TABLE OF CONTENTS
Let’s talk about overclocking— does it reduce your CPU or GPU lifespan?
If so, how, and what can you do to avoid reducing your hardware’s lifespan?
I’ll be tackling these and related questions in this article, so by the end of it, you should have a pretty decent understanding of how overclocking may impact the livelihood of your PC hardware.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into everything you need to know.
A Quick Brief on PC Hardware, Longevity, and Heat
What Overclocking is and How It Directly Impacts Heat
Overclocking is the process by which you take a processor’s “clock” speed and increase it.
“Clock speed” refers to the number of calculations a processor can complete in a second and is measured in Hertz. (More generally measured in Megahertz at first, and Gigahertz these days.)
Interestingly, clock speed at large has seemingly started to fall off in recent years, peaking around 5 GHz for even high-end enthusiast processors without heavy-duty overclocking.
This is because increasing the clock speed of individual CPU cores requires an increase in transistors — and we’re starting to hit some hard limits when it comes to shrinking down these processors.
Instead, processing power improvements in recent years have largely come from improvements to CPU architecture at large and improving multi-core capabilities rather than raw core speed increases.
With that being said, overclocking your CPU definitely increases your performance. However, those transistors I mentioned earlier are going to draw a lot more power as a result, which also means much more heat being radiated by your CPU.
And while GPU cores work somewhat differently, the rules applied here regarding transistors, higher power draw, and the resulting higher heat still apply to graphics cards as well.
So, how does this extra heat impact your system? And does it reduce your hardware’s lifespan?
Let’s dive into it, one component at a time.
Does Overclocking Reduce Your CPU Lifespan?
How CPU Overclocking Works
The main thing you’ll be overclocking on the CPU is the clock speed of your CPU cores.
You may also look to overclock other parts of your CPU, though, especially if you’re an AMD user who wants to maximize an infinity Fabric overclock. (Which is more of a memory overclock than a CPU overclock…Ryzen chips are cool.)
That being said, CPUs already have a built-in method for boosting their own performance.
A CPU’s regular settings will generally push most or all of its cores to a rated “Turbo” or “Boost” frequency when under heavy load but proper cooling.
With the best cooling, you can maximize boosts like this — but that isn’t the same as forcing a proper overclock yourself.
With an overclock, you can push beyond those boost frequencies or even just force them to run more consistently.
The main limits will be in your motherboard’s chipset and VRMs, which will partially determine the extent of your overclock.
Other things completely outside of your control may also impact it, though — some chips are simply “binned” better than others in the factory and end up winning what’s called the silicon lottery.
Regardless of your particular chip’s binning or limits, there’s one thing that all overclockable CPUs have in common: you’re unlikely to permanently damage your CPU.
What Makes CPU Overclocking Generally Safe
The reason why is pretty simple, actually: if you have an unstable overclock, your CPU is just going to crash and not let you keep using it.
Processors are deeply intricate pieces of electronics, it turns out, and pushing too much power or frequency through them in the wrong way can result in immediate system failure.
Fortunately, all a user needs to do at this point is revert to stock settings or continue tweaking their overclock downward to find something stable. That being said, a stable overclock that just happens to not crash your computer may not be healthier for your machine.
How does it impact your CPU’s lifespan?
How It May Impact Your CPU Lifespan (In Theory)
While it’s difficult to find empirical data on long-term overclocking results, I can provide my own experiences and the general consensus that I’ve seen in the tech space.
It is generally agreed that if you have a stable and well-cooled overclock, you are not meaningfully reducing your CPU’s lifespan.
In theory, you might be, but the actual time it takes for a CPU chip to fail outright outstrips pretty much the rest of your entire PC, and the point in time at which you would upgrade it, anyway.
The reason why overclocking would reduce your CPU’s lifespan, especially if you can’t keep it particularly cool, is due to heat. Specifically, heat degradation over a long enough period of time will make your CPU gradually perform worse.
However, you’re more likely to notice this through an issue like dried thermal paste (which is easily fixed in a desktop PC) than your CPU itself actually degrading.
For most desktop users, especially those who keep good temperatures, killing your CPU by overclocking shouldn’t be a big concern — it has built-in safeguards of its own to prevent you from doing exactly that.
Laptop users or users with very poorly-cooled PCs may be in a tighter spot, though. More on that in the rest of the article.
Does Overclocking Reduce Your GPU Lifespan?
How GPU Overclocking Works
GPU overclocking is a little different from CPU overclocking. Both require changes to voltage, but on a CPU you’re mainly making changes to your processing cores.
With a GPU overclock, you have both a GPU core clock and a GPU memory clock to worry about, in addition to the usual voltage and power limit settings.
Besides that added layer of complexity, GPU overclocking works about how you expect it does.
The percentage improvement you’re able to push in your core clocks should generally reflect the percentage improvement you can expect in real-world game performance, too.
