When it comes to cooling your computer, there are a few different methods you can use. You can use fans, water cooling, or thermal paste or tape. Each has its own set of pros and cons, which we’ll discuss in this post. Let’s start with thermal paste.
A thermal interface material, often TIM for short, is a type of glue that helps transfer heat from one surface to another. It plays a vital role in the cooling process. A GPU’s heatsink and fan blow air over it and other components, but because there isn’t much physical contact between your CPU/GPU and the heatsink/fan, they can only move so much air. So you need an intermediary – or interface – for this newly created airflow to push against. Thermal paste fills the void and allows us to create more forcing power (air pressure) than would otherwise be possible with just fans alone. The result is faster, better cooling. If you’re using water instead of air as your cooling medium though, then thermal paste won’t do much for you and you’ll want to use thermal tape.
The thermal adhesive will hold for a very long time, and it will be a far superior option when it comes to heat transfer or thermal conductivity to your heatsink. A layer of thermal paste or thermal grease will form a complete coating over the top of the component. Because it is a thick liquid, it will fill in all the gaps on the component and the bottom of the heatsink. This provides much better heat transfer to the heat sink.
Thermal paste also has the benefit of being a very cheap way to improve your cooling. You can get a tube for a few bucks, and it’ll last you a long time. Thermal tape is a little more expensive, but it’s still much cheaper than upgrading to a watercooling system.
Thermal paste isn’t the best at conducting heat, so it can only do so much. If your CPU or GPU is running too hot, thermal paste might not be able to bring them down to a safe temperature. Additionally, thermal paste is messy and can be quite difficult to apply properly. It’s also easy to overapply, which can lead to performance issues and even damage your hardware.
Thermal tape, on the other hand, is great at conducting heat. It’s also much easier to apply than thermal paste, and less likely to cause any problems. However, it’s not as effective at transferring heat as paste, so it might not be the best choice if you’re dealing with a particularly hot component. Thermal tape is designed to take up any extra space between the heat sink and CPU package without spreading too far or being squeezed out when tightening down screws to secure everything in place. Applying this way means no mess. After applying the thermal tape, you have just enough room to secure the screws, which should be hand tightened initially, then one notch tighter with a screwdriver.
Thermal pads, on the other hand, will still lay down nicely on this nearly flat surface (similar to laying down a huge piece of plywood over my close to level ground). However, there will still be very small gaps between the CPU and the thermal pad. These small air gaps will provide slightly lower heat transfer conductivity rate as air is not as good at transferring heat.
If you’re still unsure if you should use thermal pad or thermal paste, both solutions will leave you with a very close-to-level surface on which to mount your heat sink. If temperature rise is a greater concern and you need that extra half a degree of temperature reduction, then go with the thermal paste. In components that consume much more power, such as a high-performance FPGA or CPU, using a thermal pad or thermal paste is not where the debate ends. You’ll likely need to add a cooling fan to these components to ensure temperature is brought down to an appropriate level.
That depends on your needs and what you’re trying to achieve. Thermal paste is better for improving airflow and cooling overall system temperatures, while thermal tape is better for transferring heat between two specific surfaces. Choose wisely!