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NZXT Kraken X31 CPU Cooler Review

AkG

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NZXT entered the market in a big way with the X61 and X41, both of which were relatively expensive dual and single bay All In One water cooling units based around the 140mm form factor. While those two products take care of the enthusiast market, the Kraken X31 has slightly more mundane aims: it is supposed to target value-minded buyers who want ease of use and good performance.

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Priced at just $73USD, there’s no denying the X31 is inexpensive and quite adaptable since it uses a single 120mm fan but this is a heavily loaded price point. Within it there are competitors like Corsair’s H60 2.0, Enermax’s new 120S (more on this in an upcoming review) and when it’s on sale, Corsair’s very capable H80i. Several higher end air-based solutions are also present in this area and they may offer better overall performance.

While air cooling is certainly a possibility for budget conscious users, AIO’s like the X31 provide features like built-in fan control abilities and, perhaps most importantly, won’t cause compatibility hassles with other components like taller memory modules. They also look very clean when viewed through the side window of a case.

We should also mention that NZXT has the longest warranty we’ve seen for their All In One water cooling units. At a full six years, buyers will have peace of mind long after their systems are out of date.

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As with the X41 and X61, the new Kraken X31 uses the latest Asetek mounting hardware. This means an upgraded backplate, reinforced spacers and an overall much easier installation process. NZXT’s CAM software can also be downloaded and it gives full control over fan speeds and cooling performance.

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On just a quick glance this new X31 looks a lot like a Kraken X41 that has been accidentally shrunk in the dryer. For the most part that is actually an apt description as the X31 can be accurately seen as a cross between the older X40 and the newer X41, but in a 120mm form factor instead of the 140mm design used by the X4x-series.

The X31’s pump is also shared with the X41 and X61. This is quite significant since it features variable speeds so it can run between 2400RPM and 3600RPM so noise and cooling performance can be finely tuned based on inputs into the CAM software. No other competitor within the sub-$100 price point has this feature so it stands out as a major differentiator for NZXT.

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Usually 120mm single bay AIO radiators come in one of two main flavors: standard thickness like Corsair’s H60 series (25-27mm), and extra thick (38mm+) such as the one found on Corsair’s H80i. Instead NZXT has taken a hybrid approach with a radiator that is 30mm thick which should allow for slightly better cooling performance without drastically increasing installation issues. This certainly is a unique approach and one that may just prove to be an optimal blend of performance versus ease of installation.

The waterblock itself uses Asetek's latest design and is the same one as found on the X41 and features a base that is quite well finished. It uses 90° connectors with swivel barbs which reduce connector pressure and thus increase longevity.


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NZXT added a trio of hard-wired cables extending from the waterblock: a USB internal header, a 3 pin power cable and a double headed 4 pin fan controller wire which allows for up to two fans to be powered and connected to the X31.

Just like the rest of the Kraken line-up, the X31 uses 3/8ths OD tubing that is nearly 16 inches in length. This is much more than most single bay 120mm units come equipped with and will make mounting it in even the largest of tower cases a snap, an ability that not all AIOs can boast.

The single included fan is a standard 120mm, 25mm thick unit with a Hydro Dynamic Bearing design that spins from 800RPMs all the way up to 2000RPMs while being rated for a maximum of 34dBA. With a static pressure envelope of 0.44 - 2.76 mmH20 it should be more than sufficient for moving fresh air through the dense radiator.
 
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AkG

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Kraken Software

Kraken CAM Software Overview


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The first generation Kraken software was quite decent for a first generation application, but it was lacking both refinement and adaptability. The all new CAM software has obviously been designed to address these shortcomings as it is even easier to use while being much, much more intuitive. With that being said, it does take up a significant amount of system resources; about 8-10% of a 4770K's processing power.


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After installing the CAM program the very first thing you need to do is create an online account with NZXT. This will only take mere moments but you will quickly grow frustrated with the password creation portion. At no point will it tell you all the various rules to password creation and instead will only tell you one of these unwritten rules you have broken. In our case we chose a simple password and it was obviously too short. So we made it longer. It then thought for a couple seconds and told us that it would not do as we had to include a number. After including a number, it then failed and told us to include a capital letter. Only then would it create our account. Ugh.


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Once we did actually get into the program what we found it was worth the effort there are some rough spots that NZXT are trying to smooth over. As you can see the screen is broken up into a few main sections. The rightmost area is aptly labeled the 'specs' section and allows shows a simple overview of your system. If the Advanced Mode is pressed a new screen pops up with a much more detailed overview of the system.


