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Thermal Management Recommendations for Boxed Intel® Desktop Processors

Last Reviewed: 09-Jan-2017
Article ID: 000006744


Recommendations are for professional system integrators who are building PCs with industry-accepted motherboards, chassis, and peripherals. They cover thermal management in desktop systems using boxed Intel® Desktop Processors. The term "boxed processors" refers to processors packaged for use by system integrators in a retail box with a fan heat sink and a three-year warranty.

You should have a general knowledge of and experience with desktop PC operation, integration, and thermal management. The recommendations allow for more reliable PCs and reduce thermal management issues.

Click or the topic for details:

Thermal management

Systems using boxed processors require thermal management. The term thermal management refers to two major elements:

  • A heat sink properly mounted to the processor
  • Effective airflow through the system chassis

The goal of thermal management is to keep the processor at or below its maximum operating temperature.

Proper thermal management efficiently transfers heat from the processor to the system air, which is then vented out. Desktop boxed processors are shipped with a high-quality fan heat sink that effectively transfers processor heat to the system air. System builders are responsible ensuring adequate system airflow by choosing the correct chassis and system components.

See the below recommendations for achieving good system airflow and suggestions for improving the effectiveness of a system's thermal management solution.

Fan heat sink

Boxed processors are shipped in several processor packages and are based on several sockets:

  • Flip Chip Land Grid Array packages - FC-LGA4, FC-LGA6, FC-LGA8, FCLGA10
  • LGA775 socket / LGA1150 socket / LGA1155 socket / LGA1156 socket / LGA1366 socket

All boxed Intel® Processors for desktop systems are shipped with a fan heat sink with thermal interface material pre-applied to the base. Thermal interface material (TIM) is critical in providing effective heat transfer from the processor to the fan heat sink. Always make sure the thermal interface material is correctly applied before following the processor and fan heat sink installation instructions. You can reference TIM application.

Boxed processors also include an attached fan cable. The fan cable provides power to the fan by connecting to a motherboard-mounted power header. Most current boxed processor fan heat sinks provide fan speed information to the motherboard. Only motherboards with hardware monitoring circuitry can use the fan speed signal.

Boxed processors use high-quality ball-bearing fans that provide a good local air stream. This local air stream transfers heat from the heat sink to the air inside the system. However, moving heat to the system air is only half the task. Sufficient system airflow is required in order to exhaust the air. Without a steady stream of air through the system, the fan heat sink recirculates warm air and may not adequately cool the processor.

System airflow

System airflow is determined by:

  • Chassis design.
  • Chassis size.
  • Location of chassis air intake and exhaust vents.
  • Power supply fan capacity and venting.
  • Location of the processor slot(s).
  • Placement of add-in cards and cables.

System integrators must ensure airflow through the system to allow the fan heat sink to work effectively. Proper attention to airflow when selecting subassemblies and building PCs is important for good thermal management and reliable system operation.

Integrators use several basic chassis form factors for desktop systems such as ATX or microATX. Via Technologies developed a subcategory of microATX called mini-ITX for compatibility with Intel®-based platforms.

The advantage of mini-ITX is that is allows a shrinking of the form factor below the sub 8 liter chassis threshold. You can learn more at Form Factor. See document Mini-ITX Addendum Version 1.1 To the microATX Motherboard Interface Specification Version 1.2. It contains the mini-ITX chassis system component layout, system board comparisons, and mounting hole placement comparisons between form factors.

In systems using ATX components, airflow is usually from front to back. Air enters the chassis from vents at the front and is drawn through the chassis by the power supply fan and rear chassis fan. The power supply fan exhausts the air through the back of the chassis. Figure 1 shows the airflow.

We recommend using ATX and microATX form factor motherboards and chassis for boxed processors. The ATX and microATX form factors provide consistency of airflow to the processor and simplify desktop system assembly and upgrade.

ATX thermal management components are different than Baby AT components. In an ATX, the processor is located close to the power supply, rather than close to the front panel of the chassis. Power supplies that blow air out of the chassis provide proper airflow for active fan heat sinks. The boxed processor's active fan heat sink cools the processor more effectively when combined with an exhausting power supply fan. Consequently, airflow in boxed processor-based systems should flow from the front of the chassis directly across the motherboard and processor and out through the power supply exhaust vents. We recommend boxed processors with chassis that conform to the ATX Specification Revision 2.01 or later.

For more information on the different form factors, visit Form Factor. Find a list of design specifications in the Developer Resources section.

ATX tower chassis optimized for the boxed processor with an active fan heat sink

One difference between microATX chassis and ATX chassis is that the power supply location and type may vary. Thermal management improvements that apply to ATX chassis will also apply to microATX. For more information about the microATX form factor and a list of microATX chassis manufacturers, see the microATX* website.

