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Overclocking History of Overclocking: Evolution of a Sport

History of Overclocking: Evolution of a Sport

Overclocking started out a small enthusiast hobby but has since grown in something none of us could have imagined. This is, The History of Overclocking.
Nikolas Caven

As some of you may know, you can boost the performance of your PC by overclocking it to make it run faster. These days, overclocking is very easy to do, but there was a time when it was not nearly as easy as it is today. For example, when overclocking first was introduced, you had to know what you were doing, have good hardware, and have very good homemade cooling equipment – because anything but the stock cooling was either hard to get or did not exist!

Now, overclocking is as easy as hitting buttons inside Windows (If you dare).

You can even get away with some pretty decent overclocks without knowing too much about overclocking, which is a testament to how good software is at finding settings for you! However, for those who do know what they are doing, overclocking is easier than ever and just as hard as before. Now, experienced overclockers can take CPUs from 3.5 GHz all the way to 8 GHz or more, using Liquid Nitrogen, bios modding, and incredibly well-picked hardware. For these experienced overclockers, overclocking is no longer a mere hobby- it is a profession that rewards well.

These days, competitions like the ones at IEM (Intel Extreme Masters), PAX Prime, and CES make overclocking a popular sport, not unlike how E-sports are evolving. For example, at IEM 2014, there was over $20,000 in prize pools. This is making overclocking quite a profitable sport if you can compete well enough!

This is a history of over-clocking, from the origins in the 1980s all the way up to the most groundbreaking new technologies that have just been released.
The beginnings, in 1989 and 1990, with the i386 motherboards using jumpers to change the speeds of components.

Right through to today, in 2015, with all-digital power delivery, overclocking directly through the UEFI BIOS and even inside the OS, and all the features a PC would need, the ASUS Rampage V Extreme.

The beginning of overclocking

The very beginnings, 1985-1990, the first overclockable motherboards appear, starting over-clocking as it is today.

Up until this point, when you bought a PC, you got what you paid for. The PC was as fast as it would be out of the box, and the only thing you could do is maybe upgrade it with better components, like more RAM, a better CPU, better hard drives, or better graphics. But, unfortunately, you were not able to change the speed of the components very much, if at all.

Then Asus and other companies begin to add the ability to over-clock the CPU through jumpers on the motherboard; changing them will increase the CPU’s speed, voltage, and multiplier to make it faster. This signals the start of over-clocking in 1989 and 1990. These motherboards had minimal over-clocking functionality, allowing you to choose between a few speeds and usually 2-4 voltage settings.

This was not much, but at the time, it was revolutionary to be able to change the speeds of your CPU, let alone over-clock it. The ability to make your PC over-clocked did not really catch on until later, though, as most people only had the stock coolers and did not want to overheat the components. It was not until later that after-market cooling became readily available. People had very little knowledge of over-clocking at the time, so over-clocking was not very widespread.

This Asus i386 motherboard was one of the first to support jumpers to change CPU speed and voltages.

When Overclocking Got Easier

1996-2000 is when Overclocking begins to truly mature and becomes fairly widespread. This is when overclocking truly evolved, becoming more popular among hardware enthusiasts and becoming much more user-friendly than it had been before.

Between 1995 and 2000, a few significant things made overclocking into what we know today.

The first of which is that hardware vendors started to support over-clocking endeavours by releasing a large variety of cooling hardware that was incredibly good at cooling PC components. This was when the first mass-produced water-cooling kits started to appear, and though they were expensive, they cooled like no other method seen before. Air-cooling, still the staple in PC’s, had many revolutions, such as moving from all-aluminium heat-sinks, to copper heat-sinks, as well as mixed Copper/Aluminum designs. Also, the first “tower” design heat-sinks appeared, which improved performance significantly – if the heat-sinks were made well, that is.

This also is the first time that Liquid Nitrogen, Dry Ice, and other extreme cooling methods have become known to the overclocking world in a big way. Before this time, you did not truly need this cooling to get the most from your PC, but advances in CPU and GPU technology made this cooling necessary. As the CPU’s and GPU’s got better, they created more heat, necessitating more cooling. For example, as CPU TDP (thermal design power) went from 25 watts to 35 watts to 95 watts and beyond, much more cooling became necessary to keep the CPU’s safe.

The second of the many reasons is that overclocking, as a hobby and competitive sport, began to spread the truth. The insane guys at LAN-parties and Overclocking and PC events could take a CPU from 300 MHz to 900 MHz using Liquid Nitrogen. All the way to the average guy who knew about computers who wanted more speed from his machine. Over-clocking grew in this age massively. Much of this growth is attributed to Magazines and the huge number of PC users compared to previous decades. Magazines (and later on, internet news websites) had a huge role in shaping the early days of PC overclocking. They made overclocking much more widely used and significantly more popular than ever until this point.

2001 – 2005

Overclocking truly explodes in popularity and is widely popular among enthusiasts.

