What is the best thermal paste for your needs, and why does that even matter? In this article, we’re going to discuss both of these things to the best of our ability.
If you aren’t very tech-savvy or aren’t super familiar with thermal paste, you may be surprised by some points of discussion in this article. Even if you are tech-savvy, but may be hit with some surprises if you haven’t done much research or testing regarding thermal paste.
But enough of the pretense, let’s jump into it.
What is the best thermal paste?
#1. Arctic Silver 5
The Arctic Silver 5 thermal paste is our pick for best budget thermal paste. If you want to replace your stock thermal material without breaking the bank, then the Arctic Silver 5 is a great and thoroughly tested option for you. As long as it’s cheaper than the other options on this list at the time of writing- we recommend that you double-check, then we have no reservations for recommending this for users on a budget.
If you’re willing to spend a little bit extra, though, the following options- especially #2- are very much worth your consideration.
Verdict: The Best Budget Thermal Paste
#2. Arctic MX-4
The Arctic MX-4 thermal paste might honestly be the best thermal paste currently available on the market, especially if you’re working in an enterprise environment. The MX-4 compound is proven to have the longest longevity of any other paste on the market, and if you are working with several machines or server CPUs, then that’s pretty much all that matters. Slightly lower temps don’t mean anything in an enterprise environment, where any downtime equals money being drained.
Even if you aren’t in an enterprise environment, the MX-4 compound still comes highly recommended, especially for users who aren’t interested in replacing their thermal paste all that often and just want a solution that will last as long as possible without giving them any issues. The next two options are more for overclockers and extreme enthusiasts than anyone else- for most people, the Arctic MX-4 should provide all the raw power you need.
Verdict: The Best Long-Lasting Thermal Paste
The Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut is our pick for best budget high-performance thermal paste- at least this particular 1g kit is, anyway. This kit provides only enough thermal paste for a single use, but that single use offers a slight-but-noticeable improvement over the previous entries on our list, so long as it’s applied properly.
If you’re dealing with a larger CPU/GPU die or you want to use your ultra-high-performance thermal paste more than once, then you’ll want to opt for our #4 pick. Otherwise, this should do the job.
Verdict: The Best Budget High-Performance Thermal Paste
If you want the absolute best performance and a quantity more suited for a larger CPU/GPU chip, then this Kingpin Cooling KPx 3g kit is the answer you’re looking for. It offers the best raw performance in thermal paste currently available on the market, with an actually-noticeable improvement in cooling performance over other options. Even on high-end GPUs with high-end thermal paste, the KPx thermal grease offers an improvement in temperatures- and that’s kind of insane, honestly.
With that insane performance comes an insane increase in price, though. Three grams of this stuff will cost you just under $20, which is a lot to spend on thermal paste, of all things.
Verdict: The Best Performance Thermal Paste
Everything You Need To Know About Thermal Paste
So thermal paste is a bit unusual in the context of product roundups and buying guides like this one, because raw specs don’t really do much to tell you the story about their differences. Testing and research tells you what the best options are, and we pretty much did all of that already. Instead of using this section to coach you on which thermal paste you need to buy, we’re instead going to focus on giving you all the relevant information you should know before buying any of the above options or using them in your PC.
How does thermal paste work, and what is it for?
First and foremost, let’s talk about how it works.
The purpose of thermal paste is to fill in the microscopic gaps between your CPU/GPU chip and the cooler being pressed against it. As long as installation and mounting are done properly, the thermal paste will fill in all of these microscopic little nooks and crannies, and conduct pass heat from the chip to the cooler. In order to keep a CPU/GPU cool, the heat must be able to travel to the cooler with as little interference as possible, and then be dissipated as quickly as possible. High-power fans help with this, as do large radiators for liquid cooling and large heatsinks for air cooling.
The issue that arises is with low-quality thermal paste or thermal paste that has expired. Thermal paste can only do this strenuous job for so long. Eventually, it will start drying out and cracking, which greatly reduces its effectiveness at passing heat. This becomes a particular issue with devices that are difficult to open up and repair, like smartphones or gaming consoles, since they also rely on thermal paste that will inevitably expire and begin hurting the performance of the system.
