Often, PC enthusiasts will speak of overclocking the way car enthusiasts discuss high-performance engines, with megahertz and voltage taking the place of horsepower and torque. Overclocking is often a relatively simple way to squeeze out extra performance from computer components; however, problems sometimes do arise. Luckily, most problems faced with overclocking are easily fixed with some basic troubleshooting techniques.
For our purposes, we’ll look at issues affecting the components that are overclocked the most: the CPU and GPU.
An Overview of Overclocking
On a very basic level, there are two elements to overclocking: frequency and voltage. Frequency refers to the rate at which a chip will perform operations, and voltage is a measurement of the electricity supplied to the chip. In order to overclock a component, a user must increase the frequency and voltage levels of the chip—either in the motherboard BIOS or using a GPU overclocking program like MSI Afterburner. A successful overclock can lead to faster program load and compute times, as well as better performance during games.
But it’s an inexact science. Often, the overclocking capacities of chips from the same manufacturer and even model can vary wildly. Chips within a given model that can run at higher frequencies at lower voltage settings are considered to be “silicon lottery” winners, a phrase that refers to the significant performance difference resulting from minute manufacturing variances between similar chips.
With such imprecision (and sometimes luck) involved in the process, there are bound to be a few pitfalls. And knowing how to handle them when they arise is a great idea. So here are four of the most common worrisome occurrences that may rear their heads during overclocking, and how to handle them:
1. System Freezes
System freezes are one of the most common signs that your system is running an unstable overclock. Freezes typically occur when a game or program asks for more resources than the overclocked component can handle. Generally, this is a result of an unstable balance between the frequency and voltage.
Increasing voltage usually fixes system freezes, although this can damage your chip. Refer to your chip manufacturer’s specifications (available on each relevant brand’s website) for maximum safe voltages. If you’ve reached the upper bound of a chip’s safe limits, then you’ve also reached your max overclock.
2. High Temperature and Fan Noise
Overclocking will undoubtedly lead to higher temperatures and noise. Increased voltage leads to more heat, which causes cooling systems to work harder and fans to run at higher RPMs in order to dissipate that heat. High-end air coolers such as the Noctua D15 feature large heatsinks with premium materials that can dissipate heat faster than stock or budget air coolers—often at lower fan speeds, too. Heat is a main cause of chip degradation over time, so it’s important to manage temperatures.
Overclocking can increase temperatures all around inside the PC case as well (possibly affecting other components, and/or increasing fan speed throughout the system), so overclockers should ensure that their case has good ventilation with enough fans to intake fresh air and exhaust hot air. As for general noise concerns with faster fan speeds, there are case fan options like Corsair’s ML120s that feature magnetic levitation bearings to reduce noise over standard ball bearings.
3. Unable to Load OS
The inability to load Windows or another operating system indicates a CPU’s overclock settings are too high or too unstable to run basic tasks. Frequently, this means the system will run the basic boot procedure, but freeze or display a blue screen of death (BSOD) as soon as the operating system loads.
To fix this, go back into (or boot directly into) the BIOS, use the options there to lower the overclock settings to stock—or at least to the last settings that resulted in a successful boot. If BIOS won’t even load, shut down the computer, open the case and remove the motherboard’s CMOS battery, which maintains system settings when the rest of the computer is powered down. This will clear the BIOS settings back to normal. To reiterate that: be forewarned, as implied, that doing this will truly wipe all of your BIOS configuration settings.
4. Program Crashes
Like freezing, program crashes are a common sign that a chip’s overclock is unstable. An overclock might appear stable as it loads the operating system and runs basic tasks—but as soon as you load an intensive task, the program crashes. If the system asks for higher resources than the CPU or GPU can manage (or expects higher resources, due to a speed/voltage mismatch), programs may lag, hang, or crash altogether.
As with system freezes, the solution is to either draw back the overclock by .05 MHz, or try to increase voltage to the target component—just remember to watch your temperatures.
Is overclocking easy and safe enough for us to recommend that everyone should do it? No. Any time you are exceeding the officially programmed stock settings of your components, there is a possibility of voiding your warranties and a risk of damaging (even irrevocably) your parts.
But the idea of achieving additional power without having to purchase any new components will always be tempting enough to lead people toward overclocking. So we hope that this article can help such folks to navigate a few common pitfalls of the overclocking process.