Overclocking, the K-Series and What You’ll Want to Buy

If you haven’t noticed, the computing world is becoming more integrated. We review highly integrated SoCs in our smartphone coverage, and even on the desktop we’re seeing movement towards beefy SoCs. AMD pioneered the integrated memory controller on desktop PCs, Intel followed suit and with Lynnfield brought a PCIe controller on-die as well. Sandy Bridge takes the next logical step and brings a GPU on-die, a move matched by AMD with Brazos and Llano this year.

In the spirit of integration, Intel made one more change this round: the 6-series chipsets integrate the clock generator. What once was a component on the motherboard, the PLL is now on the 6-series chipset die. The integrated PLL feeds a source clock to everything from the SATA and PCIe controllers to the SNB CPU itself. With many components driven off of this one clock, Intel has locked it down pretty tight.

With Nehalem and Westmere, to overclock you simply adjusted the BCLK from 133MHz to whatever speed you wanted and sometimes toyed with multipliers to arrive at a happy end result. With Sandy Bridge, the BCLK generated on the 6-series PCH is at 100MHz by default and honestly won’t go much higher than that.

While I’ve heard reports of getting as high as 115MHz, I’d view 103—105MHz as the upper limit for what you’re going to get out of BCLK overclocking. In other words: next to nothing. A 105MHz BCLK overclock on a Core i7-2600 will take you from a stock speed of 3.4GHz to a whopping 3.57GHz. The form of overclocking we’ve been using for the past decade is effectively dead on Sandy Bridge.

Years ago, before the Pentium II, we didn’t rely on BCLK (or back then it was just FSB or bus overclocking) to overclock. Back then, if we wanted a faster CPU we’d just increase the clock multiplier. Intel has dabbled in offering multiplier unlocked parts for overclockers, we saw this last year with the Core i7 875K for example. With Sandy Bridge, those unlocked parts are going to be a lot more important to overclockers.

It works like this. If you have a part that does not support Turbo (e.g. Core i3-2100 series), then your CPU is completely clock locked. You can’t overclock it at all, have fun at your stock frequency. This is good news for AMD as it makes AMD even more attractive at those price points.

If you have a part that does support turbo (e.g. Core i5-2400), then you have what’s called a “limited unlocked” core—in other words you can overclock a little bit. These parts are limited to an overclock of 4 processor bins above and beyond the highest turbo frequency. Confused yet? This chart may help:

In this case we’re looking at a Core i5-2500, which runs at 3.3GHz by default. When a single core is active, the chip can turbo up to 3.7GHz. If you want, you can change that turbo state to go as high as 4.1GHz (if your CPU and cooling can keep up).

Overclocking these limited unlocked chips relies entirely on turbo however. In the case above, the fastest your chip will run is 4.1GHz but with only one core active. If you have four cores active the fastest your chip can run is 3.8GHz. While Intel didn’t sample any limited unlocked parts, from what I’ve heard you shouldn’t have any problems hitting these multiplier limits.

There’s a third class of part: a fully unlocked K-series chip. At launch there are only two of these processors: the Core i5-2500K and the Core i7-2600K. Anything with a K at the end of it means you get all multipliers from 16x all the way up to 57x at your disposal. It’s effectively fully unlocked.

These chips overclock very well. Both my Core i5-2500K and Core i7-2600K hit ~4.4GHz, fully stable, using the stock low-profile cooler.


This is all you need for 4.4GHz

With a bit more effort and a better cooler, you can get anywhere in the 4.6-5.0GHz range:

It's a bit too early to tell how solid these near-5GHz overclocks will be, but I'm confident in the sub-4.5GHz overclocks we were able to sustain.

You do pay a price premium for these K-series SKUs. The 2500K will cost you another $11 over a stock 2500 and the 2600K costs an extra $23. In the case of the 2500K, that’s a small enough premium that it’s honestly worth it. You pay $11 extra for a chip that is very conservatively clocked and just begging for you to overclock it. Even the 2600K’s premium isn’t bad at all.

