Overclock Everything, part one

Feature: Day one - overclocking your CPU


Something for nothing. That's what you want, isn't it? Frankly you disgust us, you self-interested, greedy little.... OK, no one's listening. Come right this way, sir. We've got a little something special behind the counter for you. Just don't tell anyone where you got it from, eh?

Overclocking: often considered the dark pursuit of those just too damn tight to buy a decent PC. At best futile, at worst an art as twisted as burning virgin puppies in the name of Cthulhu. It's really nothing of the sort, and given the now frankly ridiculous speed at which new hardware revisions are released, it's increasingly becoming pretty much de rigueur for hardcore PC gamers who can't afford the endless succession of new graphics cards.

While overclocks of yesteryear required arcane practices such as drawing on your processor with a ceramic pencil or rewriting the software hard-coded into a graphics card, it can now be done through friendly, purpose-made menus. High time, then, that you considered having a go at a spot of overclocking yourself. The following pages will tell you what you can overclock for better gaming, and how you can do it.

'Overclocking', mind, is a term that can be cheerfully stretched way past its dictionary definition. Just as 'Googling' evokes searching in general or 'Photoshopping' anything from colour-correction of your photos to making fake nudes of the cheerleader from Heroes, 'overclocking' can mean, simply, making hardware better. That's why, as well as coaxing a little more life out of CPUs, 3D cards and memory, we'll also be looking at canny hacks on everything from monitors to mousemats.

And now for this bit: warning. Warning. WARNING! That was a warning. A warning that overclocking is, always has been and always will be hazardous to your PC's precious and often expensive components.

You're going where warranty-angels fear to tread. Making a component run faster than its official speed increases the heat it generates; too much heat and it will physically burn out. Most graphics cards and processors now include built-in panic alarms that shut them down automatically if their internal thermometer goes mad, but that's not something you should rely on.

Take it one step at a time, and familiarise yourself with your BIOS and known safe settings before you begin. We can't be held responsible for any damage caused, but nothing ventured, nothing gained...

All processors are born equal, but some are more equal than others. As that's the technological equivalent of saying "those horrible watery 3p own-brand cans of beans taste the same as Heinz", let's qualify it a bit.

A great number of different CPUs from the same family - for instance, the Intel Core 2 range - are essentially created the same. That is, they're all in theory supposed to be at their highest possible speed rating, but the imperfection of the manufacturing process and a wee bit of cynicism means they're not all judged fit to run quite that fast.

So, it's very much possible - probable even, depending on what family of chip you have - that your 1.66GHz processor is good to run at, say, 2.2GHz without even a hint of instability, but for one reason or another it's been kept down a tier, like a schoolchild who keeps pushing pencils up his nose.

However, two of those 1.66GHz CPUs won't necessarily be equally overclockable - again, the complexities and imprecision of the manufacturing process mean it's rare for two chips to be precisely the same. So, if your mate with the same chip has upped his by a gigahertz, don't immediately try the same with yours, as, despite built-in safety cut-offs, you might just fry it. No matter how tedious the process, overclock by tiny increments (10MHz at a time is sensible) until you hit the ceiling, and then go back to a safe point. That way, you'll certainly be able to get some extra mileage out of the CPU.

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