Of the numerous memorable experiences I had working at the once great Dick Smith Electronics chain (serving a pimp who paid with notes removed from a gold money clip shaped like a dragon being among them) there was one that really stuck with me. I remember a man coming into the store who was looking for spray to freeze components, something which we stocked back then. I’m not sure what started the conversation but I do remember at one point mentioning that you could use it to cool a CPU in a PC if you were so inclined although you wouldn’t have much time to run your benchmarks with just a single can. As it turns out he was an electronics engineer and me, being halfway through a computer engineering degree at the time, instantly hit it off with him.
Among the cooling talk it came up in conversation that I had just recently built myself a water cooled PC rig, mostly for the street cred I’d get from overclocking the bajeezus out of my AMD CPU. He laughed and remarked on how he no longer bothered to do that any more but he did say that back in his day he used to do the same thing. We then got on to talking about product quality and what he said after that, whilst not changing me immediately, stuck with me:
When I’m trying to figure out if a motherboard is good quality I’ll pick it up and look at the engineering went into it. You can tell if components are laid out logically, if there’s high quality components and heaps of stuff just by having a good look at it.
For someone who had fed himself a steady diet of reviews, forum posts and benchmarks to determine the quality of a product the idea of simply looking at something to determine the value seemed kinda strange, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Over the years that idea grew into something of an obsession and I started to look at all the products I wanted to buy with an engineering eye. From there it’s grown into a passion for well engineered things and should anything cross my path that I can see has had a certain level of engineering prowess put into it I can’t help but feel myself be drawn to it.
The coffee machine pictured above (the Breville BES900 if you’re wondering) is the latest product to tickle my engineering fancy just right. Now I’m sure that sounds a little strange, I mean I’m no coffee geek and traditionally coffee machines are the most technically thrilling pieces of technology, but I was in the market for one and my highly experienced Melbourne friend (I have friends with coffee cred, see) recommended this one. Breville isn’t exactly the name you’d first associate with high tech either so on the surface pretty much everything about this was lining up to be a mundane adventure into the work of kitchen appliances.
I could not have been more wrong.
I can wholeheartedly attribute my current geek lust for this particular appliance to the hands on preview from the people over at CoffeeGeek. Whilst things like the boiler system, temperature controls and all the other bits that go into the coffee making side of it are impressive in its own right there’s a whole bunch of things that just scream good engineering. Overfill the reservoir on the top? No worries it has a drain into the spill tray in the bottom. Got the machine butted up against the wall but want to get to the back? There’s a switch on the bottom that extends wheels out so you can just spin it without having to lift the whole thing up. I really could go on but the guys at CoffeeGeek did a much better job than I could showcasing just how much solid engineering went into it.
And it’s pretty much for that fact only that it’s my current obsession. I don’t drink a whole lot of coffee and up until now my $10 special plunger has sufficed but every time I use it I can’t help but think about the beautiful piece of engineering I could be using instead. Soon one of them will find its way into my home (via those credit card points which are useless for pretty much everything except things like this) and I’ll be able to revel in its well engineered beauty in person. Until then I’ll satiate my inner engineering with specifications and pictures of its various bits and pieces, something which I never seem to get tired of.
You’d have to dig far into my past to know that I was something of an extreme overclocker back in the day. I remember getting my little Athlon 1800+, then clocked at a paltry 1.53GHz, up to a whopping 2.1GHz thanks to my custom water cooling rig. The whole case was something of a monster being a full tower steel chassis that contained the entire cooling apparatus that’s major part was a full copper radiator salvaged from the corpse of a Ford Focus. Had I had the cash spare I would’ve gone even further as whilst I reached the limits of water I knew that there were many other possibilities out there, taunting me to try them. I may not have been that aggressive in the years since then but I still have a keen interest in the latest developments of CPU cooling and my latest rig is once again water cooled (albeit with an all in one solution).
It’s somewhat surprising to say then that in the last decade or so since my first forays into this strange, esoteric world of PC cooling there’s been little changes in the way things are done. Air coolers have stayed mostly the same with their high surface area fin designs with the only big change being the extensive use of heat pipes in order to facilitate more elaborate heat sink designs. Water cooling, phase change and peltier devices have also all remained largely the same although there has been heavy consumerisation in this space meaning many more people have these kinds of elaborate cooling systems which used to be only for the technical elite.
There was one piece of technology that was rumoured about a while ago that caught my eye however, and that was the Sandia Cooler.
Whilst most cooler manufacturers look to improve their devices by adding additional surface area, using exotic designs to increase air flow and making fans that push more air quieter the Sandia cooler instead seeks to reduce the boundary layer of air, a dead zone where there’s no movement of air thereby reducing efficiency, whilst also moving air past it in a rather novel way. In traditional air coolers air is forced over the heat sink by a fan but in the Sandia Cooler it’s actually drawn through the heat sink as it rotates at approximately 2000RPM. This also has the advantage of keeping the heat sink free from dust but I’ll have to see one running in a dusty PC case for a year before I believe that.
From a technological point of view it’s quite an amazing device as the device uses an air bearing for heat transfer as well as the medium for providing the rotation of the heat sink. This is where much of the skepticism is being leveled at it currently as air is a poor method for heat transfer. Whilst we’re still yet to see any real world performance stats from them the developers of the Sandia Cooler have gone a long way to allay many of those concerns showing that there’s a lot more thought in this than just making a heatsink spin. The proof will still very much be in the pudding with this however but suffice to say I’m excited to see it working outside the lab.
If all their claims are accurate the Sandia Cooler could very well be a game changer, and not just for the PC cooling industry. There’s long been a thermal barrier of about 150W TDP which limits how far we can push processors destined for the desktop. A cooler like the Sandia, one that’s an order of magnitude more efficient and able to be packaged in the same size as current coolers, would enable us to push the thermal barrier much higher allowing even more powerful chips to be packed into the same size. This flows on to the higher end market as well enabling high end PCs and servers to have even more powerful chips again. Further iterations on the device or integration with other novel cooling solutions could see even more benefits realized, further pushing the amount of computing power available in a single chip.
This is all wild speculation on my part but since I found out about it last year they’ve firmly moved out of the “novel piece of technology that’ll never see commercial production” part of my head to the “potentially game changing tech that needs functional verification” part means that I think these guys are serious about their claims. Whether they turn out to be true or not remains to be seen but I’m definitely enthusiastic about what they have to offer and the potential for shake up of the PC industry.