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Motherboard & RAM Blocks
When it comes to water cooling your PC, the sky’s the limit. Everything from the MOSFETs and VRMS on your motherboard, to your M.2 drives and even disk drives can be water cooled nowadays. But why do we need to do this? The answer is complicated by it being a grey area between maximising performance, and simply indulging our passion for PC bling – that is to say, making our rigs looking less like office PCs and more like the high-performance systems we desire.
The History of Motherboard Chipsets
The concept of water cooling is straightforward enough, but what do we mean when we talk about “chipsets”? The term “chipset” traditionally refers, in the context of personal computers at least, to the pairing of specific chips on the motherboard to achieve the functionality we associate with a modern motherboard. In times gone by this would have been fulfilled by the venerable northbridge and southbridge chips. But what do these chips do? The answer is that a combination of chips, a chipset, operate in tandem with one another as a kind of communications hub, or even traffic control centre on the motherboard. Specifically, they coordinate the flow of data between CPU, memory and peripheral devices.
There were also distinct differences between each chip, with northbridge being connected directly to the CPU via the Front Side Bus (FSB) for tasks requiring maximum speed or latency-sensitive communications between the CPU and RAM / PCIe graphics cards. Northbridge was also responsible for controlling the southbridge chip itself. Southbridge on the other hand essentially took responsibility for all remaining functions not under the direct control of northbridge, that is to say HDDs and certain I/O options where speed or bandwidth was not a high priority, such as PCI, audio, or legacy hardware.
Northbridge played an essential role in determining the extent to which a computer can be overclocked, since its frequency was commonly used as the baseline for deciding the clock frequency at which the CPU operates. As CPU speeds increased over time, many of the capabilities of northbridge were eventually subsumed into the CPU itself. This is in order to keep up with the ever-increasing clock frequencies of Intel and AMD’s processors as well as the greater bandwidth requirements of modern applications. As of 2011’s Sandy Bridge era, when northbridge became integrated directly into the CPU itself, southbridge became obsolete. Consequently, Intel opted for the new Platform Controller Hub (PCH) architecture which took over southbridge’s features and I/O functions. Northbridge was eventually supplanted by the system agent, courtesy of the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture in 2011.
What’s New in the World of Water-Cooling?
Everything has changed in recent years. Nowadays, modern CPUs utilise integrated memory controllers to give memory a direct line to the CPU, rather than in earlier times when, for example, DDR memory would need to communicate with the CPU via the chipset. This massively increases performance, vital when it comes to gaming or other demanding scenarios where it is necessary to minimise latency and maximise responsiveness e.g. PCIe graphics cards.
Now that we know where we’ve come from, the next question is this: how does water cooling factor into motherboard, chipset, or even RAM cooling in the present day? The good news is that with a combination of node shrinks, streamlining, and optimisation, motherboards are as robust and reliable as they have ever been. Heat remains the age-old foe however, and some parts of the motherboard do still benefit from effective cooling over and above that offered by the standard combination of air cooling and heatsinks. As the overclocking aficionados among you may already know, even highly overclocked CPUs will rarely use more than 1.35 Volts – yet the voltage delivered to the motherboard from the power supply is in fact 12 Volts. The process of stepping down, stabilising and providing a steady supply of clean power to the CPU falls to the motherboard’s Voltage Regulator Module (VRM), which in turn consists of MOSFETs and other smaller electrical components. Transforming the higher voltages (e.g. +5V, +12V) that come from the power supply into the smaller, more manageable voltages required by the CPU is a process that produces excess heat that, at least in theory, is then dissipated into the surrounding air.
MOSFETs and the VRM are by far some of the hottest components in a modern PC, yet they are engineered to be tough and relatively heat-resistant. But there’s a caveat to this statement; their efficiency is directly proportional to their operating temperatures. Here at OcUK we’re passionate about the benefits of achieving the highest possible overclocks while also preserving the hardware and enjoying the benefits of greater stability. In practical terms, that means there’s only one method of achieving the best of both worlds in terms of performance and cooling: water.
Enter: The Motherboard Monoblock!
Monoblocks’ ability to cool effectively is due in large part, aside from the use of liquid coolant, to the use of electrolytic copper. They can also be nickel-plated, lending motherboard chipset water blocks an ultra-premium look while also protecting the copper from corrosion. It is also wise to ensure that all the materials in a water-cooling loop are compatible with each other, especially as otherwise undesirable chemical reactions can result, reactions that can cause permanent damage to expensive components. Motherboard water blocks are generally made from two possible materials. They can be made from either polyoxymethylene (POM), also known as acetal, which is a kind of crystalline plastic that is usually chosen due to its unique combination of properties that make it perfect water-cooling; specifically, its high tensile strength, resistance to material creep, as well as its ability to resist heat and moisture over time. The second material is acrylic glass (Plexi), which has the advantage of being translucent yet does not offer the same impact strength or chemical resistance as acetal. Monoblocks must generally be manufactured for the specific motherboard model and not the series.
In terms of aesthetics, the use of acrylic glass allows the water-cooler to support embedded LEDs, meaning that such blocks not only unsurpassed cooling, they also become a visual highlight of your overclocked gaming system. In general, users can expect a motherboard’s water block to include two G1/4” thread ports to enable integration into a custom loop. Before purchasing these blocks, please make sure to check the following beforehand:
- Does the water-cooler fit the motherboard in question?
- Does the block require additional TIM (Thermal Interface Material)?
- What options does the block offer in terms of LED effects and RGB lighting?
Now that your motherboard is cooled, why not consider cooling your memory too? After many years of slow, incremental clock frequency increases across DDR2 and DDR3 RAM, DDR4 is finally well-established and its speeds are significantly faster than its predecessors. Faster memory comes at a price in the form of more heat, something important to consider given the greater densities of the memory possible nowadays, including upwards of 16 GB modules. This problem is compounded when overclocking is added into the mix. Water blocks for memory modules will include dual G1/4 connectors for compatibility with the vast majority of water-cooling fittings, and an increasing number of blocks also integrate addressable RGB lighting to enable synchronisation with the rest of your build.