If you’re a newcomer to PC building, or have never done so before, then you may find the process of installing a CPU cooler confusing. It’s also easy to do it wrong, and it only takes a couple of mistakes to fry your processor. The good news is that the solution is usually as simple as buying a new thermal paste and following the right application method.
The function of thermal interface material is to fill the microscopic imperfections between two surfaces, boosting heat transfer when they’re joined together. This is important because even a single rice grain-sized dot of traditional paste will greatly reduce the amount of heat that your CPU has to endure.
Typical thermal pastes are based on metal oxides, and some such as ARCTIC MX-4 use a mix of different ceramic materials to achieve unique characteristics. Regardless of what they’re primarily made of, though, most TIMs are electrically non-conductive.
Most people don’t really think about the thermal paste that’s pre-applied to their processor when they first open it up, but you’ll want to replace it every two years or so if your computer seems slow or unreliable. That’s especially true if you do a lot of overclocking, as you will tend to push the chip to its limit and it’ll be subjected to extreme temperatures.
The best way to apply thermal paste depends on your personal preference and experience level, but you’ll generally want to make sure that the working surface is clean – any dust or other residue will hinder heat dissipation. It’s also wise to get a spreader, like the one that comes with many of the aforementioned products (don’t use cotton buds), since these are designed for precision and consistency, making it easier to control the volume of paste that’s applied.