Accessory Corner - Zalman ZM-NC3000S Notebook Cooler
The Zalman ZM-NC3000S is designed for 17" notebooks, with a single, large 220mm cooling fan and is made using aluminum. Can this cooler tame the onslaught of heat coming from a quad-core SLI notebook such as my Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q708? Read on to see the results!
PROS: Dead silent, effective cooling, solid construction, USB pass-thru.
CONS: Very short USB cord, good luck finding a fan replacement.
By itself, I should disclose that I've been generally impressed with the cooling my notebook provides. Even under all-day gaming, the fan/heatsink performs well and keeps all the processors within their thermal limits. For those unfamiliar with the design of the X305, it employs dual fans on the bottom of the notebook, feeding air to a massive heatsink running along the back of the notebook. This heatsink, measuring roughly 8 inches long by 1 inch thick (size DOES matter), is connected via heat pipes to keep four processors running cool - a 2.5GHz QX9300 quad-core CPU, two 9800M GTS graphics processors, and finally a 9400M GPU.
So what has changed if I'm not having cooling problems doing all-day gaming? It's called F@H!!! I'm a big believer in giving back to the community, and combined with it's competitive nature, F@H allows me to contribute to the scientific efforts of one of Silicon Valley's top universities. I can also sleep well knowing that my gear is doing something useful, even if I happen to be not.
I had been using the gui client of F@H for many years earlier, but to take advantage of a quad-core CPU, I needed to run the smp client. This single application can tax multiple-core processors to the extreme, and push thermal loads sky high for each CPU cycle used. Immediately upon firing up F@H, my system's fans would crank up to gaming levels, and CPU utilization on all four cores hit 100%. By design, the system BIOS shuts off the notebook once processor temperatures hit 98 degrees Celsius. My observations running the smp client were seeing CPU temperatures approach 91 degrees - much too close for my comfort. I knew that if I was to run F@H 24/7 and protect my gear, I would need additional cooling.
The other issue was ambient temperature. While it's winter now, temperatures can peak 30 degrees inside in the summer without a decent AC to help. 23 degrees is comfortable enough for both me and my gear, but move up just 10 degrees and all bets are off!!!
The Zalman ZM-NC3000S is not much bigger in size than my 17" notebook measuring 15.75 inches wide by 15 inches deep, and sits just over 2 inches high at the rear. The actual cooling area measures roughly 14x11in, and thanks to the wedge-shaped design of the X305, fits the base of my notebook perfectly. Keep in mind, my X305 is a 16:10 17" model - today's 16:9 17.3" notebooks might have an inch hanging off the side!
The entire cooling surface is aluminum with only the side trim and base using plastic. The shiny black plastic goes very well with the same black trim of my notebook. The aluminum cooling surface has 1300 5mm cooling holes to provide unobstructed airflow to the entire base of the notebook. This is a key design in it's cooling performance, as it allows vent holes on the RAM and hard drive compartments access to positive air flow, cooling those components as well. In fact, with the fan running, I found the entire bottom of my notebook cool to the touch! That's a substantial improvement compared to the noticeably warm temperatures seen without any additional cooling.
The front of the Zalman has a long rubber strip running across to help grip the notebook. I like to sit the front feet of my notebook right behind this, and acts as a solid stop to prevent the notebook sliding forward. Two smaller rubber grips at the back of the cooler fit behind the rear feet of my notebook. Seated properly, the gap between the aluminum plate and the notebook base is a good 4mm - sufficient to allow airflow to move from the Zalman's large cooling fan to do it's work.
The cooling fan on the Zalman is a single 220mm 5V unit. It spins at a very leisurely rate between 620 and 720rpm, adjustable via a speed dial on the back. In practice, the speed difference translates to a more measurable than noticeable cooling and acoustic boost (see benchmarks). Of course, the advantage to using a single large fan as opposed to two smaller fans is more airflow at lower noise.
Given the slow speed of the single, giant fan, the ZM-NC3000S cools impressively well. The entire bottom of my notebook is cool to the touch, and even the palm rest area is noticeably cooler. It's also dead quiet - you really need to place your ear right onto the aluminum to hear the Zalman fan running. The combined acoustic load is actually lower, since the notebook fan runs at a quieter speed thanks to the assisted cooling.
