The typical PC form-factor has downsized over the last few years due to vast improvements in efficiency and a greater familiarity with the manufacturing process. Historically, smaller PCBs equated to poor performance and consisted of too many compromises in terms of expansion, and power delivery. Top-tier, smaller motherboards such as the Asus ROG Maximus VII Impact illustrate that overclocking ability, audio quality and stability are all a viable option whilst adopting a tiny footprint. CPU cooling though is still a relatively major problem since cube cases often have poor airflow and there isn’t enough room to mount a large heatsink like the Noctua NH-D15. As a result, your options are fairly limited to the stock cooler or a premium alternative such as the Noctua NH-L9i.
I’ve always been mesmerized by the attention-to-detail in Noctua’s usual packing efforts but the NH-L9i takes things to a whole new level. The unit is beautifully arranged in a rectangular box with high-quality foam cushioning the heatsink and included accessories. Supplied with the product is 4 durable thumbscrews, a Low-Noise Adapter, metal case badge, 4 long threaded screws to replace the stock fan with a larger 92x25mm fan ,NH-H1 thermal compound and the cooler itself. There is also a detailed installation guide with excellent pictures to help the less-experienced user. I commend Noctua for their unique and logical packaging as the heatsink’s cable is neatly tucked away under a cardboard cutout to prevent it from pulling and imparting pressure on the small fan groove for cable management.
The installation process couldn’t be simpler and should only take a few minutes to complete. Firstly, apply a small amount of thermal paste and remember less is more since overdoing it will impact the overall level of conductivity. Then, gently position the heatsink onto the CPU and line up the 4 mounting holes on your motherboard. Finally, feed the screws through in a gradual manner and tighten diagonally. Remember, not to over-tighten the fittings as this pressure could lead to increased temperatures. After this stage, plug in the fan cable or use the included adapter to lower the noise output at the expense of heat dissipation. If I had one area of complaint which could make the installation more user-friendly is the need to manually apply thermal compound. Various Water Cooling AIOs and Intel’s stock heatsink have TIM pre-applied and I feel this would make users feel more inclined to buy an aftermarket cooling product.
Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition
8GB 1866MHz Crucial Ballistix Smart Tracer
Asus ROG Z87 Maximus VI Gene
Bitfenix Prodigy M Case
480GB Seagate SSD
Corsair HX850 Power Supply
2 Bitfenix Spectre Pro 120mm fans, 1 140mm variant
As with any CPU thermal test, I use OCCT to gauge the worst possible scenario as the stress will be significantly higher than even the most demanding games out there. To accurately get a reading of the delta temperatures, HWMonitor and Coretemp are used on multiple runs with an average value being calculated. Intel’s G3258 CPU at stock reached an impressive idle temperature of 24c which was 5c lower than the Intel cooler and outperformed the Corsair H60 by 2 degrees. Under full load, the value hit an average of 65c which is excellent given the tiny form-factor. In comparison, the Intel 1150 heatsink performed at an average of 71c and a max of 76c. In theory, it is possible to overclock using this cooler but I wouldn’t recommend it due to power limitations. When you start to add voltage in small increments, it doesn’t take long before there is a massive spike in the temperatures and thermal throttling starts to occur.
This isn’t a problem with Noctua’s build quality but the nature of CPU heatsinks and how the size translates to cooling performance. The NH-L9i oozes quality but it still operates using a 23mm wide aluminium heatsink and the heatpipes don’t have a lot of room to dispel the load temperatures. This situation is made even worse by the Haswell architecture and its VRM solution. In basic terms, Intel’s 1150 chip operates at high temperatures unless the CPU has been delidded.
So what advantage does this cooler have over the bundled stock heatsink? For one, the unit is virtually inaudible and extremely quiet. By default, the included fan operates at 2500 rpm and contains an Acoustical Noise level of 23.6 db(A). When you attach the Low Noise Adapter, this limits the fan speed to 1800 rpm and dramatically reduced the noise rating to 14.8 db(A). However, this does come at a cost since the maximum airflow is curbed from 57.5 to 40.8 m3/h. Under normal desktop use this impacted on the temperatures in a fairly large manner and added 6 degrees to idle numbers and 8 degrees to the load average.
Providing your case has a sensible number of fans, I would opt for the higher temperatures and lower Acoustical Noise given the distinct lack of overclocking headroom. In theory, it is possible to replace the fan with a 92x95mm model but I didn’t detect a massive difference in thermals, only an average of 4 degrees. Furthermore, when you factor in the additional cost and knowing that the included fan is going to waste, this seems a pointless venture.
Other advantages to the NH-L9i include 100% compatibility with tall RAM heatspreaders, GPUs on cramped ITX boards and Noctua’s superlative 6 year warranty. This makes it a worthwhile and versatile product for those looking to build a HTPC or smaller gaming rig. On another note, DirectX 12 should reduce CPU bottlenecks and this means the need for overclocked CPUs may be pointless for gaming purposes. This even applies to the majority of cases today since most demanding games are GPU bound. However, a balance is required and some games like Rome II involve a lot of CPU computations.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
The Noctua NH-L9i is undoubtedly the coolest and quietest ITX heatsink I’ve tested. Noctua have performed miracles when you consider the high-airflow and reasonable temperatures given its limiting size. While overclocking performance is limited, there is no better cooler on the market which balances performance and noise levels so perfectly in a small and claustrophobic PC chassis.