Is Thermal Pads Better Than Paste?

When building or upgrading a computer, proper CPU cooling is crucial to maintain optimal performance and extend your hardware’s lifespan. The two most common methods for facilitating heat transfer away from the CPU are thermal pads and thermal paste. But which one offers better performance? This comprehensive guide examines the pros and cons of both options to help you decide what’s best for your needs.

What is a Thermal Pad?

What is a Thermal Pad?

A thermal pad is a thin sheet made of thermally conductive material that is placed between the CPU and the heatsink. Thermal pads are soft and pliable, allowing them to make maximum contact with the surface microscopists of the CPU and heatsink for efficient heat transfer.

Thermal pads are commonly made of silicone, rubber, graphite, or ceramic compounds. These materials exhibit thermal conductivity while also being electrically insulating. This prevents any shorts between the CPU and heatsink. Some premium thermal pads also include phase change materials that can absorb and dissipate heat through phase transitions.

Key properties to consider when selecting a thermal pad:

  • Thermal Conductivity – This measures how effectively heat transfers through the material. Higher values indicate better performance.
  • Thickness – Thinner pads allow for lower thermal resistance, but thicker pads can conform better to uneven surfaces. Common thicknesses range from 0.5mm to 2mm.
  • Stiffness – Softer pads spread better and fill microscopic gaps, but stiffer pads hold their shape over time. The optimal balance depends on your setup.
  • Electrical Conductivity – Pads must have low electrical conductivity to prevent shorts. Values are typically around 1-3 W/mK.

Thermal pads have evolved considerably in recent years with advanced materials and phase change compounds that boost effectiveness. Today’s high-end options like Thermal Grizzly Carbonaut offer conductivity rivaling pastes.

What is Thermal Paste?

What is Thermal Paste?

Thermal paste, also called thermal compound or thermal grease, is a thermally conductive gel applied between the CPU and heatsink. It is designed to eliminate air gaps by filling in the microscopic valleys and grooves on the mating surfaces. This allows for maximum contact and heat transfer.‌

Thermal paste is made from a silicone, metal oxide, or ceramic base, combined with thermally conductive filler materials like zinc oxide, aluminum nitride, or graphite. Some pastes also include liquid metals like gallium to boost thermal performance.

When selecting a thermal paste, key factors to consider include:

  • Thermal Conductivity – Values range from 2-12 W/mK for modern pastes. Higher is better for heat dissipation.‌
  • Viscosity – Thicker pastes resist oozing but can be harder to spread. Low-viscosity pastes spread easier but may drip.‌
  • Break-In Period – Some pastes require a “break-in” time to reach peak performance as the material settles.‌
  • Electrical Conductivity – Must be non-conductive to prevent electrical shorts.‌
  • Longevity – Higher quality pastes maintain performance for 3-5 years. Low-quality pastes dry out quicker.

In general, thermal paste offers better performance than pads, but also comes with more caveats. We’ll now compare the two options head-to-head.

Thermal Pads vs. Paste Comparison

Thermal Pads vs. Paste Comparison

Here is a detailed overview of how thermal pads and thermal paste stack up across the most important criteria:

Feature Thermal Pads Thermal Paste
Thermal Conductivity 6-12 W/mK (pads)<br>14-17 W/mK (premium pads) 8-16 W/mK
Application Easy – cut, peel, place Moderate – spreading evenly takes practice
Break-In Time None Some pastes require break-in period
Longevity 5+ years without replacement 3-5 years before drying out
Cost Efficiency Cheaper long-term cost per use Slightly cheaper upfront cost
Reliability Consistent performance if sized correctly More room for application errors
Reusability Not reusable once installed Can be cleaned and reapplied
Gaming Use Good budget option Preferred for max performance
Overclocking Handles mild overclocks Best for extreme overclocking

Thermal Conductivity

Winner: Thermal Paste

Thermal paste generally provides higher thermal conductivity values than pads, resulting in more effective heat transfer. Premium pastes boast conductivity of 12-16 W/mK, while the best pads range from 6-12 W/mK.

Pastes are able to achieve better performance by filling microscopic air pockets on the mating surfaces that resist heat transfer. High-grade pastes also utilize advanced materials like liquid metal alloys.

However, new high-end phase change thermal pads are catching up to mid-tier pastes in conductivity. Overall, paste still reigns supreme for pure performance.

