Thermalright HR-03 Rev A Review


Table of Contents

1 – Specifications & Compatibility
2 – Package & Accessories
3 – Heatsink Overview
4 – Heatsink Installation
5 – Case Installation

In-Case Performance Testing
6 – Top-Side Mount Testing
7 – Back-Side Mount Testing

8 – Conclusion

It is no secret that the aftermarket cooling sector is the largest of all the computer hardware accessory sectors. This industry is packed with competitors that every year fiercely compete in a number of different segments from processor to memory cooling solutions and plenty in-between. The main players always seem to be getting on base with each new cooler they release but one manufacturer in particular raises ethical questions as to where their performance comes from because they always knock it out of the park with new products. We are speaking of none other than Thermalright,Inc..

Thermalright has been in the game for a long time but unlike an aging starting pitcher, Thermalright shows no signs of slowing down. Cooler after cooler, Thermalright never gets it wrong and always produces a winner that looks as good as it performs. Today is no different when we take a look at the precisely beautiful HR-03 Rev.A GPU cooler.

The one year anniversary of the HR-03 is not very far off now that the leaves are falling and the calendar rolls over into November. It doesn’t seem like that long ago but in November of 2006, the HR-03 made its debut in the Thermalright lab on a 7950GT. We won’t be looking at this twisted heatpipe work of art on a 7950GT but will certainly see what this ‘classic’ GPU cooler can do mounted on an NVIDIA 8600GTS today. Let’s start off with a look at compatibility and the specifications of the Thermalright HR-03 Rev.A.

1 – Specifications & Compatibility:
Specifications for a video card cooler are not that plentiful but one section of information that is of great importance is the compatibility charts. Here is what Thermalright has listed on their web site for the features and physical specifications of the HR-03 Rev.A:
Designed to work fan-less or with a 92mm fan at low RPM for low-noise operation and higher performance
Proprietary through holes on fins for efficient ventilation and proficient cooling
4 innovative designed heat pipes (2 U-shaped and 2 N-shaped heat pipes) for thorough heat distribution across multiple fins
Two ways of mounting the cooler on video card for best space and configuration management
Light weight and easy no-tool installation
Vast compatibility with system cases (ATX & BTX)
SLI/Crossfire friendly for those serious gaming enthusiasts
Cosmetically contoured design for that vanity look
Mid-range video card compatibility added to the list for quiet operation perfect for HTPC environment
Technical Spec
Dimension: L133 x W156 x H38 mm (heatsink only)
Weight:350g (heatsink only)
Click to expand…At 350g without a fan, the HR-03 Rev.A is relatively light but still a fairly solid chunk of aluminum fins and heatpipes that will be added to the video card.

There really isn’t much else to say aside from the fact that the cooler can mount in two orientations, which we will of course see later, and that it is designed to run passive or with an additional 92mm fan. During testing, we will have a look at both passive and active cooling performance in a reasonably well ventilated case, the Antec Nine Hundred. Next up is a quick look at the compatibility charts that Thermalright has presented on their web site.

Looking at the above list, we can see there are plenty of cards that this cooler is compatible with. All we are concerned with in the NVIDIA list is the 8600GTS and it is definitely there so let’s keep moving and take a brief look at the package and accessories that come with the Thermalright HR-03 Rev.A.

2 – Package & Accessories:
The simplistic beauty of the plain brown packages that Thermalright coolers come in are always a welcome sight to any computer enthusiast. Perhaps it is the analytic neurons in our heads firing away providing us with the knowledge of what is inside the package that makes this basic, yet extremely effective, package look so much more exciting than it visually is.

The sharp edged, hard cardboard exterior gives way to a supportive interior that protects the valuable hardware inside. Alongside the styrofoam encrusted heatsink are the accessories contained within the un-assuming white box on the right side of the package. The Tetris-like packing of the interior provides no possibility of movement during transport and ensures the cooler will arrive the way it left the factory which is in perfect shape.

The elaborate accessory package initially indicated a complicated installation but the well laid out instructions quickly alleviate any anxiety as the process is quite simple. Normally we would provide a photo of the instructions but Thermalright has done one better and provided the same instruction sheets on-line. You can grab the PDF of the installation instructions from the Thermalright web site here. The rest of the accessory package provides us with everything we need including a large application tube of Thermalrights thermal paste and a small collection of ram heatsinks for the onboard memory on the graphics card. There are short and tall heatsinks included and the installation section will show why. Now please stand back and enjoy the show as we take a visual tour of the very elegant HR-03 Rev.A GPU heatsink.

