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How to overclock your graphics card and make PC games run faster for free

Marco Chiappetta | May 11, 2015
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.

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.

Overclocking tools

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.

We enlisted MSI's Afterburner utility for this project. Afterburner is built upon the Riva Tuner engine, which has been in development for ages. The "Riva" in its name actually alludes to one of Nvidia's early graphics processors that predates the GeForce brand by many years.

Using Afterburner is simple and straightforward: Download the utility from MSI's website, install it, and you're basically ready to go. When the utility is initially launched, it will scan your system and determine if you're using a compatible graphics card. You most likely are — unlike many overclocking tools, Afterburner works with multiple generations of GeForce and Radeon GPUs from any graphics card manufacturers.

When ready, Afterburner will present you with an elaborate interface, featuring a few sliders for altering power targets, fan curves, GPU and memory frequencies, and current clock and temperature data. There's also a voltage slider for tweaking GPU voltages, but that is disabled by default. To enable it, you must enter the Afterburner advanced properties menu by clicking the gear icon visible in the middle of the interface and ticking the boxes to unlock voltage control and monitoring.


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