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The overclocking community gets nostalgic

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Like car fanatics who modify new or classic models to make them look and perform better, a growing overclocking community of passionate PC modders is pushing the limits of old and new computer technologies.

In the world of computer modding, overclocking is the dark art of custom tuning computer parts to achieve a performance boost. The unbridled passion for tinkering with chips and specs is spreading across generations, pulling this dark art out of the shadows. “Overclocking has evolved into a sport,” said Dan Ragland, an engineer at Intel. “It has really taken off in the last 5 years.”

Nerdy Ninjas Render Rig Travis JanksNerdy Ninjas Render Rig, by Travis Janks

Overclocking has become a phenomenon as more people custom-tune the stock performance of their computer hardware. Traditionally this has been done by entering the computer’s basic input/output system (BIOS) to adjust the stock clock speeds as well as the voltage going to the components. A number of settings can be tweaked, including the speed of the processor, graphics card and memory. An overclocked computer can lead to better gaming performance or bragging rights for breaking benchmark records.

In recent years, new tools like the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility, make overclocking quick and easy. There’s no shortage of forums, Facebook pages, modding competitions and video series like the recent Expert Mode: Rig Wars series.

overclocking is a dark art

While many are poised to break speed records tweaking the first line of 10-core Intel Extreme Edition processors, overclockers on the other side of the spectrum focus on tweaking older, more archaic tech. There’s even a monthly contests known as the Old School is Best School challenge, where modders show off their hardware skills with a nostalgic twist.

At overclocking competitions, the team who brings its various computer components to the fastest speed without frying the motherboard wins, but when the overclocker uses retro equipment, including outdated processors and obsolete graphic cards, it can change the game.

“There is a lot of nostalgia in this for me,” said Pontus Arvidsson, a 27 year-old overclocker on the team TechSweden. “I was quite young then and couldn’t afford to buy everything I wanted. [The appeal] is based on what I dreamt about getting my hands on.”

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Work and photo by modder Max1024 from Belarus 

In the second round of the contest, for instance, teams were limited to the first generation of Pentium 4 processors, which came out 16 years ago. To everyone’s amazement, Stelaras, an overclocker from Greece, won the round by pushing a 1.5GHz processor to the speed of 2,220MHz, 48 percent faster than it was intended to go.

the thrill comes from doing something that seems impossible

In Old School events, the thrill comes from doing something that seems impossible.  Of course, all the fascination with out-of-date tech comes at a price. Even when ridiculously overclocked, old components could never dream of matching the capabilities of today’s stock chips. New processors need to be powerful enough for live-streaming and playing games with beautiful graphics at the same time, according to Intel’s Mark Chang. “Current generation CPUs already come with so much power and performance that most people don’t find it necessary to overclock their CPUs,” said Chang. “However, the ability to customize the system to get exactly the performance you want is one of the coolest, most unique aspects of the PC.” A decade ago almost all processors were overclockable, but now only specific performance processors come “unlocked” and ready for overclocking.

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Work and photo by Macsbeach98

One of the big shifts since manufactures began selling processors unlocked is the rise of products built from the ground up for overclockers, said Travis Jank, owner of NexGen Computing and modder who competed in “Expert Mode.” Jank has a library of every processor since 2002, before the release of software-assisted overclocking existed. “With new technologies, you can push performance 200 to 300 percent right out of the box. Tell me another product that can do that!”

new hardware is almost becoming too good for overclocking

For members of the Old School community, overclocking retro hardware may be tedious but it’s way more fun than tweaking new tech. The art can be fascinating as a way to test a competitor’s mettle, and in the community’s eyes, old chips actually lead to a higher level of competition. Old Schoolers prefer old tech to new because it’s relatively easy to destroy a chip while overclocking it, and zapping a $300 piece of equipment in the heat of a competition hurts. “The competitions are quite popular because they are cheap to enter,” said Pieter-Jan Plaisier, director of the HWBOT overclocking community. “Even if you break the hardware, replacing it isn’t a big problem.” In addition to keeping the costs down, Plaisier said that old hardware is rife with technical and electrical challenges that competitors need to overcome.“Overclocking the old components requires a lot of research,” he said.

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Work and photo by Max1024

Many overclockers view the unfriendly qualities of old technology as a good thing when it comes to battles for supremacy. “With old tech, you need to be able to handle a soldering iron — that was a must to be a good overclocker just five years ago,” said Arvidsson, referring to how overclockers need a hand tool that melts pieces of metal onto the circuitry. “Nowadays, you don’t even need to think about soldering on modern chips.” In his view, new hardware is almost becoming too good for overclocking competitions. “Because the motherboards nowadays are really advanced, most of the things just work, but on those old ones you really need to modify them to get the most out of your hardware.”

Just like the most extreme overclockers — those who do things like cool their CPUs down to sub-100 degree temperatures with liquid nitrogen — old school tech modders love perfecting the imperfect. “Even if you buy the best motherboard, you know that it is far from perfect,” he said. “You know that there are a lot of modifications that you need to do to get the full potential out of it.” Ultimately, it’s precisely that untapped potential that keeps innovative overclockers — of old and new technology — coming back for more.

Ken Kaplan contributed to this story.

Check out these links to learn more about gaming tech such as the Intel Core i7 Extreme Edition processor, Turbo Boost Max technology 3.0 and overclocking.