3 – Heatsink Overview:
There is no denying the fact that every Thermalright cooler is as much a work of art as it is a work horse. The HR-03 is no different with the nickel plated finish providing a seamless and aesthetically perfect finish throughout the various surfaces of the heatsink.

From this angle, it is immediately apparent that the heatpipes snake their way through the 34 cooling fins and make their way down to the solid base that is finished on both the top and bottom side for two different mounting methods.

Viewing the heatsink from behind at eye level, we get a better idea of just how the heatpipes are formed in relation to the base of the cooler. There is a seam visible on the base that appears to sandwich the heatpipes. The lack of any screws holding the two halves together would indicate a soldered base. This would be extremely beneficial for heat transfer from the base to the heatpipes where it will be dissipated in the maze of cooling fins.

Floating back to looking down on the cooling fins, we see that two of the four heatpipes come straight up the middle while the outer two heatpipes make their way up the cooling fins and then loop back around through the fins. This design has been proven to be a great dissipater of heat and we are expecting solid numbers from the HR-03 when mounted to an NVIDIA 8600GTS.

The base of the HR-03 is finished the same way other Thermalright nickel plated heatsinks are. They are not perfectly smooth and appear to have almost invisible machine lines in them that are not easily caught by a camera. This finish has been proven to provide great mounts on many coolers and there is no doubt it will provide excellent contact on the 8600GTS core. The lack of top side photos are because the cooling fins provide almost no useable angle for the camera so you will have trust that it is finished in the same manner.

The included thermal paste provides an excellent object to show the reflection in the base and it is clear that a reflective surface isn’t the focus of Thermalright on the base. Flat is far more important than reflective and when dealing with the small GPU cores that this cooler will be seeing, flat is important. Due to a lack of a reflective surface, the razor blade method was used for testing flatness and there were no indications of anything but a perfectly flat surface. That will wrap up our visual tour as there really isn’t much else to cover. The installation section is much more important and that is what we will cover next.

4 – Heatsink Installation:
The installation section is quite lengthy and full of photos so the chit-chat will remain at a minimum. We start off with heatsink installation on the memory. Technically it doesn’t even need to be done since the Biostar 8600GTS has no cooling on the memory anyway, but since they come in the package, they shouldn’t go to waste.

Back-Side Mount

The taller aluminum heatsinks come with the same grey thermal adhesive that RAM heatsinks have used for years with varied success and the smaller heatsinks for beneath the heatpipes come with clear 3M thermal tape. The adhesion of both heatsinks seems to be alright but the grey thermal tape doesn’t seem to stick as well as the clear 3M tape does. The main factor in how well the heatsinks stick is how clean the surface you are mounting them on is. Cleaning the BGA (Ball Grid Array) memory ICs meant a relatively solid mount for all the heatsinks but the 3M clear adhesive seemed to stick much better after proper application where as the larger heatsinks just never felt 110% secure.

With the memory in place, the back plate was prepped with the included plastic protection to keep metal on metal contact away from the back-side of the card. At this point, application of the thermal paste was accomplished with a very small drop spread out across the entire surface of the core. The included thermal paste will be used for all testing and the tube provided would offer about 50 applications for a graphics core of this size with the tiny amount required.

We start out mounting the heatsink draped over the back-side of the card as seen here. The back-side is only about half covered leaving the rear bracket exposed for us to see. Getting the heatsink on in this fashion isn’t terribly difficult but does require a bit of patience and some relative dexterity. The key is going slow and making sure you don’t damage the core of the GPU. We can see in the second photo above that the rear memory ICs on the back-side received the last two short heatsinks that were provided and that the cooling fins have plenty of clearance over the hardware back there.

Looking at the topside of the card in this orientation we can see how the hold down bracket provides an extremely secure mount of the base to the GPU core. Once the cooler is in place, securing the base with the included hold down and thumb screws is quite easy giving a very solid mount that instills confident in good contact. The one minor gripe, and by minor we mean hardly worth mentioning, the heatpipes do come into contact with the memory heatsinks at the top. This will have no bearing on performance but they do scrape when mounting the cooler and make the job the very slightest bit tricky.

The last step in installation if you are going to be running with a fan is to mount said fan. The included clips provide an easy method for getting the fan securely mounted to the cooling fins. The clips really do clamp on nice and tight which I think is important because you don’t want to have to worry about a fan shifting around once in your case. The last photo above is about the best angle to see this, but the card did get a bit of a bow to it from tightening down the heatsink. Playing with the mounting pressures had little effect and the card remained slightly curved regardless of what was tried. It isn’t a large bend and shouldn’t pose a problem but the lack of a substantial back plate is likely the reason for this.

