We spent 72 hours trying and monitoring 12 different thermal pastes to come up with a list of the top 5 thermal paste. We factored in density, conductivity, composition and usage lifetime. We ranked the Artic MX 4 in the first place because it hit just the right number of checklist items all things considered. This thermal paste doesn’t conduct electricity so you don’t have to worry about an accidental short-circuit. We also didn’t notice a significant loss in thermal conductivity when compared to metal gels. Finally, this product is easy to apply, affordable, has a high usage lifetime of 8 years and is fairly easy to apply.
Thermal Paste Buying Guide
What is Thermal Paste?
Thermal paste is a compound typically applied on a computer processor before installing a graphics card, custom cooler or CPU heatsink. Anyone with good experience building computers will tell you that this paste is absolutely vital if you want your heatsink or cooler to work effectively.
On the surface level, the base of a heatsink and your processor look flat. The truth is there are microscopic holes or gaps that fill with air. Air is a poor conductor of heat which means that your device won’t dissipate heat effectively.
Thermal paste basically fills in these holes or gaps. Since the paste is a good conductor of heat, it’s able to effectively bridge the gap to allow your heatsink or cooler to function effectively.
Other names for thermal paste include thermal compound, TIM, heat sink paste, thermal gel and silicon compound among others.
Types of Thermal Paste
There are three main types of thermal paste identified with their composition. The pastes may be made from metal, silicone or ceramic. The composition, of course, affects conductivity to some level as you will soon find out.
Metal: Metal has great thermal conductivity qualities and these pastes tend to offer the best performance. The only problem is metal is a great thermal conductor as well as an electrical conductor. This conductivity means that there is the risk of a short circuit should the paste go beyond the application area to the mother board or other metal parts. It is for this reason we don’t recommend metal for beginners or first-timers. If, however, you are only interested in peak thermal conductivity and have good experience working with these products, a metal thermal paste is a great choice.
Ceramic: ceramic-based thermal pastes are favored over metal because ceramic does not conduct electricity. This option is much safer especially if you are not confident working with TIM. Ceramic also fares well in thermal conductivity compared to metal so what you give up in conductivity are often negligible.
Silicone: Finally, silicone base thermal pastes are typically used on thermal pads. These thermal pads attach directly to the processor or heatsink. Silicone doesn’t compare well to the other two options although it is still a good choice for someone who isn’t too keen on numbers and specifics.
What to Look for In Thermal Paste
Now that you have a good idea of what thermal pastes are all about, we tried to include suggestions in our review section to hopefully make your decision easier. The reviews aside, there are a few areas you should look into to determine which the best thermal paste is for you.
This refers to whether the paste is made from metal, silicone or ceramic. Metal is definitely the superior choice for thermal conductivity. Silicone, on the other hand, doesn’t give away too much in thermal conductivity while is a safer choice because it doesn’t conduct electricity.
Conductivity goes hand in hand with composition. The overview here is the choice between metal and silicone may boil down to the level of conductivity you need. The metal may be preferable for optimum performance over the long-term.
Also referred to as viscosity, this feature determines how easy or difficult the paste is to apply and spread. Thicker pastes may be preferable for beginners since these are difficult to spread away from the designated area. Density also affects how long you might have to wait for the compound to settle before you can start working specifically at optimum performance. Thinner pastes tend to settle quicker although the difference is negligible in most cases.
Finally, usage lifetime refers to how long the paste remains effective. The lifespan, of course, depends on how you use your computer. As a general rule, thermal compounds have a lifespan of about 3 years although some such as the Artic MX 4 last up to eight. Also be sure to check the expiry date on the packaging before buying. Some thermal gels have a shelf life of two years which isn’t a problem unless you are buying it a few months or days to expiry.
Quality of Cooling System
The type of cooling system you have determines the level of conductivity would be most useful. High-performance air coolers and liquid coolers require optimum conductivity so metal thermal pastes would make sense. It is worth noting that the products on our list all work well with these types of coolers. We tested each option with both air and liquid coolers and the results were good enough for us to recommend each time.
You should also factor in your experience with thermal pastes. Some of the products such as the Coollaboratory Liquid Ultra require multiple steps. Ideally, the paste should be simple and straightforward to apply right out of the packaging if you have no experience with this kind of work.
The thermal pastes on the list come highly recommended and current sales indicate that we were on the right track with this review. Don’t be afraid to ask for a professional opinion in case you need extra help. We are however happy to say that you will be satisfied with the products covered here if you aren’t a stickler for details and specs.
These are also well-known brands so you should get some support easily in case you need any help with applications. Forums are always a great place to get additional tips and advice in case you need it.