Speed Up Your Low-Powered PC Or Netbook By Overclocking

Netbooks run basically the same OS as your desktop PC, but their portability and low cost mean that they’re made to run a bit slower. By overclocking you can push it just over the speed bump to where it’s a bit more usable. Here’s how to overclock your Atom-based PC or netbook.

Image remixed from originals by Yazid Masa Photography/Shutterstock, Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock and fixer00/Shutterstock.

The Intel Atom processor is a great little processor that you’ll find in almost any netbook, in addition to many custom-built home theatre PCs, nettops, and other low-powered machines. The problem is, it can be a little to slow for comfort. Overclocking the Atom — that is, running it at a higher speed than originally intended — can give you a bit more speed and power when you need it, so it’s a handy skill to have. And, luckily, it’s often easier than overclocking the Core i series, so it shouldn’t be too hard to do, even if you’ve never overclocked before.

Of course, the Atom still isn’t the most powerful chip around. Overclocking isn’t going to win you any speed contests, or make Crysis run beautifully on your netbook (sorry). However, I’ve noticed that my machine definitely feels a bit snappier. Apps don’t launch quite as slowly, files don’t take quite as long to load, and it took emulated Nintendo 64 games from “unenjoyable” to “smooth as butter”. Of course, all of this depends on your particular machine and graphics chipset, but the point is that it can yield some nice benefits for a machine that’s currently feeling a bit too laggy.

There are, of course, some downsides to overclocking. Not only can it make your computer less stable if done improperly, but it can also damage your processor if you push it too hard. In addition, it will undoubtedly decrease the battery of your netbook. So, in addition to showing you how to safely overclock your machine, we’re also going to show you how to easily switch back and forth between the stock speed and your overclocked speed, so when you don’t have an outlet nearby, you don’t have to needlessly waste your battery.

What You’ll Need

  • An Atom-based machine. Whether it’s your netbook or a home theatre PC, as long as you’re running an Atom you can try this. If you aren’t sure whether you’re running an Atom, Google your motherboard or netbook model to check. Alternatively, if you’re running Windows, open up the Start menu, right click on Computer, and hit Properties. Then scroll down to Processor and make sure it’s an Atom. Note that overclocking won’t be possible with every Atom chip and motherboard — we’ll note in each section how to check if it’s possible for your machine.
  • A Windows machine. While the BIOS method is possible on a Linux machine, we’re going to be using Windows as our example today. If you’re using Linux, just grab the Linux versions or Linux alternatives to the programs below and use them in place of our examples. Sadly, if you don’t have BIOS options for overclocking, you’re out of luck, since the overclocking software used in method two is Windows-only.
  • A goal CPU speed. This process is a lot easier if you have an idea of how far you want to take your CPU, so establish a goal right now. Research what other users have been able to overclock their boards to, either through Google or through Newegg reviews of your motherboard/netbook. For example, I looked up my HTPC’s AT3IONT-I motherboard on Newegg, and many reviewers noted that they got it running at 2.2GHz with a minor voltage jump — so I figured that was a good “reach” goal, with 2.1GHz as a fallback. Note that not everyone will be able to get the same speeds, even with the same chip, but you should get a good idea of what’s doable, and it’ll help you later on when you start tweaking.
  • Previously mentioned Prime95. Prime95 is still the go-to program for stress testing computers, and it’s what we’re going to use today. It’ll load your CPU up to 100 per cent, so you can see what your processor would look like under the most stressful conditions possible, thus letting you know whether your overclock is stable in any given situation. Some people prefer LinX over Prime95, but I won’t get too much into that now — just know that I recommend Prime95, since I’ve found it to be a better judge of stability than LinX.
  • Previously mentioned Real Temp. We’ll use this to monitor your CPU temperature and make sure it doesn’t get too hot.
  • Memtest for Windows (method two only). Since method two requires overclocking your RAM, we’ll also need to test that for stability, which memtest will do with the click of a button.
  • ATITool (method two only). Since method two requires overclocking your graphics chip, we’ll also need to test it for stability. ATITool is a simple program that renders a fuzzy, 3D cube on your screen and checks for artefacts, or errors in the rendering, which can occur if you overclock too high.
  • Patience. This process can sometimes take awhile, and it can be especially difficult since there are so many different types of Atom chips out there. Stick with it and if all goes well, you’ll be rocking a faster computer soon enough.

Note that these next steps can vary a lot between different versions of the Atom chip and different motherboards. I recommend you Google around and see if anyone’s done a motherboard-specific guide. Look through forums like overclockers.com, overclock.net, or hexus.net — there’s a lot of overclock discussion going on over at those sites. As I said before, I even found helpful information in the review for my motherboard on Newegg — a lot of people will post how easy it is to overclock a specific board, and what speeds they were able to reach. This will give you a basic overview of the process, but if you find any specific guides for your motherboard or netbook, make a note of anything special that I didn’t mention here. Most of the guides you find won’t be step-by-step like this, but they will mention any special things you need to take into account for that machine.

