Ninja Micros FreeSpeed Pro

   When AMD first released the Athlon processor there was a brief hush from the overclocking community.  We were aware that, unlike the latest processors from Intel, the cpu's clock multiplier was not locked, but was also inaccessible either through the BIOS or mainboard's jumper settings. The first Athlon mainboards did not even allow us to set the FSB any higher either, so the OC community was at somewhat of a loss.  How in the world were we ever going to be able to tweak more performance out of AMD's wonderful new processor???  

   Then, in an article posted on Tom's Hardware Guide, we were introduced to the back door that AMD left open for adjustment of the CPU's core voltage and clock multiplier.  If we broke apart the cpu module, an edge connector on the printed circuit board that was home to the processor and onboard L2 cache offered, by means of carefully soldering tiny little SMD resistors in a specific pattern near this edge connector (often referred to as the cpu's "golden fingers"), we could set the processor's multiplier and core voltage.  Swell, but who wanted to go to so much trouble?  Not to mention the distinct possibility of destroying the processor altogether.  The horizon brightened a bit when in a follow-up article Tom described the method for creating a device, separate from the processor itself, with which the same task could be handled.  While, for this method, you didn't need an engineering degree, it still seemed like an awful lot of trouble and called for a steady hand.  What the article did do was inspire the production of a few so-called golden fingers devices for a small but enthusiastic part of the PC community, that wanted to test the bounds of the Athlon without too much fuss.  

   Ninja Micros, a small start-up component company in the U.K., headed by Dan "Fluke" Bailey, has produced for market just such a device called the FreeSpeed Pro .  The FreeSpeed Pro allows you to set both the Vcore and clock multiplier to a wide variety of configuration possibilities through blocks of dipswitches, eliminating the need for any soldering, and offers the ability to tweak your Athlon to the limits of it's capabilities in a much safer environment.

FreeSpeed Pro Settings

Core Voltage

1.45v to 1.90v 
(in 0.05v increments)

Clock Multipliers

5.0 to 10.5
(in 0.5 increments)

You'll still need to remove the Athlon's plastic housing, a relatively simple task, but which still calls for some degree of care and voids the processor's warranty - as well as all of the other components which make up your PC.  This is the price you pay when attempting overclocking and you need to be aware from the very beginning that pushing any component beyond the manufacturer's recommended specification is a risk for which you alone are responsible.

The K7 Core - Specification vs. The Real World:

CPU manufacturers wisely rate their product's specification at levels which are below their actual level of performance.  It is much easier to guarantee a processor you know will do 600MHz to work perfectly at 500MHz as the stress on the component is reduced.  AMD. for example, marks the top edge of the Athlon's case as seen below (Athlon Model 1).


The Product ID tells us that the processor above is rated at 550MHz and the "Reserved Character" 'C' indicates that this is a 0.25 micron die part.  The Serial No. also offers information about the processor in that the first two numbers are the FAB (fabrication plant) code, the second two numbers represent the year of manufacture and the two numbers that follow that represent the week # of that year in which the processor was produced. ( we'll explore  Serial No.'s importance a bit further on ) It is important to note that the Product ID on the outside of the module and the markings on the K7's core do not always jibe.   I have, so far opened up two Athlons, both of which had Product IDs rating them at 500MHz, to find that one was a 0.25 micron part rated at 600MHz and one was an 0.18 micron part rated at 550MHz.

0.18

0.25

To tell the truth I was quite excited to find a 0.18 part, hoping that I could really crank it but alas both of my 500MHz Athlons hit the wall at 650MHz even with significant increases in the CPU core voltage - more about this later though as there is much to cover before we get there.

L2 Latency - A Limiting Factor

Athlon CPUs provide L2 cache memory on the PCB within the module much the same as the Intel Katmai core processors.  This cache memory can currently operate at 1/2, 2/5, or 1/3 CPU core frequency.  On most Athlon's this memory is, by default, running at 1/2 the core frequency.  This means that, for example, on a 500MHz CPU, the L2 has to operate at a speed of 250MHz or have a latency factor of -4.0ns.  

   This memory is expensive to produce and costly for CPU manufacturers to buy.  Consequently, the CPU manufacturer tends to keep this memory pretty close to spec. to keep costs down.  Again though, take into consideration that memory manufacturers tend to rate the specification of their memory at somewhat less than its full potential and what we are left with is a relatively narrow to reasonably wide margin between which we can achieve overclocking success and damaging any of the components which make up the processor.  
   The variety of latency ratings on Athlons is also fairly wide depending on where and when your processor was made.  K7 Core - a U.K. based web site features a database of reported K7 core processors and L2 cache components and shows L2 cache speed ratings varying from 250MHz to 333MHz in Athlon 500MHz parts alone. 
   Since the variety of components is so wide, for this review of the FreeSpeed Pro, we will focus our attention on 500MHz parts alone.  This variety of L2 latency found in the 500MHz part translates to speed ratings listed in the table below.  ( Remember, this memory is typically running at 1/2 the CPU frequency. )

Latency Ratings of L2 Cache DRAMs 
Found on Athlon 500MHz Parts

-3.0ns

333MHz

-3.1ns

323MHz

-3.25ns

308MHz

-3.3ns

300MHz

-3.6ns

278MHz

-4.0ns

250MHz
   This is where the processor's serial # comes into play.  If you know the week in which the processor was made you can get a good idea of the components which make it up by comparing it to the database at K7 Core.  This can save you the aggravation of removing the heat plate from the processor - a task considerably more likely to be fraught with disaster than removing the plastic housing.   
   If we were to adhere to the specification that the manufacturers mark their products at we could infer that my 0.25micron part Athlon 500MHz ( marked as 600MHz capable core by AMD and with -3.6ns L2 cache DRAMs, according to Samsung ) should run at at least 550MHz or 10% faster without going outside of spec.

   Now, is a 10% increase in speed worth the risk to the processor and extra money involved in purchasing an overclocking device for the Athlon.  Probably not, but never fear, most Athlons will far exceed their specified ratings and with the FreeSpeed Pro offering not only multiplier settings but core voltage increases as well, most Athlons will overclock anywhere from 20% to as much as 50% beyond their rating found in the Product ID.

FreeSpeed Pro Part II

 


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