Have You Played… Overclocking?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

I admit, sometimes my diversions into more general computing topics in this series can be only tenuously argued to represent ‘playing’, but I stick to my overheated and unstable guns when it comes to overclocking. It’s totally a game. High stakes, potentially high reward, potentially calamitous – but increasingly rarely so. To the extent that I really do think most players of PC games should give it a shot.

Yeah, used to be this stuff involved a reasonable chance of slagging expensive components, and even though that’s broadly a thing of the past, it wasn’t so long ago that both the legacy of that and the complexity of the steps involved in a perfectly safe overclock made it far too scary for most of us.

I’ve been overclocking since the days of ceramic pens on AMD CPUs, but even so, in the past I frequently hit ceilings on how far I’d be prepared to go – either because the maths of front side buses and whatnot got too involved, or because it got into the realms of expensive and fiddly cooling solutions. CBA with that stuff – and, the good news is, it’s basically not necessary now, unless you’re shooting for sky-high numbers purely for the sake of it.

These days, there are two stages involved in overclocking. The first is to take the name of the processor or graphics card you want to overclock and type its name into Ask Jeeves along with the word ‘overclock.’ You’ll have to deal with some numberwang and a whole lot of willy-waving, but it won’t take long to get a quick sense of what overclocking figures people are generally settling on without too much stress.

Step two: basically, go to your BIOS if it’s a CPU or a free utility such as MSI Afterburner or EVGA Precision X if it’s GPU and pop those numbers in. Should take you, ooh, two minutes. Start low rather than high, see how it goes for a little while, and if it’s all fine try a little higher.

I won’t be glib – before too long with CPUs you’ll be getting into the realm of voltage overclocking, and that requires a little more research in order to be safe. Many BIOSes handle that stuff for you, to a point, so don’t worry overly. And the gains can be immense – usually at least 10% more from your graphics card, for instance, while my CPU runs almost a full third (from 3.3 to 4.2GHz) faster than out of the box simply as a result of spending a minute to change a couple of BIOS numbers.

Yes, it’s inherently scary if you haven’t done it before, and the gains can differ wildly depending on what hardware you do have. But once you’ve done it once, you’ll always do it – and it’ll almost certainly delay having to upgrade your PC for a while.

55 Comments

  1. balinor says:

    Please don’t do this unless:

    1. You know what you are doing.
    2. You can afford it if things do go wrong.
    3. You actually have something to gain out of this.

    If you can’t go yes with all those then I’d avoid overclocking like the plague.

    • Drib says:

      But if I double my clock speed and turn off all my fans, then I both have a computer that’s twice as fast and also uses less electricity! It’s win-win!

      • balinor says:

        You forgot “and keeps me toasty warm!” :D

      • brgillespie says:

        Someone on the internet put liquid nitrogen onto his CPU while doing this overclock thing; I didn’t know where to get liquid nitrogen, so I just put my computer into a tub of ice-cold water. I’m not dumb, though: I sprayed all of the computer parts with water-resistant sealant, though, so it should still work.

    • Hammerstrike says:

      This is just spreading unnecessary fear. CPU and GPU overclocking is super safe. There is literally no risk of doing permanent damage with GPU overclocking when using MSI afterburner or EVGA PrecisionX. Worst that will happen is a reboot.

      All CPU’s manufactured in the last 10 years have temp diodes in them that trigger fail safes if they get to toasty – you wouldn’t damage them even if you took th CPU cooler off and ran the system without it. System wouldn’t run long, but worst you would get is a series of reboots. The ONLY thing you have to take into consideration with CPU overclocking is IF you decide to adjust the voltage provided to the CPU (vCore), but there is a TON of info online about the safe vCore range for each CPU. 1 minute with google will tell you all you need to know. If your still hesitant you can still adjust the CPU multiplier – worst case if you go to high is that you’ll get a system crash and reboot.

      There are some other methods to overclocking CPU’s that are a little more advanced (modifying bus speeds, etc), but those are really not necessary- if you are just interested in free performance adjusting CPU multiplier and, if you want, vCore will max out the practical maximum of your rig.

