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Dawn of a new Ice Age with Cryo PC

Ten thousand years after the last great ice age receded (forming the Vale of Aylesbury on its way), Alan Johnson formed Cryo PC in the sleepy village of Granborough. KitGuru went to investigate.

His technical team have all concealed their secret lives as ‘enthusiast overclockers’ by working real jobs in commercial IT with all of the usual agencies – government, medical, finance and defence. They combined their skills in everything from hardware assembly to assembly language and formed a specialist PC company.

What was the inspiration behind Cryo Performance Computing PC?

Johnson sums it up, “We wanted to bring our industrial level of focus and experience to the consumer and SME. We also believe that we have skills, processes and designs that do it at a reasonable cost”.

“The more specific or unusual the technical requirements, the better.  There are lots of small high tech businesses springing up that harness considerable amounts of compute power to do what they do and the emergence of the personal supercomputer is making cottage industry high tech a reality” said Johnson.

Given that Cryo PC’s HQ is just a few doors down from the village post office, these guys are taking ‘cottage industry’ very literally. How will they grow?

Johnson explained how his company has managed to grow steadily, despite the tough economical background, “We’re a small company offering what would typically be considered a boutique service. but I think that bespoke technical products and services matched to real user requirements actually applies to almost all consumers and businesses”.

Fair point. What about off-the-peg PCs?

“Once you have experienced the benefits of this higher level of service, our experience is that customers are reluctant to go back to the off-the-peg world of commodity computing.  Commodity based computing has its place, there’s no denying that, we just think it’s being applied now as a panacea and it just isn’t providing the right tools to all”.

PC World tends not to offer computers that operate at -51 degrees. Not when we checked.

Let’s be honest, we’ve heard from a lot of PC companies over the years, can someone the size of Cryo PC really differentiate and offer something different?

“Going back to the commodity computing thread, there is a conventional wisdom in the way in which the big operators work”, said Johnson. “Like the automobile in the early part of the last century, the market has moved to a commodity model – based on standard input to the manufacturing process and standardised outputs.  In this model to make a profit almost all manufacturers need volume sales, while minimising risk and variation as much as possible, so as not to compromise slender margins. Every element of cost in the production process has to be removed to achieve this, i.e. the cost of sale, cost of assembly and variations in manufacture. You end up minimising performance levels to lowest the common denominator, to guarantee the result is easy to reproduce. That works for the manufacturer, but not for the customer. We believe the customer needs to be at the centre of the operation. The centre of focus”.

Johnson summed it up neatly, “One size fits all, inevitably means that one size fits almost no one. It’s your money, you’re not going to be buying your main PC every month. Shouldn’t you demand more? A perfect fit”.

Cut the blue wire, just cut the blue wire!

OK, it’s a small company that cares. How’s that going to look any different from a larger company who doesn’t give a hoot and is just churning and burning the next PC?

Johnson laid out his approach, “Speak with any of our customers and they will tell you, Cryo PC answers the phone. The guy you speak with is an expert. We’ll spend as long as you like going through your requirements, offering you different solutions. At the same time, we’re also working with the customer to make sure they save money by not buying unnecessary components”.

“That individualised approach does not stop at sales. We are just as meticulous with after sales. We’ve all worked in hardcore technology jobs, delivering products and services under the strictest service terms”, said Johnson. “We bring exactly that level of dedication and professionalism to Cryo PC’s after care”.

Smoke and mirrors, we hear you cry. We’ve all cranked up a PC by spending 2 minutes in the BIOS, surely this Cryo chap is just after me hard-earned wonga?

Johnson deals with this kind of cynicism head on, “I think it’s a great thing that more and more people are getting interested in what lies behind how their PC works and things like BIOS settings are now more common language when talking about consumer PCs. It’s no longer just the realm of the software and hardware engineer.  Intel themselves have now effectively condoned overclocking by building Turbo Boost into their CPUs, which provides a self-limiting and safe overclock for regular users, without them every really being aware of it”.

He goes one stage further, “In fact Cryo PC would say the term overclocking itself is now redundant. It’s more a process of ‘right-clocking’ rather than overclocking.  We prefer to think that AMD and Intel deliberately underclock processors for the channel, knowing full well that these chips are capable of giving much more performance with the right setup and configuration”.

Looks more like a space shuttle's life support unit, if you ask us.

So the simple overclock is there for everyone, but what about the more extreme set-ups that we all know are possible, but can’t all achieve? What are the challenges that Cryo PC take away from customers by pre-configuring the entire system?

Johnson replied, “It was once fairly safe to play around with voltages, almost with impunity, because scary component temperatures would tell you when to back-off. As production processes move from 45nm to 32nm and even smaller, there is more fragility, more sensitivity. You don’t always get an adequate warning when an expensive part is being subjected to terminal voltages and temperatures. It’s at the edge where an experienced overclocking team, such as ours, will demonstrate its credentials.  Knowing the right settings and the safe limits becomes instinctive when you work with it day-in, day-out. We’re confident enough to stress the system with the right clocks and voltages, and we back up that confidence with a warranty”.