Model Number Standard SKU K-Series SKU Price Premium
Intel Core i7-2600 $294 $317 +$23
Intel Core i5-2500 $205 $216 +$11

As an added bonus, both K-series SKUs get Intel’s HD Graphics 3000, while the non-K series SKUs are left with the lower HD Graphics 2000 GPU.

Compared to Lynnfield, you’re paying $11 more than a Core i5-760 and you’re getting around 10-45% more performance, even before you overclock. In a perfect world I’d want all chips to ship unlocked; in a less perfect world I’d want there to be no price premium for the K-series SKUs, but at the end of the day what Intel is asking for here isn’t absurd. On the bright side, it does vastly simplify Intel’s product stack when recommending to enthusiasts: just buy anything with a K at the end of it.

Since we’re relying on multiplier adjustment alone for overclocking, your motherboard and memory actually matter less for overclocking with Sandy Bridge than they did with P55. On both P67 and H67, memory ratios are fully unlocked so you can independently set memory speed and CPU speed. Even the GPU ratios are fully unlocked on all platforms and fully independent from everything else.

The Lineup The 6-series Platform & 6Gbps SATA Performance
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  • omelet - Tuesday, January 11, 2011 - link

    For almost any game, the resolution will not affect the stress on the CPU. It is no harder for a CPU to play the game at 2560x1600 than it is to play at 1024x768, so to ensure that the benchmark is CPU-limited, low resolutions are chosen.

    For instance, the i5 2500k gets ~65fps in the Starcraft test, which is run at 1024x768. The i5 2500k would also be capable of ~65fps at 2560x1600, but your graphics card might not be at that resolution.

    Since this is a review for a CPU, not for graphics cards, the lower resolution is used, so we know what the limitation is for just the CPU. If you want to know what resolution you can play at, look at graphics card reviews.
    Reply
  • Tom - Sunday, January 30, 2011 - link

    Which is why the tests have limited real world value. Skewing the tests to maximize the cpu differences makes new cpus look impressive, but it doesn't show the reality that the new cpu isn't needed in the real world for most games. Reply
  • Oyster - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Maybe I missed this in the review, Anand, but can you please confirm that SB and SB-E will require quad-channel memory? Additionally, will it be possible to run dual-channel memory on these new motherboards? I guess I want to save money because I already have 8GB of dual-channel RAM :).

    Thanks for the great review!
    Reply
  • CharonPDX - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    You can confirm it from the photos of it only using two DIMMs in photo. Reply
  • JumpingJack - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    This has been discussed in great detail. The i7, i3, and i5 2XXX series is dual channel. The rumor mill is abound with SB-E having quad channel, but I don't recall seen anything official from Intel on this point. Reply
  • 8steve8 - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    the K processors have the much better IGP and a variable multiplier, but to use the improved IGP you need an H67 chipset, which doesn't support changing the multiplier? Reply
  • ViRGE - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    CPU Multiplier: Yes, H67 cannot change the CPU multiplier

    GPU Multiplier: No, even H67 can change the GPU multiplier
    Reply
  • mczak - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    I wonder why though? Is this just officially? I can't really see a good technical reason why CPU OC would work with P67 but not H67 - it is just turbo going up some more steps after all. Maybe board manufacturers can find a way around that?
    Or is this not really linked to the chipset but rather if the IGP is enabled (which after all also is linked to turbo)?
    Reply
  • Rick83 - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    I just checked the manual to MSI's 7676 Mainboard (high-end H67) and it lists cpu core multiplier in the bios (page 3-7 of the manual, only limitation mentioned is that of CPU support), with nothing grayed out and overclockability a feature. As this is the 1.1 Version, I think someone misunderstood something....

    Unless MSI has messed up its Manual after all and just reused the P67 Manual.... Still, the focus on over-clocking would be most ridiculous.
    Reply
  • Rick83 - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    also, there is this:http://www.eteknix.com/previews/foxconn-h67a-s-h67...

    Where the unlocked multiplier is specifically mentioned as a feature of the H67 board.
    So I think anandtech got it wrong here....
    Reply

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