      If you are rocking a Sandy Bridge / Ivy Bridge k-series CPU and are looking for an extra 10%-20% performance to help keep up with curren gen CPU’s overclocking is a no brainer. Been running my i5-3570k at 4.2 ghz (vs a standard max of 3.4) fr 4 years with no problems at standard vCore – all I did was adjust the multiplier. If I crank the vcore up I can get an extra 100mhz, but it’s not worth the extra power/heat for 100mhz.

      • alexgem says:

        Well, I think that what you wrote falls clearly under Balinor’s point 1 :)

        • Nelyeth says:

          What he wrote was that, even if you don’t know a thing about GPUs, you can’t harm yours in a permanent fashion. It doesn’t confirm the first point, it invalidates it.

      • Jason Lefkowitz says:

        Well yeah, but that’s still a lot of effort to go through for a pretty insignificant return.

        My rig has a six-plus-year-old CPU (Core i5-2500K). I got a “K” model specifically because I wanted to have the option to overclock down the road if I felt the need. But it’s not OC’ed, because looking back over the time I’ve owned the machine I’m trying to think of a single task or program that was ever meaningfully CPU-bound, and I can’t come up with one.

        I’ve had moments where I ran out of memory and had to buy more, and moments where my GPU was too slow to keep up with modern games and needed upgrading. But never once have I felt like running the CPU at the stock clock was constraining.

        So why bother overclocking? Why go through the hassle of looking up core voltages and whatnot, if that effort would be in the service of solving a problem that doesn’t actually exist?

        And I’m a gamer, so I actually run software that can make a Core-level CPU break a sweat. I feel like for most people, underclocking would be a more productive use of their time than overclocking; so many weird PC bugs boil down to thermal problems inside the case, anything that cuts down on the heat trapped in that confined space would have a bigger real-world impact on their lives than squeezing an extra 5% out of their CPU would.

        • Kamikaze-X says:

          Why bother overclocking? Because for some of us it is a hobby in itself, much like people buying a car and upgrading it, making it go faster etc. There is a massive industry around overclocking alone, hence the custom software, dual bios GPUs, CPUs designed for it. Also, to say that you have had GPUs that needed upgrading, how do you *know* that it wasn’t CPU bound? I used to run an i5 2400, which did in fact overclock regardless of what interwebs dweebs said, and a number of games at 1080p with GTX770 were CPU bound as when you overclocked, you got better frame rates. Things like particle effects etc also benefit.

        • gunny1993 says:

          Maybe if it was hassle, but it’s not anymore, most movies have built in facilities, for instance my Asus with that same 2500k is clocked at 4.8Ghz,thats about 30% over clock

          Took me one click, in the os, been like that for almost 3 years now.

        • slartibartfast says:

          Sorry to interrupt but…

          “I’m trying to think of a single task or program that was ever meaningfully CPU-bound”

          Had to log in to say ARMA. That is all. Carry on.

        • Person of Interest says:

          You’re CPU-bound when loading this very website, for a short but nevertheless noticeable amount of time. Everything becomes more responsive with a faster CPU. It’s nuts to argue otherwise.

        • Ialda says:

          As a fellow 2500K owner who OC’ed his CPU two years ago, it has been a nice upgrade – and above everything else, it’s *free*. Overall my PC feels much more smooth after overclocking, especially when running a game and watching a video at the same time; maybe not SSD-level of upgrade, but close.

          i5 2xxx chips upgrade like crazy and as long as you stay close to your current level of voltage, it shouldn’t pose any problem to the longivity of your CPU.

        • ButteringSundays says:

          You could extend this principle to a lot of hardware justification, IMO – especially outside of the gaming/media landscape (because within it hardware IS important).

          Without attempting to ignite a holy OS war – you often find people balking at the principle of buying a Macbook because you could get slightly more bits and bytes in a Windows laptop, completely missing the point that that extra hardware won’t be used, and comes at the cost of the quality and longevity of the product itself. It would be like someone balking at a Rolls Royce because you could just by a Skoda Octavia.

          Quite often in the tech world it’s a case of more hardware for hardwares sake. I mean have you seen phones these days? Mine has a quad core and 4GB of RAM. It’s a phone!

