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Best Thermal Paste for CPUs 2021: 90 Pastes Tested and Ranked

Best Thermal Paste 2021
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Choosing the best thermal paste may sound simple, but a dizzying array of options can turn this seemingly easy choice into a time-consuming task. Thermal paste is designed to minimize microscopic air gaps and irregularities between the surface of the cooler and the CPU's IHS (integrated heat spreader), the piece of metal which is built into the top of the processor.

Good thermal paste can have a profound impact on your performance, because it will allow your processor to transfer more of its waste heat to your cooler, keeping your processor running cool. Choosing the best thermal paste is also important if you plan on overclocking your rig to its fullest. Even the best CPUs can often hit slightly higher overclocks if they're paired with a good thermal paste. 

Performance enthusiasts often swear by a favorite brand of paste, but new recipes crop up from time to time. We've conducted extensive testing of some of the top thermal pastes on the market, and if you're on the hunt for more exotic pastes that are off the beaten path, we also have plenty of historical data below covering 90 different pastes (and yes, we've even tested toothpaste).

CPU Die and IHS

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Thermal paste can go by many names, such as "thermal compound," "thermal grease," or "TIM" (Thermal Interface Material). Most pastes are comprised of ceramic or metallic materials suspended within a proprietary binder which allows for easy application and spread as well as simple cleanup. 

These thermal pastes can be electrically conductive or non-conductive, depending on their specific formula. Electrically conductive thermal pastes can carry current between two points, meaning that if the paste squeezes out onto other components, it can cause damage to motherboards and CPUs when you switch on the power. A single drop out of place can lead to a dead PC, so extra care is imperative. 

Liquid metal compounds are almost always electrically conductive, so while these compounds provide better performance than their paste counterparts, they require more focus and attention during application. They are very hard to remove if you get some in the wrong place, which would fry your system.

In contrast, traditional thermal paste compounds are relatively simple for every experience level. Most, but not all, traditional pastes are electrically non-conductive. We have a detailed breakdown of the best methods for applying thermal paste here

Here are the best thermal pastes, along with our complete test results. Keep in mind that you don't always get what you pay for as some budget pastes come awfully close to or overtake their more-expensive competitors.

Best Premium (Standard) Thermal Paste

ProlimaTech PK-3 Nano Aluminum  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

1. ProlimaTech PK-3 Nano Aluminum

Best Premium

Electrically Conductive: No | Thermal Conductivity: 11.2 W/mk | Ease of Use: 4.5 (1=difficult, 5=simple) | Relative Performance: 4.0 (1=poor, 5=excellent) | Cleanup: lint-free absorbent paper towels, alcohol pads or cotton swabs and alcohol | Price per gram: $3.60

Stability
Easy to use
Easy to clean up
None

Often hanging close to, but not overtaking, liquid metal compounds in our tests, PromilaTech PK-3 Nano Aluminum paste is a moderately viscous thermal compound integrated with aluminum and zinc oxide. The paste provides good stability, making it easy to apply to all surfaces as well as simple to clean up. You really can't go wrong with this paste — it is sufficient for most CPU applications.

Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

2. Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut

Runner-up: Best Premium Paste

Electrically Conductive: No | Thermal Conductivity: 12.5 W/mk | Ease of Use: 4.5 (1=difficult, 5=simple) | Relative Performance: 4.0 (1=poor, 5=excellent) | Cleanup: lint-free absorbent paper towels, alcohol pads or cotton swabs and alcohol | Price per gram: $9.99

Stability
Easy to use
Easy to clean up
Price per gram

Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut is a mildly viscous thermal compound with good stability, making it simple to work with while also resisting drips and runs. This paste is very easy to apply and clean up, making it a favorite among system builders.

Best Budget Thermal Paste

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

3. Noctua NT-H1

Best Budget Thermal Paste

Electrically Conductive: No | Thermal Conductivity: Unlisted | Ease of Use: 4.5 (1=difficult, 5=simple) | Relative Performance: 4.0 (1=poor, 5=excellent) | Cleanup: lint-free absorbent paper towels, alcohol pads or cotton swabs and alcohol | Price per gram: $2.26

Price/performance ratio
Easy to use and clean
None

Noctua’s NH-H1 is a relatively viscous and stable compound that applies easily and allows for easy clean-up. A screw-on cap syringe maintains compound longevity to prevent drying and is priced as an attractive paste for those on a budget. You really can't go wrong with this paste — it is sufficient for the majority of builds.

