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Zalman CNPS10X Flex CPU Cooler Review

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AkG

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Zalman CNPS10X Flex CPU Cooler Review



Manufacturer’s Product Page: Click Here
Part Number: CNPS10X Flex
Price: Click here to compare prices
Tekwiki: Zalman CNPS10X Flex - TechWiki



Fairly recently we took a long hard look at our very first Zalman cooler: the CNPS10X Extreme within the LGA 1366 Cooler Roundup. While it was a very good product with some down right amazing potential, we decried the lack of a real backplate, its less than optimal plastic top retention ring and all round failure to reach its true potential. It seems Zalman not only listened but also agreed with our (and many other’s) complaints. Today we are going to look at a different variant of the CNPS10X CPU cooler family: the CNPS10X Flex.

The CNPS10X Flex (or “Flex” as we are going to call it in this review) is based on the same foundation as the Extreme but does have some very noticeable tweaks, which include a real 1366/1156 backplate. However, the most noticeable tweak is not the backplate but the much more flexible fan mounting options including the possibility of mounting two 120mm fans. This was another factor which did kept the Extreme version from reaching its true potential. Of course, all this tweaking does come at a price; albeit not a monetary one. The price you pay for going with the Flex over the Extreme version of the CNPS10X is the lack of an included fan and the omission of the Extreme’s remote speed controller.

Speaking of monetary investments, the Flex is available throughout North America and compared to the CNPS10X Extreme, goes for a much more reasonable $42 CAD (we recently saw it on sale for as little as $36). Even though we really did like the Extreme’s fan, the ability to run dual fans and do so without breaking the $100 barrier does sound like a reasonable trade off.

To be honest, we are itching to see how good this cooler really is and see if it is as good as it appears to be. While not the most expensive version in the CNPS10X lineup, the Flex certainly looks like the most versatile.



 
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Specifications

Specifications










 
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Packaging & Accessories

Packaging & Accessories



The box which the Flex comes in is a lot smaller than the Extreme’s and to our way of thinking this is not a bad thing as that cooler’s box was down right big. More importantly, this reduced size of the container it resides in does it hint at cost cutting or corner cutting. The simple fact of the matter is this cooler does not come with a fan and thus can easily fit in a smaller box, yet be more than adequately protected.


It seems like Zalman took a different approach to its internal protection scheme when compared to the one found on the CNPS10X Extreme. Unlike that heatsink’s packaging, the CNPS10X Flex uses a plastic two part clamshell packaging scheme. This, combined with the extra thick cardboard of the exterior box makes for a great combination which will take down right insane damage before allowing the Flex to be hurt.


The list of accessories which accompanies the Flex, is as expected not only complete also of the highest quality and ranks right up there with the “best of the best” Noctua D14.

To begin with, you get a multipurpose backplate which is used for AMD, 775, 1366 and even 1156 builds along with beautifully constructed metal top brackets and all the bolts necessary for mounting the Flex to your motherboard. More importantly, and unlike the Extreme we reviewed recently, there is absolutely no plastic to be found in the accessory list anywhere. This is certainly a good thing, as we were less than impressed with the Extreme model and a lot of our lack of enthusiasm can be laid at the feet of its ill conceived plastic bracket.

The Flex also comes with an instruction pamphlet, a small tube of TIM, anti vibration strips and four wire brackets (enough to mount two 120x25mm fans). Honestly, the only thing lacking from this accessory list was a fan, and given the price point of this heatsink, this was to be expected. Zalman had to reduce the price somehow and one of the first causalities is almost always the fan.
 
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A Closer Look at the CNPS10X Flex

A Closer Look at the CNPS10X Flex



Moving onto the actual Flex itself, the very first thing we though of when we first laid eyes on it was its close resemblance to the ZeroTherm Nirvana or BTF90 “Butterfly”. To be fair that is overstating things somewhat, but you can see that Zalman has gone for a very similar approach with “wings” on the fin array; albeit it a much more subtle way. The fact of the matter is, this is a very effective way to add surface area to the fin array and help reduce static pressures. In the case of the Flex, the task of relieving static pressure is accomplished by leaving a small gap between where the fan(s) reside and where the bulk of the fin array begins. This creates a small fan sheath to removed the dead zone in front of the fan’s motor hub.

