|Xigmatek Thor's Hammer S126384 CPU Cooler|
|Reviews - Featured Reviews: Cooling|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Wednesday, 18 February 2009|
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Thermal Interface Material Application
Over the past several months, I have read an unreasonable number of discussion forum posts which offer inaccurate and often times incorrect information. It's not really all that surprising to read poorly conceived information on the Internet, which seems to be a anonymous means of passing off opinion for fact. As a general rule we don't let too many things go untested, and the advice of wanna-be experts is not doing the hardware enthusiast and overclocker community any good. In this article, Benchmark Reviews dispels myth and establishes fact on the topic of proper application in our Best Thermal Paste Application Methods article.
After we wrote our 33-Way Thermal Interface Material Comparison article, many enthusiasts argued that by spreading out the TIM with a latex glove (or finger cover) was not the best way to distribute the interface material. Most answers from both the professional reviewer industry as well as enthusiast community claim that you should use a single drop "about the size of a pea". Well, we tried that advice, and it turns out that maybe the community isn't as keen as they thought. The example image below is of a few frozen peas beside a small BB size drop of OCZ Freeze TIM. The image beside it is of the same cooler two hours later after we completed testing. If there was ever any real advice that applies to every situation, it would be that thermal paste isn't meant to separate the two surfaces but rather fill the microscopic pits where metal to metal contact isn't possible.
After discussing this topic with real industry experts who are much more informed of the process, they offered some specific advice that didn't appear to be a "one size fits all" answer:
The more we researched this subject, the more we discovered that because there are so many different cooling solutions on the market it becomes impossible to give generalized advice to specific situations. Despite this, there is one single principal that holds true in every condition: Under perfect conditions the contact surfaces between the processor and cooler would be perfectly flat and not contain any microscopic pits, which would allow direct contact of metal on metal without any need for Thermal Interface Material. But since we don't have perfectly flat surfaces, Thermal Material must fill the tiny imperfections. Still, there's one rule to recognize: less is more.
Surface Finish Impact
Here's the part I've been waiting to reveal... the importance of surface finish in relation to the impact on thermal conductivity. CPU coolers primarily depend on two heat transfer methods: conduction and radiation (heat-pipes also add convection). This being the case, let's start with conduction as it related to the mating surface between a heat source and a cooler.
Because of their density, metals are the best conductors of thermal energy. As density decreases so does conduction (of heat), which relegates fluids to be naturally less conductive, and gases as virtually non-conductive. So ideally the less fluid between metals, the better heat will transfer between them. Ultimately though, this means that the perfectly flat and well-polished surface (Noctua NH-U12P) is going to be preferred over the rougher and less even surface which required more TIM to fill the gaps (Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme).
Heat radiation is different however, and requires exactly the opposite. Because gases (air) are naturally poor heat conductors, surface area of the heatsink is key to the cooling performance through convection. This type of cooling is what you commonly see in automobile radiators, which utilize large arrays of metal fins to radiate heat to be drawn away by a fan. The same is true for the CPU cooler, which needs as much surface area as possible to optimize it's radiative effects. OCZ and others have recognized that the surface of a heatsink does not have to be the sum of its overall size. By adding dimples and bends, the surface area is increased without growing the overall dimensions.
To sum it all up, science teaches us that a smooth flat mating surface is ideal for CPU coolers so that less Thermal Interface Material is used. Because these coolers are using fans to force air over the heatsinks fins, the overall surface area of those fins should be as large and uneven as possible. In the next section we'll find out just how well all of these principals worked for our collection of test products.