Interesting journey – Jonathan Gillespie
Flames. Massive, searing flames and melted electronics. AMD case badge turning brown and congealing onto the floor. Smoke erupting from the fan holes like something out of a bad Jerry Bruckheimer movie. That’s what I initially imagined the results of an “unsuccessful overclock” might resemble.
Four years ago, the mental image I had of an overclocked machine would have resembled this kind of towering inferno. I had read all the bad hype surrounding overclocking since I was in my teens and had gotten an impression about ramping one’s CPU up that was, I believed, entirely correct.
I hope that the little story of how I became an overclocker – how my present, stabile system rose from the ashes of my misconceptions – might help some of you out there who are still trying to decide whether or not overclocking is “worth it”. The fact that you’re at this site reading this article is a sign that you’re at least open to the idea of overclocking. Keep reading. It was a bumpy, but always fun ride to get my systems to where they are today.
People often forget just how much bad press there was on the stigmatic practice of overclocking back in those ancient days when the home PC was just beginning to become part of a massive industry. In those days, saying you overclocked was akin to admitting you had leprosy, and trying to convince non-believers they should overclock was like trying to hug them with that disease. Bad stuff.
Here in Atlanta, GA, I read my first article on overclocking back in early 1992. It was one in a newspaper (remember those?). The writer was Bill Husted, and he had written a piece that detailed what people were doing with their machine’s CPUs, and why. I’d never heard of overclocking before, but obviously Bill didn’t know much more about it than I did.
He likened overclocking to supercharging an engine, which, although a somewhat accurate analogy, simplifies the process and factors associated with it. Bill’s conclusion was thus: There is a performance gain, but it’s not worth the increased system wear.
Some of you out there are nodding your heads in agreement. This ancient (in tech terms) commandment from a bygone era still holds true, you say. I can’t fault you-much. Too bad this is badly inaccurate, today.
Anywhere you looked in the industry at that time, you saw bad press on overclocking. It was really a taboo practice. You might be thinking it’s the same way today, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, overclocking is one of the hottest trends in the PC world, and more people are doing it successfully than ever before. More hardware and software now supports overclocking; and indeed, over the past few years we’ve gone from seeing hardware that supports bumping up MHz to hardware that is designed specifically for that purpose.
I went to only my second LAN party back in the Spring of 2000 and gave a hearty laugh when I entered the room. One of my buddies had the side of his case taken off and had parked a large room cooling fan next to it, hurling air into his case. I looked past the fan into his system and saw that he did indeed have a heatsink and fan present.
He had a Celeron 600 or so, and at the time I didn’t understand why he needed such bizarre cooling. Celerons at that time didn’t put out terribly much heat.
He calmly explained to me that he had overclocked his system 300 MHz. My jaw dropped-it was like someone had set a rotten, flaming corpse in front of me. I pointed at his system and shouted “Dude, you’re gonna kill that machine!” The fact that I had never even heard of a system with that much MHz at that time didn’t occur to me. I’d bought the propaganda, remember?
He looked up at me and just kinda’ laughed. Three years later, I’d be in his shoes.
When my terrible, glitchy factory-made system was finally passed on to someone else last year, I entered a period of time where I learned more about hardware in six months than I had the rest of my life. I’d tinkered with upgrades, formats, installing RAM – the usual baby stuff – but I hadn’t the guts to leave my crib up until it was time for me to buy my latest system.
A good friend suggested AMD and agreed to help me build my own system. The first home-built system is the point where most people discover overclocking for the first time. Out the door, my system was $600. We built her from scratch and my friend taught me how the entire way. It was an Athlon XP 1900+ with a very nice ABIT KX7-333R motherboard.
I realized my buddy was not only an overclocker, but a hardcore one at that. How could I tell? We had the system on its side with just the RAM, CPU and heatsink in, and while he was hitting the power button to boot the machine for the first time, his words were exactly: “I can’t wait to see what she’ll overclock too.”
That’s when you know you’re hardcore, people. We didn’t even have it built all the way and already the overclocker in him was itching to see what the new system could do. I couldn’t understand this impulse at the time. Why mess with something that’s working perfectly?
I told him flatly I wasn’t interested in overclocking. He told me to give it time. Again, it was my turn to laugh, but by buying the combination of hardware I’d gotten, I’d inadvertently given myself a good overclocker’s motherboard and a decent chip, as well.
A month later, in fact, I was overclocking. But why did I begin overclocking, and why should you?