Both sides of this cooler obviously have has had the Extreme’s middle area “bump” removed to allow a second fan to sit properly. Rather than have a bump to accentuate this area (as the CNPS10X Extreme does), Zalman has painted this section of fins a deep, rich black which does give the cooler a very distinctive and handsome appearance.


As previously mentioned, the CNPS10X Flex is a double face cooler designed to wield fans in either a single or dual configuration. However, unlike most dual fan capable CPU cooling solutions out there, the Flex has two separate and distinct faces. This is the first time we have come across a dual fan capable cooler which has differently-designed sides so let’s look at why this was done.

The main face side (if you are running only one fan) has what can best be described as a second set of “wings” or waves which runthe entire length of the fin array. The purposes of these waves are to increases the surface area of the face and break up the air which will reduce the static pressure needed for the air to successfully pass through the fin array. These types of small tweaks are mainly necessary because the Flex has a very dense fin design which needs all the help it can get.

The other side’s face doesn’t have this wave or wing appearance since it has been designed to act as the “pull” side of the equation and the air is supposed to be sucked out of the fin array (and thus static pressure reducing features like multifaceted designs are not necessary). The only potential down side to this unique face structure is that you will have to be more careful in the direction of these faces when installing the Flex. Just remember: the face with the wave on it should be the one with a fan mounted in “push” configuration.


When viewed from a top - down perspective, the distinctive X or butterfly appearance does become even more evident. However, it is obvious that Zalman didn’t take a completely divergent path with the Flex when compared to its “brother”, the CNPS10X Extreme. What we are referring to is the inclusion of a nice, neat and tidy plastic top which hides the ends of heatpipes from view and gives a cooler already well endowed in the looks department that final little bit of sex appeal. However, unlike the CNPS10X Extreme version this unit does not come with an integrated speed fan controller which is a bit of a disappointment but understandable given this product’s price.



While the plastic top cap and the fin array design of the Flex are completely different than the CNPS10X Extreme model, one thing which Zalman did leave alone was the heatpipes and their configuration. Both coolers make use of five 6mm heatpipes in a North/South orientation, with two closer to the center of the fin array and the other three out further. While we really wish this Flex used the larger 8mm pipes that some of the truly big boy’s use, this is tried and true configuration which has worked for Zalman in the past.


As you can see, Zalman once again went with what is easily one of the best solid base designs going while also improving upon the Extreme’s base design. As with the Extreme, the Flex variation of the CNPS10X uses a solid, yet thin base to evenly transfer the heat to the five heatpipes.

On the truly positive side, this simple yet elegantly thin base has been finished to damn near perfection. Needless to say, its way, way above average and is the gold standard by which we measure all other solid base coolers by. To us, this is a sign of a truly experienced manufacturer since it takes experience to know when to fix something and when to leave it alone. After all, when you have attained the pinnacle of manufacturing perfection as Zalman has (in this one area), messing with it means the only place left to go is downhill.
 
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Intel System Installation

Intel System Installation


Before we begin we would just like to say that this version of the CNPS10X exhibits none of the issues we had with the Extreme version.


To begin the installation, you first have to prep the all in one backplate and set it up for the system type you plan to install it on. This is made simple by the fact that one side of this backplate is for AMD systems and the other is for Intel. The Intel side is of course compatible with not only 775 and 1366 but also 1156 systems.

The key to proper backplate setup is to make sure that you stick the bolts up through the curved side of the backplate and not the other way around. As with the Noctua D14 we reviewed recently, these curved lips keep the bolt from spinning in place but Zalman has taken it a step further with the inclusion of end caps which keep the bolts from falling out. Basically, what you have to do is stick a bolt up though the back plate, make sure the bolt is secured between the backplate lips and then apply a rubber end cap over the end to secure the bolt in place. This one-two combination ensures that the bolt is secured in all three dimensions. It really is a well done solution which will hopefully be copied by other manufacturers in the future.


