The future of PCs lies in underclocking and overclocking

When I mention the word "underclock," I am greeted by big frowns from my PC enthusiast friends. How dare I suggest that they lower their CPU or system speed!
Written by George Ou, Contributor

When I mention the word "underclock," I am greeted by big frowns from my PC enthusiast friends. How dare I suggest that they lower their CPU or system speed! When I mention the word "overclock" to my corporate friends, I get the frown because I might void their warrantees with these geekishly juvenile modifications. When I mention overclock or underclock to the corporate bean counter, again I get the same frown because I'm asking for an extra $80 per computer for better components that are power and thermal efficient. But by the time they finish this blog, they'll all smiling.

Would you buy a car that always left the engine at full throttle and only controlled speed of the car with the clutch? You probably wouldn't because you would be spending 10 times more money on gasoline. The same is true of PCs, because they do operate at "full throttle" and typically burn up 200 watts continuously even when the CPU or disk subsystem lay mostly idle. I know you can put your PC in suspend mode, but then that PC is useless during that time and most people don't want that. While that doesn't cost as much as gasoline for your car, it is costing you $20 per month and it probably costs much more than that to cool the heat vented from your computer. Now multiply this by 100 for the typical office and you're throwing out thousands of dollars a month, which is probably more costly than your Internet connection!For data centers, it is costing millions of dollars a year.

Just about now, every bean counter and business owner reading this probably sat straight up. For the home user, nobody really likes to throw out $20 a month and I even know some people who spend over $100 a month for the PC room, which might even be higher than their static IP DSL account. Dynamic underclocking solves this problem, but the power user is still not satisfied because you can never have enough computing power. That's where dynamic overclocking comes in. The fact is, even the most power hungry user doesn't need his PC running at full throttle and probably only needs it a third of the time. A car enthusiast would probably never buy a Geo Metro, but they would probably buy a car that can behave like a fuel efficient Metro under normal driving conditions but burn rubber and gasoline like a Ferrari whenever they feel the need for speed. Of course, it's very unlikely that you could engineer a high performance muscle car to also be economical and fuel efficient, but it's very possible to engineer a PC like this. Notebook computers already do this because of their battery life limitations.

The popular Neo series of mother boards from MSI (Micro Star International, a major brand mother board manufacturer) takes a more intelligent approach to PC overclocking by only jacking up the GHz the few times you really need it (when that next frag is around the corner or when you're trying to encode some MP3s), rather than brute force overclocking all the time need it or not. On the other side of the spectrum, the embedded platform people (those who want a low power, low noise appliance) purposely lower the voltage and MHz of their processors to the sub-500 MHz range so that they can operate without a fan and with minimal power requirements. With these characteristics, the appliance (such as a custom access point and/or firewall) can be placed in remote regions such that the PC can even be powered over the same Ethernet cable carrying data and electricity. All that is needed is a PC that dynamically incorporates both underclocking as well as overclocking to give us the best of both worlds - performance and economy -- when you need it. (Are you listening, MSI?) Now that Intel, AMD, and all the other processor makers have all been in violation of Moore's law in delivering double the performance of CPUs every 18 months, there really hasn't been much reason to buy a new PC. Intel, for example, has been stuck in the 3 GHz range for nearly two years. In order for the for PC market to continue to florish, it must expand into the living room and all other facets of life and it won't get there with its loud, bulky, heat-generating, electric-bill generating form.

Although the CPU is one of the biggest power users in a modern PC, it is not the only component for an environmentally/sonically/fiscally friendly PC. Many other things need to be done, some of which are already mandatory in Europe. Here is a complete list of things that must be done.

  • Power supplies must implement Active Power Factor Correction (required in Europe). This increases the power supply efficiency from a typical 60 percent to over 90 percent.
  • CPUs, with help from the motherboard, must dynamically underclock and overclock based on the need of the application being run. An ultra-low voltage CPU running silent 500 MHz mode can easily run 90 percent of our computing tasks like Office applications, MP3 play back, and DVD playback. Only when applications such as games or multimedia encoding are needed should the CPU instantly burst up to a 3.6 GHz power-guzzling mode.
  • Hard drives should drop to sub-1,000 RPMs to reduce power and noise yet still be able to easily support a DVD playback and most file serving. For I/O or throughput intensive applications, the hard drive should spin up to 15,000 RPMs.
  • High-end video cards with GPUs (which are almost as power hungry as CPUs) must also throttle down power and clock cycles (which may be achieved with the mother board).
  • All fans from the power supply, to CPU, GPU, and chassis must be dynamically adjustable (to zero, if appropriate) to minimize noise and power consumption. They should also leverage large, slow rotating fans to reduce noise even in full throttle operation in a way similar to Zalman. The noise from a PC is one of the most obnoxious things about a PC.

The bottom line is, a PC should perform like a Ferrari when needed, but shouldn't demand more fuel than a Geo Metro since even the most battle hardened gamer can't go full throttle more than a quarter of the time on his PC. The silence will be appreciated and the money saved can go to a better Internet connection. For the corporate world, a quick look at their electricity bill and the realization that they're wasting millions of dollars a year will have have them smiling and seeing the ROI in this technology instead of discounting it as the next geek fad on some PC enthusiast's Web site.

Editorial standards