How to install a CPU cooler: A beginners guide

How to install a CPU cooler: A beginners guide

Installing a CPU on the motherboard is just a part of the process. In fact, it’s one of the easiest steps in the PC building process. The next step is to install a cooler to maintain the thermal output of the CPU. Regardless of the CPU — be it an entry-level chip or the best CPU on the market — installing a cooler for it is a must. Failing to do so or installing it poorly will result in extremely high CPU temperatures and you’re system will shut down before you even enter the operating system. In this guide, we’ll take you through the steps involved in the process to teach you how to install a CPU cooler.

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Before we begin, it’s worth pointing out that CPU coolers are of two types — CPU fan coolers a.k.a air coolers, and liquid coolers. Installing an air cooler is easier than setting up liquid cooling for your PC, but we’ll take you through the steps involved in installing both types of coolers in this article.

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Prerequisites

  • Thermal paste: A lot of CPU coolers come with pre-installed thermal paste these days, but it’s best to have your own syringe of thermal solution. DO NOT install the second layer of thermal paste on the CPU if you’re cooler has a pre-installed layer of the paste.
  • Tools: You’re going to need a Philips head screwdriver for this installation. A lot of air coolers can be installed without any tools, but you’ll need one to install liquid coolers, to open the PC case, and more.

How to install a CPU air cooler

A stock AMD cooler installed on a motherboard

When it comes to CPU air coolers, you’re essentially looking at a heatsink and a couple of fans depending on how big the cooler is. The best fan coolers including the Noctua NH-D15 come with a massive heatsink and two fans to move the air through the heatsink. But regardless of the size of the cooler and the number of fans, the overall process remains the same.

The first thing you need to do is fetch the right bracket for installing the cooler. This will differ based on the processor socket. Intel’s new Alder Lake CPUs use LGA 1700 socket while the AMD Ryzen 5000 series chips use an AM4 socket. Almost all CPU cooler manufacturers bundle both brackets for both Intel and AMD chips. Alternatively, you can also select the bracket of choice while purchasing the cooler kit. This step isn’t necessary in the case of stock coolers, as they’re designed to work with the bundled CPU.

  • The first step is to install the backplate on the motherboard. As the name suggests, this particular unit is installed on the back of the motherboard to support the cooler. You can install it by holding the backplate in place and securing it by installing the standoffs on the front.

A CPU cooler backplate being installed on the back of a motherboard

  • Now would be a good time to check for thermal paste. Remember, if your CPU cooler already has thermal paste then there’s no need to apply another layer. If you’re installing a fresh layer of the cooler, then you can check out our easy on how to apply thermal paste.
  • Once done, line up your CPU cooler by holding it on top of the CPU. You need to carefully line up the connector of your cooler with the holes on the board or the standoffs we installed earlier. Depending on how sophisticated the cooler is, you may have to remove the fans from the heatsink to be able to line up and install it properly.

A stock AMD CPU cooler being installed on the motherboard

  • Now that the CPU cooler is in place, it’s time to secure it using connectors. For this, we’ll be using an X pattern to tighten the cooler. You’ll work your way through the screws diagonally, meaning go for the screw that’s diagonally opposite to the first instead of going around the CPU in a square pattern. We do this to make sure you’re creating an even pressure across the processor. It also helps spread the thermal paste evenly on the CPU IHS.
  • The last step in the case of air coolers is to mount the fans on the heatsink. This only applies if you removed the fans previously before mounting the heatsink. You may need to consult the cooler manual to see how the fans attach to the heatsink. This step is different for each cooler.

How to install a CPU liquid cooler

Installing a CPU liquid cooler is a little complicated mainly because it involves a few additional steps. We’ll be showing you how to install an AIO liquid cooler for this guide. The AIO liquid coolers, in case you don’t know, are closed-loop liquid coolers with a CPU water block, coolant pipes, a radiator, and a couple of fans. Alternatively, you can also install an open-loop or a custom loop for your build. We won’t be installing that for this beginners guide.

  • The first step in the case of liquid coolers is similar to what we did for air coolers. Fetch the correct bracket for the cooler based on the CPU socket, mount the backplate, and install the water block.

A liquid cooler water block installed on a motherboard

  • Now, it’s time to mount the radiator on the PC case. Before that, you may have to install the fans for the radiator. You can either mount the fans on the radiator itself or install them separately on the case. This will depend on the PC case and the amount of space you have inside the chassis to work with. The idea is to move the fresh air through the radiator to carry the heat away from it.

CPU cooler fans installed separately on the PC case

  • We’ll be installing the fans separately to the case, so we’ll mount just the radiator on the case. You need to make sure your PC case is ready for the cooler and it has enough space to mount the unit. We’re installing a high-end AIO for this guide with a 360mm radiator, but the process remains the same for all sizes, including the smaller 120mm unit.
  • You can mount the radiator and the fans on the case using long screws bundled with the cooler. Make sure the coolant pipes move freely and aren’t in contact with other components, especially the case fans.

Plug everything for power

An Aorus Waterforce x360 CPU water block with a display

Once you have everything attached, it’s time to ensure the cooler and the fans all have power. Everything from water blocks to air coolers and radiator fans needs power. Powering a simple air cooler is easier than connecting all the wires in case of a liquid cooler. Depending on the number of fans, you may have to use a controller to make your connections easier. We recommend consulting both the CPU cooler and the motherboard manual to find proper headers to connect them. We can’t possibly explain this in detail for each type of cooler and motherboard on the market. The manual is your best friend while connecting to the appropriate power source.

How to install a CPU cooler: Final Thoughts

With that, you’ve successfully installed the CPU cooler for your build. Picking the best CPU cooler for your build is extremely important. There are plenty of CPU coolers to choose from, so be sure to go with the one that suits your build. Stock coolers bundled with the CPU are more than enough to maintain the thermal output of the CPUs under stock settings. That being said, we recommend stepping up to a better third-party cooler if you plan on overclocking the CPU. Good luck!

About author

Karthik Iyer
Karthik Iyer

Karthik covers PC hardware for XDA Computing. When not at work, you will find him yelling at his monitors while playing video games.

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