Computer Overclocking is one of those subjects that’s often mentioned but seldom explained. It’s typically discussed with an air of mystery.
The prospect is enticing. After all, the ability to instantly make your CPU (Central Processing Unit) or GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) run faster without needing to upgrade your hardware or spend a single penny is almost too good to be true.
But on the other hand, most people have also heard stories of overclocking destroying hardware, or otherwise turning into a major headache.
As you’ll soon see, the truth is somewhere between the two extremes. There are some solid pros and cons to overclocking. And whether it’s a solid option for your system will depend on where you fall on all of these elements.
Main Pros of CPU/GPU Overclocking
The most notable benefit of CPU and GPU overclocking is increased performance. But this encompasses more than you might assume.
Modern computers place a vast amount of functionality under individual system components. And when you overlock a single component entity it often impacts a considerable number of different parts of your computer.
But in general overclocking can improve general performance in the following categories.
1) Better computer performance overall
On the most fundamental level, overclocking can simply make your computer run better.
You don’t necessarily need to know the reason why specific programs are running more smoothly. But if you’re able to overclock both your CPU and GPU then you’ll almost certainly see improved performance in almost any task you use your computer for.
This comes back to the fact that most elements of modern computers are interlinked with each other. The greater whole improves when individual elements become stronger.
2) Better gaming performance
Game performance is one of the most misunderstood elements of overclocking. When people talk about gaming they usually focus on the GPU. And it’s true that the GPU is often what sets the limit for your game performance.
But modern games leverage almost every element of your computer. For example, consider a 3D shooter with a large number of NPCs (Non-Player Characters) on the map.
The GPU will usually need to render all of the 3D elements, textures, etc. But the NPCs which are active on the map also need to continually update their behavior based on any environmental changes and their own internal logic.
These decisions are usually handled by the CPU. And the CPU is typically made up of multiple cores. Each core can be thought of as a mini-CPU inside of your main CPU.
Multiple batches of NPC behavior might be handled by one core while another batch is handed off to the next available core.
Increasing GPU processing would speed up graphical processing but it wouldn’t impact NPC behavior.
While speeding up the CPU would impact the NPC’s logic or pathfinding but not the 3D assets associated with them.
This interconnected nature means that overclocking just one element of your computer will typically offer big improvements in your gaming experience.
Overclocking a CPU works on all of its cores so all of the NPCs in this example would have their capabilities improved. And overclocking both the CPU and GPU will usually offer big boosts all across the board.
Especially in situations, such as with NPCs, where an entity leverages the power of both the CPU and GPU simultaneously.
3) You can keep up with the latest games or software without buying a new computer
Graphics cards have been a scarce commodity for some time now. And even when you can find one they tend to have an imposing price tag.
And while CPUs are usually more reasonably priced, they’re still a major purchase.
Just upgrading one element of your computer might come close to the cost of a new game console.
Also, buying a whole new PC carries additional costs on top of the already high price of its individual components.
Choosing to overclock rather than upgrade means that you can typically save a huge amount of money.
By going this route you can often push your existing hardware into the next generation of games.
It’s essentially the equivalent of turning a PlayStation 4 into a PlayStation 5 by speeding up the hardware.
4) Fully utilize the limits of CPU/GPU
Overclocking exists because hardware manufacturers typically don’t want their devices to push the limits of what they’re capable of.
The reason usually comes down to the fact that running at 100% can cause performance issues in some situations.
For example, a GPU running at 100% in the summer heat will usually overheat if some extra precautions aren’t put into effect. And hardware manufacturers know that a significant portion of their customers won’t take those precautions.
But the fact is that many people do want to get every bit of value, and power, from their purchase. And that often means overclocking.
When you put overclocking into effect and take the proper precautions you’re getting the full value of your purchase. In fact, you’re getting a lot more performance for your dollar.
Main Cons of CPU/GPU Overclocking:
As previously noted, there are some issues with overclocking. If overclocking was a perfect solution for every situation then there wouldn’t be any need for it.
Hardware manufacturers would simply ship their products with every possible speed tweak already in place.
But the simple fact of the matter is that there are some very real issues with overclocking that need to be considered.
The following are the most serious problems that you’ll want to look into before overclocking your system.
1) Shortens the lifespan of CPU/GPU
Think about how long your car would last if you always drove it at the maximum speed it was capable of.
Your CPU and GPU will typically hold up a lot better than in this example, but the principle remains the same.
If you’re overclocking your hardware you’ll typically see some hits to its overall longevity. Though the extent of the problem can often be mitigated.
For example, some overclocking methods can be easily turned on and off when needed.
In those cases, you can often set your system up to only turn on overclocking when playing certain games that really demand the extra boost.
By doing so you’ll also avoid some of the risks to your hardware’s lifespan.
2) More electricity costs
It’s easy to forget that computers can demand some pretty hefty amounts of electricity.
