Having an effective thermal paste is an essential yet underrated aspect of building a good gaming PC.
While your GPU will come with thermal paste already applied, thermal paste only lasts for so long.
Your CPU most likely won’t come with any at all! If your item has already been sitting on a shelf for a few years, the chances are that the thermal paste has already worn itself out!
As such, you’ll want to replace or apply new thermal paste on most devices you buy, and you should replace it every few years on computers that you own, too. If you don’t, your devices could eventually start to overheat over time.
However, your quest doesn’t stop there – you’ll have to decide which thermal paste you want to apply first. There are many different types and brands of thermal paste, and to the uneducated consumer, they might all seem the same.
However, each one has valuable strengths and weaknesses that you’ll want to consider before buying or using them.
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How We Tested
While thermal paste conductivity numbers are important, the raw performance numbers are what you’ll need to see to decide which thermal paste is best for you. For most users, the deciding factors will be a combination of real-world performance and price.
- AMD Ryzen 5 3600
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1660 Ti Windforce OC
- 16 GB of Corsair Vengeance LPX
- Wraith Stealth Air Cooler
What Is Thermal Paste?
Thermal paste (or thermal grease) is a thermally-conductive compound that helps to dissipate the heat generated by your computer’s CPU or GPU. Believe it or not, air acts as a thermal insulator, so even having a tiny air gap between the internals in your PC can cause heat build-up. This is where thermal paste comes in.
What do we mean by thermally conductive? Well, this means that the thermal paste will heat up quickly, transferring the heat between the processor and its heat dissipators, whatever they might be.
Many computers will have fans that help to dissipate heat, which are often paired with fins that offer more surface area to release the heat into the air. Still, other setups will use liquid cooling, which is a superior method of cooling your PC. It’s more expensive, though, and it can be challenging to set up.
In a computer, it’s usually the CPU and the GPU that need coolers to operate correctly. However, a GPU will often come preassembled with thermal paste, onboard fans, and fins (or pipes) already put together. While it’s possible to replace the thermal paste in a GPU, it’s a bit more complicated, and you run the risk of damaging the unit if you don’t know how to disassemble it.
For a CPU, on the other hand, you will often be purchasing your CPU cooler independently of the CPU itself, so you’ll always want to apply the thermal paste between the two before you assemble everything.
How Thermal Paste Works
When you put two pieces of metal next to each other, theoretically, heat should be able to transfer between them effortlessly. However, while your CPU and your CPU cooler might look like they’re flush against each other, on a microscopic level, this isn’t actually the case.
There will always be small areas of air caught between your CPU and its accompanying cooler, no matter how well you think they’ve been pressed together. This is where thermal paste comes in! Because thermal paste starts as a liquid, it flows into all of the microscopic abrasions and cavities that might exist between your devices and their cooling components.
As we mentioned earlier, air acts as a thermal insulator. As such, if there are air pockets between your cooler and your CPU or GPU, the air will work a bit like a winter jacket, keeping the heat in the CPU. Not only will this damage your CPU if temperatures are allowed to go too high, but it renders your cooler useless, also!
Thermal paste bridges all of the little gaps between your heatsink and your processing unit, allowing heat to flow between them uninterrupted. However, some thermal pastes work better than others. We’ll delve more deeply into the differences between the various types of thermal pastes in the section below.
Thermal Paste Types
Thermal pastes and greases can vary in many different ways. To start, there are several different kinds of thermal pastes, such as silicone, graphite, liquid metal, ceramic, and carbon-based types. Thermal pads also exist, and although these have been inferior to thermal greases for many years, solutions that can perform equally to thermal grease have started to appear on the market.
In our lineup, we feature mostly ceramic-based thermal pastes, which are the most affordable and the easiest to apply, while also being very effective. However, we also have carbon-based and liquid metal thermal greases that made our best picks list, too. We also feature one thermal pad in this article.
Thermal paste compositions tend to vary between manufacturers, too. Each manufacturer closely guards the secrets of their own paste’s formulation, and some work better than others.
Ceramic thermal pastes are made from – you guessed it – ceramic. These pastes are thermally conductive but not electrically conductive. As such, they’re the easiest and safest to apply to your processors. They’re also the most popular, and they tend to be affordable, too.
Metal, on the other hand, is both thermally and electrically conductive. As such, liquid metal thermal pastes can be dangerous if not applied correctly.
While liquid metal thermal grease is easily the most effective of the thermal greases available today, if you spill even a little bit on the other components of your PC, you could cause unwanted damage. It’s also far more expensive than the other types of thermal paste we feature here.
Carbon-based thermal pastes, on the other hand, are similar to ceramic thermal pastes in that they are thermally conductive, but not electrically conductive. Carbon-based thermal pastes also apparently have a longer shelf life than other types of thermal paste.
Thermal pads come in several different materials, but the most common are silicone and graphite. These pads are firm at room temperature, but once the CPU hits higher temperatures, they soften, melting into the air pockets between your heatsink and CPU.
