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Hard Drive Coolers

  September 23, 1998 Author: Eugene Ra  
  ·  Seagate Cheetah 4LP provided by Dirt Cheap Drives.
  ·  Bay-Cool provided by PC Power & Cooling, Inc.
  ·  DigitalDoc, Just Cooler, Heat Terminator, VHDFAN, and Winstorm provided by Dirt Cheap Drives.
  ·  I-Storm provided by Global WIN Technology Co., Ltd.

See also our Summer 1998 ATA Drive Roundup
And see our Summer 1998 SCSI Drive Roundup.

Introduction:

Today, cooling hard disks is more important than ever. Spindle speeds of hard disks have ratcheted up to previously unheard-of levels. Seagate and IBM have introduced 10,000rpm units, hot in both performance and price. The new 7200rpm ATA drives from Maxtor, IBM, and especially Seagate may also require cooling in many installations. We've recommended drive coolers for many of the units we've reviewed, yet volumes of mail show that there's relatively little awareness of the options available. Do you need a drive cooler for your disk? Though there are exceptions that run both ways, a general rule of thumb: If the drive spins at 7200rpm or faster, you should look into cooling. Here, the Storage Review will examine eight offerings currently available on the market.

Why cool a hard disk? Running a drive out of the manufacturer's specified temperature range can lead to premature failure. The drive could fail in a month or two rather than delivering years of service. Further, higher temperatures result in the expansion and contraction of the disk's platters, requiring the drive to recalibrate often. Seek time can be adversly affected, slowing performance. These are all the reasons needed .

All the drive coolers reviewed in this roundup use fans to blow air over the disk. The majority of these feature a grill-filter-faceplate assembly that actively draws in outside air to cool the drive. Some, however, rely mainly on re-circulating internal air to cool disks. Though this provides an adequate solution, coolers that pull air in the case often improve ambient case temperature as a whole in addition to cooling the drive itself. Some units feature rigid all-in-one construction, allowing the drive mounting to double as a heatsink that transfers heat energy away from the drive. Other units are merely faceplates, requiring that the disk be mounted internally in a 5.25" bay with separate rails. These latter units may pose problems to those looking to mount them in cases that utilize rails of some sort. The faceplate can often be mounted in the bay above the drive itself, offering adequate cooling at the expense of another drive bay.

The Testbed:

For this test, our usual testbed case, PC Power & Cooling's Solid-Steel ATX Tower, was replaced with InWin's IW-A500 minitower. The same rails that make it convenient to swap drives in and out of the Solid Steel prevent the monstrous case from effectively using coolers that don't have drive-mounting assemblies integrated with the case. Further, the rather voluminous PCP&C case is probably not representative of the shell most PC users use- the average is probably quite a bit smaller. InWin's case, on the other hand, is quite typical. A small minitower consisting of three 5.25", two exposed 3.5" and an internal 3.5" drive bay. More importantly, the case's standard, rail-less 5.25" bays were capable of accepting all our tested drive coolers, thus leveling the field for a fair comparison. Our drive of choice for testing purposes was obvious: the Seagate Cheetah 4LP. Not only can one not peruse the manual without finding many warnings about proper cooling, simple experience of my own and others have shown that it's basically the hottest 1"-high form-factor drive ever made.

The Procedure:

To measure drive temperature, we employed Gemini Software's ThermAlarm thermal monitor. To ensure proper and efficient contact of the ThermAlarm thermal sensor and the test drive, the paper labeling was removed from the top of the Cheetah (probably voiding the warranty). Using some thermal-conductive tape, provided courtesy of PC Power & Cooling, the sensor was placed just next to the screw that highlighted the spindle's position within the drive. Ambient Room Temperature was kept at 24 degrees Celsius. WinBench 98's Random Access Test was looped to keep the Cheetah churning . A temperature measurement was taken 2 hours later.

The Reference:

Right from the start, it's a match made in hell: InWin's IW-A500 minitower case and Seagate's hot Cheetah 4LP. To obtain a baseline measurement, the Seagate drive was mounted in standard 3.5" - 5.25" drive rails and placed in the uppermost 5.25" drive bay. A small case stuffed with a SCSI boot drive, a Plextor UltraPlex, and the Cheetah along with a myriad of wires makes for a poorly-ventilated situation. And boy, did it show. Uncooled, the Seagate drive managed to reach a scorching temperature of 67 degrees Celsius. How hot is 67 C? At this temperature, I couldn't keep my hand on the drive for more than one second. Seagate's maximum specified operating temperature for the drive is 50 degrees Celsius. Think what you must about "safe, conservative limits"; this goes way beyond. A situation like this demands cooling!

