|Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs Chill Aftermarket Cooling|
|Articles - Opinion & Editorials|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Friday, 31 December 2010|
Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs Chill Aftermarket Cooling
Intel's cool-running Sandy Bridge processor architecture could mean the end for aftermarket cooling manufacturers.
There's a lot to like about Intel's new Sandy Bridge desktop processor architecture, from eight-way independent processing threads, to Turbo Boost 2.0 and a shared 8MB Smart Cache, to an improved AES-NI that dramatically better encryption/decryption. Those are all great things, but have little to do with most hardware enthusiasts. Sandy Bridge is the most efficient processor Intel has ever sold, allowing compute performance to set new standards while it overclocks beyond 5 GHz before warming up. Benchmark Reviews will separately publish our results of the Intel Core i7-2600K and Intel Core i5-2500K Sandy Bridge CPUs, but in this article we look at the unexpected consequences of a truly modern processor and how it might mean the end for the aftermarket cooling industry.
Intel's Core-i3/i5/i7 Sandy Bridge processors deliver a winning combination for overclockers, which is why world record benchmark scores will be set and broken in rapid fire succession. I've seen the possibilities first hand: at a recent ASUS technology summit to learn more about their upcoming features and technology launching with the P67-Express motherboard series, I was able to participate in the overclocking of a new Sandy Bridge processor. While Intel had undoubtedly hand-selected the processors for this event, there was something that couldn't be faked: cold operation. Watching the processor reach beyond the 5 GHz mark was impressive, but what punctuated this achievement was how cool the CPU ran while being extremely over-volted. The i7-2600K I worked with managed to skip past 5.2 GHz while pushing a mere 68°C. I'm sure you're wondering what cooler kept this processor running so cool, and here's the shocker: it was a 92mm Cooler Master Hyper TX3.
You read that correctly. This little $26 heatsink used three skinny heat-pipe rods and an Intel push-pin mounting system to tame an overclocked 5.2 GHz CPU to 68°C. It didn't require a ProlimaTech Megahalems or Thermalright Venomous-X, and even our beloved Scythe Mugen-2 would have been wasted on this effort. I think you get my point: it was the lowest possible denominator on the aftermarket cooling scale, and most impressive overclock could be done without all of the extra heat-pipes and copper fins. It's also why there may now be an entire industry poised to collapse as a direct result.
Aftermarket cooling was an industry born from demand, and it goes way back to the year 2000 when Intel Pentium 4 and AMD Thunderbird processors roamed the Earth. It didn't take extra voltage or any overclocking for these CPUs to reach 70°C, usually all that was needed was the push of the power button. Being the feeble (but unlocked) processors that they were, overclockers seized on the opportunity to squeeze more performance out of them. It didn't take much effort back then, and so long as you knew how to raise a front size bus and multiplier you could be setting world records... so long as your system didn't melt down first. Somehow enthusiasts survived the age of solid brick-shaped heatsinks with a noisy 80mm fan screaming on top. It wouldn't be until 2006 that enthusiasts could enjoy the wonderment of modern heat-pipe technology, and the extreme temperatures of the Pentium-D processors for this period could be contained.
But that's when the desktop CPU industry slowly began to change. The dual-core Intel Pentium-D was arguably one of the hottest-running processors ever produced, followed closely by the molten Pentium 4 HT processors that were still being sold. It wasn't until Intel's Core 2 brand made its debut later into 2006 that CPU operating temperatures would once again be considered reasonable. Of course, around this time the quad core Intel Core 2 Quad would be announced and further extend the need for aftermarket cooling on desktop computers. This was followed by the launch of Intel's Core-i7 enthusiast processor on November 2008, which maintained modest operating temperatures that still called out for better cooling, but added strain to aftermarket cooling manufacturers by once again changing the mounting socket.
I've illustrated how CPU operating temperatures peaked in 2000 with blistering hot P4's, only to see small improvements and cooler performance with each successive product series. After the 45nm Core-i7 Nehalem architecture was tick-tocked by Intel's 32nm Westmere, things began to change and soon the operating temperatures were at their coolest in years. Then came Sandy Bridge, and made it so that the idle operating temperature was virtually the same as ambient room temperatures. Even under normal load, the new 32nm Sandy Bridge CPUs proved that wafer-thin stock coolers could keep a handle on heat. Up to this point the message has been that cooler CPUs are killing the aftermarket, but there have actually been two factors helping to destroy margins for heatsink manufacturers.
Sockets are the problem, and they continue to change faster than manufacturers can break-even from tooling up the previous design. Without going back too far into the history of desktop processors, we'll take a look at the past ten years. Starting with Intel, we begin with Socket 423 for the Pentium 4 processor. This was a short-lived socket that was quickly replaced with Socket 478 less than a year later, yielding an interface that actually lasted a few years. In 2004 the Socket-T design was released, more popularly known as LGA775. Nehalem processors brought LGA1366 (Socket B) to market in 2008, and then Westmere delivered LGA 1156 (Socket H) late into 2009. Now we have LGA1155 (Socket H2) for Sandy Bridge, and thankfully it re-uses the mounting holes for LGA 1156. On the AMD side the evolution of sockets is more tolerable: Socket A (aka Socket 462) covered 2000 through 2003, when AMD launched Socket 754 for the Athlon 64 series. Socket 939 became available in June 2004, and was replaced by Socket AM2 in 2006. The good news here is that AMD's subsequent Socket AM2+ and AM3 have used the same cooler mounting positions.
Nine different mounting design changes over the past decade might sound like only one per year, but AMD and Intel seldom match their platform release dates. This adds tremendous strain on an industry already suffering from relatively low profit margin, and forces manufacturers to design and re-tool their production lines with each new change. This used to be a cost to doing business, but then sales began to decline as processors became more efficient and thermally responsible. Now each mounting change amounts to little or no return on the investment. As the desktop computer industry begins a fresh start into 2011, I find myself curiously concerned for aftermarket cooling manufacturers. When heatsink sales dry up and profits disappear, it's not long until product development comes to a halt. Just like anyone who made RAM-sinks and Northbridge coolers a few years ago, soon the day will come when CPU coolers are also an unnecessary product line. Could Intel's cool-running Sandy Bridge processor architecture mean the end for the aftermarket cooling industry?