If you want to get the best out of your computer, you can’t just rely on the hardware on your computer to run at factory settings. We’ve already talked about how you can overlock your GPU for improved graphical performance, but the CPU plays an even bigger role in a computer’s effectiveness, and overclocking is one of the most efficient ways for gamers to improve their performance.
That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come without risks. The factory standard settings are there for plenty of reasons, but the most prominent is that pushing outside these settings can cause your system to overheat and cause irreparable harm to your computer. Fortunately, overclocking isn’t as dangerous nowadays as it once was.
Our guide will help you understand what CPU overclocking does, whether or not you need it, and how to overclock your CPU without causing harm to your gaming rig. In addition to our detailed guide, we offer some quick answers to common questions regarding CPU overclocking at the very end of the article.
Preparing Your Computer for Overclocking
Before we dig into the details of how you can overclock your CPU, we need to talk about what overclocking actually is. If you’re at all involved in the more serious gaming scene, it’s probably something you’ve heard of, and you might understand the fundamentals, but we’ll take it back to the beginning for readers who may be less knowledgeable about hardware optimization
The Core Clock
Before you can think about overclocking, you need to understand what clock speed actually is and how you can determine the standard clock speed of your CPU. The clock speed of your CPU tells you how many cycles the processor can run in the course of a second. Similar to the refresh rate of a monitor, it’s measured in gigahertz. Even a single gigahertz is a whole lot, as it refers to billions of pulses per second.
Since it determines how effectively a processor can perform, clock speed is a pretty reliable indicator of how fast a processor is. And since the CPU is the central brain of a computer, it controls practically everything in-game. From running artificial intelligence for in-game creatures to improving load speeds to offering smoother frame rate performance, the CPU clock speed has an effect on pretty much anything you do in a game.
Understanding the Risks
It used to be that overclocking was treated as a serious procedure that could cause harm to your computer, and that’s still true to some degree. But as processors have become more powerful and manufacturers have become more friendly to the modding scene, you can generally get some kind of overclocking from your computer without putting your device at great risk.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any risk involved at all, though. Overclocking your CPU may void the warranty on your CPU, your motherboard, or other pieces of hardware. It can be hard to verify whether overclocking has caused an issue with your hardware, but it’s advised to be careful. A motherboard or a CPU may cost a lot of money to replace.
Even mild overclocking is going to cause your CPU to run hotter. If you aren’t careful about the process, you could easily burn out your motherboard, RAM, or central processor. You don’t generally need to worry about a little bit of overclocking burning out your motherboard, but there are limits to how far you can push without having a negative impact. For that reason, you need to be careful about how much you overclock your computer and carefully monitor any changes to make sure that the process is safe.
Finally, the ability to overclock your CPU is limited to some degree. As is often the case, modifications on a laptop are limited, although there are a few gaming laptop models that will allow you to accomplish that. But for the most part, overclocking is a procedure best reserved for a gaming tower.
Understanding What to Expect
Overclocking isn’t as dangerous as it once was, but it’s also not quite as lucrative. As the clock performance of core processor models grows more sophisticated, the amount of extra juice you can get out of them has shrunk. Overclocking can give you a decent boost to performance, but not to the extent as it once would have.
The other thing to keep in mind is that your central processor is limited by other hardware, most notably your video card. A good Intel Core paired with a sub-par GPU isn’t going to have to be overclocked to get the best performance possible. With the current hardware on the market, overclocking your GPU will generally get you a better performance boost than overclocking your CPU, although the latter can have a positive impact as well.
You should also keep in mind that every processor isn’t going to bring you the same performance. Even if you have the same hardware in your computer as someone else, you may get better or worse results. That’s why it’s important for you to carefully measure your performance, perform stress tests, and make sure that your system is stable and continues to remain stable.
Understanding the Terminology
Let’s talk specifically about what happens when you overclock your computer so you can more readily understand what we’re talking about when we guide you through the process. The base clock tells you the standard speed your computer runs at. You can consider this as the average speed for your CPU. It can affect the speed of your processor as well as the efficiency of RAM, and it’s the baseline for when you overclock your CPU core. Some Intel processors also offer a Turbo Boost mode that will automatically push your processor beyond its standard performance.
