What’s GPU overclocking?
Your graphics card typically runs at a fixed performance level or “clock speed”, which is set by the manufacturer. It’s a bit like a car, which has either 50, 100 or 500 horses under its hood. And just like an engine, you can tune your graphics card for better performance — this is called “overclocking”. The higher you overclock your GPU, the more processing power you get — which translates into faster rendering for multimedia files and smoother-running games. In cases where you can’t overclock your hardware, there are other methods to boost your PCs performance on a software level, like “Sleep Mode”, part of AVG TuneUp, which disables background activity of any apps you’re not using. Sound good? You can get AVG TuneUp here.
What you need to overclock your GPU
Overclocking is fairly easy and doesn’t cost much. But first, it’s best to make sure your PC is optimized from the ground up, and ready to run its best. Here’s a good article that’ll show you how to boost your PC's performance right now.
Don’t worry, overclocking is not too difficult or time-consuming. Some of these steps are automatic using various tools like MSI Afterburner.
Read on to learn what you need to overclock your GPU, or jump right to our step-by-step instructions.
1. An overclocking tool
There’s a bunch to choose from, but the best one is MSI Afterburner — it’s easy to use, includes a skinnable interface if you like to mix things up, and it’s constantly updated to include the latest GPUs. You can get it from the official MSI page. There’s also a beta channel you can try out if you’ve just bought a card based on brand-new architecture, like NVIDIA’s Turing. You can always get the latest beta releases on Guru3D.
2. A benchmark/stress-test utility
Overclocking pushes your card to its limit (that’s the point!). To make sure it’s stable while gaming, you should stress-test it. For this, we recommend these two tools:
The classic 3D benchmarking software 3DMark. It has a very useful stress test functionality.
Furmark, which simulates millions of little strands of hair to push your graphics card to its limit.
3. A bit of patience — and nerves of titanium
We did say overclocking is fairly easy, but finding the perfect blend of performance, temperature, and compatibility with games can take a lot of testing until you get things just right.
For example, you might think you’ve reached a perfect overclock based on stress tests — but then your favorite game crashes after 30 minutes. So you go back to the drawing board and try out a slightly lower clock.
Is overclocking safe?
These days? Big yes. Overclocking does increase the temperature and stress on your GPU, but don’t worry — its failsafe mechanisms will kick in before it bursts into flames. The worst that can happen is crashes, freezes, or black-screens. If that happens, go back to that drawing board and lower the clock a bit.
However, running at significantly higher clocks could in theory reduce its lifespan — just like anything else when you push it to its limit. But we’re yet to see any statistically significant data on the impact of GPU overclocking.
Personally, we’ve been running our Titan Xp’s with a constant overclock for about a year… and so far, so good.
How to overclock your GPU
We’re going to use the MSI Afterburner we recommended earlier to overclock the GPU. Go ahead — install it and launch it.
The main dashboard will display your graphics chip’s current clock (GPU Clock) and its memory (Mem Clock). On the right-hand side you’ll see the temperature. These values will differ from PC to PC — but as a rule of thumb, avoid temperatures above 90°C. You can also change the skin of MSI Afterburner by clicking on the settings cog icon and going to User Interface.
The sliders you see control the basics of overclocking :
Power level: This slider allows your card to draw more power from your power supply unit (PSU). For example, if your card is limited by default to draw 200 watts, you can increase this to 240 watts by setting it to 120. You may need to do this if you want to overclock your card further (this will definitely drive your temperature up).
Step 1 - Benchmark your current settings
Run either 3DMark or Furmark (the stress-test tools we recommended earlier) and check your current performance:
This gives you a great reference point for your performance, temperature, clock speeds and FPS. Write down these numbers, or take a screenshot — it’ll help you compare later.
Step 2 - Overclock the GPU chip
Start slowly: raise the core clock by 5% and see whether you’re running into any weird graphical artifacts, glitches, or even crashes. At this level it should stay stable, but you probably won’t see much improvement. It’s really just a quick check for potential issues.
