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Thermal Compound Shootout: The focus will be on some new Nanotherm products, but we rounded up some of the more common thermal compounds and see if the exotic stuff works better, or if it is simply hype.
Date: November 22, 2002
Catagory: Cases & Cooling
Manufacturer: & Various
Written By:

When we first had our Thermal Compound Shootout back in February, we addressed the question if exotic compounds provide any tangible differences over the generic goop that comes free with pretty much any heatsink you now buy. As we saw, in terms of performance, there wasn't all that much. In fact, the fancy stuff had two things going against it...

1) They tend to be harder to clean up, especially Arctic Silver.
2) They cost money.

... and when you're taliking about a 1C to 2C improvement with something that costs up to 10$ more than the cheap (or free) stuff, you have to kind of wonder what's the point. Well actually, there are benefits to spending a little more...

1) They are resealable. Most generic stuff comes in blister packs, that when opened, that's it.
2) They last longer. As hard as it may be to believe, some people don't upgrade CPUs or heatsinks often, and generic stuff tends to break down into a powder like substance. This, in case you haven't figured out, will hurt performance in the long run.

We looked at Arctic Silver 3 and Arctic Alumina earlier, as well as a blister pack that came with our earlier Vantec coolers. Other than some additional "generic stuff", not much new has come out this past year, with the exception of a new Fall lineup from . Today, we're going to spend a little time on the newer Nanotherm products, and compare it against Arctic Silver 3, Arctic Alumina, and three generic compound packets. Pre-applied TIMs (Thermal Interface Material), aka Frag tape, are purposely left out of this roundup simply because the performance is terrible.

Before we continue, here'a a recap from our last roundup about why you need thermal compound...

Theory Behind Thermal Compounds

The sole purpose of thermal compounds is not to lower temperatures. Yes, most compounds are thermally conductive, but the main purpose of compounds is to create a better bond between the CPU, or GPU and heatsink. The by-product, when done properly, is indeed lower temperatures, but don't think that applying compound like peanut butter is going to decrease temperatures by 10 degrees.

Due to the natural theory of "nothing being perfect", it's impossible to get two perfectly flat surfaces (this being the CPU and heatsink). They come close, but there are still micro gaps between the two when installing. Thermal compound comes into play here, where by applying a little on the surface serves to fill in these minute gaps. Because air is a poor conducter of heat, compound will replace the air, and allow the heat to transfer more efficiently. Below is my representation, as shown in previous reviews...

No Paste Applied

Paste Applied

The theory is simple enough, but you'll be surprised how many people I've come across who don't apply any thermal paste between surfaces. And they wonder why their computers keep shutting down suddenly...

I suppose some of you are wondering "I don't remember applying any of this stuff. I bought my computer like this." Relax, in the best case scenario, the manufacturer already did this for you. In a not-so-best case scenario, a thermal pad has been used instead. Generally, these things suck, but I suppose if you don't know why, you're not the type who likes to push their gear to the maximum. Thermal pads do the minimum of filling in the "gaps", but don't have the thermal conductivity that compounds do.

What Makes a Good Thermal Compound?

There are 3 main things to look for, which will directly affect our judging here:

1) Thermal/Electrical Conductivity

A good compound should be thermally conductive; i.e., it should keep heat moving from the CPU to the heatsink, and not take a smoke break. Pretty much all manufacturers do this, and some claim to do it better than others.

Unlike thermal conductivity, you're best to be careful with compounds that can be electrically conductive. All metal based compounds have this property, whereas ceramic based do not. Manufacturers know enough to make them as electrically inert as possible, but it can never be 100%. Metal compounds won't be hazardous to the CPU die itself, but any traces on the chip or motherboard are at risk if it gets contaminated.

2) Ease of Application

Some compounds are thick like toothpaste, and others are thin like motor oil. Thinner compounds tend to be easier to apply, and thicker compounds are easier to control during application. Which is better is a matter of opinion. I find the problem with thin compounds is that it's hard to get an even layer on the CPU, but that's just me.

All the "exotic" compounds tested for the review are of the siringe variety. Unlike the packets of compound that can be had for 1$, or free with most heatsinks, siringes are basically resealable.

No matter which kind you get, remember to spread only a thin layer. More is not better, and will actually be detrimental to performance.

3) Performance Today, and Next Month

I actually received the samples about 90 days ago, with the Arctic Silver 3 about two weeks ago. The reason why the roundup was so late (other than waiting for the AS3 to be released) is that both ESG Associates and Arctic Silver both mentioned that a "settling" period occurs where performance will actually improve over time. I wanted to be sure this was true, so each test subject was tested for two weeks, on two computers, where one of them ran 24/7 during this time.

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