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.

Advantages

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.

Disadvantages

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.

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6 Comments on PC Gaming 101: Overclocking — Is it Worth It?

Kyle W.

On July 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm

I’m always hesitant to overclock. It’s a great potential upgrade for an older system, but I wouldn’t risk damaging a new system with it. I’ve had a graphics card burn (with smoke and all) on factory standard settings, so I may be a little more paranoid, and I also live in Arizona, meaning that my computer’s exposed to 80+ Fahrenheit for a good chunk of the year even inside, courtesy of shoddy house insulation.

I’ve found that it’s a lot cheaper to set the settings of a game down a level rather than to have to replace cards and chips, and often times I find I don’t even notice the difference in the heat of action.

drsgfire

On July 18, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I say “Oh Yea”

I have a GTX 560 Ti but still run a E8400 (Saving up for an i7 conversion). It’s OC’ed to 4Ghz and I will honestly tell you it makes a HUUUUGE difference.

avrus96

On July 19, 2011 at 5:36 am

If a component, such as your processor, is bottlenecking your system’s performance, the effects of overclocking it become much more pronounced – just as drsgfire demonstrates. For a while I used a Pentium D in combination with an 8800gt – seems like every 50Mhz increase yielded an extra frame per second.

Bromance

On July 19, 2011 at 10:42 am

@ drsgfire

Do not. I repeat..DO NOT purchase i7 system instead of your current system. I have a friend who had a q6600 oced to 3.5GHz with 6GB ddr2. I told him it’s a waste of money to upgrade his system to iripoff7. He did, he spent so much money. He gaied 3-5 fps in games such as ARMA2. I laughed at him. he regreted the purchase so much , he wished he had put that money into videocards.

If you have a dual core with 4Ghz, it’s good enough to skip the i7 and wait for the next offerings.

If you really want a DDR3 system with a quad core, Go AMD 6 core setup instead..will cost you no more than 450 dollars (Plus the cost of videocards)

Bromance

On July 19, 2011 at 11:44 am

I would like to add that:
1. Overclocking your RAM is practically useless for gaming. it’s actually been proven that it’s more effective to lower your timings than it is to have a higher speed. Of course having a tighter timing and a higher speed at the same time is most desired.

2. Overlocking your Videocard is really dependant on how long you want that videocard to last, and if you think it’s worth the investment. First thing you really should do is buy an aftermarket cooler THAT WORKS (proven by many many reviews on the internet). Do not buy something for 50 bucks without making sure it will bring down your temperatures by alot. Water cooling is the best, but it’s usually too expensive. VIDEOCARDS are the only real components that will make or break your frames per second. If you’re getting 15 frames per second on a radeon 4870, upgrading to a 6870 will usually give you 15 frames per second more, but so will a 2nd 4870, so unless you need DX11, you only need to spend money on a 2nd 4870

3. OCing a CPU is a no brainer. OC YOUR CPU. I don’t really know why you would not overclock a cpu. CPU lasts for over 10 years. Overclocking them brings that to 7 years. It also makes your CPU perform as good a other cpus coming out 3-5 years later. Please tell me that you plan on purchasing a new computer before 7 years are up. I’ve had a Q6600 oced to 3.5GHz on air since 2007. It’s still as good as an i7 in gaming.I only bring it down to 3GHz when using all 4 cores.

Last thing’s last. As I said, if you have a DDR2 System, do not upgrade to DDR3 system (i7/AM3) Unless you really know what you’re purchasing and make sure the new system will actually outperform your current system by a huge margin to justify your purchase. especialy since the cheapest respectable Intel DDR3 system will around 800 dollars

Ron Whitaker

On July 25, 2011 at 5:56 am

@Bromance: That’s not necessarily the case. If you want a machine to play new games, like BF3, you should totally go for the i7. Here’s why.

Games like ARMA2 don’t really benefit from the extra 2 cores. They aren’t optimized for quad core processors, so adding two more cores really isn’t adding anything as far as they are concerned. The same goes for many PC game released over the last couple of years.

HOWEVER, going forward, games are beginning to appear that ARE optimized for quad core processors. DICE has already said that BF3 will be one of these. Accordingly, the i7 would result in a major performance jump in games like that.