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Thermal Paste Round-up: 85 Products Tested

Interaction Of The Heat Spreader & Heat Sink

The Heat Spreader

When you cut a CPU in half, you notice that the chip (die) itself is much smaller than the CPU package, and thus the die touches only part of the heat spreader. The spreader’s job is to distribute the CPU die’s heat across a larger area, which allows it to pass to the CPU cooler's heat sink.

The drawing illustrates two little-known facts. First, the CPU manufacturer fills the gap between die and heat spreader with a heat-conducting material. While AMD (just like Intel did in the past) fills the void with some kind of solder, Intel now uses a thermal compound on most of its chips, which has a higher thermal resistance, but probably saves a few pennies in production. This explains why cooling overclocked Intel CPUs has become more difficult since the Ivy Bridge architecture.

Heat Spreaders, Hot-Spots & Dire Consequences

The drawing also shows that, due to the size difference between CPU die and heat spreader, there are some areas on the heat spreader that will be cooler than the area directly above the die. The area above the die is called the hot spot because it is directly heated by the die underneath. The two images below illustrate what a hot-spot is, albeit in an over-simplified way. Reality is not as simple; CPU cores may be loaded differently, and there is also the issue of on-die graphics, which may be more or less active than the processing cores. But let’s just look at the die as a whole and the heat spreader on top of it, viewed from above.

Image 1 of 2

Image 2 of 2

In this example, the Intel CPU has a narrower hot-spot due to the smaller die width seen from above. You should take this into account when choosing a heat sink. After all, you need to dissipate heat from the hot spot first and foremost.

Benefits & Drawbacks Of DHT Coolers

CPU coolers with exposed, ground-flat heat pipes are the latest fad. They certainly save some money during production, which marketing departments then sell to customers as a performance-enhancing feature. But there are drawbacks to this mechanical design. Consider a cooler with, say, four heat pipes, like the Xigmatek Achilles overlaid on the CPU picture below. The outermost heat pipes miss the hot spot completely. Even the two innermost heat pipes only partially cover the narrow hot spot of an Ivy Bridge-based CPU. Adding insult to injury, the cooler typically cannot be turned 90 degrees.

If we could turn the heat sink around we'd ameliorate this situation. AMD CPUs are typically not as affected due to their larger die area and CPU orientation; in most cases, all heat pipes cross the rectangular hot spot. If you want a DHT-based cooler, consider one with five heat pipes for more modern Intel CPUs, and try to avoid designs with large gaps between the ground-flat pipes.

Just by choosing a poorly-suited cooler, you can lose more thermal performance than the most expensive compound could ever gain back! But there is more bad news. Let’s take a look at what happens between the heat spreader and the heat sink.

Uneven Surfaces

A microscope will show you that neither the surface of a heat spreader nor the surface of a heat sink are really smooth. What looks even to the bare eye is full of pits and grooves.

Image 1 of 2

Image 2 of 2

When you press both surfaces together, only parts of the metal touch each other. Without a thermal compound, air fills the gaps. But air is a bad heat conductor. It's more of an insulator, actually. Thus, without thermal paste, much of the engineering that goes into heat spreaders and CPU coolers is wasted, as heat is only conducted where the metal surfaces touch.

Heat-Conducting Materials To The Rescue! Pastes & Pads

Clearly, the insulating air needs to be displaced by some thermal compound. Obviously, any thermal paste, pad, or liquid metal will conduct heat less effectively than the two metal surfaces involved. So, you want the application to be thin enough to not impose a lot of thermal resistance, but thick enough to overcome the surface imperfections of the heat spreader and sink.

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  • AndrewJacksonZA
    *heavy breathing*
    I love these kinds of articles and in-depth super tests!! Thank you so much for all your time, effort and hard work, I appreciate it. I'm sure that I'm going to enjoy reading it.

    Um, do you guys still have a single page or "printable" view please?
  • Yuka
    Oh, amazing article. I love it a lot.

    Maybe it's because I've used Artic Silver 5 for so many years, but for me it's the best all-rounder compound there is. Plus it's very cheap. I like it more than the MX-2 and MX-4 compound siblings people usually recommends. But I have to say, the "diamond" compounds are indeed better it seems. I had my doubts, but no more with these tests.

  • InvalidError
    Long story short: apart from esoteric TIMs, all pastes are practically as good as any other for typical uses when applied correctly. That really shouldn't surprise anyone as all pastes rely on the same principle of various particle sizes in silicon oil suspension getting crushed together.
  • DarkSable
    Hang on, I'm sorry.

    Also, very cheap silicone-based solutions like Arctic MX-2 and MX-4, despite being easy to apply and affordable, aren't worth the trouble they cause later as they deteriorate.

    I work with MX-4 almost exclusively. Yeah, it's not $30 a tube, but it's also not "very cheap," are you kidding me? "Very cheap," is the Elmer's glue you sniffed as a kid, repackaged as thermal paste.

    I use MX4 specifically because it doesn't have a burn in period and because it lasts FOREVER.

    No, it doesn't deteriorate. I've seen reports a decade after the fact showing less than three degrees celsius difference from when it was first applied.

    So. Either you're biased because of ignorance, or both Artic's warranty and every long term test done before this has been lying. Gosh, lemme think which is more likely...

    Now, is something like MX4 the best thermal paste out there? Of course not. But it IS way better than a lot of the market, super easy to apply and maintenance-free, and very reliable. If you're going to be a snob about your thermal pastes, at least be accurate about it.
  • zippyzion
    Well, I didn't see that result coming. They are almost all the same. So, why even bother picking? Just get the cheapest stuff from a reputable name. That's a little disappointing that doubling your money gains you a degree or two, at best.
  • grimfox
    Within the article you talk about the considerations for GPU backplate for augmented cooling. Do you plan to do a review/article for products involved in that? I would be interested to know which thermal pads or shims or pastes you are using to augment GPU cooling. And to see a comparison of different products. I recently replaced a laptop GPU and redid the pads for that. The installation did involve a learning curve and finding products was not straight forward.
  • JamesSneed
    Nice job on this article. Do more of this It helps the enthusiast community.

    Looking at your data Thermal grizzly Kryonaut wins as the best non-metal TIM except in low mounting pressure situations. it doesn't seem to matter as long as you have one of the decent pastes but its obvious there are a few to avoid like the Coolplast20 or Amasan T12 for example.
  • FormatC
    I'm using TIM since over 15 years, not only for Home PC's, but also in the industry. The major problem of this MX-4 are the long Burn-In time to get a better performance and the fast dry-out issue. As hotter a CPU or GPU works, as worse this grease performs (and is drying out). I does a lot of long-term runs with different products and especially this older products (not only from Arctic) were showing this typical behavior.

    If you prefer MX-4, why not? Use it. But please accept, that a test of different products over 4 years can show at the end a completely different picture. :)

    I get a lot of hardware (mostly VGA) with MX2- or MX-4 as replacement of the original TIM from other reviewers in rotation. And I have every time to replace this replacement with better (or original) products to get the original performance back. MX-2 on a VGA card is pure pain. Simply try one time another, better products and you will be surprised.

    I have to take, what's in Germany on the market. All pastes were retail and not sponsored samples from the manufacturer. It was my idea to do this under real conditions. But I think it is possible to organize some stuff also from the US or Asian market.
  • JamesSneed
    With Ryzen and more so Thredripper I wonder if those will impact application methods due to the multiple dies under the heat spreader? Seems you would want to make sure you have the area the dies are covered with TIM and that area is spread out more with those CPU's.
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    A great article, thank you! :-)