Review: The power of water meets simple installation with Antec's new Kuhler 920 water-cooling kit.
Air coolers are by far the most popular solution to the hot bits in our PCs. They're cheap to buy, easy to install, and generally perform sufficiently for modest clock rate increases. Their main drawback is their physically large nature, ranging from the infamous modest stock coolers to ridiculously bulky behemoths, towering over memory, VRMs and MOSFETs, while inching closer to penetrating the bounds enforced by the very side panels which contain them. In short; they're bloody huge! Typical water based coolers relocate the bulky radiators elsewhere (often externally) allowing for easier installation of surrounding components, however they can get quite fiddly to install. You need to worry about corrosion, leaks, fitting tubes correctly, using optimal pump and radiator configurations – it's definitely not a task for the faint hearted.
Antec hasn't gone all out and produced a traditional water cooling kit. There's no components to connect together apart from the head unit to the CPU itself, which simplifies the installation process significantly. It also means no chance of dripping water all over your expensive kit! The entire setup consists of two main components; the head unit (which includes the pump), then two rubber tubes which connect directly to a mountable rectangular radiator. The 920 model includes two high performance 2400RPM PWM controlled Antec fans to transfer heat, while outputting 55dB of noise to ensure that you're constantly aware of their presence.
Installing the Kuhler is simple enough, but we found that the twist-to-lock mechanism when mounting the cooler caused smearing of the pre-applied thermal compound over the CPU. Normally this would be perfectly fine, but the viscous consistency meant it clumped up and spread very inconsistently. We opted to use some Noctua thermal compound after confirming that the cooling capability was negatively affected. If you're careful, it should be possible to mount the cooler with minimal smearing, but expect some level of frustration.
The 920 requires two connections, one to a motherboard USB header (this allows the included Chill Control V software to adjust fan speed), and another to a standard fan socket to power the pump and fans. To the delight of our ears, the adjustment from 'extreme' mode to 'silent' did precisely that, with about 18dB of sound output. Naturally, the cooling performance took a similar path, with load temps of our 3.7GHz 2600K rising from 45c to 54c. We then ramped up the hertz and tested at 5GHz, which resulted in a jump from 73c to 88c. Hot, but acceptable. For comparisons sake, the NH-D14 under the same conditions attains 47c and 79c load for 3.7GHz/5GHz respectively, which sits between the 920's two fan modes in terms of cooling performance.
Chill Control V is Antec's fan control solution, with min/avg/max pump and fan RPM readouts, water temperature, a custom and two predefined fan profiles, and the ability to change the colour of the head unit LED. The usual fun.
Overall, this cooler performs amazingly with extreme mode enabled. The downside is that it's a distinct choice between noise and cooling power, or silence and a warm chip, with little middle ground. That being said, it's priced adequately for a complete no-fuss water solution.