The need for speed is real when it comes to PC games, where raw performance has a truly palpable effect on your experience’s look and feel. Gamers are always looking for ways to increase the performance of their systems, be it through updated drivers or software tweaks, game patches, or even warranty-busting modifications.
New, more powerful hardware is usually needed for the largest performance gains. But regular hardware upgrades can get really expensive, really fast. If you don’t have the budget for new gear or are just looking for a bit of an edge, overclocking the hardware you already own can be a great (and free!) option. Processors, system memory, and graphics cards can all be overclocked to boost the performance of a system—sometimes to a large extent. But for games, it’s the graphics card that typically has the largest impact on performance, assuming the system already has a decent processor and adequate memory inside.
Intrigued? We’ll walk you through overclocking two graphics cards, using some easy-to-use, free tools that’ll work on a wide range of hardware. With some patience and a little know-how, an overclocked graphics card—and ultimately a higher-performing system—is only a few clicks away.
Before you begin
There are a few important things to consider before overclocking your graphics card, like cooling, power requirements, and general system stability.
By definition, overclocking a graphics card means running it above its stock GPU and memory frequencies, which will result in higher power usage and heat output. The coolers used on most of today’s gaming-oriented cards typically have some built-in headroom to accommodate at least some level of overclocking, but if your card or system already run hot, additional cooling may be required.
System temperatures can be monitored using any number of tools. Most motherboard manufacturers have utilities available to read the thermal sensors on their boards, and your system BIOS will report hardware health data. The GPU-tweaking utilities we mention a little later will all report GPU temps as well. Where the “right” peak temperature lies for each GPU will vary from card to card, but typically, you’ll want to keep it around or below the 90-degree Celsius mark.
As we’ve just mentioned, overclocking a graphics card will result in increased power consumption simply because it requires more juice to run the card’s GPU and memory at higher frequencies. As such, if you’re already flirting with the upper limits of your power supply (PSU), overclocking may tip it over the edge and cause system instability, or worse—damage the PSU.
If the recommended PSU for your graphics card is 500 watts, for example, and that’s what is installed in your system, you may exceed its capacity while overclocking. It’s more likely that you have some headroom, however, because the rest of the components in typical systems shouldn’t consume that much power. It couldn’t hurt to check, though. Cheap power meters that get plugged in between your PSU’s power cable and wall outlet will tell you how much power your rig is using. If your system consumes significantly less than your PSU’s rating, you’ll probably be fine. This handy-dandy PSU wattage calculator can also help you spitball the approximate power usage of your PC.
Further reading: How to pick the best PC power supply
Your system should also be perfectly stable and fully functional before overclocking. A flaky or unstable system, even if it only occasionally acts up, could be a sign of a marginal component, and overclocking may push it to the point of failure.
Before you begin, we’d also suggest updating your graphics drivers and measuring graphics performance to ensure that the overclocks are resulting in worthwhile gains. If your overclock doesn’t yield good results in your favorite titles, but your system is running hotter and louder as a result, it may not be worth the effort. The latest drivers often resolve performance issues with newly released games as well.
Finally, keep in mind that overclocking may shorten the lifespan of your graphics card, especially if you crank up the GPU voltage to push frequencies to the extreme. Not touching your voltage and keeping max temperatures lower can help reduce the potential wear and tear of overclocking. Another word of warning: Depending on your card’s model and manufacturer, overclocking may technically void your warranty.
Got it? Good. Let’s dig in.
A number of hardware makers and independent software developers offer free tools for overclocking graphics cards.
AMD builds a tool dubbed Overdrive right into its Catalyst driver suite, which you can find nestled in the performance tab in the Catalyst Control Panel software. EVGA offers a tool it calls Precision, Gigabyte has its OC Guru utility, Sapphire has Trixx, and MSI offers its Afterburner utility, among numerous others. All of these tools are available as free downloads, and many work with a wide range of graphics cards, not just cards from that particular manufacturer.
Next page: The overclocking process, and results from the two graphics cards we overclocked.