Some thermal pads are even reusable, meaning you can keep the pad if you upgrade your CPU or heatsink. Thermal pads have historically been unable to compete with thermal paste and grease in terms of cooling performance, but this has started to change.
How To Apply Thermal Paste
For the beginner, applying thermal paste might seem daunting. After all, applying an excessive amount of thermal paste can result in performance issues for your PC, as can applying too little! This danger is only multiplied when using something such as liquid metal thermal grease, which can cause permanent damage to your computer’s internal components if misapplied.
For most standard thermal pastes, such as the ceramic and carbon-based types, all you need to do is squeeze a pea-sized amount onto the area where the heatsink contacts the outside of the CPU. When you press the two pieces together during assembly, the thermal paste will spread out between them, filling any gaps or air bubbles.
Some ceramic thermal pastes may come with a spreader and instructions to spread the thermal grease before applying. We always recommend following the manufacturer’s directions for these pastes.
Application with liquid metal thermal paste is a bit different and involves spreading a very thin layer between the components of your PC. Again, always consult the manufacturer’s directions before applying your chosen thermal paste.
Using a thermal pad is a simple as removing any leftover thermal grease, then placing the pad between the heatsink and the CPU. Some of them can even be reused between different systems (with varying degrees of effectiveness).
Our Thermal Paste Results
The Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut is Thermal Grizzly’s answer to consumers needing a reliable, high-quality, and inexpensive ceramic thermal grease. However, because of this, it occupies a strange space between other ceramic pastes and the Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut.
It’s the most expensive ceramic paste in our lineup, but the temperature advantage over the next runner up (Gelid Solutions GC Extreme) is minimal.
While Thermal Grizzly’s products are undeniably high-quality, they tend to be more expensive than the competition. The unique performance of the Conductonaut thermal grease is a different story, but is there any reason to pay more for the Kryonaut when other competing pastes cost half as much?
The answer is: if you’re looking for the best possible performance out of your thermal grease, but you aren’t willing to make the jump to liquid metal (or you’re planning to apply both), then get the Kryonaut.
While the temperature difference between the Kryonaut pastes and the other ceramic pastes in this lineup is small, those few degrees can make a massive difference if you overclock or otherwise push your PC’s performance. This is where the Kryonaut will truly show its usefulness.
Thermal Grizzly’s Conductonaut has been the leader in thermal paste performance for several years now. However, that incredible performance comes at a price. To begin, the Conductonaut paste is a liquid metal paste, meaning it can cause damage to different parts of your computer system if it’s misapplied.
Additionally, you’re out of luck if your CPU has an aluminum heat sink or cover. The Conductonaut paste will react with any aluminum it comes into contact with, leaving ugly black marks and damaging the metal. It won’t be able to do its job in this situation, either.
Many users choose to use Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut between the die of the CPU itself and the CPU cover, then use a ceramic thermal grease between the cover and the heatsink. This is an option for performance aficionados, too, if you’re familiar with and confident performing the process.
We don’t recommend removing your CPU cover unless you know what you’re doing, especially when messing with conductive materials like Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut.
The Gelid Solutions GC Extreme is another premium paste that results in low temperatures and steady clock speeds.
Conveniently, the GC Extreme comes in three sizes: you can purchase it in the standard 1 gram tube, a slightly larger 3.5 gram tube with an included spreader, or a 10 gram tin. This will be a convenient option for PC builders or repairers who replace thermal paste regularly.
The Gelid Solutions GC Extreme also boasts no curing time, as well. This means that you can put it on, and it should do its job right away. Some other thermal pastes, especially those with thicker formulations, need to be heated or otherwise “burned-in” before they’ll show their full effect.
These pros make the Gelid Solutions GC Extreme stand out from the pack, and its performance is nothing to scoff at. However, as a ceramic thermal paste, it doesn’t quite measure up to the Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut, and at about the same price, it seems like a generally inferior choice.
The Gelid Solutions GC-2 is Gelid’s budget-friendly answer to those looking for an inexpensive thermal paste. At the same price as the GC Extreme, but with a stock 7-gram bottle, you get nearly seven times the product for the same price.
However, in the context of our study, the GC-2 does leave something to be desired in terms of performance. It comes in a full degree Celsius hotter than the GC Extreme.
That being said, this thermal paste does provide extraordinary value. Assuming you use enough thermal paste to go through the whole bottle before it expires, you would end up saving approximately 80% of your hard-earned money.
Someone who goes through a lot of thermal paste and isn’t concerned with maxing out performance would see amazing benefits from this paste. However, to the typical PC user or builder, this paste will be more than necessary volume-wise and less than you need performance-wise.
Released in 2019, Noctua has released a newer, better version of their previous thermal paste, and it’s none too shabby. While it only hits the middle of the pack performance-wise, the thermal paste is an excellent value. It comes standard in a 10-gram tube, meaning it’s excellent for substantial or repeated applications.
Like the Gelid Solutions GC-2, the sheer size of the Noctua NT-H1 makes it a bit excessive for many builders, especially if you only need one small application from it. Since the NT-H1 costs about twice as much as a tube of Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut, it would be a definite downgrade for just one use. However, for larger projects, you really can’t go wrong with this paste.
