The CoolIT Domino ALC: low cost liquid cooling still has problems

April 29, 2009 | 11:21

Tags: #fail #hardware #liquid-cooling #mirage #upgrading

Companies: #akasa

Since several Domino ALCs found their way to the bit-tech labs, I for one have been using them extensively. CoolIT claimed the cooling and price are comparable with the ThermalRight Ultra Extreme except with fewer compatibility issues as the ALC's water block will never interfere with any memory or heatsinks around the CPU socket, and it'll cool anything thrown at it. It's a sealed system - there's no taking it apart and CoolIT reckons it'll last several years before needing a refill - "with constantly upgradable mounting brackets, you'll never need another CPU cooler", it boldly claims.

I took these claims literally, but despite impressive first discussions, things have gone downhill at almost every turn. In no particular order, here are my experiences...
I recently upgraded my home PC's CPU cooler. Getting the Domino ALC screwed onto my CPU and fitted into an Akasa Mirage rates very high on the pain-in-the-arse scales. Somewhere just below 'manoeuvring an elephant up a flight of stairs', but just above 'broken down on the motorway and it's pissing down with rain,' I'd say.

Installing it requires three hands: one to hold the fan-radiator-bit, the next to hold the CPU cooler down, and a third to screw it in. That's not to mention that changing the position of the mounting screws requires one of the-most-stupid designs I've ever seen. Holding in the screws are tiny little "U" shaped bits of metal - to get these out you have to very carefully jam in a little flat head scerwdriver and pull them outwards. Because they're so small and thin, applying a force in any other direction apart from directly outwards breaks them, and they're flat and tiny so losing them on a messy worktop or in the carpet is virtually inevitable. There are four to do and CoolIT only include an extra two in the box.

The CoolIT Domino ALC: low cost liquid cooling still has problems Low cost liquid cooling: what's it like to use?

Next, because the CPU waterblock is connected to the Radiator with some stiff tubing, getting the block the right orientation for your case is also important, otherwise the tubing connectors will snap or the radiator will rip itself off the back of your case.

After this I found that I couldn't use the Mirage's removable motherboard tray - the ALC unit is so bulky it can't be installed outside the case. This is also true for other CPU coolers, but while moving the cooler mass helps, it's still just as cumbersome. If your case also has a large side fan, it could also be incompatible too.

As the rear fan on the Akasa is so close to the CPU socket, it puts a great deal of stress on the stiff pipes, the connectors and the four small rubber grommets holding the whole thing in place, on the rear 120mm fan mount. We understand why CoolIT included the rubber bits - to reduce vibration - but the whole thing is barely held in, twisted at a strange angle, and I certainly wouldn't like to ship it about without screwing it in properly. It's worth noting that CoolIT does ship it with normal fan screws though, and I would absolutely recommend using them.

Back to the lab, and within two minutes of giving it to Harry (the man is a legend for testing Q/A) we broke one. Having (very literally) gently pressed the plastic barb inwards it easily snapped, spewing the blood of its veins everywhere (that's the Domino, not Harry). We contacted CoolIT, who assured us that the ones on sale now use metal not plastic barbs, and our "early samples" came direct from Canada rather than the revised design from its factory in China.

We've received the revised unit and to CoolIT's credit - the barbs now appear to be brass (or at least metal) and putting on a decent amount of pressure doesn't break them. That's a good revision to an urgently needed change by CoolIT.

Now, the ultimate selling points - is it cooler and quieter than the best air coolers?

In a word: No.

I used to use a Tuniq Tower with Noctua NF-12P - that's not a new CPU cooler, and the fan isn't that powerful, but the temperatures on my CPU are now worse off with the Domino ALC to the point where I've had to actually underclock my processor. It sits in the BIOS at 45 to 50ºC idle - that's not impressive. This is on the "middle" setting - the one that adjusts itself according to the liquid temperature, cranking up the fan as it gets warmer.

Which also brings me onto my next point: noise. It's not that quiet either. While in the lab it's often difficult to tell precisely, in my quiet room at home the difference is evident - the Noctua fan is notably quieter, even when the Domino ALC is at its lowest settings with the stock fan.

It's worth noting that this one I'm using is the (working) pre-production model though, so not what's strictly on sale, but not only were CoolIT happy for us to review these models initially - we've been over them meticulously and can't find anything wrong with them.

Finally, I tested it recently when overclocking the Phenom II X4 955 and Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition CPUs. The advantage is that because AMD heatsinks can only be orientated in one direction, many CPU coolers conflict with tall memory like the Corsair Dominators - the low profile ALC on the other hand, does not.

At first we found the Domino ALC woefully inadequate for anything - even at stock voltages and a FULL fan that sounds like a jet engine on helium, the 955s were overheating when overclocked. Add some more voltage and the temperatures spiralled quickly. It's almost impossible to install correctly - the CPU-heatsink contact is clear to see the Domino will beep if anything is wrong internally.

We were seeing overclockers elsewhere get far better results with aircooled ThermalRight Ultra Extremes and even the 720 Black Editions, when overvolted were too much for it.

However, having just yesterday re-tested the latest model with the overclocked 720 BE in identical settings on the same motherboard, but with a cooler lab (since James turned off his space heaters Folding rigs) , we're now seeing temperatures in the mid-40s. Since no other change has taken place, this is extremely strange behaviour and after a quick call to Canada, CoolIT was undoubtedly concerned and will be over in a few weeks to try and understand these performance issues.

We will also test it in a controlled environment as a comparative to our other heatsinks in the review once we understand exactly what's happening but regardless of performance the simple fact is that while still innovative, its application and design is at best, questionable, but mostly just damn frustrating.

For now we can only say that there are very few virtuous reasons to buy the Domino ALC and if you're interested in watercooling, do yourself a favour, spend the money to buy a quality kit or buy the known performer that is the ThermalRight Ultra Extreme instead.
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