Top-Side Mount
The top-side mount is considerably easier and quite straight forward. Slide the back plate screws through holes, set the cooler on the core, while holding the cooler in place, secure with hold-down bracket and thumbscrews. No drama and quite easy…as long as you have small hands or a set of needle nose pliers. The two thumbscrews under the cooling fins took a bit of effort but not enough to complain about.

With the cooler on the top side of the card it looks a lot more menacing and substantial. The two looped heatpipes resemble bore tusks with the tips of the heatpipes extending out of the base almost looking like fangs. To be honest, with some weird lighting and shadows, this heatsink mounted in this fashion could resemble a face without much effort. Landing back on topic, we can see plenty of clearance here from the heatsink to the surface of the video card and if running a fan, the air being pushed through the cooling fins will wash any and all heat off of the surface preventing any type of hot pocket down there.

The back-side is very un-assuming with the simple back plate taking up very little space and hardly protruding at all. In fact, the back plate sits so flush on the video card that the screw heads hardly extend further out than the components on this side of the board. This should facilitate easy mounting in any motherboard regardless of north bridge cooling in place.

As with the back-side mount, the fan easily secures in place and at this point the Biostar 8600GTS is ready for action with its new cooling monster strapped to its main heat source.

Now obviously we haven’t done any testing yet, but it is important to see what kind of contact we get with the HR-03 on the core and from the first photo above, it is apparent that a perfect contact patch is achieved between the core and the base of the Thermalright cooler. After cleaning the base off, in the second photo, we can’t really see any indication of the cooler being mounted. What we can’t see in the photo is the very faintest of faint imprints of an NVIDIA logo in the base and what appear to be a couple pits in the base caused by the mounting hold-down from the back-side mount.

5 – Case Installation:
Before we get to some actual case installation for testing, we’ll take a quick look at a problem when mounting in a motherboard with aftermarket northbridge cooling.

The first photo is with a fan and the second one without. Clearly without a fan there are no clearance issues but with the fan, the HR-03 prevented the video card from being installed due to interference on the Noctua NC-U6 northbridge cooler. Of course, with stock cooling on the Asus P5K3-Dlx motherboard that it was test fitted in, there wouldn’t be a problem. It seemed worth mentioning since so many people run coolers such as the HR-05 or Noctua NC-U6 on the northbridge theses days. Just looking at that last photo up there, this system is only an HR-05 away from being a Thermalright advertisement.

Once inside the case, the bad news continues. With a Thermalright XP-120 mounted on the CPU in the DFI Ultra-D, there is no way to get the 8600GTS mounted in the top slot with the cooler on the back side. There is of course the option of turning the cooler around for a top-side mount as we will see shortly, but this may put a damper on any dual HR-03 SLI action on the socket 939 DFI LanParty boards. They are getting old but the LanParty boards are still in use in a lot of cases.

Because of the clearance issue with the XP-120, we will be running the card in the lower slot for testing the back-side mount. In the first photo we can see that there really isn’t enough room even for an SLI setup so in reality, the top-side mount is the best option in this board. That doesn’t mean we won’t be testing on the back-side but with a large CPU cooler, the back-side mount isn’t really the best route to go. With the 92mm fan mounted, there is still plenty of clearance between the HR-03 and the XP-120 as seen in the second photo.

Flipping the HR-03 over for a top-side mount is the ideal setup for this system. Even with the fan there is plenty of room despite the close proximity of the power supply in the Antec Nine Hundred case and the second photo shows that the bottom PCI slot should be more than useable in this setup. The front 120mm fans of the Nine Hundred should provide good enough airflow for a passive HR-03 setup so the testing section should be quite interesting to see how much benefit is had from the active cooling of the fan.

In-Case Performance Testing
Test Platform:
Motherboard: DFI LanParty Ultra-D
Processor: AMD Opteron 146 @ 2.80GHz
Processor Cooling: Thermalright XP-120 heatsink w/TFD-12025H12C 1800RPM/71CFM
Memory: OCZ Gold XTC 2x512MB PC-3200 @ DDR373 2-2-2-8
Power Supply: Ultra X-Finity 600W SLI
Case: Antec Nine Hundred
Video Card: Biostar 8600GTS 512MB
90mm Fan Mounted to HR-03: No-Name 2300RPM
Hard Drive: 1 x Seagate 7200.9 80GB SATAII 8MB cache
OS: Windows XP SP2 (with recent updates)

Testing Methodology:

For the stock cooling tests, the Biostar 8600GTS 512MBs stock cooler was left to run at the default fan profile reflecting basically how it performs out of the box. The fans in the Antec Nine Hundred case are quite abundant with two 120mm fans at the front, a single 120mm fan at the rear, and the 200mm fan on top. All fans were set to low with the 200mm fan set to medium. This is how the fans are run in this machine for 24/7 use.

