One of the more intimidating parts of assembling a PC is installing a CPU cooler—or so it may seem. In reality, it’s a reasonably straightforward task, albeit one that requires a bit of care and attention. To that end, here’s our quick guide on how to install a CPU cooler.
Note that all coolers will come with instructions, and our guide isn’t designed to replace those. We can only offer a general guide, and you’ll still want to refer to your manufacturer’s instructions for more specific information.
What You’ll Need
Installing a CPU cooler doesn’t require much in the way of tools or preparation. All you’ll need are:
- A Phillips head screwdriver (an iFixit Mako Driver Kit is excellent if you plan on working with electronics regularly)
- Thermal paste (such as Arctic MX-6)
- A fan splitter cable (optional, only for dual-fan coolers)
However, note that some CPU coolers will come with some or all of these in the box, so you should check the box before buying any extras. Almost all will include some form of thermal paste, and some companies even throw in screwdrivers for higher-end units.
That said, we think it’s still a good idea to buy a high-quality thermal paste and use that instead of the included paste. You may even want to consider thermal pads, but more on this later.
A good Philips-head screwdriver is always handy to have, too. A good one will be useful for other PC maintenance tasks, such as removing and replacing your graphics card.
Step 1: Install Standoffs, Mounting Hardware, or Backplates
If you’re installing stock coolers, then you can skip this step. Intel and AMD motherboards come from the factory ready to receive their respective stock coolers.
Installing aftermarket coolers on Intel motherboards usually requires installing an additional backplate, which will come with the cooler. This most commonly involves sliding screws into the backplate and attaching it to your motherboard from the rear. Your CPU cooler will have clear instructions and point out any necessary standoffs or nuts you have to install.
AMD AM4 and AM5 motherboards usually won’t need an extra backplate. Instead, you’ll need to unscrew the stock CPU cooler mounting hardware and replace it with the rails and brackets that come with your cooler. Again, follow your cooler’s instructions on how to do this properly.
There are several different CPU cooler mounting systems on the market, with most manufacturers having their own take on the process. We can’t hope to cover them all here; instead, make sure to read the instructions that come with your CPU cooler. Many companies also upload YouTube videos detailing the installation process, which some of you may find more helpful than static illustrations.
Step 2: Apply Thermal Paste
Once you have all the necessary hardware in place, it’s time to get your CPU ready by applying thermal paste. Thermal paste goes on your CPU’s integrated heat spreader (the silver part with the model and manufacturer name) and helps conduct heat from your CPU to your CPU cooler’s heat sink.
Thermal paste is a surprisingly contentious part of PC assembly, and there are several methods of applying the paste. Thankfully, there’s really no major difference between all the various methods. Don’t believe us? Here’s Gamers Nexus’ take on the matter:
So, all you really need to do here is to take your tube of thermal paste and squeeze a bit out onto your CPU—no need to spread it out. We usually go with a blob or pea-sized dot.
A slightly more fool-proof and long-lasting option is to use thermal pads like Thermal Grizzly’s Kryosheet instead of thermal paste. Thermal pads don’t have any application issues, nor will they dry out like paste. They likely won’t perform quite as well as ultra-high-end thermal paste, but the longevity and the peace of mind they offer may make up for it.
Just be sure to get the correct size sheet for your application, and you’re good to go.
Step 3: Prepare Your CPU Cooler
Before you try to attach your air cooler, check the installation guide. Some CPU air coolers come with pre-installed fans but require removing them to install the cooler. If that’s the case with your product, do this before attaching the tower to your motherboard.
If your CPU cooler doesn’t have pre-installed fans, follow your instructions. If the manual suggests you install the fans before installing the cooler, then do so. If not, then go ahead to the next step.
Step 4: Attach Your CPU Cooler
Now, it’s just a matter of lowering your CPU cooler onto its mounting hardware while ensuring it’s facing in the right direction (usually front to back). Press down firmly on the cooler to ensure it spreads your thermal paste around evenly, then screw it into the mounting hardware.
Some coolers use four screws, while others use two. Whatever method your cooler uses, we recommend taking it slow. Tighten the screws alternately, starting loosely and tightening with each pass. If you have four screws, this will be an “X” pattern; if it only uses two screws (such as Thermalright’s Peerless Assassin 120 SE), alternate between them.
Well-designed mounting systems will have methods to ensure you don’t overtighten your screws. But even if your cooler doesn’t, you should be able to feel when your screws are just right. Just take it slow and never rush to tighten your screws down.
Note that Intel’s stock cooler (and some AMD stock coolers) don’t screw in; instead, the four plastic pegs simply snap into place with a little force.
Step 5: Install and Connect Your Fans
Now that your cooler is firmly attached to your motherboard, it’s time to install the fan(s). Simply clip them onto the tower, ensuring they’re facing the right direction and blowing toward the left (in other words, the rear of your case).
Once the fan(s) are in place, the final step is to plug the fan connector into the CPU fan header on the motherboard. Look for the header labeled “CPU_FAN” and plug your fan cable in there. The CPU fan header is usually along the top edge of the motherboard, close to the CPU socket.
Some motherboards, like the Gigabyte B650 Aorus Elite AX, will have two CPU fan headers, with the second one usually labeled “CPU_OPT” or similar. If you’re running a dual-fan heatsink, you can connect a second CPU cooler fan to the CPU_OPT header.
That said, we recommend daisy-chaining your CPU cooler fans with a fan splitter cable and connecting them to the same fan header. This lets you control both fans with one fan curve, making setting up the best fan curves much more straightforward.
Some dual-fan coolers come with fan splitters or daisy-chainable fans, so you may not even need to purchase a splitter to do this. Be sure to check the box and fan cables before you head off to Amazon.
There, that wasn’t that hard, was it? Installing a CPU cooler may seem like a tricky and fiddly process, but it’s much simpler and safer than you think. A good CPU cooler will come with clear instructions, whether in printed form or as a video; follow them, and you shouldn’t have any issues.
Building in a compact case and want some CPU cooler recommendations? Check out our list of the best low-profile CPU coolers.