Determining the actual speed of your CPU is a simple process of multiplying the base speed of the clock by the CPU multiplier. This level is set in your motherboard to achieve the standard speeds that a manufacturer promises for their CPU. When we start overclocking your CPU through the BIOS, we’ll be adjusting the CPU multiplier. The base speed of the clock won’t change.
The final element to consider here is the CPU VCore. This is the primary voltage power for the central processor in overclocking. Increasing the CPU multiplier is going to put more strain on your motherboard, CPU, and other associated components, and that means you need more power. This is an incredibly important factor to pay attention to, because the higher the power output, the more risk it puts on your motherboard and other hardware.
Preparing Your Computer
If you want to get the biggest boost when you overclock a CPU, you’re going to want to make sure that your computer is already operating in peak condition physically. A little dust in the air vents might not affect your performance now, but it’s a different story once you overclock a CPU. Be sure to wear an anti-static wristband and avoid using vacuums, as they can cause static buildup. You’ll want to make sure that you get all the surfaces where air can leave to maximize ventilation and the CPU cooler.
Once you have all of that in place, you’ll want to make preparations to ensure you have all the software and hardware you need. We’ll list all the fundamentals below. While you may need a hardware upgrade to overclock the CPU, all the software we have listed is completely free. You’ll need:
- A version of Windows, preferably Windows 10, saved on your computer. It can be a dual boot version of Windows. Mac or Linux users can follow many of the steps below, but there may be variations depending on the OS. We’re focusing on Windows since it’s the primary OS for gamers.
- The model and clock speed of your CPU. Since Intel processors – and specifically Intel Core processors – are the standard for most machines, we’ll be using that as our template for this guide. But if you’re using an AMD processor, the fundamentals here are still sound. You just may need to use different software.
- A solid cooling system. The CPU on a computer usually has a dedicated fan or cooling system. You might not need an upgrade, but once you get to the stress test process, you’ll be able to determine whether or not that’s a necessity.
- A motherboard that supports overclocking. If you’re building a computer from scratch, you should carefully check the features of a motherboard before you choose one, as different motherboards offer different levels of features in terms of overclocking, and more advanced models can offer you denser options. But if you already have a motherboard in place, chances are strong that it will support some level of overclocking.
- Software to check your CPU temperature when you run your stress test. This is absolutely essential, as it will prevent your computer from overheating both during the stress test and while playing games. We recommend Real Temp.
- Software for performing the actual stress testing. LinX, AIDA64, and Prime95 are three of the most popular, but they aren’t the only ones. The actual interface for all of them is different, but they essentially accomplish the same thing. You should be fine with any of them, but you might want to test-drive each until you find the one that’s right for you.
- CPU-Z. This software provides you with the critical specs that can help you make sure that everything is within safe ranges. Everything from clock speed to the multiplier to voltage is included, so it can be a great way to keep track of your settings during the stress test.
Finding Your CPU Clock Speed
If you know the model of the central processor that your computer uses, you can easily find the standard clock speed listed online. But you don’t need to go to that trouble to discover a solution. Fortunately, both Apple and Windows operating systems make it easy to check the base speed of your clock. It’s important to keep in mind that the base speed of your clock is more an average than anything. Your clock rate will fluctuate depending on the demands of your computer, but overclocking will raise that average as well as the peak highs it’s capable of achieving.
You’ll also want to figure out what model of processor you’re overclocking. AMD processors are naturally unlocked and have been for a long time, so you should be able to overclock most of them without worries. Intel processors are something of a different story. A lot of processors in the Intel Core series are capable of overclocking, but not every Intel Core is. If an Intel Core processor supports overclocking, it will almost always have an “X” or a “K” at the end of its product number. Most Intel processors that aren’t in the Core series don’t support overclocking.
