cards are keeping pace with CPUs with regards to thermal characteristics. Because the hottest video cards are now producing in excess of 70W, they often need nearly as much cooling as a CPU. Stock cooling devices for high end video cards usually incorporate a small fan that has to spin frantically to provide adequate cooling. Naturally, various after-market cooling solutions have become available in an attempt to offer better cooling and reduced noise.

One year ago, when SPCR reviewed the original Arctic Cooling VGA Silencer, Russ and Mike were delighted with the simple, effective low-noise performance of this video card cooler. They praised the core design concept of using a blower style fan to force air over the cooling fins and directly out of the case, rather than having the heated air circulated within the case. They liked the manual fan speed switch, the relatively light aluminum construction, the direct positive contact between the GPU and heatsink base, the sturdy plastic construction, and the modest acoustic signature of the fan. Russ liked it so much that he adopted it for his own personal PC. The only complaint they had was that it could be used with only a small handful of ATI cards.

This is no longer a valid complaint. Arctic Cooling has recently released a total of eight new video card coolers; four for various ATI models and four for various nVidia models. The model designations and compatible video cards are:

MODEL
COMPATIBLE VIDEO CARDS
FAN RPM
ATI1
ATI 9500-9700 (SE,Pro,XT) and 9800 (SE,Pro)
1500
ATI2
ATI 9600 (SE,Pro,XT))
1500
ATI3
ATI 9800XT
2000
ATI4
ATI X800 Series
2200
NV1
nVidia Geforce 4TI and FX 5700
1500
NV2
nVidia FX 5700 Ultra
1500
NV3
nVidia FX 5900 XT
2000
NV5
nVidia Geforce 6800 series
2500

The main difference between the models is the size and shape, as well as the fan speed. The higher model numbers have significantly larger copper bases and heatsink assemblies. The varying size of the copper bases appears to be simply due to differences in video card RAM size and location. The larger heatsink and elevated fan speed are needed to dissipate the heat produced by more powerful video cards.

The ATI1 and NV1 do not have passive memory coolers. Because of this, they have a higher degree of compatibility at the cost of reduced memory cooling.

Arctic Cooling has wisely posted height restriction drawings under the “Additional Information” section in the web page for each model. They are CAD-type drawings which show the location of required mounting holes as well as they varying clearances necessary. This provides the potential buyer more information about compatibility before purchase.

SPECIFICATION & DESCRIPTION

While the basic design concepts of the VGA Silencer remain the same, everything seems to have been altered slightly. The comments here refer specifically to the ATI Silencer 2 model used to replace the stock Sapphire 9600XT cooler, but many of them are also relevant to other new Arctic Cooling VGA silencer models.


The complete package.

New Memory Cooler

The new ATI Silencer 2 consists of two main parts: An active GPU cooler and a passive memory cooler, weighing in at 282g and 62g respectively. The total weight of 344g is almost 25% heavier than the original VGA silencer, due entirely to the addition of the passive memory cooler. The active GPU cooler is slightly larger overall, measuring 218.5 x 100 x 35.8 mm (~8.6″ x 3.9″ x 1.4″). However, the heatsink portion is probably smaller, as you can see in the following photos of the original VGA Silencer and NV Silencer 2, which is very similar in size to the ATI Silencer 2. Unfortunately, the ATI Silencer 2 had already been installed when these photos were taken. (Note: For clarity, the memory sink has been left off the NV2.)


The finned portion is definitely smaller in the new version while the fan is slightly larger in the new.


The new sink is formed of two parts: Copper base screwed to thin aluminum fins.
The original was machined from a single piece of extruded aluminum

Clear Plastic Housing


The transparent plastic housing: Uh-Oh!

The previously semi-opaque plastic housing has been swapped for a thinner, more flexible, more brittle transparent plastic. You all know how Mike feels about clear fans. For those who don’t, here’s a quick paraphrase:

Whatever ingredients are needed to make plastic (polystyrene?) black or opaque, their absence in clear plastic makes it more brittle, weaker, and more prone to vibration and resonance. In short, clear plastic has no place in a quiet computer.

