Noctua NH-U12S Review

By: Jonathan Kwan
August 30, 2013

Last week, I spent all afternoon playing volleyball with my friends in the gym. When night came, I took the opportunity to play some street hockey outside. While I was in the gym playing volleyball, I had to problems diving for the ball occasionally; landing on hardwood floor will not cause any bodily harm if executed correctly. However, playing street hockey outside is a completely different story. On one occasion, my friend fired a pass from the left down to center to me. Not willing to give up a perfect scoring opportunity, I dived in to try to get a shot on net. Half way through the dive, I realized what a mistake it was. I was not on hardwood floor. Instead, I am heading straight for a rough landing on asphalt. Was it too late? Sure it was. In a feeble attempt to cancel my fall, I scraped my hands and my arms, and managed to introduce two small rips into my brand new Calvin Klein jacket. Oh man. The point is, executing the same move in two different contexts can have vastly different results. Just because something worked before, does not mean it will always work. In the same way, Noctua has been making heatsinks optimized for silence since forever. But just because they have been kicking serious butt in the past, does it mean they will continue to do so in the ever changing PC landscape? Equipped with the ever so common, standard 120mm fan in tower configuration, let's see if the NH-U12S is still the best as it has always been.

Our Noctua NH-U12S review unit came in a large, brown corrugated cardboard box from Noctua's headquarters in Austria. As usual, it was wrapped in lots of blue "RASCOM" tape. After traveling half way around the world, it was transferred to Canada Post using the XpressPost service when it arrived on Canadian soil. As usual, a delivery note was left in my mailbox, and I went to a local postal outlet around one minute drive away to pick it up. Everything arrived in reasonably good condition, and Noctua installed an appropriate amount of packing material inside the shipping box to ensure everything arrives safely. Now the box was pretty darn big, but this is only because they have thrown in a bunch of extra NF-S12A PWM fans that went missing last time for us to play around with. Also in the package was the NF-U14S; the 140mm variant of the heatsink in this review.

Retaining Noctua's fundamental predominantly burgundy color scheme, the NH-U12S' packaging ensures Noctua-ness never goes missing, despite the changes in design. Its updated layout for a modernized look was first seen in the company's NF-P12 PWM packaging since early 2012. While some people may not be big fans -- no pun intended -- of the Noctua color palette, it is hard to argue against its overall clean and distinguished appearance when placed on the shelves at your favorite local retailer. As you can see in our photo above, the packaging is sleek yet practical; at first glance, you are not going to miss the product name, what it is, and a short list of feature highlights.

Before we move on, let's take a look at the specifications of the Noctua NH-U12S, as obtained from the manufacturer's website:

Heatsink Specifications
Socket compatibility: Intel LGA2011 (Square ILM), LGA1156, LGA1155, LGA1150 & AMD AM2, AM2+, AM3, AM3+, FM1, FM2 (backplate required)
Height (without fan): 158 mm
Width (without fan): 125 mm
Depth (without fan): 45 mm
Height (with fan): 158 mm
Width (with fan): 125 mm
Depth (with fan): 71 mm
Weight (without fan): 580 g
Weight (with fan): 755 g
Material: Copper (base and heat-pipes), aluminium (cooling fins), soldered joints & nickel plating
Fan compatibility: 120x120x25
Scope of Delivery:
NF-F12 PWM premium fan
Low-Noise Adaptor (L.N.A.)
NT-H1 high-grade thermal compound
SecuFirm2™ Mounting Kit
Anti-vibration pads and fan-clips for second NF-F12
Noctua Metal Case-Badge
Warranty: 6 Years

Fan specifications:
Model: Noctua NF-F12 PWM
Bearing: SSO2
Max. Rotational Speed (+/- 10%): 1500 RPM
Max. Rotational Speed with L.N.A. (+/- 10%): 1200 RPM
Min. Rotational Speed (PWM): 300 RPM
Max. Airflow: 93,4 m³/h
Max. Airflow with L.N.A.: 74,3 m³/h
Max. Acoustical Noise: 22,4 dB(A)
Max. Acoustical Noise with L.N.A.: 18,6 dB(A)
Input Power: 0,6 W
Voltage Range: 12 V
MTBF: > 150.000 h

