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Pedal to the Metal: Overclocking the Athlon

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Subject: Processors
Manufacturer: AMD
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Overclocking?

Originally featured at Firingsquad.com

I’ve not deluded myself into believing that I’m a certified “old geezer” quite yet. However, I am regularly reminded of my age when I look at the computing landscape and find that “overclocking” has become not only a household word, but a regular practice of PC users by and far. That established hardware analysts, including those at FiringSquad and AnandTech do not let a CPU, motherboard or RAM review close without discussing “overclocking” potential, speaks to the broad appeal “overclocking” has amongst every segment of the PC community.

This is particularly interesting to me because I still remember the days when “overclocking” was the pastime of a small niche of PC hobbyists; it was rarely written about, and even less often successfully demonstrated. “Overclocking” involved hardware modification, jumper manipulation, and any number of off-kilter steps to achieve.

Forget about hardware, or even software tweaking, “overclocking” has now become common practice amongst hardware vendors themselves. Manufacturers like BFG have found a way to satiate the desire of average users to “overclock” by offering factory-“overclocked” components including videocards and motherboards.

You may have noticed that I have thus far referred to “overclocking” in quotes. I think it would be appropriate at this juncture to define “overclocking” if for no other reason than to discontinue using quotes whenever referring to it.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “overclocking” as follows: __________.

My apologies, but the Merriam-Webster Dictionary contains no definition for “overclocking.” Not to worry, I’ll offer up a simple definition to get us started:

  • Overclocking – Increasing the clock frequency of any electronic component above its default/stated clock frequency.

The definition is simple enough: you buy a component for your PC, say, an AMD Athlon 64 X2 CPU. The frequency of the CPU set at the factory is 3.2GHz. You would like to push the CPU’s core frequency higher. You would achieve this by overclocking the CPU (i.e. increasing the clock frequency above its default/stated clock frequency).

Sounds simple enough, right? Then you’re probably wondering why a guide is needed to make it happen. Well, you didn’t think you could just will your processor to run at the frequency you wanted, did you? Overclocking is a skill, and as with any skill, it requires a fair amount of practice and patience. You’ll want to start with this guide and scour the net for additional resources/tips to help you get overclocking.

 

Why Overclock?

With the introduction out of the way, you may be asking yourself why one would need to overclock in the first place?

In the late ‘90s, with CPU speeds hovering under the 1GHz barrier, and CPU-hungry tasks like video and audio encoding garnering mainstream attention, sheer CPU speed was at a premium. Being able to buy a 600MHz AMD Duron CPU and attain an additional 300MHz by overclocking wasn’t as much a sign of greed as need.

Thankfully, we’ve come quite a ways since the late ‘90s. A 1GHz CPU doesn’t seem to incite the slightest excitement from the average computer shopper. Heck, dual-core CPUs (those that place two CPU ‘brains’ in one processor package) are well on their way to becoming standard fare.

Nowadays, the average computer user can expect to achieve decent performance with a pre-built store-bought PC (as blasphemous as that may sound to some enthusiasts). The fact of the matter is that today, most of us don’t need to overclock at all; overclocking is a guilty pleasure, a luxury, rather than a pressing necessity.

Having said all this, there are still many reasons you might wish to overclock your CPU, irrespective of whether you built your PC yesterday or three years ago:

  • Overclocking might appeal to the hobbyist in you; you think tweaking and adjusting your PC for optimal performance would be fun
  • You are convinced that a small boost in CPU frequency would help speed up a particular application you currently believe is running a bit slow
  • You want to impress the jocks at school with your bleeding-fast PC in hopes that perhaps this will stop the regular beatings

How Does One Go About Overclocking?

 

As I said earlier, overclocking is a skill. I’d like to clarify something here; overclocking a CPU in and of itself does not require much work thanks to today’s overclocker-friendly motherboards. Proper CPU overclocking – that is, achieving a stable overclock while keeping heat output to a minimum – demands patience and know-how.

You’ll have to supply the patience. I’ll do my best to help you with the know-how. Before jumping head-first into the “how” of overclocking, let’s start with the “what” as in what you’ll need to overclock.

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