Well, Mike’s comments apply here. By running the fan, or tapping your finger on it, the housing vibration is clearly audible. The new housing material is a step in the wrong direction acoustically.


The all-copper base.

The new ATI Silencer 2 has a 2.5mm thick all-copper base which is attached to the heatsink. The copper makes contact with the GPU and the four memory modules on the top side of the board. The new heatsink has fewer fins which are thinner and shorter than the original.

The fan has also been changed. The new fan has a more streamlined hub and 11 blades instead of the original 7. It is the same 72mm diameter. This particular model spins at 1500 RPM on an ARCTIC Ceramic Bearing. The profile of the fan has been more streamlined, with the hub taken a conical shape as shown in the photo below; this aspect is reminiscent of the very expensive German-designed Verax fan.

As well as using a smaller retention clip, the new Silencer utilizes a “passive memory cooler” which makes contact with the four memory modules on the underside of the board.

One unexpected change was the absence of the HIGH – LOW fan speed switch. The original VGA Silencer benefited greatly from this switch, going from quiet to virtually silent with the flick of a switch.

One other (possibly related to the absence of the fan switch) modification is the change in PCI slot bracket design. The new cooler doesn’t require you to remove your video card’s original slot mounting bracket. You simply swap the existing slot cover immediately below your video card with the supplied slot cover. Also, the exhaust slot in the housing is considerably smaller in the new ATI


The ATI Silencer 2 exhaust slot and heatsink fins.


The fins are thicker & taller and the exhaust slot larger in the original shown above.

INSTALLATION

The installation of the ATI Silencer 2 was fairly simple and straightforward. On most cards, removing the stock cooler will be more difficult than installing this new Silencer. The Sapphire 9600XT stock cooler was removed easily by unplugging the fan and squeezing the two clips than held the heatsink assembly to the board. Then the original thermal paste was cleaned off using 99% IPA. (Isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol, not India Pale Ale.)


The cleaned GPU, ready for installation.

Although the supplied installation instructions appeared to be somewhat generic to the entire line of Silencers, they were still easy to follow and adapt to our particular card.

1) After cleaning off all the contact surfaces with IPA, TIM was applied to the GPU and all eight memory modules.

2) The fan was then plugged into the video card’s fan connector. On some cards, if you forget to plug the fan in, the connector will be obstructed, and you will not be able to plug the fan in after the Silencer is attached to the card.

3) The active GPU cooler was placed on the table, intake-side down, and the video card was lowered onto the cooler.


The video card placed atop the active GPU cooler.

4) The passive memory cooler was placed onto the assembly. Then the retention clip and rubber washers were placed into their appropriate positions and the nuts placed onto the screws. The nuts should be alternately tightened until the proper tension is achieved. This is where the only ambiguity of the installation lies. How tight is too tight? It is hard to tell.


The heatsink seated properly.

There have been reports of people over-tightening the nuts and breaking the screws. The screws are quite thin and they do not look as if they would be too hard to break. We tightened the nuts quite a bit, until the screws were starting to bow under the tension, but they did not break. (NOTE: Arctic Cooling did announce that the threaded shaft size had been beefed up, but we do not know whether these samples are pre-mod or post-mod.)


Installation is complete! Let’s see what it can do.

TESTING

Every effort was made to minimize the noise level of the test system so that the acoustic aspects of the ATI Silencer 2 could be isolated, measured and heard clearly:

  • A quiet PSU was chosen and remotely located outside of the PC case.
  • The hard drive was decoupled and muffled using foam.
  • A very quiet undervolted Panaflo 80L was used for CPU cooling.
  • No case fans were used.

Despite all efforts, the Silencer’s recorded and measured sound levels can be expected to include at least 1 dBA of system noise, especially at the lower levels (~ 20 dBA/1m).


