Overclocking is basically a free way to get more performance out of your computer! But it’s no silver bullet, and coaxing this performance out of your computer won’t always be easy or simple. While the basics can be done in just a moment, there are experts that spend hours upon hours of tweaking and testing to overclock their PC hardware to perfection. In this guide, we will be going through the basics of overclocking so that you can unlock the hidden potential of your computer in minutes. And we’ll be doing so from the perspective of digital creators such as photo editors, video editors, and 3D modelers.
What is Overclocking?
Maybe you’ve heard of overclocking, and that it can make your computer faster. But what does overclocking actually do? There are three main components of a computer that can be overclocked: the CPU, the GPU, and the RAM – these are also referred to as the processor, the graphics card, and the memory (not to be confused with storage), respectively. The most commonly overclocked component is the CPU, so we’ll mostly be talking about this from the CPU perspective.
Essentially, overclocking a CPU will increase its clock speed. Clock speed is the frequency at which a processor runs, however it is not necessarily an indicator of how well it will perform compared to other processors. For example, due to technological advancements, a processor with a speed of 3.5GHz (the GHz means gigahertz) released 10 years ago will likely perform much worse than a processor with a speed of 3.5GHz released only a year ago. So why overclock if this is the case? Well, clock speed certainly has an effect on performance in the context of a single processor, so it’s just free performance waiting to be unlocked!
Overclocking may also require an adjustment of voltage. Voltage is the power being supplied to a processor, and it may need more power to reach higher clock speeds. With more power comes more heat, because this “free” performance can’t be truly free! This means you will need a more robust cooling system to keep your PC in check.
Can My CPU Be Overclocked?
While many CPUs can be overclocked, plenty cannot be. If you have laptop, you probably won’t be able to overclock anything. If you have an Apple computer, you probably also won’t be able to overclock, even if you have a desktop Mac. When it comes to modern CPUs, Intel and AMD are the brands you will run into. All AMD Ryzen processors can be overclocked, although the degree to which they can be adjusted will vary. For Intel, it is a bit more complex. CPUs whose product names have a K at the end can be overclocked, but those that don’t have a K cannot. For example, the i5-12400 cannot be overclocked, but the i7-12700K can be.
Unfortunately, this only tells you if the CPU you have can be overclocked. Your motherboard (the board your CPU is installed in) may also affect your ability to overclock. Motherboards within the same family have a variety of different chipsets. Chipsets, for the purpose of this guide, control the feature set of a motherboard. Lower-tier chipsets equal lower-tier (and therefore less expensive) motherboards. The lower-end chipsets don’t support overclocking, which makes them ideal for a budget PC built around a non-overclockable CPU. But if you have an overclockable CPU in a non-overclocking motherboard, you’re out of luck. For Intel, chipset designations that start with a Z are overclockable. You’ll need to look into the features of your board or of one that you’re looking to purchase.
Why Should You Overclock?
There are a few reasons to overclock, but there is a caveat. Especially with modern processors, overclocking is often not necessary and won’t always result in benefits for you. This is due to the fact that processors are very good at automatically boosting their clock speed in situations that can take advantage of it. There are settings that are on by default that will do this. As I write this disclaimer, my processor (AMD Ryzen 5 5600X) is not overclocked, and it’s set to its base speed of 3.7GHz. Yet my computer reports that two of the six cores occasionally boost to 4.6GHz.
This will function differently than overclocking, but for your uses, it might not make a difference. With my CPU not overclocked, my performance is more consistent and stable and the difference in performance is negligible in most programs. In fact, most statistics report around 3-7% performance improvement in benchmarks, and no difference in things like games. What is happening here is that a couple cores of the processor are boosting extra high, rather than all of the cores running high like they would on an overclock, which is more efficient. This means it may be less effective at tasks that require multiple cores, but in practice for this particular processor, it’s a very small difference. Depending on your processor, the difference could be much larger. This is why it’s important to run before-and-after benchmarks! For example, render a video before and after an overlock to see how much faster the overclocked CPU renders the file.
Overclocking your CPU can generally result in increased performance. You won’t notice an overclocked CPU while browsing the internet or typing up a document. You may or may not notice it in gaming, depending on the power of your graphics card in comparison to your CPU. But today we’re talking about content creation. Content creation tools often rely heavily on CPU performance, especially in photo and video editing. Video rendering especially will benefit from an overclock, as the clock speed will directly relate to faster render times. If you create content and have a CPU that can overclock, you will likely see some benefits.
Overclocking Risks and Downsides
Overclocking is not a magical thing with no downsides. Cooling is incredibly important. If you’re still using the stock CPU cooler that your processor came with, you’re not going to get any overclocking done. Once a CPU reaches a certain temperature (which varies depending on the CPU) it will start automatically reducing its clock speed in order to preserve a stable temperature. This would completely ruin the point of an overclock, of course.
