Upgrading your standard CPU cooler has numerous benefits. It can extend the life of your CPU, moderate temperatures of a CPU that endures less than ideal thermal environments, give you more head room when over clocking, and give your case a little more visual appeal. Great for those that have a case featuring a clear side window. There seems to be an endless selection of aftermarket CPU coolers to choose from, and your decision should be based on how much physical clearance you have (motherboard and case), motherboard socket type, your budget and what you want from the cooler (high performance, looks or a combination of both). The process of changing a CPU cooler can be a little daunting for some and if not done carefully can go wrong. The intention of this guide is to give beginners an insight into what's involved when changing a CPU cooler; in most cases the manufacturer will provide you will detailed instructions on how to install their product. Think of this as a little preview before you dive right into it, and if you have any questions please feel free to ask on our forums.
As an example I'll be fitting a Thermaltake DuOrb CPU cooler to Gigabyte GA_MA790GP-DS4H motherboard. The DuOrb will be cooling a AMD Phenom X4 and all of this gear is housed in a Thermaltake M9D case. The following process will have a huge number of slight variations depending on what motherboard, aftermarket CPU cooler and case you have, but the basic principals will all be the same. The Thermaltake DuOrb is a higher end cooler and features its own provided backing plate to support the weight of the unit. Fitting this backing plate is where most of the work lies and if your case doesn't feature an access hole on the motherboard tray then you'll have to completely remove the motherboard from your PC case. Before you get started dissembling everything make sure you are working in a dust free clean environment.
Pictured above is the standard AMD Phenom CPU cooler which does a perfectly good job of cooling the CPU but like most PC components there's always room for improvement. The standard AMD CPU cooler is very easy to remove and all that is required is to pull back the blue lever (colour may vary depending on motherboard type) and release the two supporting clips. An Intel CPU cooler has four pins that you have to push down and twist to remove and is a little more fiddly than the AMD version. Unplug the 4 pin fan connector then lift and twist the unit away carefully from the motherboard, take your time here as you can actually rip the CPU out of the socket if you are not careful. You can remove the cooler before or after you remove the motherboard it doesn't really make a difference.
Here's the standard CPU cooler removed and as you can see there's still some of the old thermal compound left on the actual CPU.
Before the motherboard can be removed everything connected to it, excluding the RAM modules and actual CPU, has to be removed or unplugged. So your graphics card/s, PCI devices have to removed, SATA/IDE cables, audio cables, USB cables, motherboard power cables, front panel button and lights cables and any 3 pin case fans that are connected. This can be the scary part for anyone that has never attempted this before but if you take note of what goes where you should be fine. If you are unfamiliar with what cables with this make sure you have your motherboard and case manual with you for when you reinstall everything, then it will be just a case of matching everything back up. The power cables going to the motherboard will be straight forward and will only plug in one way, all cables going to the case (eg. front panel accessories) should be all labeled, and if you have multiple SATA/IDE devices you can just label them so you know where they go (eg. DVD drive goes into SATA port 1). Once you have cleared the motherboard of all cables and accessories carefully remove all the screws holding the motherboard to the motherboard tray.
With the motherboard screws removed you can lift the motherboard out of the case and now you have full access to both sides of the motherboard.
For this particular motherboard there is four screws holding the front bracket to the standard backing plate. Remove the four screws and put all the standard retaining hardware aside.
Here's the motherboard free from all standard CPU cooling hardware. Before installing the new aftermarket CPU cooler you have to clean the surface of the CPU. To remove the old thermal compound use a lint free cloth and some rubbing alcohol. Be careful not to smother the CPU in rubbing alcohol you'll only need a small amount on the cloth.
Here's the back of the motherboard ready to have the aftermarket backing plate fitted. Some coolers will come with double sided tape to hold the backing plate in place and some don't.
Now it's time to fit the retention bracket that comes with the aftermarket cooler, most of these coolers will come with a number of brackets to suit multiple socket types. Use the provided manual to ensure that you select the correct bracket for your socket type. As you can see in the above picture I have already fitted the brackets to suit the AMD socket.
The screws hold down the retention brackets and come through the motherboard then get fastened to the pre-threaded backing plate. (Each aftermarket cooler will have a different retention bracket setup) Before you get too excited and apply the thermal compound try test fitting the aftermarket cooler first to make sure you have the brackets in the right orientation.
Apply a thin layer of thermal compound to the CPU surface. Some aftermarket coolers will come with thermal compound that features an application brush, some will come in a squeeze tube and some just in a sachet. If you get the later two then just apply a small amount of thermal compound in the center of the CPU (approximately the size on a grain of rice) and spread the paste evenly across the CPU surface. Use a business card to spread out the thermal compound evenly across the CPU surface until you have a semi transparent layer.
The CPU cooler will come with a protective sticker/cover over the heat sink contact area that you will have to remove prior to fitting. After that place the CPU cooler onto the retention bracket and fasten it down using the provided screws/bolts/thumb screws, ensure that you tighten each screw down evenly and don't over tighten it or you may damage the mother board. Once the CPU cooler is on place plug in the four pin fan plug into the motherboard. (Some CPU coolers will come with an adjustable controller that has to mounted somewhere convenient but will still have a signal wire that needs to be plugged into the motherboard to give it a speed signal).
Now it's just a case of reversing the disassembly process you went through to remove the motherboard. Take your time here especially now that you have a larger CPU cooler in the way.
Here's a comparison of the standard CPU cooler verses the aftermarket version and you can clearly see the huge difference in size. The Thermaltake DuOrb is actually big enough that it covers the RAM modules so the fans also assist in keeping RAM cool as well.
Here's the finished product, it may not be to everyone's liking but now you have an example to give you an idea on what work is involved when upgrading to an aftermarket CPU cooler.
Written by Matthew Armitage
Special thanks to 4reedom for letting me use his PC as a demo.