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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
Manufacturer: &
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.

Nanotherm Ice II and Blue II

Nanotherm is no stranger to us, and their Ice and Blue products were pretty good performance-wise. They've released a newer version now that improves on their past performance, and as before you can choose between Ice and Blue. Like their previous version, both are ceramic based, and non-electrically conductive.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Nanotherm, the Ice and Blue are both chemically similar, except for the coloured tint in the "Blue" version. Through testing, I've always found that the blue is easier to apply, meaning, it was easier to tell when the right amount was applied. I'm not trying to say the "Ice" would be tougher, because it isn't. The viscosity is the same, but the visual aid in the Blue makes it more obvious. Here's part of an email when asked what other differences, if any, exists between the two...

There is a slight difference between the formulation of the Ice II and Blue II - besides the blue ceramic pigment that we use in the Blue II. The synthetic suspension fluid used in our Blue II formulation is different than the one used in the Ice II. Blue II's suspension fluid gives the compound a slightly higher temperature resistance characteristic and wider temperature range than the Ice II. Hence, the slight difference in price of the 2 products. In terms of the thermally conductive and "nano" particles used in each compound, both contain the same amount so the thermal performance of the Ice II and Blue II is about the same.

The improvements for both compounds is a new multisynthetic ceramic formulation. Neither contain silicon, which tends to degrade over time. I found both compounds slightly thicker than before, but neither were difficult to spread evenly.

Here are the rest of the specifications from ...

Nanotherm Ice II and Blue II are unique nanocomposite multiceramic thermal interface compounds that contain a special blend of engineered materials, including Boron Nitride, Aluminum Oxide, Aluminum Nitride and other nanopowders, compounded into a proprietary multisynthetic carrier fluid comprised of USDA authorized "food grade" lubricants.

Nanotherm Ice II and Blue II come in 2.0 gram tubes. Each syringe contains a volume of 1.5 cc/ml of thermal compound, providing a coverage area of about 30.5 sq. in. at an average layer thickness of .003". In terms of applications, each tube of Nanotherm contains enough thermal compound to cover:

32 to 44 small CPU cores
12 to 19 large CPU cores
5 to 10 heat plates
The following are some of the features, characteristics and benefits of Nanotherm II Thermal Compounds:

Cost-Effective, High Performance Thermal Interface Material
High Thermal Conductivity
Low Thermal Resistance
Excellent High and Low Temperature Characteristics
Electrically Insulative
Spreads Smoothly & Evenly in Thin Layers
Viscous, Sticky Consistency
Fills Micropores & Grooves on Contact Surfaces
Fast, Easy Cleanup - No Mess
Excellent Barrier Properties to Oxygen and Moisture
Resistant to Separation, Leeching and Drying Out
High Pressure Resistance
Transparent to Microwave Radiation

Unless I'm totally blind, I couldn't spot any differences between the new specifications and the old, other than mentioning the new multiceramic compound. Previously, the Nanotherm products required a break-in period of about 48 to 72 hours until performance levels off. We noted the temperatures during testing the first day, and revisited the temperature readings a week later to see if this still applies.

Nanotherm Silver XTC

The Nanotherm Silver XTC is the newest entry into the Nanotherm product line. It differs from the Ice II and Blue II, both physically and chemically. It's due to be released this month (perhaps by the time you're reading this) so you can expect a proper product label on the syringe. This was actually the second sample we've received, and I was told that there were major improvements since the first sample was sent to us. There isn't any web information at this time, but I was emailed the official product description...

- Contains a highly optimized combination of sub-micron to low micron sized Silver particles
- Silver particles are 99.98% pure and are custom milled to our specifications
- Compound has a high density of silver particles; 80 to 83% silver by weight
- Also contains a special blend of Boron Nitride and "Nano" powders used in our Nanotherm II compounds
- Suspension fluid is a high temperature synthetic designed for operating temperatures in excess of 500'F
- Compound is non-electrically conductive, based on our preliminary testing
- Retail product will be packaged in clear, graduated 3 ml syringes
- Net weight of thermal compound will be 4.0 grams per syringe

Although there are no specific explanations, my guess is that ESG Associates developed this product to better establish themselves in the enthusiast market. I'm certain most of you are probably using some sort of "silver" compound, and no doubt Arctic Silver is the most popular.