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On the right hand side is the Basic section which gives a real-time overview of system information. Below this is the Notifications section which can occasionally give some extremely odd readouts. For example it reported our GPU load had exceeded 98 percent, even though the system was idling the entire time. These minor issues are just that - minor and can be safely ignored as growing pains. Many have also been fixed in the latest versions.

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To extreme right are the graphs and kraken app sections. These two areas are the real meat of this program and are where you can customize both the pump and fan speeds. In earlier revisions both the fan(s) and pump were a touch slow to update with their new speed after a manual configuration, but the latest version's interval between modification and application is much, much shorter. Overall this section is extremely easy to use and quite intuitive.

All these features are impressive but NZXT has also included cloud integration which allows you to control and fine-tune CAM aware devices via your smartphone or tablet. At this time this is limited to iOS devices, but an Android version is coming in Q1 2015 after being listed as being available in November of this year. Unfortunately, on some phones the buttons are a bit too small and the adjustment for fan control extremely finicky. This complaint stems directly from the fact that we were forced to use an iPhone instead of our Nexus 7 tablet, but this is what most Kraken users will be up against as iPads are a tiny portion of the iOS user base. NZXT need to release the Android version and correct this lack of foresight ASAP as it does tarnish an otherwise excellent and innovative feature!
 
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AkG

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Setup and Installation Issues

Setup and Installation Issues




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Much like the X41 and X61 before it the X31 uses Asetek's latest generation mounting hardware. This in conjunction with its smaller form factor makes it the easiest to install solutions in NZXT’s water cooling lineup. It may not seem like such a big difference, but by stepping down from a 140mm to 120mm radiator eliminates nearly all the installation issues the X40/41 series suffers from.

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The reason for such a drastic reduction in problems you will encounter is twofold. First and foremost every modern case has the ability to mount 120mm rear exhaust fan, but not all can accommodate the larger 140mm fans that the rest of the Kraken series relies upon. As an added bonus, many newer cases come with a 140mm rear compatible exhaust fan port so when a smaller X31 is paced in such a large space there will be no worries about the bottom of the radiator interfering with the first PCI-E slot which happened with the X41 in certain smaller cases.

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This combination of ease of installation with fewer potential problems is why the 120mm form factor is a perennial favorite with most buyers. It does however put the X31 up against some very serious competition in the form of Corsair’s Hydro H60 and H55. Due to its new Asetek mounting hardware, compared to both of these models the Kraken X31 is actually easier to install.

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While both the NZXT Kraken X31 and H55 use Asetek as their ODM, Corsair’s unit includes a much older version of the mounting hardware. While some newer Corsair Hydro models (the H75 and H105 for example) utilize setups very similar to the X31’s, the H55 hasn’t been upgraded yet.

This means that instead of having to spend a lot of time fighting with finicky plastic parts the Kraken’s components simply slide together over an improved backplate and top bracket. It’s a world of improvement over what Asetek used to offer.

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Compared to CoolIT based designs like the Corsair Hydro H60 2.0, the Kraken X31 faces stiffer competition, but here too it edges out the rest. This is not to say the Hydro H60 2.0 is hard to install; it is actually very straightforward. Rather, the magnetic top bracket and extra thick tubing simply make it a close race. What tips things in the X31's favor is the length of tubing NZXT includes. With so much extra tubing consumers can actually choose which way to orientate the inlet/outlet tubes in relation to the radiator. It also allows for more 'unconventional' installation possibilities that the H60 lacks. For those oddball cases which only have 80 or 92mm rear exhaust ports but have a 120mm top fan port, the extra-long water tubes allow the X31 to easily fit even in super tower cases.

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More importantly, if you so choose, the extra-long tubing makes mounting this small AIO in the front of a case a breeze. For example in small HTPC mITX enclosure the extra tubing means you can easily route cables around the AIO and need not worry about stress being placed on the tubing.

The only area in which NZXT need to work on is in the conversion from Intel to AMD. Since the X31 comes pre-configured for Intel systems, AMD users will first have to uninstall the Intel hardware, and then convert the unit for AMD. This too is much easier than most similarly sized AIOs as it’s a fairly straightforward procedure; however it is much more complicated than Corsair/CoolIT's magnetic mounting installation. Put simply the X31's conversion will take longer and have a higher hassle factor than the Hydro H60.
 
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AkG

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Stock Fan Performance Results

Stock Fan Performance Results


For our complete testing methodology, please refer to this stand-alone article which goes over fan speeds, system specifications and other items in our extensive testing suite.

In addition, for these results the X31's pump was run at full speed regardless of the fan speed RPMs.