      • Cronstintein says:

        Good post. The dangers of overclocking are overblown and are more accurate to systems built in the 90s. Modern components and OSs have temperature safeguards in place.

        It will take about a weekend of fiddling and testing if you want to get a complicated OC done, near the bleeding edge of what your chip can handle. If you just want a 15-20% boost, you can probably up your multiplier a few notches in 5 min and be done, without ever having to look at it again.

        • ButteringSundays says:

          “a weekend of fiddling and testing if you want to get a complicated OC done”

          I don’t know how you value your time (and perhaps this is how you would choose to spend it regardless), but at that point it’s more viable to just buy a better CPU.

          • sosolidshoe says:

            Because of course everyone who owns a computer can just shart out £300 for a new CPU on command(and potentially another ~£100 for a board if there’s been a socket change).

      • Tallfeather says:

        Of course permanent damage to the device is not the only peril. A crash is the ideal failure mechanism, but it is not the only one. Others include incorrect data, and in a worst case, it gets saved to disk, overwriting good data. Possibly something very important.

        Bad things can happen. While I agree the risk of outright damage is massively overplayed, do not gloss over actual Bad Things which can occur. You will not always be lucky and just crash out before bad things happen.

  2. Malcolm says:

    While I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from light fettling – remember that errors occurring as as result of overclocking can be subtle and rare, as well as obvious and regular. You might think you have a perfectly stable system only for impossible errors to happen. Probably fine if you are just gaming and/or have good backups. Probably less fun if you corrupt your thesis.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      Thanks for that link! My respect for Microsoft has grown considerably since I am aware of what kind of issues they sometimes have to troubleshoot

    • Joriath says:

      I’m certainly no expert in computing or overclocking but the link you referenced was created 12 years ago, and I’d hope (perhaps wrongly) that matters have evolved since then.

      On a side note I did lose a few thousand words of my thesis due to awful university hardware and it is ruddy painful. That said I was lucky/safe and regularly saved my work (and the lost words weren’t that great anyway); I know some who have lost far more than I.

      • Premium User Badge

        syllopsium says:

        Things haven’t evolved – this is physics.

        Overclocking will never be completely safe, it’s a matter of risk assessment. The improvement is now there is ‘on chip’ boost due to advanced thermal sensors and careful management.

        I’d trust Intel to have a safe boost forever. Wouldn’t do the same for graphics cards (oh hello, the not at all overclocked 8800GTX that usually fails eventually).

        Balance the risk of failure against overclocking.

  3. Merry says:

    ceramic pens on AMD CPUs

    That’ll be ceramic pins!

  4. Marclev says:

    Yep, do all of this, and then become one of the people that complain that new games are poorly optimised and have all sorts of performance problems on your PC because you’ve decided to ignore the manufacturer recommended settings for your CPU, because what do they know and they’re just trying to get more money out of you for what you can already get the cheaper model to do, etc…

    Maybe I’ve just been tremendously unlucky, but I have never, in decades of computer ownership, had a CPU that’s been “happy” to be overclocked to such an extent that it would make any notable difference to its performance. Sure, it may switch on and run for a while, and you can feel smug about yourself for having “beat the system”, but things always became unstable for me in one way or another.

    tl;dr; As others have already said, do this only if you actually know what you’re doing. I think this is the first article of its kind I’ve ever seen that says the equivalent of “just go for it, what’s the worst that could happen these days?”

    • Sleepy Will says:

      I used to agree with you, until I got an arrow… no…nononono, bad Will – until I got into video editing – that 5% gain that seems so marginal when playing games cuts hours from my rendering times over a week, hours in which I can do more work or play more games.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      I’ve unlocked an extra core on a CPU, and over clocked by about 25%… so that’s more than enough to make it worth it. Might only be 5-10fps or so in general, but again, much better than the £100 extra I’d pay on the cpu if upgraded. Though I don’t bother for GPUs, but then again I generally just play sims where CPU speed matters, and I can’t afford an i7 (or even an AMD FX series. :( ).

    • Sic says:

      Are you for real?

