The History of Overclocking: Is CPU Overclocking Viable in 2019?

Before we jump into the contentious topic of overclocking, I have to say that we won’t give you any black and white answer as there’s a lot of complexity and nuance we can’t ignore. Overclocking is still a very viable thing you can do to squeeze more power out of your components today, but the advances in technology since the early days of enthusiastic overclocking as well as the changing landscape of the overclocking community have transformed PC overclocking in the past decade.

What Is Overclocking?

Before we get into this discussion, here is a quick definition of what overclocking is and what types of overclocking there are.

You CPU, graphics card, and RAM are all set by the manufacturer at a certain clock speed, but for most of this article we will focus on CPU overclocking as it is the most complex and expensive component to overclock.

Clock speed is “the rate at which [you processor] performs internal operations and expressed in cycles per second (Hz)”.

The faster the clock speed, the faster your processor will run.

To overclock your processor is to increase the factory-set clock speed, making your processor run more Hz, thereby making it perform operations faster.

CPU clock speeds are written in units of GHz (gigahertz), or billions of Hz. If your CPU runs at 3.5 GHz, then it runs at 3.5 billion cycles per second.

GPU clock speeds are generally a bit lower, and their clock speeds are resumed in MHz, or millions of Hz.

Graphics cards are much easier to overclock than CPUs.

Why don’t CPU manufactures make the default clock speeds higher if processors will run faster?

The faster the clock speed is on a processor, the hotter the processor will run, and heat is the nemesis of electronics. Heat causes instability and even potential hardware damage.

CPU manufacturers set the clock speeds on their chips at a speed at which absolute performance stability is guaranteed, and this means that Intel or AMD leaves a lot of potential CPU power untapped and waiting to be overclocked.

Due to the nature of tiny variations in the silicon wafers CPUs are made on, every CPU has a different max clock speed and at which it is stable — even if they are the exact same model.

One CPU clocked originally at 3.5 GHz might be able to easily overclock to 5 GHz and still be running at low temps, while another CPU of the exact same model might barely be able to get beyond 4.0 GHz without overheating and crashing. This is the “silicon lottery”, something that we will talk about more later on in this post.

The Golden Age of CPU Overclocking

In the 90s and early 2000s, early Pentium, Celeron, Athlons, and Core 2 Duos could achieve stable overclocks of up to double the original clock speed — effectively doubling CPU performance. During this time, CPU makers left a massive amount of untapped power on their CPUs, and the once relatively niche community of overclockers certainly took advantage of this.

The 1992 Intel i486 could achieve an overclock of 65%!

The i7 920 released in 2008 is legendary for it’s overclocking potential

Today, the overclocking landscape is much different. Overclocking has become mainstream, with an entire industry of cooling components revolving around overclocking. Intel and AMD both specifically cater to overclockers, with both companies offering lines of top-tier CPUs that are designed to be overclocked.

Today, CPU overclocking doesn’t yield nearly as much of a clock speed boost as it once did. Because modern chips are much more consistent in performance from chip to chip, CPU manufacturers now set default clock speeds at a much higher rate than they did in the past, and technology like Turbo Boost has made CPU overclocking more redundant as your CPU automatically overclocks itself when it’s under load.

The Costs of CPU Overclocking in 2019

Lets use the 8th generation Intel i5 8400 and Intel i5 8600K to gauge how viable overclocking is from a cost to performance perspective in 2019.

The i5 8400 is a locked, unoverclockable CPU with a base clock speed of 2.8 GHz and a max turbo boost speed of 4.0 GHz.

The i5 8600K is an unlocked, overclockable CPU with a base clock speed of 3.6 GHz and a max turbo boost speed of 4.3 GHz. When manually overclocked, the 8600K can reach speeds of ~5.0 GHz.

Looking at this comparison of FPS rates between a stock i5 8400 at 3.8 GHz and a stock i5 8600K at 4.1 GHz, the i5 8600K only delivers around 3-7% more FPS.

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Even when gamernexus.net overclocked a 8600K to 5 GHz, it only got a 5-15% increase over it’s stock FPS at 1080P gaming. At 1440P, the resolution the 8600K is very well suited to game at, the FPS gain was cut down to just 2-5%.

*Please note that these benchmarks are all run with the same aftermarket CPU cooler so the i5 8400 is running faster than it would be with the stock cooler.

All in all, an overclocked i5 8600K is at best 20% better than a i5 8400 for gaming. The i5 8600K costs only around $30-50 more than the i5 8400, so an extra ~$40 for 10-20% extra FPS might not seem that bad at first.

However, the costs of overclocking go far beyond the extra cost of an unlocked CPU. To overclock the i5 8600K, you need a Z370 or Z390 motherboard, which start at around $110. With locked CPUs. you can run on a cheap $60 H310 motherboard. You will also need at large aftermarket CPU cooler if you want to overclock, and those start at $30. Locked CPUs can just use the stock Intel cooler. Aftermarket coolers generally don’t have thermal paste pre-applied, so that’s another $8-10 added to the cost of CPU overclocking.

You can possibly save some money by buying a used graphics card.

All in all, you pay a heavy price for overclocking.

 i5 8400Overclocked i5 8600K
Final Price$270$410
Cost of CPU~$200~$250
Cost of motherboard~$70 (Typical price of H310)~$120 (Low-end Z370)
Cost of CPU cooler$0 (Stock cooler)~$30 (Hyper 212 Evo)
Cost of thermal paste$0 (Pre-applied)~$10 (Arctic MX-4)

You do get slightly better CPU performance and a better (but not faster) motherboard if you go the overclocking route, but is it worth the 50% price premium? For $410, you can get yourself an i7 8700 and a decent motherboard, destroying a 5 GHz 8600K multi-core speed.

If all you care about is gaming FPS, don’t spend money trying to overclock a CPU; instead, invest the money into a better graphics card and go with a locked CPU.

However, if you like the enthusiast aspect of overclocking, pushing your silicon to its max is definitely a rewarding and fun experience.

Also, if you have an insanely high budget of $1500 or $2000, go ahead with your overclocking setup as you can definitely afford it.

A big tower cooler or water cooler is a must for overclocking

The AMD side of the story

We’ve neglected AMD Ryzen up till now, even though we are talking about CPU overclocking.

AMD doesn’t set of the same barriers to overclocking that Intel does. Every single Ryzen chip has an unlocked multiplier, and any AMD motherboard can overclock as well. Apart from needing to buy an-aftermarket cooler, there’s no extra cost to OC’ing a Ryzen chip except for the risk of shortening its lifespan.

However, Ryzen chips are much less overclocking potential even compared to modern Intel CPUs. You might get a 0.3 GHz stable overclock with Ryzen if you’re lucky, but not anything much over the maximum stock boost clock.

Conclusion

The old days of achieving a 60% overclock on you i7 920 or even i5 2500K are long gone. Today’s chips are already set at pretty high clock speeds and with CPUs automatically overclocking themselves these days, there’s not much room left for a manual overclock.

It’s impossible to justify overclocking on the basis of value and cost, as the tiny performance boosts from overclocking are offset by much greater cost.

However, if you got a big budget, there’s not reason not to overclock as there’s not many other places where you could spend your money.

Be sure to read our guide on some common questions most newbies to the PC building world have! Also be sure to look at our guide for the best prebuilt gaming PC under $1000.

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