Exclusive: Oil Immersion Cooling Goes Mainstream with Hardcore PC's Reactor


Stop. You had us at oil submersed motherboard, CPU and GPUs. You didn’t even have to dunk the SSDs, PSU or create a custom motherboard and bullet resistant tank too to convince us that you’re really hard core, umm, Hardcore.

Of course, if you stare too hard at the tank, you’ll miss all the heavenly glory that the Hardcore PC truly is. From its beautiful aluminum case, to its top port routing and the easy to access hard drives, every centimeter of the machine oozes custom computing. And we can honestly say that after tinkering with the most exotic PCs available on Earth for a decade now. What Hardcore is trying to do is so over the top that no one has ever tried it before on a production machine.

But before Hardcore can ascend to take its place among the top performance PC makers, there are an awful lot of questions to answer. Like can they really make and sell these babies for how much the company claims it can? Does it really work? To find the answer to that read on.

The future today! Switched on, the Reactor looks like a PC snatched from the future and placed on your desktop. Production machines promise to be quiet and as ominous as it looks here.

Fighting the heat

Since the PC was born, we’ve been fighting heat. Conventional PC’s use combination of fan/heat sink, chassis fans and ducts to try to keep the machine from turning into the oven. But as the heat continued to climb, enthusiasts turned to liquid cooling the CPU and GPUs. Others have used a combination of liquid cooling and thermal electric coolers to help move temperatures lower.

Both of these methods face one problem though. Conventional fan/heat sinks can’t move the thermals fast enough and create too much noise and liquid cooling key hot components doesn’t do enough to help the surrounding components. So what if you took all of the hot components, dunked them in a non-conductive oil and sold it?

Slimlines only: Hardcore decided to adopt mobile drives to save space in the machine.

It’s also clearly no window: Up close you can see an occasional shimmer as a thermal layer of oil swirls in the tank but that can be changed by removing a plug that adds more gurgle to people know its full of oil and not just a fancy window.

That’s the concept that started Hardcore a few years ago. In fact, the company has U.S. Patent No. 7,403,392 for “Liquid submersion cooling system.” Submersing the components is far more effective than even the highest volume fans because liquid is a far better conductor of heat than air. With the oil that Hardcore uses, the company figures it’s about 10 times more effective than simple air cooling. Since the liquid envelops the entire videocard and motherboard, it also cools the voltage regulators, chipset, and RAM. A pump circulates the liquid through a custom radiator to keep the temps down. Simple circulation isn’t enough to keep the CPU and GPU cool, so custom blocks are fitted to the CPU and GPU to increase surface area and increase the flow of liquid over the hottest components. The result is a relatively quiet PC for the amount of hardware it packs. Hardcore estimates that the components in the machine should never really run higher than ambient room temperature if all is well. If it works in the real world the way it should in the scientific calculator, the liquid cooling should allow the machine to run at greater clock speeds for longer periods of time than more traditional cooling methods.

Of course, all this is meaningless if the company isn’t real. Which is the hard to believe part of Hardcore. With a custom, aluminum-cast case, aerospace transparent tank, mil-spec RAM and redundant power supplies, you’d expect such a rig to fetch into the low $10K range. Hardcore is spec’ing its lowest configured machine in the $4K. So we’re supposed to believe that a custom PC company just comes out of nowhere with an insane design at a surprisingly moderate prices?

Gobble, gobble: To remove the core of the Reactor, you have to literally pull it out like you would yank a turkey out of a deep fryer.

Yes, sir says Darren Klum, president of Hardcore. The company is real, already has 30 employees and is about to be approved for its second round of financing from investors. When the company turns the switch on the web site, www.hardcorecomputer.com, (please don’t type just www.hardcore.com, it’s not work safe and probably not ActiveX safe either) it expects to start spitting out machines in Rochester, Minn. like Terminator T1000s coming off a Skynet assembly line.

Klum said it’s been more than two years in the making but it’s real. To make sure that Klum wasn’t about to rip off his mask to reveal that he was Ashton Kutcher and that Maximum PC and its readers had just been Punk’d, we did some legwork to verify the background on the company. The U.S. Patent Office does indeed show Klum, CTO Chad Attlesey and CEO Al Berning with a patent for liquid submersion. The Minnesota Secretary of State shows the company was incorporated in January of 2006 and credit checks with both Experian and Dun and Bradstreet check out too. If this is a rouse to create Internet hype for computers that will never be sold (gee have we heard that one before?), it would certainly have to be the most elaborate scam to date.

Drip, dry: You’ll have to wait a few seconds for the oil to drain off of the hardware before you want to touch anything.

The business background though, doesn’t mean the company will be a success, which is one our main concerns. With its heavy reliance on custom parts (which is the nice way to say proprietary) you would have an expensive paper weight if the company went belly up in a year and you needed a new motherboard two years later.

