HWBOT Tales of Taipei #4 - "Extreme computers: A look at overclocking competition" (OCTV video)

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HWBOT Tales of Taipei #4 – “Extreme computers: A look at overclocking competition” (OCTV video)

Author: Pieter-Jan Plaisier

Back in September, Timothée (Xyala) from Overclocking-TV was in Taiwan for a couple of weeks to cover the MSI Master Overclocking Arena 2012 Grand Final as well as prepare his move to Australia. In between the Grand Final and Xyala boarding the plane to Down Under, we worked on a short documentary on Extreme Overclocking competitions. After weeks of editing, Timothée finished the documentary and has finally published the work. Enjoy! (PS: underneath you can also find the original transcript of the documentary).

OCTV Video: “Extreme computers: A look at overclocking competition”

Original Transcript

Driving cars, riding a bike, walking up a mountain and even ironing a shirt. All these and many other trivial daily activities have their extreme counterpart as people take them out of their normal context and redefine the essence of the activity. F1 racing is perhaps the most obvious example as extreme outlet of driving a car and over the past decade the Red Bull Corporation has taken all kinds of sports to an extreme level. Just think about the Crashed Ice downhill ice-skating or free-ride snowboarding. It seems that every activity can be turned into an extreme sport nowadays. Including, yes, something as mundane as working with your computer.

This extreme sports outlet is called extreme overclocking and involves blowing stuff up as well as liquid nitrogen and blasting blowtorches. The usual extreme, in other words.

Over the course of this documentary, we have a look at what this extreme overclocking is all about.

Put in the most simple terms possible, overclocking is essentially increasing the performance of computer component by adjusting the operating frequency beyond factory settings. Years ago, overclocking was the main method of making sure your old PC could run the software applications you wanted to use. As computer components are not cheap, for students overclocking was the common way to circumvent low budgets. A free performance upgrade, if you will.

Over the years, innovation after innovation, overclocking lost its practical relevance and the overclocking scene moved on to extreme overclocking. The main goal for these extreme overclockers is no longer to get the free performance upgrade, but just to have the fastest system. And the industry caught on as well! What once was a small enthusiast community hobby turned into a scene sporting worldwide global competitions supported by leading computer industrials.

In September 2012, we attended the world finals of one of these global events called the MSI Master Overclocking Arena. Throughout the weekend we followed these extreme overclockers and tried to figure out how they turned something as trivial as working with a PC into an extreme sport.

For the grand final of their annual overclocking world championship, MSI, a well-known brand amongst gamers and pc enthusiasts, flew out thirty-two extreme overclockers to Taipei Taiwan. In case you didn’t know, Taipei is pretty much the center of computer hardware as many of the vendors have their headquarters in the capital of Taiwan. Each of the sixteen teams had survived a regional qualifier thus proving worthy for the Grand Final.

In this competition, each team receives the same set of hardware. Over the course of six hours, the goal is to achieve the best overclocking results. MSI, organizer of this competition, had come up with an intricate formula to rate each team’s performance. The formula was based on the percentual gain over a reference score of three different benchmarks. A benchmark is a software application designed to measure the performance of a computer system and present it as an easy-to-compare single figure.

We first meet up with the extreme overclockers when they arrive at the hotel. Most of the overclockers know each other from previous competitions and events. Even though this is a real competition, most of the overclockers consider each other more as friends than real adversaries.

The day after the arrival, the competitors are driven to National Taiwan University Sports Center venue. We sense that the heartwarming welcome of the previous day slowly changes into a tense competition atmosphere. Some of the competitors are trying to get over the stress by talking complete non-sense while others isolate themselves from the group and try to gain focus for the competition.

Finally, the green light is given and the extreme overclockers make their way into venue. As they enter, a line of bystanders is giving them a real superstar welcome forming an honor guard and cheering loudly.

Once the Master Judge of the competition has gone over the rules and details, the overclockers pick up their components and start preparing their configurations.

To be able to use computer components for extreme overclocking, they need to undergo a special treatment. This procedure is necessary to protect the components from early burn-out due to temperature or condensation problems.

