Heard of the term “overclocking” being thrown around? That’s not surprising, since it represents something hundreds of thousands of people rely on. Many also consider it an ongoing hobby, as its values are never finite – improvements are always possible, even temporary. To pique your interest, we’ll mention that some overclockers pour dry ice to test the maximum limits of their components and even complete for world-first records. If that didn’t get your attention, we don’t know what will. So, let’s jump straight into answering, “what is overclocking?”
Overclocking is the action of increasing the clock rate of an electronic component (chip, bus, or subsystem), forcing it to operate at a higher speed than it was certified for. If the performance at that clock rate is unstable, a rise in base operating voltage must compensate for voltage drops. Another reason the manufacturer didn’t design the component to run at that clock rate is growth in heat and power consumption. Both problems are caused by the component’s newly-achieved ability to perform more operations (clock cycles) per second. For that reason, the component can become unstable or even fail without efficient heat removal or insufficient power delivery.
Factors that affect overclocking
Here are 4 main factors that influence overclocking:
1. Heat dissipation and cooling
To make overclocking stable and increase the clock rate multiplier, an efficient heat dissipation system is mandatory. The base system consists of (typically) copper or aluminum surface placed over the component with thermal paste/thermal pads in-between. It extracts heat from the component and dissipates it into the air, called “passive cooling”. Stable overclocking of more powerful components requires “active cooling”. The most affordable active method is air cooling, which uses rotating fan blades to speed up the process of dissipating heat. An even more efficient active method is water cooling. It uses a liquid, often distilled water, and a radiator to extract and carry the heat. Most water cooling methods also use a fan over the radiator for additional benefits. Some water cooling systems utilize a liquid pump.
2. Power delivery
Sufficient power delivery is important to overclocking for two reasons. The necessary peak power output must be capable of supplying the 100% overclock with enough power during the time it’s active. Stable peak power output not only needs to keep the overclock running 24/7/365 but also perform voltage corrections to avoid ripples and surges that can damage or destroy the overclocked component.
3. Semiconductor quality
Components are manufactured using an identical process, but the outcome can vary greatly in their overclocking potential. The factory tests each component gives them a quality rating then sell them in an appropriate category to consumers. Manufacturers sell high-quality components as “overclocking capable“ or “overclocking ready”. Similarly, they sell low-quality components as non-overclockable models. In some cases, they disable some of their cores, then sell them as lower-tier models with overclocking capabilities.
4. Manufacturing yield
Manufacturing yield being greater than expected means more high-quality components are produced than predicted. As a result, manufacturers can afford to sell them with a less severe overclock or a lower-quality component. That’s because a large overclocking buffer makes for a great marketing tool – the information spreads quickly and inspires confidence. This is usually the case when people report unusually good results, sometimes even higher than the highest advertised overclock. The overclocking enthusiasts call this “winning the silicon lottery”.
How to measure and monitor an overclock?
Benchmarks are tools that can monitor and measure an overclock. Their goal is to simulate real-life component use and provide users with tangible proof of performance improvements. For that reason, benchmarking tools are either component-based or activity-based – rendering/video editing/gaming/scientific computing, etc.
Does overclocking void the warranty?
It depends. Many manufacturers decide to waive the warranty if the customer overclocked their components. Others manufacturers do not void the warranty if users overclock to a moderate/safe degree. In the latter case, they supply dedicated tools that ensure users stay within safe limits and avoid damaging or destroying their hardware.
What can I overclock?
Technically, you can overclock any component that uses a clock or a timer for the synchronization of its operations. In practice, the focus is on overclocking CPU, motherboard chipsets, RAM, and GPU overclocking. We already mentioned why users can’t overclock some components. However, manufacturers set that limit artificially, users can override the restrictions via modified firmware, also known as “custom BIOS” or ”modded BIOS” albeit without significant results.
What are other benefits of overclocking?
Good question. Here are 8 reasons why you should overclock.
What are the dangers of overclocking?
We hinted at a few things, but plan on covering this topic separately. Stay tuned.