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CPU Coolers: Selection And Installation

How To: Properly Plan And Pick Parts For An Air-Cooled PC, Part 2
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There are a great number of aftermarket CPU coolers available, and many are more capable than the boxed solutions you get with a retail processor from AMD or Intel. Don't make the mistake of assuming that they're all better, or even compatible, though. Before you pick your next heat sink and fan, ask (and then answer) the following questions:

• Does this cooler fit my processor interface?
• Is its specified cooling performance sufficient for my needs?
• Does the cooler’s air flow direction match my case?
• Does the cooler fit my case (and over my memory modules) with regard to its dimensions?
• Can the cooler be turned, if needed?
• Does the cooler come with a back plate for support (if it weighs more than a pound)?
• Does the cooler's specified noise level fit my needs?
• Does the cooler’s price make sense for this PC?
• Are benchmarks for this cooler available?

Once you've answered the important questions, then you can start considering how each potential winner looks.

Suitability And performance Always Trump A Pretty Face!

Typically, picking a cooler depends principally on the constraints of a build budget. It doesn't make sense to buy more heat sink than you need, though it's nice to keep an overclocked processor nice and cool with performance reserves. It doesn't make sense to go overboard, just like it doesn't make sense to pinch pennies and end up with stability issues. Most importantly, your cooler of choice needs to live up to its specs when it's running inside a case, in the real world. A healthy mix of solid engineering and raw airflow usually does the trick, regardless of whether you pick a tower cooler, a downward-facing blower, or some more exotic design.

Without a good fan, the best CPU cooler simply cannot live up to its potential. Some companies deliberately don't bundle their heat sinks with fans, giving the user freedom to pick the right complement. As an example, we found that the Prolimatech Super Mega combined with a PWM-controlled Noiseblocker Multiframe is ideal for running a Core i5-2500K at up to 5 GHz. At 4.5 GHz, the system whispers at a barely-measurable 22 dB(A).

Massive Base Or Exposed Heat Pipes?

This seems to be a question shrouded in marketing. Many high-end coolers (like Prolimatech) have a massive base plate and no flattened heat pipes. Xigmatek's products, however, do. They feature the cryptically-named D.L.H.D.T. (Double Layer with Heat-pipe Direct Touch) technology, and seemingly derive no real advantage from it. We think that other criteria are more important in choosing a cooler.

Seating the Cooler

Using the right amount of pressure is essential. The more-is-better approach doesn't work here because you don't want to warp your motherboard and create an uneven fit. Also, don't test for correct cooler placement by turning it, as doing this may rupture the thin layer of thermal paste. Instead, fasten the screws until you feel resistance, and then take a look at the CPU temperature in the BIOS. If that number is in the safe zone, odds are good that the cooler is properly mounted.

Ease Of Installation Instead of Knotted Fingers

As with any other piece of hardware, it makes sense to do your research before buying. Browse cooler reviews for a model that's easy enough to install if you're worried about the complexity of an enthusiast-oriented product. And don't be afraid to take to the forums for help from our community of power users.

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