PWM fans are used for lots of things now. A PWM fan can be used as a case fan, as a heatsink fan, or as a rad fan. AIO coolers simply expand the playing field for PWM fans. So I have collected twenty-four fans here for review in our 2016 case fan roundup.
The fans will be introduced, first, individually with descriptions and pictures. Next we see their specifications as a group. Then we shall look at their actual performance by comparing them with each other. So let’s get started.
The Arctic F12 PWM is specified as making 0.5 Sone which, in theory, is somewhat over 30 dB. In fact, the fan is quieter than that, much quieter than that. This fan was obtained at retail, and represents an older fan with fluid dynamic bearings. Arctic’s PWM fans currently on offer are ball bearing fans, but they have the same specs as the old fan. One feature unique to Arctic PWM fans is PWM Sharing Technology – now called PST. This allows you to piggy-back on the PWM signal. At the same time, it has a separate RPM line, a 3-pin plug, for telling your motherboard how fast the fan is going.
The Blade Master family of fans by Cooler Master have been around for some years. They have a wavy blade, and they’re pretty quiet. The two specimens in our testing were obtained at retail. Too bad they’re sleeve bearing fans. I won’t trust sleeve bearing fans on a heatsink.
On the other hand, Cooler Master has brought out the Jet Flo fans, in 120 mm and 140 mm. They have a POM bearing, where a combination of oil and plastic lubricate this fan. Given that the POM, which is like Teflon, forms the mainstay of this bearing, it seems safe to use this on your rads. Jet Flo fans come with red, white, blue, or no LEDs. The six examples here were provided by Cooler Master.
Kolink International Corporation is a Taiwanese cooling specialist, one of their brands is called Coolink. Kolink says this about Coolink: “Kolink’s retail brand Coolink stands for an effective conjunction of no-frills performance, excellent quality and attractive pricing.” As of this writing it is unclear that Coolink still exists, but the fans are still for sale at various places.
The SWiF2 120: Coolink produced a fan with a unique impeller. It has a bullet hub and eleven blades. It came with vibration isolators as well, in electric green. The specimen here was bought at retail.
The ML and ML Pro fans have been introduced recently by Corsair. ML stands for “magnetic levitation.” These I would trust on a heatsink or a rad. ML fans come in both 120 mm and 140 mm. ML Pro fans come in black (no LEDs) and with red, blue, and white LEDs. They have rubber inserts in their corners to reduce vibrations. Finally, the corner caps come off; they can be changed. The eight specimens in our tests were provided by Corsair.
All sorts of products from heatsinks to fans are made by Deepcool. Their GF120 fans have special airflow channels. We can only speculate what they might do for unrestricted airflow, but as you will see below these fans are surprisingly good at pushing air through a rad.
The Deepcool UF120 has been around since 2009. It is still for sale. This fan’s claim to fame is its rubber coating which attenuates vibrations. Further, it comes with four silicon vibration isolators. I have used most vibration isolators, and these are the best kind. Other accessories include a PWM-style 12 volt power tap (a so-called Molex adapter) and wires that shunt 12 volts and 5 volts together to get you a 7 volt Molex adapter. Both the GF120 and the UF120 were supplied by Deepcool.
My, how time flies! Enermax released PWM fans with their three-position switches three years ago. We reviewed their fans then. I hauled two of those fans out of their case to compare them with other PWM fans. Although each of these fans has three speeds, we only test them with their switches in the H position, otherwise I’d never get done.
The first PWM fan to test is the Cluster (Advanced). Aside from its batwing blades, what is interesting about this fan is the cylindrical air passage. Also, there is a switch to turn the white LEDs on and off, a nice touch. The second Enermax PWM fan is the T.B. Vegas. You can pick a variety of light shows with this fan. Enermax supplied both fans.
Nidec stands for Nihon Densan Kabushiki-gaisha. This huge company makes lots of electric motors, including the ones you find in fans. It was a sad day for computer enthusiasts when Scythe lost their contract with Nidec, but it paved the way for the PWM Gentle Typhoon. In the US you can purchase the PWM GT with a nominal speed of 1850 RPM. While I don’t have one of the PWM Gentle Typhoons offered for sale in the US, I do have a voltage-controlled GT with a nominal speed of 1850 RPM. Since the specs are the same, it seemed like a reasonable proxy for the commercially available GT. The model number is D1225C12B5AP-15.
