Thermal Pad vs Paste: The 7 Differences You Need To Know

If you’re spending a lot of time on your computer, especially if you’re a gamer or your tasks are generally CPU-intensive, we’re quite positive you’re already familiar with the concept of thermal protection.

However, when it comes to choosing the best protection method, you may find it hard to decide between a thermal pad and a thermal paste for better thermal conductivity.

The main differences between thermal pad and thermal paste are the installation process, the level of versatility they provide, as well as the amount of material needed.

What is a thermal pad?

A thermal pad is one of the best methods of the thermal interface, and just like any other thermal interface material, its main role is to transfer heat from one component to the other.

In order to prevent overheating, which can sometimes cause the device to smell like burning, a thermal pad will transfer the heat from the source of heat to the so-called heat sink, managing the temperature of the device.

What many people appreciate in a thermal pad, besides its heat transfer ability, is that this thermal interface option acts both as a thermal conductor and gap filler.

Thermal pads are generally extremely flexible, allowing you to fill even the smallest gaps, which is known as the “wet-out”.

Since thermal pads are so soft and flexible, they wet out more efficiently than the denser, tougher materials that cannot fit into all the nooks and crevices.

In addition to easy placement, thermal pads can also be tailored to your specific needs, offering high thermal conductivity.

They’re also considered to be the most durable, long-lasting thermal interface material, which is particularly important if you’re looking for a permanent solution.

When it comes to thermal pad materials, they are available in many variations. However, the most popular two types of thermal pads include silicone and graphite thermal pads:

  1. Silicone is extremely convenient and versatile, so it is one of the best choices for a thermal pad. In addition to thermal conductivity, silicone pads also offer electrical isolation, which is very important.
  2. Graphite, on the other hand, is extremely thin and easy to fit into all the gaps where you need a high level of thermal conductivity. However, keep in mind that a graphite thermal pad must be positioned parallel on smooth surfaces for best results and maximum thermal protection.

Other thermal pad varieties include polyester, aluminum, fiberglass, and acrylic, but silicone and graphite are definitely considered superior.

When compared to a thermal paste, thermal pads are more beginner-friendly as they can easily be installed, without using any type of applicator or a syringe.

It is also important to mention that thermal pads can decrease vibrations and protect the device against vibratory stress that could create serious damage over time.

What is thermal paste?

Thermal paste, also known as thermal compound or thermal grease, is essentially a thermally conductive material used to prevent the device from overheating.

When it comes to electrical conductivity, thermal pastes can be electrically conductive or non-conductive, which depends on their formula.

The formula usually includes some kind of binder component that allows for the paste to be evenly distributed and properly applied.

Also, keep in mind that electrically conductive thermal paste carries electricity between two points. This means that, if the paste reaches other elements, it could seriously damage your motherboard or CPU.

That being said, electrically conductive thermal paste requires precise application, as it could destroy your system.

Luckily, most of the widely available thermal pastes are electrically non-conductive, and their application doesn’t require professional assistance.

Even if you mistakenly brush some of the paste against another component, you can easily remove it without causing any damage to the system.

Since a thermal paste has a liquid consistency, many people find it easier to position and apply than other thermal resistance products, including the thermal pad.

However, a thermal paste will require a particular dispenser for application, either a syringe or a tube, that will help you position it correctly, and then spread it in the desired layer.

Thermal paste can be added directly to the component, either the CPU or the heatsink, to fill even the smallest gaps.

It is also important to note that a little bit of this product goes a long way, and you usually won’t need much paste to fill all the gaps.

It is in fact recommended to use as little paste as possible since paste thickness can affect its effectiveness.

A potential downside of the thermal paste is that it can be a bit messy and hard to spread out, especially if you’ve never worked with a similar product before.

However, as we’ve mentioned, it can be easily removed and the residue won’t cause too much of an issue – as long as the paste isn’t electrically conductive.

What are the differences between thermal pad and thermal paste?

While they essentially have the same role and offer identical benefits, there are some crucial differences between a thermal pad and a thermal paste that will help you make the final call.

Both of these options are considered to be highly effective and extremely convenient, but depending on your needs and level of expertise, you will find one or the other more appealing.