Using CPUID Hardware Monitor Pro to get detailed temperature numbers provides a more dramatic performance breakdown. The numbers you see here were measured at an ambient temperature of 23-25 degrees (75F), taken a minimum of 30 minutes after each load was applied, and provided in Celsius.
Sitting idle at the Windows desktop, my system comes in at a moderate 56/60/56/61 for the CPU and three GPU's. Using the Zalman cooler, however, those temperatures drop to a much cooler 51/55/51/55. Turn the fan speed dial up from minimum to maximum and the temperatures drop further to 48/54/51/54. Certainly cooler than with stock cooling.
But of course, nobody buys a quad-core SLI notebook to watch it run idle, so some stress tests for the cooler were in order. First up was X-Plane. This 3D flight simulator uses Open-GL, and while not an SLI title utilizing DX9/10, it puts a demanding enough workload on both CPU and GPU, especially when you crank all settings on max, as I have. Sitting on the desk, this game produced notebook temperatures of 72/72/58/76. Desktop users might balk at those temps, but you need to keep in mind notebook silicon is designed to run hot given the tight thermal envelope notebooks are constrained to. Introduce the ZM-C3000S, though, and temperatures drop to 64/67/54/67. That's barely 10 degrees warmer than at idle without assisted cooling. Turn the fan on maximum, and those numbers go down further to 61/65/53/65 - not bad at all.
You're probably wondering at this point that a more substantial load is necessary, and for that I fired up the F@H smp client. Taxing every cycle of all four CPU cores, this application produces the highest temperatures that the X305 on it's own can tolerate at 92/75/60/92. Now for the good news - the ZM-NC3000S brings CPU temperatures down by almost 20 degrees!!! Temperatures came in at 75/62/53/75, substantially cooler for both the QX9300 and the 9400M GPU. Turning the fan up on high of course yielded the best numbers overall at 73/61/52/74 - that is simply excellent, especially given that the entire system is barely audible.
For a final test, I decided to multitask F@H with X-Plane. Pushing both CPU and GPU in parallel has it's own unique thermal demands, but I was surprised to find temperatures were actually LOWER than running F@H alone. Without the cooler, temperatures registered at 88/78/60/89 - toasty enough, but less than those numbers encountered running the distributed computing application by itself. With the Zalman cooler on low speed temperatures descended to 71/67/53/76. For some reason, however, turning the fan on high in this test did not improve numbers, but remained the same at 71/67/53/76. I'll need to look further into this, but the fact that such a demanding load is doable, and more than 10 degrees cooler on the processors in use, says a lot about the capability of the ZM-NC3000S.
Those wondering why I didn't use the F@H GPU client for testing - a driver issue is preventing the CUDA client from running. It's also a lot more thermally demanding than running the smp client, and I'm not exactly in a hurry to replace an expensive pair of fried notebook graphics cards. Running two instances of the GPU client AND the smp client is simply overkill for a notebook.
Zalman supplies a USB cord with the ZM-NC3000S, which is good since it isn't AC powered and needs a USB port for power. As short as this cord is though, you might need to look for something longer if you intend to plug it into something out of reach such as a USB hub. In my case, the cord is just barely long enough to reach my 7-port hub.
The other issue I have with this cooler is the fan. As good as it is, the one big disadvantage comes when you need to get it replaced. While I've yet to disassemble the ZM-NC3000S, just finding a 5V 220mm fan alone could pose a challenge if you need to deal with a dead fan down the road. Reliability is something that I'll only be able to assess as I use the product, but assuming the fan has a conservative 25,000 hour MTBF, the cooler should be able to run 24/7 for around 3 years, much longer if it's used less often.
Given the multiple heat-producing components inside my Qosmio X305-Q708, the Zalman ZM-NC3000S performs admirably. I'm very impressed with it's cooling ability, and pretty much at it's mercy in keeping my equipment cool when running the most demanding tasks. In addition, I have to commend it's dead-silent operation and solid aluminum construction. It keeps the entire bottom surface of my notebook cool, radiating through to the palm rest area, ensuring that my expensive investment won't die a toasty death any time soon. Need further reason to buy? It's available right now with rebates priced as low as $39 if you look around.
That said, it's physical measurements echo a 16:10 17" footprint. But if your notebook fits the dimensions, you're a F@H fanatic, or you just simply want to game in a room without air-conditioning during the summer, it's a given that a notebook cooler such as the Zalman ZM-NC3000S will be a very welcome accessory. Your notebook will thank you!