An overclocking utility is a computer program that is intended to modify the basic operating parameters of different types of computer hardware so the hardware runs faster than the speeds at which it was certified to run by the manufacturers. Depending on the type of hardware to be modified, an overclocking utility might attempt to change settings in the basic input and output services (BIOS) of a chip, or it could work with hardware switches that can be directly manipulated through software switches or input and output (IO) ports. In general, the three types of hardware that an overclocking utility is designed to work with most often are the central processing unit (CPU), graphics card and random access memory (RAM). An overclocking utility relies on the software accessibility of a piece of hardware to modify the operating parameters, so the utility might not always be successful. Additionally, a utility program might be less effective at overclocking a computer than the more traditional processes of replacing parts of the motherboard, changing physical switches or using the BIOS setup directly.
A surprising amount of customizations can be performed on hardware — such as CPUs, graphics cards and RAM chips — through software while the computer is running. One of the keys to an effective overclocking utility is targeting specific manufacturers, base hardware or BIOS types to provide specific overclocking options. There really are no generic ways for a single overclocking utility to be viable for all types of hardware, because the number of components involved could be very different from one computer to the next. This means the overclocking abilities of a given utility might be narrowly focused to provide the best chances for success, although some utilities include profiles for multiple types of common hardware.
The overclocking utility can increase the speed of a processor chip through a variety of mechanisms. One common way is to modify the processor speed through options that are remaining from the manufacturing and benchmarking processes that might not be available to an average user through the BIOS interface. With a graphics card, there often are hidden or unused operation modes that can be activated through software, increasing the speed of the graphics processing unit (GPU) or the speed of the graphics memory. At the same time, some utility programs provide monitoring and testing modules to ensure that the temperatures of the overclocked computer are within acceptable tolerances, or to be certain that the overclocked hardware is actually performing correctly.
It is important to note that using an overclocking utility generally is a dangerous proposition. As the speed of a processor or other hardware increases, so does the amount of power needed, meaning the amount of power dissipation also increases. This ultimately creates a large amount of heat that manufacturer-included heat sinks might not be able to handle without physical modification. Even though the utility might increase processor speed with just the click of a button, the resulting strain on the hardware could lead to permanent damage, making it unusable.