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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | The Processor | Processor Physical Characteristics | Processor Cooling ]

Active Heat Sinks / CPU Fans

An active heat sink or CPU fan is an enhancement to the standard or passive heat sink. It too uses a finned piece of metal attached to the surface of the processor to conduct heat away from the CPU so it can be cooled by air. However, active heat sinks go one step further, adding a small fan that blows directly onto the heat sink metal to ensure direct air cooling. This removes the passive heat sink's dependency on the power supply fan for cooling the processor.

Active heat sinks, like passive ones, can come either attached to the processor with adhesive, or using clips. When clips are used, heat sink compound should be placed between the processor and the heat sink to ensure good thermal conductivity and hence proper cooling of the processor.

Active heat sinks come in various quality levels, with many of them, unfortunately, falling into the "crapola" category. The typical CPU fan costs about 5 dollars, and is made using a cheap, short-lifespan sleeve bearing motor. These fans are quite prone to failure, and when (not if) they lock up, the processor will usually overheat very quickly because it is dependent on the fan for cooling.

It's surprising that people would bother with special protection for their expensive processor and then not use something that will last, but it's very common. Good quality CPU fans use a ball bearing motor and come with a 3-year or longer warranty. They also cost anywhere from two to six times the cost of the cheap fans (although that is still a paltry sum compared to the cost of a new processor). Today, better fans are becoming easier to find as consumers become more knowledgeable and start asking specifically to avoid the cheapo sleeve bearing fans.

Next: Active vs. Passive Heat Sinks

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