Watercooling and custom coolers
There’s no denying the main attraction here though, with the ECS 9800 GTX+ Hydra’s elaborate watercooling system, based on Thermaltake’s pre-assembled Bigflow 760is dual 5.25” bay water-cooling system making water-cooling these cards a snap.
This is a system originally designed for cooling CPUs, but as with any watercooling loop, there’s nothing to stop someone switching it to the purpose of cooling a GPU or two with the correct tubing, as ECS has done here.
The kit is a fully integrated watercooling loop, with reservoir, pump, radiator and cooling fan all squeezed into the drive bay module. The base unit has been extremely well put together and all the separate components are fitted together very securely, with the radiator mounted flat into the enclosure with the blue led lit 120mm fan on top of it. Air flows down through the cooling fins, and the pump and reservoir fitted behind them. This design choice is our first concern with the 9800GTX+ Hydra’s cooling system though (and sadly, there are more to come), as the hot air from the radiator is exhausted straight down below the unit and not out of the chassis.
Physics fans will immediately spot the problem here – hot air rises, so it’s not exactly a thermally efficient design, and the fact that the hot air is being exhausted directly down and into your case, not out of it, won’t help your system temperatures a great deal either. There is a slight saving grace in a small meshed area on the front of the unit to allow cool air into the enclosure though, so at least the unit is blowing some cool air into your system.
Click to enlarge – the cards before and after the water cooling loop had been fitted
However, the P500 pump certainly seems up to the task of keeping your system cool, with Thermaltake claiming a flow rate of up to 500 litres an hour, which while nothing to shout about, should certainly meet the cooling needs of the two graphics cards. There's also a simple twist action fanbus attached to the unit which can alter the speed of the cooling fan (but not the pump) between 12V and 5V, so if you're looking for a slightly more discrete cooling setup, you can dial the fan down a little.
Other than the odd thermal design though, the watercooling unit itself is well put together, with the reservoir cap easily accessed for refilling thanks to extended nozzle adaptor for the coolant, which comes in a funky Mountain Dew green (although if consumed it may cause birth defects, which is slightly worrying), and by having all the required tubing pre-fitted, the kit removes a great deal of the stress involved in building a watercooling loop. Those with smaller cases or mATX setups might be advised to double check the size of the unit though, as it’s much deeper than a standard 5.25” drive, to the tune of almost half as much again.
The pre-fitted hoses are connected to chunky plastic splitters, helpfully labelled “IN” and “OUT” to stop you being at home to Mr. Cock-up, which you then connect to the GPU blocks via smaller black rubber hoses (not forgetting the clamps to stop potentially fatal leaks). The whole build process is, contrary to what you might expect, remarkably easy, and we had the whole setup assembled, filled and fitted to our test bench machine within thirty minutes.
Click to enlarge – You can clearly see that the water block isn't making contact with the memory module – both cards exhibited this fault.
Sadly, the setup is greatly let down by the disappointing Thermaltake waterblocks and card coolers which are a real disappointment when compared to custom GPU watercooling solutions, or even competing watercooled graphics cards.
The waterblocks consist of a single large copper plate which stretches over the entire GPU, covering both the GPU core and the individual memory modules, with the memory fitted to the block using numerous thermal pads. However, both our sample cards suffered from their waterblocks having been mounted so tightly over the GPU core that some of the memory chips were left visibly clear of the copper plate, so were not being cooled by the cooling solution.
The block itself is also disappointing, with a water contact area of only a couple of square inches directly above the GPU, rather than covering most of the surface of the block as you’d usually find with most aftermarket GPU waterblocks. The result is a rather weedy looking waterblock, which isn’t helped by the rather redundant and unnecessary air coolers ECS has also chosen to fit in addition to the watercooling.
The coolers are basic blue LED paddle fans mounted into an overly large plastic shroud, and spin so slowly that they couldn’t possibly hope to keep the 9800 GTX+ cool if your watercooling setup were to catastrophically fail. They’re powered by a four pin molex plug rather than the card’s fitted four pin speed controlled fan mount – a decision that reeks of cost saving and plain laziness. As far as we can see, the fans are there for pure aesthetic value only – we can’t imagine how a fan running at such a low CFM could possibly have an effect on the card’s thermal performance, although they’re thankfully exceptionally quiet.
Click to enlarge – Richard takes a sniff, but decided not to take a swig after reading the warning label
We really struggle to see the point of fitting watercooling on a card, only to whack an air cooler on top of it; it’s as if ECS or Thermaltake didn’t trust the waterblock alone to cool the GPU, and the result is that appears to be an utterly redundant air cooler tacked onto the cards.
The cooling setup for the card PWMs is also badly designed as the PWM heatsink is just made of four smaller heatsinks poorly stuck onto the PWMs with sub-standard frag tape. Graphics card gets hot, frag tape melts or loses its stickiness, heatsinks fall off. It's a sad example of simply shameful build quality and we experienced it on both of the cards following over three days of extensive use – we've now got a little handful of discarded PWM heatsinks that have simply fallen off of the cards following testing.
So the watercooling set up isn’t exactly what we’d expected, with some rather serious build quality flaws, a low water contact area waterblock and the bizarre inclusion of blue LED lit paddle fans. But at least it's extremely easy to set up, fill and get going, which is always a bonus considering the multitude of horrors that could rear their ugly heads when building your own watercooling loop. Let's just hope this kit can redeem itself where it really counts: performance.