In 2002, Intel released their new Pentium line on the brand-new Socket 478 board to compete with the AMD Socket A and AMD Athlon CPU’s. These two CPU and chip-set launches truly started Overclocking as it is similar to today. This is because of the advances made on these new chipsets and the fact that the new CPU’s had the built-in ability to over-clock. That is as long as you buy the “unlocked” versions of the CPU. This meant that over-clocking became widely accessible and no longer as much of a hack or mod to do, requiring much less work to get decent overclocks. In addition, the new chip-sets from both Intel and AMD now had either somewhat functional BIOSes or fully functional BIOSes for overclocking and general use. Meaning that you could now change the CPU’s speed without changing any jumpers and going through all the steps to overclock that way. Now it became much easier with a few buttons; you could overclock your PC simply by changing settings and rebooting.

Also, during this time, overclocking competitions, partly because of the newfound ease of over-clocking, mainly because of the press and vendor support, grew massively. Hwbot.org originally started as a school project for overclocking rankings. It has now become the biggest over-clocking site there is, started in 2005 as a simple website dedicated to keeping track of forum threads and overclocking rankings. Large over-clocking events became a reality, with competitions such as the ABIT Over-clocking competition and others making a media splash! This is one of the big reasons over-clocking became so big, so quickly media coverage began to increase massively, leading to ever-growing numbers of people getting into the Overclocking world.

Extreme cooling and normal cooling also had many significant advances at this time, with Liquid Nitrogen becoming ever more popular among extreme overclockers and water-cooling becoming much more realistic for people to buy. Air-cooling heat-sinks also advanced significantly, which meant that almost everyone could overclock at least a little for a minimal amount of money. Moreover, many, with the right cooling solutions, took CPU’s unbelievably far- sometimes doubling or even triple the PC’s speed that they were over-clocking.

2006-2010 – Overclocking becomes hugely widespread and incredibly popular through many events and media show-casings.

In this time, 2006-2010, overclocking changes from an interesting hobby with a few events to a hugely widespread, incredibly popular e-sport and hobby for enthusiasts. The reasons for this are many, but one of the main ones is that media coverage and vendor Overclocking events like ASUS’s OC competitions. As well as others like Intel’s many events at CES, E3, and other big tech shows, which made overclocking into a largely renowned e-sport and hobby. The reason behind all of the media coverage is a fairly straightforward one with all the crazy things people did to overclock their machines. Media outlets had ample information to make great pieces about the crazy PC’s. Naturally, this caught the attention of many hardware and PC enthusiasts. While many of them did not necessarily do crazy things like use LN2 and Phase-change cooling to their PC, they certainly overclocked the PC’s at hand at least a little bit.

Intel and AMD, seeing that Overclocking events tended to bring in a great amount of media attention, started hosting more and more competitions. Partnering with other vendors such as MSI, Gigabyte, and so on to create great competitions. These overclocking competitions had great prizes and grew the popularity of overclocking as an E-sport massively. Thus, more people began creating even more events because of the popularity of overclocking. Because of the things, many of the extreme Overclockers were doing at these competitions, the average Joe overclocker suddenly had the idea, “I wonder if I can overclock my PC?”. This added to the amazing growth of overclocking during 2006-2010.

A few big things hardware-wise happened in this time that was great for overclockers. The first thing is that, in 2007 and 2008, the first BIOS that was significantly better for overclocking use came out, redefining how PC’s were overclockable. The new BIOS had many new features: some could use a mouse as an input device, many had “Auto-Overclock” options. They make basic overclocking simpler, and lastly, all of the new BIOS had under-the-hood improvements that made power control better and overclocking stability better. This meant significantly better overclocks and led to breaking many world records with the new BIOS and motherboards.

Also, in 2008 and 2009, Intel began to release “Extreme Edition” processors- beasts that were unlocked, top-of-the-line CPU are meant for enthusiasts who were going to overclock. This signals the start of the big hardware vendors (Intel and AMD) truly supporting overclocking, not simply as a hobby, but as Intel and AMD sponsored.

In 2010, a brand-new BIOS appeared that would forever change overclocking. The UEFI BIOS, bios with a whole slew of changes and updates, but one major one, the ability to use a mouse in the BIOS. This made changing options a lot easier for beginner overclockers and brought on a new age in overclocking, which is still with us today. It is the age of digital power, auto-overclocking that actually (sometimes) works, and is the BIOS choice that is incredibly popular with anyone who knows about over-clocking. Unless, of course, you are one of the super-insane overclockers who like the non-UEFI BIOS because it allows breakneck speeds with the right cooling.

Conclusion

Overclocking has grown from a little-known hobby to an incredibly popular, widely competitive e-Sport over the course of just over 20 years. This is due to media exposure, hardware vendor support and over-clocking events becoming huge events for e-sports. It has grown from a few people to including nearly 20,000 people on Hwbot.org alone! Lastly, Overclocking knowledge has filtered down enough so that most people who know enough about computers can overclock with ease.

Nikolas Caven
Nik is a competitive overclocker at Hwbot.org. He has been messing with PC's since age 12. Currently living in Minnesota, USA. He loves all technology and loves teaching others how to use it. Whether that is overclocking, getting the most bang for your buck, or solving isssues.
Reader Comments
  • Mark Adrian Bartlett
    May 22, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    It wasn’t just the motherboard and cooling that prevented us overclocking, it was the processor too. To allow the multiplier to be changed on the old AMD Duron CPUs, the actual cpu had to be modified, by creating a conductive bridge across 2 contact points on the top of the CPU using a conductive silver paint.

    Mark.

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