An interview with a local overclocking legend

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Neo Sibeko is a well-respected figure in the local overclocking and PC hardware scene thanks to his work on local gaming mag NAG Magazine. Over the years, he has covered overclocking competitions, both at home and abroad, and even participated in one as a competitor in 2009, in Jakarta. The insights he has gained along the way have honed his skills at squeezing as much performance as possible from the latest processors to a razor-sharp knife point.

He has worked for NAG as their Technical Writer since mid to late 2006, and in his time there he has reviewed everything from mice to motherboards to the latest gaming headphones. When he isn’t straining PC hardware to its limits, he enjoys gaming… on his PC, naturally. He lists the original Deux Ex and Mass Effect as two of his favourite games.

We recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about himself, overclocking and the PC industry. Here’s what he had to say.

HTXT: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Neo. Firstly, can you tell us where you’re from?

NS: North of Johannesburg. Born and raised pretty much in this city.

HTXT: When did you first get your own computer?

NS: I can’t even remember, but it must have been around 1992 or so; we had a “kids” computer that my siblings and I shared. Prior to that there has always been a computer in the place I called home, belonging to my Father and any and all experience with computing at that time was through his machine.

HTXT: We remember the heady days of 8088XT PCs and 286/386/486 processors, where overclocking was a matter of pressing the “turbo” button. What got you interested in overclocking?

NS: Much like all overclockers, it was games. Not having the funds to buy better hardware, one is forced to be creative and search for that much-needed performance elsewhere. My first speed alteration was in 1993, with a 486 SX 25MHz, which through a simple jumper (unlabelled at the time because motherboards just didn’t have this kind of information) I managed to POST and run at 40MHz. I’m not sure if it stayed at that speed or not, but at the time that CPU did not have a heat sink and I do remember specifically touching the CPU and almost searing my fingers off. (Ceramic packaged CPU’s at the time).

HTXT: In terms of your day-to-day computing, is your main system’s CPU and graphics card overclocked, or are you running them at stock speeds?

NS: The systems that I would work or play games on are not overclocked in any way, if anything they are usually underclocked, so as to save power and run with virtually no noise. Given that PC games are tens to hundreds of times faster than current consoles, the overclock is not necessary. That is provided you have a machine built around the best technology there is currently, and I do. I’m grateful and fortunate in that way.  I have other systems that are for testing and overclocking purposes.

HTXT: What is the fastest speed you’ve ever reached with an overclock using air cooling?

NS: I have no idea, really. Air overclocking for the CPU isn’t really interesting as it’s determined not by knowledge skill or anything on your side: it’s simply ambient temperatures and the quality of the silicon in your particular CPU. As a result I do not know the maximum overclocks of most CPUs using air cooling. Things only start to get interesting with chilled water setups at the very least.

HTXT: What is the fastest overclock you’ve achieved using liquid nitrogen?

NS: CPU validations were never my thing but much like everyone Intel’s Pentium 4-based 661 CPUs were all able to reach north side of 6.8GHz, so around there is where I’d say my maximum overclock was for any single CPU if you’re looking at frequency only. However it’s worth stating that the frequency of the CPU is of little to no importance in isolation. A Pentium 4-based Celeron is regularly able to reach 8GHz, unfortunately the performance at that speed is significantly lower than that of a Core i7 2600K at its normal 3.4GHz. CPU frequency is much like being impressed by a car’s speedometer with readings as high as 300KM/h: it’s a pretty high figure, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the car.

HTXT: Were those overclocks stable enough to run Windows and play games without crashing, or was it just about reaching the right clock speed at POST?

NS: One is not thinking of playing games when Liquid Nitrogen is involved, in much the same way you’re never going to attempt to drive an F1 car to Cape Town. It’s a single-purpose machine, and the entire enterprise of liquid nitrogen overclocking, much like F1 racing, is to set milestones, records and just to push technology as far as possible. The game is overclocking itself.

HTXT: What are the biggest challenges facing any attempt at breaking overclocking records?

NS: It’ll always be time and resources. There’s no talent when it comes to it only knowledge through experience, directly or otherwise. You do it often enough, you get better at it. The most important records are personal ones or milestones. Achieving a top 20 result in a highly contested benchmark is more rewarding than achieving a number 1 position in a benchmark that very few people bother with or one that is limited to a very small group of individuals.

HTXT: Is Haswell a worthwhile upgrade if you’re already using an Ivy Bridge chip?

NS: Given that you can’t just use your Ivy Bridge chip on a Haswell motherboard, the incentive to upgrade is little to non-existent. The benefit of Haswell however is that by and large the motherboards for the platform are much better than what we had with Ivy-Bridge. Haswell makes it worthwhile owning 2400, 2666 or even 2800/2933MHz memory as getting it to work is much simpler and easier than it was with all other platforms before. It’s a refined platform, not a revolution.

HTXT: With smartphones and tablets becoming more popular, have you considered overclocking mobile chips and if so, have you had any success?

NS: HWBOT [a site dedicated to overclocking – ed] already has support for mobile phone overclocking and benchmarks, much like Futuremark has Android/iOS benchmarks. Personally I’ve not tried it, it should be interesting but I’ve not been incentivised in any way to give it a try. The popularity of a platform isn’t what makes overclocking appealing for me, it’s perhaps what I can do or show with an overclocked system. Right now the constraints and restrictions that are imposed on mobile phones by virtue of being portable computing systems make them less appealing. In the same way notebooks outsold PCs for years on end, their popularity didn’t move overclocking to notebooks.

HTXT: Are there benefits to overclocking apart from performance increases?

NS: Overclocking isn’t a needed or even relevant part of the general user experience with computers. It could stop overnight and not much would change for most people. Its validity as a hobby and a pastime though is that it allows hardware vendors to market and sell their wares from a business point of view. It makes the halo products worthwhile and allows manufactures to stay visible in the minds of potential buyers.

Most vendors and distributors aren’t even aware of it or don’t want to admit it but a R1,200 motherboard is just as capable of playing games as R6,500 motherboard. There’s no such thing as a gaming board making you better at gaming. If you take overclocking out of the picture though, then many vendors and distributors would ultimately fall apart. Where there’s no competition to be the best, the competition becomes price and that is a downward spiral. Evidence of this is the DRAM market, that is a fraction of what it used to be and now we essentially only have Samsung and Hynix as options.

Ultimately, most of us would rather be driven everywhere in a Maybach 63 than a minibus taxi. The Maybach doesn’t exist because there isn’t a more economical or perhaps even practical way to get around, it exists because – serving the same basic utilitarian purpose as a minibus taxi – the Maybach 63 is a better experience. We fly first class when we can, not because if we were in economy we’d get there a day later, we fly first class because the experience is better. We aspire to the day when we can afford to fly first class everywhere, all the time.

The same then holds true for high-end computer hardware that is only marketable through overclocking. This is a market that will always exist, because it fulfils not a practical need but an aspirational one. It’s F1, for the computing industry.

HTXT: Thanks, Neo! 

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.