Secrets of the extreme overclockers
20th Dec 2008 | 08:00
How the pros manage 8GHz and beyond
We're all overclockers now.
Having a go at super charging any chip of the last generation or so – and specifically Intel's Core 2 – has been been easy and safe endeavour.
So much so that if you're not running, for instance, a Q6600 at 3GHz or more, frankly you're not really getting your money's worth from the chip.
Don't kid yourself that adding 500MHz without so much as unscrewing the heatsink puts you in the big league, though. You're doing a smart thing, but you are not part of the elite cabal who get to call themselves veterans.
No, you're not made of the same crazed stuff that drives them to ever more ludicrous fleet feats or suffered financial hardship to raise your CPU speed. You've also probably never soldered anything to your mobo or kept dangerous industrial chemicals in the house. You, in short, are not worthy!
At the grassroots level, overclocking has a lot in common with MG Club membership or the kinds of man-in-ashed pastimes that involve swing lathes. It's born out of the same hackers' spirit of inquiry that makes one guy install Linux, fit their own kitchen or crack NSA databases looking for proof of aliens.
The word 'enthusiast' is bandied around far too often in computing circles, but the overclocking fraternity are truly deserving of this moniker – it's genuine enthusiasm for fiddling which drives it.
"I think a lot of guys have a part of the brain missing," laughs Kenny Clapham, a member of the UK's leading overclocking team, Benchtec. "It's the part that says 'Thats good enough, you can stop now.'"
Clapham's particular areas of expertise are water and dry ice cooling. His current goal is to be recognised as one of the top 100 overclockers in the world without touching liquid nitrogen or expensive cascade systems. He reckons that hitting high scores in benchmarks like Super Pi and Folding@ Home is only part of the motivation, though. It's an indulgence which quickly becomes an obsession.
The reason is that achieving high clockspeeds means more than just mucking about with the BIOS settings. It means individually adjusting every parameter your PC is capable of to its fastest stable settings and then combining them all together for a benchmarking run.
Before you can go near a flask of LN2, a lot of time is spend raising one value – such as the FSB – under water cooling and then resetting it and moving on to the next. When the big day for testing comes, the sub-zero materials are pulled out and the known stable points are used as a starting position for record attempts.
Every single system, then, has its own particular thresholds and tolerances. The appeal of overclocking to most, says Clapham, is the painstaking research that goes into finding them. And again, it's not just about fiddling with BIOS settings.
Increasing voltages to support huge clockspeeds often means replacing resistors on the circuit boards to allow more current flow – and aside from requiring a steady hand with a soldering iron that means even more investigation and probing.
Motherboard documentation is notoriously poor, but at least the technology remains stable enough that an experienced hand shouldn't take too long to work out which resistors to change in order to alter key voltages.
The really dark arts of extreme overclocking are achieving high scores in 3D benchmarks. There are no easy BIOS flags for getting the right voltages that will make use of a graphics card chilled to subzero temperatures, and it means a lot of analysis and trial and error: "It's really satisfying when you have a fully modded graphics card in front of you," says Clapham. "It can be quite intimidating to start off with something pure and clean and then cover it in wires and solder, but the reward is that not everyone has the confidence or ability to do that."
For each new graphics card with overclocking potential, Clapham reckons there are probably only about five or six people in the world who'll probe it thoroughly with a multimeter, in order to reverse engineer some kind of schematic for discovering which pin does which on the card. "Easy points and silverware don't interest me," Clapham says, "if the benching doesn't teach me something, as far as I'm concerned, I'm just wasting my time."
Having said all that, there's an obvious competitive element to the hobby, too. It's telling that Clapham describes overclocking as a "sport" rather than as a hobby.
"One or two clockers – who will stay nameless – don't cope especially well with being beaten," he admits, "And might rock the boat every now and then, but there'll be people like that in anything competitive sport."
For the most part though, there's a lot of camaraderie among the community: "A lot of the old-hands know each other and are willing to help each other out, even if it means they'll get beaten as a result," says Clapham.
How do the world's best keep track of their status? There are literally hundreds of dedicated forums and groups like Benchtec UK, who meet online and in real life to share tips and test their prowess. In lieu of any 'official' database of rankings, the two best sites for keeping track of who's who and have achieved what, are The Overclocking World Record Database and the more community oriented HWBot.org.
The difficulty for both of the most popular sites is attempting to independently verify scores. There just isn't the infrastructure to double-check every screengrab that comes through, which shows a processor running at an outrageous speed, and the occasional porky pie slips through.
Wheedling out the cheaters is very much a Web 2.0 activity – the community generally does a good job of self-monitoring for obvious fakes, and can often detect a discrepancy between knowledge shown in forum postings and claimed achievements. "Some people want insta-success," observes Clapham, "And they often don't realise the ridiculous amount of time and money involved in building up a reputation and the abilities to do what the top overclockers do, so they find another way. They always get found out over time, though."
One thing that's remarkable about overclockers is that they can always find a new goal to pursue. There's a flurry of activity around the initial launch of any new platform, but even once scores start to peak there are people prepared to push things just a little bit further.