With the backplate fully prepped and ready to go we then turned our attention to the Flex itself. Unlike other coolers we have looked at in the past which either came pre-equipped with retaining brackets, you have to loosen the base of the Flex and slide the proper brackets (Intel or AMD) in between the two parts of the base. This does make for a sturdy if unique way of doing things. Please note that the bottom half (the copper half) of the base plate has been soldered in place and only the top half is removable.

The next step is to secure the Flex onto the motherboard. Luckily, to prevent the backplate falling out of position, Zalman includes some double sided tape to secure it into position.


When it comes to the retaining bolts, we wish Zalman had done things a bit differently. Unlike some of the other “best of the best” coolers, we wished they had included small split washers to secure the bolts to the brackets since having to properly place the bolts and then install them is more hassle than just grabbing a screwdriver and tightening them down. They tend to fall out of place if not exactly lined up.


With all four bolts tightened down as far as they can go the Flex installation was almost complete. All that was left to do was install a fan. Like most coolers on the market, the Flex uses wire retention brackets to secure the fans to the heatsink. Here too is another area Zalman needs to closely examine and institute a tweak or two. Unlike the Noctua D14 or ever Cooler Master Hyper 212+, the Flex uses old-fashioned wire brackets which have no angled areas to stick out and away from the cooler. This means uninstalling a fan is more hassle than it should be.


At this point in the review we would go over the various installation issues we ran into but to be totally honest there really aren’t any worth mentioning when mounting the cooler in a typical orientation with a single fan. The fin array of the Flex starts up nice and high and shouldn’t cause any issues as there was plenty of room between the back of our fan and our ram slots making any and all memory issues moot.

The only issue we can point to that may possibly be a problem is when you run with two fans. With the fan in its lowest possible position it did rest on the top of our motherboard’s VRM heatsink but here once again it is not going to be an issue for most as you can push the fan up higher and away from the heatsink. If the heatsinks around your motherboard’s CPU area are overly tall, you may run into problems but considering not everyone will run dual fans on their Flex, this is a minor issue at best.

 
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AMD System Installation

AMD System Installation



The AMD installation does have an extra step to it, but overall it is very similar to the Intel installation. To begin, you first have to remove the standard AMD backplate and retention ring as the Zalman cooler uses it’s own. The up side to this extra moments work is that the Flex can be installed in the proper East/West orientation and as we have said in the past, the extra hassle is well worth the effort if the pay off is a properly orientated cooler.


With this accomplished you simply have to grab the Zalman backplate install the bolts onto it. With this done, you then have to prep the Flex itself by installing the AMD brackets but once again with the exception of them being slightly different, the process is the exact same one as the Intel installation. Once the Flex and its backplate are set up for AMD rigs, the rest of the installation is literally the same as the Intel one. That’s to say it is downright easy to install this heatsink.


When it comes to potential issues on the AMD motherboards, things are not as rosy as they were with the Intel system mostly due to the proximity of the AM2+ socket to the memory slots. The issues we encountered are certainly not the worst we have ever come across but after such an easy time of things on our Intel 1366 system, maybe our level of expectation was set a smidge to high. In a nut shell, you probably won’t run into any issues with regards to your motherboard heatsinks unless they are very high.

What was disappointing was the fact that we had to move our ram from their “proper” locations and relocate them to the other two memory slots. Adding insult to injury and assuming you are only running two sticks of ram; our Noctua fan still touched the tops of our Mushkin memory even after we pushed it upwards! Admittedly our memory heatsinks aren’t of a standard height but they’re still a long ways away from packing the tallest heatspreaders out there. Honestly though, this is more an issue with AMD’s motherboard layout rather than a problem with Zalman’s cooler.