Is GPU Overclocking Safe?
Is it safe? Well yes, but like with CPUs, the main reason why is that an unstable overclock isn’t likely to run very long.
While unstable graphics card overclocks can sometimes take a little longer to rear their heads without stress testing, there is never a point where your GPU will allow you to kill it by forcing too much frequency or voltage through it.
The safeguards built into the graphics card will force it to crash the application you’re running, or your system before that happens.
So the likelihood of permanently damaging your GPU from a faulty overclock is pretty much zero. But, what about the higher sustained loads and heat that come with GPU overclocking?
Use Case and Maintenance Has More To Do With GPU Longevity Than Overclocking
Like with CPU overclocking, it’s tough to find empirical long-term data for GPU longevity under overclocking conditions.
The thing about overclocking, in general, is that it’s an enthusiast’s pursuit, and for it to even work properly you can’t have any deep issues with your power delivery or cooling that would prevent it from functioning.
So, why do GPU overclockers speak of dead graphics cards?
Why are graphics cards that were previously used for mining so heavily frowned upon in the market?
Simply put: degradation of the cooler and cooling setup, rather than the GPU chip itself.
Prolonged to heavy loads for many years, graphics cards can begin having thermal issues as excess dust begins to build up inside of the fins of their coolers and fans.
Eventually, the thermal paste between the GPU and the cooler will begin to degrade — and that’s when you start getting the most severe overheating, until a GPU seemingly or actually no longer works.
The key to keeping a graphics card alive in the long term, especially if you’re going to overclock it, is to consistently monitor its temperatures and dust it whenever they begin to accumulate.
Thermal paste replacement on a GPU is much more difficult than it is with a CPU, unfortunately, but GPU thermal paste does tend to last 5-10 years as a rule of thumb.
The reason why GPUs that were known to be used for mining are so frowned upon in the secondhand market is that GPUs used for mining are basically being put through a full-time torture test, and the people buying them en masse have little incentive to repair rather than replace them.
What Can Be Done to Increase CPU Lifespan?
Replace Thermal Paste Biennially (And Properly)
The lifespan of CPU thermal paste can vary greatly, but the common wisdom is to replace the thermal paste on your desktop CPU and CPU cooler once every 2-3 years.
Degraded thermal paste will result in your CPU thermal throttling much more quickly and frequently, and if allowed to continue for a long enough time, may actually begin damaging the hardware.
Dried and degraded thermal paste is the usual reason that sealed machines like laptops and game consoles may show losses in performance after a few years of heavy use, even if they’re seemingly dust-free.
Thermal paste applied in these non-desktop CPU scenarios tends to be laster-longing, but all paste eventually expires.
Upgrade CPU Cooler
Besides making sure you’re replacing your thermal place frequently enough and installing it properly (less is more), you may also need a full CPU cooler replacement.
I especially recommend this to Intel CPU users who are using the stock Intel CPU cooler, as it simply isn’t very good and hinders the performance of some otherwise-great CPUs.
Stock AMD coolers are actually surprisingly solid, even overclocking-capable with higher-end models, but still don’t stand up to the best air CPU coolers and liquid CPU coolers on the market.
Upgrade Case Cooling
This technically applies to your entire PC but stands true.
One of the best things you can do for your PC is to make sure that your case is thoroughly and properly cooled with a full positive pressure airflow setup.
CPUs, GPUs, and pretty much everything else in your PC generates heat just by being run and lose performance when overheating.
Good airflow prevents overheating by removing excess heat from the chassis before it can build and providing a continuous flow of fresh, cool air to your CPU/GPU cooler.
For more guidance on upgrading your PC’s airflow, give Alex’s article on How Many Case Fans You Need a good look. If you already have an idea what you need, you can also check out my Top Case Fan Picks!
What Can Be Done to Increase GPU Lifespan?
Frequent, Proper Dusting
Besides generally taking care of your case’s airflow (as discussed a few paragraphs up), which benefits your whole system, one important thing for your GPU’s health is to properly dust the graphics card itself.
In order to properly dust your graphics card, you’ll want a can of compressed air, a static-free workspace, an anti-static wristband, and a little bit of caution.
For the most part, dusting your GPU shouldn’t be too tough — you probably don’t even need to remove it from your PC if you’re dusting it frequently enough, aside from deep cleans.
The main thing you need to look out for when dusting your GPU is your GPU fans.
You want to make sure your fans are held still when cleaning them or the heatsink behind them with compressed air, as the propulsion force can damage a fan’s bearings when it’s powered off.
And yes — the same rule applies to your CPU cooler and the other cooling fans in your system.
One great way to improve GPU thermals and even consistency of performance is to undervolt the graphics card.
While reducing voltage to a graphics card does restrict its maximum possible throughput, it also prevents the graphics card from throttling and causing input lag when pushed to its fullest usage capacity.
