Computers, while turned on spend large amounts of energy which results in a constant dissipation of heat. For every more demanding task, the computer spends more energy which results in even more heat.
This is especially true for the most powerful components of every PC, specifically the motherboard, graphics card, and CPU (central processing unit). Out of these three, the CPU is probably the piece of hardware that generates most of the heat inside of your PC case.
To prevent CPUs from overheating, we usually add a heatsink (for low-powered or older models) or an active cooler (a heatsink with fans attached to it).
However, properly transferring heat from the heatsink to the CPU can be difficult as the contact between these two is never ideal. To resolve that problem, something needs to be added in-between to improve that contact. The best solution to that problem is to add thermal paste between the IHS (Integrated Heat Spreader) and the cooler’s cold plate.
However, if you search for thermal paste on Google, you’ll probably end up with dozens of different solutions. How can you know which type you need for your computer?
To help you with that, we’ll explain what thermal paste is, how it works, how to apply it, and which type is the best for home use.
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What Is Thermal Paste?
To put it simply, thermal paste (thermal compound) is a carefully created chemical compound that is exceptionally thermally conductive.
The power of thermal paste can be utilized only if it is properly applied. It needs to be added between the heat spreader (cooler) and the heat source (your CPU).
What makes this chemical compound even better for home use is the fact that it is completely electrically insulating. So, even if you completely miss your CPU and slap some of this goop on your motherboard, nothing bad will happen. Easy and safe to use.
How To Apply Thermal Paste To Your CPU?
Applying thermal compound on your cooler (or CPU) might seem like a daunting task at first, but it’s not that complicated if you know what you are doing.
To begin, is your cooler already installed, or is this the first time you are building the computer?
If the cooler is installed and you want to reapply thermal paste then you’ll probably have to open up your PC case and remove the heatsink. Removing a CPU cooler can get complicated which is why we recommend resorting to the manual.
Once removed, make sure to clean the old compound from the IHS and the cooler’s cold plate. The easiest way to clean thermal paste is with high-proof alcohol. If you can, use a microfiber towel, if not, you can use regular toilet paper.
Soak the paper in pure alcohol and start wiping. The paste should come off after a few wipes.
Usually, this compound comes in a syringe, so applying it should be pretty easy. The paste is quite thick so don’t worry about applying too much pressure to the syringe. It won’t spray all over the place, but still, be careful.
How much you should add depends on which method you want to use. The most popular way of applying thermal paste is known as “the pea method”. Basically, you want to add a dot of thermal compound on the CPU itself that is the sea of a green pea. The pressure from the cooler will ensure that the paste will be spread across the entire IHS.
It’s a reliable method and it ensures that the paste doesn’t overspill.
Other more popular alternatives are the “spread” and “the cross method”. Both are pretty self-explanatory. With the former, you add the paste and then spread it around the entire CPU. The latter method requires you to add the compound in a cross shape.
These alternatives are popular because they ensure there are no air pockets between the heat source and the heat spreader.
With this out of the way, let’s have a look at the most popular brands of thermal paste available on the market and which one of them is the best one.
Noctua NT-H2 – 3.5g
Operating temperature: -50°C to +110°C
Number of uses: about 15 on LGA1200-like processors
Usage time: 5 years
No electric conductivity
Easy to clean
Noctua is one of the most popular, if not the most popular brand for air coolers. Noctua has consistently delivered high-quality products to the CPU cooling market for years which is why so many people love them. Some of their most popular coolers include NH-D15, NH-D15S, NH-U14S, NH-U12S, and many other.
Since most of their products are so consistent, their thermal paste offering has to be good right? Right.
Noctua’s NT-H2, as expected, delivers in both longevity and performance. Its operating temperature is between -50 and 110°C while it can last up to 5 years (applied). You’ll get 3.5 grams in the syringe which translates up to 20 uses. Of course, that depends on which applying method you’ll use and the type of CPU you apply it to.
The NT-H2 is a direct upgrade to the NT-H1 which improves temperatures on all kinds of platforms based on Noctua’s performance comparison chart.
At around $20, it’s not a bad offer, but there are cheaper alternatives.
Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut – 5.55g
Operating temperature: -250°C to +350°C
Number of uses: 20-25 on AM4-like processors
Usage Time: not specified
No electric conductivity
A widely popular brand for thermal paste is Thermal Grizzly. Their current most successful product is Kryonaut.
Its operating temperature is between -250°C and +350°C. Your CPU will probably never go near +350 degrees Celsius, so it might not seem like an important piece of information, but it does show the paste’s level of quality.
Thermal resistance is also quite good at: 0.0032 K / W
Since this is the 5.55-gram syringe, you should probably get more uses out of Noctua’s NT-H2 when applying on Ryzen or Intel 10th/11th gen processors. We assume around 20 to 25 uses.
The only downside to Kryonaut is that there is no official information regarding its longevity.
This product is usually listed for around $20 and you can get the 1 gram option for only $6.
