Overclocking—or running your hardware at higher speeds than it was designed to run—is one of the best ways to boost your gaming performance. Here's how to overclock your video card and get faster, smoother games without spending a dime.
Overclocking can get you great bang for your buck, but it isn't as simple as clicking a few "turbo" buttons and firing up a game. Just like overclocking your processor, overclocking a video card takes some patience, some stability testing, and carries a bit of a risk if not done properly. Thankfully, it's very easy to do as long as you stick to these instructions.
Note: We've published this article before, but we've completely rewritten it with new tools, a more effective process, and a video! So if it looks familiar, or if some of the comments seem old, that's why.
How Much Does This Actually Improve Gaming?
A lot of people ask whether overclocking is really worth it. Sure, it makes a difference in benchmarks, but will you actually see a noticeable difference in games? The answer varies depending on your card, your computer, and the games you're playing, but in short: yes.
Overclocking my GTX 560 Ti, for example, was quite helpful. In Battlefield 3, for instance, I was fluctuating between 40 and 60 frames per second on some levels. After overclocking my card, however, my framerate never dropped below 50.
That's an anecdotal, but solid improvement. It won't make unplayable games playable, but it will make a slightly choppy game run a bit smoother—or make a smooth game allow for increased graphics settings. Does that mean you'll get this exact same performance boost? Of course not. Every card is different, and no two cards will overclock the same. It also depends on the games you play and what other parts are in your computer—if your CPU is a bottleneck, then overclocking your graphics card will yield much smaller boosts, if any. So: your mileage may vary, but it's well worth the endeavor to find out.
What You'll Need
Everyone has different opinions on what tools are the most effective for overclocking your video card, but I've found these tools are the easiest and most effective:
- A Windows machine. Our tutorial today is for Windows machines, since that's where the vast majority of gaming is done.
- An NVIDIA or AMD video card. Some higher end cards may require slightly different instructions, but this guide should work for the majority of cards out there. Be sure to do a little research on your specific card first to see what any differences may be.
- MSI Afterburner. Afterburner is our favorite overclocking program for Windows, but you can probably use any overclocking program you want (as most of them are very similar). Despite its name, MSI Afterburner doesn't require an MSI video card. It'll work with almost any video card out there, no matter the manufacturer.
- Heaven, a video card benchmarking tool. There are a lot of benchmark utilities out there, but Heaven is our favorite, so that's what we'll be using.
- GPU-Z, a handy utility that gives you a ton of information about your video card. We won't be actively using this very much, but I recommend having it open as you overclock to make sure your video card actually registers the changes you make in Afterburner.
- Patience. Seriously, this is going to take awhile. Grab yourself a cup of tea and a few comic books.
Step One: Do Your Research
Before you do anything else, you should hop on over to Google and do some research on your card. Sift through sites like Overclock.net and see what kind of clock speeds other people are getting. Do NOT just apply these clock speeds and start benchmarking—every single card is different, and even someone with the exact same model card will get a different overclock from the next guy or girl. The goal here is to see what other people are getting so you know what's reasonable—that way, if you get way higher than everyone else, you know something probably isn't working correctly.
While you're at it, find out what the highest safe voltage is for your card—that'll come in handy when we start pushing the voltage. I'm using the word "safe" loosely here—obviously, the only truly safe voltage is the default, and increasing it can decrease the lifespan of your card.
Lastly, if you have a newer, high-end card—especially one of the NVIDIA Kepler cards—some of your settings will be different than they are for other cards. If MSI Afterburner looks a little bit different for you, be sure to research a guide for your own card to see what each of the settings mean.
Step Two: Benchmark Your Card
Open MSI Afterburner and take note of your stock speeds. Before you start overclocking, you should run Heaven one time through to make sure your card is stable at stock speeds. You'll also get a benchmark score, which is a great way to measure your progress as you overclock. Here's what you need to do:
- Start Heaven, and you'll be greeted with its initial settings menu.
- Tweak its settings however you want. I usually like to set Quality, Tesselation, and Anti-Aliasing to their maximum values, since I have a midrange card, but if you're overclocking a lower-end card, you may not need to push the settings so far. Make sure that Resolution is set to "System."
- Click the Run button. Heaven will start cycling through a series of scenes designed to push your graphics card to its limit. Don't worry if it seems slow or choppy—that's what we want.
- Click the "Benchmark" button in the upper left-hand corner of the screen to run a benchmark. This will go through all 26 scenes one time, measuring your card's performance.