Comparing Arctic Silver 3 to Nanotherm Silver XTC, it appears that The Silver XTC has a higher silver content. Whether or not it's better, we'll have to see. One thing I noticed is it is a breeze to clean off when compared to Arctic Silver. Usually, when I need to get AS3 off my CPU, I have to resort to both rubbing alcohol, and dish soap (don't ask, but it works). With the Silver XTC, rubbing alcohol works just fine. Another thing I noticed is it doesn't really look that silver to me, but more like a yellow-brown. Oh well, it's going to be under a heatsink anyways so I couldn't care less if it was navy blue.

Nanotherm EXP

We received a prototype that is still undergoing development, though I am under the impression it will be out sooner than we think. I don't have any hard info about the EXP (short for experimental) other than it won't be classified as Nanotherm Silver II. We'll be testing it in this roundup, but you'll have to understand that performance may or may not be the same as the final shipping product.

Application was is very smooth, and it was extremely easy to apply. Cleanup was a breeze as well.

Arctic Silver 3

Artic Silver 3 is arguably the most popular retail compound. They've made quite an impression with overclockers with the original Arctic Silver, and have released newer versions, improving performance slightly each time. It's non-silicone based, and requires a set-in period of about 72 hours for performance to stabalize. Consistency is like gel, and it spreads very evenly.

Two criticisms I have about Arctic Silver 3 is ease of extraction, and cleanup. The compound is very thick (though a breeze to apply), and it takes a fair amount of force to squeeze out of the syringe. 90% of the time, I have to exert so much force, I always ended up with more than I needed. There are tricks, like pulling the syringe back as it comes out, but it's still a hassle. Cleanup isn't easy either, as the AS3 leaves a residue that doesn't easily come off with rubbing alcohol.

Arctic Alumina

Released about the same time as Arctic Silver 3, the Alumina is a ceramic based compound. It's cheaper than AS3, and probably fills a gap in the market for those who aren't interested in silver compounds. Like AS3, a set-in period is required. Consistency is that of gel, and application, as well as cleanup is easy.

Arctic Alumina is sold retail in a syringe. The sample above was included with our Swiftech MCX4000, but Powerleap is another company I know that packages these blister packs.

Vantec Generic (Stars-350)

Lately, Vantec has been packaging this Stars-350 compound with their newer heatsinks. It's also a gel-like compound, making for easy application and cleanups. What is good about this packaged compound is that it's resealable, so you don't need to throw it out after one application. I haven't been able to find much information about this product, but it works well and best of all, it's free.

AOS Thermal Compound

We got this with some earlier coolers, and it isn't really anything that's readily available over the counter. You can find a on their site, but since we had some lying around, we threw it into testing. The claim to fame of this compound is that it's not supposed to run (creep) over your components when in use, which is a problem with cheaper compounds. Consistency was like toothpaste. I found it very grainy, and difficult to apply when compared to the Vantec generic, though cleanup was a snap.

Generic Silicon

More free stuff again. This blister pack is actually very similar, if not the same, as the kind of paste you get in those transparent blister packs. I have no idea where we got this compound, but it was lying around so why not test it? Consistency was like liquid soap. It was a pain to apply, as it was way to watery to control. Cleaning up wasn't terribly difficult, although I found it left a residue on the Athlon die.


Testing was done over the course of one month with 2 different CPU platforms. Each compound was monitored over the course of 4 days, then removed for another candidate. We mentioned the break-in period for the Nanotherm products (this also applies to the two Arctic Silver products), so this is the primary reason why we're testing for this extended period. The test systems are as follows...

#1) AMD Athlon XP 1700+, MSI KT3 Ultra2, Vantec Aeroflow Socket-A, 512MB PC2700, 120GB Maxtor (RAID configured)

#2) Pentium 4 2.4B, Shuttle XPC SS51, Vantec Aeroflow Socket-478, 512MB PC2700, 120GB Western Digital

The Athlon system runs 24/7, and shutdown only for the time to swap compounds. Since each processor is going to be using one compound every 4 days, this will total 96 hours (give or take time for coffee breaks, etc...) of testing. Prime95 will be running fulltime, stopping only when the PC is needed for other tasks.

