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TXGF's ATI Ultimate LAN Party

Extreme overclocking and 512MB graphics meet in Dallas
— 12:35 AM on February 28, 2005

THIS WEEKEND IN Dallas, I attended the Texas Gaming Festival's ATI Ultimate LAN Party, a nice-sized event attended by around 500 people. The party featured the usual mix of LAN gaming, tourneys, and sleep deprivation, but it was unique for a few reasons. ATI, the event's title sponsor, saw to that. First, they showed off what they claimed was the world's first 512MB graphics card, a Radeon X850 XT with twice the RAM of the usual variety. Second, ATI flew in three of the world's top overclockers for an exhibition of some of the most extreme overclocking attempts anywhere. Frankly, at the end of the day, the overclockers had utterly upstaged the 512MB graphics card, at least in my view. Read on to get my take.

The overclocking contest
Let's start with the overclocking. ATI invited to the event three guys who have often been near the top of the rankings at FutureMark's Online Result Browser: Eric "Oppainter" Kronies, Charles "Fugger" Wirth, and Sami "Macci" Makinen. Oppainter and Fugger are both Americans who hang out at Macci, the youngster of the group, is from Finland. All three, assisted by cooling specialists known as "Chilly1" and "PC-Ice," specialize in what can only be described as extreme overclocking.

This is most definitely not just overclocking for the sake of getting 3500+ clock speeds for a 3000+ price. These guys use expensive custom equipment in order to push PC hardware well beyond its usual limits. If this were racing, this competition would be an open-class event where anything goes, like the old days of the Indy 500. And the computer systems they're overclocking are definitely like race cars, not daily drivers. The goal here is getting a screenshot and maybe a benchmark score, not long-term sustainable clock speeds, and the "computers" being overclocked are nothing more than an assemblage of PC parts sitting on a table with exotic cooling attached.

For this contest, ATI outfitted the overclockers with its "Bullhead" reference motherboards based on the ATI Radeon Xpress 200 chipset, like the one we tested in our review of the chipset. This mobo is a very good overclocker, in part because it packs an extensive array of BIOS tweaking options. In the CPU sockets of these boards sit Athlon 64 FX-55 processors, prized for their performance, overclocking potential, and unlocked upper multipliers. The graphics cards of choice are, of course, Radeon X850 XTs. (That other company's dual-card solution might make for higher records, but the Radeon X850 XT is the fastest single card, at least.) Both the mobos and video cards are modded to allow copious amounts of voltage to flow to the chips onboard.

Macci's "Bullhead" motherboard, masked off to protect against condensation

The real star of this show, however, is the cooling. All three of the overclockers use multi-stage, cascade style phase-change coolers capable of cooling a chip to insanely low temperatures, under -100 degrees Celsius. That's some serious refrigeration, and all of it routed to two chips: the CPU and the GPU. Here's how it looks.

It's, err, a little bigger than a copper heatsink/fan combo

Think it'd cool a Prescott?

A hose brings the cooling right to the CPU

A Radeon X850 XT attached to a cooler

Macci works on his setup in the forground while Fugger tweaks away in the background

Crazy, innit? The basic formula is to chill the chip way, way down, crank the voltage way, way up, and shoot for the highest possible clock speed. That's not all that goes into it, of course. These guys are usually aiming for the highest possible scores in 3DMark, so maximum performance is often more important than just hitting a stratospheric clock speed. Getting there requires some serious tweaking know-how.