Computers

How to Overclock Intel 12th Gen Alder Lake CPUs

Contrary to innumerable reports of its demise, overclocking is not dead — not by a long shot. Yes, the past several generations of Intel’s chips slowly lost overclocking headroom as the company folded more of its frequency headroom into stock performance levels while struggling to compete with AMD. However, Intel’s Alder Lake chips hit the reset button: The Intel 7 process has far more room for overclocking than prior generations, helping the chips take over our list of Best CPUs for gaming. In fact, we’ve found that thermals are often the limiting factor to 12th Gen Alder Lake overclockability, meaning that if you’re lucky enough to get a good chip, you’ll largely be held back by your ability to cool it. In fact, Our overclocking results below show that Intel’s Alder Lake chips have far more overclocking headroom than AMD’s Ryzen 5000 chips, and that equates to big performance speedups.

As always, you’ll be at the whims of the silicon lottery when it comes to the maximum overclock you can squeeze out of your chip. Still, all indications point to the Alder Lake chips being exceptional overclockers, even if you’re planning on standard ambient cooling. (i.e., you’re not using liquid nitrogen or other sub-zero cooling methods).

Alder Lake does bring a lot of new wrinkles to overclocking, though. The chips come with Intel’s hybrid architecture that blends groups of big and fast Performance cores (P-cores) with groups of small and powerful Efficiency cores (E-cores), and both run at different clock rates. That adds a few more variables to the mix, so you’ll need to work on finding the right balance for your needs.

Today, we’ll show you the ropes and teach you how to unlock the hidden overclocking performance lurking under the heat spreaders in Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake. We also have examples of the performance increases we attained in gaming and single- and multi-threaded work via our own overclocking efforts. 

Overclocking Prerequisites for Alder Lake

Before we start turning up the dial on the voltages (and fans), you’ll need to make sure that your system is ready for overclocking. As always, we have to caution you that overclocking voids the warranty on any processor, and you run the risk of damaging your chip if you apply excessive voltage. Excessive voltage and heat can also result in reduced chip lifespan due to degradation, so you’ll want to stay within reasonable boundaries.

First things first: You’ll need a K-series 12th Gen Alder Lake chip if you plan on increasing the chips’ core frequency, which is the most basic method of overclocking. That’s because K-Series chips, like the Core i9-12900K, i7-12700K and i5-12600K, have an unlocked multiplier that allows you to easily dial up the frequency on your chip. In addition, the graphics-less ‘KF’ models are also overclockable. If you don’t have a K-series chip, your options for overclocking Alder Lake will be far more limited, though you can still aim for higher memory clocks.

(Image credit: Gigabyte)

If you plan on doing full core frequency overclocking, you’ll also need a Z-series (Z690) motherboard, as Intel doesn’t allow you to change the chip’s frequency on cheaper B- and H-series motherboards — those don’t exist for socket LGA1700 yet, but they’re coming. Most Z-Series motherboards have robust power delivery subsystems, but performance varies, so pay attention to motherboard reviews to find your best option. You can hit our list of Best Motherboards to see the best models on the market.

Intel will also have its ‘locked’ non-K 12th Gen, Alder Lake chips on the market soon, but you can only overclock the memory on those models (on Z-, B- and H- 600-series motherboards for a change), which ultimately limits the amount of performance uplift.

You’ll also need a suitable cooling solution, but the definition of sufficient cooling can vary based on your personal preference. Your overriding goal should be to prevent thermal throttling, a process that reduces the processor’s clock speeds and voltage to prevent damage (killing your chip) from excessive temperatures. Excess heat can also cause premature chip degradation.

Intel’s overclockable chips don’t come with a bundled cooler, and you’ll need at least a 240mm All-In-One (AIO) liquid cooler (or air cooler equivalent) to squeeze out any meaningful all-core overclocking with the Core i5-12600K. You’ll want a more powerful 280mm, 360mm AIO, or custom watercooling loop to wring out the most performance possible on the higher-end Core i7-12700K and i9-12900K SKUs. Check out our Best CPU coolers article for recommended options, and be sure to use one of the Best Thermal Pastes to ensure your cooler is effective. Also be sure to get a cooler that has a socket LGA1700 adapter available — most cooler companies offer those for free on their top AIOs, but you might need to wait a few extra days if it’s not in the box.

Naturally, more elegant overclocking approaches that don’t use brute-force all-core overclocking methods, like manipulating turbo ratios or only overclocking a few cores, can extract extra performance even if you’re using a lesser cooler. We’ll also cover those methods below.

You also need to ensure that you have one of the best power supplies for your system, but your requirements will vary based on the other components in your system. You can see the basic guidelines with a power supply calculator, but be sure to enter the maximum overclock frequency and voltage (max voltage for Alder Lake shouldn’t exceed 1.4V with conventional cooling) to ensure you have plenty of room for overclocking.

Measuring Baseline Thermals and Performance on Alder Lake

This guide assumes a basic understanding of common overclocking terms and concepts, which you can brush up on with our How to Overclock an Intel CPU article.

Now that we have the prerequisites sorted, it’s important to establish a performance and thermal baseline. You’ll use this to measure how much impact an overclock has on both CPU heat and performance, allowing you to determine the acceptable tradeoffs for the amount of performance you gain.

There are a plethora of software options for stress testing and monitoring — see our how to stress test your CPU guide for additional details. Some, like AIDA or OCCT, have in-built stress testing and monitoring, while others, like HWInfo, are purely designed to monitor performance. For this article, we’ll use Intel’s eXtreme Tuning Utility (XTU) and AIDA64 for both performance monitoring and stress testing.

(Image credit: Future)

The key to stress testing is to use workloads that represent your most common use case. For instance, stress testing with heavy AVX loads will result in higher temperatures, but these instructions are fairly rare in game code and most lighter desktop PC fare. If you mostly intend to play games, you should include your most frequently played titles in your performance measurements. Also, test with applications you frequently use, like Cinebench if you do a lot of rendering or HandBrake if you do transcoding work. As you can see above, AIDA64 does a nice job of plotting thermal activity over time (you can leave the system monitoring pane open during any workload).

Intel’s XTU has four stress testing options, with the CPU Stress Test being roughly representative of the most common gaming workloads. Other options, like the CPU stress test with AVX or AVX2, are more representative of applications that leverage AVX instructions. Although AVX instructions are designed to accelerate performance in all manner of workloads, they are mostly used in certain productivity applications. We’ll cover using an AVX offset to reduce the impact of those instructions a bit later.

For now, you can run the XTU stress tests for five to ten minutes to measure your highest temperature at stock settings with each option, and then perform a few performance benchmarks to establish the performance baseline. Intel’s XTU Benchmark 2.0 is also a good way to measure performance, and it’s built right into the XTU application.

Again, for more in-depth information on stress testing, head to our How to Stress-Test CPUs and PCs feature.

Our 12th Gen Core, Alder Lake Overclocking Results

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Intel Alder Lake vs AMD Ryzen 5000 Gaming Benchmarks

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)
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Intel Alder Lake vs AMD Ryzen 5000 Gaming Benchmarks

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)
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Intel Alder Lake vs AMD Ryzen 5000 Gaming Benchmarks

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)
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Intel Alder Lake vs AMD Ryzen 5000 Gaming Benchmarks

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

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