Out of the box, you will greeted by three more boxes. All boxes are in raw corrugated cardboard color; tiled next to each other in the same thickness. The two smaller boxes hold the included accessories, while the larger one contains common accessories. Unloading the accessory boxes, and taking out a cardboard spacer will reveal the heatsink itself. The Noctua NH-U12S already has a NF-F12 PWM fan pre-installed. Three individually packaged accessory bags are labeled "Intel", "AMD ", and "Accessories", respectively. The Intel and AMD sets are mounting accessories for their respective platforms -- the SecuFirm2 mounting kits allows the Noctua NH-U12S to work with Intel's LGA1366 and LGA 115x sockets, as well as AMD's AM2, AM2+, AM3, FM1, and FM2 sockets. Accessories tagging along include a low noise adapter, screwdriver, second set of fan clips, fan corner rubber dampeners, and a case badge. The NH-U12S also ships with Noctua's excellent NT-H1 thermal compound, which we had reviewed back in our August 2008 shootout. As always from the company, the included bundle is not just about the heatsink itself -- it is also about the included excellent removable high performance fans and 'stock' thermal paste. Cooling fans such as the NF-F12 PWM aren't exactly cheap when you buy them separately in retail, and one is included in the package.

One manual is included for each socket type for a total of three installation posters, placed in their respective boxes. The instructions are concise and clear. With the accessories very cleanly distinguished for each application as aforementioned, it makes life just that much easier. I just wish more manufacturers will learn from Noctua, haha.

A view from the top three-quarter view of the heatsink. Noctua took elements of what they have done right with its predecessor, and further optimized it on the Noctua NH-U12S. Basically, it takes the form factor of the NH-U12P we have reviewed over five years ago, and included some elements from the NH-D14 into their latest product. As far as engineering and implementation goes, fans can be mounted on using two clips each. Only one fan is included out of the box, but installation accessories are included for the optional second 120mm unit. These wire clips are easy to attach and remove in a uniform fashion. Rubber strips on the heatsink are now superseded by integrated rubber dampeners on the included NF-F12 PWM, used to reduce mechanical noise emissions during operation, as seen in our photo above.

Noctua’s NH-U12S takes a hybrid approach in the heatsink fin leading edges compared to their previous designs. It still retains a low angle V-shaped slope towards the center, sort of like the NH-U12P, but includes bits of zigzag edges first seen in the NH-D14. By doing this, the company attempts to maximize its ability to permit airflow between the fins with minimal resistance and turbulence noise -- all with a negligible decrease in heatsink surface area. There are fifty aluminum plates on the radiator. The spacing is fairly tight. From my calculations, the total surface area of all the cooling fins combined is actually approximately 0.54 square meters, which is expected for a heatsink of this size.

Aesthetically speaking, from this point of view, I believe it could use some enhancement with regards to the finish of the heatpipes -- the end could definitely use a secondary cap over the raw welded finishing seal. It's not a big issue, but it is something I would expect from something at this price range. The Noctua logo and branding is engraved on the top fin horizontally. The NH-U12S is symmetrical, so it should not matter which way you install it.

Noctua specifies the NH-U12S at 580g with no fans installed. With the stock fan attached, it will tip the scale at 755g. This is really lightweight, considering it is considerably under a kilogram. A heatsink that is too heavy may stress the motherboard physically. Generally speaking, the material composition of the heatsink is crucial to this property -- we will take a closer look at the construction of the NH-U12S in just a short moment.

