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Thermal Paste Round-up: 85 Products Tested

Test Setup & Measurement Methods

Why Do We Test Each Paste In Four Scenarios?

In choosing four test platforms, we incorporated feedback from our valued readers. For instance, you wanted to see us take the cooler mounting pressure into account. We're skipping the LN2-based testing and focusing on scenarios you'll encounter in the real world. For example, we're using popular pre-assembled water coolers that should ensure heat sink temperatures below 60 °C (140 °F), premium aftermarket air coolers with back plates that should demonstrate high mounting pressure, and a run-of-the-mill budget cooler with push-pin mounting (that'll give us limited pressure). Stock coolers like that let the CPU get above 60 °C/140 °F (AMD) and 80 °C/176 °F (Intel).

Depending on viscosity and composition, not all pastes are a good fit for every application, nor are they all well-suited for novices.

The systems we use for CPU measurements haven’t changed since the last time we covered thermal pastes. A quick check showed us that old pastes tested on the latest hardware yield similar results. Moreover, the sensors used in previous-gen CPUs yield more accurate user-facing data than those found in newer processors.

Exact temperatures are measured using a thermal diode under the heat spreader. This is extremely important and essential for an objective evaluation. Using Tcase instead of Tcore is the correct approach to take.

It is even a little exciting that these test components have lasted so long, even though our CPUs, graphics card, and motherboard were all sitting in storage. The only piece of hardware we swapped out for today's update was the power supply.

Test System One: Closed-Loop Liquid Cooling
CoolerCorsair H80i
FanOriginal H80i fan, powered from an unregulated 7 V supply
MotherboardAsus 990FX Sabertooth
Test System Two: Air Cooler with Back Plate (Screwed On)
Coolerbe quiet! Shadow Rock
FanOriginal Shadow Rock fan, speed set to 70%
CPUIntel Core 2 Quad Q6600 (Q0 Stepping) At 2.66 GHz
MotherboardGigabyte UP45-UD3LR
Test System Three: Intel Boxed Cooler (Mounted with Push Pins)
CoolerIntel Boxed Cooler
FanOriginal Intel Fan, Speed set to 80%
CPUIntel Core 2 Duo E6850
MotherboardGigabyte UP45-UD3LR

Testing Thermal Paste On A Graphics Card

This is a somewhat sensitive topic, and for safety reasons we excluded electrically conductive or liquid metal pastes from our testing. Since GPUs don’t have a heat spreader, but allow the cooler’s sink to directly sit on the die, I didn't want anyone to risk a short circuit.

We also used an older graphics card, which was convenient to test with. Its cooler was mounted using four screws and its fan speed could be dialed in to a constant value. Furthermore, we figured that an older card would be more tolerant of higher temperatures. After all, we didn't want a cheap paste to destroy an expensive, current-gen board. Fortunately, the GPU die size and surface temperature are still comparable to modern mid-range cards.

Test System Four: Graphics Card Test
CoolerZalman GPU cooler
FanOriginal Zalman fan, speed set to 80%
CPUAMD Radeon HD 4850
Test EnvironmentTest System 1 (see above)

Test Cycles, Test Duration & Settings

Because the digital temperature sensors built into modern CPUs only give us uncalibrated Tcore values, as mentioned, we use the old way of measuring die temperature with a thermal diode under the heat spreader. The processors in this story still use soldered-on spreaders, so this value should be fairly accurate. We'll report the difference between Tcase and the room temperature because there are always slight fluctuations in the (air-conditioned) room that could slightly distort the results for Tcase.

For the graphics card, we use the temperature as the GPU reported it. That number isn't influenced by minor changes in room temperature, so long as they stay within 2°C of our 22°C baseline.

Test Environment
Room TemperatureApprox. 22°C (relatively constant from 21.4 to 22.7°C)
CPU Test ResultsReported in °C as an average of temperature differences (Difference between the ambient temperature and the reading of the sensor under the heat spreader)
GPU Test ResultsOutput in °C for the GPU diode
Test Cycles CPU1x four-hour burn-in, followed by break of at least two hours 4x one-hour measurement, with one-hour breaks Total time at least 16 hours per thermal product and cooler
Test Cycles GPU1x four-hour burn-in, followed by break of at least two hours 2x one-hour measurement, with 30 minute breaks Total time at least 8.5 hours per thermal product

Comparison Thermal Pastes

MORE: Best CPU Cooling

MORE: How To Choose A CPU Cooler

MORE: All Cooling Content

  • 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! :-)