The Importance of Proper Cooling in a Gaming PC

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve barely played any games at all. I got back into F.E.A.R. and have almost finished it, but my system has not being running so hot lately – actually, it’s been running very hot, which brings me to the topic of this post.

Over the past year I’ve replaced just about every piece of hardware. I started with the motherboard and worked my way out. Most recently replacing my 266MHz memory with a pair of 512MB, 400MHz Corsair XMS ProSeries RAM. Since my CPU has a front side bus of 800MHz, I was looking forward to a pretty significant performance increase. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case at all. After installing the RAM, I noticed no increase at all. Still the same hiccups and lags remained. It was time to do some serious troubleshooting – having dropped so much cash on my machine over the past year, I wasn’t ready to give up on it just yet. I knew there had to be a cause for the slowdowns and poor performance I’m seeing.

First, I ran some benchmarks. I used some standalone apps like 3dMark05, Sandra and Fraps. The results were upsetting to say the least. After a fresh reboot, I fired up Counter Strike Source and ran the video stress test. First run was 113 FPS – sweet! I ran it again immediately which returned an abysmal 57 FPS. Once more… 48 FPS. This continued until I reached around 30 FPS. At this point, I wasn’t really sure what to do. I’ve never seen a performance loss like that.

case - beforeAfter starting some threads on a couple tech message boards, people started asking questions about my CPU temperatures and what I’m using for cooling. I’m completely embarrassed to say that I hadn’t given much thought to either. It turns out my CPU was running at around 55* celcius while idling. I don’t even want to know how hot it was under load. As far as cooling and circulation goes – I had a 120mm case fan in the back and the factory Intel CPU cooler. Nothing to pull cold air in and as you can see from the photo to the right – a mess of cables to trap the hot air. I was confident the dudes were onto something and decided to drop some cash into a better cooling solution.

case - after$100 later, I returned home from the local shop with a 120mm Vantec Stealth case fan and a heavy duty, pure copper 92mm Zalman CPU cooler. Just as I was about to dive into my case and started yanking the old shit out, my friend Justin stopped by to save the day. As you might have already figured, I’m not exactly the most savvy guy when it comes to building computers. Otherwise, I would have never been in this mess in the first place. After about an hour, Justin had it all up and running. On first boot, my CPU was running at 21*. w00t! But it was time to put it to the test. We fired up Counter Strike Source once again… the result – 118 FPS! Ok, that’s great… but let’s see how it does the second time. With fingers tightly crossed, we waiting nervously for the benchmark to finish. 117 FPS! Success! I ran it a third time, just to be safe – 118 FPS once again. That was it – my poor air circulation and insufficient cooling was causing my CPU (and everything else, for that matter) to run too hot, resulting in throttling, which in turn causes everything to run under it’s ability.

As some said on the message boards, I’m really lucky I didn’t damage anything! I could have fried the CPU or the motherboard. And I’m sure if I kept pushing it, I would have.

At the end of all of this, I feel like a total idiot for not having thought of this earlier. But I wanted to share my story in hopes that I might clue others before it’s too late. If you work your machine hard at all, you should make sure you have proper circulation and adequate cooling. And this doesn’t just apply to gaming, but graphic designers, video editors, 3d animators – all of these people use applications that are very demanding. If you fall into any of these categories, you might want to take a look inside your case and check up on your temperatures to make sure you’re a-ok.