Overclock your smartphone, if you dare

Overclocking a cell phone promises noticeable performance boosts, but it also carries risks.

WARNING: Overclocking is not for the faint of heart. Do not attempt to hack your phone unless you understand and accept the risks of turning it into a useless "brick."

The Android v. iPhone debate will continue for some time, but there's one area where Android wins every time: hackability. iPhone users might discuss jailbreaking, which allows--wow!--unauthorized software to be installed.

However, Android phones typically allow everything from overclocking the processor for speed boosts to installing entirely different operating systems.

We have open source to thank for such cell phone hacks; the fact Android is built on Linux allows people to view the code and make modifications entirely legally, albeit without the blessing of handset manufacturers.

Of all the tweaks, overclocking--which involves tweaking the phone's processor to run at a higher clock rate than its maker intended--seems to offer significant rewards. A previously laggy phone can be turned into a truly responsive handset and for a zero-dollar outlay.

But is it wise to overclock a phone that cost several hundred dollars and is tied to a lengthy and expensive contract?

The question might seem to answer itself, but the real-world issues to consider are heat generation and decreased battery life between charges. After all, some phones struggle with these problems at stock speeds set by manufacturers.

In reality neither issue is necessarily a game stopper, but could become annoying.

Although warnings are always given about possible hardware damage arising via overclocking, most PCs get away with it provided adequate cooling is provided. Essentially, the faster a chip runs, the more heat gets generated.

Mobile phone processors are no different, although they rely on passive cooling, which is to say, heat dissipation through the cell phone case. Often the phone is cleverly designed to get rid of heat, but phones aren't guaranteed to do so when the processor is running at over capacity.

In most cases you can set upper and lower clock speeds for your phone, and the phone will scale between the two extremes depending on user demands. It's even possible to under-clock to stretch out battery life, although the phone may be punishingly slow to use.

To overclock an Android phone, you'll need to install a custom firmware (sometimes referred to as a custom ROM). The chief thing this usually provides is root access to the phone, allowing hardware tweaks, although sometimes getting root access needs to be done manually. Search via Google using your phone model for more information.

The custom firmware files are usually based on the latest Android system files, but with modifications to also allow overclocking. Which firmware you need depends on your phone; generally speaking, looking through the XDA-Developers forums for your phone model should provide answers. Additionally, a recent thread on the Reddit social bookmarking site could provide clues. Lots of people use the Cyanogen mod firmware (to find out more info, visit the Cyanogen wiki).

However, while overclocking presents risks, they're nothing compared to installing a custom firmware. If anything goes wrong there's a real chance your phone will become little more than an expensive paperweight. For obvious reasons this is known as "bricking" a phone. You upgrade at your own risk, and should only do so with the power lead attached to the phone. Double and triple-check to make sure you have the correct files for your make, model, and perhaps even hardware revision of phone, if applicable.

You might lose any data stored in the phone, such as text messages and contacts, so perform a backup beforehand.

Once the firmware has been updated, use the Android Marketplace to search for and install the SetCPU software. It costs just $2 and is designed to make overclocking extremely easy. The Max and Min sliders set the maximum and minimum clock speeds, and the changes take effect straight away. The Scaling dropdown refers to the power profile and it's probably best to leave it at "Ondemand," which will ramp up the processor speed when needed.

The Profiles section of the app lets you set CPU speeds for various phone modes. You can set the phone to always run overclocked when the charger is attached, for example, or ramp down the speeds when battery life goes below 50%. Many users claim they've even extended their battery life by setting very low CPU speeds for "Screen Off" periods, when the phone goes into hibernation mode after it's been slipped into a pocket or bag, for example.

When overclocking watch out for the heat issue, which might take a few minutes to show after the change has been made. Try doing processor-intensive tasks, such as browsing Websites with a lot of content, for example, or playing video files.

If you decide overclocking isn't for you, it should be possible to perform a factory restore by resinstalling your phone's original firmware. Visit the phone manufacturer's Website for details.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas .

This story, "Overclock your smartphone, if you dare" was originally published by PCWorld.

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