The PWM fan we are examining came from Tao Bao in China. The model number is D1225C12B6ZPA44, with a nominal speed of 2150 RPM. The Gentle Typhoon is known for several things. One is the low amount of airflow compared to its high RPM. Another is that the fan is very quiet for the air it moves. It is also known for its high static pressure. We will see how this all turns out.
Noctua is a partnership between Rascom, an Austrian company, and Kolink International, a Taiwanese corporation. Noctua products are legendary, with heatsinks for enthusiasts and industry, and fans with diameters of 40 mm up through 140 mm, also for enthusiasts and industry. In this review we are looking at a number of fans, two with Low Noise Adapters, which bring our total number of fan sets to 26.
The first picture shows you an NF-F12. This fan has relatively high static pressure compared to its nominal output. It should. It was invented to be a radiator fan. But then it entered a new life. It became an industrial fan, the NF-F12 industrialPPC. Noctua tells us:
Conceived for industrial heavy duty applications that require enhanced cooling performance and advanced ingress protection, Noctua’s industrialPPC (Protected Performance Cooling) line comprises ruggedized high-speed versions of the company’s award-winning retail models.
Noctua’s industrialPPC line also use a 3-phase motor. Most motors you see have four poles inside. These have six.
An older fan among the Noctua lineup is the NF-P12 PWM. It was designed to have higher static pressure than the S12 line. It provides a middle ground between the higher static pressure of the NF-F12 and the airflow-focused NF-S12A.
The NF-F12’s, the NF-F12 industrialPPC’s, and the NF-P12 were provided by Noctua.
Originally the house label for Newegg, Rosewill does offer their products for sale in other places these days. They produce a bewildering variety of fans. Not so bewildering are the Hyperborea fans, in 12 cm and 14 cm sizes. These have relatively low speeds, as if the makers were aiming at their being used for case fans, as well as on heatsinks and rads. The two units here were obtained retail.
Sanyo Denki produces a line of fans called San Ace. They are exclusively an industrial fan maker, and do not sell to consumers except through the Premier/Farnell/Newark/Mouser collection of companies. San Ace fans generally come with bare wires, so you have to put on your own terminals. The current collection of fans came from a vendor who had over-ordered for a customer. It was willing to let the odd lot go. Two of that batch are in use. The other six are tested here. The model number is 9S1212P4M011. The S stands for “Silent.” The P is for PWM, while the M stands for Medium speed class.
Among computer enthusiasts, Scythe is a famous name. We have reviewed the Ninja 4 and the Fuma heatsinks here. We have also reviewed the Slip Stream DB fans here. Slip Stream and GlideStream fans focus on airflow, but they can push air through a rad. The Slip Stream PWM was part of a Mugen 2 that was bought retail. The Slip Stream DB fans were provided directly by Scythe. Only the PWM model is tested here.
The GlideStream PWM fan was supplied indirectly by Scythe when they provided the Ninja 4 for testing. The Glidestream has a 3-way switch, but the switch was left in H when the GlideStream was tested.
I cannot find the Spire BlueStar LED PWM fan on their website. But the shape of its blades remind me of many other fans, so it had to get tested with the rest. This fan was obtained retail.
Titan makes many fans, among which is the Kukri, which looks too much like a Gentle Typhoon for it to be an accident. The tested fan was purchased retail.
First the fans were placed in a test stand, where their free air RPM was observed. Then the fans’ noise was assessed. The standard proxy for what you can hear is the Sound Pressure Level (SPL), measured in decibels and given a type A weighting (dBA). A silent room is about 30 dBA.
The ambient noise for the current testing was 30 dBA. To measure noise levels that were softer than that, the sound pressure level was measured 10 cm from each fan. The sound pressure level was adjusted to 1 meter by subtracting 20 dB. The sound pressure meter was a Tenma 72-942. This fan tester has a microphone that is not accurate under 30 dBA. That means an adjusted measurement of 10 – 15 dBA is not accurate; the fan could easily be quieter than that. But this is the limit of all but the most expensive SPL meters.
