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'Overclockers' turn PCs into hot rods

The speed-obsessed computer enthusiasts spend their days souping up their machines with elaborate, expensive and often messy contraptions

Tom Leufkens remembers, all too well, the day he looked inside his computer and discovered a block of ice growing there.

Since computers aren't supposed to be good ice makers, a lot of people might have found the sight disconcerting. But Leufkens, a 27-year-old self-employed engineer in Las Vegas, knew right away what was wrong. His "overclocking" gear had malfunctioned, causing atmospheric moisture to condense and freeze, the way it does in a kitchen freezer. He calmly repaired the problem and soon had his PC up and running -- fast -- again.

Life isn't simple for "overclockers," a speed-obsessed breed of computer enthusiasts who are the tech world's equivalent of automotive hot rodders. Both spend their days souping up their machines with elaborate, expensive and often messy contraptions, with no apparent regard for personal comfort or common sense.

Overclocking started when some computer techies who couldn't afford the latest and speediest computer chip decided they wanted one anyhow. The name overclocking comes from the liberties they took with the chip's clock speed -- the fixed rate at which it is set to run, which for the average home PC these days is around 600MHz.

Hidden deep inside computers are controls that can be adjusted to make microprocessors run faster than intended by manufacturers, usually Intel or Advanced Micro Devices. Overclockers fiddle with these controls to make a 600MHz chip run like, say, a more expensive 900MHz chip.

A hotbed of cooling technology

Getting the chip to speed up is the easy part. The problem is that as a result, the chip also runs hotter -- much hotter than manufacturers recommend -- and can get so hot that it stops working altogether. And that's where overclocking gets interesting.

If you thought Silicon Valley was a hotbed of innovation, you should see what overclockers have rigged up to cool their chips and keep them humming. Simple water-cooling systems are common: Tubes connect a chamber right next to the microprocessor to a cooling apparatus. Liquid circulates, cooling the system in essentially the same way water cools a nuclear power plant.

Many overclockers go much further, using whirring fans or intricate networks of plastic or copper tubes. On several Web sites frequented by overclockers, enthusiasts post pictures of their rigs in a kind of "Can You Top This?" contest to see who has the most Rube Goldbergian setup.

Overclockers will, quite commonly, hook up disemboweled air conditioners to their machines. Justin Wilson, of Santa Rosa, California, uses a motorcycle radiator to cool his PC.

Mishaps of the wallet and body

Overclocking usually begins with a desire to wring more performance out of a chip than was paid for. But overclockers admit that as the hobby takes off, thrift often goes out the window. They can easily spend hundreds of dollars building their rigs, far more than the $150 (£94.60) or so that a faster chip might cost.

"You might start with a 400MHz Pentium II and wonder if you can push that to 533," said Chris Angelini, a freshman at the University of California at Los Angeles. "But instead of just going out and buying a new chip, you might buy, oh, a heat sink instead. Then, all of a sudden, you are buying thermal paste, too. Then you say to yourself, 'I might as well just go ahead and get a water-cooled system.' "

In their greed for speed, overclockers say no detail is too small. For example, if the surface of a chip isn't completely flat, tiny air pockets will develop, interfering with temperature reduction. And so overclockers take ultrafine sandpaper and grind down the surface of their microprocessor, a process, known as "lapping," that is fraught with risks. "If you lap a chip too much, then you expose the die of the chip, and it won't work anymore," says Justin Emerson, an overclocker and avid gamer who works for PlanetAllegiance.com, a Web gaming site.

Other mishaps are common. Overclockers always are cutting themselves on the fans they install or burning themselves on hot chips. Sometimes, the cooling unit breaks down, and the chip actually melts, "China Syndrome"-style. Or the cooler works too well and starts freezing the atmospheric moisture inside the PC.

That was how Leufkens came to have ice in his PC. "I turned it off and cleared out the ice right away," he said. "Boy, was that ever a learning experience."

Just as there are in the bigger technology world, sometimes there are paradigm shifts in overclocking. One stems from the breakthrough work of Eric Caward, a Boise, Idaho, computer technician who is known as "Dr. Ffreeze" in overclocking circles. His insight: Instead of trying to cool down the microprocessor by connecting it to a cooling apparatus, why not simply immerse the entire motherboard in liquid?

After some research, Caward hit on the idea of a mineral-oil bath for motherboards. Mineral oil doesn't conduct electricity, and so he rounded up several cases. "People were asking me what I was going to do with all of it," he recalls. "It's normally used as a laxative."

He built a Styrofoam case and then put his motherboard inside, keeping the disk drives and other moving parts outside. He then filled the case with mineral oil, and turned on the PC. The result was disappointing. The oil didn't circulate enough to cool things down.

Since then, Caward has improved performance by adding pumps, coils and other gear. The process sometimes got messy, with mineral oil spilling everywhere. But his machine got faster, and he plans to keep at it. "I am a very patient individual," he says.

It's very fast! Now what? And what do overclockers do with these faster computers? Not much, actually. The most popular application involves running a measuring program that proves exactly how much faster the overclocked chip is running. Overclockers make printouts of these speed readings and send them to each other.

Games like "Doom" also are popular. Overclockers who play them say the faster chips help them outlast their competitors. "If you don't care a lot about getting killed, you're probably not going to care a lot about overclocking," said Alex Ross, creator of SharkyExtreme, a Web site devoted to hardware.

Chip makers say that overclocking can reduce the life span of a computer chip, a warning that overclockers scoff at. "The average chip has a life span of 10 years," said Kyle Bennett, whose Web site, HardOCP, also is popular with overclockers. "Who cares if you do something to make the chip last only eight years? It's going to be a dog by then anyway."

To appreciate the lengths to which overclockers will go, consider Michael Hale, a Denver dentist, whose overclocking rig includes a gutted-out refrigerator. The contraption fills an entire spare room at Hale's practice. One weekend he stopped by his office when the heat was turned off and noticed that his computer was running even faster in the chilly air than it did in a heated room. He now plans to move the machine to an unheated crawl space next to his office, running a long cable from there to his desk.

Why doesn't he just go all the way and put his PC outdoors? "That," he explains, "just wouldn't be very practical."

Peter Jackson's analogy that skateboarders are merely frustrated surfers nowhere near the beach, begs the question -- what makes overclockers frustrated? Chip technology has three historical roots go with Peter to read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

If AMD's new processor can outperform Intel's then a fuzzy name will be a nice bit of icing on the cake -- if they can't, I really doubt that warm and cuddly branding will make a bit of difference. Go with Guy Kewney to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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