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Top 10 Things To Consider About PC Cooling

CLW0217 Water 2.0 Extreme

Mal’s Computer Corner

Skill Level: Beginner to Advanced

By Malefico

Cooling your gaming rig is one of the most important, and possibly most misunderstood aspects of PC gaming. If you overclock your CPU or video card, it is crucial that you have a good cooling system in place before you start your performance-enhancing experiments.

With that in mind, I present this list. You may laugh, cry, or just shake your head, but here it is- the good, bad and ugly about PC cooling systems. You can’t make some of this stuff up.


10. All fans are definitely not created equal. There are a number of popular case fan sizes available, from 80mm all the way up to 200mm and bigger. However, the dimensions of a fan don’t tell the whole story about its cooling capacity. Just because a fan is larger doesn’t mean it’s going to move more air. Pay close attention to the CFM (Cubic Feet of air per Minute) rating of prospective fans, and take note of their decibel rating as well. I personally don’t care about this, as I usually wear a headset while gaming, but some folks do. Usually, you can get your hands on good-quality fans at a reasonable price. This is definitely one area where in some cases, you can end up paying a premium price for a label. Just remember, the stats usually tell the tale.

Rosewill RFX

9. How your CPU is manufactured affects how difficult it is to cool. If you were to slice the top off a processor, what you would see is the guts of the CPU underneath a heat shield, and on top of that a layer of thermal compound. Surrounding all of this is the heat spreader material. In AMD processors, it would be solder more thermal compound while Intel has decided to use more thermal compound. The compound is a few cents cheaper than solder, but it’s less effective at dissipating heat outward from the core. All CPUs get hottest right above the die, and the temperature decreases towards the edges of the chip. But because of manufacturing differences, Intel CPUs tend to have a narrower, hotter band of heat directly over the die- not good for your little computer brain.

Ivy Bridge CPU with Top Removed

8. Don’t be fooled by super-deluxe looking heat sinks. In some cases, the fancy “performance” pieces don’t dissipate heat as well as the stock sinks, which are pretty weak and should not be used if you’re going to overclock. The problem with some of these parts is directly related to the way CPUs are built. As noted in 9, you have a heat spot roughly in the shape of the active cores working away inside the chip. Especially if the heat sink has the exposed copper tubing in contact with the surface of the CPU, trouble can arise. Usually, the tubes are spread out across the bottom of the sink. The problem is that often only one of the impressive-looking pipes is contacting the heat spot. What’s worse, a lot of these parts only install one way, so instead of being able to turn the sink 90 degrees so all the pipes cross the hot spot, you’re left with one pipe trying to handle all the heat and the others sitting over parts of the chip that don’t really need the help. For my money, there’s nothing better than a substantial heat sink with a flat slab of metal (copper is good) sitting on top of the chip. In any event, make sure the aftermarket heat sink will fit your CPU socket.

Rosewill RCX-ZAIO-92

7. Just because you bought the most expensive compound doesn’t mean it’s working well. No matter what kind of compound you’re using, or what you paid for it, the thermal paste is ALWAYS the weakest link in the heat dissipation chain. Thermal compound is also a product that can be manufactured cheaply but sold at a premium, thus there are a huge number of products in the market space. AMD has even released a thermal compound. To eliminate the mystery of thermal pastes, I can safely say that most of the products on the market are based on silicone and zinc oxide, plus whatever “miracle” ingredient the manufacturer is touting to make you think it’s the paragon of PC cooling capacity. A lot of products use aluminum, a few use copper, and some use more exotic metals (Arctic Silver, anyone?). There are even more expensive and esoteric mixtures out there, but they often have qualities that make them undesirable except for true hardware gurus. While most compounds conduct heat but not electricity, the most expensive products conduct both heat and electricity (the better a substance conducts heat, the more likely it is to also conduct other forms of energy, namely electricity). So, while a newcomer can get away with putting too much paste on a chip and having some of it squirt out the sides, if that happens with the ultra-premium compounds, you’ll fry your motherboard as soon as you power up. Not only that, some of the high-end products require extensive CPU and sink surface preparation and other special steps to apply and remove the compound. My advice to most hobbyists is- don’t do it. There are plenty of mainstream products that work very well and require minimal skill to use.

Strip of thermal paste

6. Don’t over-think the application process. For a long time, I followed the ultra-thin layer approach to spreading thermal compound. I recently came across some info, backed up with tests that showed doing this is essentially a waste of time. Especially with the vast majority of thermal compounds, which are fairly viscous, spreading the paste can not only become a messy hassle, but as the compound sets up, you can pull it away from parts of the chip and end up creating air bubbles that act to trap heat. So instead, either run a light strip of paste from about 1/3 of the way from the top to 1/3 of the way to the bottom of the CPU, if you’re looking at it with the etched label in normal orientation. Even easier, just put a small glob of paste (2-3mm round) on the center of the chip. Either way, once you mount the heat sink you should have coverage of the CPU hot zone, right where it’s needed. If you’re worried about the area you covered, just fasten down the heat sink, then remove it again to inspect coverage. Since the paste is brand new you can always add another little dab and reinstall the sink.

Glob of thermal paste

5. Know what you’re buying. There’s a huge difference between thermal compound and thermal adhesive. While both will dissipate CPU heat, one will allow you to easily remove the heat sink for maintenance or mods. The other will force you to rip your CPU out of its socket with serious system damage as a result. I only mention this because I’ve helped people who have done it. Read the description of an item carefully before you buy. Thermal adhesive is for cementing smaller heat sinks onto things like chipsets, etc. If you look at your motherboard, you’ll see small heat sinks covering crucial parts of the board. These were likely cemented on at the factory. Either that or they used a thermal pad.

