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How to Install a CPU Cooler (With Photos)

Step by Step Walkthrough for Beginners (Intel Stock Fan Installation Example)

Published On: Sep 16, 2019

If you're following along with our complete computer assembly tutorial for beginners, you've now installed the CPU onto the motherboard and it's time to learn how to install a CPU cooler onto your processor and motherboard. There are 4 different types of CPU coolers you could be installing for your PC build:

  • Stock Cooler (Intel or AMD)
  • Aftermarket Cooler (eg Cooler Master 212 Evo)
  • All-in-One Liquid Cooler (eg NZXT Kraken x72)
  • Custom CPU Liquid Cooling

In this CPU cooler installation guide we'll be explaining how to install the Intel stock fan, but if you're installing a different CPU cooler this tutorial may still be all the information you need when paired with what's included in your manual as the overall process is fairly similar for installing different types of CPU coolers (excluding custom water loops which is a much more involved installation). If referring to your CPU cooler's instruction manual isn't enough, check if your manufacturer has a more detailed walkthrough guide on their website or have a look around the web.

1. Apply Thermal Paste (Optional)

Thermal paste, also called thermal grease or thermal compound, is a substance used between the CPU and the CPU cooler to eliminate air gaps and to maximize heat transfer between the CPU and cooler. Stock CPU coolers will come with thermal paste already pre-applied on them, so there's no need to buy and apply your own unless you want to ensure you're using the highest quality paste. As you see below, the grey strips in the middle of the underside of our Intel stock cooler is the thermal paste:

The grey bits are the pre-applied thermal paste which will get the job done unless you want to apply your own

If you're installing a third-party/aftermarket CPU cooler, it may or may not come with paste, and it may or may not come with it pre-applied. Consider buying and applying your own paste if you want to squeeze out the most cooling performance possible (the Arctic 5 or MX-4 pastes are greatand; see our guide to the best PC building tools to learn more). Top-quality pastes like these will usually work slightly better than any paste that comes with a cooler, but if you're not much of a hardware enthusiast you can get away just using the paste that comes pre-applied or that comes shipped with your cooler and you'll be just fine.

If you are applying a third-party paste, what you need to do is squeeze a tiny amount about half the size of a pea (or a little bigger than a grain of rice) onto the middle of the top of your CPU (not onto your cooler). Then, use a clean implement like a credit card (or use your finger by placing it in a plastic bag) to spread the paste out to the edges in an even layer so that the top of your CPU is fully covered in the paste.

2. Mount CPU Cooler Onto Motherboard

Fitting a stock cooler is very simple, but again if you're installing a third-party cooler the process may be a little more involved so you'll want to refer to your specific cooler's manual. Before fitting the cooler onto your motherboard, you'll first want to check where the power connector for your cooler is located on your particular motherboard, so that you can align the cooler so that the cable can comfortably reach that connection.

Making sure you've grounded yourself beforehand by touching a metal object, carefully lower your cooler onto the top of your CPU by lining up the four corners with the four holes on the motherboard:

You need to align each corner of the CPU cooler with the 4 holes that surround the CPU socket on the motherboard

To lock it in place you need to push down on each of the four corners until you hear a clicking sound for each. But before doing that, make sure the cooler is positioned so that the power cable can easily reach the power connector, as it doesn't matter which way around the cooler is installed. The power connector is a 4 pin connector and should be labelled on your motherboard as “CPU FAN” or something along those lines. On the MSI board we used for this guide it's named “CPU_FAN1”. 

Find where the CPU cooler connects to your motherboard before installing so the cable can easily reach

3. Secure CPU Cooler in Place

To check if the cooler is properly locked in, carefully lift the motherboard and check to see whether the four corner of the cooler have all come through on the back of the motherboard. Remember to only touch your motherboard by its edges. Also, try to gently lift the cooler out of its place to see if it's nice and firmly locked in.

It should be tight, and if one of the push pins isn't locked in place properly you won't have an evenly balanced cooler which may lead to undesirable temperatures down the track because the cooler base isn't entirely touching the processor. So take your time to make sure it's installed correctly. If you ever need to remove your cooler, you'll need to twist each of the four corners 90 degrees in a counter-clockwise direction before lifting it out.

4. Connect Fan Cable to Motherboard

Now your cooler is in place, connect the power cable to the matching four pin connector on the motherboard which should be labelled “CPU_FAN1” or something similar as mentioned before.  Make sure your cooler's power cables don't lay across the cooler fan. Rotate your cooler fan blades by hand to check if it could come into contact with the power cables. Play around a little with the location of the power cables if it either touches or is super close to the fan blades so that they're out of the way. That's all there is to installing your cooler so let's move on.

That's pretty much all there is to installing the Intel heatsink and fan. Very simple, but as mentioned before other CPU coolers may have additional steps so refer to your manual. Refer to the main how to assemble a computer guide for steps on installing all your other parts.

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Anyway, hope this guide helped and good luck with your build or upgrade!