Klum said the $2.4 million funding the company just received plus the additional second round of funding it is about to receive ensures it’ll be around for some time. The city of Rochester also gave the company a low-interest $200,000 loan last year to create local jobs.

“This is not a Delorean,” Klum said in reference to the famed but failed stainless steel, gull-winged cars of the 1980s. “We’re backed by very good funding sources.”

Klum said the idea with the Hardcore is to break the standard mold of computing. He says the company tips its hats to Voodoo, Falcon and Alienware for paving the way, but the Hardcore is designed to take it to a level not seen before. More than any one, Klum said he and the others at Hardcore hold the big OEMs to blame for not pushing the envelope more since they have far larger budgets. Klum said Apple sort of gets it with its designs but he said it’s a closed off world. Although the Hardcore PC uses many non-standard parts, the nForce 790 SLI Ultra chip is no different than elsewhere and the three GTX280 are simply modified with the blocks to fit in the machine. Standard DDR3 modules will also fit but Hardcore worked with a vendor to meet Milspec ratings for the RAM and to hit higher clocks at lower voltage levels.

Hot chip: The super-hot Nvidia nForce 790i SLI Ultra chipset gets its own liquid block to increase flow over it. There’s also need for heat spreaders on the DDR3 RAM since it’s all bathed in oil.

As close as Hardcore is to selling its machine there are still some sticky detail questions to work out. Like how the hell do you ship an oil-filled PC a thousand miles? Because the machines will eventually leak if left on their side for a few hours, shipping filled can’t currently be done so initial boxes will likely be shipped empty with a method for filling them. The company expects to eventually seal the PCs so they will not leak even if tipped over for an extended period but right now they’ll have to go empty. How exactly will the service work? Top tier service contracts will have factory service similar to other companies that require you to ship the PC back. What about upgrades like GPU or even motherboard? Hard core expects to sell graphics cards outfitted for drop-in to the system (prepare to get a little oily) and even user-installed motherboard upgrades for those who would rather not ship it back for service. When the company introduces its dual processor design based on the chassis, it expects customers to be able to have the machines factory upgraded as well.

The end result of all this is a PC that looks like a prop from a movie set 25 years from now but it’s actually a PC that you can have today.

Inside the Reactor's Core

The Reactor’s chassis is a heavy duty aluminum cast as are the handles and the majority of the external panels. There’s easy access to two fan-cooled, 3.5-inch, SATA hot swap bays are located at the rear of the machine. These can be configured as separate drives, RAID 1 or RAID 0. A top panel also contains an easy to access CMOS reset button and the coin-cell battery. No more digging on the board for the battery.

Don’t put your coins here: A CMOS reset button and easy to access coin-cell battery are hidden under a trap door on top.

The panel on the right side of the case opens to reveal a custom radiator and fans that cools off the liquid. This folds out to give you access the notebook PC optical drive and some of the umbilical cables that connect the system together.

Opening the Reactor is not an easy chore. You’ll need a powered driver to unscrew the 20 screws that holds the Reactor’s core in place and a place that you won’t mind a mess in. You don’t need to it in your garage, but even the most careful person is going to need a roll of Brawny-brand towels after you’re done. Like a turkey in a deep fryer, you’ll need to pull the core out a few inches, disconnect several cables and then you can sling the entire core higher up for access to the board.

Almost there: Pulling the core out of the Reactor is similar to pulling an engine block. Just back out the 20 screws, open two chambers, back the core out a few inches, disconnect the cable umbilical cords and remove the core! Just what you’d do after a hard days work for fun.

This may sound like a two person affair, but Hardcore has it fairly well thought out. There’s a step cut into the chassis that allows you to rest the internals on after you’ve pulled it out a few inches. This allows just one person to pull the core, disconnect the wires and then pull it out further.

Proprietary power supply:  Hardcore uses a redundant server-class PSU in the machine. If one dies, the second one kicks in. It does, however, require the same funky server cable that Dell uses in its XPS gaming rigs though.

As you can guess, the board is not something you’ll buy at the Compu-Quik store. This iteration of the Reactor uses a custom board by Tyan. In a first, Hardcore also reached out to Creative Labs to integrate a full X-Fi core as well as a 64MB X-RAM chip on the board. Hardcore said it didn’t just jam it on the board either, it worked with Tyan and Creative to route the wires far away from the power lines in the machine to increase the SNR ratio. Since it’s a full X-Fi part, you’ll get the full EAX5 glory.

Audio ports galore: A full hardware implementation of a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi with added optical SPDIFs are run along one side of the machine.

Primary storage for the machine looks to the future as well. You can boot to either of the 3.5-inch drives in the box but power users will likely use SSDs so Hardcore has three 2.5-inch slots which it outfitted with three Samsung SLC-based SSD drives. These are also submerged and hidden behind a door on the back side of the motherboard. Since mechanical hard drives would not survive in liquid, it’s not recommend that you try to stuff a standard drive in these bays.

