Five ways to overclock a netbook (really!)

The words overclocking and netbook appear in a sentence together about as often as Steve Ballmer is spotted at a Linux convention. Netbooks are all about portability over performance. Overclocking is all about taking already blazing-fast gear and pushing it to its upper limits -- warranties, energy use and safety be damned. Right?

Actually, "people have been overclocking netbooks pretty much since Day One," according to Brad Linder, who writes the Liliputing blog. It started with the very first Eee PC 701, which Asustek Computer "intentionally underclocked ... to improve battery life," said Linder. Frustrated hackers developed tools such as Eeectl and SetFSB to "right-clock" the Eee's CPU, he says.

Quick to take a hint, Asus soon began shipping its own overclocking app, the Super Hybrid Engine, with every Eee. That let users boost the speed of most Eees by up to 10% while staying within warranty. And the newly released Asus 1101HA can be run up to 30% faster.

Netbook manufacturer MSI also enables its users to easily tune its Wind netbooks and make them as much as 24% faster.

Then there are extreme modders like Team Australia in Adelaide. Using a dry-ice-filled pot to chill the exposed motherboard of an MSI Wind U100 netbook, they were able to push its Intel Atom N270 processor to 2.4 GHz, a 50% boost over its rated 1.6 GHz.

Of course, most of us aren't interested in performing science experiments for the sake of bragging rights. We just want to get apps to load faster, or high-def videos to play stutter-free.

But besides Asus and MSI, few other netbook makers officially endorse overclocking, much less bundle tools to enable it.

Never fear: Below we detail five (fairly) easy ways for you to overclock your netbook, none of which requires access to exotic cooling materials, and only one of which requires competence with a soldering iron. (There's also a bonus tip for Acer Aspire One owners -- no overclocking, but plenty of hardware tweaking.)

Here's the fine print: Most of the solutions require your netbook to be running Windows rather than Linux. And the finer print: Your netbook's battery life will definitely drop, while noise from the netbook's fan will rise. Your netbook could crash or freeze if you raise the speed -- and temp -- too high, too fast. And if you accidentally fry your motherboard using these third-party apps, don't expect your vendor to honor the warranty.

Now, on with the overclocking!

1. Fiddle with your front-side bus with SetFSB

Method: A free, open-source tool, Abo's SetFSB lets you tune the speed of your CPU, memory and key controllers.

Models: Virtually any netbooks running the Intel Atom CPU, including Asus Eees, Dell Minis and even Hewlett-Packard's Minis (more on that later). Not only can SetFSB work with netbooks, but it works for many laptops, net-tops and desktop PCs as well. The SetFSB Web site has the complete list of compatible chip sets and motherboards.

Operating systems: Officially, Windows Vista, 2003, XP, 2000, NT4, Me and 98. SetFSB reportedly also works on Windows 7.

Difficulty level: Potentially challenging, due to the need to select the correct clock generator for your CPU and employ separate temperature-monitoring software such as Everest Ultimate Edition. ODOC offers a good guide to SetFSB, while NotebookReview.com offers another guide with an extensive discussion.

The scuttlebutt: SetFSB is widely considered the best multi-PC overclocking tool -- when your hardware cooperates.

2. Elevate your Eee with Eeectl

Method: Apart from the new Eee 1101HA, which can be run up to 30% faster, Asus' netbooks can be pushed only 10% faster with the included overclocking app, the Super Hybrid Engine. For more, you need to turn to Eeectl.

This free, two-year-old app from Russian developer DCI lets you control the speed of the motherboard's front-side bus as well as the CPU voltage -- the two virtual knobs you need to twiddle to over/underclock your CPU. The ever-handy Eeectl also lets you double your screen's brightness, control the fan and configure various hotkeys.

Models: Works on older 700 series Eees with no modification. For other Eees, users may need to modify the code.

Operating systems: Windows XP and Vista (and, reportedly, Windows 7).

Difficulty level: Not that easy, due to the need to modify the app for use on most Eees. There have also been a number of complaints about the software in the forums of Eeeuser.com. Another issue: The developer seems to have permanently halted development on Eeectl a year ago.

The scuttlebutt: Despite the complaints, the utility remains popular (a Google search turns up about 30,000 mentions). Cyb3rGlitch has a good general guide on using Eeectl. And check out this YouTube video, in which someone uses Eeectl to double an older-model Eee's clock speed.

