How to Find Out If You Can Overclock Your CPU

Is your gaming PC starting to get old and tired? Or do you want to maximize performance in your brand-new rig? With the right hardware, you can. Nearly all graphics cards can be overclocked, which is also worth trying, but it’s not as straightforward with the processor (CPU). Here’s what you need to know.

Overclocking is Not Complicated

For many people when they hear the word overclocking, their thoughts go to bona fide geeks with custom builds, glowing hot circuit boards and liquid nitrogen cooling systems. In real life it’s hardly ever that complicated. Overclocking is something that even the average PC user can learn and enjoy, and there is no need to pick the computer apart to try it.

The short version is that overclocking is about adjusting a few parameters so that the processor’s clock frequency increases, which will give you additional performance.  It’s possible to overclock both the processor (also known as CPU), and the graphics card (also known as the GPU, meaning graphics processing unit). Here we will focus on the CPU.

Find Out If You Can Overclock

Overclocking is mainly something you do with a desktop PC. Barely any laptop processors support overclocking because the cooling is usually insufficient. But not all desktop CPUs allow you to change its settings this way, and also the motherboard must allow overclocking. That means you need a mid-range or better motherboard.

Intel or AMD?

Intel has locked the overclocking capabilities in most of its Core processors for years now. The exceptions are the processor models that have a K at the end of the model designation, such as Core i5-9600K or Core i7-10700K. These are not that common in desktops from one of the major manufacturers like Dell or HP.

With a processor from AMD, the situation is completely different. All of the new Ryzen CPUs are unlocked and ready for overclocking. The same goes for many older FX and Black Edition models.

If you don’t know which exact processor you have, it is easy to find out. This information is available in clear text in the system information that you will find if you right-click the Windows button and select System. You can also download the lightweight CPU-Z software to get more detailed information about the processor, motherboard and memory configuration. 

What Are the Risks?

Changes in the CPU clock frequency can cause problems in the communication between processor, graphics, memory, and other parts of the PC, or put too much strain on the cooling system that it overheats. This will be experienced in the form of a crash, either when the system boots or as a BSOD (blue screen of death) in Windows.

But the risk of anything permanently breaking is extremely small. Most motherboards have safeguards that prevent serious damage, and there are both automatic and manual ways to reset everything to the default settings. The biggest risk is that you will lose data if your computer crashes as you use it. In other words, always a backup up your system before getting started.

Before proceeding, it’s also a good idea to make sure that Windows, the motherboard’s BIOS and drivers are updated to the latest version. The can BIOS is the only tricky part, but most motherboard manufacturers offer software that does it for you.

Getting Started

What you need to get started is only a keen eye on the computer’s stability, and also some tools to keep track of temperatures and ways to measure that your overclock actually makes a difference.

As for the actual clock frequency control, there are several options. The tried and tested way is to change settings in the PC’s BIOS. You can access the BIOS with a quick push on the keyboard during the initial startup phase. The key to push will be shown on the display and it’s often Del or one of the function keys.

However, times have changed, and you probably don’t need to rummage around in the BIOS at all. Many motherboards come with Windows apps from which you can apply overclocks and test them immediately. Intel and AMD also offer helpful apps such as Intel Extreme Tuning Utility and AMD Ryzen Master. They give you convenient control over all relevant settings.

Temperatures and Benchmarking

To keep track of the CPU temperature, try Core Temp, which is a simple, reliable, and free app that you can have running while testing performance and stability.

Testing the actual effects of your overclocking is also important. There are many alternatives, including the “Bench” tab in the aforementioned CPU-Z. This is a very simple test that gives you some indication of relative CPU performance.

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