What Is a Heat Sink, and What Does It Do?
Computers generate heat; specifically CPUs. Depending upon the size of the computer case, the programs you are running, and the age of the CPU; sometimes a lot of heat. Computers usually incorporate a number of fans, to assist in cooling. The harder the CPU is working, the harder the fans work to try to keep pace with the processor and keep it cool. A cool CPU lasts longer, and is much more stable.
Every computer has a heat sink; the small metal structure surrounding the CPU. The heat sinks job is to absorb heat generated by the CPU. The heat sink is also molded in such a way as to not restrict the flow of air, which is why it usually is made up of metal plates in rows or lines. In the process of performing its job heat sinks get very hot, so make sure you don’t touch it after you computer has been on for more than a few minutes. Copper is the preferred metal for a heat sink, however since it is also slightly more expensive, aluminum is sometimes used as well.
Virtually all heat sinks come paired with a fan to improve airflow and cooling efficiency. If the fan for whatever reason stops functioning properly, the CPU can and will overheat, sometimes causing irreversible damage. Your system will likely freeze or start clipping graphics before it gets too hot. The blue screen of death (on windows©) might also kick in should your system start to overheat.
If you are overclocking, you will want to monitor your CPU temperature quite closely, as you will be exceeding the design limitations of the heat sink, and possibly the main fan as well. Usually adding another clip-on fan in your case will alleviate any potential issues if you decide to over clock; just keep an eye on the CPU load and temp.
Most computers don’t over heat because of overclocking however; most computers simply overheat because of a buildup of dust. You will want to keep an eye on the vents and any air filters, likely located in the front or on the sides of your computer; to ensure your computer is getting optimal airflow. If any dust has built up, the fans now have to work overtime to drive the same measure of airflow. If you may have noticed your computer fans have gotten louder over time; dust may be the culprit. A vacuum should be sufficient to remove the built up dust, and restore proper airflow. If however your computer has been accumulating dust for some time, you may now have dust inside the case. If you suspect this is happening, make sure you carefully clean out your computer case and clear any hard to reach spots with a can of compressed air.
The heat sink is a vital component of any computer system, and is crucial to ensure optimal performance of your computer. Usually a maintenance free part on a computer, it can’t hurt to take a look at your computer case and inspect the vents as well as the actual heat sink every once in a while. Your CPU will thank you by lasting longer and you will get more out of your computer over its life.