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<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/water_cooling/x31/stock.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/water_cooling/x31/oc_40.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/water_cooling/x31/oc_45.jpg" border="0" alt="" /></div>

At stock speeds, every one of the coolers is able to keep the i7-4770K within acceptable temperatures, even with their fans operating at very low RPMs. However, as the temperature builds at 4GHz, we can see the H55 and H60 2.0 begin falling further afield as their older designs just can't keep up wit hthe concentrated heat of Intel's newest architecture. The X31 meanwhile remains strong and within a few degrees of Corsair's dual fan H80i, actually managing a tie at 2000RPMs.

4.5GHz really separates the men from the boys with the H55 and H60 2.0 being unable to attain stability and even the NZXT X31 requires 1750 to 2000RPMs to attain a semblance of what we would deem acceptable temperatures. Meanwhile, we can also see what some extra cash buys or how a 140mm cooler can affect temperatures as the TD03, H80i and X41 all offer substantially cooler temperatures.
 
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AkG

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Dual Fan Performance & Noise Results

Dual Fan Performance Results


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With a second fan installed the X31 is able to deliver slightly better performance at lower RPMs but really starts to come into its own at 1750RPMs up to its maximum speed of 2000RPMs. It is even able to handily beat Corsair's H80i at higher speeds while the similarly-priced H60 2.0 and H55 remain substantially hotter. This is actually a very good result but we also have to remember that the extra fan does add to this unit's price which brings it in-line with naturally more powerful solutions.


Sound Level Testing


<i>While everyone "hears" noise differently there is one easy way to remove all subjectivness and easily compare different fans: use a sound level meter. This way you can easily compare the various fans noise envelopes without us coloring the results and see what fans fit within your personal comfort level. Of course, we will endeavor to try and explain the various results (which are taken at a 30 inch distance) to help you our readers get an even better understanding of how loud a cooler's stock fan is, but even if you discount our personal opinions, the fact remains numbers don't lie. All fans are tested with both voltage regulation / PWM turned off. 32 decibels was the background noise level and as such anything below this level is considered inaudible. This is why the bottom of the chart stops at 32.</i>

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<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/water_cooling/x31/noise.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
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NZXT packs the X31 with a pretty powerful 120mm fan so it came as no surprise to see that its noise profile was higher than most. Truth be told, the only other AIO that's louder in our charts is the Corsair H80i, and that's equipped with two 120mm fans.

Thankfully this fan does have a very wide operating range and finding a balance between noise and performance that fits your needs and your ears is very straightforward thanks to the integrated fan controller. The easy to use CAM software makes this process extremely easy.
 
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AkG

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Conclusion

Conclusion


The sub-$100 all in one water cooling market is filled with a nearly countless number of basic, poorly performing options which are nothing more than filler products that try to meet the needs of budget-conscious buyers. Because of this, the entry level AIO segment has received a deservedly bad rap among enthusiasts. NZXT’s Kraken X31 doesn’t necessarily blow the competition out of the water but it does change our perception of what a $75 closed loop water cooling system should offer.

One of the main problems with many of the currently available low cost AIOs is they are simply price-reduced first and second generation units that are poorly prepared for the thermal rigors introduced by Intel’s newest architectures. The X31 on the other hand is a thoroughly updated example that borrows many of the design features found on NZXT’s higher end X41 and X61. This gives it capabilities far beyond what’s normally offered in lower price points. Good examples of this are the integrated fan controller that utilizes a well-designed CAM software suite to accurately balance performance / noise output and a variable speed pump.

On the actual cooling performance front, the Kraken X31 offers up surprisingly decent temperatures at stock frequencies and moderate overclocks throughout its fan’s speed range. It handily beats two benchmark coolers in Corsair’s H60 2.0 and H55 and even comes oh so close to matching the numbers put down by the dual fan H80i.

Moving on to 4.5GHz, there is a significant performance drop-off as the 120mm form factor just doesn’t have the raw capacity to keep liquid temperatures within a lower threshold at lower fan speeds. If you are looking for a higher overclock without sacrificing acoustics, a 140mm or dual bay AIO would likely be the best choice. With that being said, using the included fan controller to boost rotational speeds to beyond 1700RPMs resulted in perfectly acceptable thermal characteristics despite our i7-4770K pumping out huge amounts of heat.

The acoustical profile certainly isn’t a strong point of NZXT’s X31. Among the coolers we tested, only the H80i was quieter and that had a pair of fans versus the X31’s single. Again, the integrated fan controller plays a big role in balancing things out but it would have been nice to see a finer balance of noise and static pressure in the fan choice.

While it may not boast the lowest temperatures or acoustics around, the NZXT Kraken X31 offers a phenomenal price / performance ratio, a novice-friendly installation procedure, broad compatibility and loads of features not normally seen on an entry-level AIO. All of these things combine to make it an excellent option for anyone looking to get their feet wet in the water cooling market.

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