All of Intel's first processors were overclockable, but they weren't specifically designed to offer much frequency headroom, or with features that improved overclockability. Instead, overclocking was truly opportunistic: Any overclocking headroom you received was down to the luck of the draw and your ability to work around the internal limits of the chip. Even with the limited tunable parameters available, enterprising enthusiasts found ways to push chips to higher speeds, thus wringing out more performance from cheaper models.
That eventually created a problem for the company, though. Intel tells us that back in 1999, counterfeit Pentium 3 processors began popping up in the grey market in Asia. The counterfeiters simply overclocked the cheaper models and then sanded off the product identifiers/frequency ratings, replacing them with the overclocked frequency and model numbers that matched the more expensive models. To put a stop to the practice, Intel locked all processors to the rated frequencies in an attempt to prevent counterfeiting.
Due to feedback from its customers (and media), Intel brought back overclockability in ~2003 and unveiled its new Extreme Edition processors. These chips allowed overclocking in exchange for a pricing premium, just like we see with Intel's K-Series processors today, but the remainder of Intel's processors remained locked.
And thus, Intel created a multi-billion dollar business centered on chip overclockability. However, because these early unlocked chips still weren't designed specifically for overclocking, there were shortfalls. For instance, Sandy Bridge chips could clock memory higher than allowed via the maximum programmed multiplier. As a result, Intel now assigns what could be considered ludicrous ratios when new tech rolls out, but years later, those ratios could come in handy. For instance, DDR4 ratios were assigned at a maximum of 8000 MHz years ago, but it wasn't until recently that the world record was set at over 6000 MHz, and due to foresight, there is still multiplier headroom left over.
Around the Haswell generation, Intel began adding in features and knobs to ease overclocking, which required a transition from 'opportunistic overclocking' to designing and architecting for it. The initial overclocking team consisted of engineers that volunteered for the task, like Francois Piednoel, a famed former Principal Engineer at the company. This loosely-banded team pushed the limits of silicon for the sake of furthering overclocking capabilities, but Intel didn't establish a formal team and lab until 2016, which now consists of eight team members that work on OC full time. There are still several volunteers throughout the company that help out, many simply because they are, like us, chip enthusiasts that enjoy overclocking.
Some of the notable advances include working with the Israel Design Center to design in BCLK overclocking from Skylake's initial design phases, along with addressing the Haswell cold bug issue (FIVR doesn't respond well to subzero temperatures) and designing in a workaround to ensure that future chips didn't suffer the same fate. Other advances include the introduction of the AVX offset, an incredibly useful tool for overclocking that the team patented. That offset also plays a crucial role in the auto-overclocking Intel Performance Maximizer (IPM) feature, which the team developed the algorithms for and worked with the software team to implement.
And Intel's forthcoming discrete Xe GPUs? We're told that the overclocking lab will play a role in those products, too, including the GPU overclocking software. There are a few 'organizational boundaries,' so the efforts won't be identical, but the team can define a wish list and also work with the GPU team to ensure those features make their way into the IPM software. That means the same one-button overclocking approach will come to Intel's GPUs.
We fully expect that overclocking Intel's discrete GPUs will be part of the lab's mission, and when asked, we were told with a smile that "some things" had been removed from the lab prior to our arrival. We suspect that 3D benchmarking of the new Xe cards is already underway.
The OC team also helped pioneer per-core CPU overclocking to expose extra performance from the diverse range of CPU core capabilities, and that feature eventually evolved into Turbo Max 3.0.
As it does with several other groups inside Intel, the team also has an integral role in developing software, like key modules inside XTU, including developing the XTU benchmark and adding in application profile pairing. The team also assures that all of the necessary OC'ing knobs are exposed and working correctly in Intel's various software utilities.
As you can imagine, there are likely also other areas the team has developed, or is developing, for new tech for that can't be disclosed because they will worm their way into future products. As Ragland refers to it, the "OC pipeline of innovation" never stops.
Even with the focus on exposing features and assuring overclockability, the Silicon Lottery still applies, but this team's mission is to increase your odds of getting a tunable chip. In fact, the team now compiles overclockability reports for high-ranking Intel executives as a key checkpoint in the standard chip design flow, a process that started with the Devil's Canyon processors. To compile those reports, the team culls 50 randomly-selected processors from the hundreds of chips it tests for each new design, then charts out several key metrics, such as average OC frequencies, so the company can assure new chips are worthy of the "K-series" badge.
Enthusiast and Vendor Engagement
One of the biggest steps forward came from merely engaging the community. In the past, Intel didn't directly promote overclocking with sub-zero cooling solutions, but that changed with the company's first subzero demo with cascade cooling, done by legendary overclocker Charles "Fugger" Wirth.
Intel made its first live LN2 demonstration at IDF 2015 with overclockers Allen "Splave" Golibersuch, Fugger, and L0UD_SIL3NC3. The overclockers set an XTU world record live on stage in under two minutes, and now LN2 demonstrations at Intel's events are a common occurrence.
Intel also regularly engages leading overclockers, like Der8auer (among many others). Intel says it works with ten to 15 of the top overclockers under NDA so they can visit its lab to test new chips. These overclockers test chips and give Intel feedback on several characteristics that are important for overclocking, like features and cooling methods.
Intel team has also begun interfacing directly with the HWBot team that maintains the database of official world overclocking records, but that isn't strictly an "Intel initiative." Rather, the team does this to keep a healthy relationship with the enthusiast community. Case in point: The first-gen XTU benchmark had scalability issues beyond ten cores and could be 'hacked' to give out erroneous results, but the team sought feedback from the HWBot team to ensure that the second-gen XTU benchmark (which is already rolled into XTU) met their expectations.
All of these actions are possible because of a shift in Intel's thinking in regards to interfacing with the overclocking community: In the past, the PR and marketing teams dealt with these 'external customers,' but Intel has opened up the process to allow the team cooking up the silicon to work directly with the community.
But the work doesn't stop there. In fact, that's only the beginning. Intel's internal teams spend a vast amount of time overclocking chips themselves, often breaking world records that will never see the light of day, and work with motherboard vendors and other ecosystem partners to assure that not only the chips, but the platforms, too, are optimized for overclocking.
Let's see what that looks like, and cover some of the gear they use in the lab.
- PAGE 1: The Overclocking Lab
- PAGE 2: The Beginnings and Mission of Intel's Overclocking Lab
- PAGE 3: Pouring LN2, the OSHA Way
- PAGE 4: TIM, Coolers, The Medusa, and Other Intel Lab Gear
- PAGE 5: Validation Boards and Overclocking Bootcamps
- PAGE 6: VRM Supercooling, PCH Swapping, and Internal Tools
- PAGE 7: 'Safe' Overclocking Voltages and Techniques
- PAGE 8: Is Overclocking Dead?
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