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2,847 Tutorials

How to Install a CPU Cooler

A properly installed CPU cooler is essential to a stable system

You don't need an electrical engineering degree to properly install a cooler on your CPU. As is the case when installing many PC components, however, the procedure involves some subtleties that can have a measurable impact on the computer's performance.

Simply latching on a CPU cooler without doing additional prep work may result in a seemingly perfect, working system. However, if you take some extra time to thoroughly clean the CPU’s integrated heat spreader and heat sink, prime their surfaces, and properly install a high-quality thermal interface material, your CPU's temperatures will be lower--sometimes much lower. And lower CPU temperatures often result in a quieter system that’s also more stable and overclockable, if that’s your thing. A cooler chip is likely to hold up longer under sustained use, too.

With all of the potential benefits to a properly installed CPU cooler, we thought it would be a good idea to take you through the installation process, step by step, with both AMD- and Intel-based systems. Keep in mind that while we focus on desktop processors here, the steps outlined in this article generally apply to all types of processors, and to other chips that require heat sinks to aid in cooling.

Installing a Cooler on an AMD Processor

Although current AMD desktop processors make use of a few different socket types (AM2, AM3, AM3+ and FM1), the CPU-cooler installation process is similar for them all.

Step 1: Ensure That the CPU Is Fully Inserted Into Its Socket

Unless something is obstructing the processor and preventing it from being perfectly seated in its socket, the chip should sit flat and level. To be certain it’s installed correctly, lift the socket retention lever and apply a bit of downward pressure on the CPU. Then, while applying the pressure, lower the lever to lock the CPU into place. Finally, perform a final visual inspection to confirm that the CPU is fully seated and flat against the socket.

Step 2: Clean the CPU and Heat-Sink Surfaces

For the base of the cooler’s heat sink to make optimal contact with the CPU’s integrated heat spreader, both surfaces must be clean and free from contaminants or particles. Use a lint-free cloth and a small amount of isopropyl alcohol (or an alcohol-based cleaner safe for use on electronics, which won’t leave behind any residue), to clean the base of the heat sink and the top of the CPU’s integrated heat spreader. It’s important to remove adhesive or any other potential contaminants that may prevent the surfaces from mating properly.

Step 3: Prime the CPU and Heat-Sink Surfaces With Thermal Paste

Some people argue that this step is unnecessary, but we’ve been doing it for years with great success. The reason for using a thermal interface material, or TIM, between the heat sink and CPU is to minimize or eliminate any potential air gaps. The TIM is a better conductor of heat than air is, and it acts as a medium to facilitate the migration of heat from the CPU to the heat sink. Priming the surfaces with a small amount of thermal paste (our TIM of choice) will fill in the microscopic imperfections in the metal that may not be filled by the final application of thermal interface material as the heat sink compresses it. Priming the surfaces also lubricates them somewhat, and helps to ensure that the final application of TIM spreads more easily and more evenly when compressed.

To prime the CPU’s integrated heat spreader and the heat sink’s base, apply a very small amount of thermal paste to each and rub it into their surfaces with a circular motion, as if you were waxing a car. The goal is to work the paste into the imperfections in the surface, until you’re left with what looks like a slight haze in the metal.

Step 4: Apply the Thermal Interface Material

With the CPU’s integrated heat spreader and the heat sink’s base clean and primed, it’s time to apply some thermal interface material, preferably a high-quality ceramic or silver-based thermal paste. On the center of the CPU’s integrated heat spreader, apply a small amount of thermal paste--just enough to cover the metal surface with a paper-thin layer of paste when spread out. A drop barely larger than a BB but smaller than a pea will do. You do not want gobs of extra paste to ooze from the sides when you mount the heat sink. The goal is to use the least amount of thermal paste possible to cover the surface of the integrated heat spreader, eliminate any air gaps, and allow maximum thermal transfer between the integrated heat spreader and the heat sink. Using too much thermal paste can hinder performance, so be judicious in its application.

Step 5: Mount the CPU Cooler

Most air coolers for AMD processors use a simple clip/latching mechanism to secure the heat-sink assemblies to the socket. The installation process involves lowering the heat sink in place, latching two clips to the mounting bracket around the CPU socket, and firmly securing the heat sink with whatever locking mechanism is installed on the cooler, typically a lever with a cam or screws.

