Intel just announced its 12th-gen Alder Lake platform at the Intel Innovation event. In addition to six new processors, Intel detailed some key overclocking news for the upcoming range. Marrying software and hardware, Alder Lake looks primed for extreme overclocking unlike any previous Intel generation.
Starting with the hardware improvements, Alder Lake chips feature a thicker integrated heat spreader (IHS). Intel was able to add a little more heft to the IHS by reducing the die thickness by 25% and reducing the solder thermal interface material (STIM) by 15%. We don’t know what kind of difference that will make yet, but a thicker IHS should mean higher cooling potential.
More exciting are the software improvements. Intel is launching Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) 7.5 with the release of Alder Lake, which supports DDR5 and Alder Lake’s hybrid architecture. You’ll be able to overclock the P-cores and E-cores independently with ratio and voltage controls, and you can quickly check your overclock with the XTU benchmark, which includes hwbot.org integration.
If you don’t want to mess with your settings independently, you can use Intel Speed Optimizer. At launch, this feature is only available for the Core i9-12900K and i9-12900KF, but it will arrive for other Alder Lake chips soon. With a single button, the feature will boost P-core frequency by 100MHz and E-core frequency by 300MHz.
In a demo, Intel showed this chip reaching 5.2GHz on all cores with a modest overclock. We can’t make any claims on performance until the processors are here, but Intel suggests that most chips will have even higher headroom for overclocking.
Along with the launch of XTU 7.5, Intel released Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) 3.0. If you’re unfamiliar, XMP is what allows your memory to run at higher speeds without manual tuning. It’s an overclocking profile stored on the memory itself, and the third version includes some big upgrades.
First, XMP 3.0 supports five memory profiles instead of two, and for the first time ever, you can define and store your own profiles. Up to three profiles will come from the vendor, and you can configure the other two. In addition, you’ll be able to configure your profiles through software on your desktop. Intel pointed out Corsair’s iCue as an example, which allows you to tune and store XMP profiles without digging in the BIOS.
XMP 3.0 is only available on DDR5 modules. However, Intel has news for DDR4 memory, too. Both DDR4 and DDR5 support Intel’s new Dynamic Memory Boost technology on Alder Lake. It’s a bit like the turbo on a processor. Instead of running the memory at a higher speed all of the time, the overclock will adapt to the workload to boost speed as necessary.
We don’t know how good Alder Lake chips will be for overclocking, but Intel is setting up the generation for success. Although overclocking the chips is exciting, XMP 3.0 is a larger development. For the first time, users will be able to define and store their own memory profiles, opening the door to manual memory overclocking to the masses.
For decades, overclocking has been the telltale mark of a PC enthusiast. Even with immeasurable performance leaps in computing hardware, the idea of squeezing every drop of performance out of your CPU remains. But, in 2021, should you even overclock your CPU?
The leaps in computing power have also brought more tools for overclocking in a safe way, and modern processors even overclock themselves to a degree. In this guide, we’re going to cover what overclocking is, the risks and rewards associated with it, and if the performance gains are worth the effort.
What is overclocking?
Overclocking refers to pushing the clock speed of your processor past its rated limit. Clock speed is the number of cycles your CPU can complete in a second, and it’s measured in hertz. So, a 4GHz processor can complete 4 billion clock cycles per second.
Although clock speed doesn’t directly show how many instructions your CPU is executing, it gives you an idea of the relative number of instructions. All things being equal, a 4GHz processor can complete more instructions than a 3.5GHz one, for example. Due to things like processor architecture, age, and manufacturer, though, that’s not always the case, but it’s a good general rule of thumb and it makes the purpose of overclocking simple. You can overclock to achieve higher clock speeds, which in turn, allows your processor to complete more instructions each second.
Overclocking typically involves the primary processor, though you can also overclock a discrete GPU for a boost in graphics processing. There is no one rule in how fast you can speed up a processor, and every overclocking project produces different results. That makes your decision to overclock rather difficult.
Is overclocking worth it? Yes — and no.
Overclocking: Do you need it?
Overclocking can be time-consuming and expensive, especially if you have little experience tinkering with PC components. In addition to changing your multiplier, you may need to alter voltage settings, fan rotation speeds, and other important, fragile fundamentals.
So when you really get down to it, do you need to overclock?
Like most things, it depends. Gaming is a big reason to overclock, and depending on the game, it can make a big difference. In games, the CPU is best known for handling A.I. and NPCs, making a fast processor key for grand strategy titles like Civilization VI and simulation sandboxes like Hitman 3.
Your CPU handles more than A.I., though. Spare cores often go to handling simulations, from cloth to explosions, and some games even offload audio processing to the CPU. This division of labor is becoming increasingly common, especially as core counts push higher on consumer processors.
In CPU intensive games like Hitman 3, overclocking can make a big difference, but that doesn’t mean it will. The greatest benefits in games show at lower resolutions, where the GPU isn’t strained as much. As resolutions go higher, games become GPU-bound and show little performance gains from overclocking. Similarly, games that favor more cores over faster cores, such as Cyberpunk 2077, show less of an improvement with an overclocked CPU.
Outside of gaming, overclocking can boost performance in 3D modeling, video editing, and image editing applications, to name a few. Basically, any application that demands a lot from your CPU will benefit, if only slightly, from an overclock.
As with gaming, the same rules apply to other applications. Certain software favors more cores over faster ones, so your mileage will vary from application to application.