Guidelines for integrating a system:
  • Chassis vents must be functional and not excessive in quantity: Integrators should be careful not to select chassis that contain only cosmetic vents. Cosmetic vents look like they allow air into the chassis, but no air (or little air) actually enters. Chassis with excessive air vents should also be avoided. For example, if a Baby AT chassis has large air vents on all sides, then most air enters near the power supply and immediately exits through the power supply or nearby vents. Consequently, very little air flows over the processor and other components. In ATX and microATX chassis, I/O shields must be present. Without shields the I/O opening may allow excessive venting.
  • Vents must be properly located: Systems must have properly located intake and exhaust vents. The best location for vents allows air to enter the chassis and flow on a path through the system over components and directly over the processor. Specific vent locations depend on the type of chassis. In most desktop Baby AT systems, the processor is located near the front, so intake vents on the front panel work best. In Baby AT tower systems, vents on the bottom of the front panel work best. In ATX and microATX systems, vents should be located both at the bottom front and bottom rear of the chassis. Also, in ATX and microATX systems, I/O shields must be installed in order for the chassis to correctly vent air. Lack of an I/O shield may disrupt proper airflow or circulation within the chassis.
  • Power Supply Airflow Direction: The power supply must have a fan that draws air in the proper direction. For most ATX and microATX systems, power supplies that act as an exhaust fan drawing air out of the system work most efficiently with active fan heat sinks. For most Baby AT systems, the power supply fan acts as an exhaust fan, venting system air outside the chassis. Some power supplies have markings noting airflow direction. Ensure the proper power supply is used based on the system form factor.
  • Power Supply Fan Strength: PC power supplies contain a fan. Depending on the type of power supply, the fan either draws air into or out of the chassis. If intake and exhaust vents are properly located, the power supply fan can draw enough air for most systems. For some chassis where the processor is running too warm, changing to a power supply with a stronger fan can greatly improve the airflow.
  • Power Supply Venting: Since almost all air flows through the power supply unit, it must be well vented. Choose a power supply unit with large vents. Wire finger guards for the power supply fan offer much less airflow resistance than openings stamped into the sheet metal casing of the power supply unit. Make sure that floppy and hard drive cables do not block the power supply air vents inside the chassis.
  • System Fan - Should It Be Used? Some chassis may contain a system fan (in addition to the power supply fan) to facilitate airflow. A system fan is typically used with passive heat sinks. With fan heat sinks, a system fan can have mixed results. In some situations, a system fan improves system cooling. However, sometimes a system fan recirculates warm air within the chassis, thereby reducing the thermal performance of the fan heat sink. When using processors with fan heat sinks, rather than adding a system fan, it is generally a better solution to change to a power supply with a more powerful fan. Thermal testing both with a system fan and without the fan will reveal which configuration is best for a specific chassis.
  • System Fan Airflow Direction: When using a system fan, ensure that it draws air in the same direction as the overall system airflow. For example, a system fan in a Baby AT system might act as an intake fan, pulling in additional air from the front chassis vents.
  • Protect Against Hot Spots: A system may have a strong airflow but still contain "hot spots." Hot spots are areas within the chassis that are significantly warmer than the rest of the chassis air. Such areas can be created by improper positioning of the exhaust fan, adapter cards, cables, or chassis brackets and subassemblies blocking the airflow within the system. To avoid hot spots, place exhaust fans as needed, reposition full-length adapter cards or use half-length cards, reroute and tie cables, and ensure space is provided around and over the processor.
Thermal testing

Differences in motherboards, power supplies, and chassis affect the operating temperature of processors. We highly recommend thermal testing when using new products or choosing a new motherboard or chassis supplier. Thermal testing determines if a specific chassis-power supply-motherboard configuration provides adequate airflow for boxed processors.

Testing using the proper thermal measurement tools can validate proper thermal management or demonstrate the need for improved thermal management. Verifying the thermal solution for a specific system allows integrators to minimize test time while incorporating the increased thermal demands of possible future end-user upgrades. Testing a representative system and an "upgraded" system provides confidence that a system's thermal management will be acceptable over the lifetime of the system. Upgraded systems may include extra add-in cards, graphic solutions with higher power requirements, or warmer running hard drives.

Thermal testing should be done on each chassis-power supply-motherboard configuration using the components that dissipate the most power. Variations in processor speed, graphic solutions, etc. do not require additional thermal testing if testing is done with the highest power-dissipating configuration.



  • All desktop systems based on boxed Intel® Processors require thermal management.
  • Boxed processors have high-quality fan heat sinks that provide excellent local air streams.
  • Integrators can ensure proper system thermal management by selecting chassis, motherboards, and power supplies that enable adequate system airflow.
  • Specific chassis characteristics that affect system airflow include power supply fan size and strength, chassis venting, and additional system fans.
  • Thermal testing should be done on each chassis-power supply-motherboard combination to verify the thermal management solution and ensure that the boxed processor is operating below its maximum operating temperature.