Ease of Application

Winner: Thermal Pads

Applying thermal paste introduces extra steps compared to thermal pads. With pads, you simply cut them to size, remove the protective film, and place on the CPU before installing the heatsink. Thermal paste requires you to:

  • Carefully apply the paste to the CPU, avoiding over-application that can cause overflow.
  • Spread the paste evenly across the CPU surface, ideally with a plastic spreader.
  • Clean up any excess paste or spills. This requires isopropyl alcohol and coffee filters.
  • Wait for the paste’s break-in period to allow it to fully settle between the CPU and heatsink.

Pads avoid all these steps for quicker, cleaner installation. However, paste application becomes second nature once you get the hang of it.

Reliability & Longevity

Winner: Thermal Pads

When installed correctly, thermal paste lasts 3-5 years before needing re-application. Thermal pads can operate reliably for 5+ years without replacement.

The main reliability concerns with paste are pump-out and drying. Pump-out occurs when the paste is squeezed out from between the CPU and heatsink, interrupting the thermal interface. This can happen over time as the paste becomes thinner through heating cycles.

Paste also inevitably dries out over time as the solvents evaporate. This causes performance to decline. While high-end pastes last longer, re-application is eventually needed.

In contrast, thermal pads are compressed during installation but do not pump out or dry. Their conformal nature allows pads to maintain strong contact over years of use. For this reason, pads edge out paste in long-term reliability.

Performance Consistency

Winner: Thermal Pads

Achieving optimal performance with thermal paste is technique dependent. Applying too little paste results in air gaps. Too much causes overflow or pump-out over time. Ideal coverage takes practice to master.

In contrast, thermal pads perform consistently as long as you cut them to the correct size and remove the plastic film. There is little room for error. Pads also avoid any break-in period for the material to settle. This gives them an edge in foolproof performance.

That said, as you gain experience applying paste, the performance results become more consistent.

Cost Effectiveness

Winner: Thermal Pads

Both quality thermal pads and paste are quite affordable. However, pads tend to provide better value over their full usage lifetime.

Premium thermal pads cost around $10-15 for a 100x100mm sheet. This is enough for multiple applications. A 1-3g syringe of high-performance thermal paste costs $5-15 depending on the brand.

While paste is cheap up front, you need to factor in that it must be reapplied every 2-5 years. The cost of pads gets spread over their 5+ year lifespan. This gives pads the advantage in cost efficiency, especially for multi-build system builders.

Thermal Pad Recommendations

Here are some top thermal pad recommendations across budget levels:

  • Budget: Gelid Solutions GP-Ultimate – Offers 2 W/mK conductivity and 1mm thickness for under $10. Great entry-level option.
  • Mainstream: Gelid Solutions GP-Extreme – A step up to 6 W/mK conductivity and 0.5-3mm thickness options. The go-to for most builds.
  • High-End: Thermal Grizzly Carbonaut – Impressive 14.2 W/mK rating and 0.5-2mm thickness. Competes with premium pastes in performance.
  • Extreme: Fujipoly Ultra Extreme XR-m – Record-breaking 17 W/mK conductivity. Ideal for extreme overclocking setups.

Always match the pad thickness to your CPU and heatsink dimensions to ensure a snug fit. 1mm or 1.5mm pads suit most applications.

Thermal Paste Recommendations

For those opting for thermal paste, these are top-tier options to consider:

  • Budget: Arctic MX-4/MX-5 – Just $6-10 per 3-4g tube, with 8.5 W/mK conductivity and easy application. Extremely popular for good reason.
  • Mainstream: Noctua NT-H1/NT-H2 – Superb all-around pastes rated for 8-12 W/mK conductivity. Known for performance, ease of use, and longevity.
  • High-End: Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut – Leading 12.5 W/mK conductivity and non-curing formula for $10-15 per 1g syringe. Great for overclocking.
  • Extreme: Coollaboratory Liquid Ultra – A gallium alloy metal-based paste reaching 38 W/mK, but requires extra precautions during handling. Hardcore stuff.

Apply only as much paste as needed for ~1mm coverage across the CPU heat spreader. Don’t forget to clean off the old paste thoroughly before applying fresh material.

Do You Need Both Thermal Paste and Pads?

Do You Need Both Thermal Paste and Pads?

