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Humans are habitual limit pushers. We turn grueling or extreme activities — mixed martial arts, ultramarathons and even hot dog eating — into competitions. That thirst to be the best extends to our pastimes and technology, from battling robots to speedrunning our game of choice to high-speed drone racing.
Regardless of the activity, humans will strive to do it a little faster, a little better. We always have. We always will.
Micron Technology is no different. The semiconductor giant recently focused its gaze on a new challenge to conquer, the world of extreme overclocking, for which Micron rebroke the world record for DRAM performance.
Never heard of overclocking? Don’t worry. We’ll get to a more detailed explanation. For the moment, think of it like mechanics fine-tuning drag racing cars to squeeze every bit of power and performance out of their engines. Rather than pushing for the fastest miles or kilometers per hour, overclockers push for the highest mega transfers per second (MT/s). Like hurtling down a racetrack, overclocking is also heart-pounding in its own way: competitive overclockers redline computers, using liquid nitrogen to cool overheated hardware, often until that hardware breaks in ghostly, vaporous fogs.
Stavros Savvopoulos and Phil Strecker have set world records using Micron’s Crucial Ballistix gaming DRAM. The pair operate Overclocked Game Systems (generally seen as OGS on the leaderboards) and rank No. 1 in the overclocking career standings as of May 2020. HWBOT, a PC enthusiast website, tracks nearly 30,000 competitive overclockers and has OGS ranked at the top.
Savvopoulos and Strecker may appear calm as the system creeps toward the world record. They are not, according to Savvopoulos.
“The pressure is insane,” he said. “You don’t know the limits of the hardware. It gets really, really intense.”
What is overclocking?
Computer components, including the motherboard, CPU and DRAM, operate in timed electronic pulses, or clock cycles. Higher-performance parts can handle faster clock cycles, enabling the computer to execute more operations per second than lower-quality parts.
Overclockers dig into the PC BIOS and alter the internal settings so that their computers operate faster than certified by their manufacturer. Overclocking mistakes can make an operating system unable to boot up until the problem is fixed. In other cases, pushing a system too far can ruin hardware.
Many gamers and PC hobbyists overclock their PCs to boost performance, often saving money on more expensive parts in the process. For example, a gamer with a rig might normally overclock her system to squeeze out additional frames per second, enhancing gameplay. How much of a difference that makes depends on the parts. In auto racing, a high-horsepower engine doesn’t count for much if your transmission isn’t rugged enough to handle the power or if the chassis twists and buckles under the immense torque. Likewise, none of those qualities will help you win a race if your suspension and tires aren’t also suited for the track.
There’s a modicum of risk any time hobbyists fuss with BIOS settings, but there are enough beginner guides on platforms such as YouTube, Reddit and enthusiast websites that basic overclocking is fairly routine, Savvopoulos said. That’s especially true in the gaming community.
“You just do some research on YouTube, and you gain free performance,” he said. “It’s insane. Thankfully, that information is for free and easy for everyone to get.”
If PC hobbyist overclocking is like diving into a swimming pool, then world-record chasers like Savvopoulos and Strecker push the sport into cliff diving.
They up the speeds until they push systems to the breaking point. Literally. Without additional cooling, component temperatures climb until the components fail, sometimes with visible damage from the heat. When fans, heat sinks, liquid cooling or thermoelectric cooling won’t do the job, overclockers turn to liquid nitrogen — which is minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit or colder — to get the job done. When part temperatures fall too low for optimal performance, overclockers use gas torches to warm them up.
It's not exactly normal kid stuff
Savvopoulos was a teenager in 2008 when his parents told him that, if he achieved good grades and if he stayed within a budget, they would buy him his first computer.
Savvopoulos fervently researched and found that the best components were too expensive. He read a PC Magazine about overclocking that mentioned legendary overclockers Hipro5, KingPin and Shamino. After securing those grades and choosing his PC, those experts became his muse.
“Of course, I built my own computer,” he said, as if that’s a normal thing for students in their early teens. “Let’s say I was full of myself as a 14-year-old kid. After a while, I started changing motherboards. After a while, I was saving money and selling hardware in order to upgrade the components three times a year.”
Of course, Savvopoulos overclocked those parts. He was obsessed. His buddies didn’t understand.
“People look at you like you are a UFO,” he said. “Friends I was playing football and basketball with at school couldn’t understand my passion for it.”
A community grows
Overclocking will forever be joined at the hip with gaming, Savvopoulos said. That starts with an interest in computers, of course, but there’s more to it. Games balk when the action gets most intense. Gamers want to wring the most performance out of their hardware to create smoother in-game graphics to ramp up the adrenaline hit that comes from emerging as the only survivor of a barrage of explosions (which can also be the most graphics-intensive demand on the system). Competitive overclockers grew up playing games. Savvopoulos still enjoys gaming today. He said pushing hardware to its limits gives him a similar rush.
“The overclocker does it for a different reason — because he’s competitive,” he said. “You get a component designed to work at a specific speed, at a certain frequency, and you push it even further.”
Today, tens of thousands of overclockers compete at some level or another, and untold more participate or lurk in overclocking watering holes on Discord, the HWBOT forum, or the overclocking subreddit, which has nearly 100,000 members. Savvopoulos said he and Strecker know all 50 or so upper echelon overclockers in the world competing for world records. They follow each other on social media.
It’s a friendly group, bound by a shared obsession. Members meet up in person at events and share information … to a point.
“People usually try not to be competitive when they have beers together,” Savvopoulos said. “This guy might be a friend of mine, and we are on cool terms, but eventually there is competition.”
Micron die matter
Competitive overclockers take their sport seriously. So not just any hardware will do. Performance varies among high-end parts, even those of the same model. One CPU might top out well before another of the exact same brand and make, potentially ending a record attempt before the overclocker even hits the power button.
The Crucial® Ballistix® MAX gaming memory that Savvopoulos and Strecker used while setting multiple world records is the same DRAM — built with the same Micron-manufactured components — available at Crucial. The only way to ensure that your memory stick will come with Micron components is to order Crucial Ballistix MAX because Crucial is a Micron brand.
When it comes to overclocking, the components make all the difference. Several companies make DRAM. Micron is one of the very few vertically integrated companies that control every aspect of production, from sand to silicon to development to distribution. Most other gaming DRAM brands bin and assemble components made by other manufacturers. Because Crucial’s gaming memory is vertically integrated, Micron engineers develop and then fine-tune the components used in Ballistix MAX, ensuring the parts have the best chance to achieve the extra MT/s sought by overclockers.
Teams contributing the other components OGS uses in its record attempts put forth similar efforts, Savvopoulos said. Preparation takes months.
That work pays off, he says. Once an afterthought to CPUs and graphics cards, memory was a key ingredient in the record-setting mix, Savvopoulos said. However, because the current generation of CPUs is more powerful than previous generations, the overclocking potential for top-end memory, such as Crucial Ballistix MAX, remains largely untapped.
“The benefit from overclocking the memory is insane,” Savvopoulos said. “The benefit to day-to-day tasks, to gaming and to everything else is something that people had previously never seen before.”
Disclaimer: Overclocking can damage and may void the warranty of some computer system parts. Overclocking may result in damage to computer components, and Micron disclaims any and all liability for such damage. See specific buyer agreements for more warranty coverage details. Crucial and Micron are not liable for any system damage caused to computer system parts as a result of overclocking.