What if the user scours the forums first to get the right profile information, surely that makes Cryo PC’s services redundant?

“We are often quite flabbergasted by some of the supposedly safe OC profiles published on various forums. We’ve had numerous calls from customers who have fallen foul of such things. Often the authors do not have production level exposure to real-life usage at these settings and so really don’t know whether it works or not they are simply guessing. It’s also clear the settings are not being fully stress tested as they are far from stable” said Johnson.

Johnson is happy to provide support for the community, “We are always happy to provide over the phone or email advice to anyone doing a DIY build, just be patient with us if you do ask long questions – as our paying customers have to come first!”.

So does Johnson have any general advice for KitGuru’s readers?

“Start, from the ground up, with the right kit”, said Johnson. “Well ventilated case, solid PSU, the best CPU cooler and TIM. Over-spec everything you can afford and go with high quality branded components. Those companies have earned a reputation over several years for a reason”.

“For overclocking, the best CPU is usually near the bottom of the range of the best architecture, for example the Core i7 920 or AMD’s Phenom II X6 1055T. We then pair that processor with the best mainboard for the job. In most cases, we only really consider Asus and Gigabyte, but some other vendors do occasionally create great boards”, explained Johnson.

KitGuru always knows when we’re speaking with wisdom drawn from ages of frustration and success. So, Alan, level with us. What was your first ever overclock, which chip and how far did you go ?

Grinning, Johnson replied, “I need to be careful of giving away my age, but I grew up as a pre-teen when the PC was being developed at IBM, Microsoft was being born and the beginnings of the Internet was in existence in the UK with the birth of Bulletin Boards, Prestel and the data networking nemesis, hacking.  My first computer was the Sinclair ZX81 on which I learned BASIC programming, closely followed by a Spectrum 48K when I moved onto writing assembly language routines for graphical processing functions and games (‘Sprites’).  The Spectrum was built around the Zilog Z80A 3.5MHz processor which had a complex and rich instruction set a subset of which was the same as the Intel 8080 on which modern PC instruction sets are based [KitGuru is a master of DJNZ ! – Ed].  The Spectrum was great fun as you could play around with the board and do DIY mods and repairs.  There were no SMD components or multi-layer boards to worry about and by changing the CPU, OS EPROM and RAM for IC sockets it was easy to swap and change things around and fairly cheap to fix when it went wrong, which it frequently did”.

Forget all that Papal visit stuff, here's the true Old Testament. Click image to download a copy.

“Now the Spectrum had a slightly dodgy clock circuit on it, that had a tendency to break, which usually meant that a specific transistor had failed (you could tell when that was at fault, because it stopped audibly squealing at you as normal and instead was perfectly silent when switched on!). It occurred to me that by playing around with this transistor and some associated components, it would be easy to double the clock from stock 3.5MHz to 7MHz, so that’s what I did.  Unfortunately because the clock was used for timing almost everything on the Spectrum and was hardcoded to elapsed real time almost nothing worked properly.  In games everything ran at double normal speed.  JetSet Willy and Trans Am were hard enough at stock speed!”, Johnson’s eyes are now focused on something just outside normal spacetime.

What’s your classic OC favourite, for example did you ever attack an AMD chip with a pencil?

“The pencil mods were fun, but a bit hit and miss – so hardly commercial. Probably the best fun was had with hard volt modding the 8800 GTX which for a while we were offering with an SMD resistor or a pot, soldered on the back, in parallel with the voltage regulation circuit. You could use this in conjunction with a voltmeter to crank up the voltage and get some exceptional overclocks, as long as you used water cooling” said Johnson.

“After a while, it almost becomes a battle. You find yourself wondering how long you can go before you absolutely need to buy new kit. That’s a big part of the fun. You feel like you’re cheating time itself and the advance of technology. Eventually, you have to give in graciously, but it’s fun”.

That’s the fun stuff, but with a name like Cryo PC and building rigs in a valley created by ice, we wanted to know what really floats Johnson’s boat?

“For us the big passion is still with the sub-zero cooling, phase change and cascades”, he said with a glint in his eye. “The team regularly makes time to kick back and do a bit of experimentation, to see just see how far that i980 XE will go, or what is the real limit for Corsair’s GT 2000 or just how big a score can you get in Heaven 3D benchmarks with a Quad Crossfire setup of HIS HD5870s or what’s the max transfer rate we can get a RAID0 array of 8 Corsair SSDs to go etc.  It’s a little nuts, but we get a real buzz out of breaking new records, pushing the envelope and raising the performance bar”.

What’s the driving force then?

Johnson’s obviously a history buff, “Our inspiration comes from the great British inventors and designers like Mitchell and more recently Dyson.  Mitchell designed the Spitfire and won the Schneider Trophy three successive times taking the world speed record from 250mph to over 400mph with the Supermarine S6B, shortly after the competition series halted.  He had unswerving focus, and constantly modified his design with incremental improvements and sheer hard work to get there.  He was a pioneer of aerodynamics and, with Rolls Royce, engine cooling and extreme power output.  We try to emulate these attributes of design excellence, innovation, dedication and ingenuity”.

