Does CPU thermal paste make a difference? (Explained)

 

Yes, because it allows your CPU to transport more of its waste heat to your cooler, a good thermal paste can have a significant impact on your performance.

Choosing the best thermal paste is particularly vital if you intend to overclock your system to its maximum potential.

Assume your computer has been running exceptionally hot after a few years or you’re creating a custom system and intend to overclock it frequently. In any instance, you should consider replacing your computer’s thermal paste.

Thermal paste, also known as thermal gel or thermal grease, is a form of Thermal Interface Material (TIM), which are compounds that transmit heat from sources (such as CPUs and GPUs) to heat sinks.

Thermal paste, unlike thermal adhesive, does not have bonding capabilities; instead, it is meant to expand and fill the space between the heat source and the heat sink to more effectively siphoning heat from your CPU.

The big question is whether the sort of thermal paste you apply makes a difference. Yes, in a nutshell.

Thermal pastes differ in composition, cooling effectiveness, viscosity, and price, so you’ll need to decide what kind of machine you’re making and how badly you want to save a few degrees.

The good news is that most pastes will suffice for the majority of people, and there are certain perennial favorites if you’re seeking quick replies.

If you’ve taken your machine to a shop and asked them to apply the paste, they’ll have a selection on hand and will pick their favorites but if you’re doing the dirty work yourself (perhaps with the help of online guides if you’re new), there are plenty of options and most of them are tried-and-true standbys that haven’t changed in years.

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Pastes are classified into two types: those that conduct electricity and those that do not. The former often have metal components like Arctic Silver 5(opens in new tab) (which contains microscopic silver pieces) and conduct heat better, but their electrical conductivity might damage components if squirted in the incorrect places.

Ceramic and carbon-based pastes, on the other hand, are not electrically conductive and are therefore safer (and easier) for novices to apply.

They don’t, however, transfer heat as efficiently, so your CPUs will be a few degrees hotter which won’t matter unless you’re running a serious performance machine or operating your computer in a hot climate.

Most thermal pastes are adequate for anyone who isn’t significantly overclocking their computer or keeping it in a climate-controlled environment. Of course, the cost is important, but with costs ranging from roughly $15 for costly liquid metal TIMs to $2 for generic paste, none will break the bank, even if you replace it every year, as some computer builders like. (This depends on who you ask, as most compounds can persist for years before needing to be renewed.)

However, if you ask an enthusiast forum which pastes to buy, they’ll immediately establish ranks around their favorites, as the lineup hasn’t altered much in the last few years.

Arctic Silver 5 has long been a favored metal paste, however, it takes substantially longer to set (up to 200 hours and several thermal cycles).

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Ceramic-based Noctua NT-H1(opens in new tab) and Tuniq TX-4(opens in new tab) pastes are common and economical solutions, while the carbon-based Arctic MX-4(opens in new tab) paste is well-known for its ease of application.

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Another sort of paste that deserves its category is the aforementioned liquid metal complexes. In some studies, some pastes, such as CoolLaboratory Liquid Ultra(opens in new tab) or the newer Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut(opens in new tab), consistently outperform other pastes by a significant margin of eight to ten degrees Celsius, providing customers more room to overclock their PCs.

The caveat, of course, is that their electrically conductive metal composition might severely harm components if accidentally spilled around your machine’s internals.

They also corrode aluminum surfaces, therefore avoid using them with heat sinks made of aluminum. Finally, they are difficult to apply and remove.

Your physical appearance is also important. If your components are significantly closer together, such as on a laptop, it’s probably best to use a non-conductive paste, unless you’re confident in your application skills.

If you haven’t upgraded your stock cooling system (usually a tiny air-cooling fan) to a more powerful arrangement, you might wish to go with a higher-efficiency paste.

If you have a large liquid-cooled heat sink, you won’t need to go through the trouble of applying liquid metal TIM unless you’re going for high performance.

There have been other unusual TIM versions, such as the Indigo Xtreme, which is advertised as a ‘phase transition alloy.’ In other words, it’s not a paste: when placed on the CPU, it melts and distributes uniformly around the chip, essentially generating a coating of metal that supposedly transmits heat better than paste.

However, as this application guide warns, unevenly shaped motherboards and other variables make using the Indigo Xtreme potentially risky.

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Final thought 

If your computer has been running hot and automatically throttles down to cool down, it may be time to replace the thermal paste.

But, before you go shopping, use compressed air to wipe up the inside of your machine, especially near externally-facing vents. This may be sufficient to return your computer’s internal temperatures to normal.

If that isn’t enough, look at how the preceding layer of paste was placed, since improperly applied compound (too much, too little, or air bubbles) might reduce the amount of heat bridging over to your cooling system.

If your machine is still overheating and you want to dive in and apply new paste yourself, don’t worry: there are plenty of manuals to show you how to do it right.

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