5 ways to overclock a netbook (really!)

Didn't think hardware this tiny could be tweaked? We explore five ways to turn netbooks up to 11.

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.

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