As aforementioned, the fans are even easier to dismount from the heatsink itself compared to the NH-D14. While the NH-D14 improved upon its predecessor, the design on Noctua's latest NH-U12S takes it a further step up. It clips on the outer side of the fan, with a two stage clipping ledge for an easy yet secure installation. From the angle denoted by our photo above, we can see that the clips are mounting over a two stage recessed ledge integrated into the heatsink fin design. Plastic clips are no longer needed as well; just attach the wire clips directly to the fan. Because the wire clip retention length is reduced to a balanced level rather than spanning the entire height of the heatsink as we have seen in old Noctua products, attachment stability is not compromised -- but the revised advantage is obvious. It is even easier to remove the fans with tabs in the wire, and the clips can also be removed uniformly. This also allows more flexibility in fan-heatsink location alignment for the user.

Normally, you will not need to replace the otherwise excellent NF-F12 on the Noctua NH-U12S, but it still needs to be removed during installation. The NF-F12 probably will not find a better home elsewhere in your computer, nor will you find a better fan in the market today for this purpose, so I highly recommend you to keep it on your heatsink.

The Noctua NH-U12S is a supremely thin heatsink. Five continuous U-shaped heatpipes lead away from the CPU contact base in two opposing directions for ten effective heatpipes. Those heatpipes then go through the radiator to dissipate the heat into the surrounding environment. Theoretically, the heatpipes are supposed to efficiently lead the heat away from its source due to the low heat of vaporization (Phase change energy) of alcohol. The heatpipes are aligned in an aggressive alternate matter to best distribute the heat in the radiating fins. The Noctua NH-U12S still retains relatively compact dimensions; its height of 158mm with width at 125mm is pretty standard -- but its length is the one that sets it apart from the competition. In standard configuration, with one fan mounted, it comes in at only 71mm depth. Combined with Noctua's excellent NF-F12 PWM fan that are specifically designed for heatsinks with a high amount of static pressure, everything looks great on paper as far as cooling performance and noise levels are concerned. More information on that fan can be found in a separate review published here at APH Networks earlier this year.

There is a clearance room of about 4cm between the heatsink contact base and the bottom of the fin array. While it may not allow very high profile RAM to fit under, the slim depth of the NH-U12S will not extend from your CPU socket area to adjacent RAM slots, which is awesome. The downside to this is you are not going to get much, if any, airflow in the area between the contact base and the first cooling fin generated by the intake fan, since it does not extended into this area.

A shot of the bottom of the Noctua NH-U12S CPU heatsink. The photo above shows the configuration of the heatpipes more clearly in relation to the base leading into the fin array.

Like all Noctua heatsinks we have reviewed in the past, the NH-U12S is a copper/aluminum hybrid heatsink electroplated with nickel. The vital parts such as the base and heatpipes are built using copper for best heat transfer ability with a thermal conductivity of 401 W/mK. The heatsink fins utilize aluminum as its material due to its lightweight properties as juxtaposed to copper -- this is to allow the construction of larger heatsinks without stressing too much on the motherboard due to weight. Aluminum has a thermal conductivity of 237 W/mK which is not as optimal for heat transfer as it retains more thermal energy.

While this is all quite interesting information, visually speaking, the NH-U12S from Noctua has none of the copper color with its copper heatpipes and base. According to the specifications, the Noctua NH-U12S is electroplated with nickel on top of its copper -- which has a thermal conductivity of only 90.9 W/mK. While nickel has a lower thermal conductivity than copper which may limit heat transfer, the electroplated layer is very thin, and should not directly affect performance to a significant degree -- but it is likely related to the corrosion allowance factor. Nickel and nickel-base alloys generally have desirable properties that can withstand corrosive environments and high temperatures -- which are especially beneficial for a heat dissipation device. The contact base in the Noctua NH-U12S has a generally clean and flat finish for optimal performance, as you can see in our photo above.