The Test Setup: The PSU was located outside the case;
the foam was placed at the PSU opening only to show the thermal sensor clearly.

TEST RIG

Intel P4-1.8 MHz CPU
VIA P4PB 400 mainboard – VIA P4X400 chipset, on-die CPU thermal diode monitoring
Sapphire Radeon 9600XT 128MB video card on-die GPU temperature diode
Hitachi / IBM Deskstar 180GXP 30GB hard drive
512MB RAM
Zalman 6500B CPU heatsink + Panaflo 80L fan @ 5V
Zalman Fanmate1 voltage controller
Seasonic Super Silencer 300 Rev.A1
Antec SX1040 20″ steel tower case

Motherboard Monitor 5.3.7.0 system monitoring software
Futuremark 3DMark03 video benchmarking software


The installed Arctic Cooling ATI Silencer 2

With the case closed, the computer was left idle for 20 minutes to achieve a stable temperature. The after 3DMark temperatures were recorded immediately after one complete cycle of 3DMark03 was run. Because of the design of this video card cooler, it is important to consider its effect on case temperature.

Sound levels were recorded with the case both open and closed. They were taken with the systems at idle from a distance of 1m from the left side of the case.

TEST RESULTS

SAPPHIRE 9600XT NOISE LEVELS
3DMark03 Total Score: 3975
Total System Power Consumption: Idle 47W / Max 92W
SPL Measurements
Stock HSF
ATI Silencer 2
Open Case
37 dBA/1m
29 dBA/1m
Closed Case
32 dBA/1m
27 dBA/1m

The noise level of the Silencer is substantially lower than the stock cooler. The ATI Silencer 2 with the case open is still substantially quieter than the stock Sapphire HSF with the case closed! Also, the sound quality is much more even and less agitating. An incredible improvement. Now how does the cooling stack up?

SAPPHIRE 9600XT THERMAL RESULTS
(Ambient 21°C)
LOAD
Stock HSF
ATI Silencer 2
Idle
GPU
37°C
30°C
Case
30°C
26°C
After 3DMark03
GPU
43°C
34°C
Case
32°C
30°C

The ATI Silencer 2 proved to be far superior than the stock HSF. Not only was the idle GPU temp reduced by 7 degrees, the case temp was also lowered by 4 degrees. With 3DMark03, both GPU and case temperatures rose only 4°C; the GPU load temp was nearly 10°C cooler than with the stock HSF.

SOUND FILES

The sound of the ATI Silencer 2 was recorded at different fan voltage levels. Unlike the video card’s PWM (pulse-width modulation) fan controller, a straight voltage controller was used to set the voltage. (PWM is a way to control fan speeds with minimal power loss.) It was noted that towards the end of the 3DMark03 test, the stock fan may have ramped up a bit. In other words, the Sapphire card’s fan output voltage is probably thermally controlled.

The ATI Silencer 2 fan did not ramp up or down during testing, presumably because the GPU temperature never got high enough, even after repeated sessions of 3DMark over long periods. The ATI Silencer 2 fan sounded smoother with the voltage controller than when plugged directly into the VGA card’s fan header. This is due to the effects of the PWM controller. Some bearing noise was clearly audible whether driven by PWM or the straight voltage controller.

The sound was recorded at 5V and 10.5V. For reference, we also recorded the fan while plugged into the video card’s (PWM) fan output. The position of the microphone was 3″ from the edge of the VGA cooler fan, out of the air turbulence zone. The case cover was left off.

SPCR MP3s: HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

The recordings above were made with a high resolution studio quality digital recording system. The microphone is 3″ from the edge of the fan frame at a 45° angle, facing the intake side of the fan to avoid direct wind noise. The ambient noise during all recordings is 20 dBA or lower.

