What Is Computer Overclocking?Which Parts Can You Overclock?

(Overclocking 101 for Newbies)

If you're a hardware novice or first-time computer builder, you may sometimes think what is computer overclocking, which is a term you're sure to encounter at some stage.

Once you learn that overclocking is basically pushing your parts past their stock performance levels, a whole bunch of other questions will inevitably pop up such as is it worth it, is it difficult to do, is it safe, which components can you overclock, how do you actually overclock, and so on.

In this introduction to overclocking we'll tear down a bit of the veil and bring you up to speed with the basics of overclocking.

How It Works: Overclocking Basics

Basically, computer overclocking is forcing a computer component such as the CPU to run at higher, faster speeds than the standard (known as "stock") speed set by the manufacturer. In a nutshell, this is done by altering settings in a software program such as your motherboard's BIOS, or a program you use within your operating system.

Overclocking has its pros and cons, with the main upside being a boost in performance (whether for gaming or general applications) that comes at no extra cost (except having to buy better cooling solutions where necessary).

This can extend the life of an older system, meaning you can put off having to upgrade or replace a PC that might be lagging behind in performance. 

The main downside to overclocking is that there is the potential to damage or even destroy your hardware due to either pushing it too hard or having something overheat. On the lower end of the scale you may reduce the lifespan of your parts.

Although to be fair, overclocking is much safer and less riskier than it used to be, and modern hardware components have fail-safes built-in to prevent things like this happening. 

But that doesn't there's no risk; however if you do it safely and slowly, have good cooling within your system, and apply good overclocking principles then you should be just fine.

Which Components Can You Overclock?

There are four components you can overclock. In order of overclocking popularity, those parts are your processor/CPU, your graphics card/GPU, your memory/RAM, and your monitor. 

Overclocking a CPU is the most common, and to do that you change its core clock speed to force the processor to run faster than the stock speed that either Intel or AMD has set. As an example, if a CPU runs with a core clock speed of say 3.5 GHz, then you would look to overclock that speed to run at say 4.0 GHz or even faster.

There are different ways to go about this; either by overclocking from within your BIOS, or by using a free application in Windows such as Intel's Extreme Tuning Utility (known as XTU) or AMD's Ryzen Master.

Some motherboard's also come with automatic overclocking software that does the tuning for you, although what you sacrifice in control you lose in potential speed increases. In general, the best yet most complicated way to push your processor is via your trusty BIOS, although doing it in the operating system with a tool can be just as effective in some cases.

Overclocking a graphics card is also quite popular as it's quite safe and can give you a nice frame-rate boost in your games. To push your GPU you'll have to do this in Windows as you can't do so in the BIOS. Programs like MSI's Afterburner are great for this, or you could also use NVidia's or AMD's official tweaking tools that come with their graphics card drivers if you don't mind having less control.

RAM overclocking is less common as it's not always worth it and quite complicated, so I wouldn't worry about that unless you know what you're doing. As for monitor overclocking, that refers to forcing your display's refresh rate beyond its default settings. Pretty straightforward, but if you want a higher refresh rate I'd personally just get a high-refresh rate monitor in the first place.

Is Overclocking Worth the Risk?

As mentioned, doing an overclock is quite safe these days, especially if you follow instructions from someone who has done it before and you have suitable hardware. By suitable I mean you have good cooling solutions, both for the part you're overclocking (good aftermarket cooler for your CPU or a nice set of effective fans for your GPU) as well as solid case airflow from your fan setup and chassis design.

But whether or not it's actually worth it will totally depend on your hardware, your aims, your cooling, etc, and there is no clear answer. With some systems you might not get much of a performance increase or see much of a difference, or you might not even be able to overclock. On other systems, overclocking could be a seriously wise move and significantly boost performance for no extra cost.