      Most Intel CPU’s from 2011 and later are indeed “happy to be overclocked”, being that it’s 100% guaranteed that they’re running at higher stock voltages than they need to by default.

      My i7 2600k @ 3.4 GHz (default clock frequency), for instance, ran at past 1.3 V stock. I’m now running it @ 4.3 GHz, 1.275 V.

      If you think manufacturers are playing it safe, and overclockers aren’t, you’re dead wrong. Nobody in the CPU or motherboard business cares about longevity of the components. They just want it to boot, and last for whatever is deemed a seemly amount of time. Meaning, they will feed every component a little more voltage than they need, just so that they’re sure they will function without a fuzz when good ol’ Joe Schmoe boots up his new system.

  5. Kefren says:

    The other day I found some old letters I got published in PC Plus and PCW, promoting the benefits of UNDERclocking.

  6. rodan32 says:

    Hells yes. I’ve been doing this since my Celeron 300A dual processor system on an ABIT BP-6. Good times. Had to run Windows 2000 (this was before XP) to get the full benefit of twin processors.

  7. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    Oh yes, with each card I get. I fucked up my first cards (970s) because I was new to it and didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

    I might spring for the EVGA 1080 Ti Hybrid when it releases, as the Hybrids beg to be heftily overclocked, or may try and hold out for the next batch of cards past Pascal… We’ll see; I have zero excuse to upgrade but LOVE new tech.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      I’ll happily take your borken cards off you. ;)
      (Even to just frame as artwork on the wall :D )

  8. brucethemoose says:

    while my CPU runs almost a full third (from 3.3 to 4.2GHz) faster than out of the box

    Thats not necessarily true. AMD and Intel CPUs that aren’t fossils all have single-core and multi-core boosts speeds. Older chips usually had more headroom past that, but new ones like the 7700k/1800X will basically boost 1 or 2 cores to the OC limit.

    But it COULD be true. Boost used to work pretty well on my 4670k, but my A8-3500M laptop has a 2gz boost that basically never happens. Thanks to AMD’s crazy conservative stock speeds, I can manage a ~40% overclock (1.5->2.2) WITH a small undervolt… It’s freaking nuts.

  9. Premium User Badge

    syllopsium says:

    This is ‘super safe’ *provided* you’re only playing games, and the manufacturer utilities are used, and not a utility some guy on the Internet swears is fine.

    I have a reference AMD HD6950, and at the time (2012) people were flashing the BIOS to unlock artificially disabled shaders, and raise the speed to the same as the HD6970, because they were really the same card, right? Turns out that the faster memory in the 6970 was really needed and a number of cards were destroyed – it was only safe to unlock the shaders.

    If you’ve got a dedicated games box then sure, go for a bit of overclocking especially if you’re into VR and need every bit of power you can get. Otherwise, I’d be more circumspect. My main system uses a server motherboard and ECC RAM, because I’d rather have reassurance everything is a stable as possible.

    Leaving aside the safety, do keep an eye both on heat and power consumption. Cooking other components is not wise (easily sorted with decent fans). For certain chips *cough*AMD FX8/9xxx*cough*, which were already power hungry, overclocking consumed insane amounts of power.

  10. Chorltonwheelie says:

    Step two…get your hands on the free and wonderful Intel Extreme Tuning Utility, dial in your overclock and go nowhere near your BIOS safe in the knowledge your CPU will cut out rather than explode.

    Childsplay these days, give it a go. Though the snob in me hankers for the maths, heat and experimentation with occasional whiffs of burnt silicon.

  11. Fnord73 says:

    Ye gods, people are sexy when they can speak fluent greek.

    Except for that, whut?

  12. slartibartfast says:

    Overclocking scares me. I have a i5 4690k with the stock cooler and an ancient no name PSU so maybe I have good reason?

  13. Banks says:

    Nah, I prefer the sequel.

  14. RichUncleSkeleton says:

    Here’s the thing I wish someone had told me before I started overclocking my GPU: set a custom fan curve in Afterburner or a comparable program. The firmware-default ones are often horribly deficient.

