Seasoned gamers have probably come across the term "overclocking" more than once. Whether it was when purchasing a new rig or trying to find ways to make your PC work faster, it is a term that is common and loosely used in the gaming circle.
But is overclocking worth it? Does it work? Are there any downsides you should be aware of? This guide will cover everything about overclocking and whether it's right for you and your setup.
What is Overclocking?
Typically, computer components are designed to run at a certain maximum and stable speed. When these components run at a higher speed than this, it comes with some risk. When you overclock, you are exceeding these restrictions.
Overclocking refers to setting certain computer components at higher clock speeds for better performance. It’s simply taking the clock speed of these components and pushing them over the normal limits.
The gains achieved by overclocking are never equal, even among similar components. The additional speed you can extract from the overclocked component depends on the silicon lottery – the slight differences found in each product.
For beginners, overclocking isn’t entirely necessary or recommended. It requires ample knowledge of how overclocking could hurt your system and how to overcome the increased cooling demand that comes with overclocking.
Why Overclock? Do You Need It?
Overclocking isn't for everyone. It's best suited for competitive gamers, enthusiasts, and advanced PC users who need serious performance beyond the factory settings of overclockable components of the PC.
Serious gamers, PC users working on complex 3D imaging and programs as well as professional video editors are among the few people that can benefit from overclocking.
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If you run the latest AAA games on your rig without overclocking, then there's no reason to consider it. But if your PC struggles, overclocking can push the FPS from a subpar setting into a more desirable range.
Overclocking isn’t without risks to your PC and the specific components being overclocked. However, you can mitigate these risks if you’re careful, but you can’t eliminate them.
Pushing the limits of your PC and its components above their stock speeds also means the equipment will use up more energy, power, and voltage. Ultimately, the lifespan of the hardware will decrease.
In some instances, overclocking might also void the warranty, especially when done on PCs that aren't built for overclocking.
When Should You Overclock?
Seeing that overclocking has upsides and downsides, knowing when to overclock is critical to allow you to make the most out of the moment while minimising risks.
Overclocking yields the most tangible results on machines with dated components. The components don't have to be outdated, but they need to have been superseded by more powerful components.
Using overclocking helps to squeeze extra performance out of the components. You can use the extra juice to improve the graphics or boost the FPS enough for a more bearable gaming experience.
Depending on the game you're playing, you can overclock the GPU or the CPU. Overclocking the CPU packs an additional boost in performance, while with the GPU, the results are more superficial.
Overclocking is best suited for situations where additional performance is absolutely necessary, and you can't afford to purchase newer and more powerful components at the time.
What Do You Need to Overclock?
As stated earlier, overclocking comes with several demands. Before you decide to overclock, there are several hardware requirements you need to keep in mind to minimise risk and damage to the component being overclocked.
Overclocking pushes the components above their limits, consumes more power and ultimately produces more heat. This is more so the case when overclocking the GPU and the CPU. Adequate cooling is necessary to keep the components within reasonable and operational temperatures and to prevent overheating.
A second computer
If you're overclocking for the first time, it helps to have a second computer at hand if things don't go as planned. This is simply for precaution. It is highly recommended for PC users who need their PCs for work.
When overclocking, you need software that will gauge the stability of your system. CPU-Z is one of the most commonly used software by gamers for monitoring clock speed, voltage and other vital parameters.
Stress testing software
The stress testing software will help you gauge the stability of the OCs, and how much more processing power you're getting from the components you're overclocking. There are multiple options in the market you can use for this. The most popular is Prime95 or AIDA64.
What Computer Components Can You Overclock?
Overclocking is often in reference to the CPU and the GPU because of how easy these two components are to overclock with the help of 3rd party software. But, there are other computer components that can be overclocked.
The CPU is the most commonly overclocked component. But not all processors can be overclocked. Intel, in particular, is notorious for restricting overclocking in its processors. Only the K and X-series chips are overclockable.
AMD, on the other hand, is more open to overclocking. Most of the mainstream AMD processors (Ryzen and FX chips included) are overclockable. You just need to have a motherboard that supports overclocking features.
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The gains of overclocking a CPU are usually minimal. Performance is often constricted by cooling limitations. If you can invest in a high-end third-party cooling system, you can get a notable boost in performance.
For gamers, the improved performance is in better FPS and reducing the severity of FPS drops. For productivity-related tasks, the gains are larger.
The CPU is the most commonly overclocked. It is also the most complex to overclock. It's not recommended to overclock your CPU if you're new to overclocking or you don't really need more power than your processor is capable of.
Graphics Card (GPU)
GPUs are also overclockable. Almost all of the leading brands have overclockable graphics cards. When overclocking a GPU, you should know that the performance gains are not that significant. Also, the results of overclocking the GPU will be wildly inconsistent even among identical GPUs because of other inconsistencies in the hardware called "the silicon lottery."
Among the PC components, the GPU is the easiest to overclock despite limitations by hardware. With software like MSI afterburner, overclocking your GPU couldn’t be easier than it currently is.
How much does GPU overclocking improve gaming performance/FPS
When overclocking the GPU, several factors like the games you play, your system, the card in question, the resolution and how you overclock will determine how far past the stock settings you can push the GPU.
In the best-case scenario, the boost can significantly impact performance, giving you a nice 10-15 FPS boost in some games. In the worst-case scenario, a mere 2-10 FPS.
While the results might not always be encouraging, the slightest boost can turn a choppy game into a smoother affair with a comfortable playing experience.
Overclocking RAM is just as difficult as overclocking the CPU. Despite the challenge, overclocking RAM doesn't always guarantee exceptional or notable results. Just like the CPU and GPU, the results of overclocking RAM also vary.