Simply put, there is no reason NOT to overclock. Really, from a true overclocker’s perspective, unless you’re in a work environment there is little to no reason not to try your hand at overclocking. The fact that you’re practically getting a better deal on your hard-earned bucks for each CPU clock-tick gain (and visible performance improvements) is all the reason most be need. For me, what got my previously-stubborn self into overclocking my XP was the slow eroding of my hang-ups, or rather, misconceptions:
First, Heat, like other variables, can be controlled. Heat is the overclocker’s arch-enemy. Heat is the Pearl Harbor attack on what would have otherwise been a stabile MHz boost. If you have adequate cooling in place, you have no reason to be overly concerned. For most of us, this means that if you spent a decent amount of money on quality cooling supplies in the first place, you often don’t need further gear when you overclock.
Unbelievable? Not really. If you have good-performing components, enough of an overhead is usually left. It was certainly that way in my setup. In my system at the moment, I have a thermally-controlled intake fan that sits on the case above the CPU slot, where a second fan cools an SLK 600+.
I have Arctic Silver III on the CPU core. Beyond standard fans in the rest of the case, that’s it. I mean, my cooling setup didn’t run me $50, and yet I am running a 1700+ Tbred B with a great overclock and still getting temps around the 40’s Celsius. How? As any overclocker will tell you, it’s trial and error (more on that in a moment).
Many would-be overclockers are intimidated by the sheer extremes people will go to in an effort to overclock their components and draw conclusions about the hobby as a whole based on that. They see the water-park tubing of some cases, or hear the wonderful symphony of a Delta fan, and resign from trying at that point. This would be the equivalent of being afraid of driving just because you saw a Le Mans race.
Simply put, it’s entirely possible to overclock without going to extremes. Use your head and be fine. Why are these guys using some of the gear they are? Because it’s the thrill of the chase – which is, in my opinion, the true joy of overclocking. Again, it’s like racing. Once you’ve got the bug, you’re always looking for another 10 horsepower. But you don’t have to try for 700MHz leaps your first time through. For most of us, overclocking is done in patient, incremental cycles of tweak-and-test.
Overclocking to me is like taking X # of dollars and getting X + $50, $80, or whatever worth of performance instead. The great thing about it is that in this day and age, more components than ever (and more software programs than ever) are designed to make life for the overclocker easier than it ever has been.
I mean, look at it this way: The guys doing it back in the early 90’s were doing all of this by hand what today can almost entirely be done via motherboard or BIOS settings. There’s no need to worry about technical expertise – you don’t need to know too much to perform a basic overclocking. As you learn more, then you can advance your overclocking. But, as you’re about to see, the gear is usually forgiving if you mess up.
Remember my flaming tower? I have yet to see such a beast. Between all the components out there these days, you usually have several layers of protection against meltdown (the dreaded popping sound) without even being aware of it.
My motherboard supports a shutout instantly if my CPU passes a certain temp, and will also audibly beep me if my temp passes a point I determined. Many CPUs also have a “critical temp” shutdown temperature. With this and the monitoring software available, it has become extremely hard to fry a chip.
Is there still a risk? Sure there is. But most of the time, if you reach temps that are too high, your system will merely fail to post or will freeze, and there are many ways to “step back” from that point, such as resetting your CMOS jumpers. If you remember nothing else, remember this: with a little learning, the odds of you making a successful and stabile overclock are strongly in your favor. The odds, conversely, are much smaller at you blowing a chip.
After realizing all of these things, I figured I’d give overclocking a chance. My buddy was on hand to overclock my original 1900+ Palomino. We only made it up 150 MHz, but I was hooked. I beamed with pride – I’d learned more about the way my CPU works by overclocking than I ever had before.
Eventually I wanted more, and tried my hand at a newer chip model AMD had produced. This time there was no help from my friend. I bought a 1700+ Thoroughbred B, which is one of the best overclocker’s chips out at the moment. Whereas before I had needed my buddy to walk me through step-by-step, I had learned so much in just three months that I was ready to go it alone with this new chip.
The numbers were phenomenal. This chip arrived from the factory with multipliers unlocked (again, an example of how manufacturers are supporting overclocking in a kind of under-the-table deliberation). After a few days, I arrived where I am today: 1.957 GHz. No record setter, sure, but the moral is this: I knew nothing of overclocking six months ago, and here I am with a completely reliable 500 MHz overclock.
And you can do it, too. You should do it. Throw your hang-ups to the wind and start learning. The only thing my system ever burns is benchmark scores.