Pursuit of Performance

Pimp Your PC: Overclocking Goes Mainstream

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

Once the practice of enthusiasts, now anyone can reap the benefits of increased computer speeds.

The practice of overclocking — or boosting computer chips to go faster than manufacturer settings — is an amazing technique for getting your computer zipping along at blistering rates.

The caveat, of course, is that overclocking is seen as an arcane art, preached by specialists with an aptitude for dabbling with motherboard and BIOS settings.

This is quickly becoming a misconception, however.

Once exclusive to mighty tweakers, the wizardly world of overclocking is now expanding to anyone with a screwdriver and a hankering to modify their machines to warp-speed.

In the days of Intel’s 8088 processors, only the most dedicated user could crack open a computer and twist some knobs on the processor to make games and applications fly. It was a long, drawn-out process.

According to Tony Vera, Platform Marketing Manager at Intel, “You had to adjust your motherboard. Power it on. Do a bunch of tweaks in the bios. Reset the system. Bring it back up at the new frequency. And test to see if it was stable.”

Then you had to decide whether to dial the power back or push ahead to new heights, he said.

In the late 1990s, overclocking was seriously frowned upon by chip-makers. This was due in part to the unscrupulous business practice of re-marking, where racketeers would overclock chips and hawk them at a higher price.

Resulting restrictions inadvertently cast the most enthusiastic IT junkies as outlaws in the process. These were truly the dark days of overclocking.

In the last 12 years, however, companies have loosened the reigns.


In 2003, Intel launched the first Extreme Edition processor, which was fully unlocked for overclockers. The company even started offering Notebook overclocking in 2007.

In 2010, Intel released the lower priced, but incredibly fast, “K” SKU processors which were also unlocked. Last year, the Pentium G3258 was unlocked, giving even budget-minded overclockers an attractive price point.

New advancements in computer architecture are democratizing the process even further, making mod culture viable even to those of us who aren’t brave enough to venture under the hood.

“With dynamic overclocking, overclocking has become something you can do within the operating system,” explained Dan Ragland, who has been working for thirteen years on overclocking engineering and architecture at Intel.

“Instead of having to tediously modify a number of BIOS settings and wait for a PC reboot, overclocking changes can now be made live, in real time.”


Ragland works closely with engineering teams to ensure that we all reap the benefits of whirling overclocked computer fans. One such instance is how Intel’s Turbo Boost technology will automatically reallocate computing power between different cores of a multi-core processor.

Overclocking works hand in hand with Turbo Boost as users can simply redefine their maximum Turbo frequency to be something higher.

This is particularly helpful, because Turbo Boost mechanisms will automatically and dynamically adjust frequency and voltage up and down based on the needs of the games or programs currently running.

When the system is idle, voltages and frequencies are reduced, thus reducing some of the risks taken with static overclocking. Think of this as overclocking-on-demand.

“Can we get it to the point where it can all be done through a simple software utility, and doing it real time?” Ragland asked. “We’re getting there piece by piece.”

He said the ultimate goal is to develop an interface that allows users to rev up every overclocking knob with a few clicks of the mouse.

The stone-cold gearheads don’t need to worry about their favorite hobby being watered down. These advances in architecture provide even more nibs and knobs for them to get their hands dirty.

“Instead of only having three knobs, we are now exposing dozens and dozens of knobs,” Ragland said. “So if you want to go and mess around with all the nitty-gritty that’s available, too.”

From novice to expert, overclocking is introducing the whole spectrum to the wonders of engineering — all while making our computers go faster than ever before.


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