Inside Intel's Secret Overclocking Lab: The Tools and Team Pushing CPUs to New Limits

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

You've seen the "overclocking is dead" stories crop up from time to time, but they have certainly become more frequent as both Intel and AMD grapple with the challenges of shrinking transistors in the waning light of the traditional interpretation of Moore's Law. The advent of "Moore's Law 2.0" involves using advanced packaging techniques to tie multiple chips into heterogeneous packages, but the impact of that approach on overclocking is unclear, and there are still several hurdles along the path. 

One of them have proven especially problematic for Intel: As per usual in the semiconductor industry, it all starts with the process technology. It’s no secret that Intel has struggled to shrink down to a 10nm process node. Given the company’s struggles with producing smaller nodes at volume, and the lower clock speeds we've seen with the new process, it’s logical to assume that also doesn’t bode well for overclocking headroom. 

However, Ragland and his team are already working with Intel's future process nodes, so his words carry weight. We posed the question to Ragland: Is overclocking going to "die," particularly as we shrink to smaller process nodes?

"It will not. Even when you talk 7nm and into the future, it will not," Ragland said with a certainty and finality that can't be conveyed with text, "What the other guys are experiencing limit-wise, we will not." 

"I can tell you that, and feel confident in telling you that now: People who think this the end of the world for overclocking because our competitors' 7nm has very little headroom, that's not true."

We pressed further on the question. Ragland's observation that TSMC's 7nm process has very little overclocking headroom is accurate, but some of that stems from AMD's practice of exposing nearly all of its frequency headroom at stock performance levels. This practice leaves very little overclocking headroom available, but Intel has also slowly folded more and more of its own 14nm overclocking headroom into its stock performance levels as the process node has matured. 

Consider this: Intel's 14nm released for the desktop back in 2015 with stock frequencies of 4.2 GHz and the capability to overclock to ~4.9 GHz with conventional cooling, but the 9900K released in 2018 with a stock ~5.0 GHz frequency and ~5.1GHz maximum overclock. That's a shrinkage of 600 MHz off the top-line overclocking margin. 

To be clear, the matrix is much more complicated when we take into account multi-core frequencies and voltages, but the margin between stock and overclocked frequencies is definitely shrinking. On the surface, that looks like the slow "death" of overclocking.

"The decreasing margin is a concern," Ragland responded, "but if you look at this over the last 15 years, you have a cycle where you've got massive margin, and then that margin erodes, then you get more margin, and it erodes again. If we talk just CPU core, there are cycles where we've had a larger margin than others, and it's true that you get paid more for POR (i.e., stock) performance more than overclocking performance, so that tends to win."

"At Intel, when you make the leap from engineer or manager to a Principal Engineer, you've committed to a path, that's pretty much your specialty for your career. I've committed to that path. I bet my career on the idea that overclocking will exist forever. Margin is a challenge. We will always give overclocking headroom back to POR if we're asked to, but there's just so much margin out there." 

"A company like Intel is all about rock-solid reliability; our parts aren't going to fail. You've got this time window where you can count on your part running at spec, so there's so much inherent margin that we will always have overclocking headroom. Margin, you're right, that will be the thing we will have to watch, but I think users will be happy with the margin we can offer in the future."

It was incredibly enlightening to see first hand the work Intel does as it continues to bring overclocking closer to its design process, and the company's work in assisting its ecosystem partners, like motherboard vendors, assures that the learnings and advances made in the overclocking realm filter out to untold millions of users that never tune their chip. That's good for everyone because a competitive industry leads to more value for end users, regardless of what chip vendor they choose at checkout.  

It's also encouraging to hear the company say it is confident it can continue to offer enthusiasts meaningful overclocking headroom even as it grapples with more complex process tech. 

We'll hold them to that. 


MORE: Intel & AMD Processor Hierarchy

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Paul Alcorn
Managing Editor: News and Emerging Tech

Paul Alcorn is the Managing Editor: News and Emerging Tech for Tom's Hardware US. He also writes news and reviews on CPUs, storage, and enterprise hardware.

  • Dark Lord of Tech
    Can you get the AMD tour? Would love to see that.
  • PaulAlcorn
    Dark Lord of Tech said:
    Can you get the AMD tour? Would love to see that.

    I'll jump on a plane the second it is offered :)
  • bit_user
    @PaulAlcorn , thanks for the awesome piece!

    I'm still making my way through it, but wanted to draw special attention to this bit:
    the engineers told us they feel perfectly fine running thier Coffee Lake chips at home at 1.4V with conventional cooling, which is higher than the 1.35V we typically recommend as the 'safe' ceiling in our reviews. For Skylake-X, the team says they run their personal machines anywhere from 1.4V to 1.425V if they can keep it cool enough, with the latter portion of the statement being strongly emphasized.

    At home, the lab engineers consider a load temperature above 80C to be a red alert, meaning that's the no-fly zone, but temps that remain steady in the mid-70’s are considered safe. The team also strongly recommends using adaptive voltage targets for overclocking and leaving C-States enabled. Not to mention using AVX offsets to keep temperatures in check during AVX-heavy workloads.
    Thanks for that!
  • StewartHH
    Some one should comparison between different vendors die size like Intel 10nm vs AMD 7nm to see if there is actually performance gain. I would use per-core speed and not taking multiple cores into account.
  • bit_user
    @PaulAlcorn , uh oh. Now that I just finished heaping praise, I've got a gripe. In the penultimate paragraph:

    ... assures that the learnings lessons and advances made in the overclocking realm ...

