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PC 'overclockers' risk danger for faster machines

Although their tinkering nullifies warranties and can even do PCs harm, people who make a hobby of pushing processors past their limits are willing to take the risks.


PC "overclockers" risk danger for faster machines

By David Becker
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
March 1, 2001, 4:00 a.m. PT

Tom Leufkens has outfitted his PC with a rejiggered aquarium pump and a gadget once used to carry automotive power-steering fluid. He has even experimented with a special PC case equipped with a small refrigerator compressor.

All this for a little more speed on the computer.

Leufkens is one of a growing number of people known as "overclockers"--hobbyists who push microprocessors and other PC components way past their intended limits. Although their tinkering nullifies warranties and can even do physical harm to a machine, overclockers are willing to take such risks to get a computer that runs at twice the speed it did the day it came from the store.

"It's kind of addicting. There's always another trick to try," says Leufkens, who has turned his hobby into a business through Leufken Technologies, which sells custom-built cooling systems for overclockers. "I've seen people doing tests with liquid nitrogen. That's a little much. People shouldn't be messing with that. It's too dangerous."

The practice dates back to the earliest days of the PC era, when making a chip run faster was a simple and comparatively safe matter of raising the speed limit on the BIOS of the computer's motherboard. With a basic working knowledge of the hardware, a PC buff could get a 33MHz chip to run at a teeth-rattling 50MHz.

Chipmakers have long tolerated overclocking by hobbyists, simply warning that their experiments could negate warranties. "What you do with your machine in the privacy of your own home is pretty much your own business," Intel spokesman Manny Vera said. "We just like people to understand the risks involved."

However, the practice is not confined to backyard scientists. Overclocking has been used by "re-markers," counterfeiters who pass off slower-speed chips as more advanced models.

As the practice becomes more widely used, the computer industry is more concerned than ever about the potential dangers from overheated machines--which can actually catch fire, in the most extreme cases. Last month, leading chipmaker Intel said heat and power consumption are going to be increasingly important factors in processor design.

The heat is on
Whether a chip is originally built to be fast or is overclocked later, its speed corresponds directly with its temperature. Because heat can fry a PC quicker than a pancake on a griddle, some extremists even try to immerse entire motherboards in subzero chemicals.

Mark Smith, founder of Overclocked Cafe, a Web site where overclockers share tips and how-tos, says 96 percent of hobbyists are satisfied with speed boosts modest enough to be handled by simple steps such as installing an additional fan or a bigger heat sink.

But hard-core overclockers aspire to bump system speeds by as much as 300MHz or more. Overclocker Tom Honaker of Niceville, Fla., for example, has a 700MHz Pentium III running at 1,035MHz. At that level, it takes more than a little extra air to keep a processor from burning up.

The most common solution is water cooling, using the same methods--sometimes the same parts--that keep your car's engine from melting. Companies such as Leufkens' sell ready-to-install water-cooling kits, but cost-conscious overclockers build their own from everyday items, such as aquarium pumps and coffee cans.

Especially on the do-it-yourself side, it's not a step to be taken without plenty of education.

"At first, you're kind of worried having water alongside electronic components," said Ron DeLeos, an overclocker from Columbia, Md. "The best thing to do is run the system outside of the case overnight and make sure there are no leaks."

Leufkens says that in the past year, water cooling systems have gone from about 10 percent of his business to 40 percent, putting him on track to at least double sales to $300,000 this year. He gives a big chunk of the credit to chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices.

"The reason I'm selling so many water cooling systems is AMD's Thunderbird. It runs twice as hot as anything out there, so you need to be more aggressive with cooling if you're going to overclock it much."

Besides water, the other main cooling option for heavy-duty overclockers is a "peltier," or an electrically charged heat sink that acts as a thermal transfer device. The top of the peltier can reach temperatures up to 600 degrees, while the bottom side that touches the processor is frosty cold. The main danger with peltiers is that the extreme temperature differences can produce condensation when the PC is turned off, creating the possibility of short circuits.

Honaker says a peltier setup allows him to keep his processor running at a brisk 45 degrees, but not without some work. "To do that, I had to waterproof practically every component in my system because condensation is such a concern," he said.

For the truly extreme overclocker, there are options such as the VapoChill, a PC case manufactured by Danish company Asetek that includes a small refrigeration compressor, which bathes processors in a subzero chill. Or you can stick the whole PC in an actual refrigerator, as some have tried.

