Welcome to the world of overclocking, a place where dreams are realized and where having just enough of those overclocking chops may mean the difference between a world record-breaking benchmark or a session crying into a pile of burnt-out processors and GPUs.
Overclocking your Nvidia or AMD graphics card isn't for the faint-hearted. You can do a considerable amount of damage to your parts, so it's not something to be taken lightly. What's more, in some cases, the performance gains are minimal.
But, if you're interested in eking every last ounce of power from your machine, this is definitely the hobby for you.
With DirectX 11, at least, overclocking the GPU is the area of most benefit to gamers. But it's also where overclocking has most dramatically changed.
(If you're gaming with the new hotness in software and hardware, DirectX 12 paired with a 10-series Nvidia GPU, the major points in this guide will still apply, so don't sweat it.)
It's now often better to ignore the voltage and let the proprietary software do its own thing. This way, you can avoid reaching the artificial power limits set by our GPU overlords. Cores won't throttle themselves in an attempt to control imaginary temperatures that may or may not be present, even if they're running on an aftermarket cooler, or water.
Sounds ridiculous, right? You're not wrong. Still, we'll show you how far you can go with these cards right now.
1. Get the software
Unlike CPU overclocking, we need to download some proprietary software to use within Windows. It's usually most beneficial to download whichever manufacturer's software your card's circuit board is based upon, such as GPU Tweak for Asus, Afterburner for MSI and so on.
In this case, we're using a reference cooler on our GTX 980 to overclock the GPU, so we're using MSI Afterburner. It provides frame monitoring for benchmarking, a customizable display and in-game overlays to monitor how the cards perform compared to their stock speeds.
2. Enable monitoring
Once Afterburner is installed, the first thing we want to do is enable in-game overlay, and frame rate monitoring, followed by (for us, at least) changing the skin to something a little more workable.
3. Test stock speeds
Next, you'll want to get a clear understanding of how your card performs at stock speeds. We're using Total War: Rome II's benchmarking software at max settings and 2,560 x 1,440 resolution. We achieved a minimum frame rate of 19 frames per second (fps), a max of 61 fps, and more importantly an average of 44.7 fps.
4. Increase the power limit
We now need to get into the overclocking side of things. Head back to desktop and open up MSI Afterburner again. The first thing we're going to increase is the power limit.
Move the slider to as high as it will go. This should allow your card to use absolutely every inch of power we can get, beyond Nvidia's recommended stock settings, meaning the card can run all the way up to 91 degrees Celsius, as opposed to the stock 79°C.
5. Up the clock speed
Start by increasing the clock speed. Research what's most suitable for your card. In our case, a healthy overclock for the core clock should be an extra 225 to 275MHz offset, so we go for 240MHz.
6. Now, the memory clock speed
Lastly, we're going to increase the memory clock speed. After research, we can see the community, on average, is aiming for around 450MHz.
We'll try that and see how it goes, leaving Nvidia's GPU Boost to calculate exactly how much voltage we need. All that's left to do is press "Apply", and go back into the benchmark to see how the card performs.
In the Total War: Rome II benchmark, we achieved a minimum frame rate of 17 fps at overclock, a maximum of 67 fps, and, more importantly, an average of 53.6 fps, an increase of almost 9 fps towards that average.
Granted, the delta between the minimum and the average is considerably greater than the stockclocked version, but who can argue with free performance? Tell us your overclocking stories, both good and bad, in the comments below.
This article is part of TechRadar's Silicon Week. The world inside of our machines is changing more rapidly than ever, so we're looking to explore everything CPUs, GPUs and all other forms of the most precious metal in computing.