How to Install a CPU Cooler: A Beginner’s Guide


Installing a processor on the motherboard is only part of the process. In fact, it is one of the easiest steps in the process of building a PC. The next step is to install a cooler to maintain the thermal power of the processor. Regardless of the processor – whether it’s an entry-level chip or the best processor on the market – installing a cooler is a must. Failure to do this or install it improperly will result in extremely high processor temperatures and your system will shut down even before entering the operating system. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the process steps to teach you how to install a CPU cooler.

Before we begin, it’s worth pointing out that there are two types of CPU coolers: CPU fan coolers, also known as air coolers, and liquid coolers. Installing an air cooler is easier than setting up liquid cooling for your PC, but we’ll walk you through the installation steps for both types of coolers in this article.

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  • Thermal paste: Many CPU coolers these days come with thermal grease preinstalled, but it’s best to have your own syringe of thermal solution. DO NOT install the second layer of thermal grease on the processor if you are colder with a layer of thermal grease pre-installed.
  • Tools: You will need a Phillips screwdriver for this installation. Many air coolers can be installed without any tools, but you will need one to install liquid coolers, to open the PC case, etc.

How to install a CPU air cooler

An original AMD cooler installed on a motherboard

When it comes to CPU air coolers, you’re basically looking at a heat sink and a few fans depending on the size of the cooler. The best fan coolers, including the Noctua NH-D15, come with a massive heatsink and two fans to move 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 grab the correct bracket to install the cooler. This will differ depending on the processor socket. Newer Intel Alder Lake processors use an LGA 1700 socket while AMD Ryzen 5000 series chips use an AM4 socket. Almost all CPU cooler manufacturers bundle both media for Intel and AMD chips. Alternatively, you can also select the media of your choice when purchasing the cooling kit. This step is not necessary for stock coolers, as they are designed to work with the supplied processor.

  • The first step is to install the back plate 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 back plate in place and securing it by installing the spacers in the front.

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

  • Now would be a good time to check the thermal paste. Keep in mind that if your CPU cooler already contains thermal grease, it is not necessary to apply another coat. If you are installing a new cooler layer, you can check out our easy guide on how to apply thermal paste.
  • Once done, line up your CPU cooler by holding it above the CPU. You need to carefully line up your cooler connector with the holes in the board or spacers we installed earlier. Depending on the sophistication of the cooler, you may need to remove the heat sink fans to be able to align and install it properly.

An AMD CPU cooler being installed on the motherboard

  • Now that the CPU cooler is in place, it’s time to secure it with connectors. For this we will use an X pattern to tighten the cooler. You’ll be crossing the screws diagonally, which means you’ll choose the screw diagonally opposite the first instead of going around the processor in a square. We do this to make sure that you are creating even pressure on the processor. It also allows thermal paste to be evenly spread over the IHS CPU.
  • The last step in the case of air coolers is to mount the fans on the heat sink. This only applies if you removed the fans before mounting the heat sink. You may need to consult the cooler’s manual to see how the fans attach to the heat sink. This step is different for each chiller.

How to install a CPU liquid cooler

Installing a CPU liquid cooler is a bit of a hassle mainly because it involves a few extra steps. We’ll show you how to install an AIO liquid cooler for this guide. AIO liquid coolers, in case you didn’t know, are closed-loop liquid coolers with a CPU water block, coolant hoses, a radiator, and a few fans. Alternatively, you can also install an open loop or a custom loop for your build. We will not be installing this for this beginners guide.

  • The first step in the case of liquid coolers is similar to what we did for air coolers. Retrieve the appropriate bracket for the cooler according to the processor socket, mount the backplate and install the water block.

A water block for liquid cooler installed on a motherboard

  • Now it’s time to mount the heatsink on the PC case. Before that, you may need to install the radiator fans. You can either mount the fans on the heatsink itself or install them separately on the case. It will depend on the PC case and how much space you have inside the chassis for working. The idea is to move cool air through the radiator to remove heat from it.

CPU cooling fans installed separately on the PC case

  • We will install the fans separately on the case, so we will only mount the heatsink on the case. You need to make sure that your PC case is cooler ready and 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 heat sink and fans to the case using the long screws that came with the cooler. Make sure that the coolant hoses move freely and are not in contact with other components, especially the case fans.

Connect everything for power

An Aorus Waterforce x360 CPU water block with a screen

Once you’ve got everything attached, it’s time to make sure the cooler and fans are all powered up. Everything from water packs to air coolers and radiator fans needs power. Powering a simple air cooler is easier than connecting all the wires in the case of a liquid cooler. Depending on the number of fans, you may need to use a controller to facilitate your connections. We recommend that you consult both the CPU cooler and the motherboard manual to find the appropriate headers to connect them. We cannot explain this in detail for every type of cooler and motherboard on the market. The manual is your best friend when you connect to the right power source.

How to Install a CPU Cooler: Final Thoughts

With this you have successfully installed the CPU cooler for your build. Choosing the best CPU cooler for your build is extremely important. There are plenty of CPU coolers to choose from, so be sure to pick the right one for your version. The stock coolers that come with the processor are more than enough to keep the thermal power of the processors within stock settings. That being said, we recommend upgrading to a better third-party cooler if you plan on overclocking the processor. Good luck!


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