The computer accessories market is awash with tools and gadgets. Marketeers clearly understand the financial value of the geek’s perpetual urge to fiddle. Many of these combogadgets seem utterly trivial, but few are useful even to silencers. We examine two of the more useful devices among the countless examples: The Cooler Master Cooldrive 6 and the Matrox Orbital MX411.
Over the past few years, there has been explosion in tools and gadgets
to strap to the front of your PC for the purpose of monitoring and controlling
what is going on inside it. Perhaps the increase is due to a buying public
that has become more savvy about the internal functionings of their computers,
or maybe it represents yet another successful ploy from the marketeers
to get us to buy more knickknacks. Whatever the cause, we have seen numerous
combinations of fan controllers, hard drive coolers, and information display
screens addressing this new concern.
On hand today are two of these devices,
the Cooler Master Cooldrive6, which aims to combine them all into one device,
and the Matrix Orbital MX-411 leaves out the hard drive cooling, but adds a
more powerful display component into the package.
Cooler Master’s marketing blurb on the
box describes it best:
“The Cooldrive 6 is designed for the
HDD cooling with a front panel that displays temperature and [fan] speed.
In addition, it provides PC software to detect the information on the HDD
such as space and transfer speed. You can directly monitor the information
on the HDD by the control panel or through the PC by software.”
The Cooldrive supports RPM readings and controls one of up to 4 fans,
one of which by default is the small blower fan within the unit itself. The
drive also supports 4 thermal probes.
Orbital‘s website description is similar:
new MX4 series we have enlarged the size of the display and added more keypad
functionality. This double drive bay PC insert incorporates a 20 character
x 4 line USB display and a 15 button keypad. The MX4 also allows you to plug
4 fans in directly to the back of the unit for all you quiet and cooling PC
Cooler Master Cooldrive 6
Matrix Orbital MX411
|All aluminum case with heat sink bottom for maximum cooling
15 button programmable keypad
|Integrated 40mm blower, bottom and front panel
venting for total HDD cooling
Supports 4 fans and 6 temperature probes
|CoolDrive 6 software interface for easier monitoring
Dynamically adjustable fan speed based on thermal
|Supports 4 fans and temperature for complete
Includes LCDC for complete control of the LCD
|Temperature , speed and HDD alarm
Large 20×4 line LCD display
|User friendly front panel LCD and controls
Available in a multitude of LCD colors
|Available in silver and black models
Available in silver and black models
The packaging is a study in contrasts: The Cooler Master arrives
in a flashy retail package sure to catch your eye on a store shelf, while
the Matrix Orbital’s plain-Jane box is clearly designed for sturdy shipping
from an internet store, rather than an in-person impulse buy. Consider the
packing to be symbolic of the difference in the target market for these
two companies: CM is clearly painting as wide a stripe as possible across
the PC knickknack market, while Matrix Orbital is aiming at a very focused,
very technical segment: People who know what they want and aren’t likely
to be swayed by pretty pictures. Further evidence of this difference will become apparent.
Both devices come complete with a gaggle of goodies:
Inside the Cooldrive 6 box
one finds the Cooldrive itself, an external and an internal USB cable,
a thermal pad, and the usual package of screws, as well as directions and
software CD (not shown).
The MX-411 includes the display itself, external and internal USB cables, a driver CD, two 36″ temperature probes (nice and long!), an LED display with a cutting template, and the obligatory bag of screws (not shown). Noticeably lacking is a printed manual. A variety of pdf
manuals are included on the mini CD, leaving it up to the user to decipher which
cryptically named file is relevant to the display they purchased.
The bulk of the Cooldrive 6 is made from extruded aluminum with a series
of fins on the bottom and light grooves on the top of the unit. The front
of the Cooldrive 6 sports a sleek well laid out front panel. According to Cooler Master, the buttons can control every feature
of the drive without using the software interface. The LCD sports a blue backlight
and is very bright. The LCD brightness is not adjustable nor can be it disabled.
The Cooldrive 6 comes prewired with four temperature probes,
24″ in length, and three 3 pin 10″ fan leads. Each fan lead is
rated for 18W, enough for even
the largest of case fans. The built in blower fan is prewired to the
unit. The long temperature probe tails could
be trouble those wanting to tuck them out of the way. The
fan leads could certainly be longer; 10″ may not be enough to reach distant
rear case fans.
A thermal pad is included for the HDD.