In Windows 10
- Open Task Manager by clicking Control + Shift + Escape
- Click on the More Details button
- Click on the Performance tab
- The speed of your base clock will be listed under the CPU tab
In Mac OS
- Click the Apple button at the top right of the screen, then click About This Mac
- Here you’ll see all the critical information on your Mac’s hardware. This section will tell you both what processor is in your computer and what your clock’s base speed is.
Overclock a PC in BIOS
There’s a lot of software out there that’s designed with the one purpose of helping you overclock a CPU and many of them are quite good. Intel Extreme Tuning Utility, MSI Afterburner, and CPU Tweaker are all well regarded, and for good reason. We encourage you to use such software if this is your first time trying to overclock a CPU. But while all of that software has different interfaces, the fundamentals are the same.
Our guide is going to get right to the source and assume that you’re performing your overclock from BIOS. Also known as the Basic Input/Output System, this is the screen that appears before Windows boots. Since the software listed above uses the same methodology, the process here should be useful even to those using software, even though we can’t provide a step-by-step guide to each overclock interface out there.
- Test your computer as-is. Before you start with the overclock process, you’ll want to figure out your control variable. Restart the computer, and when the BIOS screen appears, you’ll see a shortcut for entering setup. The key combination will vary from computer to computer. You’ll want to find a button that lets you assign optimized default settings and then continue with the reboot. Run your stress test software for a few hours to get a feel for the standard settings.
- Return to the BIOS menu and find the equivalent menu for overclocking settings. You might have to hunt a bit, as different manufacturers use different names for this menu. Then track down a menu titled “CPU Ratio” or “CPU Multiplier”. This will allow you to change the multiplier and increase your clock speed. You’ll want to start with a mild increase over the base speed and then restart.
- Stress test! You’ll want to run your stress testing software to see how well your computer is performing. Opening up Real Temp will help you be sure that your hardware isn’t overheating, while CPU-Z will ensure that the settings stick.
- Repeat the process. You’ll want to continue until you see an error message in your stress test or until your computer crashes. This is an indication that there isn’t a high enough voltage rating.
- Adjust your voltage upward. You’re going to want to keep doing this until it’s no longer safe to do so. Your voltage will be found in the BIOS listed under a menu usually titled “VCore” or “CPU Core”. In either case, the goal is to increase the voltage until it can support the increased CPU multiplier.
- Alternate between raising the voltage and raising the CPU multiplier. Once the voltage levels are just outside dangerous levels, you’ll have the configuration that’s best for you. You’ll want to restart one last time to perform some stress tests.
- Test, test, test! Just because you’ve found the configuration that seems right for you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take full precautions. Ideally, you’ll want to run as many different types of stress testing software as possible. No single platform is perfect, and getting a few opinions will help you ensure your computer isn’t going to overheat at the wrong time.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it Safe to Overclock Your CPU?
Overclocking was once treated as a dangerous process, but there are now a number of tools that can help you through the process. As long as you’re careful, you don’t need to worry about an overclocked CPU wreaking havoc on your hardware.
Why Would I Want to Overclock My CPU?
Mostly for gaming. People who use their computers just for everyday tasks like browsing the internet or streaming videos won’t really get any value out of overclocking, but gamers and others who use resource-heavy applications can see some meaningful performance boosts.
How Much Can I Overclock My CPU?
That depends on the processor speed and the hardware in your computer. Most central processors can comfortably support about a 10 to 15% boost in performance, but you may get more or less depending on your computer’s specs.
How Do I Overclock My CPU in BIOS?
Overclocking in BIOS is largely a matter of trial and error: testing out different configurations until you find the one that works for you. But you can find ways to make the process easier. Our guide above goes into greater detail.
If you’re looking to overclock a CPU for the first time, our guide provides a great way to start, but those looking to squeeze every bit of power out of their computer may want to dig deeper. We offer a variety of different guides that can help you through the process of optimizing your gaming computer, and you can also check out our guides to some of the most important hardware for gaming rigs so you can confidently build your own computer from scratch or upgrade your existing gear.