Overclocking for Dummies

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What is Overclocking?

You’ve probably seen discussions on PC gaming forums or read little blurbs at the bottom of CPU or graphics card reviews talking about ‘overclocking’, often shortened to ‘OCing’. Overclocking is essentially running a processor (either your CPU or the smaller graphics processor on your video card, called a GPU) faster than the manufacturer intended it to go.

Why bother?

OCing can turn a modestly-priced processor into a beast of a component, if handled correctly. Many overclockers squeeze this extra performance out of their CPUs and GPUs to run the newest games (the most graphically intense of which can serious tax even high-end processors) at incredible resolutions, on multiple screens and with maxed-out video settings. Think of OCers like hotrod enthusiasts. Do they have way too much power under the hood for the daily commute? Sure, but the extra time and effort is worth it when you put the pedal down.

If it’s so great, why doesn’t everyone OC?

Overclocking is not without risks. The reason manufacturers artificially limit the speeds of their components is (usually) to keep their products running without incident for its entire lifetime. OCing can require extra power from the power supply to be sent to the OC’d component and with that extra voltage comes extra heat. As computer components heat-up, they become less stable. When internal temperatures become too hot, you’ll start noticing your applications locking-up, operating systems crashing and you start to risk inflicting irreversible damage on your overclocked parts.

How does it work?

Overclocking is usually done directly through BIOS, but can sometimes be completed via Windows by running specialized software. The main parameter that OC’ers tinker with is the processor’s clock rate, or frequency. By bumping the frequency up, you’re giving the processor the go-ahead to run faster than before. As noted above, this extra speed might require more juice from the power supply, so you’ll also need to make small changes to the CPU’s voltage. Many overclockers install extra fans, or other cooling systems, to compensate for the extra heat and guard against hardware failure. Other parameters, like CPU multiplier, can also be tweaked optimalize performance, but these are the basics.

How can I get started?

First of all, if you can’t name everything plugged into your motherboard by memory (no pun intended), don’t start messing about inside your chassis. Do some research on how your motherboard, CPU, graphics card and memory work before you start changing settings. Overclocking is very-much a game of trial-and-error. You’ll find spotty manufacturer support (though this is starting to change) and every computer set-up is different. Often the best advice you’ll find online on troubleshooting your particular motherboard/CPU/GPU-combo is, “I’m having the same problem. Advice?” Don’t start changing settings until you, A) Know what you old settings look like and how to reset them, if all does not go well, and B) Have enough time for your computer to be out-of-commission for several hours (and not 100% dependable for several days). Even after you find new settings that seem to work, you should always run stress tests to make sure your system stays stable.

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