It's been a long time since we saw much innovation in thermal interface materials. Back ten years ago, when OEMs tended to use pads made from camel hair, companies like Arctic Silver burst on the scene with compounds that offered significantly improved performance compared to stock solutions. As CPU TDPs increased and die sizes shrank, manufacturers began offering better thermal pastes by default and the buzz generally quieted down. Claims that adding diamond dust improves thermals, for example, are based on remarkably poor physics and exploiting a margin of error.
Today, Maingear has launched what they claim is a genuine advance over existing thermal pastes. The Epic T1000 kit uses a PCMA (phase change metal alloy) as an interface material between CPU and heatsink. Unlike a standard paste, which is (hopefully) applied with a razor or other straight-edge, Maingear's T1000 is a transparent wafer at room temperature that one lays over the CPU before attaching a heatsink.
The problem with conventional pastes is that their efficacy is limited by the need to suspend a heat-conductive substance in a semi-liquid base that won't dry out, isn't electrically conductive (or at least, not much), and won't seep out from between CPU and heatsink if the chip is oriented vertically. In theory, the T1000 is a solution to these problems that offers superior performance and is easy to apply.
Maingear is offering the kit in three flavors. The AMD and Intel Socket LGA1156 options are both $19.99; the LGA2011 kit is $29.99. The difference in price isn't just because LGA2011 is a more expensive chip -- the CPU itself is significantly larger than standard Sandy Bridge parts, and requires more contact material.
The Package, Product Limitations
The T1000 solution is not
compatible with heatsinks or blocks that don't cover the entire chip, including those that use a copper slug or series of embedded heatpipes to contact the die. As people who make a habit out of not reading the instructions, let us caution you, in this case, you'll want to give the included paperwork a read-through. The gloves and cleaning fluid aren't optional; in order for the phase change alloy to work properly, the surfaces need to be free of oil and prepared.
Maingear has done a good job as far as how they package the solution; the $19/$29 kit comes with gloves, excellent documentation detailing every step of the installation process (and explaining the improvements), and plenty of cleaning fluid. The only thing missing is the drink you might want for the next part of the process.
The thing about phase-change materials is that they have to hit a certain temperature in order to work. Maingear's documentation notes that the PCMA "is highly thermally resistive without a complete reflow. Failure to perform the exact reflow procedure may result in unacceptable thermal performance." The solution? Configure a thermal monitor, run a program like Prime 95, unplug your CPU fan and wait.
The company's documentation describes the process and how temperatures will change over the following 3-4 minutes. It's a good thing they do, because even knowing all about Intel's thermal monitoring hardware, watching a CPU tick along at 90-95'C is hard to take.
We used the Noctua DH-14 from our recent review
for this round of tests and evaluated at both stock speeds and in an overclocked configuration.
Our tests show a noticable improvement from Maingear's T1000, even accounting for a reasonable margin of error. At $19.99 / $29.99, the T1000 kit costs as much as a cheap third-party heatsink -- and there are only two shims in each package. If you frequently swap heatsinks or chips, this isn't a solution you'll probably want to use. If, on the other hand, you're chasing either a near-silent system or a best-possible overclock, it might be worth a look. As CPU TDPs increase, its become increasingly important to optimize every step of the process, and Maingear's product definitely moves the bar upwards on that score.