How to Build a Gaming PC

by turbolence1988dec 22nd, 2018

Installing the CPU Cooler and Applying Thermal Paste

As you may have guessed, CPUs generate a lot of heat when they’re running, and they don’t tend to last very long if they overheat constantly. A CPU cooler does exactly what its name implies. They work by transferring the heat the processor generates to a surface that is much larger and easier to cool than the processor’s lid. Both air coolers and liquid coolers vent heat to an array of metallic fins, and these fins increase the surface area to which heat can escape. Fans push cool ambient air past the fins, reducing their temperature and allowing further heat to escape the cooling system.

The below installation methods cover the stock coolers for Intel and AMD processors.

Take your CPU cooler out of its packaging. You should have the cooler and fan attached together as a single unit with a power cable running from the fan. Since Intel coolers can be installed in four different orientations and AMD ones in two, take a moment to find the CPU_FAN connector on your motherboard and note which installation angle will make it easiest to reach the connector. Take off any protective plastics and put the cooler on a level surface with the underside facing up.

Both the Intel and AMD stock coolers will ship with thermal paste already applied. While this can be used, we strongly recommend removing the stock paste and applying your own as you will see significantly better temperatures throughout. Wet a small portion of your microfiber cloth with some isopropyl alcohol (ArctiClean 1 or adhesive/goo removers work here too), press it into the stock thermal paste so it soaks a little, then wipe away the material. You may need several passes to remove the existing paste, but when you’re done you should be looking at bare metal. Do a final pass with a fresh piece of alcohol-soaked cloth or surface prep material (ArctiClean 2) to purify the surface.

Aftermarket coolers

All modern CPUs require a cooler of some kind to function, but not all CPUs have one included. If yours did not come with one, you will need to purchase it separately before you can assemble your system. Coolers are sold by their socket compatibility, with some being universal and others designed for specific brands or generations of hardware. Check the product listing prior to purchase to make sure it’s compatible with your motherboard socket (e.g. Intel 1151, AMD AM4, etc).

Before installing your CPU cooler, check the product packaging and instructions to see if it uses its own backplate or other non-standard mounting solution. Both Intel and AMD motherboards have mounts for their stock coolers, but aftermarket solutions often expand upon them using a backplate to allow larger, heavier, more capable solutions to be installed for extended overclocking and cooling capabilities. You will typically need to install this prior to placing your motherboard in your computer case. There are many different aftermarket mounting solutions, and we cannot cover them all here. Follow the instructions included with your aftermarket cooler for installation.

Thermal paste application

The most daunting task facing novice system builder is applying the thermal paste, but the process is much simpler than it seems. Three simple rules will get you through:

  • If you don’t know where to apply the paste, aim for the center of the CPU lid.
  • The blob doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • You need less than you think, but don’t sweat the specific amount.

Put your motherboard on a flat, stable surface. Uncap your tube of thermal paste and angle the tip so it’s hovering above the very center of the CPU lid (use both hands for stability if you can). Squeeze out a small amount of paste about the size of a half of a pea, or one whole cooked grain of rice, onto the CPU lid. Lift the tube away, being mindful that the paste will likely follow up as you lift. Swirl or angle the resulting string so it stays mostly within the blob of paste you just laid down. Recap your thermal paste tube and set it aside.

Intel stock cooler

Intel includes a round cooler with a single fan designed to plug directly into the four mounting holes along each corner of the CPU socket. The cooler does not use a backplate and thus can be installed at any time during the build. As an added benefit, since the mounting holes are arranged in a perfect square, the cooler can mount in any 90-degree orientation that’s most convenient to run the CPU fan cable to the motherboard.

The Intel cooler uses four push-pin style plastic tabs in lieu of screws. On the top of each tab, a flathead screwdriver slot indicates the tab’s configuration; if the slot is aimed at the center of the cooler it’s ready for install, and if it’s sideways it’s released. Set all four tabs so the slots face the center of the CPU cooler if they aren’t already.

Now, lower the CPU cooler directly onto the processor from above, guiding the push-pins into the four mounting holes. As the cooler and makes contact with the thermal paste it will begin to spread and cover the CPU lid. Some builders prefer to rotate the CPU cooler a couple degrees back and forth at this point to better spread the thermal paste, but it is not necessary. Hold the cooler in place and push-in the four mounting tabs in a diamond pattern, snapping them each into their respective mounting holes. Once done the cooler should be held firmly in place and won’t separate from the motherboard until the slots are turned 90 degrees counterclockwise, releasing their grip on the mounting holes below.

Once the CPU cooler is secured in place, connect the fan’s power cable to the CPU_FAN header on your motherboard.

AMD stock coolers

AMD motherboards ship with two large plastic guides above and below the socket that are used as mount points for some stock coolers. Take a look at the cooler that came with your CPU to see whether it uses a hook-and-clip system (there will be a mounting bar that runs through the cooler fins with a plastic lever on one end) or has four screws positioned to where the four screws holding the plastic guides in place. In either case, the mounting holes for AMD motherboards are aligned in a rectangle pattern, and thus will only give you two positions to mount the cooler.

If you have the hook-and-clip style CPU cooler, ensure the plastic lever is pointing straight up, then lower the cooler into place from directly above the socket. As the cooler nears the CPU, swing the hook opposite the lever over the protruding tab on the plastic mount. Position the cooler in place, then swing the levered hook over the opposite tab. The mounting bar will be relatively loose, so hold it in place with your hand as you swing the lever down into its “locked” position where it will apply pressure across the mounting bar and onto the CPU lid below.

If your CPU came with a cooler that has four spring-loaded screws, you will remove the plastic guides and install the cooler directly into their screw holes instead. Unscrew all four screws and remove the plastic guides, being mindful that all AM4 motherboards ship with a backplate under the CPU that we’ll be attaching the cooler to. If you don’t have the motherboard on a flat surface, you’ll want to make sure you hold the backplate in place for the next steps.

With the plastic guides removed, position the cooler above the four exposed backplate screw threads and lower it into place directly from above. As the cooler and makes contact with the thermal paste it will begin to spread and cover the CPU lid. Some builders prefer to rotate the CPU cooler a couple degrees back and forth at this point to better spread the thermal paste, but it is not necessary. Once the cooler is sitting on the CPU, tighten the four cooler screws in a diamond pattern into the backplate. These spring-loaded screws will only turn a set amount so they won’t be overtightened.

Once the CPU cooler is secured in place, connect the fan’s power cable to the CPU_FAN header on your motherboard.