Thermal paste is a hot topic in building communities, and is an important piece of the entire apparatus that is the cooling solution for the CPU and GPU. Thermal paste is necessary in both cases as the intermediary between the heatsink of our cooler and the die of our CPU/GPU because while metal on metal may seem to offer the highest transfer rate, the reality is that even with two flush pieces of metal, small pockets of air are trapped at the molecular level, and can lead to heat spikes and a lower overall heat transfer rate. The paste itself might not be quite as important as the cooler, but still plays an important role in the entire cooling process by ensuring a smooth overall transfer and a true air-less contact area.
Most coolers come with a pre-applied thermal paste, which is of middling quality in most cases, and means that first-time builders often do not even need to buy a separate thermal paste. But, as soon as you change the processor or have used your rig for a few years, re-applying thermal paste is necessary and advisable to help ensure your temps remain as low as possible and allow for maximum cooling.
So our article today is going to look at the best thermal pastes in a few different categories, all of which are a step above the pre-applied paste and should help ensure your temperatures are as low as possible. When choosing your thermal paste, you need to think of your budget, the level of risk/difficulty you are willing to accept, and just how cutting-edge you want to be.
With those things in mind, let’s take a look at our recommendations for best thermal pastes available today:
Best Thermal Paste – My Recommendations
Best Overall Thermal Paste
The leading thermal paste solutions today use what we refer to as a ‘ceramic’ compound, meaning that the thermal paste itself uses a non-conductive ceramic based compound that is safe (thanks to its lack of electrical conductivity) and effective (thanks to its high thermal conductivity). The transfer of heat from the CPU/GPU die to the cooling solution (fan/heatsink, water block, etc.) is then high, and the risk of leaking some thermal paste onto the motherboard/chipset is mitigated. This low risk-high reward type of solution is the new favorite for almost all builders, and amongst ceramic compound thermal pastes, none continuously tops the tests like the Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut.
Thermal Grizzly is one of the top names in thermal pastes, and focuses almost exclusively on these thermal paste/grease products. Amongst their lineup, the Kryonaut paste is the ceramic compound that is by far the most popular product. We recommend choosing one of the Kyronaut product that comes with the easy-applicator tube and not the separate plastic spreader, but both work equally well once on the die. Even at $14 for around 4g of thermal paste (good for about three/four applications), the value of Kyronaut makes it an easy choice.
The Kyronaut isn’t the cheapest, and some Noctua fans prefer the Noctua NT-H2, which is a great product, but about 1 degree less effective in most tests, but the overall benefit of a ceramic-compound and the high quality of the Kyronaut makes it our choice for best overall thermal paste.
Best Budget Thermal Paste
If you are really on a budget and want to save a few bucks, Arctic Silver 5 is about half the price and offers still great performance. Tests put it between 3-5 degrees less effective in ideal conditions than the Kyronaut, but it will still get the job done better than the pre-applied paste on most coolers, and at a nice savings for anyone building a budget rig or a less heat producing machine.
Best Carbon-Based Thermal Paste
Before ceramic compounds took over the thermal paste market, the tried and true classic was the carbon-based thermal paste, and some high-quality solutions still exist today. Carbon compounds are equally non-electrically conductive, which makes them safe and low-risk for application. Even more so, they tend to be quite inexpensive. In terms of advantages over ceramic compounds, there isn’t a true advantage to the consumer, except in very specific circumstances. Carbon-based compounds have a longer shelf life, meaning they will stay effective better between builds, which could be of use for those that plan on building once very several years and want to use the same thermal paste each time. Otherwise, the biggest advantage is the price point. So if you want a thermal paste with a carbon-based compound, we recommend the classic Arctic MX-4.