Don’t try this with your hard drives: The Reactor uses three Samsung SSD drives mounted behind the motherboard for the primary drives. These are also submersed in oil so we don’t think you should try it with a hard drive as the read heads would likely drown.

It’s like Wifeswap but for your hard drives: Two fan-cooled 3.5-inch bays are easily accessed from the rear of the Reactor. Note the funky server-style power plug that we dinged Dell for so many months ago.

The tank is a custom design which you submerge the motherboard, CPU, GPUs, RAM, redundant power supplies and SSD drives into. Hardcore doesn’t say what exactly the material is except that it’s an “aerospace” material and “bullet proof” (we prefer the term bullet resistant.) The oil is also somewhat of a secret but it is biodegradable and completely non-conductive. Hardcore says you can actually drink it but it obviously doesn’t recommend it. It is truly oily though and getting some on your hand will have you running for the sink and a bottle of Dawn. The oil is re-circulated twice a minute with higher velocity oil shot through the blocks on the CPU, chipset and GPU.

The Reactor in service configuration: Three GTX280 cards are stacked on the left  while redundant power supplies sit on the bottom right of the machine.

With the submerged design, cooling will likely not exceed that of the best liquid cooling designs that focus on the CPU and GPU (the submerged design will keep all parts cool though and that prevents failures.) Hardcore’s next step is to integrate Peltier cooling to the CPU.

Peltier or TEC coolers a good for bring temperatures down but they have long had a problem with condensation and sweating which is dangerous in an air cooled machine. Submerged in oil, though, a TEC would not have any condensation issues. Hardcore is also looking at possibly building external auxiliary coolers.

Putting the Reactor back together is about a 40 minute chore the first time through and while you can do it, even some experts here felt that the Reactor is more of a closed box in the vein of an Apple PowerMac.

Radiation: The Reactor doesn’t have any radiation, but it does have a radiator – one big sucker. All of the oil and all of the thermals in the box are serviced by single large radiator.

Noise killers: One thing we can attest to in the Reactor is its exceptional acoustics. Multi-GPU machines tend to be sound like Saturn V launches. The Reactor isn’t silent, but it’s damned quiet for this much hardware.

Which is likely one of the biggest weaknesses of the entire concept. As we said, custom is a polite way to say proprietary. And one thing we’ve learned over the years is that enthusiasts shun proprietary like vampires shun sunlight.

And yet we can almost see some tossing that conviction aside for the Reactor. It’s not proprietary to keep you only buying from the manufacturer like Packard Bell or Apple once did, but apparently done for “engineering” reasons and frankly, because it’s cool.

Breaker, breaker, good buddy: An integrated, upgradeable 802.11n module and two antennas sit next to the dual-link DVI and HDMI port from the graphics card. The other ports can be upgraded or changed to connect for multi-monitor use.

It’s far from perfect though. We didn’t have final production machines for our hands-on time so it’s hard to ding them for issues. One thing that needs to be fixed are the SATA ports. We broke two SATA ports opening the box even being extremely careful. Hardcore said the issue is a last minute cable change that it’s going to go back to engineering over. While few people actually use their add-in slots for anything anymore, it would be nice to have some way to add and use a PCI-E add-in card. Right now, any add-in card (assuming you hadn’t filled all three PCI-E slots) would be dunked and accessing the connectors on the card wouldn’t be easy to do.

Even more ports galore: The starboard side of the Reactor features five USB 2.0, six-pin FireWire and two Gigabit Ethernet ports.

We’re also a little concerned about the amount of new hardware in play here. A system built around industry standard parts and designs is unlikely to have many surprises as the designs are well known. It’s a little like a Ford Mustang vs. a hand-built super car. The Ford Mustang may not be as exotic but it’s built on standard components shared with many other cars. With almost every single thing on the Reactor seemingly custom designed, there’s just a greater chance of something the engineer didn’t anticipate.

Tri-lateral: Thanks to its submersion technique, Hardcore says it can comfortably stack three overclocked GeForce GTX280 cards as close as possible. The company anticipates that customers would buy future upgrade cards directly from it after they’ve been modified with the heat sink and water block.

Custom designs also means it’ll be slower for Hardcore to have the latest and greatest available. One glaring problem with the two preproduction PCs we ran: where the hell’s Core i7? With Core i7’s launch so imminent, why even bother to make Core 2 Extreme? Hardcore says it does plan to offer the Reactor with a Core i7 but right now, the initial version will be Core 2 only.

Still, our experience with the Hardcore Reactor shows us that there’s plenty of promise. It’s easy to get jaded in this business but Hardcore’s design and what it is attempting to do is something that no true PC enthusiast can ignore nor dismiss easily.

Originally published: 2008-10-20 11:00:00

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