Every overclocker has their own way of preparing the system for extreme overclocking. Some prefer vaseline, others choose artistic eraser or an insulation foam called armaflex. When asking the competitors which is the best way to prepare the system, we get about thirty-two different answers. In the end, it all seems to come down personal preference and perhaps even superstition. In any case, the preparation is a critical part of the competition. Condensation is an extreme overclocker’s worst enemy: it can cause hardware failure and that means an early retire from the competition.

The competition is split up in three stages. The first stage is one hour and a half long, and is centered around the “SuperPI 32M” benchmark. This benchmark mainly stresses the processor, implicating that the main focus of this round is the processor frequency. The benchmark calculates the Pi number to 32 million decimals. The less time needed to complete the calculation, the better you rank. Many hardcore overclockers have a soft spot for this almost mythical benchmark as it’s been around since the beginning of modern overclocking.

The second part of the competition requires a different skillset as we move focus from the processor to the graphics card. This benchmark is called 3DMark03 and although it’s been around for nine years now, it’s still challenging enough to be relevant in an extreme overclocking competition.

Given its age and the way the benchmark code was written, 3dmark03 is no longer a pure graphics card benchmark but has evolved into a system benchmark where you need both processor as well as graphics card computing power.

The competition concludes with a three hour session of the latest 3D benchmark called 3DMark11. This benchmark features all the latest technologies used in modern games and therefore is very much graphics card dependent.

As we’re in the final stretch of the competition, the extreme overclockers are starting to push their components to the absolute maximum. They try to squeeze every last bit of performance out of their mainboard, processor or graphics card. Usually, in this phase most competitors drop out by either having hardware failure or just quitting as the top spots are out of reach.

This kind of competition usually features twelve to twenty teams. But of those teams, only a select few actually competes for the top rankings. After the first round at master overclocking arena, only 5 teams were still in the race for the gold. After the second stage, three teams were still in the race, being separated by only 0.15%. In the end, the Korean team dominated the three stages and became the first Asian team to win the grand final of an extreme overclocking competition since 2008. Team USA finished second, Team Poland third.

As for any competition, the day ends with the award ceremony to put the winners in the spotlights. The winning team of this year’s master overclocking arena went home with all the equipment they used during the competition as well as a cash prize of 3000 US Dollars.

It’s at this point in the competition that we realized that even though extreme overclocking competitions have been around since 2006, they haven’t really evolved into a proper sport yet. Looking back at what we experienced during that weekend, it’s the little details that give away how much room there still is for improvements.

A couple examples:

The format of the competition hasn’t changed much since the first contest back in 2006. Also, just like at any other extreme overclocking event we attended before, there’s still a vast lack of interest from mainstream media. There’s no coverage from local TV teams, let alone international press. In fact, few attending media had any questions prepared for the interviews. Also, the 3000 US dollar cash prize for the winners is very low compared to what gamers receive for winning a couple of rounds of Counter-Strike. Actually That 3000 US dollar prize is for most participants not even enough to cover the costs of qualifying.

Note that we are not singling out one particular vendor with our criticism as the points we brought up apply to every single extreme overclocking competition organized since 2006. It seems that although many Overclockers, as well as the industry, like to present themselves as overclocking professionals, they remain stuck in a scene that is in desperate need of innovation and creativity to push it to the next level.

All this lack of interest is actually quite contrasting with what we’ve seen at major IT events where extreme overclocking demonstrations usually attract quite a lot of audience. Those demonstrations prove that there definitely potential for a larger target audience. Perhaps it’s time for the key players in the overclocking scene to sit down and workout a concept that benefits the overclockers, the industry, the audience as well as the media.

It’s quite certain that this hobby or sport does not has the potential to grow as big as F1 racing, but it definitely has the potential to attract more attention outside the extreme overclocking enthusiast community.

Nevertheless, the members of the extreme overclocking community, all very much appreciate MSI’s effort to push and support extreme overclocking through the Master Overclocking Arena competitions. And, truth be told, having organized this competition for 5 years straight now, MSI can truly be called a pioneer in competitive extreme overclocking.

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