 
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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology



To ensure that the results from one review to another are not only reproducible but actually pertinent to this review, the Testing Methodology will be the same throughout all reviews used. If something does change we will be sure to make a special note of it and explain why this change was done and more importantly why things had to be changed or altered.

Thermal Paste and Application Methods:



Arctic Cooling MX-2 thermal paste was used for all coolers during these tests unless otherwise noted.

For all non HDT coolers, application of thermal paste was in accordance with the TIM manufacturer’s instructions; and while not necessary, the TIM was allowed to cure for 24 hours under moderate to high loads (with periods of low loads) prior to testing.

For all 3 pipe HDT coolers two lines of TIM is applied to the two center metal posts and for all 4 pipe HDTS three (smaller) lines of TIM are applied to the metal posts. This method has been found to provide significantly better coverage than the more typical methods.

Fans Used:



120mm:



For all CPU Cooling Solutions which do not come with their own fan, a Noctua NF-P12-1300 and a Scythe S-Flex “G” 1900RPM fan will be used if it accepts 120mm fans. With these two fans we are able to simulate different fan speed conditions as indicated below.

Low Speed:



900RPM with a Noctua NF-P12-1300 with ULNA adapter. To be more precise our specific fan runs at 930RPMs. Any stock fan which comes with the ability of being controlled by means other than the motherboard (e.g. remote fan speed controller, potentiometer, rheostat, etc) will be set to this speed during the low speed test and BOTH sets of performance results will be included.

Moderate Speed:



1300RPM Noctua NF-P12-1300 with NO adapters used. To be more precise our specific fan runs at 1326RPMs. Any stock fan which comes with the ability of being controlled by means other than the motherboard (e.g. remote fan speed controller, potentiometer, rheostat, etc) will be set to this speed during the moderate speed test and BOTH sets of performance results will be included.

High Speed:



1900RPM Scythe S-Flex “G”. To be more precise our specific fan runs at 1860RPMs. Any stock fan which comes with the ability of being controlled by means other than the motherboard (e.g. remote fan speed controller, potentiometer, rheostat, etc) will be set to this speed during the High speed test and BOTH sets of performance results will be included.

Dual Fans*:



Dual NF-P12-1300s

*Dual fans only used if the cooler comes with the necessary mounting hardware.


92mm Fan:



If the cooler being tested only accepts 92mm fans, a Noctua NF-B9-1600 will be used.

If the given CPU cooling solution comes with a stock fan we will also include its numbers in the closest of the main tests BUT we will also include our standard fan results in that particular tests.

Fan Notes:



- If a heatsink cannot mount an aftermarket fan, we will be only including the stock fan results. However, if the stock fan speed can be precisely controlled by means other than the motherboard BIOS (an included remote fan speed controller, potentiometer, rheostat, etc), the cooler will be tested at different fan speeds.

- For dual fan results ALL coolers capable of mounting two fans (and come with the necessary hardware) will be tested with two NF-P12s and the Dual Fan graph will contain data for other such dual capable fan coolers.


We feel that the combination of multiple speeds and multiple fans will allow us to give you our readers clear and precise idea of the capabilities of a given unit, in an accurate comparison. It will also help eliminate the occasional “zinger” such as when a manufacturer includes an extremely high-speed fan in order to possibly offset poor heatsink thermal performance.

Environment:



All comparison testing was done on an open bench with a constant ambient temperature of 24°C. If at any time the room temperature increased or decreased by more than 1°C, testing was halted until the temperature constant was re-established.

Testbed:




Unlike our previous methodology which used an open bench setup with a horizontally orientated motherboard, our new open bench is a modified Tech Station with a twist.

It has been modified so that the motherboard is in a more typical vertical orientation as it would be when installed in a case.