- When the benchmark is done, you'll see a window with your score on it. I like to write this down so I can compare it to my post-overclocking scores.
If your card made it through the benchmark run, rejoice! Your card is, at the very least, stable at stock settings.
Step Three: Raise Your Clock Speeds
You've been patient up until this point, and it's time for your reward: you can finally start overclocking (that's why you're here, right?). Open MSI Afterburner and raise your core clock by 10MHz or so (make sure the shader clock is linked to the core clock, if you have it). Click Apply to apply the settings, then ensure they've been applied by checking GPU-Z and seeing if it matches. You should also click Save in MSI Afterburner, and assign your new settings to one of its profiles.
Now, run Heaven again, and just like before, click the Benchmark button. If it makes it through the benchmark run without any problems, your overclock is stable and you can raise the core clock by 10MHz again.
At some point, however, you'll run into some issues. Either Heaven will give you a black screen and stop working, or your graphics driver will crash, or you'll start seeing "artifacts" on the screen—little graphical glitches that aren't supposed to be there. These could be little black boxes, colored lines and blotches that appear on the screen, and so on.
If you run into any of these problems, your overclock is unstable. You now have two choices: you can back off to your last stable core clock and skip to step four (for a very small overclock), or you can raise your voltage.
Step Three Point Five: Raise Your Voltage
When you reach a certain point, your card needs more voltage before it can run at certain speeds. Raising your voltage past the stock level can push your card significantly farther, but it can also decrease the lifespan of your card (especially if you push it too far). So, you should only go through this step if you're willing to take on that risk.
By default, MSI Afterburner locks the voltage on your card so you can't raise it. So, in order to tweak the voltage, you need to open up MSI Afterburner's Settings and, under the General tab, check the "Unlock Voltage Control" box. Click OK and you should see a new slider at the top of Afterburner's main window.
Increase your voltage by 10 mV or so and click Apply. Afterburner may change the value slightly; it appears that it only works with certain voltage values, so you'll get a number close to the one you typed in. Now, start a benchmark run in Heaven again. If you make it through without any artifacts or crashes, your core clock is stable and you can try raising it again.
Repeat this process. Run Heaven, increasing the core clock after each stable run. When you have problems, increase the voltage and try again. Watch your temperatures as you do so. As you raise the voltage, your temperatures will start to get higher. Most modern cards are safe at around 90 degrees celsius, and Afterburner's automatic fan control will try to keep the temperature below that level. If you want to be more conservative (I usually try to keep it in the 80s), you can tweak Afterburner's fan control in the settings, under the Fan tab.
Eventually, you'll reach to a point where you can't overclock any further. This usually happens for one of three reasons:
- You reach unsafe temperatures for your video card and can't cool it any better.
- You reach the maximum safe voltage for your card (which you researched earlier).
- Your card just isn't stable past a certain core clock value, no matter how high you raise the voltage. This can happen if you have a card that just doesn't overclock well (remember, no card is guaranteed to overclock—it's luck of the draw!)
When that point comes, back down to your last stable clock speed. This is your highest possible core clock.
When you're done with the core clock, repeat this entire process with the memory clock. Your memory clock speeds won't get you as big of a performance boost as core clock will, but it's worth raising, especially since you've gotten the hang of the process by now.
Step Four: Stress Test Your Card
Once you find your highest possible overclock, you should do some more intense stress testing. Start Heaven, click the Run button, and just let it run instead of clicking the "Benchmark" button. Let it run for a few hours (five or so should be fine) and, if you don't experience any crashing or artifacts, you can consider your overclock stable. Do a benchmark run and compare your score to the one we got in step two if you want to see how much your card has improved!
Step Five: Game On
Of course, while Heaven is a good benchmarking tool, the best way to test your new card is to play a game! Fire up a game that's really graphics-intensive—like Battlefield 3, Skyrim, or Crysis 3—and see how it fares. Try to find a level with a lot of stuff going on, so it pushes your GPU pretty hard. Again, if you don't have any problems, you're good to go. Of course, if you're ever gaming and you come across artifacts or regular crashing, try backing off your overclock and seeing if that helps. Sometimes an overclock is "benchmark stable" but just doesn't quite cut it in games.
Enjoy your newly-overclocked video card, and show those zombies/aliens/dragons/enemy armies who's boss!
Music in the video by Bitbasic.