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Computer Basics: Fan & Heat Sink Function Fundamentals

Updated on August 4, 2012
A basic no frills style heat sink, good for low demand situations.
A basic no frills style heat sink, good for low demand situations.

Computing Basics With Dan Mueller: Heat Sinks

The heat sink plays a vital role in the healthy function of a computer, and is analogous to how the human body sweats or how a dog pants to regulate its core temperature. Heat sinks directly support the main processors in a computer system, both the CPU (Central Processing Unit) and the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). The micro-circuitry in computer processors function best at lower temperatures, excessive heat buildup can lower the efficiency of a chip or in particularly extreme cases even cause permanent hardware damage. That's where heat sinks come in, diverting heat away from the chips via the use of a thermal adhesive compound, or in simpler terms a purpose designed heat conducting glue.

Simple Heat Sinks

The least expensive and therefore most common type of heat sinks are non-powered solid metallic heat sinks. These devices have either pins, (which actually look more like square columns) that jut upwards from the chip itself, or fins, which have more surface area and therefore more cooling potential. The drawback of this design is that they have a fixed capacity, and if the chips are giving off more heat than the sink can dissipate, as is often the case with high end CPUs and GPUs, then performance will suffer as a result.

Simple heat sinks are most commonly found on low end processors and low to mid range graphics cards. To a limited extent roomy tower cases with good airflow can mitigate the drawbacks of less expensive heat sinks.

Powered Heat Sinks

Powered heat sinks come in two main varieties. Fan only, and hybrid fin/pin and fan configurations. The addition of a powered fan brings some added utility to the computers heat management capabilities. Some motherboards support smart fan speeds, allowing the system to slow the fan when the processor is cool (making for quiet operation), or speed it up when the system runs hot. More basic motherboards may not support a smart fan, in which case the computer user would have to wire the fan directly to a steady power-supply and therefore run it at a constant fixed speed. Either option is preferable to using a simple heat sink, however at the very least a fan will require a two or four pin connection also known as a molex connection to the systems power supply.

In summary when it comes to heat sinks you often get what you pay for. However not every system under the sun is going to require top notch heat management. Ask yourself a few questions to see if you need better than average heat management:

  • Is it uncomfortably hot where I live for more than a few scattered days of the year?
  • Am I going to be doing major graphics processing for work?
  • Am I a serious PC gamer?
  • Does my machine often feel hot to the touch?

If you answered yes to any of these points then it may be time to consider an upgrade to a higher end powered heat sink/fan combo.

A common type of fan/heat sink combination, which is more effective than either device alone in controlling system heat.
A common type of fan/heat sink combination, which is more effective than either device alone in controlling system heat. | Source
A Zalman heat sink. Probably the best possible design when it comes to nonpowerd heat sinks. This device can sometimes outperform a fan cooling setup... but takes up a lot of space and is heavy.
A Zalman heat sink. Probably the best possible design when it comes to nonpowerd heat sinks. This device can sometimes outperform a fan cooling setup... but takes up a lot of space and is heavy.

Want to learn more about computers? Then check out my other hubs on the subject:

The CPU

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