The newer DDR4 RAM shows better improvement compared to the older versions like DDR3. Most of the older types of RAM fail to show any kind of meaningful impact when overclocked. The older, the more unreliable they are.
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Just as with the previously covered components, overclocking RAM isn’t always noticeable with most applications. However, there are certain instances where overclocking RAM is important.
The AMD APU is one of the instances where overclocking the RAM can come in handy. The APU features the CPU and GPU combined on the same chip. The two components have to share the same memory resources.
As standard, the GPU has its own RAM, often faster than the DDR3 desktop RAM. Because of the shared memory and slower desktop RAM, the APU is limited. Overclocking the RAM in this case gives you a much-needed performance increase for the APU and a meaningful gaming experience.
Most gamers don't know that you can overclock your display. It's not always the case. But, some shows can be overclocked.
When you overclock a monitor, it simply means you run the monitor at a higher refresh rate than what is marketed.
Overclocking the monitor is relatively easy. You need an Nvidia or AMD control panel, and you can try what resolution or refresh rate you want. If it doesn't work, you can reset back to the factory settings. The results will be largely aesthetic, and it's not always that these are going to be noticeable.
How Long Does It Take to Overclock?
The overclocking process will depend on what you're overclocking and how much time you will spend. You can do the short version by downloading the right software and changing a few settings.
You could also take time to do it correctly. This approach will require that you conduct research beforehand and invest in additional parts like a third-party cooler.
After the initial preparation work, the next step is carrying out basic tests, stress tests, then executing different CPU alterations. Most of these steps will not take more than an hour. However, you should always do the stress test every time you make alterations.
Simply put, the time you take to overclock your PC depends on several factors. It could take a few minutes, or it could take several days, including setting up the new parts. Obviously, taking the longer route is safer, yields better results and has fewer downsides.
As expected, there are benefits and disadvantages that come with overclocking. When deciding whether to overclock or not, it's vital to have a firm understanding of both the benefits and downsides to help you make an informed decision.
Benefits of Overclocking
The greatest benefit and perhaps the reason why most gamers overclock is the improved performance. This is more so the case for CPU overclocking, where the speed boost is most effective. However, even in scenarios like RAM overclocking, the increased performance can be a difference-maker. Even in marginal increases with the GPU, that slight boost can be what you need to hit 60FPS in your favourite gaming titles.
Gamers on a tight budget can squeeze more performance out of dated and more affordable components (especially the CPU) as they try to get funds to upgrade their hardware. With overclocking, you can make the most out of what you currently have as you prepare to complete the upgrades.
For instance, a gamer with the AMD Ryzen 2600 can overclock to improve speeds on the CPU and close the gap on the more advanced 2600X, which has a higher factory clock. Essentially, the gamer saves money by getting the most possible out of the AMD Ryzen 2600 instead of investing in the more costly 2600X CPU.
Cons of Overclocking
Every time you overclock, the component being overclocked requires more resources like power, and it also produces more heat. You can invest in a third-party cooling setup to improve the overall cooling of the hardware or the individual component you're overclocking. Without adequate cooling, the component in question will likely overheat and malfunction over time and have increased wear and tear.
There's also a good chance that the component will have a reduced lifespan, especially when the overclocking is unstable. With stable overclocks, the wear and tear caused by overclocking are negligible. A stable overclock doesn’t run at very high temperatures and therefore doesn’t impact the lifespan of the component negatively.
Components like the CPU and RAM are always at the risk of being pushed too far and burning out. This is most likely to happen when you don't dedicate enough time and research to overclocking. You should test overclocks in incremental steps upward. Once you start experiencing instability and crashes, start testing downward to achieve the maximum levels you should push your hardware.
Instability is a primary concern when overclocking. Even when the overclock is stable, you may still have rare occasions of instability.
The rare scenarios of instability could cause a program or the system to crash. It is something you should be prepared for when you overclock. But as mentioned, it's rare, especially when you set up your overclock correctly.
With RAM and CPU overclocking, you will need to buy additional items to set up your system for overclocking. An overclocking-compatible motherboard is an excellent place to start. You will also need to invest in sufficient cooling to allow you to push for even higher clocks.
While the additional costs are a downside, buying the extra equipment could minimise damage and allow you to push the clocks high enough to experience meaningful results.
Is Overclocking Worth It?
Now that you know all there is to overclocking, it’s time to make the tough decision on whether overclocking is for you or not.
- GPU and display overclocking – Overclocking the display and the GPU is usually worth it. You don’t need to invest in premium parts or additional cooling. But you need to put in the time and effort to ensure you execute the overclocks properly to achieve the best possible results.
- RAM overclocking – In most cases, overclocking the RAM usually isn’t worth it. But there are some scenarios where it comes in handy, like if you have the AMD APU. However, because of how complicated it is to overclock RAM, it might be a better and safer idea to just invest in better RAM.
- CPU overclocking – This is the most expensive component to overclock. It needs an overclocking-compatible motherboard and additional cooling in most cases. You will also need to ensure you have an overclockable processor, particularly if you run an Intel setup.
It's not recommended to overclock the CPU, more so in the beginning. It’s best to invest in a system that caters to your needs and has enough room for growth. Once you’re more experienced and better understand the needs that come with overclocking and how to do it safely, then you can try it out. How you have to make sure you do it correctly to minimise damage and wear and tear of the components.
If you're intrigued by overclocking, and your hardware supports it, there's no harm in giving it a try. But you have to be cautious, especially with essential components like the motherboard, RAM and the CPU. Invest plenty of time researching and purchasing the proper hardware to guarantee that you get good results while minimising risks to your gaming pc.