3. Pump up the graphics with GMABooster

Method: An app called GMABooster by Vladimir Plenskiy can take your netbook's Intel graphics chip from 133/166 MHz to 400 MHz without increasing the voltage (power drain).

Models: Virtually all netbooks today, including the Acer Aspire One, most Asus netbooks, Dell Inspiron Minis, the MSI Wind, the HP Mini line (except for the original 2133), the Samsung NC10 and others. They all use Intel's GMA 950 graphics chip, which comes integrated with the motherboard of most Atom netbooks. The chip is also used on some notebooks and business desktop PCs.

Operating systems: Most versions of Windows, Linux and Mac OS X.

Difficulty level: Easy. The biggest hassle? Nonpaying users must redownload and install a new version each week. Those who donate any amount to the developer can avoid that hassle.

The scuttlebutt: Reports are mixed. UMPC Portal found an average increase of 20% to its graphics performance benchmarks using GMABooster. "While 20% isn't huge, I think it could be noticeable depending upon what you are doing on your device," wrote UMPC blogger Ben. Some commentators at UMPC echoed that sentiment.

However, the French site Blogeee.netwas unimpressed, saying the small performance boost was outweighed by the increased heat and battery drain.

4. Enhance your 'Hackintoshed' netbook's graphics with GMA OverClocking

Method: Hacking your netbook to run Mac OS X has been popular for the past year. A free three-month-old app called GMA OverClocking from the developer Thireus lets Hackintosh netbook users set their Intel GMA integrated graphics chip to run at the maximum 400 MHz.

Models: Any netbook you can get to run Mac OS X. In practice, that is most likely to be a Dell Mini 9, Asus Eee 1000H or 901, HP Mini 1000 or Lenovo S10.

Operating systems: Officially, any version of Mac OS X prior to Snow Leopard, but some users say it works with Snow Leopard as well.

Difficulty level: Easy. First install Apple's Computer Hardware Understanding Developer (CHUD) tools, then run the GMA OverClocking installer, type one line in Terminal and reboot.

The scuttlebutt: Extremely safe, since the speed is increased without boosting the voltage. For the same reason, any boost in performance may feel very slight, users say.

5. Overclock your HP Mini 2140 with a hardware hack

Method: HP puts a tiny pin on the motherboard of its Mini 2140 netbook to prevent users from overclocking it. A developer known as Twain, a member of HPMiniGuide.com's forum, figured out how to disable the pin in order to use SetFSB to overclock his Mini.

Models: The HP Mini 2140.

Operating systems: See SetFSB entry for the Windows versions it supports.

Difficulty level: High. Twain had to figure out which "really tiny" resistor on the motherboard was doing the locking, cut out the resistor, and then use a soldering iron with a "super-small" tip to resolder the piece in a different location. Then he had to run the SetFSB utility. For those handy with a soldering iron who are confident that they can follow Twain's pictures and instructions, good luck. Others should keep well away.

The scuttlebutt: Twain says he jacked up his Mini's Atom N270 CPU from its rated speed of 1.6 GHz to 1.9 GHz, a nearly 20% increase. His PassMark 7 benchmark score increased to 312.6, and he was able to watch 1080p high-def video without any stuttering. Previously, his Mini could support only 720p.

Bonus tip: Take control of your Acer with A1ctl

Method: Another free app, called A1ctl, by Noda, doesn't actually let you overclock your Aspire's Atom CPU. However, it does plenty of other handy things: turns down noisy fans, boosts the screen resolution (up to 1024 by 768, from the native 1024 by 576) and underclocks your CPU for longer battery life.

Models: Most versions of the Acer Aspire One, the most popular netbook today.

Operating systems: Windows XP and Vista, though the underclocking/screen-boost features work only in XP.

Difficulty level: Easy. Download the RAR archive file, extract it and go.

The scuttlebutt: Reaction on the Acer Aspire One User Forum and developer Noda's blog has been frank about the app's bugs, but it's overall mostly positive. Noda released a final version, 1.0, in August that he says fixed most of its earlier bugs.

Unfortunately, Noda says he has no plans to keep working on A1ctl, meaning no Windows 7 version or new features such as overclocking are coming, for now.

This story, "Five ways to overclock a netbook (really!)" was originally published by Computerworld.

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