PC Gaming 101: Overclocking — Is it Worth It?
PC Gaming 101 is a recurring feature in which we equip gamers with protective glyphs of knowledge for their first foray into the PC world.
You’ve heard of overclocking — the steroid-injecting process that will superpower your PC into a frothing behemoth of computing power. You’ve heard about liquid nitrogen cooling systems, mystical computer gurus, and rumors of computers catching fire.
Needless to say, there are a number of myths and popular misconceptions about overclocking, so let’s separate fact from fiction and decide if overclocking is ultimately worth it for you.
What is overclocking?
As an analogy, overclocking takes the volume dial on your sound system and cranks it up to 11.
By definition, overclocking is the process of running a computer component at a higher clock rate than the manufacturer intended. In numerical terms, overclocking can mean the difference between 1.50 GHz and 1.33 GHz.
You can overclock your video card(s), your processors, RAM, or motherboard chipsets. While you don’t need to be a PC guru to overclock, this process is mostly practiced by enthusiasts. Not all systems are suited for overclocking. Some already run at high temperatures, making overclocking unviable, while others can be said to be designed for overclocking.
When you overclock a component, it will run at a higher temperature. The greater the degree of overclocking, the higher the temperature. While liquid nitrogen isn’t necessary, a cooling system better than that which came with the system is generally needed — but don’t worry about your computer catching fire. There will be many warning signs and fail-safes before anything that dramatic happens.
The obvious advantage of overclocking is increased performance. A great use of overclocking is to alleviate a bottleneck preventing your system from reaching its maximum potential — generally caused by the processor.
However, an appealing corollary is that you can buy cheaper components and overclock them to be more powerful than expensive ones. Done right, overclocking can save you money on system components.
Although overclocking will net you a performance increase, the results are generally far from dramatic if you already have a decent system. Squeezing out five additional frames per second may not be worth the time investment or the complications that can ensue.
Sloppy overclocking can cause irreparable damage to system components — not just the component being overclocked, but nearby components affected by the heat. Couple that with the fact that most warranties don’t cover overclocking, and we see how an overclocker who didn’t do his research can make some expensive mistakes.
While overclocking will shorten the lifespan of a component — for instance, from 10 years to 7 years — the component will likely still last until your next upgrade. System instability is an issue during the overclocking process, but once you’ve dialed in your clock speeds, the system will generally remain stable. Increased power consumption and the need to invest in a cooling system may offset any savings from purchasing less expensive components.
Is it worth it?
Consider your needs. For gaming, there is presently little benefit to gain with modern systems. Most AAA titles are developed for PC and console, and the aging current-gen consoles are keeping the PC system requirements at a manageable level.
Squeezing out a few more FPS can mean the world to competitive or high-performance gamers, but the average gamer won’t notice an appreciable difference. However, one factor that cannot be measured in prices or FPS is the fact that overclocking is a hobby enjoyed by many. The risks add an element of danger that makes it exciting, and overclocking a cheap system to rival high-end machines is a feat to be proud of.
If you have a lower-end system and plan on buying a new system in the future, then this could be a fantastic opportunity to enter the world of overclocking. If you damage anything, you were planning to buy a new system anyway, right? If you don’t, you just bought yourself a free upgrade.
Owners of higher-end systems will see diminishing returns in overclocking — five more FPS means very little if you already have 150 FPS. At this end of the spectrum, we find enthusiast speed-demons just looking to see how powerful of a system they can create, regardless of the fact that they’ll be hard-pressed to find a game that will make full use of all that power.
If you decide to overclock, do your research. With the proper knowledge and preparation, the risk of damaging your system is minimal. Enthusiast forums like overclock.net and extremeoverclocking.com are great resources and allow you to consult with self-made experts as you delve into the deep end.