The reason why nickel has such a property is because of nickel's ductility and toughness all the way up to the melting point of 1455°c, measured at non-standard pressure. Nickel's face-centered cube crystal structure is virtually unaltered all the way up to that temperature. Nickel, like titanium, is highly resistant to corrosion therefore corroded material won't build up on the surface in the long run. It is surely a good sign, because the NH-U12S will be less prone to losing its cooling performance over time, as juxtaposed to a corroded copper surface.

Additionally, all the joints are cleanly soldered at the base, as well as the fact that the heatpipes are soldered to the fins, so that it does not lose contact over time. Lower quality heatsinks offer high initial performance, but degrades over time as contact between metals decreases due to thermal expansion and contraption. Overall, the Noctua NH-U12S appears to be built very solidly. Reliability should also be excellent as I have seen with every Noctua heatsink I have used in the past five or six years, which retains performance very well over time.

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Installation

Installation proves to be very simple. Noctua packaged each set of installation accessories individually for excellent organization; along with the clear and concise setup poster, setup was a breeze. This is not to mention I have used the SecuFirm2 system with the NH-D14 before. As you can see in my photo above, Noctua's mounting system on the Intel platform utilizes a proprietary backplate supplied by Noctua that installs over the stock plate for optimal weight distribution -- the inertia generated by such a large heatsink is really something that needs to be addressed accordingly, otherwise it may simply fall out, or otherwise cause excess stress on the motherboard. To install, simply align the openings on the supplied backplate with the screws of the motherboard's stock backplate, and flip the motherboard around.

Interestingly, Noctua actually revised the SecuFirm2 mounting system on the NH-U12S. In my personal opinion, this is more like SecuFirm2.5. While the way it works has not changed (All the parts are interchangeable with old ones), the backplate is modified with new mechanics, as well as integrated bolts. Functionally, the revised mechanics should not do anything, but the integrated bolts make installation less of a pain in the butt.

Two mounting bars are included for attaching the heatsink to the motherboard. First, put the plastic spacers onto each integrated bolt. The user then has the choice of either aligning the mounting bars according to the final desired orientation of the cooler, as the NH-U12S can be installed either horizontally or vertically. Our photo above shows the alignment of the mounting bars for horizontal installation. Tighten the screw caps over the bolts, and you are good to go.

Fastening the heatsink over the CPU socket proves to be a simple job. Remove the intake fan to gain access to the spring loaded screw located on the NH-U12S heatsink itself. Align the heatsink with the screw threads on the mounting bars, and tighten the screws alternately until they stop. Overall, installation is straightforward, and Noctua's mounting system is very secure as well as distributing weight very well, even though the heatsink is not very large or excessively heavy.

Unlike many tower heatsinks I have used in the past, the NH-U12S did not interfere with any of my adjacent RAM slots, because it is so thin.

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The Tests

Our test configuration is as follows:

CPU: Intel Core i5-2405S
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD3H
RAM: G.Skill Ares F3-1600C8Q-16GAB 4x4GB
Graphics: Integrated
Chassis: Fractal Design Define R4
Power: FSP AURUM CM Gold 650W
Optical Drive: None
Hard Drive: 2x Kingston SSDNow V+200 12GB RAID 1, Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Server 2012

Compared Hardware:
- Noctua NH-U12S (Single NF-F12)
- Noctua NH-U12S (Dual NF-F12)
- Noctua NH-D14 (Single NF-P14)
- Noctua NH-D14 (NF-P14 center, NF-P12 intake)
- Noctua NH-U14S (Single NF-A15)
- Noctua NH-U14S (Dual NF-A15)

All tests were run in our custom built computer to best reflect real life performance. The computer remained in the same location in the same room throughout all tests. The room temperature in our testing lab is around 21c. Stock thermal paste respective to all coolers were used to rate its performance; all pastes were given a proper amount of time for them to fully settle. The fans on all heatsinks were directly connected to the motherboard's 4-pin connector. Computer was turned on and idling for at least one hour for the idling tests. High CPU load results were obtained using the Prime95 in-place large FFTs test with eight worker threads for a minimum of ten minutes or until the temperature is deemed stable.

