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.

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.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld (US)
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