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Why Are Intel CPUs Locked? (Important Facts!)

Intel is one of the leading CPU providers. For gaming and increasing performance, there is a common practice known as overclocking, this is where the power to the CPU and the speed are adjusted manually in the settings. It’s generally believed this is only possible on unlocked CPUs, so today I will explain why Intel CPUs are locked.

Intel locks its CPUs to prevent damage from overclocking. CPUs are designed to run at specific power and performance settings that have been arrived at through testing. Using a CPU outside these ranges makes it much more likely they will fail and on average they won’t last as long.

With that said Intel still offers a range of low, mid, and high-end CPUs that are unlocked and can be overclocked. You may be wondering whether you can overclock a CPU that is locked, why manufacturers lock their CPUs, and whether a locked or an unlocked CPU is a better choice. 

Read on, where I will explain everything you need to know about locked and unlocked CPUs.

Is There a Real Physical Difference between Locked and Unlocked CPUs

Locked CPU

In the past, locked CPUs were able to be unlocked using a few tricks. However, with each new release, most locked CPUs that could be overclocked were changed so that it was no longer possible. Here’s a summary of whether there are any physical differences between locked and unlocked CPUs, that could maybe be they can be unlocked. 

There is no visual difference between a locked or an unlocked CPU.

The real difference is in the results from testing, from every production lot there will be a few CPUs tested. Those that will be on the upper end of the performance spectrum will be unlocked but toes that will have average performance will be locked because Intel doesn’t want to have unsatisfied clients due to CPU failure.

We don’t know the performance interval on which Intel considers that a CPU is good enough to be overclocked but the production of CPUs isn’t perfect and many CPU lots will not meet Intel’s standards for overclocking but these CPUs will be stable enough to be used at base clock speed and so they are sold as locked.

If you compare a locked versus an unlocked CPU side by side you wouldn’t be able to tell which one is locked and which one is unlocked unless you knew the naming convention for locked CPUs used by that company. 

Intel uses a specific naming convention that can be used to identify which CPUs they sell are locked on unlocked. An easier method I found is the info found on this page where they list their latest models that are unlocked. I summarized this info in the table below:

List of latest unlocked Intel CPUs

Model NumberYear released
Intel® Core™ i5-12600KF Processor2021
Intel® Core™ i5-12600K Processor2021
Intel® Core™ i7-12700KF Processor2021
Intel® Core™ i7-12700K Processor2021
Intel® Core™ i9-12900KF Processor2021
Intel® Core™ i9-12900K Processor2021
List of latest unlocked Intel CPUs

(source: Intel.com)

For older Intel CPUs the way you can tell is if it has an X or a K are the end of the model number. For example, a 6th generation Intel Core CPU will have the model number something like 6000. If it’s 6000K or 6000X then it’s unlocked.

Another interesting question about Intel CPUs is why they keep their price, and why older Intel CPUs are about as expensive as the latest ones. I explained the reasons in this article why old Intel CPUs are expensive.

The Truth about Why Manufacturers Lock Their CPUs

It’s common for companies to do things in their own interest. For example, you may have found in the past companies have locked certain features to in essence force you to buy something additional or a newer version. But, is this the case with CPUs, and what’s the truth behind why they lock their CPUs?

Each CPU has rated specs that are arrived out through rigorous testing on the CPU manufacturer’s part. When these specs are pushed past their limit it decreases the longevity and reliability of the CPU. If a CPU fails the consumer will likely blame the manufacturer which hurts the industry. 

An overclocked CPU can work for a while but because it’s being pushed too high past its limits it poses a significant risk of damaging the CPU. Aftermarket fans are designed for this purpose to provide much more cooling to offset the higher temperatures that occur when a CPU is overclocked. But, it’s still possible to damage the CPU or other components.

This is why Intel’s warranty policy states that overclocking a CPU will void the warranty. The reason is that it’s much more likely a CPU will fail when it’s overclocked. And new people to overclocking can easily make a mistake. Or go a bit nuts on the settings and turn it up too high, and blow their CPU. 

According to electrical engineer Loring Chien, it can also lead to a bunch of problems such as randomly shutting down the PC, or your computer will restart on its own. With an issue like this, it’s time-consuming and can be frustrating to fix. So eliminating one of the variables – the CPU overheating – really helps with making the computer industry look good. 

Can You Unlock a Locked CPU

Generally, there are workarounds to everything to do with electronics. For example, you can generally get into the back end of computers and other electronic devices and unlock different features that on the surface don’t seem possible to change. So, is it possible to unlock a locked CPU?

It’s not possible to unlock a locked CPU. For some obscure old CPU models, and some lesser-known brands it is possible to unlock them. But, Intel CPUs that are locked can not be unlocked. It’s unknown exactly how manufacturers lock them but it appears to be a physical characteristic.

If you want an unlocked CPU you should purchase an unlocked CPU. However, if you don’t play on overclocking it then you can get a locked CPU or an unlocked CPU. Here’s a more in-depth explanation for when to get a locked versus an unlocked CPU.

Is a Locked or Unlocked CPU for Me 

Generally, it’s best to get an unlocked CPU if you already have an aftermarket fan, don’t mind voiding the warranty on your CPU, and don’t want to upgrade your existing motherboard. It typically makes more sense to get a locked CPU if you’re doing a new PC build.

With a new PC build, you’ll be getting a new everything. This includes the motherboard and RAM. However, if you have an existing PC but your CPU has broken and you’re getting a new one, you may decide it’s better to get an unlocked CPU with an aftermarket fan.

Motherboards generally aren’t compatible with newer CPUs. So, if you have a 2-year-old motherboard, your only options are to get a CPU that is 2 years old as well. The reason is the new CPUs have a different socket. 

However, you may want increased performance out of your CPU, and would rather spend a bit extra on an aftermarket fan, and overclock your CPU rather than buy a new motherboard and new RAM that will be compatible with a newer CPU. Here’s a list showing the main reasons you would want to get an unlocked or locked CPU.

An unlocked CPU is for you if:

  • A newer CPU won’t fit in your motherboard but you want increased performance
  • You want to use an aftermarket fan
  • You have an existing aftermarket fan
  • You don’t want to upgrade your motherboard and RAM
  • You don’t mind voiding the CPU warranty
  • You like to have the option to change the settings for your CPU

A locked CPU is for you if:

  • You don’t plan on overclocking it
  • You don’t want to void the warranty
  • You want a CPU that is fast enough for your needs out of the box
  • You don’t want to get an aftermarket fan
  • You’re doing a new PC build where the motherboard compatibility isn’t a problem

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I started building and fixing PCs in high school. After a couple of years of offering consultancy to a PC repair shop, I became the goto guy for all my acquaintances for PC/Laptop related buying advice or troubleshooting.