Method One: BIOS Overclocking

If you’re lucky, your machine will have some overclocking options in the BIOS; this is the easiest and most reliable way to overclock your machine. Not everyone has this option, but you’ll want to check before you move on to option two. To find out if you can overclock through the BIOS, reboot your computer and hold the setup key as it boots — usually this is the Delete key, though it could also be something like F2 (your boot screen will say “Press DEL to enter setup” or something similar).

Once you’re in the BIOS, look around for the advanced CPU options. For me, they were under the “JumperFree Configuration” menu in the “Advanced” tab. It should look something more or less like the screen to the right — note that all BIOSes are a little different, so your screen won’t look exactly the same, but you should have some similar options available.

If you don’t have any of these options, you’ll unfortunately need to skip to Method two below, which uses software to overclock your system. If you do have those options in the BIOS, though, read on.

Step One: Tweak Your Initial Settings

Some of you may have a “load optimised CPU OC setting”, or something similar — these are actually overclocking options built into the board. All you need to do is choose a percentage value or choose a CPU speed from this menu, and your motherboard will do the rest. If you only want to overclock a little bit, this is fine, but I found I was able to get my system past these values by doing it manually. And, to do it manually, we need to tweak a few settings first.

Poke around the CPU menus and see if your processor supports hyperthreading. Turn that feature off if you have it. Also, scroll down to your vcore value and take it off Auto. This is the voltage that affects your CPU speed. Set it on whatever the default value is, and leave it there for now.

Step Two: Raise Your Front Side Bus Speed

To overclock, we need to raise your front side bus (FSB) speed. The front side bus determines how fast your CPU runs. If you have an option for System Clock Mode or something similar, set it to Unlinked instead of Auto. This should give you the option to change your FSB and memory clocks separately. Leave your memory clock where it is — we’re not going to deal with overclocking RAM today — and note the default speed of your FSB. Compare that to the stock speed of your processor, and you should find that particular chip’s multiplier. For example — my chip runs at 1.60 GHz stock, with a front side bus value of 533 MHz. That means my chip’s multiplier is 1.6 / 533 = 3. — every time I raise my front side bus’ speed, I’ll raise my CPU’s clock speed by three times as much.

Remember your goal CPU speed? Divide that by the multiplier you just found. That’s the front side bus value you want to eventually get to. Write it down so you don’t forget, and let’s get overclocking. Then, head up to your FSB value and raise it 10MHz or 20MHz. For me, that meant raising it up to 550MHz, which brought my total CPU speed up to 1.65GHz (remember, because of my 3x multipler).

Step Three: Stress Test Your Machine

Exit the BIOS, saving your changes, and reboot into Windows. Open up CPU-Z and make sure your CPU frequency is higher — it should be, since you just raised the FSB. Then, open up RealTemp and Prime95. Select “Just Stress Testing” if prompted. If the Torture Test window doesn’t automatically come up, go to Options > Torture Test and set it to Blend. Hit OK and let it run. Keep an eye on your temperatures, because the more you overclock, the higher they can get. The hottest temperatures you want to reach while running Prime95 are up to you, but you definitely want to stay a good 20 degrees below the TJMax value, or the value at which your processor will automatically shut off. If you get too close to this value, you can seriously decrease the life of or damage your processor (check out this guide for more information on CPU temperatures). For the Atom, this means keeping your temperatures below 70C — I like to be conservative and keep them below 60C or 65C if possible.

Step Four: Repeat as Necessary

If Prime95 runs OK for 5-10 minutes, reboot back into the BIOS and raise the FSB another 10 MHz. If Prime95 throws you an error, or if your computer gives you the Blue Screen of Death, reboot into the BIOS and raise the vcore one notch instead.

Repeat this process until you reach your goal CPU speed or until your temperatures get too high. If the former, run Prime95 for a good six hours or so to really stress test your machine. If the latter, however, you need to re-evaluate your goal or, if possible, get a better cooling system in your machine.

Once you’ve got Prime95 running stable for six hours or so at safe temperatures, you’ve achieved a stable overclock.

Method Two: Software Overclocking

If you don’t have any BIOS overclocking options, you’ll have to go the software route. In that case, you’ll need to use a program called SetFSB, which can overclock many computers, including most Atom machines out there. However, once again, it doesn’t work with every machine — so you’ll need to figure out if it’s compatible with yours.

To see if your machine is supported, search SetFSB’s home page (by hitting Ctrl+F on your keyboard). for your computer or motherboard model. You’re looking for the clock generator compatible with your machine. If your machine isn’t listed on that page, do some Googling and see if someone’s tried to overclock that model before. Every model has a clock generator; the goal is to see if SetFSB supports yours.

