Prebuilt computers are a good option for those that don’t have the time to purchase every single component and then learn how to put it all together.
However, if you want to become part of the PC community and if you want to get the best value out of your money, it is always much better to do a build on your own. Forget about prebuilt systems.
Building your first computer is not going to be easy, and it shouldn’t be, but you will learn a lot.
One of the more daunting tasks of this entire process is applying thermal paste to the CPU. It may seem simple, but once you get the processor in front of you, it’s normal to start wondering: How much should thermal paste should I add? Where should I put it? Is it too much? What if it spills? And many other questions.
To help you with this scary task, we’ve made this extensive and informative guide for adding thermal paste to any CPU.
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What Is Thermal Paste?
Before we can get into the details of this topic, it’s probably a good idea to expand on what it is and why CPUs need such a paste at all.
Thermal paste is a compound, a mix of various materials, used to achieve the best possible thermal conductivity. This amazingly thermally conductive compound is then needed to improve the contact between the heatsink (your cooler) and the heat source (your processor).
But why? Why not just attach the cooler to the CPU and start working, gaming, or whatever it is you want to do? Well, that’s because establishing good contact between two very flat surfaces is difficult.
The cold plate (copper plate) on the cooler has imperfections, and so does the IHS (the CPU’s heat spreader). Both surfaces have microscopic cracks, crevices, nooks, and crannies. By filling those holes with thermal paste, these two objects can form a better physical connection, resulting in greater heat dissipation.
However, the thermal paste needs to be applied to the CPU for proper results. To ensure that you get the best results, we’ll explain the best methods to do so.
Why Is Proper Application Important?
You may have seen tons of videos and articles claiming “The BEST ways to apply thermal paste.” But why is finding the best method so important? And, is there really a best method?
Well, it is important because the entire IHS needs to be covered to ensure the best possible thermal performance from the CPU. Not enough thermal paste could potentially throttle the performance of your computer.
Additionally, every processor is different. Specifically, one CPU generation differs from another.
For example, AMD’s Ryzen SKUs take on a so-called “chiplet design”. So, instead of just one CPU die (as we’ve seen in the past), it is split into multiple dies (chiplets). This means that the heat is released from different and multiple locations, making it completely different from how Intel processors dissipate heat.
In fact, even if we compare Ryzen 3000 to Ryzen 5000, we would probably be able to find differences in heat dissipation.
So, since every CPU is built differently, we have to ensure that the thermal paste is spread out evenly across the entire IHS for the best results.
This is probably the most popular method of applying thermal paste to a processor. It is so popular because it is simple and it does the job. At least, most of the time.
As new types of processors and coolers start to appear on the market, more methods are showing up. Some of them being more effective than others.
To use the “Pea Method” all you have to do is squeeze out a drop of thermal compound from the syringe onto the IHS that is the size of a pea. Remember, apply a steady amount of pressure on the syringe, don’t press on it too hard.
And don’t worry. Even if you get some of the paste onto the motherboard, nothing should happen, as most brands today develop electrically non-conductive compounds.
Still, we recommend checking to ensure that it isn’t conductive.
After that, carefully put the cooler parallel with the surface of the processor. While tightening the screws, make sure to do so diagonally. Tighten one screw and then tighten the one diagonally from it, and so on.
This is done to ensure that the pea-size thermal compound drop is spread out evenly.
Now, this is a newer method that started showing up after Ryzen came to the market. As we mentioned previously, Ryzen is rocking that chiplet design, so the heat isn’t as centered as most Intel processors.
The cross method is effective because it considerably improves the chances of spreading the compound evenly. By adding a cross-like shape onto the IHS and tightening down the cooler, the thermal paste will find itself everywhere, surely.
Keep in mind this method can be more wasteful than others, but it may be better to be safe than sorry.
This method is especially good for Threadripper processors as there is a lot more surface area that needs to be covered.
An older alternative that some enthusiasts have been using for years.
The essence of this method is to spread the compound all over the IHS instead of relying on the pressure of the cooler to do so.
The technique for this method is a little bit different as you’ll need an additional tool other than the syringe to do it. That tool is a spatula. Fortunately, many thermal paste products today come with a plastic spatula.
Apply one pea-sized dot of the compound onto the CPU and use the plastic spatula to spread it around. Try not to spill it around the edges of the CPUs because cleaning it up later can be a chore.
When you are ready, add the cooler too, tighten all the screws to spread the paste further, and then you can start your PC.
Cleaning The Thermal Paste
For those coming from an already built PC, we think it is a good idea to explain how to clean the thermal paste off the cooler or the CPU (if you plan on reusing them).
Cleaning off the paste is easy. You just need to have some isopropyl rubbing alcohol available. For the best results, we recommend going for 90%+ alcohol, but you could do the job even with lower than that.
First, grab a piece of dry toilet paper and wipe off most of the excess thermal paste. This step is going to make the cleaning process so much easier. With that done, grab a microfiber cloth and dip it in alcohol.
You can try using a coffee filter if you don’t have such a cloth. These are great because they don’t leave any kind of residue, unlike toilet paper. But, it’s fine to use regular toilet paper if you can’t find anything else.
Once your cloth of choice is dipped in alcohol, slowly start wiping the CPU’s IHS or the cooler’s coldplate. You may have to do several dips in alcohol to get rid of all the thermal paste residue.
Graphite Thermal Pad
Applying thermal paste can be a complicated matter. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. There is an alternative.
The alternative is to use a graphite thermal pad. Currently, the most popular option is Innovation Cooling’s thermal pad.
It completely replaces the need for a thermal compound.
It’s a dry, thin piece of graphite with a mix of other materials that provides solid thermal conductivity and is reusable.
You can find these pads for about $10.
Yes, these pads don’t provide results as well as when using thermal paste, but as you can see, it is still a solid solution.
Additionally, adding a thermal pad between the cooler and a CPU (removing it, too) is considerably easier and simpler. All you have to do is just align the pad with the IHS, make sure it doesn’t move, and then tighten the cooler. No need to look for the right way to apply it or remove it.
There are probably dozens of other methods practiced around the world, but the ones mentioned in this guide have proven to be the most effective, so there’s no reason to experiment with any other solution.
The conclusion is that you can use any method you want. If you do everything correctly, the changes in temperature with different methods won’t be too significant.
However, if you want to play it safe, we recommend using the cross method as it will always spread the paste evenly across the CPU’s IHS.