The Arctic MX-4 has been a staple of thermal compound users everywhere for generations. However, as newer and better compounds have entered the market, the Arctic MX-4 has fallen to the middle of the pack in terms of performance. While it still provides excellent thermal transfer at an appealing price, it is no longer the best option on the market.
However, the Arctic MX-4 paste is still unique because of its composition. It’s the only carbon-based entry in our lineup, so users explicitly looking for this will likely default to this paste. Because of its unique structure, it’s difficult to compare the MX-4 paste with other ceramic pastes.
In the end, it will be up to the user to decide whether the MX-4 is usable for them. While very affordable in a stock 4-gram tube and trusted for many years, it’s undeniably no longer the best. However, its loyal following means it will remain a contender for years to come.
The Arctic Silver 5 is another unique addition to the world of thermal paste and thermal grease. This is because the Arctic Silver 5, as its name suggests, contains small, suspended silver particles that assist with the thermal conductivity of the paste.
However, just like the Arctic MX-4, the Arctic Silver 5 has been overtaken by newer, superior brands of thermal grease in recent years. While it still performs admirably, even the thermal pad in our lineup beat out the Arctic Silver 5 paste in terms of performance.
Unfortunately, these specs don’t make the Arctic Silver 5 much of a contender, and its position is hurt all the more by the fact that the Silver 5 can potentially cause some electrical conductivity issues. While Arctic Silver maintains that the paste is not conductive, they recommend taking extra care not to spill it on your computer’s internal components anyway.
The Kingpin Cooling KPx thermal compound is a bit of a wild card among the thermal pastes in our lineup. The first thing users will notice is that the paste is blue instead of white or grey. The next thing they will notice is that the adhesive is extraordinarily thick. In fact, it’s recommended that you heat the paste slightly before applying, as it doesn’t spread easily otherwise.
Besides this slight barrier to use, the KPx paste shows excellent performance on our tests. However, it’s important to remember that thick pastes like the KPx must be applied differently than thinner ones. Additionally, this compound is a bit more expensive than similar ones in our lineup, though it still comes in cheaper than the Kryonaut, Conductonaut, and GC Extreme.
Cooler Master has been an active business to follow when it comes to PCs, accessories, and other tech-related gadgets. However, the Cooler Master High Performance Thermal Compound performed disappointingly in our stress tests.
While it’s still a viable thermal paste option, of course, it performed the worst out of all of the pastes we tested. It’s also not the cheapest option on the list, either.
As such, we really believe that this Cooler Master thermal compound should not be considered as an option when compared to our other contenders. As a standard ceramic thermal paste, it has no obvious advantages over our superior thermal pastes, and its performance and price are substandard.
However, we should note that some of Cooler Master’s other thermal grease options, such as the Cooler Master MasterGel Maker Nano, make a much better showing.
As we mentioned before in this article, thermal pads have not been effective enough in past years to warrant choosing them over a high-quality thermal paste. However, recently, that trend has started to change. This thermal pad from Innovation Cooling features graphite, an ultra-conductive material found in pencils and other sources.
While the Innovation Cooling thermal pad still can’t compare to high-end thermal greases, its numbers are nothing to scoff at. On top of that, thermal pads are increasingly attractive options because of their ease of use. Just clean off any thermal grease residue from your CPU and cooler, then place the thermal pad between them.
Additionally, Innovation Cooling claims that its thermal pad can be reused several times. Even though the small Innovation Cooling thermal pad costs as much as a bottle of Kryonaut, the fact that it can be used over and over again is compelling. Also, unlike thermal greases, this thermal pad has a near-indefinite shelf life, whereas many thermal greases will dry up or lose efficacy after several years.
How We Chose The Best Thermal Paste Products
When we’re looking over products to include in our buyers’ guides, we’re always looking for the ones that are useful and reliable to the consumer. As such, we like to provide a representation of the wide variety of products available while also choosing only the best options for you.
In the end, we believe that the Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut is the best option for an experienced PC builder to choose. While it’s the most expensive of the ceramic thermal pastes in this lineup, as far as PC additions go, thermal grease is not typically a significant expense anyway. It’s worth dropping a dollar or two more for a thermal grease that you know will perform in a superior way.
We also think that the Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut is an excellent additional option for true PC enthusiasts and those looking to push their overclocking to the max. However, we do recommend that only experienced and confident users purchase it, both because of its difficulty of use and its inherent dangers.
We also believe that beginners and experienced users alike might want to consider trying the Innovation Cooling Graphite Thermal Pad in their builds if they’re feeling adventurous. As a reusable, easy-to-install, and long-lived option, the potential of this cooling pad is very high. However, as this is a newer product that’s only just gaining a following, some users will still want to stick to their own picks instead.
Some of the products on this list are returning contenders that have been reliable options for years, while others are newcomers on the market that have enormous potential. We’ve done the testing and the research – now it’s up to you to decide which thermal paste is the best option for you!