Saturday, August 02, 2014

Noctua NF-S12A ULN/FLX Mini-Review

It's not often that I open up my desktop and I enjoy keeping it that way because every time I go in, I end up spending an entire day in there. This was not an exception. The initial idea was to clean out the fans and heatsinks -- it had been a while and the machine was running loud with it being summer. To help the machine run even cooler, I thought I'd install an intake fan, which was where the NF-S12A FLX came into the picture. This was the first time I went in.

The next time came two seeks later after I decided to finally put in another hard drive, properly mount my solid state drive, and replace the exhaust fan in the back. This fan was replaced by a Noctua NF-S12A ULN.

Why Noctua? Because I had money to burn and heard some praise, along with criticism, when researching new fans. I wanted something quiet and while relatively expensive at $20 per fan, they didn't really break the bank. The advertised 6 year warranty and emphasis on silence were also nice. And most importantly, they were available on Amazon which made it easy to order. Local computer stores didn't have any desired alternative options in stock. Some background info: I've had the FLX for about three weeks and the ULN for one week when writing this review.

Noctua NF-S12A ULN and FLX Boxes

Noctua 120mm NF-S12A ULN - ~US$ 20
Noctua 120mm NF-S12A FLX - ~US$ 20

The fans came in cardboard boxes with the fans held in place by plastic trays. Packaging definitely felt high-quality, especially with the door and window allowing one to peek into the box. The plastic tray pulled right out of the box after folding the lid, and the fans were lightly held in the molds. No cutting or much force was necessary to remove any of the parts.

Everything felt fairly high-quality to me. Cables were sleeved and the fans did not feel cheap. And the cables locked into place with each other without issue. Unfortunately, the molex connector pins on the adapter in both the ULN and FLX packages came slightly out of alignment. I had to bend one male pin for each fan back into alignment to get them to fit.

To get an idea of what is going on, it should be known that the case I used was an Antec P183 -- the old one, not the V3, without the motherboard tray cutout and 2.5" drive installation option. The first fan I installed was the NF-S12A FLX in the upper front fan mount location behind the pullout tray of the P183. I initially decided to use the steel screws because I had never used rubber anti-vibration mounts before.

This was a disaster because I didn't realize that the black plastic tab provided in the case was supposed to be removed when mounting a fan directly to the case -- I thought it was a guide to help direct air. Looking online, I read that the plastic tab was supposed to be a fan mount to make it easy to install/remove fans -- not sure if true, didn't try it. What ended up happening was I cracked and stripped some of the plastic around the fan's screw holes because the screws were barely going into the hole. Not wanting to do any more damage, this forced me to use the anti-vibration mounts.

The mounts were initially a pain trying to get all four mounts through the NF-S12A's holes. It was easy to pull the mounts through the fan's holes on one side (left when looking directly at the front of the P183), but not the right (side the motherboard's attached). This was due to the clump of wires coming out of the case's front panel. I didn't want to use tools to avoid damaging anything, but I ended up carefully using needle-nose pliers to pull the rubber mount through the bottom hole on the right. Probably got close to cutting the thing in half.

Noctua NF-S12A ULN Unboxing

Mounting the NF-S12A FLX to the back was much more pleasant. No pliers necessary, just pulled the rubber mounts through the case, then through the fan itself. Much more room this time around.

Unlike the Antec Tri-Cool fans that came with the case, the Noctua fans did not have a switch for adjusting fan speeds. Speed control, instead, could be accomplished using short adapters that plugged into the fans. I ended up using the molex adapter and extension cable for the NF-S12A ULN, and the ultra-low noise adapter and molex adapter with the NF-S12A FLX.

P.S. I hate 4-pin molex adapters. Pins out of alignment, so much force required to attach and remove. Ugh...

Getting used to the presence of an intake fan was difficult at first due to the noise. What's special about the intake fan (NF-S12A FLX) is that it sits a good foot or two closer to my ear, and it has at least one less piece of steel between my ear and the fan. Thinking it over, I think the sound of an exhaust fan in my P183 would need to go through one motherboard, one motherboard tray, and one sound dampened panel before reaching open air. The intake noise would go through a steel grill, a mesh dust filter, and a sound dampened but really porous front door before hitting open air.

Another reason was that I had set started the fan without using a low-noise adapter, so it was running full speed at 1200 rpm (according to the specifications). Going back in, I tried the middle, 900 rpm setting, and it was still too loud for comfort -- it was almost okay though because I had to think a bit about whether I should change it or not. Finally, the ultra low-noise adapter was installed to make it run at 700 rpm. I could live with this. And even better, the sound of the fan helped to mask some of the noise coming from the CPU fan ramping up and down constantly.

The NF-S12A ULN set up as the exhaust did not cause any issue at all at the top speed of 800 rpm (according to the specifications). It was quiet enough that I didn't notice a difference between the Antec Tri-Cool at the lowest setting in there previously.

My SPL meter doesn't go low enough to measure the noise level of these fans at a distance of more than an inch. It shows 60 dB (C-weighting) an inch from the FLX, which is garbage info. And the meter's never been calibrated after purchase. Let me just say that the noise from both fans, as I have them set up at <800 rpm, was not disruptive and very quiet. No weird noises, just a consistent woosh sound from a few feet away.

Noctua NF-S12A ULN Contents

Thermal Performance
Again, I don't have any measurements nor did I do any objective testing. The temperatures in my system after installing both Noctua fans were roughly the same as before when I had just a single Antec Tri-Cool exhaust fan set to the lowest rpm setting -- and tons more dust. Cleaning the dust out probably helped the machine more than putting in the extra fan or switching out the exhaust.

Impressed. Both the Noctua NF-S12A ULN and FLX fans were impressive in terms of packaging, build quality, and performance. Shame about those bent pins on the molex connectors though. The ultimate test will be time. With a 6 year warranty, will they last that long with regular daily use? We shall see. In the mean time, pretty good fans.

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