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Maingear F131 is liquid-cooled PC gaming like you’ve never seen

There’s not much you can’t do inside of a modern gaming PC these days. You want to outfit it with more LEDs than a Christmas tree? No problem. Would you like to wrap all the power cords with colored sleeving to give it a neurotic yet oddly attractive look? Sure thing. Even RAM DIMMs have controllable RGB lights in them now, for crying out loud. Like I said, there’s not much you can’t do.

But for all the fancy stylistic choices and seemingly endless cosmetic upgrades you can modify your desktop PC with, there’s one thing I’ve become personally passionate about: water cooling. And yes, water cooling can look pretty badass, too.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

To me, water cooling is such an effective improvement because it doesn’t solely rely on fans and airflow to keep processors and graphics cards cool. Instead, it uses liquid to much more efficiently dissipate heat. Yes, fans are still involved, but introducing water-cooling to a PC is likely to result in quieter overall operation — and it allows for easier overclocking of CPU and GPUs, too.

Adding water cooling isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. Closed-loop systems have the whole thing prepackaged and ready to go, able to be installed like any other heat sink you might add on top of a CPU. But if you want to go a little fancier (and definitely more expensive), there’s the option to use an open-loop system, which is much more of a DIY project, involving many more components, skill and time.

As open-loop systems have become more popular, boutique gaming PC manufacturers have taken notice and started offering open-loop systems for sale, giving customers the option to have professionals perform the build. If you’re looking to do a closed-loop system, I still say try out the installation yourself, but for an open-loop you may want to consider paying a company to build it.

I’ve seen countless open-loop systems come through our doors, all claiming to do a better job at keeping components cooler than the next machine. And for the most part, they’re all pretty damn good. Almost across the board, they utilize some sort of reservoir and pump system that pushes coolant through tubing, be it rubber or hard acrylic. The liquid cools by making its way across the CPU, and optionally the GPU or GPUs, then back into the reservoir (hence the “loop”).

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The APEX cooling block


Sarah Tew/CNET

This setup has been par for the course for years. And it wasn’t until I met with Maingear at CES 2018 did I see a vendor take a genuinely different approach at open-loop systems. The company’s F131 system really blew me away. Its design, function and the sheer amount of engineering effort behind it is truly an impressive achievement any way you slice it. Not to mention, it’s also a striking work of art.

The F131 offers the APEX integrated cooling system; a fully machined acrylic block created from the ground up by Maingear engineers in collaboration with veteran PC cooling experts, Bitspower. The APEX block takes the place of a conventional reservoir and was created to fit inside a bespoke chassis that Maingear also designed.

All components combined, the F131 presents an engineering marvel that can somehow cram a complex acrylic liquid cooling loop and up to two graphics cards inside, all operating off a mini ATX motherboard. It’s the F131’s smaller-than-you’d-think footprint that perhaps presents the most compelling aspect of the system, as it doesn’t take up nearly as much space as systems with similar specs.

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Close-quarters piping done right


Sarah Tew/CNET

Now, of course, the machine that Maingear sent us to check out spared little expense. It has nearly every upgrade box ticked, from the chrome fittings that connect its acrylic tubes, to an onboard NVMe 512GB SSD, to an Nvidia 1080ti, right down to the automotive paint finish that covers the entire chassis. All in, you’re looking at spending over $6,000 for it. (That converts to about £4,700 or AU$8,300.)

But an entry-level system with the F131 chassis starts at $1,599, and adding APEX cooling brings it to $2,398. Not cheap by any stretch, but much more within reach compared to this $6,000 behemoth.

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A GTX 1080ti getting the liquid-cooling treatment.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Maingear also builds these systems with upgradeability in mind, meaning swapping out graphics cards in one of these rigs isn’t necessarily a logistical nightmare — though it’s best to let Maingear handle the swap personally. To that end, we’d love to see what this puppy could do with one of Nvidia’s rumored 11 series graphics cards on board. 

In the meantime, though, we’re content to keep running PC game benchmarks and new 4K games. And, all the while staring at it for hours on end, getting lost in all its milky liquid-cooled glory.

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