Best Thermal Paste

Gelid GC-Extreme  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

4. Gelid GC-Extreme

Runner-Up: Best Budget Thermal Paste

Electrically Conductive: No | Thermal Conductivity: 8.5 W/mk | Ease of Use: 4.0 (1=difficult, 5=simple) | Relative Performance: 3.5 (1=poor, 5=excellent) | Cleanup: lint-free absorbent paper towels, alcohol pads or cotton swabs and alcohol | Price per gram: $3.70

Consistent spread
Value pricing
Easy to use and clean up
Requires some pressure on the syringe to apply correctly

Gelid GC-Extreme is a moderately viscous compound, making it very stable during application and it spreads consistently, although it requires slow consistent pressure on the syringe plunger for correct placement. This TIM is relatively easy to use and simple to clean up.

Best Liquid Metal Thermal Paste

Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

5. Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut

Best Liquid Metal Thermal Paste

Electrically Conductive: Yes | Thermal Conductivity: 73.0 W/mk | Ease of Use: 2.0 (1=difficult, 5=simple) | Relative Performance: 4.5 (1=poor, 5=excellent) | Cleanup: lint-free absorbent paper towels, alcohol pads or cotton swabs and alcohol | Price per gram: $22.99

For extreme overclocking
High performance
Price
Difficult to apply
Electrically conductive

Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut liquid metal thermal compound has a very thin, runny consistency and is applied to the CPU integrated heat spreader with a syringe delivery system and capillary needle applicator tip. Excess material can be siphoned off using a special extraction tip (by pulling the syringe plunger to withdraw excess liquid metal).

CoolLaboratory Liquid Pro  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

6. CoolLaboratory Liquid Pro

Runner-up: Best Liquid Metal Thermal Paste

Electrically Conductive: Yes | Thermal Conductivity: 79.0 W/mk | Ease of Use: 2.0 (1=difficult, 5=simple) | Relative Performance: 4.5 (1=poor, 5=excellent) | Cleanup: lint-free absorbent paper towels, alcohol pads or cotton swabs and alcohol | Price per gram: $24.94

For extreme overclocking
High performance
Price
Difficult to apply
Electrically conductive

CoolLaboratory Liquid Pro is a liquid metal compound that is applied with a syringe and capillary tip to the CPU integrated heat spreader, and it ships with a scouring pad and alcohol swab for prep and cleanup. 

Application and spreading of the liquid metal are made easier with cotton swabs and generous pressure for even distribution. Liquid metal can cause reactions with some metals, such as aluminum, and some reports of reactions with copper are also documented by end-users.

Best Budget Liquid Metal Thermal Paste

Phobya Liquid Metal Compound LM  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

7. Phobya Liquid Metal Compound LM

Best Budget Liquid Metal Thermal Paste

Electrically Conductive: Yes | Thermal Conductivity: Unlisted | Ease of Use: 2.0 (1=difficult, 5=simple) | Relative Performance: 4.5 (1=poor, 5=excellent) | Cleanup: lint-free absorbent paper towels, alcohol pads or cotton swabs and alcohol | Price per gram: $9.00

For extreme overclocking
High performance
Relatively inexpensive for a liquid metal paste
Difficult to apply
Electrically conductive

For a compound that costs less than half as much as leading competitors , Phobya's Liquid Metal Compound LM offers impressive performance, often besting the the CoolLaboratory Liquid Pro or Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut in our tests.

Liquid Metal Compound LM ships as a syringe with a capillary applicator tip. Spreading the compound is made easier with cotton swabs and generous pressure to develop a consistent coating on the CPU IHS. Can cause reactions with aluminum and other metals.

Thermal Paste Performance Rankings

Here's a breakdown of our recent testing, and we'll be adding new pastes to this list over the coming weeks and months. A bit further down, you'll find our original round of testing with 85 different pastes, some of which we've revisited in this new performance hierarchy. That should give you a good idea of how other pastes that we haven't retested yet would compare to the newer pastes. 

