Gaming remains one of the most demanding tasks a user can ask a computer to perform, and it often persuades gamers to upgrade their hardware in hopes of improving in-game framerate. There’s more to the performance equation than what is under the hood, however; how fast hardware runs is also important.
Overclocking, the practice of increasing a processor’s clock speed to obtain better performance, has been used by gamers for two decades. Over the years hardware and software tools used in overclocking have become easier to use, which means this tweak can now be handled by even the greenest tech geek. Here’s every a gamer needs to know about overclocking – and how to do it.
All computer processors run at a set clock speed. This determines how quickly the chip processes instructions, so increasing it can improve performance, though this often comes at the expense of efficiency. The higher the clock, the more power drawn, and the more heat generated.
Hardware manufacturers choose the clock speed of a part through various criteria including price, cooling, and the performance offered by competitors, but the speed chosen is usually set in firmware rather than hardware, which means it can be changed.
The improvement offered by increasing a processor’s clock is not mysterious. A 10% increase will usually improve performance by 10%, though the result is sometimes a few points short of that target.
Memory also has a clock speed, and this also can be overclocked. Rather than increasing compute performance, a memory overclock increases bandwidth and transfer speeds. Memory overclocking of system RAM is no longer common, but gamers sometimes overclock the memory on a video card.
Though extreme overclocking usually requires enhanced cooling, such as water cooling or (in the most extreme cases, such as competitions) liquid nitrogen, overclocking with a stock or upgraded air cooler is very possible, and can result in an improvement of up to 25%. This is generally the only form of overclocking that is cost-effective, as liquid cooling systems are not cheap.
Do the Benefits Of Overclocking Matter?
Whether or not overclocking a processor or video card will impact game performance depends on a couple of factors.
First is the bottleneck your system currently faces. All computers that play games are ultimately held back by a particular component, usually the video card or the processor. Skyrim is a game that places more load on the CPU than most, so a slow CPU will bottleneck a fast video card. In other games the reverse is true. You’ll only see a benefit if you overclock the component that is causing your current performance bottleneck. Identifying the bottleneck can easily be accomplished with benchmark software.
The second important factor is the performance you currently experience. In a cruel twist of fate, overclocking is least likely to help gamers who are experiencing very poor performance? Math reveals why this is the case. Overclocking a video card by 15% might improve framerates by 10 to 15 percent. If the game ran at 60 FPS before your overclocking, you can expect an improvement of 6 to 9 frames per second. But if you started at 20 FPS, the expected improvement is just 2 to 3 frames per second!
What these two points tell us is that overclocking works best on systems that are having problems running games at an optimal 60 FPS, rather than those having trouble achieving 30 FPS or below. Overclocking, though it can extend the life of hardware a few years old, will not magically make an antique CPU competitive again.
So, having read this far, you’ve decided that overclocking would help your rig. The question now is – how?
Overclocking a CPU is usually simple. If your processor and motherboard chipset supports overclocking you should find an option within the BIOS/UEFI called “clock multiplier.” Adjusting this up or down will also increase or decrease the processor’s clock speed. Adjusting in gradual steps of 33 or 66 MHz is recommended, as a CPU overclocked too far can cause instability or fail to boot. Should you end up finding yourself in that situation, you can reset the motherboard by removing and re-installing the motherboard battery, which wipes the BIOS/UEFI memory and forces all settings back to the default.
You may notice, however, that the clock multiplier is either not present or grayed out when you open BIOS/UEFI. This is likely because your motherboard and/or processor doesn’t allow clock speed adjustments. Only a few Intel processors, designated by a “K” at the end of their product name, are unlocked and allow for overclocking. AMD processors are more likely to allow it, as all of the company’s FX-line processors, as well as all A-Series “Black Edition” processors, have an unlocked multiplier.
Video cards are even easier. Both AMD and Nvidia now offer overclocking controls baked right into the driver software. Simply left-click on the Windows desktop, open the AMD or Nvidia control panel, and then find the controls (under the label of “overclocking” or “performance”). The clock of both the GPU and video RAM can be adjusted. For best results, adjust each upwards in increments of 10 MHz, running the Furmark stress test for five minutes after each change. Once the benchmark crashes, or begins to show corrupt graphics, you know you’ve reached the limits of your video card.
Factory Overclocking Is A Big Deal
You may not even have to overclock yourself, because factory overclocking has become a big deal in the video card market. All the manufacturers now offer custom cards that run at a better-than-stock speed, with most exhibiting an improvement of 10 to 25%.
These cards mostly serve to provide steps between the main product lines AMD and Nvidia offer. Both provide six to eight made model lines between $100 and $1,000, and sometimes the gap between them can be significant. If you can’t afford the next step up, but also feel the card you can afford isn’t as fast as you’d like, a factory overclocked model may be for you.
Another benefit of these customized cards is their coolers which, in most cases, are better than the stock options. I do recommend taking a look at reviews, because manufacturers have occasionally made cards with coolers worse than the standard, but that’s generally not the case.
Overclocking is no longer a major technical hurdle. Doing it is literally a matter of adjusting some numbers one way or another, and while some restraint is required to ensure hardware is not overclocked too far, there’s little danger of permanent damage even if a CPU or GPU’s limit are exceeded. The component will simply shut down once it becomes too hot.
Do you overclock your video card or processor, and if so, did you find that the overclock noticeably improved performance? Let us know in the comments.