Step 3 - Overclock the memory
Memory is as important as the GPU clock — more so in games with gigabytes of textures. Try 10%, or a 50-100 MHz boost. Anything around or below 10% should still give you a stable performance.
If your computer crashes or if games show weird artifacts at these low overclocks, either your hardware isn’t designed to be overclocked at all… or you need to increase the temperature limit. More on that later.
Step 4 - Fine-tune
Increase your GPU clock by about 10 MHz and test it again. Is it stable? Crank it up by another 10 MHz. And again. And again. And again. Run a benchmark, stress test (see above), or a game for a few hours and check for stability issues and also performance improvements.
At some point, Windows might freeze or reboot: that’s your limit. Go 10-20 MHz below this limit. Running an overclock so close to the crashing point means you’ll hit a wall after hours of gameplay.
For example, our Titan Xp runs great at +200 MHz on the core clock, but it gets too hot after 2-3 hours of playing Final Fantasy 15 or Witcher 3 in 4K. So we usually run it at 170 MHz to be safe. Those 30 MHz aren’t something we really notice, but we *do* notice a crash — and so do our neighbors when we shout profanities at 3 am. In German.
Once you’ve found a stable core clock, do the same with the memory clock. Not at the same time, though, or you won’t know which one has an issue if something goes wrong.
Step 5 - Increase the power limit
Once you’ve hit your wall, you can go the conservative (a.k.a. boring) route and say “OK, that’s enough, I’m happy”.
Or you could crank up the Power Limit and Temperature Limit toggles in MSI Afterburner, and see what happens.
Start your game now. Even without overclocking, you’ll likely notice the fans might get a bit louder and the card won’t reduce its clock as fast or as drastically. You can see this using MSI Afterburner’s RivaTuner, which comes with the overclocking tools package. Check out this video guide on enabling and configuring the onscreen display so you can see it during a game or while using your benchmarking tools.
For example, by default both Titan Xps clock up to 1823 MHz when playing the Witcher 3, but reduce the clock to slightly above 1600 MHz after an hour or so (when the temperature is at its peak). However, when using a higher power limit and temperature limit, we don’t see this throttling anymore and - with the right overclock - we never drop below that magical 2000 MHz.
Step 6 - Fine-tune (again) and test
Now that we’ve unlocked even more power, it’s back to the good ol’ “increase it by 10 MHz” trick.
Your card will probably soar past its previous crash point. As we said earlier, instead of a measly +100 MHz/200 MHz we now get a whopping +170 MHz/+450 MHz. Finding the sweet spot took us a lot of fine-tuning, so be patient.
Once you achieve a stable clock, benchmark your system again with the aforementioned 3DMark and Furmark. Benchmark your favorite games too. You’ll see a difference in numbers — and in the actual gameplay. You can also use a number of other tests to determine your PC’s performance when overclocked.
Does GPU overclocking really make a difference?
In most cases, yes. Of course it depends on the type of games you play and the hardware you have — if your games already run at a smooth 60 fps, you’ll have to squint hard to tell the difference when the overclock gets you up to 69. But if a really demanding game struggles to run at 60fps and dips into the 40s or 50s, an overclock will definitely help you smooth things out.
Overclocking can let you play games noticeably smoother at higher resolutions. For example, when pushing Far Cry 5 to 6K resolution, even the two Titan Xps struggle. As of mid 2018, these are NVIDIA’s top end consumer/pro graphics cards that outperform even NVIDIA’s flagship gaming card, the 1080 Ti.
Running two in tandem gives us 60 fps in 4K across most games. However, Far Cry 5 looks significantly better when using the upscaler that renders everything at a higher resolution and downsamples it to, say, Full HD or 4K. In this example, when using 6K resolution, the framerate dropped to a measly 37 FPS. After overclocking, this figure improved to 45fps — which is a lot less stuttery and easier to play:
However, when playing in “normal” 4K resolution, Far Cry 5 runs at solid 60fps — which is synced with our display, so overclocking doesn’t improve anything.
