I used to spread mine with a credit card / plastic bag on the finger method and my CPU ended up only making contact with a very small portion of my old Hyper-N520
I think spreading it with a credit card or with a finger makes the paste a little bit too thin for my liking, and prevents much of the chip from having decent contact with the cooler - unless you decide to lap the processor and HS so that they're perfectly flat.
Here's a pic of what happened to me with the finger spread method - I had decent temps - I could overclock my 960T to 4.13GHz and keep the cores at 55C max which isn't terrible for a 92MM cooler - albeit a little toasty for sure!
TIM was only touching the center of the HS plate, for the most part:
Here's a pic from a pea sized drop of TIM on a stock cooler below, it was ...better but still pretty terrible.
You can see that much of the CPU went uncovered.. I know the cores are right in the center of the CPU, but I would assume the full contact of the CPU plate with the HS plate would be the most efficient heat transfer.
The "X" method is my new weapon of choice, and seems to be the general consensus from what I've seen on professional review sites and enthusiast sites alike. Less is more, though.
The last method pictured, which is the reviewer's favorite method as well, is to use the X pattern shown in the link below.
http://benchmarkreviews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=150&Itemid=62&limit=1&limitstart=4Edited by FromUndaChz - 5/8/12 at 12:58pm