We'll go into our breakdown of how we test these thermal pastes below, but the key takeaway here is that a single thermal compound can perform differently based upon several variables, such as what type of cooler and mount you use. To cover all the bases, we've tested every thermal paste with three variables: 

  • Low-tension Noctua NH-D15 mounting to model an air cooler without a backplate (like an Intel stock cooler, or push-pin coolers)
  • High-tension Noctua NH-D15 mounting to model higher-end air coolers with a backplate
  • High-tension mounting with an all-in-one (AIO) liquid cooler

Below you'll find the temperatures we measured on our standardized test bench, and as always, lower temperatures are better. We've also included value charts in the album below as well. 

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Thermal Interface Material Performance

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Thermal Interface Material Performance

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Thermal Interface Material Performance

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Thermal Interface Material Performance

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Thermal Interface Material Performance

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Thermal Interface Material Performance

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Thermal Paste Test Results

As shown in the slides above, the outcome of the different testing scenarios resulted in some interesting comparisons among the compounds. We’ll look at the overall thermal load averages for each, as well as the relative performance value of each in terms of price-per-gram.

Air Cooling – Low Tension Mount
Liquid metal compounds make their way to the top of the temperature chart with slightly cooler values than the traditional pastes. Interestingly, the difference between the top and bottom of this chart is less than 4C.

When we look at each compound in terms of unit cost-per-gram, liquid metal compounds are generally more costly, making their overall performance value more of a luxury than a necessity. However, Phobya LM bucks this trend as it shows you can get good liquid metal compound performance at bargain pricing. 

Air Cooling – High Tension Mount
Liquid metals are again at the top of the list, and again, there’s a relatively small 4C delta between the top and bottom of the list. Only a few minor changes to the pecking order have occurred, and these easily fall within the tight margins of standard deviation.

Small differences in temperatures jostle the chart a bit, but overall the more budget-friendly compounds show much more promising performance value due to relatively close load ranges. We see a trend that most good and great thermal compounds perform very similarly, but might be worlds apart in price per gram.

All In One (AIO) Liquid Cooler – High Tension Mount
It’s no surprise that the liquid metal compounds once again sit atop the thermal comparison. Still, a 6C difference between all 15 thermal compounds tested shows there isn’t a lot of variation, even with a 360 all-in-one cooler with a push+pull fan setup for performance. 

The performance value chart shows most of the liquid metal compounds with a poor value-per-gram rating, but once again, Phobya LM proves to be the outlier for that sub-category with its budget price tag.

We’re also seeing the trend of larger gram-per-package for thermal pastes (2-5g syringes) along with lower price proving to be stiff competition against the more expensive liquid metals (0.5-1.0g syringes) that cost upwards of twice as much, or more. 

Key Takeaways
Thermal compounds might always be compared and debated over, but the simple fact remains: PC system building needs thermal compounds to effectively dissipate thermal loads. Without them, our beloved gaming and content-producing machines would struggle to keep components cool during heated frag sessions, heavy workstation computations, or just simply browsing the web. 

Not every system will need the most expensive compound, so even the most budget-minded system builders can rest easy knowing that even lower-cost pastes can still prove very effective. You can see our historical testing results with far more pastes after the test setup. 

Test System Configuration and Testing Methods

CPUIntel i9-10850k LGA1200 (Comet Lake), all 10 cores: 4.6Ghz @ 1.190v
MotherboardMSI Z490 MEG Godlike (BIOS ver. 7C70v12)
MemoryCorsair Dominator Platinum RGB, 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3600
StorageCorsair MP600 M.2 2280 NVMe, 500GB
GraphicsGigabyte GeForce GTX 1050Ti
Power Supplybe quiet! Dark Power Pro11 1200w
ChassisCorsair Graphite 760T
MonitoringCrystalFontz CFA-633-TMI-KU, 4x Dallas One Wire WR-DOW-Y17 sensors
Fan ControlCorsair Commander Pro, 100%/50% PWM Speed profiles (liquid cooling pump always @100%, if applicable)
OSWindows 10 Pro 64bit

For our thermal compound tests, we use the same hardware, overclock, and configuration for each and every test to minimize environment variables in our testing. 

We tested each thermal paste with a low-tension air cooler mount, high-tension air cooler mount, and a high-tension AIO liquid cooler mount. Each application was given a 1-hour burn-in using Prime95 with ten load and cooling cycles over the course of the hour; six minutes each with a ten-second cool-down between. Each testing load session was then executed for a one-hour load period, again using Prime95. 