You don’t have to worry about an overclock immediately killing your hardware. Modern hardware has many protections built-in, so a computer will turn off if the processor gets too hot, That being said, it’s still not good to run a processor at high temperatures for an extended period of time. Sustained temperatures near a processor’s maximum allowance can reduce its lifespan. The same is true for your motherboard. All that heat is near the motherboard as well, and certain components such as voltage regulation modules (VRMs) on the board can burn out if you’re pumping them with a lot of voltage at all times. The risks of overclocking are low, but they aren’t zero.
So, to sum up the downsides:
- Heat – A processor running at higher speeds will produce more heat and need better cooling.
- Heat – When a processor reaches a certain heat threshold, its performance will drop, thus negating the effects of overclocking.
- Lifespan – A processor that is consistently exposed to increased voltage and heat may have a reduced lifespan.
- Warranty – Even though overclocking is available in many products, it can sometimes void warranties (check with your individual parts for details).
- Noise – Because there is an increase in heat, your existing cooling components may need to run harder. This can cause an increase in fan noise if your cooling is insufficient.
- Power consumption – An increase in voltage will result in a higher power bill, although likely not to significant degree.
- Bottlenecks – If there is another bottleneck in your system for the tasks you’re trying to accomplish, overclocking your CPU will not have a positive effect.
Testing for Stability
Before we go into the overclocking guide, let’s talk about stability. Overclocking can make your computer unstable, especially if your power settings are not appropriate for the desired clock speed. Best case, this means that your computer will crash often while using it. To stress-test your processor, run a synthetic benchmark like Cinebench. This runs your CPU at 100% capacity, so it’s a great way to test stability and temperatures. You can use a tool like Hardware Info or Core Temp to monitor CPU temperatures during the test and see if these programs give you any temperature warnings. It does vary by CPU, but generally you should aim to have your processor running at below 85 degrees Celcius to give it a longer lifespan.
If you do get a crash or a “blue screen of death”, then you need to adjust some settings. You just might not know which ones. You could try increasing the voltage or decreasing the clock speed, until you reach stability. Even if a benchmark shows stability, it still doesn’t mean your computer will be perfectly stable in the long-term, so keep your eye out for future crashes.
Basic Overclocking Guide
Overclocking is not something that can be done from the desktop. You have to enter the BIOS. The BIOS is built-in motherboard software that is accessible on startup. When you turn on your computer you probably see a splash screen for your motherboard that indicates what key to press in order to enter the BIOS. Usually this is the Delete key, but it varies.
The look and terminology of a BIOS screen will also vary depending on the brand. Once you find the CPU tweaking screen, there are a couple possibilities, depending on the brand.
Clock Speed Adjustments
If you’re lucky, it might be as simple as typing in the clock speed number. And guessing at a good overclock number isn’t hard. Processors come with a recommended maximum frequency. For example, the AMD Ryzen 5 5600X has a base speed of 3.7GHz, and a maximum frequency of 4.6GHz. So you should be able to safely overclock directly to 4.6GHz. If you want to be safe, you can do 100MHz at a time, then test for stability.
In some BIOS menus, the clock speed will be split into two different settings. One of these is base clock, which is 100MHz by default, and the other is multiplier or ratio. Basically this number will multiply the base clock. So a multiplier of 46 will result in the 4.6GHz mentioned earlier.
In a lot of cases, your overclocking journey can end there. However, you may also need to adjust the voltage. In order to hit the desired clock speeds, you may need to pump more power into it. This is not recommended unless you need it, since too much power can result in heat, which will result in a shorter lifespan for your hardware.
If you do increase voltage, do so in small increments. It doesn’t take much. No matter what you do, try not to pump more than 1.35V into your CPU. Unless you really know what you’re doing, 1.35V is a good maximum to keep in mind, although experts could go beyond this. But you likely won’t need even this much voltage. Raise your voltage in increments of 0.01V to be extra safe. Temperature is also a factor, so you should only add more voltage if you have sufficient cooling to maintain a healthy temperature. If you are reaching 80C under full load, you probably don’t have enough extra cooling headroom to safely increase voltage.
Undervolting is also an interesting tool. Yes, you can sometimes reduce the voltage of your processor while overclocking it! This can result in drastically lower temperatures. Manufacturers sometimes set a processor to run at a higher voltage than needed, by default. Lower temperatures can mean a longer lifespan for your hardware. If you get a crash then all you need to do is go back into your BIOS and add more voltage. Again, run some stress tests to be sure. Much like increasing clock speed, decreasing voltage can affect stability.
CPU Overclocking Steps
Now to put these steps more simply! Follow this quick list to start your overclocking journey.
- Verify that your CPU and motherboard support overclocking.
