How to build your own personal computer - Kitchen Table Computers


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Installing the CPU Cooler


Today's fast processors generate a tremendous amount of heat. Without a CPU cooler, a processor would burn out in mere seconds.

Inadequate cooling also can result in data errors, performance problems, and reduced processor life. CPU manufacturers typically provide lists of "approved" coolers for their chips. These coolers may or may not be any better than other coolers, but using a non-approved cooler might void the CPU's warranty.

To extend your homebuilt computer's life and maximize its performance while not running the risk of voiding the CPU warranty, I recommend that you use the best cooler you can find that has been manufacturer-approved for your particular processor. The processor cooler is not a place to skimp. It would be a shame to spend all that time and money to build your own computer, and then the CPU burns up because of a cheap cooling fan.


Parts of a CPU Cooler

Peeling the backing from the heat sink compound.Most CPU coolers are composed of three parts: A fan, a heat sink, and a mounting device that attaches the cooler assembly to the motherboard directly over the processor. A fourth element of the cooling system is something called "heat sink compound" or "thermal jelly," which is applied between the heat sink and the die of the processor to improve heat transfer from the processor to the heat sink.

Many heat sinks come with a patch of heat sink compound pre-applied to the heat sink itself. The actual compound is covered with a little plastic tab during shipping. If you are using a heat sink with pre-applied heat sink compound, then you need to peel the protective tab off the heat sink prior to installing the cooler. Forgetting this simple step can cause serious damage to your processor.

Heat sink compund applied to processor.If your heat sink doesn't have pre-applied compound, you will need to apply a thin coating of heat sink compound directly to the processor die. This also applies if, for some reason, you have removed and are replacing the heat sink.

The old compound must be completely are carefully removed and new compound applied before replacing the cooler. Don't use steel wool or abrasives of any sort! Just wipe the jelly off the processor and the heat sink with a clean, lint-free cloth or paper towel.

I suggest you use a high-quality thermal jelly. Arctic Silver is my personal favorite. The difference in price is trivial, and high-quality thermal jelly will help keep your processor cool and comfy.

Be careful not to get any heat sink compound on the motherboard! Some compounds are conductive, and can short out the circuitry on the board. (Thanks for pointing out that omission to me, Bob.)


Mounting the CPU Cooler

Using a screwdriver to attach the CPU cooler.The CPU cooler assembly is positioned over the processor and is usually secured to the motherboard by metal clips that hold the heat sink down tightly against the processor.

Notice that on bail-type sockets, both the socket and the heat sink are offset from center a little to accommodate the bail. Make sure you install the cooler with its offset on the same side as the offset on the socket.

Use a slotted screwdriver to gently, but firmly, hook the retaining clips under the tabs on the processor socket. Be very careful not to let the screwdriver slip. If it scratches the surface of the motherboard, the mobo could be ruined.

Some cooling assemblies use plastic clips that simply slide straight down over the processor and snap into place. These types of assemblies usually don't require any tools to install.

Don't forget to plug in the CPU fan!Don't forget to plug in the fan! In most cases, it will plug into a three-pin connector on the motherboard that is (appropriately enough) labeled "CPU Fan" in teensy-weensy letters. This is to allow the computer to control the fan speed based upon how hard the processor is working.

If you want, you can "hotwire" the fan using an adaptor that directly connects it to the power supply, which causes it to spin at full speed all the time. I don't recommend this for most users. It creates a lot of noise, uses more power, and causes the fan to wear out sooner. Some people also believe you can "overcool" the CPU by running the fan at full speed all the time. I personally don't think that's possible unless you're using the computer outdoors at the North Pole, but some people disagree.

In most cases, you also can disable the fan speed control in CMOS setup, which has the same effect as hotwiring the fan, and which I also don't recommend.


Chipset Coolers

Most modern motherboards also have a chipset cooler, at least on the Northbridge chipset. These are almost always factory-installed and are adequate for all but the most intensive use. Just blow the fan out with canned air once in a while, and replace it if it stops spinning or starts making noises.

If you do find it necessary to replace or upgrade the factory-installed chipset cooler, the process is basically the same as installing a CPU cooler. The main difference is that chipset coolers usually are fastened to the motherboard using spring fasteners or plastic retainers rather than a metal clip. You may need to have access to the back of the motherboard to remove the fasteners, and you may have to install new fasteners if the old ones can't be removed without breaking them


Liquid CPU Cooling Systems

Water cooling is not a new idea. Liquid cooling systems have been around since the earliest days of mainframe computing, when every IT department had a plumber on call. Nowadays, liquid CPU cooling systems are popular mainly among PC builders who use their computers for gaming or other processor-intensive applications.

Not being much of a gamer myself (although I do love Microsoft Flight Simulator), my cooling needs tend not to be very intense. And frankly, I really haven't come across a system that worked so hard that a good fan-type cooler wasn't enough. Also, I'm a little skittish about mixing water and electronics; so most of the time I use good, old-fashioned air cooling.

But if you plan to overclock (also something I frown upon) or otherwise push your CPU to the edge, then liquid cooling can buy you a few critical degrees of extra cooling. That can make a difference while you are in the heat of battle with some graphics-intensive FPS game.

Okay, now that we've installed the cooler, let's move on to the next step: Installing RAM.




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