In other cases, we saw little benefit: Nier: Automata doesn’t run particularly well on our Surface Book. We’re talking roughly 24fps here. Overclocking brought it to 27fps — so yeah, yawn. You couldn’t tell the difference (though you could definitely hear the cooling fans of the Surface Book screaming for mercy).
What are the most common mistakes when overclocking?
If you follow our guidelines you’ll do just fine, as one of the more common overclocking mistakes it just cranking speeds up and playing with the sliders willy-nilly - which will end up in crashes! However, there are a few things to consider:
Avoid overheating: Keep a close eye on your GPU temperatures and invest in proper cooling - ideally you already have a custom made card with proper cooling or even watercooling.
Don’t auto-overclock: Since overclocking puts on “stress” on the GPU, I would suggest you only overclock when a game actually requires it. Use MSI Afterburner’s profile system — see the “Save” button in the screenshot below? Click that after you’re done with all of our steps, assign a number to your final overclock and use it only when running a demanding game or application.
Don’t expect it to be a game-changer (ha!): Look, if your GPU is 10 years old, overclocking won’t catapult it to the levels of today’s high-end GPUs. That’s unfortunately a fact. At the most, you can expect performance to increase by maybe 10-20%.
Can you overclock a laptop?
Yes, you can! Mobile GPUs are limited in performance, so overclocking can really help improve frame rate or rendering performance. We were able to squeeze out roughly 20-25% more FPS out of our Microsoft Surface Book, which uses a GeForce 965 GTX.
Big but: while you usually have pretty decent cooling in desktop PCs and full-on desktop graphics cards, mobile GPUs produce a lot of heat in a much smaller case. You will push against the thermal limits soon. Also, running at higher clock speeds increases power consumption, so your battery can get drained a lot faster. Them’s the breaks.
Can’t I just google the overclock numbers for my graphics card and skip all that?
Sure! But you’ll find hundreds of people with the exact same graphics card getting different numbers that might or might not work for you.
It’s called “chip lottery”, and it boils down to the fact that not all GPU and memory chips are manufactured identically on a microscopic level. Sometimes the material quality and the lithography are so different from one chip to another that higher temperature or voltage can’t be achieved.
As Redditor carlose707 puts it:
Basically, your mileage may vary. So you’ll likely end up going through the steps we laid out for you in order to find your sweet spot.
Can’t I just buy a pre-overclocked card?
Sure. But you’ll still want to overclock them.
Alongside the “official” graphics cards from NVIDIA and AMD, such as these ones...
...the bulk of graphics cards are manufactured by third parties like EVGA, MSI or Gigabyte. They use the same NVIDIA or AMD chip, such as a GeForce 1080 TI, but their cooling, power supplies, transistors and boards can be quite different and usually designed to clock up higher. That’s why you see a 1080 Ti from about a dozen different vendors — and even the same vendor might sell you numerous different versions:
These cards range from identical matches to the NVIDIA reference boards, to high-end models with mad cooling, higher quality power supplies, and RGB lighting. These are usually “factory overclocked” by 10-20%. However, even those cards can be overclocked manually — so the same process applies. You won’t usually achieve another 20-30% on top, but we’ve seen even higher clocked cards go up by another 15%.
Now, have fun!
Hopefully, this overclocking guide got you to the perfect clock in under an hour, and it’ll run stable for all your games no matter how long you play. Or maybe you’re still looking for your sweet spot.
If that’s the case, know this: we’re now able to run Far Cry 5 at 1.2-1.3 resolution scale (=roughly 5K resolution) at a smooth 60fps at the absolute highest settings, which yield this goose-bump level of realism:
Tempted? Go on, give it a go. It’s well worth the effort.
Want to optimize your PC on a software level on top of overclocking the hardware? Check out AVG TuneUp.