Should you overclock your CPU?

There’s nothing wrong with squeezing out every drop of performance you can get from a CPU. After all, it’s the brains of your PC and you want it running optimally, if not better. That’s where overclocking comes into play.

Should you overclock your CPU? That depends on the chip and your understanding of the process. There are risks involved, and it may not be worth your time — and potentially money. Read on for more information about those risks as well as the benefits of overclocking your CPU.

What is overclocking?

If you’re unfamiliar with overclocking, it’s the process of setting your CPU multiplier higher so the chip speeds up and increases your PC’s overall performance. For serious users, it’s a common way to amplify performance. However, overclocking has its share of risks, especially for newcomers.

Overclocking typically involves the primary processor, though you can also overclock a discrete GPU for a boost in graphics processing. There is no one rule in how fast you can speed up a processor, but every overclocking project produces different results. That makes your decision to overclock rather 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 PC components. In addition to changing your multiplier, you may need to alter voltage settings, fan rotation speeds, and other important, fragile fundamentals.

So when you really get down to it, do you need to overclock?

Overclocked processors are often associated with gaming, but here’s a reality check: Speeding up your CPU may not do much to improve your gaming experience. It helps particularly demanding programs run faster, certainly, but you probably won’t notice the same effect in today’s PC games. Why? Because the GPU simply does most of the work.

In games, the CPU typically deals with player input, AI, calculations — essentially everything that’s not visual. However, CPUs can take a larger, more stressful load in MMORPGs as it handles additional players, their actions, and their conversations.

Greg Mombert/Digital Trends
That said, overclocking the CPU leads to better performance in advanced 3D-imaging programs, professional video editing apps, and similar software for complex work projects. For smoother action and better graphics, overclocking your dedicated graphics card is a more reliable solution. Still, if your machine is new enough to run the latest PC games, its CPU and GPU may be sufficient without diving into the overclocking waters.

Of course, how many people overclock because they really need to? Relatively few.

Most people overclock their PCs simply because they can. Afterward, they boast about their glorious man-over-machine achievement. It’s a way to tinker with your computer and get more from it using a few simple tools. That appeals to a lot of do-it-yourself system builders who would rather start with a lower-cost, lower-speed processor and amplify it themselves.

However, this also invites a major problem common to all overclocks — overuse. You can’t give your computer steroids without drawbacks. An overclocked processor consumes more energy, produces more heat, and eventually wears out more quickly. Overclocking may cost you more money in the long run.

Even more, overclocking will void any warranties your CPU may have. Do you want to take that chance?

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 small overclock, say a 10% boost, isn’t difficult to implement. It won’t put a heavy strain on your processor, but the effects may be underwhelming. Adding several hundred megahertz to your system, by contrast, is common and avoids the danger zone for most PCs.

But increasing your CPU’s speed by 1GHz (1,000 megahertz) is a whole other ballgame that requires extra cooling and perhaps new power units. It’s possible but not advisable for casual upgraders.

What do I need?

What sort of overclocking do you want to try? How in-depth are you willing to go? Here are some important tools so you can judge the work level for yourself.

  • The right computer or CPU: You should invest in a CPU — like one of Intel’s K-series or any of AMD’s latest Ryzen CPUs — that supports overclocking. An overclock-friendly motherboard is also important, so don’t go by the processor alone. The newest mod-friendly CPUs and motherboards often come with software that replaces some of the tools listed below. Finally, if you’re buying a pre-built PC, check the system specs before assuming it supports overclocking.
  • Data display software: Programs like CPU-Z allow you to glance at the clock speed, see the voltage usage, and other important tracking factors. Downloading one of these tools will make the project much easier while tinkering.
  • Stress test software: You must stress-test to ensure your overclocked processor is stable and safe. Prime95, LinX, and AIDA64 can help, though some overclockers prefer to run more than one program and compare the results. Applications like RealTemp are also useful for tracking processor temperatures.
  • A heat sink/coolant unit: For serious overclocking, you’ll need a better cooling system installed inside your PC. That may be a larger processor heatsink and additional case fans.
  • A laptop or smartphone: These are a must for checking guides, or watching how-to videos while you dive into overclocking for the first time.

How long will it take

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

Intel 5690 motherboard
Scott Younker/Digital Trends

A proper and safe overclock requires research beforehand. You may even need to order additional parts, such as a bigger cooler.

After the proper prep work, start implementing basic tests, download the right stress test, and make CPU alterations — these are all relatively quick steps which may only take an hour. 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, 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 must make adjustments and run the stress test again. If you need to install a coolant system or heat sink, tack on additional time.

Overall, the process can often take several 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 of weekends on an overclocking project may sound like fun.

Final word: To overclock or not

Overclocking is considerably less risky than ever before. Still, it takes substantial knowledge and a lot of patience — and it’s not an exact science, either. Your results can vary widely depending on your skill level, materials, and hardware. 

While all this added performance can come with some risk, for those that like to push the edge of performance, the world of overclocking can add some fun and excitement to your computing life. Once you learn how to tweak your systems settings and run the necessary stability tests, you may find the overclocking well worth the effort.

There’s always the chance of bricking your CPU, so we feel the need to add a word of caution. This process is not for everyone, so evaluate your system and financial resources before diving in too quickly. Be sure you’re willing to take the time to learn about hardware management, as well as to obtain the right diagnostic tools.

In either case, you shouldn’t expect overclocks 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 computing speed. You won’t see much of an improvement if you spend your days writing emails and editing text documents.

If you want to take the overclock plunge, you can learn how to overclock your CPU with our step-by-step guide.

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