Overclocking Versus Industry Hype—Technical Background – how to Tweak Your PC to Unleash Its Power

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Chapter 2: Overclocking Versus Industry Hype—Technical Background

Overview

The popularity of overclocking has undergone extensive growth within the tech enthusiast community as a response to the increasing costs of maintaining a cutting- edge yet affordable PC. Overclocking serves as a solution to the high prices associated with today’s latest processors. Trying to keep pace with the latest releases in processor technologies can become costly, as new releases of increased speed ranges become available at an exponential rate compared to just a few years ago.

No longer do just a few megahertz (MHz) separate the fastest processors from the slowest within a single processor family. For just one processor design, today’s market offers processor speed ranges of several hundred MHz, though the manufacturer’s associated pricing strategies of this business model do not benefit you. Processor manufacturers spend millions of dollars to hype the “latest designs,” when in reality the newest processors are little more than the same processor core operating at a higher MHz rating. The pricing of each speed-rated processor varies as widely as the hype surrounding the MHz rating game. As illustrated by Figure 2-1, where we look at the Intel Pentium 4 processor as an example, the cost of the higher- speed processors often exceeds the cost of the lower-speed processors of the same processor family by hundreds of dollars. Overclocking successfully circumvents the industry’s hype by working to obtain maximum performance from the more cost- efficient lower spectrum of a particular processor family.

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Figure 2-1: Intel Pentium 4 retail pricing and speed range

Overclocking allows users to select lower speed, and thus lower cost, grades of a processor family, then increase the clock speed of the processor core to a level that is comparable to the upper-range processors of that processor family. A properly designed overclocking implementation can often exceed the speed ratings of the latest processors available while utilizing much lower-cost processors to minimize expense. Overclocking existing systems may prove more problematic compared to building a system with overclocking in mind, but the potential for increasing operating speeds by several percent still remains a reality for the widest range of designs.

Processor manufacturers are well aware of the overclocking community, but most do little to circumvent such efforts, since the majority of mainstream computer users know little about the processes and procedures involved in overclocking. Still, the industry has implemented various features to deter overclocking attempts over the years. Such attempts have been implemented across all stages of processor design, from the earliest engineering to the latest fabrication stages of production. Some manufacturers have even attempted complete locking of processor core operating speeds, known as clock locking. Fortunately, the cost of implementing clock locking has limited its introduction within the retail market segment of the industry.

Prebuilt Versus Custom Systems

Preconfigured systems from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) offer clear pricing advantages for initial retail cost, though the long-term maintenance and upgrade costs may be significantly higher compared to a custom configured system from a smaller system integrator, local vendor, or self-build. OEM-assembled systems are clearly not the choice for maximum overclocking potential, but the possibility of successfully overclocking these systems remains high due to increased efforts of the enthusiast community to provide overclocking-related information, custom software, and hardware hacks for OEM-assembled computers.

OEM systems are commonly built atop hardware with minimal overclocking capabilities to minimize costs associated with supporting end-user overclocking attempts. Owners of such systems must often look to online enthusiast communities for specialized procedures and tricks for successful overclocking. Thus, it’s trickier to overclock OEM-configured systems, but the rewards in terms of increased operating speeds and improved performance can rival that of a custom-built overclocking system.

Note OEMs have no desire to support overclocking options within their system

designs. Overclocking not only voids component warranties, but also it can lead to system instability and component failures for those users unwilling to undertake the precautions required for successful overclocking. Integrating support for overclocking would lead to a customer support nightmare for these large corporations.

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Table 2-1: The Pros and Cons of OEM- and Custom-Configured Systems

System Type

Pros Cons

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OEM

Configured

 Low upfront cost

 Easy to acquire

 Higher upgrade cost

 Difficult overclocking

Custom Configured

 Superior overclocking potential

 Every component tailored exactly to your computing needs

 Less expensive upgrades

 Self-build requires some specialized knowledge to select and assemble system components

 Increased upfront cost

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The cost of implementing overclocking-friendly components within a system would serve to increase retail prices for the consumer market segment.

Overclocking-capable systems are generally built atop quality hardware developed for direct retail sales to consumers, while OEM systems are usually built utilizing mass-produced, off-the-shelf components in the hopes of lowering production costs. While overclocking is still a possibility for many OEM system owners, aftermarket custom-configured systems offer superior overclocking potential for enthusiasts.

A custom-configured (or self-built) system can provide optimum tweaking options to offer the most potential for successful overclocking. The effort required to either build or attain overclocking-friendly systems is more intensive than an off-the-shelf retail system from a major OEM manufacturer, but the enhanced overclocking potential is clearly evident. When building your own custom-configured system, you can also precertify each of the system’s components for its “overclockability” by researching product reviews and articles from a variety of publications, such as popular hardware review websites like those in Table 2-2.

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Table 2-2: Recommended Websites for Precertifying the Overclockability of Hardware Components

Website Name Website Address

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Ace’s Hardware http://www.aceshardware.com

AnandTech http://www.anandtech.com

HardOCP http://www.hardocp.com

TechIMO http://www.techimo.com

Overclockers.com http://www.overclockers.com

Overclocking Examples

Examples of typical overclocking scenarios offer better illustrations of the cost savings and performance improvements than any amount of technical data. Table 2- 3 reflects a substantial savings in cost for an overclocked slower-speedrated processor versus a nonoverclocked faster-speed-rated processor, for both AMD and Intel processors. Both the AMD Athlon and the Intel Pentium 4 represent the latest architectures from each of the largest industry players. Each platform offers rated processors that scale several hundred MHz within the same model family, with prices varying widely from the lowest to highest MHz offerings.

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Table 2-3: Cost Analysis of an Overclocked, Slower-Rated Processor Versus a Nonoverclocked, Faster-Rated Processor

Processor to Overclock

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Market Price[*]

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Potential Overclock[**]

Equivalent to Overclocked Speed

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Equivalent Cost[*]

Comparative Savings

Intel Pentium 4 2000 MHz

$143

2600 MHz

Intel Pentium 4

2600 MHz

$378

62%

AMD Athlon XP 1600+ @

1400 MHz

$53

1800 MHz

AMD Athlon XP 2100+ @ 1800

MHz

$141

62%

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[*]Average market prices as of 4/11/02.

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[**]May not be typical of all processor samples.

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The Athlon Thunderbird series of processors offers a great example of overclocking potential. A typical entry-level AMD system now comes configured with a 1000 MHz Thunderbird processor, as this chip offers a great price to performance ratio.

However, overclocking can serve to further extend that ratio by allowing the processor to operate at a speed beyond the factory-defined 1000 MHz rating. For example, many of the best 1000 MHz Thunderbird processors can be overclocked to 1200+ MHz with little more than a minor change in the system’s user-configurable BIOS configuration setup or motherboard jumper settings. The potential exists for even higher overclocking ranges with additional user effort, such as improving case

or processor cooling to maintain better thermal regulation in order to reach higher core processor operating speeds.

Intel’s latest Pentium 4 platform offers superb overclocking potential assuming the user thinks ahead when designing and assembling a custom-configured system. Even the earliest Pentium 4 1.5-GHz processors can usually attain 1.7+ GHz with little effort beyond a single change in the system’s BIOS setup or motherboard jumper settings. As with the first example, those willing to undertake additional effort to increase cooling capabilities and other system design aspects can often witness much improved overclocking potential. Many of the best Pentium 4 1.5-GHz processors can attain operating speeds upwards of 2 GHz with a careful and patient system design plan.

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