With so much variance, it’s easy to question if overclocking is worth it at all. And for many, it’s not. A moderate overclock, one that you can run all day every day, will boost your PC’s performance across the board, but it might not be worth the hassle. With high-end components, moderate overclocks produce marginal performance gains in most cases.
But, it’s basically free performance. If you have a processor that can run 5% faster, you might as well set it up to take advantage of that extra power. Furthermore, if you play a lot of CPU-intensive games or use applications like HandBrake, overclocking can give you a significant performance uplift, even at moderate settings.
In short, you don’t need overclocking, but if you’re running applications that benefit from it, there’s no reason to leave the extra performance on the table. You shouldn’t go too far, though. Extreme overclocking can shorten your component’s lifespan and decrease system stability.
It may void your warranty, too. Some manufacturers, such as EVGA, cover overclocking under the standard warranty. Others, such as Intel, offer optional protection plans that cover overclocking. We don’t want to sound alarmist since moderate overclocking really isn’t all that scary, but be aware that it will likely void any warranties you have.
How much faster are we talking?
Modern processors “overclock” themselves. Intel and AMD spec their CPUs to operate within a range of clock speeds, from the base clock to the boost clock. DIY overclocking pushes processors past their spec, so the sky is really the limit when it comes to how much faster you can make your CPU.
Given ideal circumstances, that is. Heat is the enemy, and as you push your clock speed higher, your CPU will get hotter. There’s a direct connection to how cool you can keep your CPU and how far you can push the overclock. Pushing the 2.9GHz Threadripper 3990X to 4.5GHz is within the realm of possibility for an overclocker using a dedicated setup and actively cooling the processor with liquid nitrogen. Results with a consumer chip inside of a case with an off-the-shelf cooler will be, let’s call them, more reasonable.
Each processor is a little different, so there’s no hard rule for how far you can push yours. However, the improvements should be marginal if you plan on using the overclock every day. In most cases, that usually means between 100Hz to 300Hz faster with adequate cooling.
What do I need?
What sort of overclocking do you want to try? How in-depth are you willing to go? Here are some important tools so you can judge the work level for yourself.
The right computer or CPU: You should invest in a CPU — like one of Intel’s K-series or any of AMD’s latest Ryzen CPUs — that supports overclocking. An overclock-friendly motherboard is also important, so don’t go by the processor alone. The newest mod-friendly CPUs and motherboards often come with software that replaces some of the tools listed below. Finally, if you’re buying a pre-built PC, check the system specs before assuming it supports overclocking.
Data display software: Programs like CPU-Z allow you to glance at the clock speed, see the voltage usage, and other important tracking factors. Downloading one of these tools will make the project much easier while tinkering.
Stress test software: You must stress-test to ensure your overclocked processor is stable and safe. Prime95, LinX, and AIDA64 can help, though some overclockers prefer to run more than one program and compare the results. Applications like RealTemp are also useful for tracking processor temperatures.
A heat sink/coolant unit: For serious overclocking, you’ll need a better cooling system installed inside your PC. That may be a larger processor heatsink and additional case fans.
A laptop or smartphone: These are a must for checking guides, or watching how-to videos while you dive into overclocking for the first time.
How long will it take
Most importantly, the overclocking process depends on how much time you are willing to spend to do it correctly. You can do a quick and janky overclock procedure just by downloading the right software and changing a few settings. However, this may cause a lot more trouble than it’s worth.
A proper and safe overclock requires research beforehand. You may even need to order additional parts, such as a bigger cooler.
After the proper prep work, start implementing basic tests, download the right stress test, and make CPU alterations — these are all relatively quick steps which may only take an hour. Running the stress test, which you should do after every alteration, should take a few hours as it monitors temperature and activity for stability.
The goal isn’t to get the overclock, just an overclock. It’s a process, and you’ll likely spend multiple days nailing everything down. The goal is to get a stable overclock and, from there, push the component higher if you want/can. For some, a moderate overclock is a project that takes no more than a few hours. For others, it may take multiple sessions over the course of weeks or months.
Alternatively, if you have an AMD CPU you can opt to use an automated overclocking tool like the 1usmus Clock Tuner, to cut down overclocking time significantly.
It’s about how deep you want to go. Although research and planning is essential for anyone, you don’t have to continue pushing your processor after you’ve achieved a stable overclock.
Final word: To overclock or not
Overclocking is considerably less risky than it used to be. Still, it takes substantial knowledge and a lot of patience — and it’s not an exact science, either. Your results can vary widely depending on your skill level, materials, and hardware.
While all this added performance can come with some risk, for those that like to push the edge of performance, the world of overclocking can add some fun and excitement to your computing life. Once you learn how to tweak your systems settings and run the necessary stability tests, you may find the overclocking well worth the effort.
With excitement comes risk, so we are giving you a fair warning that there’s always the chance of bricking your CPU, so use caution. This process is not for everyone, so evaluate your system and financial resources before you take a deep dive into overclocking. Be sure you’re willing to take the time to learn about hardware management, and obtain the right diagnostic tools.
Do not get too over-excited. You shouldn’t expect overclocks to transform your typical computing experience. Besides bragging rights, the main reason to pursue overclocking is to improve the performance of applications that lean heavily on computing speed. For those who spend their days performing mundane computer tasks such as writing emails and editing text documents, you shouldn’t expect to see a notable difference.
If you’ve decided you want to give it a try, you can learn how to overclock your CPU with our step-by-step guide.