Whether building your own PC or configuring a prebuilt system, your device should meet your needs to the letter. This is especially true when it comes to gaming PCs, where selecting the right components can enable next-generation performance.
Picking the right CPU is one of the most important choices you’ll make when buying or building your next PC. Configuring your PC around a processor that supports overclocking ensures your device remains competitive well into the future.
If you’re looking to get the most out of your next PC, overclocking its CPU can help you unlock a valuable performance boost. Learning to safely adjust your processor’s clock speed can help you better understand how your device works.
Altering clock frequency or voltage may void any product warranties and reduce stability, security, performance, and life of the processor and other components.
In order to overclock, you need an unlocked CPU. All Intel® K-series, X-series, and Z-series chipsets are compatible with overclocking.
How CPU Overclocking Works
Every CPU is set to run at a certain maximum clock speed.
Clock speed is measured in gigahertz, or billions of cycles per second. During each cycle, the CPU fetches and executes basic instructions.
Overclocking is the process of intentionally increasing the frequency of these cycles beyond the factory default. Doing this can significantly improve the processor’s ability to handle demanding workloads, like those generated by games.
While it’s true that faster clock speeds help processors execute instructions quickly, it isn’t the only factor that counts for high-performance gaming. Different core architectures and technologies like multithreading can also impact performance.
The type of instruction being processed also matters. Modern game engines often take advantage of parallelization and delegate high-intensity tasks to multiple cores.
Nevertheless, in a direct contest between two identical processors, executing the same instructions in the same way, an overclocked processor will generally outperform a slower one.
Higher Clock Speeds Enable PC Performance Gains
Certain computing tasks run faster when more cores can process instructions in parallel. Other tasks are better optimized for processors with high clock speeds. All PC games rely on both types of tasks to deliver a seamless gameplay experience.
The turn-based strategy title Total War: Three Kingdoms favors high clock speed when processing AI instructions and unit pathfinding. At the highest settings, the CPU may struggle to calculate these instructions for very large armies, causing the game’s framerate to drop.
Civilization VI’s AI engine works in a similar way. In a very large game with many different AI-controlled leaders in play, finishing a single turn can be surprisingly demanding in terms of instructions-per-clock (IPC) throughput and frequency. AI test performance tends to favor per-core performance over higher numbers of cores, so clock speed is important.
Although every game runs differently, sudden frame rate drops can indicate a bottleneck somewhere in the system. If your CPU clock rate is that bottleneck, upgrading to an unlocked processor may help improve performance.
Overclocking Can Help You Keep Up with the Latest Games
Overclocking your PC can help extend the useful life of a system by enabling it to keep up with increasingly demanding software.
Over time, developers will continue to create games and applications that require ever-faster processors and higher core counts. The more demanding these applications become, the harder it will be for older systems to keep up.
Every CPU has a set number of cores. No amount of DIY work is going to turn a quad-core processor into a six-core processor.
The speed of each core, on the other hand, is adjustable. CPUs are assigned frequency values based on what most processors are capable of. However, every individual processor is different, and optimizing yours can unlock its potential to perform beyond factory settings.
The minimum system requirements of triple-A game titles tend to grow more demanding as time goes on. As your computer ages, it will eventually struggle to meet these increasing standards.
Even if your next PC will be more than powerful enough to handle today’s most demanding games, buying a system capable of overclocking ensures you can explore this option later on.
Cooling Solutions Are Easy to Find
Overclocking newcomers are often intimidated by the increased power and cooling requirements for overclocked CPUs. However, optimizing power consumption and cooling for your new PC is not as complicated as it might appear at first glance.
The faster a CPU runs, the more heat it generates. If the CPU exceeds its safe operating temperature, the computer will throttle CPU speed and then shut itself down to avoid damage. Installing a powerful cooling solution allows the system to reach much higher clock speeds before the temperature gets too high.
Better cooling also gives the PC a greater amount of thermal headroom. This allows 11th Gen Intel® Core™ CPUs like the Intel® Core™ i9-11900K to use features like Thermal Velocity Boost and Adaptive Boost Technology — both of which increase CPU clock speed under certain conditions. For more information, check out our guide to Intel’s boosting behaviors.
Most PCs use either liquid cooling or air cooling to maintain a stable temperature.
Air cooling uses metal heat sinks and cooling fans to push hot air away from the CPU. This drags the cooler ambient air towards the processor, reducing its operating temperature.
Liquid cooling uses a pump to push coolant through the computer’s engine block, absorbing heat and carrying it away from the CPU. Both All-in-One (AIO) cooling solutions and custom liquid cooling solutions are available.
Both types offer PC owners a wide range of entry-level, mid-market, and premium options. Choosing the right cooler for your configuration is an important step towards optimizing your PCs overclocking capacity.
Many overclocking enthusiasts choose liquid AIO coolers because they offer excellent thermal regulation and produce very little noise. These cooling systems are self-contained, which simplifies installation compared to other liquid cooling options and practically eliminates the need for regular maintenance.
Others prefer the simple installation and entry-level pricing that air cooling systems provide. If you have space for a large heat sink and don’t mind the sound of extra fans, you can gain overclocking performance at an accessible price.
To learn more about the differences between liquid and air cooling, check out our comprehensive guide on CPU cooling technology.
Automated Software Lets You Overclock with Ease
Anyone with an unlocked processor can achieve modest performance gains using automated overclocking software. This user-friendly approach lets you start and finish the overclocking process with a few clicks.
Solutions like the Intel® Performance Maximizer allow anyone to push their CPU to higher clock speeds without manually tinkering with BIOS settings. This also helps reduce the risks associated with overclocking.
This software uses algorithms to identify power consumption and cooling capabilities before adjusting clock speed. It’s a relatively fast, accessible introduction to overclocking your CPU.
Manual Overclocking Gives You More Control Over PC Performance
You don’t have to be an expert to overclock your PC, but learning how to optimize clock speed manually can give you insight into how your system works.
Manual overclocking provides you with a greater degree of control than overclocking with automated software. Learning how to squeeze that extra potential out of your processor is an exciting and rewarding experience.
That experience comes with responsibility. Depending on the way you choose to manually overclock your PC, there may not be a safety net in place to protect your system against misconfiguration.
There are two ways to manually overclock a PC:
- Manually with software. Gain access to a suite of hands-on PC overclocking tools with Intel® Extreme Tuning Utility.
- Manually through BIOS. Advanced users can manually fine-tune many aspects of CPU performance through the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS). Check out our guide if you’re interested in learning more.
PC owners with unlocked processors have multiple ways to maximize performance and get the most out of their systems. Newcomers and experts alike have robust, accessible options for boosting clock speed to enable a fast, responsive gaming experience.
Whether you are buying or building a new PC, overclocking is an appealing way to learn more about how your system works and what you can do to optimize it. Learning how to overclock your PC will help you get the most out of your processors for years to come.