The Risks and Rewards of Overclocking Android Phones

By Ryan Whitwam

Sure, it might make your phone faster, but is it worth the risk?

The open nature of Android has allowed for some interesting application development, as well as some fairly complex modding. One of the most popular projects for an Android fan is to overclock the CPU in the phone. Overclocking an Android phone requires so-called root access. Meaning the user has added permissions to the OS that allow heavy modification and the installation of custom ROMs.  

An overclock is usually one of the first things users figure out after gaining root access on a new phone. The EVO was rooted upon its release, and some hackers have already managed to coax it up to 1.3GHz from a stock 1GHz. It sounds like a good idea; many of us have overclocked CPUs in our computers, but a phone is a completely different animal. There are substantial risks, but the rewards can be commensurate with those risks. 


The Risks

simple, to fairly complex. Some phones (like the Droid) even require flashing an older version of the operating system that is vulnerable to root exploits. However you do this for your phone, it will require adding new code to the internal memory, and that comes with some pretty serious risks. There is always the possibility you could brick the phone. This means the device would be rendered unusable and irrecoverable by any means you have at your disposal.  

If you are familiar enough with the process, the act of rooting may not be of great concern for you. But the overclock itself comes with new challenges. The first issue to consider is possible hardware damage. Just like a desktop CPU, a lack of caution when overclocking can fry internal components. Exposing a component to more heat means you are shortening its life, there is no doubt about that. Those into overclocking desktop CPUs often have elaborate setups with overclocking in mind. You can't add a better heatsink, or a fan to your mobile phone.  

If you get a little overzealous with a desktop CPU, the worst case scenario is that you just replace the CPU. That's not too expensive in most cases, and anyway, you can just buy a better cooling solution before that happens. Most people agree to 2 year contracts to get these shiny new Android phones. The last thing you want to do is buy a replacement at full price because you damaged your phone by overclocking it. Dropping $400-600 for a replacement handset is just not doable for many people. 

CPUs, and especially mobile CPUs, are designed to be efficient at a certain range of clock frequencies. Moving it too far from the norm means you eventually see diminishing returns. The mild increase in snappiness will be outweighed by the battery drain. Some modders have also taken to under-volting the CPU to attain higher clocks without sacrificing as much longevity. But that's not necessarily the best idea.  

The Droid may be one of the most hacked phones. There are a wide variety of ROMs that were built for it, and many of them offer the options of installing special overclocked kernels. Some of them also include under-volts. If we've learned anything, it's that under-volting a CPU while simultaneously overclocking it could mean some serious stability issues. In our experience, these custom kernels are less stable, but it's not as bad as we'd have thought. When it comes down to it though, this is not a game for beginners.  

The Rewards

We feel like the need and desire for overclocking is going to decrease as new phones come out. At 1GHz most of these handsets are plenty fast enough, and the CPUs are already near their operational limit. Where the Droid has been pushed over 1GHz, the Nexus One has barely hit 1.1GHz, up from 1GHz. The JIT compiler in Android 2.2 will clean up a lot of the performance woes that inspire many people to overclock in the first place. 

If you get yourself set up to overclock, there is an important benefit to be aware of. With the help of root apps like SetCPU, you can use profiles to actually underclock your CPU when the phone is not in use. Android does this by default, but the access users have to the clock speed allows them to set it much lower, often as low as 125MHz for the Droid with a 1GHz+ overclock. 

Is it for you?

Making the decision to overclock means you have to carefully monitor your settings. This involves checking the temperature to make sure something hasn't gone haywire, and monitoring the battery life. It's a lot more work than many are used to doing to keep their mobile phone in working order. For most people, we'd say it's best to steer clear of overclocking. It is a perfectly acceptable activity for the more technical crowd. In fact, many of you reading this probably don't mind doing a little extra tweaking, but for the majority of people, overclocking an Android phone comes with too many risks.  

There are a laundry list of risks, but the reward can be a faster phone without spending a dime. With some vigilance, it can be a fairly safe endeavor. We simply suggest using caution when risking your beloved smartphone. If you overclock your phone, let us know about your experiences. Have you encountered any problems? Would you tell others, maybe even less technical people, to overclock?
Image credit: Lifehacker , Flickr user Whiteolorin