Using thermal paste and pads together is unnecessary in most instances and provides no added benefit. Both serve the same purpose of transferring heat between the CPU and heatsink. You only need one or the other installed in that junction.

However, certain GPU and motherboard chipset heatsinks employ thermal pads rather than paste. So your system may end up utilizing both solutions, just in different areas.

There’s no harm in doing so, but no reason to double up paste and pads between the CPU and cooler. Pick whichever option best suits that particular application.

Which is Better for Gaming PCs?

For a dedicated gaming PC build, thermal paste generally makes the most sense. Gaming rigs aim to push maximum frames per second, so CPU and GPU temperatures play a big role.

The superior thermal conductivity of pastes like Kryonaut or MX-4 allow gaming PCs to sustain higher boost clocks and performance. Premium paste also handles repeated heat cycles well for longevity.

However, for a budget gaming build, don’t hesitate to use thermal pads. Affordable pads like Gelid’s GP-Extreme offer great conductivity under 6 W/mK. This is ample for moderate overclocking and gaming. Just be prepared to replace pads down the road.

Which is Better for Laptops and Small Form Factor PCs?

In compact PCs where space is tight, thermal pads offer some nice advantages. Pads avoid the risk of paste overflow or pump-out that could cause problems in cramped confines. Their ease of installation is also handy where accessing components is trickier.

However, don’t discount thermal paste in laptops and small PCs. As long as you apply an appropriate amount, paste performs well and lasts years before needing re-application. For ultimate cooling, premium paste is still preferred, albeit with extra care taken during installation.

Which is Easier for Beginners?

For first-time PC builders new to thermal interface material application, thermal pads take the cake for simplicity. Pads just need to be cut to size and inserted – beginner friendly.

Applying thermal paste takes more care and finesse. Beginners may end up with uneven coverage, bubbles, dripping, or pump-out over time. There are more opportunities for mistakes compared to “peel and place” pads.

That said, don’t count yourself out if you’re willing to watch a few paste application tutorial videos first. With some practice, even beginners can capably apply quality paste like Arctic MX-4.

Final Verdict: Paste for Performance, Pads for Practicality

In summary, thermal paste provides superior thermal performance thanks to higher conductivity formulations and tight surface contact. This makes paste the enthusiast’s choice for overclocking. But thermal pads edge out paste in longevity, ease of installation, and cost efficiency over their lifespan.

For most mainstream PC builds, both thermal pads and paste deliver adequate cooling. There is no universally “right” choice overall. Your specific build goals and preferences should steer you toward the better option.

Aim for thermal paste in performance-driven systems where every degree counts. Opt for hassle-free thermal pads in budget builds or office PCs where simplicity is key. With quality materials, both solutions will serve you well. Just don’t use both at the same time between a CPU and heatsink – pick your favorite interface material and you’re good to go!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How often should I replace thermal paste/pads?

A: Thermal paste typically lasts 3-5 years before drying out and requiring fresh application. Quality thermal pads can operate reliably for 5+ years without replacement.

Q: Should I use rubbing alcohol to clean off old thermal paste?

A: Yes, isopropyl alcohol is recommended for cleaning off old thermal paste residue. Apply using a coffee filter and allow to fully dry before reapplying fresh paste.

Q: What thickness of thermal pad should I get?

A: 1mm is the most common pad thickness suitable for most CPU and GPU applications. Measure the gap you need to fill and get as close as possible for optimal performance.

Q: Can I stack multiple layers of thermal pads?

A: Yes, using multiple thinner pads to achieve your desired thickness is fine. Just ensure good contact between pad layers for heat transfer.

Q: Is liquid metal thermal paste worth it?

A: Liquid metal pastes like Coollaboratory Liquid Ultra offer the absolute best performance. However, they require extra precautions during application. Only recommended for experienced builders.


Thermal paste and thermal pads take slightly different approaches to the same task of facilitating heat transfer away from high-value computer components like CPUs and GPUs. Paste offers superior thermal conductivity for enthusiast overlockers. But pads edge out paste in longevity, ease of use, and cost efficiency over time.

For most mainstream PC builds, both solutions can get the job done. Do CPUs come with thermal paste? How to apply it? Pick whichever option best aligns with your specific build goals, needs, and experience level. With quality application, both thermal pads and paste will serve your system well through years of reliable cooling performance, ensuring optimal temperature management for your CPU.

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