The practice of overclocking—or boosting computer chips to go faster than manufacturer settings—is an amazing technique for getting your computer zipping along at blistering rates. The caveat, of course, is that overclocking is seen as an arcane art, preached by specialists with an aptitude for dabbling with silicon. This is quickly becoming a misconception, however. Once exclusive to mighty tweakers, the wizardly world of overclocking is now expanding to everyone.
To put it simply, it is now much easier for anyone to mod their machine to warp-speed. In the days of Intel’s 8088 processors, one needed the determination to crack open their computer and twist some knobs on the processor to make games and applications fly. It was a long, drawn-out process. According to Tony Vera, Platform Marketing Manager at Intel, “You had to adjust your motherboard. Power it on. Do a bunch of tweaks in the bios. Reset the system. Bring it back up at the new frequency. And test to see if it was stable.” Then you had to decide whether to dial the power back or push ahead to new heights, he said.
For a stretch of time around the turn of the century, overclocking was seriously frowned upon by chip-makers. This was due in part to the unscrupulous business practice of re-marking, where racketeers would overclock chips and hawk them at a higher price. Restrictions abound, inadvertently casting the most enthusiastic information technology junkies as outlaws in the process. These were truly the dark days of overclocking.
In recent years, however, companies have loosened the reigns. High-end Intel Extreme edition processors, for instance, allow PC hobbyists to tweak their hearts out. Then the Intel K-series of overclock-able processors came along and made tricked-out PCs more commonplace. Even the Pentium G3258 allows for tooling around.
New advancements in computer architecture are democratizing the process even further, making mod culture viable even to those of us who aren’t brave enough to venture under the hood. “With dynamic overclocking, overclocking has become something you can do within the operating system,” explained Dan Ragland, who has been working for thirteen years on overclocked engineering and architecture at Intel. “Instead of having to open up the chassis and change a jumper, it became live, in real time.”
Ragland works closely with engineering teams to ensure that we all reap the benefits of whirling overclocked computer fans. One such instance is how Intel’s Turbo Boost technology will automatically reallocate computing power between different cores of a multi-core processor. “The concept is basically ‘Hey, you’re overclocking!’ but we’re doing it in such a way that it’s not really considered overclocking, so that your warranty doesn’t expire,” Ragland said.
Turbo Boost is taken care of by your system on the fly—a skill that has been learned from the lessons of overclocking throughout the years—but a huge part of the customizable fun is getting down and dirty in the technical details. Even this is becoming easier for the layman to do. “Can we get it to the point where it can all be done through a utility, and doing it real time?” Ragland rhetorically mused. “We’re getting there piece by piece,” he said, confirming how the ultimate goal is to develop an interface that allows you to rev up your computer with a few clicks of the mouse.
The stone-cold gearheads don’t need to worry about their favorite hobby being watered down. These advances in architecture provide even more nibs and knobs for them to get their hands dirty with. “That has also expanded vastly,” Ragland said. “Instead of only having three knobs, we are now exposing dozens and dozens of knobs, so if you want to go and mess around with all the nitty gritty that’s available, too.” From novice to expert, overclocking is introducing the whole spectrum to the wonders of engineering—all while making our computers go faster than ever before.