And the sport itself is booming – in many ways this year has been a major breakthrough for its recognition. Overclocking is nothing new, but there are signs that the manufacturers are starting to pay more than lip service to the people who buy more than one motherboard a year.
The last few months have seen a flurry of sponsored showcases, from NVIDIA inviting k|inp|n and Yasukazu 'duck' Shimokawa to demonstrate their skills on the green one's hardware at the most recent press launch and at big day tournaments hosted by other brands.
In terms of tournaments, the Advanced Overclocking Championship (AOCC) is the largest gathering of big names so far, and it's the most serious attempt to turn overclocking into a stadium sport. The 2008 contest took place in Hong Kong in July, with headline sponsorship deals from Intel, NVIDIA and Asus.
A further, but smaller competition was organised in Berlin in August of this year, using the AOCC brand, but competitors were limited to using Asus kit as part of the company's pre-X58 launch promotion.
A more common method of dragging overclockers out of their workshops and sheds, though, is sponsored public displays. Benchtec UK now demonstrates its skills regularly at the Multiplay i-series events, for example, and most of the manufacturers have paid well-known overclockers to perform their stunts at trade shows in order to prove their kit can stand the rigours of extreme performance and gain fame by association.
At a total kitty of $11,500 for the AOCC 2008, the prize funds aren't in quite in the same league as gaming, and we're unlikely to see a 'professional overclocker' any time soon. It surely can't be long before one of the motherboard manufacturers recruits the hardware equivalent of Fatal1ty to its ranks for box branding, though.
In some respects, it's already begun. Take a look at the NVIDIA 'Priceless' pastiche of Master Card ads featuring k|ngp|n at www.youtube.com/watch?v=TV-1kYMh2G4.
Outside of the very small semi-professional arena, hardware companies have also realised for some time that there's value in involving overclocking teams before components are released. Many companies enlist the help of the leading lights with BIOS design and early silicon testing, and both NVIDIA and AMD claim that their motherboard control panels are the result of a two-way dialogue.
"We work closely with hardware enthusiasts," says Foxconn's Sascha Krohn, "People whose hobby is testing, tweaking, overclocking, modifying and pushing hardware to its limits. They have an immense amount of experience in using computer hardware and they know what could and should be improved and what features are rather useless or they think are unwanted."
Asus' Iain Bristow agrees. "The benefits of working so closely with the overclockers," he says, "Is the wealth of ideas and innovation. Our current range of Designed for Overclocking motherboards, namely the Rampage Extreme and Rampage II Extreme have both been designed and created with the help of numerous world-class overclocker experts."
It's not always easy, though, according to Foxconn's Sascha Krohn. Getting the right kinds of feedback from ardent enthusiasts can be a tough process and will occasionally lead to design black holes: "Their feedback is crucial to getting a product to where it should be, but you need to know how to work with it," he says,
"Some will tolerate anything so long as they get good numbers, and if you only listen to their feedback you end up with a great enthusiast board that won't be too popular with regular users who have less patience – a problem we sort of ran into with the QuantumForce BlackOps X48."
One person often called on for these consultancies is CPU speed champion duck "I think that what they get out of it is information about durability and operability," he told PCF, "The sorts of data that are uncertain, while designs are on the drawing board. It's the sort of discussions car manufacturers have with race drivers."
Benchtec's Clapham is slightly more philosophical about this aspect, though, and feels that even the best manufacturers still have a blind eye when it comes to certain areas of design: "It's simple things like good hardware documentation and leaving plenty of room around components for cooling that gets frustrating," he says, "What I really want to see is something that's straightforward to set up and simple to use."
One thing that everyone agrees on, though, is that there's more to the courting of the overclocking community than endorsements. The component manufacturing process means that improvements made to the high end pieces of kit filter their way down to regular consumer level before long. Just look at the proliferation of high quality, durable capacitors and power regulators on low price motherboards that are available these days.
Sometimes, though, it can result in problems. Clapham reckons at least one company understates memory voltage in its BIOS settings in order to make it appear that faster speeds can be achieved at stock currents.
The result, all too often, is RAM that burns out early from being overcharged. The only way to be sure is to physically measure the current to the memory controller with a voltmeter: something that hardware reviewers are unlikely to do, but a hardened overclocker might.
What all this exposure means is that 'serious' overclocking is getting more popular – despite the high cost of kit in these financially strained times: "We've seen a turning point this year," says Yasukazu Shimokawa, "Especially among young people, and the overall population of overclockers has increased a lot."
If, however, you're tempted by the increasing amounts of glory heaped on top overclockers and the possibility of sharing in the emerging prize funds and sponsorship pots, it's worth being sure of your motivation.
Do it for the thrill of extracting performance from your machine or just being more creative with your rig than those who are happy to install a PC and leave it. Don't do it for the cash, and don't forget that the roots of the hobby/sport are still as relevant now as they were at the beginning.
"When people realise that the basic point of overclocking is to make a cheap computer perform the same as a more expensive one," concludes Clapham, "Their eyes light up."
First published inPC Format, Issue 222
Now read The ultimate guide to overclocking
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