When building a desktop for the first time, or it’s been a while since you assembled one, you must consider how you’ll cool your Intel central processing unit (CPU). Does Intel provide a stock cooler, or should you get an aftermarket solution? After all, your decision will change the final cost of your build.
Which Intel Processors Come With Coolers and Thermal Paste?
Intel provides stock coolers for all their locked CPUs. You can identify whether a CPU is locked or unlocked by looking at its stock-keeping unit (SKU) number.
The CPU is unlocked and doesn’t come with Intel’s default cooling solution if you find K, KF, KS, XE, and X in the naming scheme.
Locked CPUs mean you can’t change the stock settings like clock speed, voltage, and power.
Therm paste will be pre-applied if the processor has a cooler in the box. All you have to do is mount the cooling solution and ensure sufficient pressure between the CPU and the socket.
You might wonder why Intel doesn’t provide coolers for their unlocked CPUs. With unlocked CPUs, you can change the stock settings to improve performance.
However, this comes at a cost – additional heat.
Most Intel stock coolers are unable to dissipate the extra heat. As a result, the CPU will start to thermal throttle.
This reduces the clock speed, which in turn affects your performance. You’ll notice this while playing video games as it will suddenly stutter or frames per second (FPS) drop significantly.
Are Intel’s Stock Coolers and Thermal Paste Enough?
When you’re building a PC, every dollar you save counts. With the extra money, you can increase the budget for other components, like your graphics card.
At times, this may even mean going for a higher-tier card.
Generally, the default cooler is sufficient if you get a locked Intel CPU. However, this depends on the use case of your desktop.
For instance, if you’re only going to use your computer for light-medium tasks, like occasional gaming, office work, or as a media hub, it can handle the workload and keep the temperature under control.
Do remember that this depends on the case you use. Cabinets with poor airflow will increase the CPU temperature.
The stock cooler may not be adequate for heavier workloads, such as extended gaming, video editing, or other CPU-intensive tasks.
In this case, you’ll need an aftermarket solution as it can dissipate the heat produced by these workloads. Not only will you have to look for a cooler, but you’ll also need thermal paste.
Although stock coolers mean you don’t have to spend extra money on a cooling solution, they have a few drawbacks.
- They are noisier than their aftermarket counterparts. This is because the fans ramp and run faster, producing more noise and vibration inside the case.
- The CPUs run hotter with stock coolers when compared to aftermarket components.
For the longest time, you could use the default Intel cooler for several generations of processors. This is no longer true, as Intel increased the CPU socket size from LGA 1200 onwards.
Also, as Intel continues to release newer generations of CPUs, they improve the efficiency of their processors.
This means the CPUs produce less heat, making it easier for the stock cooler to dissipate the heat and keep the processor cool.
How To Select an Aftermarket CPU Cooler?
If you want a quieter desktop, you’re not happy with the CPU temperatures, you find the processor thermal throttles, or you bought an unlocked CPU, an aftermarket cooler is essential.
However, when you take a look at the market, you find there are thousands of options.
Which one gives you the best performance while keeping the overall noise low? We’ve created a simple guide to help you pick the right one for your desktop.
How much are you okay with spending on a cooling solution? You can go as low as tens of dollars or spend hundreds of dollars for premium products.
The budget determines what kind of cooling solution you can buy and how much you can expect to keep your CPU’s temperature in check.
For low-budget builds, go for air coolers, which are cheap and easy to install.
You should go for all-in-one (AIO) coolers if you can extend your budget, as they use liquid to cool your CPU.
Custom liquid cooling loops are also an option, but they cost several hundred dollars.
Once you’ve set a budget for the CPU cooler, you need to look at various models and see which one gets you the best performance.
After you’ve decided which cooling solution you want, you must look at its dimensions.
This is to ensure the CPU cooler can fit in the case comfortably. If you don’t check the dimensions, you may have problems installing the cooler.
For example, it may come in the way of your Random Access Memory (RAM) sticks. This means you’ll have to remove the RAM to install the CPU cooler.
Sometimes, it won’t fit in the case, or it will touch the side panel.
The easiest way to know whether a CPU cooler will fit is to look at the case’s user manual. It contains information about the maximum allowed CPU cooler in the cabinet.
There are three types of CPU coolers:
The cheapest of the lot, these coolers are an easy way to reduce the CPU temperature under load. They come at various prices, depending on your requirements. It’s also easy to install.
