The purpose of overclocking is to gain additional performance from a given component by increasing its operating speed. Normally, on modern systems, the target of overclocking is increasing the performance of a major chip or subsystem, such as the main processor or graphics controller, but other components, such as system memory (RAM) or system buses (generally on the motherboard), are commonly involved. The trade-offs are an increase in power consumption (heat) and fan noise (cooling) for the targeted components. Most components are designed with a margin of safety to deal with operating conditions outside of a manufacturer's control; examples are ambient temperature and fluctuations in operating voltage. Overclocking techniques in general aim to trade this safety margin by setting the device to run in the higher end of the margin, with the understanding that temperature and voltage must be more strictly monitored and controlled by the user. Examples are that operating temperature would need to be more strictly controlled with increased cooling, as the part will be less tolerant of increased temperatures at the higher speeds. Also base operating voltage may be increased to compensate for unexpected voltage drops and to strengthen signalling and timing signals, as low-voltage excursions are more likely to cause malfunctions at higher operating speeds.
While most modern devices are fairly tolerant of overclocking, all devices have finite limits, generally for any given voltage most parts will have a maximum "stable" speed where they still operate correctly. Past this speed the device starts giving incorrect results, which can cause malfunctions and sporadic behavior in any system depending on it. While in a PC context the usual result is a system crash, more subtle errors can go undetected, which over a long enough time can give unpleasant surprises such as data corruption (incorrectly calculated results, or worse writing to storage incorrectly) or the system failing only during certain specific tasks (general usage such as internet browsing and word processing appear fine, but any application wanting advanced graphics crashes the system).
At this point an increase in operating voltage of a part may allow more headroom for further increases in clock speed, but increased voltage can also significantly increase heat output. At some point there will be a limit imposed by the ability to supply the device with sufficient power, the user's ability to cool the part, and the device's own maximum voltage tolerance before it achieves destructive failure. Overzealous use of voltage and/or inadequate cooling can rapidly degrade a device's performance to the point of failure, or in extreme cases outright destroy it.
The speed gained by overclocking depends largely upon the applications and workloads being run on the system, and what components are being overclocked by the user; benchmarks for different purposes are published.
Conversely, the primary goal of underclocking is to reduce power consumption and the resultant heat generation of a device, with the trade-offs being lower clock speeds and reductions in performance. Reducing the cooling requirements needed to keep a part at a given operational temperature has knock-on benefits such as lowering the number and speed of fans to allow quieter operation, and in mobile devices increase length of battery life per charge. Some manufacturers underclock components of battery-powered equipment to improve battery life, or implement systems that detect when a device is operating under battery power and reduce clock frequency accordingly.
Underclocking is almost always involved in the latter stages of Undervolting, which seeks to find the highest clock speed that a processor will stably operate at a given voltage. That is, while overclocking seeks to maximize clock speed with temperature and power as constraints, underclocking seeks to find the highest clock speed that a device can reliably operate at a fixed, arbitrary power limit. A given device may operate correctly at its stock speed even when undervolted, in which case underclocking would only be employed after further reductions in voltage finally destabilizes the part. At that point the user would need to determine if last working voltage and speed have satisfactorily lowered power consumption for their needs – if not then performance must be sacrificed, a lower clock is chosen (the underclock) and testing at progressively lower voltages would continue from that point. A lower bound is where the device itself fails to function and/or the supporting circuity cannot reliably communicate with the part.
Underclocking and undervolting are usually attempted if a system needs to operate silently (such as a multimedia player), but if higher performance is desired than is offered by a given processor manufacturer's low-voltage offerings, then the builder will attempt to take a higher performance desktop part with a higher stock thermal output, and see if the processor will run with lower voltages and speeds within an acceptable performance/noise target for the build. Thus it may give some options to undervolt/underclock a standard voltage processor in a "low voltage" application either to avoid paying a price premium for an officially certified low voltage version (some low-power versions are significantly more expensive, and even then are often still slower than their desktop equivalent), or if better performance is required than offered by the low-power processors available.
Overclocking has become more accessible with motherboard makers offering overclocking as a marketing feature on their mainstream product lines. However, the practice is embraced more by enthusiasts than professional users, as overclocking carries a risk of reduced reliability, accuracy and damage to data and equipment. Additionally, most manufacturer warranties and service agreements do not cover overclocked components nor any incidental damages caused by their use. While overclocking can still be an option for increasing personal computing capacity, and thus workflow productivity for professional users, the importance of stability testing components thoroughly before employing them into a production environment cannot be overstated.
Overclocking offers several draws for overclocking enthusiasts. Overclocking allows testing of components at speeds not currently offered by the manufacturer, or at speeds only officially offered on specialized, higher-priced versions of the product. A general trend in the computing industry is that new technologies tend to debut in the high-end market first, then later trickle down to the performance and mainstream market. If the high-end part only differs by an increased clock speed, an enthusiast can attempt to overclock a mainstream part to simulate the high-end offering. This can give insight on how over-the-horizon technologies will perform before they are officially available on the mainstream market, which can be especially helpful for other users considering if they should plan ahead to purchase or upgrade to the new feature when it is officially released.
Some hobbyists enjoy building, tuning, and "Hot-Rodding" their systems in competitive bench-marking competitions, competing with other like-minded users for high scores in standardized computer benchmark suites. Others will purchase a low-cost model of a component in a given product line, and attempt to overclock that part to match a more expensive model's stock performance. Another approach is overclocking older components to attempt to keep pace with increasing system requirements and extend the useful service life of the older part or at least delay a purchase of new hardware solely for performance reasons. Another rationale for overclocking older equipment is even if overclocking stresses equipment to the point of failure earlier, little is lost as it is already depreciated, and would have needed to be replaced in any case.
Technically any component that uses a timer (or clock) to synchronize its internal operations can be overclocked. Most efforts for computer components however focus on specific components, such as, processors (a.k.a. CPU), video cards, motherboard chip sets, and RAM. Most modern processors derive their effective operating speeds by multiplying a base clock (processor bus speed) by an internal multiplier within the processor (the CPU multiplier) to attain their final speed.
Computer processors generally are overclocked by manipulating the CPU multiplier if that option is available, but the processor and other components can also be overclocked by increasing the base speed of the bus clock. Some systems allow additional tuning of other clocks (such as a system clock) that influence the bus clock speed that, again is multiplied by the processor to allow for finer adjustments of the final processor speed.
Most OEM systems do not expose to the user the adjustments needed to change processor clock speed or voltage, which precludes overclocking (for warranty and support reasons). The same processor installed on a different motherboard offering adjustments will allow the user to change them.
Any given component will ultimately stop operating reliably past a certain clock speed. Generally components will show some sort of malfunctioning behavior or other indication of compromised stability that alerts the user that a given speed is not stable, but there is always a possibility that a component will permanently fail without warning, even if voltages are kept within some pre-determined safe values. The maximum speed is determined by overclocking to the point of first instability, then accepting the last stable slower setting. Components are only guaranteed to operate correctly up to their rated values; beyond that different samples may have different overclocking potential. The end-point of a given overclock is determined by parameters such as available CPU multipliers, bus dividers, voltages; the user's ability to manage thermal loads, cooling techniques; and several other factors of the individual devices themselves such as semiconductor clock and thermal tolerances, interaction with other components and the rest of the system.