If your clock generator isn’t one of the ones listed on SetFSB’s home page, then you’re sadly out of luck and can’t overclock your machine. However, if you do see your clock generator on their list, download the software and we can get to overclocking. Note that some clock generators require the newer, shareware version of the program, which costs about 10 dollars — though most are supported in the freeware version.

Note that my particular netbook is not supported by SetFSB, so I haven’t actually been able to test it myself — but the process is the same as overclocking through the BIOS, and it’s a very popular program that’s been widely tested by the community, so as long as your machine is supported it should work well.

Step One: Tweak Your Initial Settings

So, once you’ve confirmed that SetFSB supports your clock generator, open up SetFSB and pick your clock generator from the dropdown list. Then hit “Get FSB”. You should see that the “Current FSB/DDR/PCI-E/PCI Frequency box populates with the speed values that determine your CPU speed, your RAM speed, and your graphics chip speed.

To overclock, we need to raise your front side bus (FSB) speed. The front side bus determines how fast your CPU runs. The software method, unfortunately, raises your RAM and graphics chip speeds at the same time as your CPU, meaning you have more things to stress test, and more things that can affect the stability of your overclock. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does make things a little more complicated — as soon as one of those things becomes unstable, you need to back down a notch and that’ll be the highest overclock you can achieve on any of them.

Step Two: Raise Your FSB Speed

In SetFSB, drag the top slider bar to the right. You’ll see the FSB values go up in the “Select FSB/DDR/PCI-E/PCI Frequency” box. This is what you’ll be changing those values to. Raise it so the FSB value is 5 MHz or so above stock and hit the Set FSB button. Open up CPU-Z and confirm that your FSB is actually higher, and you’ve got yourself a very mild overclock.

Step Three: Stress Test Your Machine

Now we need to stress test all three components you’re overclocking. We’ll start with Prime95: Open it up and select “Just Stress Testing” if prompted. If the Torture Test window doesn’t automatically come up, go to Options > Torture Test and set it to Blend. Hit OK and let it run. While it’s running, open up Real Temp and keep an eye on your temperatures. The more you overclock, the higher they’ll get. The hottest temperatures you want to reach while running Prime95 are up to you, but you definitely want to stay a good 20C below the TJMax value, or the value at which your processor will automatically shut off. If you get too close to this value, you can seriously decrease the life of or damage your processor (check out this guide for more information on CPU temperatures). For the Atom, this means keeping your temperatures below 70C — I like to be conservative and keep them below 60C or 65C if possible, maybe even less on a netbook.

Once you’ve run Prime for a few minutes, let’s switch to Memtest. Download Memtest for Windows and start it up. Hit OK at the first dialog, and make sure it’s ready to test “All Unused RAM”. Then, click Start Testing. Let it run to 100 per cent coverage at least once. If it shows any errors, you need to back off your overclock. If you’re running a dual-core version of the Atom, run two instances of Memtest at the same time, an divide the amount of RAM used evenly between them. You may want to hit Ctrl+Shift+Esc to open up the Task Manager and go to the Performance tab to see how much RAM is free and available to test. If you have 600MB of RAM available, for example, give each instance of Memtest 300MB of RAM to test.

Lastly, we’re going to test our graphics chip. Open up ATITool. You’ll probably get a message that most of its functions have been turned off; and that’s fine. Hit the “Scan for Artifacts” button and let it go. If it runs for 5-10 minutes without it beeping and restarting the clock, then your overclock is still stable. If it beeps, shows any yellow lines, or restarts the clock to 0, your overclock is unstable and you need to back off.

Step Four: Repeat as Necessary

Once you’ve run all three tests, go back and move that slider another notch to the right, or until your FSB is another 5MHz higher (if the slider can’t go any higher, check the “Ultra” box and you’ll have more headroom). Then repeat all three tests. Do this until one of the tests fail, or until your temperatures get too high, and you’ve reached the maximum overclock you can for that machine.

Note that you’ll have to re-overclock your machine every time you reboot, so remember what your final settings are. Whenever you reboot your machine, start up SetFSB, pick your clock generator, and move that slider to where it was before — you won’t need to run those stress tests again. This can seem annoying, but it’s also nice, since you don’t really always want to overclock your system — if you don’t have an outlet nearby, you may be better off sacrificing that speed for a machine that lasts longer.

This should get you started, but as you can see, there’s a lot more to overclocking that low-powered computer than just raising the FSB! We’ve only scratched the surface of what you can accomplish today, so if we’ve piqued your interest, be sure to look up more guides for your specific machine, to find out what settings and speeds you should be aiming for — especially if you went the BIOS route and didn’t overclock your graphics chip. And be sure to help each other out in the comments too!

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