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Overclocking your PC can unlock “free” performance, but the cost can be high

If you are unfamiliar, overclocking is the process of setting your CPU multiplier higher so that your processor speeds up, and speeds up everything else on your computer, too. It’s a common way to amplify computer performance for serious users, but it also comes with its share of risks, especially for newbies.

The typical subject for overclocking is your primary processor, but your GPU (if separate) can also be overclocked for a boost to graphics processing. There’s no one rule to how fast you can speed up a processor. Every overclocking project will product different results, and that can make your decision difficult. Is overclocking worth it? Yes – and no.

Overclocking: Do you need it?

Overclocking can be time-consuming and expensive, especially if you have little experience tinkering with your PC. In addition to changing your multiplier, you may also need to mess with voltage settings, fan rotation speeds, and other important, fragile fundamentals. So when you really get down to it, do you need to overclock?

Amped-up processors are often associated with gaming, but here’s a reality check. Speeding up your CPU may not to do much for your gaming experience. It will help particularly demanding programs run faster, but you probably won’t notice the effect on today’s computer games. If your machine is new enough to run the latest titles, its CPU/GPU are likely sufficient already. Overclocking your dedicated graphics card, on the other hand, can lead to smoother action and better graphics more reliably.

Intel-i7-6700K-review-7

Greg Mombert/Digital Trends

Overclocking the CPU itself is more likely to help run advanced 3D-imaging programs, professional video editing apps, and similar software – the sort associated more with complex work projects than with online gaming.

Of course, how many people overclock because they really need to? Relatively few. Most people overclock their PCs because they can (and because afterwards, they can boast about it). It’s a way to tinker with your computer and get more from it using a few simple tools, and that appeals to a lot of DIYers in the world who would rather start with a lower-cost, lower-speed processor and amplify it themselves.

However, this also invites the major problem common to all overclocking – overuse. You can’t give your computer steroids without some drawbacks. An overclocked processor will use up more energy, produce a lot more heat, and eventually wear out more quickly. It may cost you more money to overclock in the long run, and it will void any warranties your CPU may have.

How much faster are we talking?

How fast do you want? Multipliers are easy to set, but processors are also easy to fry – there’s a give and take. A bit of overclocking, say a 10% boost, isn’t difficult to implement and won’t strain your processor very much. But the effects may also be underwhelming.

Adding several hundred megahertz to your system, by contrast, is common and avoids the danger zone for most PCs. But increasing speed by, say 1GHz, is a whole other ballgame that requires extra cooling and possibly new power units:. It’s possible, but unadvisable for casual upgraders.

What do I need?

It depends on what sort of overclocking you want to try, and how in-depth you want to go. Here are some important tools so you can judge the work level for yourself.

  • The right computer or CPU: Certain companies and product lines (such as the K-series Intel processors) are designed for overclocking. You should really invest in a computer or chip with these capabilities for any serious overclocking work. An overclock-friendly motherboard is also important, so don’t go by processor alone. Indeed, the newest mod-friendly CPUs and motherboards often come with software that can replace some of the tools below.

Read: Intel vs. AMD: Which brand of CPU should you choose when building a PC?

  • Another computer besides your project: You’ll want another computer to use in case something goes wrong and to use while stress testing, too.
  • Data display software: Programs like CPU-Z allow you to see at a glance your clock speed, how much voltage you are using, and other important tracking factors – downloading one of these will make the project much easier when tinkering.
  • Stress test software: You must stress test to ensure your overclocked processor is stable and safe. Prime95, LinX, and AIDA64 can help out (some prefer to run more than one and compare results). Programs like RealTemp are also useful for tracking processor temperatures.
  • A heat sink/coolant unit: For serious overclocking, you’ll probably need to install a better cooling system of some kind. That will come in the form of a larger processor heatsink and, possibly, more case fans.

How long will it take

Most importantly, the overclocking process depends on how much time you are willing to spend to do it the right way. You can do a quick and janky overclock procedure just by downloading the right software and changing a few settings, but this is going to cause a lot more trouble than it’s worth.

Intel 5690 motherboard

A proper and safe overclock will require research beforehand, and perhaps ordering some additional parts, such as the cooler. After the prep work, you need to start implementing basic tests, downloading the right stress test, and making the CPU alterations – these are all relatively quick steps which may only take an hour or so. But running the stress test, which you should do after every alteration, should take a few hours as it monitors temperature and activity for stability.

That’s a pretty full afternoon, and it’s assuming everything goes perfectly and you know what you’re doing every step of the way. If your computer overheats, crashes, or fails to perform as expected, you’ll have to make adjustments and run the stress test again. If you have to install a coolant system or heat sink, add in even more time. This can often take a couple days of tinkering to get it just right, which may be too long for you to gain a casual boost in CPU speed. On the other hand, if you are a hobbyist, spending a couple weekends on an overclocking project may sound like fun.

Final word: To clock or not

Overclocking is not an exact science. Every result is a little different based on materials, skill, and the hardware you’ve access to.

If you can handle the element of uncertainty, the necessary tests for stabilization, and tinkering with the most elemental parts of your computer, overclocking is well within your grasp. If you don’t really have any money to spend, the right overclocking tools, or a willingness to dive deep into hardware management, overclocking isn’t for you. While it’s easier than ever before, and no longer particularly risky, it does require a good bit of knowledge and plenty of patience.

In either case, you shouldn’t expect overclocking to transform your typical computing experience. Aside from bragging rights, the main reason to pursue overclocking is to improve the performance of applications that lean heavily on compute speed. You won’t see the most benefit if you never use such software.