  *Note: Click any image for a closeup.
    DigitalDoc MP-TC01 Highest Recorded Temperature: 39 C  

DigitalDoc MP-TC01 -- Front DigitalDoc MP-TC01 -- Back

The DigitalDoc MP-TC01 is more of a cooling-monitoring solution rather than a simple drive cooler. It features an external LCD that provide temperature (provided by an included thermal sensor) and time-of-day information. Cooling is provided on demand (i.e., as the temperature exceeds a user-definable setting) by a single ball-bearing fan. Optionally, one may attach a case fan to a molex connector also triggered by the same temperature threshold. The assembly is basically a 3.5" faceplate; standard 3.5" - 5.25" drive rails (not included) must be used to mount the drive behind the unit. Despite possessing only one fan, the MP-TC01 managed to keep the Cheetah at a decent operating temperature of 39 C. Drawbacks include slightly noisy operation, no passthrough for the fan's power cable, and rather high price. Note that this unit may not be easily installable in a case that uses rails to mount 5.25" drives.
Estimated Price: $50  

  Just Cooler Highest Recorded Temperature: 41 C  

Just Cooler -- Front Just Cooler -- Back

A ubiquitous internet/computer show presence makes the "Just Cooler" (formerly "Bay Cooler") seem like the most popular unit around. It consists of a rather flimsy faceplate with two sleeve-bearing fans mounted behind a serrated plastic grille. The drive is then mounted behind the unit with provided 3.5" - 5.25" rails. The faceplate's grill is easily removable, allowing convenient access to the filter for cleaning. I always get a chuckle when looking at the Just Cooler's box- it contains the not-so-innocuous typo "drive cooker" instead of "drive cooler" . Laughs aside, the unit does an adequate job of cooling a hard drive, keeping the Cheetah well within it's specified operating temperature. Though the unit is rather noisy, it's widely available and relatively inexpensive. Note that this unit may not be easily installable in a case that uses rails to mount 5.25" drives.
Estimated Price: $25  

  I-Storm Highest Recorded Temperature: 35 C  

I-Storm -- Front I-Storm -- Cover Removed

Global WIN's I-Storm "PC Air Conditioner" is definitely the iconoclast of the group. Black in color (beige is also available) and protruding nearly two inches from the case when properly mounted, the I-Storm's appearance is striking. Whether it strikes you as "cool-looking" or "ugly" depends on your opinion. I lean towards the latter persuasion . The I-Storm is unique in the use of a lateral cross-flow fan rather than the standard radial fans (on CPU heatsinks and drive coolers everywhere). Since it draws air in from below (instead of through the front as other coolers do), the I-Storm's overhang is necessary. This provides the advantage of lower fan rotation speed (with presumably quieter operation) and uniform airflow over a 3.5" drive. Looks aside, there's no denying the effectiveness of the I-Storm. The cooler tied the Bay-Cool in bringing the Cheetah down to the lowest operating temperature of the group, an arctic 35 degrees Celsius. The I-Storm's cover is easy to remove, allowing access to its wire-mesh filter. There are some caveat's, however. The filter does not seem to catch as much dust as traditional foam filters do. Secondly, there's a tendency for the flat filter to "bend" a little bit when reinserted into the cooler, thus creating contact between the fan and the mesh. Even so, the I-Storm's exceptional cooling performance makes it a unit to consider. Note that this unit may not be easily installable in a case that uses rails to mount 5.25" drives.
Estimated Price: $50  

  King Kong Cooler Highest Recorded Temperature: 43 C  

King Kong Cooler -- Front King Kong Cooler -- Back

The King Kong Cooler, also from Global WIN, features three high-quality ball-bearing fans mounted at the front of a rather hefty once-piece aluminum mounting (which conveniently transforms a 3.5" drive to the 5.25" form factor). Unlike many other coolers, the King Kong depends on circulating existing air in the case instead of drawing cool air through a faceplate-grill. Tight coupling of the drive to the mounting allows it to act as a heatsink of sorts, drawing heat away from the drive and dissipating it through the case. Since the drive is mounted using its bottom instead of its side screw holes, flat-headed screws are provided to secure the assembly. Unfortunately, the provided screws weren't a perfect fit for the Cheetah. Instead of being tightly coupled in the mounting, the Seagate drive sat relatively loosely in the tray. Standard hex-head screws managed a tight fit, but prevented the cooler from being properly mounted unless the bay below it was kept empty. The 43 degrees Celsius figure provided was obtained using the provided flat-head screws.
Estimated Price: $30  

