In some systems, the processor speed can be set higher than the rating on the chip; this is called overclocking the chip. In many cases, you can get away with a certain amount of overclocking because Intel, AMD, and others often build safety margins into their ratings.

So, a chip rated for, say, 800MHz might in fact run at 900MHz or more but instead be down-rated to allow for a greater margin of reliability. By overclocking, you are using this margin and running the chip closer to its true maximum speed.

I don't normally recommend overclocking for a novice, but if you are comfortable playing with your system settings, and you can afford and are capable of dealing with any potential consequences, overclocking might enable you to get 10%–20% or more performance from your system.

Overclocking Pitfalls

If you are intent on overclocking, there are several issues to consider. One is that most Intel processors since the Pentium II are multiplier-locked before they are shipped out. Therefore, the chip ignores any changes to the multiplier setting on the motherboard.

Actually, both Intel and AMD lock the multipliers on most of their newer processors, but the AMD processors use solder bridges on top of the chip that can be manipulated if you are careful and somewhat mechanically inclined.

Although originally done to prevent re-markers from fraudulently relabeling processors (creating "counterfeit" chips), this has impacted the computing performance enthusiast, leaving tweaking the motherboard bus speed as the only easy way (or in some cases, the only way possible) to achieve a clock speed higher than standard.

You can run into problems increasing motherboard bus speed, as well. Most Intel motherboards, for example, simply don't support clock speeds other than the standard 66MHz, 100MHz, 133MHz, 400MHz, and 533MHz settings; the Intel D845PEBT2 motherboard, introduced in late 2002, is an exception.

Also all the Intel boards with speed settings done via software (BIOS Setup), with the exception of the D845PEBT2 motherboard, read the proper settings from the installed processor and allow only those settings. In other words, you simply plug in the processor, and the Intel motherboard won't allow any settings other than what that processor is designed for.

Fortunately, most other brands do allow changing the bus speeds. Even if you could trick the processor into accepting a different clock multiplier setting, the jump from 66MHz to 100MHz or from 100 to 133MHz is a large one, and many processors will not make that much of a jump reliably.

For example, a Pentium III 800E runs at a 100MHz bus speed with an 8x multiplier. Bumping the motherboard speed to 133MHz causes the processor to try to run at 8x133, or 1066MHz. It is not certain that the chip would run reliably at that speed. Likewise, a Celeron 600E runs at 9x66MHz.

Raising the bus speed to 100MHz causes the chip to try and run at 9x100MHz, or 900MHz, another potentially unsuccessful change. A board that supports intermediate speed settings and allows the settings to be changed in smaller increments is necessary.

This is because a given chip is generally overclockable by a certain percentage. The smaller the steps you can take when increasing speed, the more likely that you'll be able to come close to the actual maximum speed of the chip without going over.

Typically, a 10%–20% increase is successful, so with this motherboard, you are likely to get your processor running 100MHz or faster than it was originally designed for. An issue when it comes to increasing CPU bus speeds is that the other buses in the system will typically be similarly affected.

Thus, if you increase the CPU bus speed by 10%, you might also be increasing the PCI or AGP bus by the same amount, and your video, network, or other cards might not be able to keep up. This is something that varies from board to board, so you have to consider each example as a potentially unique case.

Overclocking Socket A Processors

The AMD Athlon and Duron processors in the FC-PGA (flip-chip pin grid array) format, which plugs into Socket A, have special solder bridges on the top face of the chip that can be modified to change or remove the lock from the internal multiplier on the chip.

This can increase the speed of the chip without changing the motherboard bus speed, thus affecting other buses or cards. The selected multiplier is set or locked by very small solder connections between solder dots (contacts) on the surface of the chip.

You can completely unlock the chip by bridging or disconnecting the appropriate dots. Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to add or remove these bridges; you usually have to mask off the particular bridge you want to create and, rather than dripping solder onto it, literally paint the bridge with silver or copper paint.

For example, you can use the special copper paint sold in small vials at any auto parts store for repairing the window defogger grids. The real problem is that the contacts are very small, and if you bridge to adjacent rather than opposite contacts, you can render the chip nonfunctional.

An exacto knife or razor blade can be used to remove the bridges if desired. If you are not careful, you can easily damage a processor worth several hundred dollars. If you are leery of making such changes, you should try bus overclocking instead because this is done in the BIOS Setup and can easily be changed or undone without any mechanical changes to the chip.

CPU Voltage Settings

Another trick used by overclockers is playing with the voltage settings for the CPU. All modern CPU sockets and slots, including Slot 1, Slot A, Socket 8, Socket 370, Socket 423, Socket 478, and Socket A, have automatic voltage detection. With this detection, the system detects and sets the correct voltage by reading certain pins on the processor.

Some motherboards, such as those made by Intel, do not allow any manual changes to these settings. Other motherboards, such as the Asus P3V4X mentioned earlier, allow you to tweak the voltage settings from the automatic setting up or down by tenths of a volt.

Some experimenters have found that by either increasing or decreasing voltage slightly from the standard, a higher speed of overclock can be achieved with the system remaining stable. My recommendation is to be careful when playing with voltages because you can damage the chip in this manner.

Even without changing voltage, overclocking with an adjustable bus speed motherboard is very easy and fairly rewarding. I do recommend you make sure you are using a high-quality board, good memory, and especially a good system chassis with additional cooling fans and a heavy-duty power supply.

Especially when overclocking, it is essential that the system components and the CPU remain properly cooled. Going a little bit overboard on the processor heatsink and adding extra cooling fans to the case never hurts and in many cases helps a great deal when hotrodding a system in this manner.