Arctic MX-5 – 4g
Operating temperature: -40°C to +180°C
Number of uses: 20 on LGA1200-like processors
Usage time: 8 years
No electric conductivity
Arctic is a popular thermal paste solution for a lot of PC enthusiasts, experts, and tech reviewers. It is extremely effective and inexpensive.
Of course, we’re talking about everyone’s favorite thermal paste solution by Arctic’s, the MX-5.
Its operating temperature is similar to Noctua’s NT-H2, but still better, ranging between -40°C to +180°C. This specific package comes with 4 grams of thermal paste which translates to roughly 20 uses on LGA1200 processors, the AMD equivalent, or even Intel’s future Alder Lake.
However, the biggest advantage of the MX-5 is that it has an 8-year warranty for both storage and usage time.
So, once you apply MX-5 to your CPU, you won’t have to do a re-paste for a very long time. Although it is still recommended to do one at least once in 4 or 5 years even though it is rated durability is 8 years.
Arctic Silver 5 – 3.5g
Operating temperature: -50°C to +180°C
Number of uses: 15 to 25 on AM4-like processors
Usage time: not specified
No electric conductivity
Not related to the MX-5 product or the Arctic brand. Arctic Silver are professionals when it comes to thermal compounds, adhesives, and cleaners. On this list, we’ll specifically be talking about Arctic Silver 5.
Based on their official website, this compound is made out of uniquely shaped silver particles to ensure the best coverage and to improve contact area. With an operating temperature of –50°C to 180°C, it’s a great solution for your cooling needs.
Arctic Silver claim that their 3.5-gram syringe can be enough for 15 to 25 uses on smaller CPUs while 6 to 10 uses for larger CPUs like Threadripper.
This might be the cheapest option out there since you can find the 3.5g syringe for less than $10. Highly recommended.
Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut – 1g
Operating temperature: +10°C to +140°C
Number of uses: 10 on AM4-like processors
Usage time: 2-3 years
Difficult to apply
Many wouldn’t agree that Conductonaut can be considered as thermal paste, but I think most tech enthusiasts would disagree with that opinion. It may not have the same consistency as the compound found in the products above, but its purpose is the same and provides similar results.
The reason why Conductonaut is different is because of the fact that it is liquid metal compared to a thermal compound. Why use liquid metal? Well because metal is extremely thermally conductive and using liquid metal ensures that every single crevice on the cooler’s cold plate and the CPU’s IHS is filled and covered.
Conductonaut’s operating temperature ranges between 10°C and +140°C. Theoretically, liquid metal should provide much better results than even the best thermal compounds on the market. Your CPU could drop several degrees in temperature with it.
Conductonaut comes in a one-gram syringe which translates to about 10 applications.
However, there are two disadvantages to using liquid metal. First, it may not be as durable and long-lasting as other compounds. Second, it is electrically conductive, so if there is spillage while tightening the heatsink, you might damage your motherboard or even kill your CPU.
You will need to be very careful when applying it.
Prolimatech Pk-3 Nano Aluminum – 5g
Operating temperature: not specified
Number of uses: 20 on small IHS processors
Usage time: not specified, probably around 3-4 years
Prolimatech Pk-3 Nano Aluminum is a good alternative with long-term stability and low chances of drying out.
You can find the 5-gram syringe for about $20 on Amazon. This of course translates to around 20 applications for small processors. About 10 applications for processors with a larger IHS.
No operating temperature on the official website or how long it is supposed to last, but based on the many reviews from customers and professional reviewers, this seems like a great option.
Graphite Thermal Pad
Thermal paste or liquid metal are getting better and better every year, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t look at other solutions.
Currently, the most promising alternative is the graphite thermal pad. The benefits of this thermal pad are convenience, reusability, and longevity.
The graphite thermal pad will never dry out which means that its usage time could be much longer even than the Arctic MX-5. In fact, it may even be a permanent solution since it is reusable. If you plan on changing your CPU or cooler, you can easily reuse it.
There’s no need for an alcoholic solution, wiping, cleaning, and then reapplying. Just remove it and add it to a different PC. It’s that simple.
What’s even more interesting is the fact that it is similar in terms of thermal performance to some of the premium thermal compounds on the market.
The downside is that it is electrically conductive. It is also quite slippery, so you’ll need to be very careful when installing the heatsink. Ensure that the pad doesn’t move from its place.
Which Thermal Paste Is Best For You?
With six different brands to choose from and even a graphite thermal pad, how can you which solution is best for your computer?
Well, here’s a quick summary that can help you finalize your decision:
We’re giving out a Best Overall award to the Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut since it’s priced accordingly, provides magnificent results and you’ll get a few grams more from the competition.
Best Value goes towards the Arctic Silver 5 for the 3.5-gram syringe. You can find that syringe for as low as $6. Considering that you can get up to 25 uses with it, it’s definitely the best value.
Either way, all of the above-mentioned products are great thermal paste solutions. You can’t go wrong.