  15. melnificent says:

    At first it was pushing the CPU, just to see if it’d work.
    Before long I was making custom profiles for my GPU to “get the most” out of it.
    Then it turns out that ram speed affects performance too, back to the bios to turn that up too.
    So now I’m sat here wondering how easy watercooling is to push everything further.

    Don’t play this game, it has no end.

  16. Person of Interest says:

    I’ve overclocked everything I own for 20 years. It’s still not without its downsides.

    Case in point: Overwatch, after an update, began crashing for me once every few hours, after a hundred hours of running flawlessly. It took me nearly a week to realize (I happened to notice a chart in MSI Afterburner looked different than usual) that I had also altered my Nvidia default power save setting, from something like “Normal” to “Optimal (default)”, around the same time. A few games use aggressive dynamic clock scaling with the new setting. My otherwise-stable GTX 970 overclock appears to cause instability at some specific frequency/voltage bucket with certain games. So I had to override the Overwatch power profile to “Performance”, and the overclock’s now rock-solid stable again.

    Also, the 450 MHz memory overclock on that card worked fine for months, but showed occasional texture errors in Bioshock Infinite. It worked in that game at +425 MHz, but then a half year later Project CARS gave me problems until I lowered the overclock again to +400 MHz. Now I’ve had a stable 400 MHz overclock for two years.

    Another example: my CPU (i7-860) has a 20% overclock and 0.1 V boost. It’s been completely stable for six years. But if I increase the voltage by even another 0.025 V, it often hangs when load suddenly drops, such as when closing Prime95. And if I lower the voltage by 0.006 V, Prime95 finds errors after a few hours. I’ve tried static voltage vs. dynamic, all load line calibration options, +0.2 V, +0.3 V, raising the overclock (this processor usually reaches 35%-40% overclock with enough voltage), dropping the memory multiplier and timings; nothing else is stable. Maybe my Gigabyte motherboard is aging badly, or Seasonic power supply is defective… doesn’t matter for the purpose of my argument, which is that overclocking can cause problems.

    All of today’s processors and video cards use dozens of frequency/voltage combinations as they scale for optimal performance and power savings. It’s not possible to run stability tests for all combinations, for all applications. A lot of overclockers solve this dilemma by crippling the power saving features on their system. Otherwise you have to choose conservative overclock settings, budget some headroom, and inch yourself closer to the perfect balance over several weeks or months of tweaking and testing.

  17. zat0ichi says:

    K series overclocking. Why did I pay the extra if I’m not going to chuck another gig on the clock.
    GPU’s are a bit less of a thing. Seems to be about 5% is what you get just by pressing buttons. Unless you are fighting for stable 30fps i wouldn’t bother.

    Watch dogs 2 was about 54fps for me – soo close!
    I pressed the buttons and got 58fps.

    • Person of Interest says:

      GPU overclocking gets you over that last FPS hump, or lets you go from SSAO to HBAO+, or shadows from Medium to High… but yes, because of vsync and fixed resolutions, there are a lot of performance walls which means that overclocking, or choosing the next-faster video card model, sometimes makes zero difference.

  18. geldonyetich says:

    Overclocking is a popular game, but it really sucks when you burn out on it.

    • Seyda Neen says:

      When you’ve played for so long and get caught up in it, sometimes you stop and wonder, “Where has the time gone?”

  19. woodsey says:

    I’ve tried it on several cards and the experience has always been the same: any change that doesn’t send Windows itself into a corrupted mess is too meagre to make a noticeable difference.

  20. GallonOfAlan says:

    When you’ve done it don’t forget to put all the details of all your hardware into your forum sig, like anyone gives a fuck.

  21. BludStanes says:

    This brings back so much nostalgia. Is this available on GoG?

  22. obscured says:

    I have a 3.4ghz I7 2600k CPU I got back in 2011 with 16gb of 1800mhz RAM.

    It’s been running at 4.5ghz with the RAM @ 2000mhz for years, the CPU cooler is a Corsair h50 that I got in 2009 .

    I have a GTX 1070 and a couple of SSD installed now and it’s pretty much good for 60fps @ 1440p in most games.