What is CPU Overclocking?

If you’ve ever built a new PC, you’ve probably come across the term CPU overclocking. It’s a thing some people enjoy and do pretty often, while others are rather afraid due to the potential damage. Now, overclocking can get pretty complicated, pretty easily. So let’s take a look at what it is, how it’s done, and whether or not you should be doing it.

What is CPU overclocking, and how safe is it?

In its simplest form, overclocking is pushing your CPU to run at speeds that are higher than the official ones set by the manufacturer. For example, Intel’s Core i5-10600K runs at 4.10 GHz, but can turbo boost up to 4.80 GHz. With overclocking, you can easily push it to 5.0 GHz, or even higher in some scenarios.

We’ll get to the how-to in a moment. But one thing you should know is that overclocking is done by either increasing the clock rate or increasing the multiplier in your BIOS. By doing this, you will notice an increase in performance with your CPU. If that was slowing down your PC, an increase in overall speed and responsiveness of your PC will follow.

This, of course, begs the question – just how safe is overclocking? CPUs can get rather hot even without overclocking. Overclocking will increase those temperatures quite a bit. But contrary to popular belief, your CPU won’t start smoking and melting if you push it too hard – there are far too many fail-safes for that.

Overall, the answer is that overclocking is rather safe as long as you have a good idea of what you’re doing, and you take things gradually. For example, with the Core i5-10600K we mentioned earlier, you want to start at 4.9 GHz. Then, gradually increase the overclock until you get to a higher number that’s still stable. But we’ll talk about stability and stress testing later. For now, let’s take a look at both Intel and AMD’s CPUs, whether or not you can overclock them, and what you’ll need.

Overclocking Intel CPUs

With Intel, things are rather easy. Intel divides their CPUs into two categories. Some of them, like the Core i5 we mentioned earlier, have a K after the model name, while the others don’t. The difference is that the K series processors are unlocked CPUs, i.e. they come with an unlocked multiplier, and you can overclock them. If you don’t have a K series CPU, then unfortunately overclocking is out of the question.

However, that’s not all you’ll need. Intel also has a few chipsets, which are different tiers of motherboards, where the highest end is the Z chipset. For the latest, 10th generation CPUs, that’s the Z490 chipset. If you have a B or an H chipset, you won’t be able to overclock your CPU.

So, to sum things up, if you’re going for an Intel platform build, and want to overclock, you’ll need a K series CPU and a Z series chipset.

Overclocking AMD CPUs

With AMD things are a lot simpler. AMD gives you an unlocked CPU regardless of whether it’s something from the first-gen Ryzen chips, or the flagship Ryzen 9 3950X. The only limitation you have in this regard is in terms of the motherboards. Unfortunately, you can’t overclock with an A320 motherboard. But how much of a limitation is that, really, since those motherboards aren’t used nowadays?

What do you need for CPU overclocking?

Aside from the limitations in terms of motherboards and CPUs that manufacturers sometimes impose, there are a few more things you’ll need if you want to overclock. As we mentioned, overclocking pushes your CPU to emit quite a lot of heat. Therefore, you’ll want something to counter that – a good CPU cooler comes to mind.

When you’re running your CPU at stock temperatures, oftentimes even a higher-end air cooler would suffice. On the other hand, when overclocking, you want something that can easily bring temperatures down to a minimum. This is where liquid cooling comes in. Whether you go for the simple solution and opt for an all-in-one (AIO) liquid cooler, or you opt for a custom water cooling loop, both of them will help keep the temperatures down to a reasonable level while you’re overclocking.

While we’re at it, we should also mention that you will want to have a case with good airflow. With a closed-off liquid cooling solution, this might not be too much of a problem. This is because it draws cold air from the outside, but it’s still a good thing to consider.

And last but not least, you’ll want a high-quality motherboard. We aren’t just talking about a chipset that allows you to overclock. It’s a good idea to have a reliable motherboard with a good VRM section. The VRM section is responsible for the power delivery to the CPU, and overclocking draws a lot of power. With a high-quality motherboard, you’ll get a stable, reliable power delivery even when the CPU starts drawing more power than the manufacturer designed it to.

Once you have all of these things, you can consider overclocking. With that being said, let’s take a look at how overclocking is done.

How do you overclock your CPU?

Before you start overclocking, you should be sure that you know what you’re doing. Also, you should be sure you understand the risks. CPU manufacturers put fail-safes that will shut down your system and reset everything to default settings if temperatures start going crazy, but you should still take it slow, and test things out. The main goal of overclocking is to get a stable, reliable system that performs better. Not one that’s a lot faster but crashes every 15 minutes.

Therefore, you’ll need a few bits of software before you get started. You need a way to monitor your CPU clock speeds, which is easily done with CPU-Z or something similar. Then, you need something like HWMonitor to keep track of the temperatures.

Then, you’ll want something to test the CPU and see whether overclocking got you any improvements in performance. Cinebench comes to mind here, as it’s a really popular tool that works great. And last but not least, if you’re happy with how your overclocked CPU performs, you’ll want a stress test. Something like Prime95 can check the stability of your system and make sure it won’t crash during usage.

Next up, you’ll want to be sure you got the latest drivers for things like the chipset, and that you have the latest motherboard BIOS installed. We would recommend steering clear of beta versions here. You’re looking for stability and reliability, and beta versions aren’t known for that. With all of this out of the way, let’s take a look at how overclocking goes.

On to CPU overclocking itself

We’ll start things off with AMD because it’s a lot simpler. Unlike Intel, who requires that you go through the motherboard to overclock the CPU, AMD gives you their Ryzen Master Utility. This is a software that allows you to overclock the CPU by changing the clock speed and voltages. It also gives you information on the current temperatures, clock speed, and voltages. This is a rather neat all-in-one solution if you want to keep things simple. To add to this, if your Ryzen CPU comes with an integrated graphics card, you can overclock that, too.

With Intel, things are a bit different. Note that you can use this method for AMD CPUs, too, because the BIOS gives you a lot more options, and with that, a lot more control over the overclock. First things first, it might be a good idea to give your BIOS a factory reset. If you’ve touched some of the settings that might mess up your overclock, this will get them back to default.

Your CPU’s frequency is set by multiplying your CPU’s base clock (BCLK) by the CPU multiplier. Intel CPUs tend to keep the BCLK at 100MHz, while AMD keeps it at 133MHz. The overclock happens when you increase the said multiplier. For example, If you have an Intel CPU with a multiplier set at 35, it works at 3.5GHz. However, set that multiplier at 37, and you’re running at 3.7GHz. We would recommend that you take things slow, and you only increase the multiplier by one and then test it.

Stress testing is important

When you’ve set it, save your BIOS settings, and restart your machine. When it boots into Windows, you’ll want to do the stress test we mentioned earlier. Load up CPU-Z and HWMonitor so you have an overview of the clock speeds and temperatures, and run a stress test. Make sure the temperatures don’t go through the roof, although if you’re taking things slow, everything should be okay.

If you’re running stable and there are no issues, getting the most out of your CPU is all a matter of rinse and repeat of this process until either the stress test fails, or until the PC just refuses to boot. Then, you go back, and you stay there.

When is CPU overclocking a good idea?

As you can see, overclocking isn’t as dangerous as some people make it out to be. Well, as long as you keep things reasonable and don’t push it too hard. That being said, if you’re happy with how your computer performs and don’t really need more performance than that, you could play it safe and keep it stock. But if you want to play around, and maybe get better performance, by all means, go for it.  

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