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

Mainstream Reference Validation Platforms

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The overclocking labs' primary remit is to ensure that Intel's processors are designed and optimized for overclocking, but that same initiative extends to the platforms (i.e., motherboards) that play a huge role in determining how well you can overclock your chip. 

That means the team has to work with vendors to make sure their motherboards are fully optimized for overclocking, and we found boards from every major vendor, like MSI, ASRock, Gigabyte, EVGA, and ASUS, in various stages of overclocking testing, and with various types of cooling solutions, scattered throughout the lab. Intel tests these boards and gives feedback and advice to vendors.

But the team is also responsible for making sure that Intel's own internal teams have platforms that are representative of the end products enthusiasts and overclockers will purchase. As we can see in the first image in the album above, Intel's previous-gen reference validation platform (RVP - left) for mainstream processors is a rather simple affair that lacks the generous accommodations we can see on MSI's Godlike motherboard on the right. 

Sure, there are accommodations for some of Intel's internal testing tools and swappable PCH's that we'll cover on the following page, but features like the power delivery subsystem, not to mention finer aspects like optimized memory trace routing that facilitates higher overclocks, are far behind even most garden-variety Z390 motherboards on the market.  

That's one of the first disconnects the team worked to solve, and it's an ongoing effort.  

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The lab team worked with Intel's reference validation platform (RVP) team to design newer platforms that look, and act, a lot more like what you would expect from an enthusiast-class motherboard. The boards are still quite spartan and lack the RGB goodness, OLED screens, and other fanciful trimmings of today's flagship boards, but Intel beefed up the power delivery subsystem for the chip and memory, along with adding meaningful VRM cooling. You can see they also stepped up from a single eight-pin EPS by adding an additional 4-pin connection for CPU power. 

The team also made other adjustments, like fine-tuning the memory traces to improve memory overclockability. We also see they added some useful power and reset buttons for the lab crew, and metal reinforcements for the PCIe slots. We're sure the new digital debug display also comes in handy. 

Those are just our external observations, though: the team tells us that it asked for roughly 100 new features to bulk up the existing validation platform. Many of these features will probably never be explained to us fully, but we're told there are plenty of new hooks and features for measuring performance and debugging issues. We'll cover some of those features on the following page. 

As mentioned, this is still a board whose primary mission is validation, so it isn't the fanciest-looking affair. In either case, the team demonstrated some solid overclocking action with the new board under LN2, so it's clear that it's succeeding in its mission to bring overclocking closer to the chip design and validation process. 

The OC lab team has broken many world records in its lab with the OC RVP boards, and the first world record that fell with the new RVP board was a big moment for them: That told them the design was ready.

But you won't ever see those records posted to HWBot: Intel has a policy of not competing with its customers, so Intel employees can't submit benchmark runs. The team has access to god-like tricks that aren't available to us regular users, so that's a good policy.

That doesn't preclude internal competitions, though, and there is a running competition among Intel employees for overclocking records. The competition extends to enthusiasts in other Intel labs, too. (For the record, Navya Pramod is currently 'spanking everyone').

As a side note, you'll notice Intel uses pretty basic video adapters for testing, and I didn't notice any flagship AMD or Nvidia GPUs scattered about the lab. That's primarily because these slim adaptors are more suitable for overclocking testing as it allows easier access to bolt on various cooling solutions. 

High End Desktop (HEDT) Reference Validation Platform

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Here we see a few permutations of Intel's internal HEDT RVPs. The HEDT chips are designed for high-end enthusiasts, so we're told they've had plenty of overclocking-capable features from the onset. The team continues to drive more features into the platform and is also working on a beefier OC RVP solution to sidestep some of the challenges associated with HEDT overclocking. As you can see, there's a massive VRM cooler attached to the board next to the CPU cooler, which we'll cover on the following page.  

Overclocking Bootcamps

The team continuously works closely with motherboard vendors to optimize their boards, but that work intensifies as they prepare new generations of CPUs for launch. Intel holds two-day overclocking bootcamps for motherboard vendors to help speed the process. 

Teams from motherboard vendors descend from around the globe on the overclocking lab for the event. Intel also flies in its own experts from around the world, like its power management team (p-code engineers) from Israel, debug teams, memory reference teams, and BIOS teams. 

The goal is help the motherboard vendors understand the new chips and optimize their platforms for overclocking, so the motherboard vendors send their top engineers, like legendary board designers and overclockers Nick Shih (ASRock), Shamino (Peter Tan, ASUS), Toppc (MSI), and HiCookie (Gigabyte), along with teams of their BIOS and hardware engineers. Many of the motherboard vendors also have teams on standby in Taiwan that they communicate with throughout the event to address issues quickly, often working around the clock to maximize their time at the event.  

The event originally ran from 8am to 11pm until Intel instituted a 'mercy' rule that constrained the official working hours from 8am to 8pm. That doesn't stop the motherboard vendors from taking gear back to their hotel rooms, though. 

These overclockathons result in higher-quality overclocking gear for enthusiasts, but those same features and learnings bleed over to mainstream products, too, highlighting that the work the overclocking lab does impacts all facets of Intel's consumer desktop business.

Make no mistake, overclocking is a big business for motherboard vendors, too. They also regularly work with leading overclockers, like L0UD_SIL3NC3, mllrkllr88, and Splave, among many others, to optimize their platforms and make world records on their platforms. Everyone wants to be on top, and as a result, some motherboard vendors also bring their sponsored overclockers to the event, too. Intel often gives the professional overclockers trays of processors to bench during the event, which we're told becomes a sideshow all its own. 

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