Differentiating the Cooldrive 6 from the MX-411 is the HDD mounting option.
Installing the hard drive into the unit is fairly straight forward. First
the thermal pad is attached to the underside of the hard drive. Depending
on the drive, the pad may need to be cut to size in order to avoid obstructions.
The pad has a peel and stick side, and applied to the PCB underside of the
hard drive. This thermal pad serves two purposes: 1. to be a transfer medium
from the hard drive itself and aluminum cage it is mounted in. 2. it provides
some degree of decoupling between the hard drive and the aluminum cage of
the unit. The top of the cage has a preapplied thermal pad attached at the
factory to draw heat from the top of the drive to the extruded aluminum shell.
Securing the hard drive to the sled reveals a welcome surpise: Very large (and fairly soft) rubber isolation washers, which help decouple the drive from the aluminum cage. The cage is then screwed
into the main housing, slid into a free 5.25″ bay.
Once assembled, hard drive is bathed in airflow from the small
internal fan. Image courtesy of Cooler Master.
The Cooldrive 6 physical installation took about 5 minutes from start to
finish. Without the HDD to worry about, the MX-411 is even simpler: just mount
in a pair of vacant bays and run the cables. Once the units are installed,
all that is left to do is install the software and configure them.
The faceplate of the MX-411 is available in black and silver and a wide range
of LCD colors. The display occupies a pair of 5.25″ bays. This could make installation an annoyance if you don’t have two free optical drive bays. The oversizing
of the display seems to be driven more by the PCB behind it than by actual
need, it could be easily redesigned to only accommodate one 5.25. Unlike
the controls of the Cooldrive, all of the buttons on the MX-411 can be customized
to perform a variety of functions.
The backside of the MX-411 reveals its inner workings. The PCB is tightly
packed with jumpers, power plugs, USB connections, four 3 pin fan connection
points capable of 12 watts per fan, and 6 thermal probes. If the PCB where
rotated 90 degrees it would allow again for the entire unit to occupy only
one 5.25″ bay.
Being USB connected, both devices utilize software to relay data
to and from the rest of the PC. They implement the software control in
strikingly different ways.
The Matrix Orbital is capable of displaying any
information fed to it: Winamp equalizers and MP3 information, system stats,
data from the fans and thermal probes, etc, etc. The unit itself can control
4 fans using variable frequency PWM, and vary fan speed based on thermal probe
sensors. The Achilles heel of the Matrix Orbital, however, is the software.
Matrix Orbital relies on other
venders to produce software that will work and display information on their
unit. Matrix Orbital includes LCDC
software, which is one of the most widely used LCD screen controlling
packages available. It is by no means what you
would call “user friendly”. Because the LCDC software is not
really an integral part of Matrix Orbital, a detailed analysis of it is beyond the scope
of this review. In short, the software is very technical and has a steep
learning curve, even for the moderately advanced user. Once you figure out
how the complex programming works, the Matrix Orbital is one powerful piece
of equipment, however.
Unlike Matrix Orbital, the Cooldrive 6 software was developed by Cooler Master and is integrated much more tightly with the product. The Cooler Master software is simple to the extreme:
The software divides itself into four tabs. The first tab deals
with the hard drive itself, displaying the max and current transfer speeds,
total disk space and space available.
The second tab is by far the most useful. The upper left hand portion of the
screen displays an analog readout of all 4 fan RPM sensors, and just below
is a digital readout of the fans speed with arrows to adjust the fan voltage
up and down via PWM. The voltage is not displayed and cannot be manually
The lower portion of this screen allows the user to view the temperature
of the 4 probes and set temperature levels at which the built in alarm goes
off, via a series of drag and drop color coded triangles. The software is
limited to only displaying its own temperature probes, unlike several of the
other USB connected fan controllers that can also monitor temperature reports
coming from the motherboard’s sensors.
Testing confirmed that the fan control works with 2 pin fans; naturally there is no RPM displayed, which makes adjusting them tricky. Also the software had a hard time reading the RPM signal of certain model
fans, such as the Noiseblocker 80mm fans that were on hand. The readings jumped
all over the place from 2k-10k. The actual fan speed was adjusted as expected,
regardless of the errant readings.