Let’s get right into the differences between these products so you can easily decide which thermally conductive material is the right choice for your system.

1. Installation process

When it comes to the installation process, we’d have to say that, in most cases, a thermal pad takes the win by being a more convenient option.

However, this will definitely depend upon your level of expertise, since applying a thermal paste won’t be that much of a hassle if you’ve already handled similar materials.

Many people find thermal pads much easier to install since they do not require any kind of application dispenser, as opposed to the paste that needs to be applied with a syringe or a tube.

What’s more, being that it is in a liquid form, a thermal paste can create a much bigger mess than a flexible, solid thermal pad.

As we’ve already mentioned, the electrically conductive thermal paste must be applied precisely, as it could seriously damage other components, such as the motherboard or the CPU.

Even if you’re using electrically non-conductive thermal paste, cleaning up the residue can sometimes be tricky, even though it isn’t as dangerous.

Thermal pads, on the other hand, aren’t as complicated when it comes to installation. All you need to do is position them and apply some pressure to secure them in place.

Also, when working with paste, it is important to apply just the right amount and not add too much of the product as it could compromise its efficiency.

The application of a thermal pad isn’t as complex and doesn’t require much preparation beforehand.

2. Flexibility

Thanks to their design, thermal pads won’t slip out of their place, which is something that can easily happen when you’re using a paste.

What’s more, the thermal pad will adapt to the surface it is applied to under the influence of the heat-producing element.

This basically means that the pad will mold to the shape of the element, and you won’t have to customize it beforehand.

This makes the installation process extremely easy and ensures that the pad will fill all the gaps once it settles in.

The paste placement, on the other hand, relies solely upon application, as the paste doesn’t have the same flexibility under heat.

However, some people will appreciate the flexibility of the paste (thanks to its liquid form) when it comes to application.

3. Replacement

When it comes to replacing the product, it is important to note that you will probably have some leftover thermal paste the next time you need to apply it.

As we’ve explained, thermal paste is applied in a thin layer, so a single package can last a long time.

Thermal pads, on the other hand, mold to the element they’re applied to, so if you’re making any adjustments, you will have to purchase a brand new pad.

What’s more, the thermal pad that has already been used cannot be reapplied even if you manage not to damage it when you’re removing it from the component.

It is also necessary to be very cautious when removing thermal pads, as you could accidentally damage the component in the process.

4. Potential risks

While both thermal paste and thermal pad are amazing solutions when it comes to protecting your system and managing heat levels, it is also necessary to discuss some of the potential risks when working with these materials.

When it comes to the application process, you shouldn’t experience any difficulties when positioning a thermal pad, as it is easy to work with, and eventually, it will adjust to the surface and the element.

However, if you’re working with an electrically conductive thermal paste, keep in mind that the placement must be extremely precise.

If you get any of the paste on other components, the entire system could be destroyed the moment you turn the power on.

Potential risks with thermal pads concern the removal process. Make sure to take your time in removing the pad from the component, as trying to rip it off can seriously damage the component it had adhered to.

5. Thermal conductivity

Generally speaking, many people will agree that a high-quality thermal paste is a more efficient heat conductor than a thermal pad.

However, this largely depends upon system performance and your individual needs.

Also, it is necessary for the paste to be applied properly for this level of efficiency to be reached.

6. Level of expertise

When it comes to the application and preparation of the product, we definitely have to rule in favor of thermal pads for being a more beginner-friendly solution.

The application of the thermal paste usually requires much more expertise, as the amount of the applied product makes a huge difference.

7. Material options

Once again, thermal pads are considered to be a more versatile option, as they come in many different varieties.

The most popular thermal pad materials include graphite and silicone, but there are also polyester, aluminum, fiberglass, and acrylic options on the market.

Thermal pad vs thermal paste: are they the same?

Will these products give you similar results in terms of thermal conductivity and protection of your system? Yes.

Are they the same? No, as there are a couple of crucial differences between them.

A thermal pad, on one hand, is easier to install, offers more flexibility when it comes to placement, and offers more options of material.

A thermal paste, on the other hand, is a product that will last you a long time, as a small amount is needed per a single application. It is also considered to offer a higher level of thermal conductivity.

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