This has been done by the simple expedient of drilling out the bumper pads and threading long bolts (typically used for mounting fans to water cooling radiators) up through the top base of the tech station. Then by simply threading the bolts up through the motherboard we can then secure said motherboard to the tech station. Rubber mounts followed by a nut ensures that nothing moves. When the motherboard has been secured we simply tip the tech station on its side and using weights on the lower “legs” to keep it from tipping over we end up with a vertical orientated motherboard which is safe and secure yet still an open, controlled benching environment.

Mounting Orientation:



Only the typical East / West (aka forward / back) orientation will be used.


Temperature Recording:



Recorded temps were as reported via the Real Temp plug-in for the RivaTuner monitor program.

Max and Average load temps are based on 15 minutes of running Prime95 “small fft” and are taken directly from RivaTuner’s built in capabilities.

The maximum temperatures will be the highest recorded temp displayed for any of the cores during the 15 minute test. While RivaTuner will display each core's average temperature it does not easily show the average of ALL the cores. To this end we will be simply taking the average of all the cores adding them together and then dividing by the number of cores.

If during any test temperatures of 90°C or more are displayed in RivaTuner (for any core) for more than 10 consecutive seconds the testing will be halted and that test run will be considered a "fail".

Idle temperatures are the lowest recorded temperature during idle period as recorded by the RealTemp Rivatuner monitoring program.

All CPU throttling technology was disabled in the BIOS; as was all CPU fan speed control. In addition, Turbo Mode was disabled and Hyperthreading was enabled.

All tests are run a minimum of three times and only the best results are represented.

Charts & Graphs:



Due to clutter and confusion we now will only be including the best of the best. We understand that “best” does mean different things to different people, to this end we will only be including the top two Direct Touch Heatpipe coolers and the top two performance orientated coolers, helping round out the charts we will also be including a 5th cooler which we feel is more well rounded with dual fan capabilities. For the time being this will be the TRUE Black. After each published cooler review we will re-evaluate the coolers being included in the charts and based on the value or performance may swap out a cooler for a cooler that was just reviewed.

We will also include the Intel OEM stock cooler results. This way you will not only know how it compares to the Intel stock unit and the best Damn Good Value coolers but also the best of the best Damn Good coolers out there. In grand total there will only be 6 coolers represented in a graph. However, if the review is a “round up” review this limitation will be extended to include all coolers in that review plus the above 6 cooling solutions. We will endeavour to keep the number as low as possible while still giving an accurate picture of the performance of all coolers being reviewed.

Each chart will include the Maximum or “peak” temperature we recorded, the average temperature and the idle temperature.

No passive results will be shown UNLESS manufacturer claims the ability to passively cool a processor. If a manufacturer claims passive capabilities we will include the performance numbers in the charts. The only exception to this is if the review is a “review roundup” and to keep the charts from becoming confusing we may not do so.

Sound Pressure Testing:



To give a more accurate and less of a personal opinion on the noise level of the stock fan which accompanies the heatsink, we have included a new section for sound pressure testing. These tests are done in our open case setup outlined above with the meter positioned 30 inches away from the cooler and mounted on a tripod. To ensure the background noise does not skew the results all tests will start by recording the ambient noise of the room. Only when it meets our standards will the testing commence.

To ensure that no external noise unduly skews the results, the GPU used will be a passively cooled unit and the only active fan will be the one on the cooler while the PSU and HDD are isolated away from the immediate area.

These tests are run late at night when no other people or animals are awake and thus unable to influence the results.

All fans are run at their maximum speed with no voltage or PWM control being used during the sound pressure tests.

The sound pressure meter used is a DT-805 which has been professionally calibrated and NIST certified. We will record the highest levels obtained with said meter and record it as our result. The test will be 15 minutes long and will be run while the fan is running full speed via a Molex connector and the CPU cores are under a full load via Prime 95 Small FFT.


Please note: The Scythe S-Flex G and Noctua NF-P12-1300 (at 1300 and 900rpms) numbers are taken when mounted to a Cooler Master Hyper 212+. We feel that it would be extremely unfair and unrealistic to include noise rating for these after market fans if they were NOT mounted onto a cooler. They are included to help give some sense of proportion to the charts and allow you to more easily compare a stock fan against a known quantity.


