You can get a decent reduction in thermals by using quality thermal paste and quality silicone thermal pads. Replacement fans can be had for a very reasonable rate as well. You don’t want to go for the lowest price but you don’t have to pay the straight Intel SKU prices either. Check the links at the end for quality products at a moderate price.
While this dates back to October of 2020 for the time frame of when I did the replacements, I figure it couldn’t hurt to give some information to the community. A few months after my last post our little computer ended up having thermal throttling issues again. Not quite to the point of thermal shutdown, but enough that the fan would randomly peak with no load. This came down to two issues: 5 year old thermal paste and previously compressed silicone thermal pads.
After a few more weeks of this random fan peaking, we began hearing a terrible noise coming from the unit. The bearings had ended up going bad in the stock cooler! At this point, I decided to sink the cost and replace everything involved in cooling the CPU. Replacement fan, fresh high efficiency thermal paste, and a mixed pack of silicone thermal pads.
After searching around Amazon for various replacements, I ended up choosing products in the moderate expense category. The fan shown here was the middle ground for the price while maintaining good reviews. It looked identical to the installed unit, unlike the cheapest. The most expensive was ~$50 and had the specific SKU offered, looking like a direct replacement part straight from Intel. After more than 6 months I can say it was worth all of $13.
On the thermal paste side, I was seeing roughly three tiers in terms of heat transferability. Corsair TM30 at 3.5W/mk, Arctic MX-4 at 8.5W/mk, and Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut (the best) at 12.5W/mk. This isn’t including liquid metal thermal paste, which I wouldn’t recommend for anyone unless you have a highly specific use case. Now I admit I’m not an expert, but I do understand that these numbers relate to the ability of the thermal paste to transfer heat. Larger is better. At the time the price range was something like $7 for the low end, $10 for the middle ground, and $30 for the high end. This has since changed. Now that I see Kryonaut in a smaller package for only $10, just by raw numbers I would easily recommend it instead.
Thermal pads were new to me. I’ve never actually seen a product use them before and after taking the NUC apart I realized there was no way to truly know the original thickness of them. To resolve this I found some higher quality but inexpensive silicone thermal pads. These were rated at 6W/mk, this was better than the thermal paste I had originally used to replace the stock stuff! For only $5 I was able to get three sizes to try out: 0.5mm, 1.0mm, and 1.5mm. The 0.5mm turned out to be usable, although you could have compressed the 1mm down enough easily to use it instead. Because I don’t know what the tolerance differences are between different models, I would still recommend this style of package. In the end you are left with ~5 sheets of highly performant thermal pads that can be used for various projects.
So far so good, I haven’t had any issues with these products in the past 6+ months they have been installed. Honestly, I don’t have any specifications for what Intel uses, but I wouldn’t doubt it if you could get better thermals than stock by replacing the paste and pads from the get-go. We now have a NUC that only spins up its fans when being used in heavy computation or graphical environments. As it should be.