While undervolting might sound like the opposite of overclocking — and it is, in a way — it doesn’t even require a clock speed reduction.
Done properly, an undervolt will simply run your GPU with the best stock performance it can handle while consuming slightly less power, allowing it to perform more consistently.
If you’re looking to extend the livelihood of a graphics card and stabilize its performance, an undervolt is a great option.
Using FPS Caps and V-Sync
While I don’t generally recommend V-Sync due to the input lag and greater performance drops it can introduce into some titles, one thing it is great for is controlling and lowering power consumption through consistent frame pacing.
Another great way to achieve that effect is with an in-game or external FPS cap like RivaTuner Statistics Server, allowing you to limit FPS and power usage without impacting your input latency.
Can Laptop CPUs be Overclocked?
No, and even if it were possible, you seriously shouldn’t.
Most laptops don’t even have the thermal headroom to deal with their CPUs at stock clocks, much less a CPU pushing higher clocks and voltages.
There’s a reason I had to write a whole article on laptop coolers in their various forms.
As amazing as laptop technology is, putting all of that processing power in a smaller form factor fundamentally comes with compromises to thermals and performance.
Overclocking on a laptop, even if it were allowed by the hardware, would be a pipe dream.
Can Laptop GPUs be Overclocked?
Technically yes, but…see the above section.
GPUs are notoriously power-hungry and known for exhausting excess heat — just as much, if not more so than the CPU.
Even though it’s allowed, the thermal design of laptops in general means that you’re very unlikely to get good results from doing it — and even if you did, they’re so marginal they most likely wouldn’t be worth the loss in cooling and battery life you’d get as a result.
Can RAM Be Overclocked?
Yeah, actually — for it to perform as advertised, it even should be overclocked!
Thanks to a funny little thing called XMP (Xtreme Memory Profiles, from Intel — there are AMD alternatives that serve the same purpose too), most RAM doesn’t actually perform at its fullest out of the box.
Instead, you enable one of the onboard XMP overclocking profiles to have your RAM automatically overclock itself to a factory-rated frequency, generally the one you saw on the box or at least something quite close to it.
This doesn’t always work perfectly — sometimes an alternative XMP profile must be chosen, or tweaks must be made from the XMP profile to achieve stability.
For the most part, though, XMP and its alternatives serve as an easy and straightforward way to overclock your RAM and get all the Megatransfers you’re paying for.
How Do GPU Core and Memory Clocks Work?
So, there are two main components to GPU overclocking: your actual GPU chip and the GPU memory surrounding it.
GPU core clock refers to the clock speed of that GPU chip and GPU memory clock refers to the frequency of the VRAM chips surrounding the GPU die on the card.
GPU core clock speed increases serve to improve base performance and can line up surprisingly closely with other performance improvements.
For the best results, though, you’ll also want to do a GPU memory clock alongside it, especially if you’re looking to push high resolutions or high-resolution textures (things that tend to push GPU memory).
Improving GPU memory clocks may not always manifest in immediately apparent performance improvements, and that’s because you usually aren’t VRAM-bottlenecked in gaming or other common scenarios.
Professionals should be mindful of how much VRAM they need, though, especially if they work with 3D rendering — and in these cases, a boost to memory clocks may help a little.
For a more detailed look at GPU Core Clocks, GPU Memory Clocks, and how they work, consider taking a look at my guide on the topic.
Are Locked CPUs Worse Than Unlocked CPUs?
I mean, they can’t overclock, so…
In all seriousness, not being able to overclock is a genuine downside compared to an unlocked CPU. However, this doesn’t mean that a locked CPU isn’t worth buying, especially if it’s significantly cheaper and has good boost clocks.
Pairing a solid locked CPU with a great cooling solution should allow you to make more use of its maximum turbo frequencies without breaking the bank on a more expensive CPU and motherboard…at least on the intel side.
AMD users are allowed to overclock pretty much whatever and whenever.
More on this and other Locked vs Unlocked CPU dilemmas in its article — though if you actually read all the way here in order, I imagine you’re already leaning toward Unlocked. Let me know below!
Over to You
And that’s all, for now!
I hope that this article helped shed some more light on how overclocking impacts the lifespan of your hardware.
The short answer, if you’re a rascal and skipped all the way down here, is that it usually shouldn’t by a meaningful amount, as long as your system is properly cooled and you’ve tested the long-term stability of your overclock.
Built-in hardware safeguards prevent overclockers from damaging their own hardware in the case of a failed overclock, in the majority of scenarios.
If you’re intent on overclocking, though, you should take steps to ensure that you succeed- including outfitting your system with proper airflow and cooling, and maintaining its components as needed for peak performance. Feel free to ask for help with that or anything else in the comments below or our forums!
8 April, 2023