Multiple motives
Most overclockers start out with simple, practical motives: They need a little more computing juice but can't afford to buy a new system. DeLeos said he needed a faster system for video editing and Web design work. Overclocking allowed him to do the job with a small investment and some elbow grease.

"For my little mess-around system, I have my Celeron 556 running" at over 1 gigahertz, he said. "That's a big performance boost for less than $100," the amount he spent on a water cooling system.

Graphics-intensive computer games such as "Quake III" are the most common reason for overclockers to strive for more processing power. A faster PC can be the difference between virtual life and death, leading serious players to do whatever they can to gain a few megahertz.

"I think Quake has played a fairly large role," says Overclocked Cafe's Smith. "Gamers are always trying to get the almighty frame rate higher and higher. What Quake has done is make overclocking less of a niche thing and really bring it into the mainstream."

After awhile, however, some overclockers begin to pursue speed for speed's sake. The PC becomes more of a tool for running benchmarks--tests that document performance--than an entertainment or business machine.

"You do it mainly because you can do it," says overclocker Charles Blevins of Austin, Texas. "The big thing is just running the benchmarks; it's the bragging rights. I suppose it sounds nerdy to someone who's not a real big PC hobbyist."

There's also a certain thrill that comes from beating the reaper.

Knowledgeable overclockers can keep a system running smoothly for years, but risks still abound. The most common overclocking techniques increase the power supplied to everything connected to the motherboard, meaning that graphics processors, hard drives and other components may overheat or perform erratically. But stray cooling fluids can short out components, and a wrong setting or loose screw can wreak havoc.

"I've had stuff short out," Blevins said. "They call it the mystical smoke, this bluish-gray haze that comes out of the back of the PC."

Physical injury is even a possibility. "You're dealing with a lot of heat," Blevins said. "I've had friends get third-degree burns working on their systems."

Finally, there's the social risk that comes with turning into a full-bore hardware geek.

"I still get people giving me funny looks whenever I mention I have an aquarium pump in my computer," Honaker said. "It's hard to explain. Probably the best way to describe it is a little touch of insanity." 


That bargain PC you picked up at the swap meet is starting to act funny, spitting out bad data, making odd noises and emanating a smell reminiscent of an overworked model train.

Congratulations: You've fallen for one of the oldest scams in the PC book. Tech-savvy con artists known as "re-markers" overclock and alter the appearance of processors to pass them off as speedier, more expensive models. Re-marked chips most often end up in budget no-name PCs sold at flea markets, small Web operations and other hard-to-trace places.

The practice is almost as old as the PC itself and may have reached a peak several years ago, amid feverish computer sales growth and soaring processor prices.

However, Intel spokesman Manny Vera estimates that re-marked chips now account for way less than 1 percent of the 150 million processors that went on the market last year, thanks partly to techniques used by Intel and other chipmakers to thwart widespread overclocking.

"Some of the technologies we've been implementing in our processors have made it a lot more difficult to overclock," Vera says. "It's like everything else: If you really want to break it, you'll find a way. But if we slow them down so that it takes the re-markers a couple of months to figure out how to do it, you really cut down the opportunity for them to make money doing this."

Advanced Micro Devices has made changes in its manufacturing process that make it nearly impossible to alter the appearance of the chip, spokesman Drew Prairie said. "We take a laser and we mark the frequency and the product name on the die, so it's virtually impossible for someone to alter that writing," he said.

Vera also credits increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies and chipmakers and the availability of tests such as Intel's Frequency ID Utility, which lets consumers quickly know if a chip is running at its rated speed.

Still, determined crooks have found ways to circumvent just about every anti-re-marking measure imposed by chipmakers, leaving much of the responsibility with consumers to make sure they're getting genuine goods. Consumers should be suspicious of any deal that sounds too good to be true, advises Sgt. Nick Muyo, the San Jose, Calif., Police Department's representative on REACT, a multi-agency task force targeting computer crime.

And know whom you're buying from, Muyo warns. Problems with re-marked chips often don't appear until after a PC has been in use for a year or longer, giving crooks a lengthy head start.

"A little bit of common sense goes a long way," Muyo says. "For starters, don't buy from someone where the only contact you have is a Hotmail address. You'd be surprised how many people do that."



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