Applying thermal paste: The right way

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tookapic (CC0), Pixabay

Whether you’re building a new PC or doing routine maintenance of your existing build, it’s important to consider heat management. It plays a crucial part in your computer’s performance and can be the difference between a streamlined, smooth experience or a choppy, laggy, bottle-necked experienced which nobody wants. Be it high-end setups or budget-friendly; there comes a time when the PC requires some further attention. Gaming and Video editing/processing and other heavy workloads overtime or straight from the get-go, depending on how heavy your tasks are, overheat your CPU. When doing heat management, one of the most important things you have to care for is the thermal paste application. What we aim to do here is to help you figure out how this task is properly done. There are numerous ways to apply thermal paste, each one having its own pros and cons. Here’s how you can correctly and most effectively apply thermal paste to the chip of your processor and graphics card as well:

1 – Prepare the chip: First and foremost, you need to expose the chip. To do so, you’ll have to take the heat sink off and disconnect the fan from the motherboard as well. This is quite straightforward from a processor point of view. For a GPU, however, you’ll need to take the casing and backplate off before you can access the chip and it will require a screwdriver as well.

2 – Clean: Before you can do anything, you need to clean the surface of the chip and the heat sink. It’s best to use a microfiber cloth with isopropyl alcohol to ensure the best cleaning. If you’re doing maintenance on an old chip, you’ll have to wipe away the old thermal paste completely, on both the chip and the heat sink as well. If the residual thermal paste can’t be removed by the cloth, sand it down lightly and carefully with wet fine sandpaper. That should do the trick. Afterward, you can give them both another few swipes to ensure they’re fully clean and the surface is smooth and free of residue.

cpu, processor, computer
IO-Images (CC0), Pixabay

3 – Apply thermal paste: Now, this is where most disagreements occur. Others may argue over which method is the best but personally, looking at things objectively, I have found that it’s best to decide which method to use based on the shape of the chip.

If the chip is circular, I prefer the dot method. After the chip is cleaned and the alcohol has dried off, all you have to do is carefully squeeze out the thermal paste and apply a small amount of dot-shaped paste on the chip. It only has to be a few millimeters in diameter; a commonly used reference is that it should be the size of a grain of rice.

If the chip is square, I prefer the cross method. Similarly, after the chip is clean and dry, you have to squeeze out two lines in a cross on the center of the chip. They should be the same volume as that of a drop. A few millimeters long — or about a third of the processor’s length.

4 – Reconnect and attach the heat sink: Now that the thermal paste is applied, regardless of which method you use, you should be careful of not trying to spread the paste around on the chip yourself. This can create air bubbles in the paste which undermines the whole purpose of the paste in the first place. Now, carefully align the heat sink on top of the chip properly and tighten it into place, follow Intel’s official guide to understand this in-depth. The paste will spread out evenly by itself. You should avoid moving the heat sink to check if the paste is evenly applied because doing so will break the seal and you’ll have to start all over again.

Things to know

So, if applying thermal pastes was such an easy task, why was this so heavily debated among other users and tech geeks? Reason being the primary goal of what this process aims to achieve. The main goal of thermal paste is to apply it in a manner that it spreads out evenly and in doing so does not under any circumstance spill over to the motherboard. If the paste spills over it can severely damage the hardware, it comes into contact with by short-circuiting it. If it does not spread out evenly for the CPU, it will hinder performance. If way too less is applied, it serves little purpose.

The Dot and Cross methods, as explained above, are the most effective in my mind. They have also delivered results to back their preference up. Remember to never attempt to spread the paste by yourself, the dot and cross methods give a much more effective spread as they eliminate any air pockets forming.

So, overall apply less but enough. Make sure the applied thermal paste is not enough to spill over and that it has been applied in the correct manner, so it spreads better and as evenly as possible. You should start seeing temperature drops in the hardware the paste was applied to. The change is not always instant and can take a little bit of time; the change is also not always guaranteed to have a huge effect as well.

The whole process is quite simple to do and doesn’t take much technical skill to complete correctly. You do have to be careful to not apply too much thermal paste as it can overflow and impede performance by spreading to other components. One crucial part of the whole process is choosing which thermal paste to use in the first place. Since there are a few different types of thermal pastes available, it can take a lot of time to choose which one would suit you best. To make this process easier, here is a list of thermal pastes for gaming PCs to get you started with. The best paste for each individual will mainly depend on their budget and what they aim to achieve.

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