Overclocking Your PC

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2506, 2007-02-09, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 16-17) and their website, under a pseudonym (John Deplume). Author bio: John Deplume has never drunk coffee, fearful that he might void some sort of warranty by overclocking his brain.

PCs are getting faster all the time, despite the best efforts of some software vendors to seemingly soak up all of that extra hardware performance — and then some — with their increasingly bloated programs.

Yet despite this performance boost with every advancement in microprocessor speed, there are still countless times when the typical PC user would like to make their machine run even faster, but without going through the expense and hassle of upgrading components.

These PCs surely have not reached their limits. After all, automobile hobbyists have been "souping up" their cars for decades — making subtle adjustments to get better performance. Can we do the same with our computers?

Actually, there is a way to make a PC's microprocessor run faster, allowing it to perform calculations and other processes at a faster pace. This technique is known as "overclocking", because it involves increasing the microprocessor's clock speed, which is somewhat like an internal speed limit set by the chip's manufacturer.

Please note that overclocking a microprocessor does involve risking damage to it. Neither I nor ComputorEdge can be held responsible for any damage done if you choose to overclock any computer.

Heat In the Computer Kitchen

This warning should not be taken lightly, because overclocking causes the chip to run hotter, which can in turn cause the computer equivalent of a meltdown, if the processor's temperature exceeds a safe level. This disaster results when the cooling performed by the chip's dedicated fan, proves inadequate for the increase in heat.

Despite these dangers, overclocking can confer benefits in increased processor speed, and thus raw performance. But obtaining these improvements require some effort — primarily in modifying the system to dissipate the extra heat as effectively as possible.

This can be accomplished in several ways: Overclockers typically replace their microchip's standard heat sink with another one offering greater performance. Be sure to check the specifications of all the heat sinks that you are considering using, versus the heat sink currently in your system.

Another step is to add one or more additional cooling fans to the system, in order to increase the flow of outside air through the box, thus allowing even greater heat dissipation. Large fans can be located on the computer's side panels, while smaller fans are usually positioned in the back.

Speed Demon Details

Before you tear open your sluggish PC and begin painting racing stripes on its microprocessor, you will need to bear in mind that not every PC on the market can be overclocked. If you have a laptop — perhaps one that is taking too long to do its computational laps — overclocking is not an option. Given the barely adequate airflow within the typical laptop's cramped quarters, a slight rise in temperature could prove fatal to the chip.

Even though you may have a desktop PC ready for Frankenstein-worthy experimentation, there are limitations even within this category: Most if not all OEM systems — such as those made by Dell and Gateway — are built to foil overclockers. The manufacturers hide the BIOS settings needed for overclocking.

There are only two workarounds in this case (no pun intended). You can download off the Internet a hacked BIOS for that particular OEM system, but it can be difficult finding one that matches your computer. Or, you can utilize a software program, but the results will not necessarily be stable.

Consequently, computer enthusiasts interested in overclocking either build a custom system that incorporates an eligible chip, or they simply purchase a generic, non-OEM system from their local computer shop. In fact, overclocking hobbyists can often be found among the owners and staff of your nearest PC shop. These knowledgeable folks can advise you as to which combinations of motherboard and microprocessor could best match your overclocking goals.

Not all aftermarket motherboards can be overclocked. Yet most motherboard manufacturers have embraced the interests of the overclocking community, and have been creating and marketing many of their products to this sizable and growing segment of the PC crowd. These companies evidently believe that if buyers are allowed to push their motherboard and chip combinations to new levels of performance, and thus gain bragging rights, then the motherboard firms earn publicity.

This same open-mindedness, however, is not found among all microprocessor manufacturers. The biggest of them all, Intel, has been known to take countermeasures to prevent overclocking of their chips, such as locking the multiplier settings on their chips — a practice that began with their Celeron models.

Getting Up To Speed

Even though we do not have nearly enough space here to cover the details of how to overclock even a single microchip, there are some excellent resources online that would be helpful if you wish to pursue this further.

There are many websites devoted to overclocking, including: EXTREME Overclocking, Overclockers.com, OverClock Intelligence Agency, and Overclocking Madness.

These sites offer product reviews, detailed tutorials with photos (including shots of fried chips!), and forums where members can post questions and help out beginners. You can read about the basics of overclocking, recommendations as to current motherboards and chips, and methods for monitoring a chip's temperature and testing the stability of an overclocked system.

Also, in December 2006, the well-regarded site Tom's Hardware published the first of a multi-part guide to overclocking: "Risks, Choices and Benefits".

Please bear in mind the aforesaid warning. If you cannot easily afford to replace the candidate microprocessor, then do not attempt to overclock it. Doing so not only voids the warranty on the chip (and possibly other components as well), but it runs the risk of frying the chip — particularly if you do not monitor its temperature continuously.

Nonetheless, if you do have an eligible system, nerves of steel, and a bit of free time for computer hacking, then this could be your road to a faster PC. There's nothing like getting more horsepower out of the pony under the hood, even if it isn't a Mustang.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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