A quick and simple way to use these recordings for valid listening comparisons is to play the quietest recording on only one speaker (or headphones) and set the volume so it is just barely audible a meter away. You must also turn off any special sound effects, and set equalizer / tone controls to neutral or flat. Don’t touch the volume setting afterwards, and use the same one speaker when you listen to any of the other files; that will be reasonably close to the actual recorded sound levels.

For full details on how to calibrate your sound system to get the most valid listening comparison, please see the yellow text box entitled Listen to the Fans on page 3 of the article SPCR’s Test / Sound Lab: A Short Tour.

We did not record the sound of the stock cooler for two reasons:

  1. We didn’t want to torture you, and
  2. The sound was so bad that it would not be acceptable to anyone who would be reading SPCR.

Compared to the stock cooler, the results were definitely impressive. But how did it stack up to the original VGA Silencer? To draw a comparison, we tested an ATI 9800 Pro equipped with the original VGA Silencer in the exact same system. Because the 9800 Pro is not equipped with a temperature sensor, we were limited to taking measurements of the case temperature only and only at the low fan speed.

NOISE LEVELS
Case Temp
SPL Measurements
Idle
after 3DMark03
ATI Silencer 2: 27 dBA/1m
26°C
30°C
Original VGA Silencer
Low: <20 dBA/1m
(High: 27 dBA/1m)
26°C
30°C

The original VGA silencer was much quieter than the ATI Silencer 2 when set to the low fan speed. Although it had the same noise measurement on the high setting, the sonic signature was smoother and less annoying than the new Silencer. The case temperature rise of 4°C on the low setting suggests that the original VGA Silencer cools the case more efficiently than the new ATI Silencer 2, which exhibited a similar rise at a higher voltage / fan speed and noise level.

In my personal system, running the Silencer fan at 5V (using a Zalman Fanmate via a motherboard fan header) on the Sapphire 9600XT, provides the same cooling as the stock HSF, with an incredible reduction in noise. While the reduction in fan speed played a considerable part in the improvement of the sound level, not running the fan off the the video card’s PWM fan control makes for a further subjective improvement.

CONCLUSIONS

The Arctic Cooling ATI Silencer 2 is a successful product. Looking at it only as a replacement for original heatsink / fans on ATI 9600 VGA cards, if this Sapphire HSF is anything like the norm, it’s impossible not to praise the ATI Silencer 2 as a roaring — whispering? — success. It is certainly a far more effective cooler, providing nearly 10°C lower GPU temps at load than the stock cooler.

Against its own predecessor, the AC VGA Silencer, things are not so clear cut. The absence of a manual fan control switch, the higher speed and general noise level of the new fan, and the more brittle plastic housing all combine to give an impression of better style and perhaps greater cooling focus at the expense of greater noise. Certainly, the stock ATI Silencer 2 has nothing to put against the original VGA Silencer with its fan switch on low. The new fan is not friendly to the Sapphire card’s implementation of PWM, either, although we don’t know for sure whether the original one had a similar issue. (We didn’t have to know because it did not rely on the VGA cards fan speed control for the high / low switch.) Yes, the new ATI Silencer can be made to run at about the same noise level as the original, but at the added cost and bother of an external voltage controller like the Zalman Fanmate. Given that the new MSRP is a little higher than before, this is a bit of a disappointment.

Those who want the quietest cooling of a hot video card may wish to look to Zalman or AeroCool‘s heatpipe solutions combined with a very quiet 80mm fan, which may provide better acoustics depending on your system and case particulars. Those options will probably end up being more complex and / or costly.

Still, the second generation of Arctic Cooling VGA Silencers remain the only VGA coolers to do the obvious intelligent thermal thing in this age of red-hot VGA cards: Exhaust the heat out of the case. For this reason alone, the ATI Silencer 2 deserves consideration in your quiet computing platform.

* * *

Our thanks to Arctic Cooling for the VGA Silencer 2 samples. NOTE: We will be following up with reviews of other new Arctic Cooling ATI & NV Silencer models with higher-end cards in the near future.

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