Arctic MX-4 has been around for quite some time, and even longer in its previous versions (MX-2, MX-3). The low-cost thermal paste still delivers great performance, and costs considerably less than the high-end Thermal Grizzly Kyronaut. The easy application and lack of electrical conductivity means it’s safe for even entry-level builders. Arctic is also well known, for its thermal pastes but also for its fans/CPU coolers and is a trusted name in PC cooling solutions. Overall, at around $7 for 4 grams, MX-4 is a strong option for the occasional PC builder on a budget.
Best Liquid Metal Thermal Paste
For the more adventurous, or more serious overclockers, there exists a level of thermal paste that is riskier, but offers potentially higher rewards. These thermal greases, known as ‘liquid metal’, are highly thermally conductive. But, with the increased heat transfer capacity comes an additional risk: electrical conductivity. For the inexperienced builder, the risk is much higher than you spill a portion of your liquid metal thermal paste and cause a short somewhere within your machine. As such, we recommend being careful choosing a liquid metal, and only selecting the high-risk high-reward option if you are sure of your PC building skills. But if you want the best of the best and don’t mind a bit or risk to get there, the Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut is the best liquid metal paste on the market, and will give you the best temps possible.
As we mentioned above, Thermal Grizzly is a trusted producer of thermal pastes and while Kyronaut is their most popular for mainstream use, the liquid metal Conductonaut is the high-end example of what a thermal paste can be. It comes in small amounts as it is very important to be careful when applying, but if done properly, is unmatched in heat transfer and corresponding temps of the CPU/GPU die to which it is applied. Other liquid metal solutions exist, but if you are already decided on going for the experienced option, we recommend investing in the Conductonaut as the best available.
When we say that the Conductonaut is the best and for experienced users only, we are also considering its relative price. We consider Kyronaut to be on the high end of the spectrum at $14 for nearly 4g, but Conductonaut is four times as expensive. At $15 for 1 gram, you know you are getting the best, but you are paying for it. So for the experienced builder with budget to spare, we recommend the Conductonaut as the best liquid metal thermal paste on the market.
Best Graphite Thermal Paste
Outside of the ‘mainstream’ thermal pastes, which even included liquid metal arguably, we begin to see some of the more cutting-edge, innovative options. While these are by no means common, some reviews show them as economic choices that have one major advantage: reusability. For recent builders, the choice has always been between one-shot options and thermal pastes that are effective, but require reapplication any time the CPU/GPU are changed or every few years for best efficiency. But recent advancement in graphite technology has led to the reusable graphite or silicon pads, which are nearly as effective as even the best thermal pastes, and can be reused between builds and have an infinite (or nearly infinite) shelf life. Amongst these newer solutions, graphite seems to be the more interesting. And amongst the graphite pads, we recommend the option from Innovation Cooling, the Innovation Cooling IC Graphite Thermal Pad.
Innovation Cooling is not necessarily well-known, but they are the true drivers of this type of graphite pad for PC cooling. Thermal Grizzly recently produced a similar style pad (called the Carbonaut), but IC is by far the more popular product, and for good reason. The IC Graphite pad is reusable multiple times, extremely easy to apply compared to liquid metal or ceramic compounds, and is nearly as effective in heat transfer. It is almost as expensive an investment to begin with at $10, but when you consider its long shelf life and reuseability, it becomes the most economic option available.
So for someone that does not want to deal with applying and spreading a paste, or for someone that wants to avoid waste as much as possible with a reuseable product, a graphite pad is an interesting option, and there is none better than the Innovation Cooling IC Graphite Thermal Pad.
In reality, all of these different thermal pastes will be very competitive and should allow your cooling solution to work at its maximum potential. At the highest-end, for serious overclockers, you may see a larger difference between liquid metal and a carbon-based compound, but for your average user, you are looking at a range of around 4-6 degrees between the ‘best’ ceramic compound and the best budget option. That is nothing to scoff at, but keep it in mind when thinking of investing more in the paste vs investing more in your cooler itself!
Finally, its equally important to apply your paste correctly! So be sure to watch a video or two on YouTube to understand how to best apply thermal paste and ensure you make the most out of your entire cooling apparatus.