People often assume that computers aren’t using much more power than their smartphones. But the difference in power consumption can be huge.
A PC will often use somewhere around eighty times as much electricity as a smartphone. And overclocking increases power consumption even more.
This can cause significant problems for both people who are trying to keep their power bills as low as possible and those worried about their environmental impact.
3) More heat generation so you might need extra cooling systems
Heat is one of the biggest problems that need to be accounted for when overclocking. Both your CPU and GPU will usually run at an extremely high temperature even before overclocking.
In fact, this is also why many overclocking attempts fail. Processors tend to have built-in safety features which will automatically slow or even shut down the system if temperatures rise too high. And overclocking will, of course, push those temperatures upward if not properly compensated for.
Cooling overclocked systems can sometimes be as simple as just adding thermal paste over a CPU cover or using a CPU temp monitor tool. But you might need to upgrade your computer’s fans, or even add entirely new ones.
For example, a mounted fan over a graphic card’s vents. Or you might need to install a full water cooler in the most extreme cases of overheating.
Unfortunately, while water coolers are effective they’re also costly enough to often remove a lot of the financial benefits found with overclocking.
4) Voided Manufacturer Warranties
Both your CPU and GPU are significant investments. Between them, they’re usually going to account for the bulk of your system’s overall cost.
Warranties take on special importance in situations like that. But there’s a good chance that your CPU or GPU’s warranty will prohibit overclocking. It’s always a good idea to check your warranty first before making the decision to overclock.
5) Risk of destroying the CPU from increasing the voltage
You’ve already seen some of the problems that come up when you increase your computer’s power consumption.
But you also need to worry about voltage in addition to cost and heat concerns. CPUs in particular are very delicate systems and aren’t always as good at self-regulation as you’d wish.
Overlocking can increase power requirements for your CPU. But at the same time, your CPU might not be able to properly handle the increased voltage. And your motherboard’s power limitations might complicate things even more.
It’s generally best to keep your CPU’s voltage under 1.25v. 1.3v will usually, but not always, be OK. And 1.4v is generally considered the absolute maximum amount of voltage that you should consider (at least for Intel CPUs).
Which Intel CPUs can be overclocked?
GPUs can usually be overclocked. But CPUs are a little trickier. The CPU manufacturer is generally the best criterion to use when trying to determine if you can overclock your system.
If you’re using an Intel CPU then you’ll want to look at the end of its name. If the CPU’s name ends with a K then you should be able to easily overclock it.
The K means that the CPU is essentially unlocked and open to software-based modification. However, you’ll also want to take a look at your motherboard before proceeding.
A lot of your processor’s functionality is accessed through the motherboard. And this can result in limitations on overclocking.
If your motherboard’s chipset name has a Z in it then it should be compatible with Intel’s overclocking system.
So, in short, with Intel you’ll want to ensure your CPU has a K at the end of its name and that your motherboard has a Z in the chipset name.
Which AMD CPUs can be overclocked?
AMD makes things a lot easier since the majority of its CPUs are unlocked for overclocking by default.
The same rule generally applies to AMD-compatible motherboards as well. It’s still a good idea to individually research both your AMD CPU and the motherboard to make sure that there are no unusual caveats.
But as a general rule, if you’re using an AMD CPU then you should be able to overclock it.
You should also be able to easily enable the overclocking by going through the BIOS. You can think of the BIOS as a simple operating system that runs on the motherboard and which controls hardware on the lowest possible level.
If you’re using an unlocked CPU, such as with AMD, you can usually enable overclocking by just booting into the motherboard’s BIOS and enabling the overclock options.
The exact nature of these options will differ on a case-by-case basis. Your BIOS might have detailed overclocking options. Or it might give you a rougher choice between percentiles of your CPU’s speed.
For example, the BIOS might have the option to overclock your CPU by 5%, 10%, or more. Overclocking through the motherboard is by far the easiest way to go about the process.
But for both Intel and AMD you’ll often get more precise control by using specialized overclocking software within your operating system of choice.
How CPU Overclocking Works
CPU overclocking involves increasing the clock speed of the CPU beyond the manufacturer’s recommended specifications.
This is done by adjusting the CPU’s multiplier (or base clock frequency) in the system BIOS or UEFI firmware (or even using a dedicated software for overclocking).
When the clock speed is increased, the CPU can perform more instructions per second, resulting in faster processing times.
However, overclocking also generates more heat, which can cause instability and damage to the CPU if not properly managed.
To prevent this, overclockers often use specialized cooling solutions such as liquid cooling or high-performance air cooling to keep the CPU temperature within safe limits.
Overclocking can provide significant performance gains for certain applications, such as gaming or video editing, but it can also void the CPU’s warranty and potentially damage other components in the system.
Therefore, it is recommended that only experienced users attempt to overclock their CPUs, and that they do so with caution and proper cooling measures in place.