The Pentium 4 is the gaming and LAN rig, and will probably be going through the most highs and lows, since we shut down the PC whenever it's in use. This should test the compounds performance in what will likely be the most common user scenario. Prime 95 will be run when it's time to take temperature readings.

The graphs will be presented in two parts. The first graphs will be all the compounds performances the first day of testing. The second set of graphs will be at the end of their test cycle. All temperatures are at full load.

Day 1


Pentium 4

Immediately, we can see there is little difference between the compounds, with the exception of Nanotherm's Silver and EXP products. I was quite surprised to see such a large difference, but the margin was about the same for both computing platforms. Arctic Silver 3 was very close behind, whereas the rest were locked up at about the same temperature.

Day 4


Pentium 4

As with our last roundup, the 72 hours needed for some of the compounds to set-in actually improved performance. I didn't see a drop of more than one degree Celcius though, and I think that's about all the improvement we'll see. I'm actually using Nanotherm Ice 2 (it was the last compound tested) a week after we've recorded these results, and load temperatures are about the same.

I will be quite interested to see the final product of the Nanotherm prototype as it was easily the best performing compound. The Nanotherm Silver XTC competes well against Arctic Silver 3, and the Nanotherm Ice II (and Blue II) are fairly unremarkable considering that performance wise, they were tied with most of the pack.

The generics, this time around, didn't do too well, with the exception of the Vantec Stars-350. This paste was really easy to apply, and not too difficult to clean up, and performed well. Considering it comes in a syringe, is resealable, and best of all, free, makes this one a winner.

Final Words

I've always found it odd when manufacturers claim a 5C+ improvement over other thermal compounds. In our last roundup back in February, we saw that wasn't the case. The only way I can possibly see that much of an improvement is if it's compared to the worst possible compound out there. This time around, although it isn't a 5C difference between the best and the worst, there is more of a gap.

The AOS and generic silicon simply would be classified as the "worst" compounds you can use. Nevermind the performance, but both compounds were difficult to apply, taking me much longer to get that "right" amount on than the other compounds.

The Nanotherm Silver XTC and Nanotherm EXP were two products that really surprised me. Although AS3 may be a little better than past Nanotherm products, the difference was never that great. I generally preferred using Nanotherm, or Alumina because they were easier to clean up. Not only were the EXP and Silver XTC easy to clean up, they really dropped the temperatures to a point where it was noticable.

The Nanotherm Ice II and Blue II were decent products, matching the Arctic Alumina in performance. One thing they have going for it is they tend to cost a little less than Alumina.

The arguement of retail compounds vs free ones is a bit tricky. The benefit of retail compounds is that you can do a little research on them before buying. All the Nanotherm compounds contain no silicon, which as mentioned earlier, would mean more even performance over time. I have used generic silicon before (about 3 years ago) on an old K6 CPU, and recently did a little housekeeping on it. When I removed the HSF, I was pretty shocked to see the compound literally evaporated. Now, I don't think most of our readers would neglect a CPU for that long, but there are people who rarely, if ever change their heatsinks.

In terms of performance, other than the XTC and EXP products, performance between the compounds was relatively equal across the board. Even the absolute worse was only one degree higher than the Nanotherm Ice and Blue. The question now is what to buy and do you need it. Well, my answer is you don't need to buy a retail compound unless you've run out of whatever you just got with your cooler. As for which one to buy, for performance Nanotherm Silver XTC is worth your consideration. In terms of ease of use and cleaning up, the XTC, Ice II (and Blue II), and Arctic Alumina would be my choices. Arctic Silver 3 falls between all of them in terms of performance, but it will cost more, and cleanup isn't as easy.

As for the Nanotherm EXP, it was very impressive, and we hope to have a closer look at the final product when it's released. I can't recommend it at this time since it's not finished yet, but if the prototype is any indication, it's going to be something worth picking up.

All Nanotherm Products are...

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