Man Vs. Machine: Four Automatic Overclocking Techs, Compared

Is Automatic Overclocking Any Easier Or Better?

It’s been a while since we’ve written a comprehensive overclocking guide, yet most of the methods from our previous guide still apply. The biggest difference is that Intel’s FSB was replaced several years back by a base clock (similar to AMD’s reference clock) in the transition from LGA 775 to LGA 1366. The second-biggest difference is that Intel all but locked down that base clock on its LGA 1155-based platforms. Fortunately, buyers who can afford the extra premium tied to Intel’s K-series processors get full multiplier access, which eliminates much of the need for sky-high BCLK settings.

If you're hitting this story as a neophyte and find that previous paragraph gibberish, check out our previous overclocking guide (including the AMD parts). Hopefully that will get you to the point where overclocking Intel's Sandy Bridge-based processors make a little more sense.

Now, with that said, we realize that not all of our readers have the time, risk adversity, or overclocking chops to follow the entire process of manually tweaking multipliers, base clocks, and voltages. Thus, while each of our system builds includes a detailed description of the overclocking settings we choose, companies like ASRock, Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI would like to make the process even easier.

Techniques like built-in BIOS automatic overclocking profiles, active intelligent overclocking, profile-based overclocking from a desktop interface, and even push-button overclocking make free performance available to beginners with no experience at all!

But Is Automatic Overclocking Safer?

Our overclocking articles often mention a process called “electromigration,” where material is physically transferred from one part of a circuit to another. While the full description of this phenomenon is complex, it’s easy to understand that an insulator contaminated with conductive particles no longer insulates. Transistor gates function as either insulators or conductors depending on charge state and are particularly prone to this type of damage. And yet, many technology enthusiasts place the blame for a fried processor or GPU solely on heat, ignoring the fact that voltage is a measure of force.

Force causes electromigration, and colder silicon more easily resists that force by being less pliable. Colder temperatures also increase the insulation capabilities of transistor gates in the “off” phase, reducing the number of electrons that are forced through the closed gate. The  problem with blaming heat alone on a failure is that moderate increases in electromigration resistance usually require drastic temperature reductions. When it comes to protecting hundreds of dollars in equipment, we always make our recommendations to you erring on the side of caution.

We've learned through trial, error, and dead processors that voltage levels beyond 1.45 V at above-ambient temperatures can kill an Intel CPU etched at 32 nm (Sandy Bridge-based parts included) very quickly. Those same processors die a fairly slow death at voltage levels between 1.40 V and 1.45 V (somewhere between weeks and months on our test benches). And we're expecting more than a year of reliable service from the parts we've dutifully kept below 1.40 V. Not all motherboards are perfect however. Voltage instability on a particularly cheap motherboard fried one of our processors when it was set to only1.38 V. Subsequently, you've seen us use 1.35 V for the overclocking tests in older motherboard round-ups, embracing 1.38 V to 1.40 V in more recent pieces covering higher-end platforms.

...Or Any Better?

Rather than sit here and try to beat the “Automatic” and/or “Easy” overclocking methods engineered by some of today's most popular motherboard manufacturers, we’re going to let them try to beat us. We’re even going to make it easy for them by handicapping ourselves with a 1.35 V voltage ceiling (the same one we used in the overclocking tests of our most recent motherboard round-up).  We'll only start raising eyebrows if they exceed that 1.4 V limit that we simply cannot recommend our readers push past if they have any expectation of long-term durability. We’ll go on to benchmark the “best they can do” against the “safest we can do” before judging the ease, safety, and effectiveness of their methods.

Thomas Soderstrom
Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews cases, cooling, memory and motherboards.
  • iam2thecrowe
    auto overclocking is not a good think IMO, its asking for trouble. How many RMA's do motherboard & CPU companies want when this doesnt work properly?
  • crisan_tiberiu
    I have a Asrock z68 Pro 3 MB, and after trying out auto overclocking the system only worked stable until 4,3 Ghz (core i7 2600k). I had to do manual settings to make my CPU stable @ 4,5 Ghz
  • apache_lives
    I don't like anything assuming anything.
  • iamtheking123
    Automatic overclock blows for 2 reasons.

    1) It either is super conservative and therefore useless for any enthusiast.
    2) It is insanely over-aggressive because it doesn't bother testing stability for more than a few minutes (if at all). So you end up with it thinking a 50% overclock is "stable" when it totally isn't.
  • moomooman
    When I tested the Gigabyte utility to overclock the only area I found problems in was the peak core voltage, I soon noticed the CPU idle temps were way too high.

    Turned out that with all other settings as chosen by the utility the peak core could be set to its lowest value in the BIOS and still be perfectly stable. So is it just ramping up the voltage to be on the safe side?
  • Isn't changing the default BCLK frequency supposed to be dangerous? Why do so many sites seem to promote changing it?
  • chesteracorgi
    ASRock's auto OC'ing on the P67 Extreme6 is excellent with my 2500K. I achieved a 4.8 GHz OC, a 4.6, 4.4, 4.2 & 4.0 with the auto settings. The voltage stayed under 1.36 on all of these OC settings.

    I have downclocked my system to base settings on both the CPU and GPU because the wear on the system with OC'ing. None of the games I play, nor any of the other apps need a OC to perform well, so why place additional stress on the components when it is merely for bragging rights?

    When I played with manual OC'ing I found, like this article, that there was only a marginal gain from auto settings. Plus ther is the additional risk of screwing the pooch entirely and bricking the CPU or mobo by overvolting.

    Unless you are a real pro and are not risk adverse, I'd recommend that you stick with auto OC'ing, and for this, ASRock has proven to be the best.

  • jamie_1318
    @Chesteracorgi, you don't need to be a pro to OC your CPU. They have guides on Overclocking every CPU around, very easily and effectively.

    I feel that Toms should have done some stability testing on their manual and automatic OCed Processors. They might have and just not posted their results. I am in the camp where I feel that if you can't take the hour or two to figure it all out you probably shouldn't be Overclocking. If we had a larger sample of Proccessors we have no idea how many would turn out badly.

    It looks like a good tool to start off your own OC because it's probably gonna be in the ballpark, but on it's own it leaves much to be desired.
  • hyteck9
    Question... Was the same CPU used in all tests? If so, it seems untrue to say that "CPU's" shouldn't have more than 'n' voltage when the Mobo's are presenting different internal loads, right? You stated that manually you can get 4.67 GHz at 1.35 V on board 'x'. If the CPU is consistnat in all tests, 1.35V should ba ample force to get 4.67 on ANY Motherboard with that CPU right?... but you couldn't. My point being different mobo's require more "push" there by making it harder for me to fault autoOC programs for cranking up voltage past "comfy" limits when, for all we know, they are taking into account higher internal loads. There is a variable missing someplace. Like 1.375v is risky on type "A" mobos but type "B" mobos can go to 1.4V. I don't know.. am I making any sense here? It just seems some piece of the puzzle is missing....
  • wingartz
    just wondering i7 series 900 apply the same rule?? less than 1.4v safe, more is a certain death??