Complete Test System:

Processor: Intel i7 920

Motherboard: Gigabyte X58-UD3R

Memory:
6GB Aneon Xtune DDR3-1600

Graphics card:
EVGA 7300GT passive

Hard Drive:
1x WD 320GB single platter

Power Supply: Topower Powerbird 900W


Special thanks to Direct Canada for their support and supplying the i7 920 CPU.

Special thanks to Gigabyte for their support and supplying the i7 motherboard.
 
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High Speed Fan Performance Results

High Speed Fan Performance Results



2.6GHz




To be honest, we were not expecting this cooler to do as well as this at this somewhat low heat level. It has been our experience that the high-end coolers (like the Noctua D14, TRUE, Prolimatech, etc) only really come to life when the heat is cranked way, way up. Heck, this solid base cooler gives H.D.T-based units a real run for their money. If that is not proof of the thin base design concept, then we don’t know what is.


3.42GHz




While it is not beating the Fenrir nor Prolimatech at this heat load and fan speed combination, it IS giving both a real run for their money. Even better is the fact that this relatively light weight single tower cooler is beating the mighty (and heavy) Noctua D14 (albeit a D14 with only one fan, which is an area that cooler is not exactly stellar at). Also of note is the fact, this properly version of the CNPS10X with its well designed mounting setup is paying dividends when compared to the more expensive CNPS10X Extreme! We hope this is a trend which continues through the testing stage.


3.8GHz




Once again the Zalman CNPS10X Flex is really, really competitive against the best of the best. With less than a degree separating this cooler from the other big boys it is obvious Zalman has a real winner on their hands! At least with a high-speed fan attached to it.
 
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Mid-Speed Fan Performance Results

Mid-Speed Fan Performance Results


2.6GHz




While not as impressive as the high speed fan results, these are still very good numbers. It may no longer be in the same league as the best HDT coolers out there, but up against other solid base deigned coolers (even ones weighing a heck of a lot more than the Flex) it does trade blow for blow and even beats the Prolimatech.

3.42GHz




With only a degree and a half separating this Zalman cooler from the Prolimatech, we feel comfortable in saying that the Zalman engineers did get it right with this improved design. We really are starting to like not only its flexibility at low and higher heat loads but the fact that it costs significantly less than the CNPS10X Extreme.


3.8GHz




At high heat loads there is such a thin margin between first and fifth that if you are planning on using a single moderate speed fan, then ANY of these coolers would be a perfect fit. Considering the level of competition in this chart, that makes the above statement all the more impressive and we are not only beginning to love this cooler but really come to respect its abilities. It really is the rare cooler which can perform so amazingly well at such a wide range of speeds and heat loads.
 
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Low Speed Fan Performance Results

Low Speed Fan Performance Results


2.6GHz




It seems that while this cooler does have a lot of flexibility built into its design, low speed fans (with ultra low static pressures) are just not one of its strong points. This is not necessarily a bad thing since if you are looking for a rock bottom noise envelope for your Flex, you can always stick another fan on it and get decent results without increasing the noise all that much. This is one of the things which separates this CNPS10X from the so called CNPS10X “Extreme” since the Flex does come with less fins than its more expensive sibling. However, neither cooler is designed with such low speed (and static pressure) fans in mind.


3.42GHz




While these numbers are not as terrible as the previous ones they are far from being award worthy. Though to be fair and balanced, this is an extremely tough test with a chart that includes only the best of the best. We wouldn’t be too surprised if we were to add 10 more coolers to this chart that the Flex would still only have four or five coolers beating it. Also as expected the CNPS10X Extreme does widen the gap once again due to its slightly larger fin array.


3.8GHz




While the results may not look overly stellar, the Flex still has enough thermal mass to pull off a pass on this test but we have to remember that it really hasn’t been designed with these test parameters in mind.
 
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