    I was saddened to see the "learnings" virus infecting your otherwise admirable writing.

    I think "learnings" is one of those pseudo-jargon words that MBAs and other B-school types like to throw around, out of jealousy for practitioners of real professions. Everyone from auto mechanics to accountants, lawyers, and doctors needs jargon to adequately and efficiently express concepts and constructs central to their work. However, common sense pervades business to such a degree that I think they're embarrassed by how easily understandable it'd be, if they didn't inject some fake jargon to obscure the obvious. The resulting assault on the English language is disheartening, at best.

    Yes, if you've ever heard of her, you probably guessed I'm a fan of Lucy Kellaway, former journalist of the Financial Times and BBC. Worth a read:

    The 8 Lucy Kellaway rules for claptrap and the fundamental theorem of corporate BS
    Lucy Kellaway’s dictionary of business jargon and corporate nonsense
  • Gurg
    AMD CTO Mark Papermaster: "you can't rely on that frequency bump from every new semiconductor node." AMD's future outlook of very limited frequency bumps, performance increases only from more cores and expensive software modifications to use more cores.
    VersusIntel Ragland: "People who think this the end of the world for overclocking because our competitors' 7nm has very little headroom, that's not true. Intel is all about rock-solid reliability; our parts aren't going to can count on your part running at spec, so there's so much inherent margin that we will always have overclocking headroom...I think users will be happy with the margin we can offer in the future."

    Ouch! Intel's Ragland really "punked" AMD's negative outlook.

    PS Great fascinating article
  • jiang-v
    Anyone knows how to made contact with them? cause I fould a big bug on 10th corex chip about adaptive mode overclocking
  • nofanneeded
    In the past OC gave a huge difference , today we can easy hit 4.4 all cores without OC and this is more than enough for me.

    for me OCing is dead. and I dont care about missing 5 fps.

    I put the price difference in a better GPU ...
  • CompuTronix
    Outstanding article! Thank you, Paul! I would love to have been there. I have a few dozen questions that the Team may or may not have been allowed answered.

    However, like bit_user, I found it of particular interest that the Team was forthcoming regarding specific voltage and temperature values they're comfortable with running on their personal home rigs, which max out at 1.425 and 80°C. With respect to electomigation and longevity, every day in the forums we see many overclockers express their concerns over these very issues.

    On their website, Silicon Lottery shows Historical Binning Statistics that include the Core voltages used to validate their overclocked 14 and 22nm processors. For 22nm the maximum is 1.360. For 14nm the maximum is 1.456. While Intel's warranty is 3 years, Silicon Lottery's warranty is 1 year, which suggests at least one reason for the voltage difference between Intel's Team and Silicon Lottery.

    Here's a forgotten link to a revealing Tom's Hardware video interview of July, 2016, with Intel's Principal Engineer (Client Computing Group), Paul Zagacki, where BGTnJkuqlbo']Intel Discusses i7-4790K Core Temperatures and Overclocking. The video coincides with the formation of Intel's Overclocking Lab, also in 2016. In the video, Intel points out that overclocking abilities begin to "roll off" above 80°C, which agrees with the value the Team revealed in your article.

    While Core temperatures, overclocking and Vcore are often highly controversial and hotly debated topics in at least the overclocking forums, the term "electromigration" is closely related to a much less known term, which is "Vt (Voltage threshold) Shift". With respect to voltage and temperature, the two terms describe the causes and effects of processor and transistor "degradation" at the atomic level.

    In the Intel Temperature Guide, in Section 8 - Overclocking and Voltage, I created a table for Maximum Recommended Vcore per microarchitecture from 2006 to the present. For 22 and 14nm, those values are 1.300 and 1.400 respectively. I also created a graph showing the Degradation Curves for 22 and 14nm processors. The table and graph helps overclockers get a better perspective of the degradation and longevity issue:

    Sparing our members and visiting readers the deep dive, Vt Shift basically represents the potential for permanent loss of normal transistor performance. Excessively high Core voltage drives excessively high current, power consumption and Core temperatures, all of which contribute to gradual Vt Shift over time. Core voltages that impose high Vt Shift values are not recommended. The 14nm curve suggest 1.425'ish is the practical limit, which also agrees with the value the Team revealed in your article. The curve also suggests that Silicon Lottery might be pushing the edge of the envelope a bit.

    The concern here is that when novice overclockers casually glance around the computer tech forums, where conflicting and misleading numbers get flung around like gorilla poo in a cage, many don't realize through the fog of all the confusion that one size Vcore does not fit all. Aside from high Core temperatures, Vcore that might be reasonable for one microarchitecture can degrade another. So 22nm Haswell users now wanting to overclock their aging processors to keep up with today's games need to heed the degradation curves, which applies as well to 14nm Skylake and Kaby Lake users.

    CT :sol:
  • JamesSneed
    Paul this was a wonderful article. Seriously, nice job.