Overclocking PCs

This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2304, , as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 24 and 26) and their website.

At one time or another, most PC users have wondered if there were some way to make their computers run better, but without enduring the hassle and expense of upgrading components. Even in this age of multigigahertz processors, users frequently have free time to ponder whether their PCs could run faster — namely, free time resulting from their machines taking too long to boot up, load a few bloated applications, and announce that the Web page sought cannot be found.

Surely these PCs have not reached their limits. After all, automobile enthusiasts have been "souping up" their cars for decades, making subtle adjustments to get better performance. Why not our computers as well? 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 termed "overclocking", because it involves increasing the microprocessor's clock speed, which is somewhat like an internal speed limit set by the chip's manufacturer.

Before I go any further into this topic, it must be stated that neither I nor ComputorEdge can be held responsible for any damage done if you choose to overclock any computer. While overclocking can confer benefits in increased processor capacity by making a microchip run faster, it also causes the chip to run hotter, which can 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 fan and the overall system, proves inadequate for the increase in heat.

To combat the higher temperatures, overclockers modify their systems in order to dissipate the extra heat as effectively as possible. This can take the form of replacing the microchip's standard heat sink with another one offering greater performance. Another method 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 often positioned in the back.

Choose the Right System

But before you rip open your sluggish PC and begin painting racing stripes on its microprocessor in anticipation of some chip hacking, you'll need to know 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 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. Some Macs can apparently be overclocked simply by changing some jumpers, but I won't be considering any Apple products here.

You'll need a desktop PC to experiment in overclocking a microprocessor. However, there are limitations even within this category, because 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. The only two workarounds in this case, is to either download off the Internet a hacked BIOS for that particular OEM system, or utilize a software program. In the former case, the hardest part will be actually finding a hacked BIOS that matches the computer. In the latter case, the results will not necessarily be stable.

For these reasons and others, computer hobbyists serious about overclocking either build a custom system that incorporates an eligible chip, or they will simply purchase a generic, non-OEM system from their local computer shop. In fact, overclocking enthusiasts can often be found among the owners and staff of your nearest PC shop — not be confused with the computer sections of the local electronics retailers. Such knowledgeable folks can advise you as to which combinations of motherboard and microprocessor could best fit your overclocking goals.

That last point is important, because not all aftermarket motherboards can be overclocked. Nonetheless, most motherboard manufacturers have embraced the interests of the overclocking community, and for some time have been specially creating and marketing many of their products to this sizable and growing number of consumers. These companies evidently understand that if buyers are allowed to push their motherboard and chip combinations to new levels of performance, and thus gain bragging rights in addition to faster speeds, then the motherboard firms will likely benefit.

The same open-mindedness, however, is not found among all microprocessor manufacturers. The biggest of them all, Intel, takes certain measures to prevent overclocking of their chips — primarily, locking the multiplier settings on their processors, a practice that began with their Celeron models. This naturally encourages the dedicated PC hacker to use other methods. The standard claim is that overclocking would cut into Intel's profit margins; but industry experts point instead to Intel's desire to prevent OEM manufacturers from overclocking and relabeling Intel's chips, and then selling them at a premium.

As a result of these Intel limitations, overclockers typically purchase or build systems based upon chips from AMD. In fact, many an overclocker first cut his or her hacking teeth on the AMD 5x86, largely because it was not difficult to boost the front side bus speed from 33 MHz to 50 MHz, thereby obtaining the performance levels of a 150 MHz processor. Back in those days, such an increase in speed resulted in appreciable performance gains. Around the same time, people were overclocking the Intel 486. With the introduction of Intel's Celeron A, the 266 MHz chip could be transformed into a 400 MHz screamer with little difficulty.

Speeding up the Clock

Although I don't have nearly enough space here to discuss the details of how to overclock even a single microchip, I can present some resources that would be helpful if you wish to pursue this further. There are countless websites devoted to overclocking. Several prominent ones are Overclockers.com, Extreme Overclocking, OverClock Intelligence Agency, and Overclocking Madness.

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

The earlier warning cannot be overemphasized. If you cannot easily afford to replace the candidate microprocessor, then definitely do not attempt to overclock it. Doing so not only voids the warranty on the chip (and perhaps other components as well), but it runs the risk of frying the chip, especially if you do not monitor its temperature continuously.

Yet if you do have an eligible system, nerves of steel, and a bit of free time for computer hacking, then this could be an enjoyable new hobby for you. Look for a non-critical PC — perhaps an older and slower system, marked for donation. There's nothing like getting more horsepower out of the pony under the hood, even if it isn't a Mustang.

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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