Arctic Alumina

4. Always use baby steps when it comes to upgrading or renewing the cooling systems. Start with your case fans, then tackle a CPU cooling upgrade, then move on to the GPU, etc. I say this because it’s a fairly linear progression in difficulty. Fans are easy to mount and you don’t have to touch any of the actual guts of your system to make an improvement. The CPU is a little harder, but it’s located front and center. Sure, you’ll have to unplug a few things and spend a little time cleaning the CPU and heat sink, but the results are well worth it. Using a good thermal compound and applying it correctly will lower your CPU temps and result in longer life and better performance for a little money. Upgrading GPU cooling systems takes a little more intestinal fortitude for relative beginners. You’re disassembling a unit and handling the PCB for an extended period of time, so make sure you have access to a non-conductive surface and be careful.

Informative Label

3. If you are shopping around online for thermal compound, stick with a respected brand. When you shop online you’ll see some fracked up crap. I was on eBay recently and found this gem, available direct from China for $.01 with free shipping. This beaut is a good example of what not to buy at any price (correct, not even if you get it for a penny). It’s probably what’s left in the vat after the “real” paste is mixed up. And the name… FUJLK. WTF does that mean? I had to include some of the description for good measure…”Used to paste heat sink with the item u want to cooling,and be cooling body with good thermal effect.” Really, it’ll do that for me?

Prolimatech PRO-BV14

2. Liquid cooling doesn’t have to be an expensive or daunting proposition. If you’re going to seriously push your CPU or video card by overclocking them, seriously consider this option. Liquid cooling provides vastly superior cooling vs. simple air-cooling setups. And technological and engineering advances, coupled with growth in this segment of the market have resulted in some economical solutions that still work well and are easy to install. Make sure the cooling solution is compatible with your CPU socket, and if you’re not confident about your ability to perform the installation, especially if you have to drill out portions of the case to accommodate the coolant hoses, enlist the help of more experienced friends or talk to a local professional builder.


1. If you’re truly adventurous and want to shock and impress your friends, realize you don’t even have to use thermal compound between your heat sink and CPU. While I don’t recommend them for long-term use, you can get by for a couple days using the following common household items in an emergency. They actually work to dissipate heat. Toothpaste or denture adhesive– get the paste, not the gel and not toothpastes with gel striping. Zinc oxide cream or tanning lotion that contains a substantial amount of zinc oxide. Mayonnaise (add a little minced garlic for a pleasant aroma as the system heats up), butter, or even mustard. Important note: If you try any of these be very careful, as some of them are electrically conductive. If they get on the board, say goodbye to it before you hit the button.

The following products make the Malefico Value List. They represent a substantial improvement over factory cooling parts and won’t break the bank.

Cooling Fans

80mm- MASSCOOL FD08025S1M4, moves good air for its size and is fairly quiet, also inexpensive ($4 or less) OR if you like LED fans, try Rosewill RFA-80 series. Available in a variety of LED colors, this little fan is quiet, moves air well and can be had for $5 or less.

120mm- Rosewill RFA or RFX series, these fans, priced at $8-10 (much less on Newegg right now), really flow some air. They’re not the quietest units on the market, but great for a budget solution. For an LED fan, try the MASSCOOL BLD12025S1M. $7, excellent airflow, relatively quiet and pretty blue lights.

140mm- Prolimatech PRO-BV14, great airflow and nearly silent, $10. ARCTIC F14 PWM, good airflow and includes PWM fan control, great in a system with this feature.

200mm- APEVIA CF20SL, Massive airflow and interesting LED colors, $16 or if your aesthetic tastes are more mundane, try BitFenix Spectre Pro. Very much like having a small airplane prop in your case, CFM-wise but surprisingly quiet, $18.

CPU Cooling Solutions (remember they will only work as well as the compound/application thereof allows!)

OEM Replacement- Rosewill RCX-ZAIO-92. This kit includes a substantially improved heat sink design versus stock, and a 92mm fan. Great for those who want to insure their processor stays cool and lives a long, healthy life. This unit fits a wide variety of AMD and Intel CPU sockets and is available for under $20.

Mild Overclock (200-300MHz)- SilverStone Argon Series AR03, an excellent little cooler, albeit with a decent price jump over entry level improvements, $50

Moderate Overclock (400-500MHz)- Starting with this level, you’re talking high-volume air or liquid cooling. The Noctua NH-C14 is a trick little air-cooling setup, highly flexible and when running with both fans (yes, it includes two) provides insane cooling capacity. You can vary the configuration, running just the lower fan if you need a low-profile solution or just the top fan in order to gain added clearance for RAM and other components near the socket. It will set you back $85.

Wild overclock (600MHz+)- For liquid cooling at this level, it’s hard to beat the Thermaltake CLW0217 Water 2.0 Extreme. With a massive radiator and dual-fans wafting away the heat, this cooling solution outdoes traditional air-cooling but costs $100. Again, a great bang-for-the-buck product, just make sure you have space to mount the radiator!

Thermal Compounds

Even though there are dozens of these products available, I’m only going to highlight three. Arctic MX-4 is one of the best compounds on the market, bar none. It’s what I use in all my customer’s builds because it does a good job whether you incorporate air or liquid cooling. And, it’s relatively inexpensive at about $8 for four grams. That doesn’t sound like a lot of paste, but you should only use about .25 to .5g per application, depending on the size of the CPU. It’s little brother, Arctic MX-2 also works well and costs ~$5 for four grams. If you feel bad about paying so little for a great product, try Gelid Solutions GC Extreme. Yes, it does work better than the MX-4, a whole .2 degrees Celsius better but it costs around $13 for 3.5 grams.

Well, that wraps up this article.

As always, I hope you found it informative and welcome your feedback.

Thanks for reading.

Written by Nerd Bacon

Nerd Bacon


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