- Invest in aftermarket cooling solutions to avoid overheating.
- Enter your computer’s BIOS menu and identify the overclocking settings (refer to manual if needed).
- Adjust core frequency up by 100MHz (or 0.1GHz) then test for stability. Repeat until you experience crashes and instability.
- If you didn’t reach your CPU’s advertised speeds, try these speeds in combination with voltage increases of 0.01V, up to 1.35V. If you did reach the advertised speeds, try reducing voltage in 0.01V increments until you run into stability issues. Settle on a voltage that combines stability with lower temperatures and solid performance.
Overclocking Other Components
While overclocking your CPU is a bit intimidating, there are a couple of other components that can make a big impact with minimal effort.
RAM, or memory, is the easiest to overclock, although “overclock” is a deceiving term. When you buy RAM, it includes a speed at which it is rated to run at, measured in MHz. However, it probably won’t run at that speed out of the box. Motherboards have a base speed that RAM is programmed to run at, but many motherboards (especially those capable of overclocking CPUs) allow users to manually adjust their RAM speeds. For example, many motherboards set a base speed of 2400. Meanwhile, a common RAM speed to buy is 3600. That’s a big hit to performance – and you can probably tell that even if you don’t know what these numbers mean.
Setting RAM to its advertised speed is technically an overclock, even though it doesn’t seem like it. To set your RAM speed, go into your BIOS. The memory settings will likely be in a similar location as the CPU overclocking settings. Refer to your manual if necessary. Depending on whether you’re using an Intel or AMD platform, the RAM setting you’re looking for may be called XMP or DOCP. There should be an option to set a preconfigured profile that is set to the advertised speed of your RAM. If not, you should be able to manually select a number.
There are a ton of complex RAM settings that expert RAM overclockers know how to tweak, but your computer will manually adjust these numbers to hit the rated speed. No need to worry, just set it and forget it! While you could run into some issues, your RAM is effectively guaranteed to run at its advertised speed.
Faster RAM speeds have an overall impact on CPU speed. The RAM serves as temporary storage for CPU tasks, and the faster the RAM, the faster it can relay those tasks, therefore the faster your system is. This can mean a big impact on rendering times and complex calculations from effects. Looking at modern products, AMD processors will see a bigger performance improvement from faster RAM than an Intel processor. So if you’re running an AMD CPU, definitely try to seek out faster RAM and ensure that the speed is correct. To confirm your RAM speed in Windows, open Task Manager, click on the Performance tab, and click on Memory. There should be a Speed label that specifies the speed.
If you see a number that is half of your expected speed, don’t panic. Sometimes RAM displays this way. RAM technology is called DDR, which stands for Double Data Rate. The commonly seen numbers such as 3600MHz are technically doubled, and sometimes programs display this value differently (1800 in this case).
RAM can often be overclocked beyond its rated speed, but this is a complex task. You shouldn’t try this unless you’re very knowledgeable about the topic.
GPU overclocking can be even easier than RAM in many ways!
If you own a dedicated graphics card from Nvidia, you can download a program called MSI Afterburner. The program has a slider for Core Clock. You can adjust this live, in increments of about 10MHz. Do this while running a GPU benchmark like Unigine Heaven in the background. Once you experience a crash, you’ll know where your limits are. From there, restart your computer and dial it back 10MHz or so to give yourself some headroom. By increasing the frequency, you may also need to adjust the fan speed to be higher or to undervolt the graphics card in order to control your heat.
If you don’t want to mess around with the sliders, you can click on the OC button in MSI Afterburner. This will scan your graphics card and identify a safe overclock. You can get better results doing it manually, but using the automatic overclocking tool is the safest way to get more performance.
If you own an AMD graphics card, you can use AMD’s own Radeon Software program. Go into the Graphics settings, and click on Custom. Under Tuning Control, click on Manual. From here, you can adjust the core frequency and voltage. Just like with an Nvidia graphics card, you should run a benchmark like Unigine Heaven in the background to keep an eye on stability. The program also features an Auto Overclock button, which is nice to have if you don’t want to manually tune your hardware.
Glossary of Terms
CPU – Central Processing Unit. A chip that is the “brain” of a computer.
RAM – Random Access Memory. Tasks are stored here are assigned to the CPU. Modern personal computers have between 4GB and 128GB generally. Higher amounts are more ideal for rendering.
Motherboard – The central board that computer components connect to and allows them to “talk” to each other. Can also lock or unlock certain features of components.
Overclock – The act of pushing a computer component beyond its manufacturer-guaranteed performance by increasing its clock speed, and generally also its voltage.
Voltage – While electrical engineering is a complex topic, voltage in the context of overclocking essentially refers to the amount of power being delivered to the CPU. Too much voltage could burn out components faster, while too little voltage could result in a crash due to not enough power being delivered.