The cooler we used, a model from Thermaltake, had a simple lever with a cam. To install it, we lowered it into position, being careful to hold it level and parallel to the CPU’s surface to ensure that the thermal paste spread evenly in all directions. Then, we positioned the metal clips over the hooks on the mounting bracket, and while applying a bit of downward pressure on the heat sink, we moved the lever into the locked position. The cam on the lever engages with a metal place on the mounting bracket, and applies constant downward pressure on the heat sink so that it makes good contact with the CPU surface.

Finally, plug the cooling fan’s connector into the CPU fan header on the motherboard, and you’re done.

Next page: Installing a cooler on an Intel processor

Installing a Cooler on an Intel Processor

Many of the steps necessary to install a cooler on an Intel processor are identical to those outlined on the previous page for AMD processors. However, the stock retention mechanisms and CPU sockets are very different.

Step 1: Ensure That the CPU Is Seated Properly in Its Socket

Intel processors do not have any pins, as AMD’s do. Instead, the pins reside in the socket, and the processors have electrically conductive pads on their underside. As such, the retention mechanisms for Intel processors differ significantly from those for AMD chips. To ensure that an Intel CPU is seated properly in its socket, lift the locking load lever on the side of the socket slowly, until the cover plate over the CPU disengages. The CPU can be inserted only one way due to keys in the socket. As long as it is sitting flat, and the cover plate is also sitting flat on all sides, lower the load lever into its locked position.

Step 2: Clean the CPU and Heat-Sink Surfaces

For the base of the cooler’s heat sink to make optimal contact with the CPU’s integrated heat spreader, both surfaces must be clean and free of contaminants or particles. Use a lint-free cloth and a small amount of isopropyl alcohol (or an alcohol-based cleaner safe for use on electronics, one that won’t leave residue), to clean the base of the heat sink and the top of the CPU’s integrated heat spreader. Be sure to remove adhesive or any other potential contaminants that may prevent the surfaces from mating properly.

Step 3: Prime the CPU and Heat-Sink Surfaces With Thermal Paste

To prime the CPU’s integrated heat spreader and the base of the heat sink, apply a very small amount of thermal paste to each surface and rub it in with a circular motion as though you were waxing a car. The goal is to work the paste into as many of the imperfections in the metal’s surface as you can, until you’re left with what looks like a slight haze. (For more information on priming's benefits, see the AMD section on the previous page).

Step 4: Apply Thermal Interface Material

With the CPU’s integrated heat spreader and the heat sink’s base clean and primed, you can now apply some thermal interface material, preferably a high-quality ceramic or silver-based thermal paste. On the center of the CPU’s integrated heat spreader, apply a small amount of thermal paste--only enough to cover the metal surface with a paper-thin layer. A drop just larger than a BB but smaller than a pea will suffice. You do not want excess paste to ooze from the sides when you mount the heat sink. The idea is to use the least amount of thermal paste possible to cover the surface of the integrated heat spreader, eliminate any tiny air gaps, and allow maximum thermal transfer between the integrated heat spreader and the heat sink. Using too much thermal paste can hinder performance, so be judicious in its application.

Step 5: Mount the CPU Cooler

Common air coolers for Intel processors use plastic pushpins inserted through holes in the motherboard to secure the heat sink in place. To install an Intel cooler, you must make sure that its pushpins are disengaged (in their uppermost positions), and then you must press the plastic fasteners through the four mounting holes around the CPU socket. Confirm that the fasteners are inserted all the way through the holes before engaging the pushpins, or the heat sink will not sit flush--and your processor will likely overheat.

To install the cooler, lower it into position, being careful to hold it level and parallel to the CPU’s surface to ensure that the thermal paste spreads evenly in all directions. Then, fully insert the plastic fasteners around the cooler into the four mounting holes around the socket. With one hand, apply some downward pressure on the heat sink to keep it flat; with the other hand, engage (push down) the pushpins around the heat sink in a criss-cross pattern. When all of the pushpins are engaged, inspect the heat sink to confirm that it is sitting flush on the CPU. Then give the fasteners a gentle upward tug to be certain that they are locked into place.

If everything is secure and sitting flush, connect the cooler’s fan connector to the CPU fan header on the motherboard. You’re done!

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