  Heat Terminator Highest Recorded Temperature: 39 C  

Heat Terminator -- Front Heat Terminator -- Back

The Heat Terminator basically consists of a drive cage with an 80mm case fan blowing down on the drive. To accommodate 1.6"-high disks, the cage is rather tall in construction and therefore occupies two 5.25" slots even when a 1"-high drive is used. The assembly was rather effective, keeping temperature down at a cool 39 degrees Celsius. Still, sacrificing two 5.25" bays for a single 3.5" drive seems like a mighty waste; there are other options which can keep your hard drive as cool without being space-hogs.
Estimated Price: $30  

  Bay-Cool Highest Recorded Temperature: 35 C  

Bay-Cool -- Front Bay-Cool -- Back

PC Power & Cooling has long been renown for their premium power supplies and more recently their CPU heatsinks. They've finally made a long-overdue debut in drive cooling with the Bay-Cool drive cooler. Featuring heavy-duty construction at an admittedly premium price, the Bay-Cool (along with the I-Storm) cooled the Cheetah to a low 35 degrees Celsius. The Bay-Cool is the only drive cooler tested here to feature a more industrial-looking metal faceplate rather than the commonly used plastic varieties. Two high-quality ball-bearing fans operate at both ends of the plate to deliver airflow. There's room in the middle for yet a third fan, yet PCP&C opted to go with a two-fan design. The faceplate is easily detached, allowing the user to clean the filter with minimal hassle. When in operation, the Bay-Cool was the quietest of all units tested here. Also unusual is the warranty that protects the product: five years, no less. Aside from price, there's two minor quibbles. First, the molex power connector, unlike most others, does not feature a passthrough. The unit thus requires its own power connection. Secondly, the unit's mounting holes would not line up correctly in the InWin case's uppermost bay, due to the four "ears" protruding from the sides at the bottom (convenient to hold, say, a CD-ROM drive in place while it's secured with screws). Though the unit would have been easily mountable in either of the other two bays, the InWin's ears were removed to facilitate consistent testing in the top drive bay.
Estimated Price: $50  

  VHDFAN Highest Recorded Temperature: 43 C  

VHDFAN -- Front VHDFAN -- Back

CRU Inc's VHDFAN is an all-in-one faceplate/mounting-rail assembly that features a grill and filter with two fans pulling cool air through and over the drive. The unit also features an LED to monitor hard drive activity. Though it provides adequate cooling, VHDFAN's filter is exceptionally inconvenient to get to, requiring the user to remove the assembly from the case and detach the fans to get to the filter. Better combinations of easy maintenance and cooling performance can be had with other options.
Estimated Price: $30  

  Windstorm Highest Recorded Temperature: 43 C  

Windstorm -- Front Windstorm -- Back

The DigitalScape Windstorm is a rail-fan assembly not unlike the King Kong Cooler, though it lacks the latter's single-piece heatsink construction. The Windstorm doesn't feature fans drawing in outside air through a filtered grill; like the King Kong and Heat Terminator, it simply re-circulates internal air. Performance was on par with the King Kong: while acceptable, a unit that draws outside air in may be a better choice for overall system ventilation.
Estimated Price: $35  



Conclusion:

Any of the units reviewed here will cool the hot-running Seagate Cheetah to a level where your mind may be at peace . Even so, several units stand out from the mix. Most notable is the PC Power & Cooling Bay-Cool. Solid-Steel construction, quiet ball-bearing fans, an easily cleaned filter, and a five year warranty all combine to create a thoughtfully-designed product. It's obvious that much pride went into the design; a pass-through power connector would complete the recommendation. Global WIN's I-Storm matched the Bay-Cool's performance in cooling. It features an innovative design, quiet operation, and a unique look- it may very well be the cooler for you if such looks strike your fancy. Finally, for those seeking a more comprehensive thermal management solution, the DigitalDoc MP-TC01 is worth considering. Don't let it's one-fan design fool you; it's enough to cool a drive while the unit itself can also control another case fan and measure surface temperature of the drive you're protecting.



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