Computers spend large amounts of energy when active, which requires constant heat dissipation. For every demanding task, the computer needs to spend more energy, generating even more heat.
This is especially true for the most powerful components of a PC, specifically the motherboard, graphics card, and CPU (Central Processing Unit). Of these three, the CPU is usually the piece of hardware that generates the most heat inside 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).
Properly transferring heat from the heatsink to the CPU can be difficult, however, as the contact between the two components is rarely ideal. To overcome this problem, something needs to be added to improve the contact. The best solution is to add thermal paste between the IHS (Integrated Heat Spreader) and the cooler’s cold plate.
If you search for thermal paste on Google, you will probably end up with dozens of different solutions. With all of the available options, how can you know which type is best for your computer?
To help you make the right choice, we will 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?
Simply put, thermal paste (aka thermal compound) is a special chemical compound that is exceptionally thermally conductive.
Thermal paste can only perform its task 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 that it is completely electrically insulating. Even if you accidentally miss your CPU and get some of the paste on your motherboard, nothing bad will happen. It is safe and easy to use.
How To Apply Thermal Paste to Your CPU
Applying thermal compound to your cooler or CPU can seem like a daunting task at first. However, it isn’t complicated if you know what you are doing.
The first question is whether your cooler is already installed or if this is the first time you are building the computer.
If the cooler is already installed and you want to reapply thermal paste, then you will probably need to open up your PC case and remove the heatsink. Removing a CPU cooler can get complicated, so we recommend referring to the manual.
Once removed, be sure to clean the old compound from the IHS and the cooler’s cold plate. The easiest way to remove 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 the alcohol and start wiping. The paste should come away after a few swipes.
The paste compound usually comes in a syringe, so applying it should be pretty easy. It is quite thick, so don’t worry about applying too much pressure to the syringe. It won’t spray all over the place, but you should still be careful.
How much you should apply depends on which method you want to use. The most popular way of applying thermal paste is known as the pea method. To do this, you need to add a dot of thermal compound on the CPU itself, which is the size of a green pea. The pressure from the cooler will ensure the paste spreads evenly across the entire IHS.
This is a reliable method, and it guarantees the paste won’t overspill.
Other 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 apply 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 that out of the way, let’s take a look at the most popular brands of thermal paste currently available on the market and determine which one is the best.
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 brands for air coolers, if not the most popular brand. For years, Noctua has consistently delivered high-quality products to the CPU cooling market; this is why they are held in such high regard. Some of their most popular coolers include NH-D15, NH-D15S, NH-U14S, NH-U12S, as well as many others.
Since their products are so consistent, their thermal paste must be good as well, right? That is correct.
Noctua’s NT-H2, as expected, delivers in both longevity and performance. Its operating temperature is between -50 and 110°C, and it can last for up to five years (when applied). You will receive 3.5 grams in the syringe, which equals up to twenty uses. Of course, this depends on the application method you choose and the type of CPU you apply it to.
The NT-H2 is a direct upgrade of the NT-H1 and improves temperatures on all kinds of platforms based on Noctua’s performance comparison chart.
At around $20, it isn’t 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
Another widely popular brand for thermal paste is Thermal Grizzly. Their most current successful product is Kryonaut.
Its operating temperature is between -250°C and 350°C. Your CPU will probably never even approach 350° Celsius, so this might seem unnecessary, but it does illustrate the paste’s level of quality.
Thermal resistance is also quite good at 0.0032 K/W
As this is the 5.55-gram syringe, you will probably get more uses out of Noctua’s NT-H2 when applying on Ryzen or Intel 10th/11th gen processors. We estimate around twenty to twenty-five uses.
The only downside to Kryonaut is there’s no official information regarding its longevity at this point.
This product is usually listed at around $20, and you can get the one gram option for just $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 many 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, the MX-5.
Its operating temperature is similar to Noctua’s NT-H2 but slightly better, ranging between -40°C and 180°C. This particular package contains four grams of thermal paste, which equals approximately twenty uses on LGA1200 processors, the AMD equivalent, or even Intel’s future Alder Lake.
Nevertheless, the biggest advantage of the MX-5 is that it has an eight-year warranty for both storage and usage time.
Once you apply MX-5 to your CPU, you won’t have to do a re-paste for a very long time. Despite its exceptional durability, it is still recommended to do one at least every four to five 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
This is unrelated to the MX-5 product or the Arctic brand. Arctic Silver is professional when it comes to thermal compounds, adhesives, and cleaners. For this part of the list, we will be focusing on Arctic Silver 5.
According to their official website, this compound is made of uniquely shaped silver particles to ensure the best coverage and improve the contact area. With an operating temperature of –50°C to 180°C, it is a great solution for your cooling needs.
Arctic Silver claims their 3.5-gram syringe will be enough for fifteen to twenty-five uses on smaller CPUs and six to ten uses for larger CPUs, such as Threadripper.
This might be the cheapest option out there since you can find the 3.5-gram syringe for less than $10. We highly recommend it.
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 people would argue that Conductonaut should not be considered a thermal paste, but there are plenty of tech enthusiasts who would disagree with them. It may not have the same consistency as the compounds found in the products above, but it serves the same purpose and provides similar results.
The reason why Conductonaut is different is due to the fact it is liquid metal, compared to a thermal compound. Why use liquid metal? Metal is highly thermally conductive, and using liquid metal ensures 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. In theory, liquid metal should provide much better results than even the best thermal compounds on the market. Your CPU’s temperature could conceivably drop by several degrees with it.
Conductonaut comes in a one-gram syringe, which translates to about ten applications.
There are two disadvantages to using liquid metal, however. First, it may not be as durable and long-lasting as other compounds. It is also electrically conductive, so if there is any spillage when tightening the heatsink, you may damage your motherboard or even kill your CPU.
You will need to be extremely 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 five-gram syringe for about $20 on Amazon. This translates to around twenty applications for small processors and about ten applications for processors with a larger IHS.
The official website has no information on operating temperatures or how long it is supposed to last. Despite that, based on the many reviews from customers and professional reviewers, this seems like a great option.
Graphite Thermal Pad
Thermal paste and liquid metal are getting better every year, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at other solutions.
The most promising alternative, currently, 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 its usage time could be much longer than even the Arctic MX-5. It could, in effect, even be a permanent solution as it is reusable. If you plan on changing your CPU or cooler, you can easily reuse it.
There’s no need for an alcohol solution, wiping, cleaning, and then reapplying. You can simply remove it and add it to a different PC.
What’s even more interesting is it’s similar to some of the premium thermal compounds on the market in terms of thermal performance.
The downside is it’s electrically conductive. It is also quite slippery, so you will need to be exceptionally careful when installing the heatsink. You will have to secure the pad so it doesn’t move from its position.
Which Thermal Paste Is Best for You?
With six different brands to choose from and even a graphite thermal pad, how can you establish which solution is best for your computer?
Here’s a quick summary that can help you make an informed decision:
We’re giving our Best Overall Award to the Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut since it is priced reasonably, produces excellent results, and you’ll get a few grams more than the competition.
Best Value goes to the Arctic Silver 5 for the 3.5-gram syringe, seeing as you can find that syringe for as low as $6. Considering you can get up to twenty-five uses from it, it’s definitely the best value.
Whichever you choose, all the products mentioned above are great thermal paste solutions. You can’t go wrong.