A Beginners Guide to applying thermal paste
Whether you call it thermal paste, CPU grease, heat sink compound or something else entirely, the only answer is “yes” if your question is whether you need it. Although some may tell you butter, moisturising cream, toothpaste, cheese and even banana can be used as a home-made alternative, there’s simply no credible evidence that anything other than computer-grade thermal paste is what you should be using to protect the brain, heart and soul of every computer – the CPU.
We all know that a CPU requires sophisticated cooling mechanisms to keep those temperatures down, as they can often tip the mercury at well above 100C – enough to trigger catastrophic failure. Modern conductive thermal paste formulations are unrivalled in their ability to get between the CPU’s metallic cold plate and heat sink and bridge the tiny gaps and micro air bubbles to perfect the contact. It’s made of special formulations of zinc oxide, silicone and also more sophisticated synthetic materials that are vastly superior than any substitute in terms of keeping thermal resistance to an impressive minimum.
And if you’re in the business of dealing with CPUs out of the box, you’ll no doubt be in the market for thermal paste. Got any questions? We’ve aggregated and answered your biggest and most pressing ones:
Q: The CPU seems to work fine without thermal paste, so do I really need it?
A: Yes! It’s true that your computer will boot without it, poor heat transfer will quickly result in an overheating CPU, which will slow it down, crash it and ultimately lead to total failure.
Q: But new CPUs come with thermal paste, right?
A: In almost all cases, the answer is a resounding no. Some manufacturers may pre-apply it on the cold plate or package a CPU cooling solution, but it’s best not to assume.
Q: What if the pre-applied thermal paste looks messy?
A: A common complaint with pre-applied thermal paste is that it is badly or overly applied, which risks overflow when fastening it all down. Two different thermal paste types should not be mixed, so make sure to use a clean microfibre cloth and rubbing alcohol to get it all off before reapplying.
Q: What’s the best way to apply it?
A: As is the case throughout the computer world, the ‘best way to do things’ is hotly debated. To summarise the most credible of the theories, don’t use too much thermal paste to prevent spillover and use slow, even pressure when connecting the heat sink and processor. Some say bespoke applicators work well for an even distribution, but always remember the real goal is to stop air from affecting the heat distribution, so you must ensure the application is even, thorough and with no bubbles.
Browse any thorough catalogue of the full thermal paste range, however, and you’ll find impressive product diversity – which is great for meeting every budget and keeping prices competitive. But given that the health and performance of your critical and expensive hardware can depend on something as simple as the right thermal paste choice, it’s not something you can afford to get wrong.
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