Next, the airflow was assessed using a standard measure, cubic feet per minute, or CFM. The air entered a sealed 8 x 8 x 8 box (200 mm on a side) where it was allowed to mix. It would leave the box through an exhaust port, where it was measured with the vane head of an Extech AN100 anemometer, which averaged 10 readings per fan setting. In the picture below you can just see the handle of the vane head peeking out from the back of the box.
You may wish to compare the specifications to the results, so I placed the table near the chart. The first column identifies the fan. The second says what kind of bearing it has. The third column tells the current draw in amps. SP means Static Pressure, which is stated in mm H2O.
The next column shows the nominal fan speed in RPM. The next to the last column tells you how much noise the fan makes, the Sound Pressure Level at 1 meter, stated in decibels with an A weighting (dBA) which is reasonably close to what you might hear. And finally, the last column shows the airflow the fan produces, stated in cubic feet per minute, or CFM.
An explanation of the bearing types:
FDB = Fluid Dynamic Bearing, a patented evolution of the sleeve bearing which causes the lubricating fluid to be recirculated within the bearing.
Sleeve bearing = the fan shaft is held in place by a diaphragm. The lubricant is held in place by a plug or the label. See here for a photo essay.
POM bearing = explained in the section. See here for a photo essay.
HDB = Hydro-Dynamic Bearing, a non-patented version of the FDB.
ML = Magnetic Levitation.
Ball = ball bearings.
Twister = a form of magnetically levitated bearing. The first such bearing.
SSO2 = variant of FDB proprietary to Noctua.
SSO = 1st Noctua bearing.
HD = Hydro Dynamic bearing; a non-patented version of the FDB.
Z = Z axis bearing; not explained.
PWM Fan Specifications
Arctic F12 PWM
CM Blade Master
Cooler Master Jet Flo 120
Coolink SwiF2 120P
Corsair ML120 PRO
Enermax Cluster – H
Enermax T.B.Vegas – H
Nidec Gentle Typhoon 1850
Nidec Gentle Typhoon PWM
Noctua NF-F12 PWM
Noctua NF-F12 PWM + LNA
Noctua NF-F12 iPPC-3000
Noctua NF-F12 iPPC-2000
Noctua F12 24V-3000, 12v
Noctua F12 24V-2000, 12v
Noctua NF-P12 PWM
Noctua NF-P12 PWM + LNA
Rosewill Hyperborea 12cm
San Ace “Silent” M – PWM
Scythe Slip Stream PWM
— Slip Stream 120 DB PWM
— GlideStream 120 PWM H
Spire Blue BlueStar LED
Results of Testing 120 mm PWM Fans
All the outputs all turned out to be underestimates, to one degree or another. The SPL varied. In some instances the fan made fewer dBA than specified.
The first chart shows the output of the fans in order of their unobstructed output.
The next chart shows the same results but in order of their CFM through the rad.
Finally, the fans are arrayed by how much noise they made.
Conclusions on 120 mm PWM Fans
There were two clear winners here, the Nidec Gentle Typhoon PWM and the Medium speed San Ace “Silent” PWM fans. It is too bad that these fans are among the hardest to get.
The Deepcool GF120 was a fine runner-up. Notice how much quieter the two winners were than their neighbors. They also pushed a lot more air through the restrictive rad than fans of similar unobstructed output. What made the Deepcool fan a runner-up and not one of the winners was the fact that it was a lot noisier than they were.
The Arctic F12 PWM rates a special mention because it was so quiet and put out a lot of unobstructed air.
Based on your need for silence or cooling, you ought to be able to choose a good 120 mm PWM fan from a collection like this. Comparisons like this one hold for the relative noise or CFM a fan produces. You can’t usually compare the numbers in one review with numbers from another. Only if you find the same fan in separate reviews can you compare the fans in those two reviews.
Last: these readings are approximate. Even when they are building the same model of fan, factories inevitably introduce variations in the fans they make. So having a larger number of the same model of fan to test means that those variations average out. We were lucky to get six to eight specimens each of the Jet Flo, the ML Pro, and the San Ace “Silent” fans. Where we had only sinlges and doubles to test, remember your fan may have a somewhat higher or lower airflow than the ones tested here.
Remembering all of these caveats you should be able to make an intelligent decision on which PWM fans to get. Thanks for reading our case fan roundup. Let us know your favorite PWM fans in the comments below.
ehume (Ed Hume)