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What Is CPU Thermal Throttling And Is It Bad For My PC?

As a gamer or video editor or animator, you’ve probably heard the terms like CPU throttling or CPU thermal throttling thrown around, but what exactly is it?

PC owners want their hardware to exceed its potential, so much so that they’re willing to risk breaking them for the sake of power and performance. CPUs and GPUs are two common components that are pushed to their limits, or overclocking as you will.

CPU on Fire CPU Thermal Throttling

For CPUs, overclocking is a neat feature and while the new generation of CPUs are built to withstand heat generated, it doesn’t mean that you need to push beyond the threshold. When you do push your CPU to its limit, you’ll get what’s called CPU throttling or thermal throttling.

But before we discuss what throttling is about, we need to understand a couple of concepts first.

What Is The CPU Base and Boost Frequency?

Base frequency refers to the minimum clock speed your CPU is set to operate at, while Turbo Boost Frequency (or boost frequency) refers to the maximum clock speed.

CPUs will also have different base and boost frequencies. High performance CPUs, usually those used for gaming and heavy processing workloads, have higher base and boost frequencies compared to power saving CPUs. Laptop-grade CPUs will have lower base and boost frequencies by default for certain reasons.

CPU throttling refers to these two speeds within ideal conditions. Throttling happens the CPU operates between the base and boost frequency levels.

What Does TDP Stand For?

Another thing that you need to understand about CPU throttling is something called TDP, or Thermal Design Power. Thermal Design Power is expressed in Watts. This is defined by Intel as the maximum power consumed by your CPU when operating at base frequency with all CPU cores working.

To help you understand why TDP matters when it comes to throttling, here’s a short cheat sheet:

  • The higher the core count, the higher the TDP
  • The higher the frequency, the higher the TDP
  • The higher the TDP, the more heat it generates
  • The more heat the CPU generates, the more likely it is to throttle when there’s no decent cooling system in place.

What Exactly Is CPU Throttling Then?

Now that we know about the different frequencies (base and boost) and TDP (thermal design power), we’ll be able to understand what CPU throttling is and why it happens.

CPU throttling is caused by a technology called Dynamic Frequency Scaling. This is a technique or technology featured in most processors that allows them to limit power consumption by limiting the power of the CPU.

What it basically means is that Dynamic Frequency Scaling is the reason why your CPU will slow down whenever you have too much going on. If you have multiple tabs open on a browser and you’re running an AAA game in the background, your CPU will be putting in the work. Without throttling, your CPU will become severely damaged caused by excess heat.

For laptop CPUs, throttling happens to help you conserve battery life. If you have a gaming laptop, it’ll go through GPU and CPU throttling. Laptops will still be able to carry out basic functions like web browsing and productivity programs. Gaming and other heavy workloads will still be doable at the risk of reducing your battery life faster.

Dynamic frequency scaling also prevents your laptop from reaching maximum temperature by slowing down intentionally simply because they don’t have the same cooling solution as PC’s.

What Causes CPU Throttling?

CPU throttling can be caused by one of three factors, sometimes even three of them happening at the same time:

  1. Battery power (for laptops)
  2. Workload
  3. Heat generation or thermal throttling

CPU is Running On Battery Power

Laptops that run on battery power will end up throttling their CPUs to help conserve battery life. Gaming laptops will also switch from discrete GPU to integrated GPU to continue to provide graphics processing power.

By design, all laptops go through CPU throttling when they’re on battery mode as part of their processor power management feature. Economical power plans will also provide you with longer battery life by cutting down performance on CPU and GPU.

Some gaming rigs PCs also have some form of power management feature, but doesn’t necessarily mean it will run on battery. These power management features on a PC simply let you manage your power consumption better for when CPU and GPU aren’t in full use.

Heavy Workload

CPU throttling also occurs when the processor is under heavy use. Even when you have the best cooling solution possible, CPU throttling is inevitable as the processor tries to slow down, or return to the frequencies at which it was supposed to operate at.

Thermal Throttling

CPU Thermal Throttling happens when the CPU becomes too hot. But don’t worry. Thermal throttling is a fail-safe mechanism found in all CPUs for when the cooling system doesn’t function, or when the ambient temperature becomes too hot.

To prevent thermal throttling, you’ll need to make sure that:

  • Ambient temperature is normal when working heavy loads
  • Reduce poor airflow by cleaning out CPU fans and case fans when possible
  • You give your PC ample time to rest and recover in between heavy workloads

Poor temperature management can damage your CPU in the long run. It’s an exaggeration to say that your PC will catch on fire, but it does happen when the heat build up becomes too much.

What Are The Other Causes of CPU Throttling?

If you really want to know how to stop CPU throttling, you’ll need to understand the different causes as well. We’ve listed down the three most common causes, but there are also other causes that you might want to keep an eye out.

Wear and Tear

Processor limits are defined by wear and tear, so under normal circumstances, you’d be able to get the most out of a CPU for about 5 years or so. But if you’re consistently pushing it to its limits, then you’ll get around 3 years, 5 if you’re lucky.

As the CPU deteriorates, its performance takes a hit though not that much. An old CPU running a new AAA game might struggle at some point, so you’ll get CPU throttling.

Overheating Caused by Overclocking

Overclocking CPU Thermal Throttling

Overclocking is another way of pushing processor limits to the extreme, or at least, to its advertised speeds.

For example, you have one of the new Intel CPUs with a base clock speed of 3.6GHz and overclock speed of 4.2GHz. So when you require higher processing power, overclocking is your solution but at a cost.

Overclocking increases CPU temperature, which also speeds up processor wear and tear. And when the CPU reaches a high temperature past its advertised limits, then CPU throttling will happen to protect itself.

Poor Temperature Management

Sometimes, your PC or laptop might just be the cause of overheating. Even with adequate cooling solution, increase in CPU temperatures can be caused by an accumulation of dusts in case fans or CPU fans itself.

Heat is not dissipated fast enough inside the case, so ambient temperature is higher than it should be.

But Is CPU Throttling Bad?

Believe it or not, CPU throttling is not as bad as it sounds. Think of it as your car’s emergency brake system. The point of a CPU throttling feature is to make sure that the CPU does not overheat or does not get overworked.

Yes, throttling is annoying especially when you want consistent high performance from your CPU but things happen. Would you rather have a few minutes of lower frame rates or spend hundreds of dollars in replacing the CPU?

Can You Turn Off CPU Throttling?

Thermal Failure CPU Thermal Throttling

You can manually turn off or alter CPU throttling, but we don’t recommend you do this. Think of it as removing the emergency brake level from your car, if you will.

When you turn off CPU throttling, you’re going to cause serious damage when the CPU overheats. Remember, because it can’t reduce its performance, you won’t be able to dissipate heat. And sooner or later, you’ll probably set your entire PC on fire.

James Stephenson

james stephenson profile picJames is a gaming and tech enthusiast. He has been playing computer games since the Commodore 64 days in the 80s. He has worked as a Broadcast Engineer with BBC News and knows a thing or two about building, fixing, and playing with PCs.