The room in which testing was performed is a small room with central air regulating temperature from above evenly dispersing cool air when it kicks in. A digital indoor thermometer was placed in front of the Antec Nine Hundred where it sits on the floor. During the 30 minute tests, the temperature at the intake of the case never varied more than two degrees and remained a relatively constant 23C~25C.

Temperature logging was accomplished through ATITool with the “Spinning Box” running with no other windows open on the desktop. The time interval for logging the temperature was set to ten seconds. If there are any further benchmark specific methodologies, it will be reported in its own section.

6 – Top-Side Mount Testing:
The load tests were performed from a cold boot with the system left to idle for 5 minutes and then ATITools ‘Spinning Box’ was started and ran for 30 minutes. Each setup change would go through the same process from a cold boot. For the average temperature chart, we used only results from after the 5 minute mark of the 30 minute test. This will eliminate the idle temperatures from the actual average of the load temps which we are after. Let’s start off with a look at the top-side mount at the stock clocks of the 8600GTS.

Right out of the gate the Thermalright HR-03 Rev.A grabs our attention. The orange line over the 30 minute load test is incredibly flat and impressively low. The average temperature over 30 minutes of load with a low RPM 92mm fan is just under 13C less than the stock cooler of the Biostar 8600GTS which is a fairly beefy cooler in its own right. The passive results are pretty close to the stock cooler but end up averaging about 1.5C higher over the 30 minute test. Clearly the cooler is up to the task at the stock clocks of the Biostar 8600GTS, let’s now see how it handles a decent overclock of 750MHz on the core.

As it turns out, the 8600GTS doesn’t seem to throw much more heat overclocked almost 75MHz than it does at stock clocks. The temperature results on all three setups are within 2C or less than the stock clock numbers and the differences between them are about the same. The passive HR-03 setup was the only one to increase average temperature more than 1C. Next up are the results from the back-side mount of the HR-03 Rev.A.

7 – Back-Side Mount Testing:
Testing the back-side mount was no different than the front so there is nothing to add to the methodology of the below testing. Let’s get to the lines and numbers.

Again, we see the Thermalright HR-03 Rev.A take complete control in the race but it did run an average of 3C hotter than the top-side mount at stock clocks with the 2300RPM fan. In turn, the passive cooling seems to perform about the same or better. This could be a result of the different mounting position resulting in better airflow for the back-side mount over the cooling fins but because we had to move slots going from the front to the back-side mount, the cooling fins end up in pretty much the same location for both mounts. This may indicate that the HR-03 performs better in a passive role with the back-side mount instead of the front.

In a repeat performance of the top-side mount testing, the overclocked results really don’t show a whole lot of difference from the stock clocks. It appears that a volt mod to the 8600GTS was required in order to really push the HR-03 Rev.A because the stock voltage posed no challenge to the actively cooled Thermalright heatsink.

8 – Conclusion:
It has been a bit of a journey but we have finally come to the end of the road. The HR-03 video card cooler has been on an equally long journey but doesn’t appear to be anywhere near the end of its travels. The HR-03 has survived a full year, through a few variations, in a market place that doesn’t provide the environment for a long life. That alone is impressive, the fact that it still does its job incredibly well on new video cards makes it quite exceptional.

We did run into a few issues with a bit of a difficult mount in the back-side orientation. This combined with the size of the cooler caused a few problems in motherboard setups as we saw but in the end, there was always at least one combination that would provide us with the ability to use the HR-03 Rev.A. So in one sentence you could say the HR-03 Rev.A is limited in its installation, or quite flexible, it just depends on how you wish to look at it.

Overall though, the experience was quite positive with the HR-03 Rev.A and the performance speaks for itself. Great looks, top notch performance, and typical Thermalright quality all go into making the HR-03 a great video card cooler for either passive or quietly active duty, depending on your case air flow.

Clearly a better performer than an already substantial stock cooler
Passive performance was good but an almost silent 92mm fan took that performance from good to great
Rather large compatibility list spanning a number of GPU generations
The cooler is dead sexy and will add bling to any case, especially when paired with other Thermalright coolers
RAM heatsink adhesive on the larger heatsinks left a sense of un-easiness
Mounting in the back-side orientation is a little bit difficult and care needs to be taken not to damage the core
The size of the cooler really is substantial and will limit expansion slot use
Every setup is different and some might cause as many issues as we saw here today but mounting the HR-03 Rev.A will be limited in a lot of setups

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