Six quick tips to buying the right heatsink
It seems like almost every day there are two or three new types of heatsink released upon the consumer. How do you know which ones to consider, and which ones to avoid? Well believe it or not there are a few key features to look for when selecting your next heatsink. Now these are just a few suggestions, but they can form a good starting point for someone who isn't sure what to do.
1) Is the heatsink made from copper or aluminum?
These days you really want heatsinks with copper for a couple of reasons. Generally speaking, copper heatsinks are able to handle faster and more heat-intensive processors, or will be able handle future CPU's better than their aluminum counterparts. Expect to pay a bit more for the copper heatsinks. There is an exception to the copper over aluminum rule of course. If your computer is not too power hungry (say less than a 1.0GHz Athlon) you can quite easily manage with a good quality aluminum heatsink. Be sure to read the box or ask to make sure the heatsink is rated for the type of processor you have though.
2) Big fan, little fan, quiet fan, loud fan
The days of big vs. little fans are quickly fading away. These days fans are generally either ear-splittingly loud, or just noisy. Since fan performance is measured in Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM) the larger fans are the best bet for better performance. One thing to keep in mind is the noise output of the fan, which is sometimes listed on the box. Measured in decibel (dBA), the lower this number is the quieter the heatsink will be.
3) What is that clip like?
The clip is one of the most important parts of any heatsink. A good clip will be tight to engage, but keep your new-found cooler solidly in place if the computer is ever moved around. While there isn't much choice in this area, clips which can be engaged by hand are more desirable than those which require a tool. With clips that require a screwdriver there is always the chance that the screwdriver tip will slip out of the clip and do damage to the motherboard.
4) Where the processor meets the heatsink.
Given the choice between two heatsinks, first turn them upside down and investigate a little. A good heatsink should optimally have a machined base. Current processor dies are perfectly flat pieces of silicon, and the flatter the base of your heatsink, the better it will be able to keep you CPU cool. In the worst case, a rough or uneven heatsink base may cause damage to the fragile processor die, unless there is a thermal pad. Bottom line, the smoother the base of the heatsink the better it will typically be able to transfer heat away from the CPU (and the better for you).
5) To shim or not to shim
Shims (copper, aluminum, or nonconductive) have their place in the world when used properly on AMD processors. When improperly used, or badly made, they can cause lots of damage. It is not uncommon for a shim to prop up a heatsink such that it makes no contact with the processor die. When the computer is turned on, that processor is burnt to a crisp in a matter of minutes as it produces 50+ watts of heat energy. There are also occasional recounts of shims sliding into the on-processor capacitors (on the Athlon and Duron) and shorting out the processor altogether. Personally I recommend taking extra caution when installing a new heatsink and just avoiding the use of shims. If you are intent on using one for your system to lessen the chance of a chipped die, then I recommend doing a dry fit before hand to ensure everything is fits properly, and the die make complete contact with the heatsink.
6) How much should you spend?
Like any products, the more you pay does not always equate to a higher return. In general a good quality heatsink will cost between $15 and $25, with the high-end performance coolers ranging all the way up to $50 or $60. I don't recommend spending more than $60 for a performance heatsink unless you have done some research and know what you are getting is worth the cash. There have been a few expensive 'performance' heatsinks that couldn't compete with even the most generic cooler so it is always a good idea to read the reviews before you buy. If you read them on FrostyTech, then all the better :-)
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