How to (Safely) Overclock Your Graphics Card with MSI Afterburner

How to (Safely) Overclock Your Graphics Card with MSI Afterburner

Most gamers are familiar with overclocking, even if they haven’t tried it themselves. You can overclock your CPU to improve overall system performance or overclock your RAM to boost performance in multitasking and gaming sessions. Similarly, overclocking your graphics card is a nifty trick to extract additional performance without making hardware changes. Overclocking may seem like a daunting prospect if you’re new to it, so we created this basic guide on how to safely overclock your graphics card.

Is Overclocking Safe?

Overclocking raises the clock speed (frequency) of any computer component to improve performance. In the case of a graphics card, this performance increase is seen in the form of increased frame rates while gaming.

The increase in clock frequency also requires an associated rise in the power limit of your graphics card.

Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Damaged Gpu
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Results will vary depending on how overclockable and powerful your GPU is. Therefore, you should research whether you can overclock your particular graphics card before going ahead and doing it.

Overclocking can also damage your GPU if not done correctly. Take extreme care not to overdo it. This guide will allow you to stay within the operational range of your GPU’s power and thermal limits while overclocking.

How to Overclock Your GPU

Once you’ve checked whether your GPU can be safely overclocked, you can download the necessary tools. You’ll need the overclocking and hardware monitoring tool MSI Afterburner and the Unigine Heaven benchmarking tool. MSI Afterburner lets you overclock your GPU, monitor its temperature and voltage, and set custom fan curves. Unigine Heaven allows you to test the stability of your overclock.

Follow the steps below to safely overclock your graphics card with MSI Afterburner:

  • Download MSI Afterburner. Make sure you’re using the link provided here instead of others from Google’s search results, as scammers have been known to dupe users with fake links that appear identical to MSI’s Afterburner page.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Download Msi Afterburner
  • Install and launch MSI Afterburner. On the main menu, you’ll see overclocking controls in the lower half and your GPU’s core readings in the upper half of the screen. The options on the left will let you access advanced settings.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Msi Afterburner Main Screen
  • For this guide, you only need to focus on the “Core Clock” and “Memory Clock” sliders in the middle. You’re free to tweak both, but this is the difference between them:
    • Core (GPU) Clock: Your GPU’s clock speed. Determines the bulk of the performance. High impact.
    • Memory (VRAM) Clock: Your GPU memory’s clock speed. More effective on GPUs with low memory bandwidth. Low impact.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Msi Afterburner Clock Controls
  • Before increasing the core clock, check whether the “Power Limit” and “Temp Limit” sliders are unlocked for your graphics card. If they are, set “Power Limit” to “110%” and “Temp Limit” to “89%.” This is needed to allow more power and thermal headroom for your graphics card as we increase its core clock. If these sliders aren’t accessible for your GPU, you can proceed to the next step.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Msi Afterburner Power Temp Controls
  • The last step before you start tweaking your GPU’s frequency settings is to install Unigine Heaven. This is a graphical benchmark that lets you run simulations to determine the graphic performance of your system. We are using it to test how stable our overclock is and whether GPU can be run in that overclocked state in the long run.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Unigine Heaven Main Screen
  • Launch Heaven and run a benchmark at stock settings to compare performance before and after overclocking. You can leave the default settings and click “RUN” at the bottom.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Unigine Heaven Run Benchmark
  • Once the video starts playing, click “Benchmark” at the top. Otherwise, the software will keep the run going on a loop. Note the score at the end of the run.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Heaven Benchmark Stock
  • Switch to Afterburner and increase the core clock in 10 to 20 MHz increments. Use the box next to the “Core Clock” slider to enter the MHz increase directly. Don’t forget to click the checkmark button at the bottom after every change to apply it.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Msi Afterburner Increase Gpu Clock
  • Start a Heaven benchmark and observe the following:
    • How much is the FPS improving?
    • Is the temperature staying reasonable? (This varies between GPUs, but you don’t really want it going higher than 80C.)
    • Are there graphical artifacts on the screen (glitching, flickering, strange colors)?
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Unigine Heaven Benchmark Observe
  • If you don’t see extreme temperature or strange artifacts, you can increase the core clock by another 10 to 20MHz and perform the above checks again. Keep repeating this until you start getting issues (high GPU temperature, artifacts), then decrease the clock speed in tiny (1 to 2MHz) increments until you reach a stable balance between temperature and increased performance. You can also compare the Heaven benchmark score for your regular overclock and see how big of a jump you achieved compared to stock performance.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Msi Afterburner Stable Gpu Clock
  • Although Heaven’s benchmark run is a decent tool to check the stability of your overclock, you should leave it running on a loop for more than half an hour to see how your GPU copes over the long haul. You should also run demanding games to test your GPU in a real-world scenario, closely monitoring your GPU temperature simultaneously. Turn down that clock speed if it starts overheating, or you will experience constant stuttering or crashing.
  • Once you’ve hit the sweet spot with your GPU clock, you can carry out the same process for your Memory Clock, increasing it until you start seeing adverse performance effects. Many people don’t report significant performance gains by increasing the memory clock, but you can experiment with it to see if you can extract additional FPS in your games.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Msi Afterburner Stable Gpu Clock Memory Clock
  • Once you’ve achieved stable GPU Clock and Memory Clock settings, you can save them in a profile by clicking any numbers on the right side of Afterburner’s main screen. Afterburner allows you to set up as many as five profiles.
Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Msi Afterburner Save Profile

Set GPU Fan Curve for Silent Overclocking

MSI Afterburner allows you to set custom fan curves if you aren’t satisfied with your GPU’s stock fan curve. Overclocking invariably makes your GPU fans run faster, increasing the noise and affecting your overall experience. You can try configuring a custom fan curve to remedy this, provided your fan curve allows enough cooling at higher temperatures to avoid damage to the GPU.

Overclocking Gpu Afterburner Gpu Fans
Image source: Unsplash

Frequently Asked Questions

When is overclocking most recommended?

Modern graphics cards are more advanced and powerful than just a few years ago. Besides, many graphics cards are often factory-overclocked and run at higher than stock settings by default. The actual FPS improvement by overclocking modern cards is shrinking every year.

Therefore, overclocking is recommended for slightly older graphics cards, especially the ones with capable coolers. Also, if you’re getting under 60 FPS in games, overclocking your graphics card can help you push performance over the 60 FPS range for a smoother gaming experience.

What are the disadvantages of overclocking a graphics card?

Besides the potential to damage your graphics card, other disadvantages include higher thermals, more noise, increased power draw, and the need to invest in cooling fans or even liquid cooling solutions. This can sometimes shoot up your overall PC budget if you want to push your graphics card to its limits.

How hot is too hot for a GPU?

Although the exact temperature thresholds vary between different AIB models of the same GPU, it’s generally advised that running your GPU above 90C for too long can be harmful to its lifespan. Some premium graphics cards from reputable manufacturers use high-end cooling solutions to keep temperatures well below that range. If you’re keen on overclocking your graphics card, you should invest in at least a mid-range AIB model of the GPU of your choice. The cheapest graphics cards tend to compromise on components and aren’t suitable for aggressive overclocking.

Image credit: Unsplash. All screenshots by Tanveer Singh.

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