However, ensure the cooler you get can be installed on your motherboard. The downside of air coolers is that they can be noisier than other solutions we’ve suggested.
If you can extend your budget or want to keep your system cool without producing too much noise, AIO coolers are for you. These cooling solutions come with a pump, radiator, fans, and pipes.
When compared to air coolers, you get lower temperatures. This allows you to overclock your CPU harder to get better performance. They are also quieter as the provided fans run at lower speeds.
They come in different sizes – 120 mm, 240 mm, and 360 mm. In other words, you’ll get a single, double, or triple fan layout.
However, the downside is that it isn’t as easy to install as air coolers. As there are more parts, you need to account for them while you fit an AIO cooler in the case.
Since it uses liquid to keep the CPU cool, there’s always the risk of a leak, which will short-circuit all your PC parts.
You need to mount it properly, i.e., the pump is always higher than the radiator. Otherwise, it will cause air bubbles to travel from the radiator to the pump. This damages the pump and will ultimately cause it to fail.
Custom Liquid Coolers
You can also go for custom liquid coolers to get the best performance from your CPU. However, installing one on your system is complex.
Not only will you need to assemble and connect all the parts, but you also have to ensure you install the components properly.
Custom liquid coolers are for those who know what they’re doing. Also, it can cost several hundreds of dollars (it can even cost more than the total cost of your desktop in some cases).
The benefit is that you can customize it per your cooling and aesthetic requirements.
For example, you can choose the design of the pipes, if you want hard or soft tubes, and the type and color of the liquid.
4. Thermal Design Power (TDP)
The TDP of a cooler gives you an estimate of how much heat produced by the CPU it can dissipate. Ideally, you want a cooling solution with a higher TDP than your processor.
This gives you enough headroom in case you decide to overclock your CPU.
Should You Get Aftermarket Thermal Paste for Intel’s CPUs?
Thermal paste improves heat transfer from the integrated heat spreader (IHS). This is the metallic part you see sticking out of the CPU socket after you’ve installed the processor.
Although this component looks smooth to the naked eye, it has imperfections on the surface. This decreases heat dissipation, which you can improve with thermal paste.
Applying thermal paste on the IHS fills the gap between the imperfections, resulting in a uniform surface.
If you have a locked CPU, you don’t need to get aftermarket thermal paste, as the default one should suffice. After a few years, you’ll need to replace it. This is because the paste dries out.
However, thermal paste is a must if the temperature continues to rise or you got an unlocked CPU.
How To Choose the Right Thermal Paste
Like CPU coolers, there are many options for thermal paste. Each manufacturer promises incredible cooling performance at different prices.
One thing to note is that the paste is only as effective as your CPU cooler. If the cooling solution cannot keep up with the heat produced by the processor, the paste will be ineffective.
Here’s a simple guide on selecting the right thermal paste for your desktop.
The materials the manufacturer uses to play a significant role in the cooling performance. There are three options you can choose from.
Silicone-based thermal paste is the cheapest of the lot. This is because they aren’t as effective as others in dissipating heat.
However, if you’re on a tight budget, it can get the job done until you can get a better product.
Ceramic-based products should be your number one option if you’re looking for a thermal paste that provides excellent value for money.
Although you’ll have to shell out a bit more than silicone-based thermal paste, it offers much better cooling.
On top of that, they are also not electrically conductive. This means you don’t have to worry about the thermal paste spilling on the motherboard (you should still remove any excess paste either way).
Metallic-based products give you the best cooling performance out of all the thermal pastes. For a quieter system, you can run the case fans and CPU cooler at lower speeds.
However, it would be best to be extremely careful when applying metallic thermal paste. As it is electrically conductive, any spillage will damage other components.
Viscosity determines how easy it is to apply the thermal paste. Lower viscosity means you can expect it to cover the CPU IHS easily.
However, it can also spread to the motherboard if you aren’t careful.
Higher viscosity results in a thicker thermal paste, which means it won’t spill out. It works well with air coolers that use heat sinks to come in contact with the CPU’s IHS.
3. Thermal Conductivity
Thermal conductivity is the ability of the paste to remove heat from the IHS and transfer it to the CPU cooler.
The better the thermal conductivity, the better the compound dissipates heat, improving the cooling rate.
Look for pastes with higher thermal conductivity if you want the best performance.
Metallic pastes have higher thermal conductivity than non-metallic variants.
Note: When selecting a cooler and paste for your CPU, check out reviews on websites and YouTube. This will give you clarity on what to expect from your cooling solution.