For the air cooling low- and high-tension tests, we used a large Noctua NH-D15 air cooler. We created the low tension mount environment by torquing the mounting screws to 1.13 Nm (10 in/lbs). 

The low tension mounting tests help simulate cooler installs that might not use a backplate (like push-pin coolers) or those that do not allow high tension and compression across the CPU integrated heat spreader. Also, repeated tests are not consistently possible with push-pin mounted coolers:  The pins can degrade after several mount cycles, which meant we needed to simulate these to maintain consistent test results.

Our high-tension air cooler mount involved tightening the mounting screws fully to the mounting plate and shows thermal paste performance with air coolers with backplates that allow for tighter mounting.

We used the EK-AIO Elite 360 D-RGB for the liquid cooling tests with all fans in a push+pull configuration. We performed these tests with the AIO pump block fully tensioned (tightened). We didn't test the AIO with a low-tension mount because liquid coolers almost always employ a backplate that allows a high-tension mount.

Overall, each compound was evaluated and stressed over a regimen cycle covering six hours with two different coolers and different mounting tensions, making for no less than 90 hours of compound testing for our initial round of tests. 

Legacy Thermal Paste Testing - 85 Pastes Tested

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Best Thermal Paste Charts

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Best Thermal Paste Charts

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Best Thermal Paste Charts

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Best Thermal Paste Charts

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Best Thermal Paste Charts

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Here's our legacy thermal paste testing chart that we generated back in 2017. As you'll notice, many of the same popular pastes in 2017 are still on the market, making it into our new round of 2021 testing. 

We do have new testing equipment for our updated tests, such as a more modern CPU, motherboard, and coolers for our tests, but we adhered to the same test methodology employed in these prior tests. That means that you can use these legacy tests as a decent approximation of how the newer pastes compare to the older pastes, too. 

We'll be adding more thermal pastes to our new hierarchy; stay tuned. 

  • Phaaze88
    Dang, this is nice.
    The results for gpu applications would be different though, as the more viscous pastes would have an edge here - at least from what I've read so far.
    Reply
  • rubix_1011
    Yep, I agree, but the thinking being GPU thermal paste updates are a bit more specific and not necessarily as user-friendly as CPU cooling applications, so we will likely be focusing on them as a standalone article with some reference back here. But yes, I would like to get something like that in the near future.
    Reply
  • Phaaze88
    Oh yeah, it's definitely a bit more involved than cpu coolers.
    Reply
  • Glock24
    Wow, how's things have improved! I've used MX-4 for like the last decade. Good to know there's something better and not overly expensive.
    Reply
  • wtfmang
    I use GD900.

    works just fine for chips you don't need to OC.
    Reply
  • CompuTronix
    As usual, great review, Garrott, and very thorough. I can appreciate how tedious and time consuming that work can be, as well as the research, patience and attention to detail that's required. I posted a link to your review in the Intel CPU Temperature Guide 2021.

    CT :sol:
    Reply
  • BogdanH
    I appreciate the work that has been put into this test, where one can see comparison for most known products.
    It's interesting to see, that between (popular) similar priced thermal pastes , there's quite a difference in performance. Here I would say, the difference of 2°C (and bigger) is important enough to influence our decision.
    What surprised me is, performance difference between metal and "normal" pastes is quite small -considering big "listed" conductivity differences. And that shows how important such tests are.
    Reply
  • sstanic
    Nice comparison, thanks. Hovewer I would like to see Noctua's H2 paste from 2019 in the comparison, instead of the H1 from 2007. Hopefully that can still be added?
    Reply
  • Rdslw
    I have a comment, NT-H1 was slightly shorter lived paste than others, at least in my testing in laptops mx4's laptop started to show thermal issues (system throttles, palm rest is getting hot) similar to default paste after ~1.5y whole MX holds without noticeable changes for at least 3years now.
    It was possibly old NT-H1, I am not sure when it was changed or what I had.
    I de-dusted this 3 times in the meantime, so it's not a dust clog effect, and fresh paste made it again into a comfortable palm rest.
    Reply
  • rubix_1011
    There will be additional pastes added to this list as we go, so feel free to leave suggestions here in the comments - I'm reading them and planning for the next round as we speak.
    Reply