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Addressing Compromises In Design

Before I majored in English in college, I was a mechanical engineering student. It used to be my dream to become a race car designer and work in Formula One. But once I was in college, I very quickly discovered that I had a fatal flaw: I did not have the drive to overcome my weaknesses in mathematics. Although I believe I had the creativity required to be an effective engineer, I simply didn’t have enough desire to make my dream come true by knuckling down and really working hard on my mathematics.

Despite my short time as an engineering student, I believe I learned enough to know that one of the immutable principles of engineering is that every design’s advantages must be balanced by some kind of penalty. For every gain made in any one area of a design, there is a consequent loss in another area.

All designs are creatures of compromise. This is the primary reason why I'm a little miffed whenever something in a particular product line is declared by consensus as "the best." Reading reviews and evaluations of these products tend to emphasize their quantifiable virtues, yet don't give enough weight to the inevitable compromises that balance out the design.

Take CPU air coolers as an example. PC enthusiasts and overclockers these days parrot Anandtech's current conclusion that the Thermalright Ultra 120 Extreme is THE KING in the realm of air coolers. Anandtech even goes as far as to say that blow-down coolers such as the Thermaltake Big Typhoon, the Enzotech Extreme-X, or Thermalright's own SI-128SE occupy a place "a notch below the top-performing heatpipe towers." Moreover, other PC enthusiast websites such as FrostyTech and MadShrimps place the Ultra 120 Extreme very high on their lists of recommended CPU air coolers, which naturally enhances the Ultra 120 Extreme's reputation even further.

With such glowing endorsements, it's all too easy to justify the purchase of an ultra-expensive product such as the Ultra 120 Extreme. I'll admit that I bought into the hype myself; I used to run my gaming rig (based on a S939 Asus A8N32-SLI Deluxe) with the Ultra 120 Extreme sitting on top of a naked Opteron 170.

The Ultra 120 Extreme performed really well for me, despite my needing to mod how it mounts onto my motherboard. But then I got to analyzing my machine and how it's put together, and I got to thinking: How are my motherboard's PWMICs/VRMs getting any air to cool them off? Just before summer ended, in fact, I had to get my A8N32-SLI Deluxe replaced (Asus took excellent care of me and provided a brand-new replacement board).

That's when it hit me: Very few (none that I can recall easily, actually) of the professional reviews that evaluated the Ultra 120 Extreme addressed the major compromise that a tower-style cooler design has, and that is any HSF that has its fans blowing parallel to the motherboard plane consequently does not cool the components located on the motherboard.

The spectacular performance on the CPU cooling masked the shortcoming of the design, and may have proved fatal to my original motherboard. The excellence of the design in one area made the compromise a little difficult to see; it was as if the brilliance in the CPU cooling performance blinded evaluators and prevented them from seeing that the great performance came at a steep price.

Machines, like organisms, depend on the smooth integration of many parts and components. The best designs don't tip the scales of compromise too heavily in favor of one side, just as the best people tend to be strong in many areas of appraisal. There is a reason a man with many abilities, talents, knowledge and understanding is lauded as a "Renaissance man." Better is the man who knows something about lots of things than the man who knows everything about just one or two things, in my opinion; specialization is not the best way in all things.

In the world of designs, nothing exists in isolation. Compromise is part of the natural order. Statistics that reflect too strong a bias in a certain area, and reviews that don't address a design's inevitable shortcomings, simply do the consumers who fork out their money trying to buy "the best" of something a big disservice.

Sometimes "the best" actually isn't.

That is, if you understand how it works, and therefore see the compromises in its design.


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