Yes, you’re reading that right- thermal paste isn’t just a PC concern! Any device that uses a CPU/GPU requires thermal paste, which will eventually expire and degrade cooling performance over time. This means smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles and laptops will all eventually require their thermal paste to be replaced in order to maintain their performance! Failing to do this will eventually result in overheating and long-term hardware damage.
Do I need to buy thermal paste for a new CPU or cooler?
You don’t need to, no. New CPU coolers come with thermal paste pre-applied, all you need to do is mount it and you’re good to go.
Should I buy thermal paste for a new CPU cooler?
…you may not need to, but you may want to in order to achieve better performance or thermal paste longevity. Any of the above options should be good in this regard.
Should you replace the thermal paste on your graphics card, laptop, console, smartphone, or other hard-to-open device?
The thermal paste included with these devices is (necessarily) longer-lasting than with CPU coolers because users are not expected to open them at all. That being said, you may need to eventually, especially after some years of heavy use or when repairing/refurbishing the device in question. We especially recommend that those who are buying systems or GPUs used clean and replace the previous thermal paste application, since it is likely to be long-expired once you get your hands on it.
For these devices new, the only reason to replace thermal paste is to get better raw performance, particularly for GPUs. Withthe other stuff, you probably needn’t worry until they’re thermal throttling some years down the line.
How often should you replace thermal paste?
Note: Any time you remove your cooler, your thermal paste must be replaced! Additionally, don’t ever try to run a device without thermal paste or a cooler- it will overheat, and it will damage the device in question!
For non-CPU devices, probably not very often. Like mentioned above, they have to be made with long-lasting thermal paste, since users are not expected to replace it themselves.
For desktop CPUs…it’s not a hard science. Some people recommend doing it every year, which is excessive but definitely not a bad idea, just tedious. People will make recommendations that range everywhere from once a year to once a decade, and the weird thing is…they’re all kind of right.
There are ultimately a lot of factors that go into deciding whether or not to replace your thermal paste, but the most important one is just whether or not your system is thermal throttling and performing noticeably worse than it used to. For users who aren’t hardcore cooling enthusiasts, we’d recommend reserving the thermal paste replacements for only when they’re strictly necessary, like when your decade-old laptop is starting to reach 90+ degrees Celsius in regular usage.
For users who are more serious about getting the best possible performance at all times or reducing the need for future maintenance, we recommend getting one of the high-end thermal paste solutions listed above with your cooler from the get-go, setting it, and forgetting about it.
How to install thermal paste, and how to replace it
Note: while the initial installation of thermal paste only requires the thermal paste itself, if you’re applying new thermal paste to something that already has it (most CPU coolers, GPU coolers, etc), you’ll also need to use high-strength rubbing alcohol and a microfiber cloth. (You don’t want to leave ANY residue on your CPU/GPU!)
For all devices, make sure the device is completely powered off before doing any of this, lest you risk damaging your hardware or getting yourself hurt.
For CPUs, simply remove your cooler of choice and clean off both the CPU and the part of your cooler that makes contact with the CPU with a combination of powerful rubbing alcohol and a microfiber cloth. If possible, we recommend using two cloths- one for getting the paste off with the alcohol, and another for thoroughly drying off the chip before installing your new paste and cooler.
For other devices, it’s actually the same process…except the fact that you’ll definitely need to pull out the screwdriver and may need to take apart and reassemble the entire device in order to replace the thermal paste. This is not an entry-level repair task- take it to a shop if you aren’t confident in your ability to do this.
How much of a difference will my choice of thermal paste actually make?
Unless your system is overheating and throttling due to badly-applied or expired thermal paste, not a lot.
As revealed with extremely thorough testing from Tom’s Hardware, the biggest differences will ultimately boil down to whether or not you install it properly. (While this article is somewhat outdated and some better-performing options have come out since then, we still agree with the overall conclusion, which we’re about to paraphrase.) A stable overclock should not be contingent on whether or not you have the right thermal paste. What matters more is your raw cooling power, onboard VRMs, PSU capacity, and the ultimate ability of the chip you’re trying to overclock.
There still are benefits to replacing your thermal paste, all of which we discussed in detail above. But what matters most is applying it properly, and having a good cooling setup to begin with.
And that’s it!
We hope that told you everything you wanted or needed to know about thermal paste, and that this article helped you choose the best option for you.