For purposes of testing, a variety of different
fan types and sizes were used, everything from Panaflo, Papst, Adda, Noiseblocker,
Sunnon, and others, in 40mm-120mm varieties. Even with the PWM, no
noticeable clicking or other adverse effects were seen or heard. If adjusted
down to the point of stall, an alarm will go off letting the user know audibly
as well as graphically on the screen. In every stall case one click up on
the adjustment brought the fans back to life. All of the settings are retained
upon shutdown of the system.
While generally well put together, the software it lacks one major aspect: The ability to dynamically control the speed of the fans
based on temperatures. It can alert you when the temperatures pass your alarm settings,
but it doesn’t automatically adjust the fan speeds. This is a rather disappointing oversight.
The third tab simply controls the configuration of the unit itself and the
idle display message, while the fourth, non-pictured tab only displays the
Cooler Master / Cooldrive 6 logo and a link to the Cooler Master website.
Given the Cooldrive’s claim of improved HDD cooling, some brief test sessions
- Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (40gb) HDD in Cooldrive6
- Hard drive temperatures were monitored via SpeedFan
- Idle temperatures listed are stable temperatures at Windows desktop with the drive powered
- Load temperatures are the maximum drive temperatures recorded during large continous file transfers between drive partitions.
- Ambient temperature for all tests was 23°C.
The Cooldrive 6 was suspended in open air for testing, to isolate its performance,
both thermal and acoustic, from case induced variables. Installed in a 5.25 bay of a typical case, the Cooldrive 6
would likely exhibit higher sound levels than we heard,
due to vibration transfer to the case. The HDD temperature inside a case would be affected by two factors : Reduced exposure to cool air and increased heat conduction to the case; they may cancel each other out. The result would vary on your specific setup.
|Cooldrive 6 w/ internal fan at full speed
|Cooldrive 6 w/ fan at 1/2 speed
|Cooldrive 6 w/ fan off
|Bare Drive, w/o Cooldrive 6
Even with the internal fan turned completely off the Cooldrive6 does an excellent
job of keeping the hard drive cool, resulting in a 10°C drop in load temperatures
compared to the bare drive. This is a good thing, since the internal fan
is likely to turned off permanently in any system where noise is a concern.
The noise at full speed can be best described as, “too much airflow,
not enough exhaust”. This is probably a combination of the restricted
intake locations and the turbulence of the air squeezing past the hard drive
and the enclosure. The little fan just thrashes the air around inside its
compartment. At about 1/2 speed, the airflow turbulence is minimized and the
entire unit is markedly quieter.
As for the drive noise levels, the Cooldrive 6 made a noticeable improvement
compared to a conventional rigid mount, even with its fairly limited decoupling
features. Full elastic suspension is still superior to all the rubber grommets
and soft thermal pads in the world. Whine is reduced noticeably, but seeks
can still be clearly felt on the exterior of the unit.
Overall, the Cooldrive 6 is a nice piece of kit. The device is
sharp looking, easy to install, has easy to understand software controls,
and does an excellent job at keeping a hard drive cool. The
decoupling of the hard drive to reduce noise is a nice touch. The absnce of automatic thermal fan control is a real disappointment considering how simple it would have been to implement. If the controller software were revised to allow automatic thermal control of fans and the ability to read the motherboard and hard drive’s
onboard temperature sensors, the Cooldrive 6 would be a tough product to beat.
It should be noted that the Cooler Master Aerogate 3 provides all of the
same functions and look as the Cooldrive 6 without the hard drive support.
Cooler Master Cooldrive 6
* Well designed user friendly software controls
* Easy installation
* Stylish good looks
* Well executed hard drive dampening
* Effective hard drive cooling
* A bit pricey
* Fan included at stock voltage is noisy
* Fans cannot be thermally controlled.
* Short fan leads
Matrix Orbital MX-411 ‘s ability to dynamically control fan speeds based on the thermal probes
is probably its most useful feature for SPCR readers. This
allows even the most fan-hungry PC to become nearly silent when it is sitting
idle. All in all, this controller’s software limits it to those
users who are willing to devote some serious time to mastering the features
hidden by the software. A good product but somewhat limited by its software, and priced too high for all but the most dedicated PC tinkerers.
Matrix Orbital MX411
* Can dynamically control fans based on thermal probes
* Can display just about anything you can imagine
* Very pricey
*A great product in desperate need of software
* Only 2 thermal probes included
* Takes up 2 5.25 bays
* Weak documentation
Our thanks to Matrix Orbital and Cooler Master for providing the sample units.
* * *