Does Overclocking Even Matter Anymore?

Over the past decade I’ve seen a decline in the effectiveness in overclocking. Not that overclocking in general hasn’t done anything useful, but that CPUs and GPUs now overclock themselves to the point where “headroom” has almost no meaning. When Intel’s 8th generation processors came out, the high-end i7-8700K could only get an additional 0.4 GHz, maybe 0.5 GHz extra on the Turbo Boost speeds. From an already high 4.7 GHz speed. You might think tacking on a half GHz clock sounds high, but this is 10% extra performance if you get there. This is contrast to the i7-2600K, where you could easily push from 3.8GHz up to 4.8GHz, which is 26%. And you could do this on a reasonably better-than-stock air cooler. Allegedly Cooler Master’s legendary Hyper 212 could work.

With AMD, this becomes even worse. Assuming you already have a really good CPU cooler, you have almost no overclocking overhead. From the Zen+ architecture, the processors’ maximum Turbo Core speed is basically pushing the limits of the processor. My Ryzen 2700X for example pushes up to 4.3 GHz. I can’t get it to push harder because it’s also pushing its core voltage to its limits. Granted you get more head room if you went for the Ryzen 2700 instead, but that’s by virtue of the 2700 having slower factory clocks to begin with. And there’s the quirk with Zen 2 processors where it appears not every core can even reach the advertised maximum Turbo Core.

Things also look bleak with graphics cards. I can barely push my RTX 2070 Super past 100MHz even with the power ceiling turned up and a slight voltage boost added. And even then, something else keeps it back and the average boost isn’t much higher than what I get anyway.

Maybe I’m looking at this wrong. Maybe the idea is to take a lower-end processor and overclock the snot out of it to get the performance of a higher-end processor. But if this is the case, why market higher-end processors as “enthusiast” grade if we can’t tweak them as much as we could before?

If anything, maybe we should go the opposite with enthusiast grade components. Recently I’ve been tweaking the power ceiling of my processor and graphics card. My Ryzen 2700X has a power ceiling of 105W (despite AMD’s marketing it’s a 95W part). Lowering this to 85W, I don’t see any perceptible performance loss. Lowering this further to 70W, which is the lowest it’ll go, I still don’t see much of a performance hit.

Similarly with my RTX 2070 Super, I’ve found that lowering the power limit to 75% of a maximum of about 215W results in minimal performance loss but a pretty substantial drop in power consumption. Using this 3DMark comparison of Time Spy, I’ve lost ~5% performance by dropping the power ceiling by 25%.

In the end, I’ve been putting less emphasis on overclocking capabilities when buying parts for my PCs. I could buy less expensive parts, but I typically need more expensive support parts to get the overclocking features. And ultimately I feel I should buy parts that fit the bill from the get go, not parts that could potentially fit the bill.

Update: I thought about a potential rebuttal against my thoughts about tweaking hardware for efficiency rather than performance: What’s the point of getting something high-end like a Ryzen 2700X or a RTX 2070 Super if I’m just going to power limit it? Why shouldn’t I get say a RTX 2060 if I’m concerned about power consumption?

I’ve found in testing that the either part will happily consume more power but for little gain for my use cases. The first time I noticed this was when I was playing Final Fantasy XIV and was tweaking the RTX 2070 Super. If I set the power limiter to 75%, the performance was practically the same as if it were at 100%, yet the card continued to consume as much power as it could. Here’s the kicker: 75% of the RTX 2070 Super’s TDP of 215W is ~161W. This is within spitting distance of the normal RTX 2060’s TDP of 160W. I can manage to get 30-45% more performance at the same TDP. Granted I’m pretty sure the normal RTX 2060 doesn’t need 160W. However, the RTX 2060 sure as heck can’t get to the 2070 Super’s performance level ever with some serious overclocking that would require a cooling setup to make such a feat pointless.

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