Our temperatures shown above were obtained using data collected by the CPU's integrated digital thermal sensor for maximum accuracy. After idling the computer for an adequate amount of time as aforementioned, we made sure these idle results can actually be obtained after a full load cycle. From our results graph above, all three coolers posted almost identical results; the biggest difference is one degree Celsius at most by cooling the CPU to about 30 degrees Celsius in this state. An Intel Core i5-2405S does not generate a whole lot of heat in this situation. As such, it does not put a lot of stress on the cooler, nor does it exploit the maximum potential of the system. To see where it all matters, we fired up the Core i7 with four worker threads in Prime95 to see if the coolers live up to its promises. Results are next.

Being the little guy of the group, it is unsurprising the Intel Core i5-2405S CPU equipped with the Noctua NH-U12S resulted in the highest load temperature. This does not mean it performed horribly though. As you can see in our graph above, the NH-U12S stayed within three degrees Celsius consistently compared to its bigger brother, which is very impressive. Keep in mind the NH-U14S has a bigger fan in conjunction with nearly 40% more cooling surface area. Compared to the Noctua NH-D14, the big daddy of all air coolers, it obvious did not keep up -- nor did we expect it to. At the end of the day, the NH-U12S' slim single radiator proves to be a very efficient design, despite its relatively compact size.

While this is very subjective, I am quite a picky person on noise, and the loudest component in my entire system are my noise optimized Noctua fans. On a scale from 0-10 where 0 is silent and 10 is the loudest, I would rate the NH-U12S equipped with a single NF-F12 PWM to be at 4.0/10 acoustically with fan running at full speed. However, when your computer is idling or under nominal loads -- where it is probably going to spend most of the doing -- the PWM fan slowed down is almost inaudible. There is no noticeable turbulence noise associated with this cooler, indicating a well optimized fin array design. Overall, in terms of sound emissions, the Noctua NH-U12S is an unquestionably excellent choice for quiet PC enthusiasts.

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The Noctua NH-U12P was one of the best coolers in the market back in 2008. Featuring a 120mm fan in an efficient tower form factor, what made the NH-U12P outstanding was not necessarily the best cooling performance, lowest amount of noise, or the smallest footprint. What made it outstanding is its optimal balance between all factors. It features cooling performance near the top in every review, lowest amount of acoustical noise without moving a pathetic amount of air, and a size that is reasonable and efficient. Fast forward five years to today, what progress has Noctua made to the same form factor? Oh, man -- what kind of question is that? From improved aerodynamics for further reduced turbulence noise, better fan clips, to the adaptation of the company’s awesome SecuFirm2 mounting system, there is a lot to like about the NH-U12S. Furthermore, its slim form factor is a welcome addition to today’s market of super saturated, big-metal-chunk approach to cooling. Because it is so slim, it will not interfere with adjacent RAM slots. Of course, the biggest problem of the Noctua NH-U12S is not the heatsink itself, nor its competitors. The biggest problem of the Noctua NH-U12S is the NH-U14S. For about $75 at press time, its bigger brother offers better cooling performance for only $5 over the this cooler's $70 tag at press time. Unless you have a very tight case that can only accommodate the NH-U12S, but not the NH-U14S, I highly recommend you to go with the latter. Does this mean the NH-U12S sucks? Absolutely not. It just means the NH-U12S is awesome, but Noctua themselves just has something awesomer.

Noctua provided this product to APH Networks for the purpose of evaluation.

APH Review Focus Summary:
8/10 means Definitely a very good product with drawbacks that aren't likely going to matter to the end user.
-- Final APH Numeric Rating is 8.0/10
Please note that the APH Numeric Rating system is based off our proprietary guidelines in the Review Focus, and should not be compared to other sites.

Putting its bigger brother aside, the Noctua NH-U12S is a cooler that delivers excellent performance in a compact package on its own merit. However, for an extra $5 at press time, the NH-U14S makes a lot more sense.

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