How to Install a CPU Cooler: A Quick Guide

Written by Azzief Khaliq
Last updated Oct 27, 2023

Affiliate Disclosure: When you purchase products through our links, we may receive a commission at no additional cost to you.

How to Install a CPU Cooler

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

Note: This guide assumes that you’re installing a fresh CPU cooler on a new CPU. If you’re reusing either one, also need isopropyl alcohol and lint-free cloth to clean the old thermal paste.

Installing a CPU cooler doesn’t require much in the way of tools or preparation. All you’ll need are:

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.

Installing CPU cooler backplate

Source: Be Quiet!

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.

Installing CPU cooler mounting hardware

Installing Intel mounting hardware for a Be Quiet! CPU cooler. Source: Be Quiet!

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.

Applying thermal paste on CPU

Source: Voltcave

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

Installing CPU cooler

Source: Be Quiet!

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.

Installing CPU cooler

Source: Noctua

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

Plugging in CPU fan

Source: Be Quiet!

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.

CPU cooler fan headers

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

You May Like

The 6 Best CPUs for Streaming in 2023

The 6 Best CPUs for Streaming in 2023

Choosing the best CPU for streaming doesn’t have to be expensive. The advent of higher-quality GPU video encoding means that you can get good video quality at little to no CPU cost. This means that streaming is within the reach of anyone with a modern Intel or AMD...

Cherry Switch Comparison: Which MX Switch Is Right for You?

Cherry Switch Comparison: Which MX Switch Is Right for You?

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: choosing a switch for your mechanical keyboard is hard. It’s probably the most challenging part of getting into the hobby. The only proper way around it is to try as many switches as possible. But not everyone has that...

The 6 Best Graphics Cards for VR in 2023

The 6 Best Graphics Cards for VR in 2023

Virtual reality (VR) gaming perhaps hasn’t caught on as much as many of its early adopters expected. However, it’s still a fun and engrossing way to experience games. Whether you're interested in native VR experiences or VR mods for non-VR games, you’ll want the best...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *