Articles - Opinion & Editorials
Written by Olin Coles
Monday, 09 August 2010
In my first entry to this series, Desktop PC Platform: Fears and Predictions, you were introduced to the basic framework of threats surrounding the desktop market segment. That article wasn't meant to be a self-sufficient story, but instead provide an illustration of the chain of events that have precipitated to create the perfect storm. Desktop PCs are our life blood, after all, and you wouldn't be here unless you held a vested interest in the future of this platform. I've already got more content prepared in support of my initial post, but this article will focus on one of the lesser-known threats: overclocking.
No, it's not the act of overclocking itself that threatens the survival of desktop computers as a platform; it's the overclocking market that's killing the industry. Allow me to illustrate my point with a few passages from our recent Best CPU Cooler Performance series:
Why do we overclock? It's really a very simple question, but one that has found new meaning over the years. It used to be that computer hardware enthusiasts had very few options when it came to choosing a processor, and building your own custom system was simply not possible. You looked for the best pre-built system, and compared Kilobytes of memory between choices. Those days are behind us, and now the computer hardware industry offers hundreds of processor, motherboard, memory, and peripheral hardware options. But the question still remains.
In this paragraph, I state how overclocking desktop computer hardware was born from need, not packaged as a product. I go on to demonstrate how the industry picked-up on this enthusiast hobby:
Its been more than a decade, but I still remember why I began overclocking: it was out of necessity, because my computer operated close to a modern day speed limit. This was back in the day when computers featured a 'Turbo' button, overclocking from 33 to 66MHz was a click away. It wasn't until around 1998 that I began visiting 'enthusiast' websites and found myself overclocking a pathetic Cyrix M-II 233MHz processor. My pursuit for speed would risk an entire Packard Bell computer system for the purpose of finishing reports faster. Back then, overclocking the CPU could push clock speeds past any production level. Today the market is different, and overclocking the processor could result in very little additional performance.
So overclocking began when enthusiasts simply needed hardware that could drive at the speed limit, and not necessarily to outperform a reasonable need for speed. That's when the component hardware industry stepped in to make a profit:
Now days I'm fortunate enough to afford top-end hardware, and so I no longer overclock out of need. With so many dual-, quad-, and hexa-core processors sold on the open market, it seems unnecessary to overclock for the sake of productivity. Overclocking has transformed itself from a tool to help people work faster, into a hobby for enthusiasts. There's a level of overclocking for every enthusiasts, from simple speed bumps to the record-breaking liquid nitrogen extreme projects. Overclocking is addictive, and before you know it the bug has you looking at hardware that might cost as much as a low-end computer system.
At its inception overclocking computer hardware was a tool for making the incapable, capable. Professional, students, enthusiasts, and countless personal users, all found that using the computer was more enjoyable when it kept up with the demands placed on it. For the longest time, the industry couldn't sell a piece of hardware that satisfied the fast-paced tasks a user could throw at it. When it slowly began to happen, which is subjective due to individual perceptions of need, the computer component industry created an entire market segment dedicated to hardware enthusiasts and overclockers.
The age of overclocking hardware was born. Effectively standardized overnight, computer hardware components were separated into various categories of quality. There was budget, mainstream, professional, and then enthusiast. We've witnessed this trend for years now, as graphics solutions, processors, system memory, motherboards, and even power supplies have all be segregated by class. That's when overclocking stopping being the solution, and became the problem.
The examples are everywhere: Intel's $1000+ 'Extreme Edition' desktop processors, Gigabyte's $700 GA-X58A-UD9 motherboard, and $300 system memory kits for overclockers. While there are people willing to buy these items, they often lose sight of the original purpose behind overclocking: making something slow become fast, and getting something more for no added cost. Tacking $2000 onto the price tag of your computer system is hardly keeping in the spirit of overclocking, and is more closely identified with showing off how much money you can spend. The problem only gets worse.
Back when I was taking my first baby steps into overclocking by risking everything to push a lousy Cyrix M-II 233MHz processor an extra 33MHz, the reward was a 15% bump in speed and a noticeable increase in performance. That was before computer hardware could keep up with user demands. These days, most hardware components are faster than you'll ever need. Enthusiast-branded products simply mean you're paying a premium for the privilege to own hardware capable of yielding an overclock... but once you've paid their price there's no guarantee you'll experience any difference.
At some point the computer industry went from asking consumers to pay more for the faster products, to paying more for products you might be able to make faster. This runs opposite of other industrial markets, which is why manufacturer's have spent so much of that added cost on convincing you that the purchase was necessary. Intel's Core i7-980X 6-Core CPU was advertised as the "Ultimate Gaming Weapon", but testing proved it did nothing at all for video game performance when paired with a suitable (and much less expensive) video card. The same message is parroted by memory manufacturers, who have notoriously labeled their products as gamer this-or-that. So how long can this business model last?