Early attempts to pack the SB6's propeller into a Cryo PC chassis proved, challenging

Everyone has their talent. If Johnson had to pay one other company to build him a PC, who would he choose?

“Wow, that’s a tough question”, said Johnson. “There are some quality competitors out there in the UK at the moment and I think, as a country, we are leading the world in many respects.  I wouldn’t like to single out a single supplier, but I do recommend to anybody that if you are thinking about getting a PC or a laptop do talk to the few specialist custom PC builders and I think you will be very impressed with the level of expertise, service and quality of end product delivered.  It’s thought to be the safe option to use the mainstream big vendors, but unless you are a corporate hunting for 20,000 beige desktops, it’s really not the best option”.

Zardon always liked the fact that a beige chassis would match his stylish lounge furniture

So, go with a UK-based specialist that has skill, expertise and a track record – avoid HP, Acer and Dell like the plague. That’s what we’re hearing.

What’s the most powerful OC rig you sell as standard?

“The Cryo PC Velox has always been our flagship and the mark of excellence in designing the single most no-compromise power house possible” replied Johnson. “We use the most powerful processors, graphics cards, fastest SSDs, highest current power supplies, highest bandwidth RAM  and the most flexible chassis in putting this machine together.  The Velox is also flexible enough to offer optional phase change, as well as water cooling, as well as water cooling, to get the very best performance out of all the component parts”.

“Our Graphite design was based on the Velox and was submitted to Custom PC magazine’s Dream PC competition in 2009. It was the fastest machine by 300MHz, at 4.7GHz, and won the overall Benchmark tests against all other Custom PC vendors.  It’s the design we used last year to set and reset the Media Benchmark records four successive times.  At the time the Dream PC was released, it also had the 3DMark Vantage graphics benchmark record”.

“So far, 2010 has been a very busy year for us. While growing the business, we’re also continuing our efforts to develop new products and, when we have some time, we have some more records we’d like to aim for!”.

We’re not all going to spend copious amounts of money on a PC, so what’s the cheapest unit Cryo offers?

Johnson is a fan of efficiency, “Our cheapest regular PC are the Cryo Rapier and Pico XS, designed around providing a value conscious gaming solution.  Based on the dual core i3 530, but we’ve turned the clocks up from 2.93GHz to 4.2GHz.  We use the ATI HD5770 or nVidia GTX 460 1GB cards for graphics and for the money [under £800 at the time of writing – Ed] this really is a great combination.  Like all our designs there’s a wealth of options and even alternative case designs to choose from.

Green or blue? Right now, what’s the best AMD and Intel overclocking chip?

“If you do a lot of concurrent processing and memory intensive work then our favourites are the Thuban 6 core AMD 1055T and the Intel Core i7 920/930.  For Video, Photographic, CAD, Chess and 3D graphics, this is what you want. Better still go, dual socket if your pocket is deep enough.  If you need flat out core speed and not concurrency then the Intel 32nm dual cores are unbeatable and relatively cheap.  For pure gaming we still don’t see much more value in the large multi-core, high memory bandwidth processors and would go for i3/i5 instead.  In our own tests Crysis, which is CPU intensive, does just as well on a Dual core as a Hex core, if not slightly better.  Our favourites here would be the Intel i3 Duo 530 or if you want to hedge your bets on more multi-core games coming in the near future then the i5 760 Quad”.

How do you deal with warranty issues caused by your overclocking?

Johnson smiles, “I have no idea, we’ve never had any!”.

“All of the PCs we build are so intensively tested that if they are going to go wrong, it will be in the workshop.  Our testing regime is rigorous and the equivalent of running the machine fully-loaded for about three months solid.  We use combinations of tests including; Prime95, Linpack, Furmark, 3DMark and game benchmarks like Crysis & Far Cry. Together, they provide more stress than any real world application would ever get close to.  I can categorically say we have never had a component failure due to the overclocking configuration”.

Bold statement, but why does Johnson think this is so?

“The fact is our parts usually run cooler and in a more stable fashion than some of the shabbier stock systems, that have been put together in a barely adequately way. Our CPUs, fully loaded, generally run under 80C, whereas we have seen stock systems at closer to 100c with power supplies that are barely DC stable and which would certainly fail the ATX standard. Like anyone else, we have component failures, but not as a result of the overclocking. We deal with these failures promptly. Using the very best branded products and avoiding short cuts, helps a lot. Trying to make additional profit on no-name components is a false economy. Cryo PCs can be a little more expensive, but – to coin a phrase ‘it’s because we think you’re worth it!’.

One of Cryo PC's finished articles (with some tech pr0n lighting)

You create a rig that clocks to, say, 4.4GHz. However, when the CPUs ship from Intel or AMD, they won’t go past 4.2GHz. What’s the Cryo solution?

“There are actually three scenarios that typically might cause this to happen in our experience:

1.       It’s a brand new part and we used a stunner of a pre-release or engineering sample to design against and the bulk shipping part simple isn’t consistently up to the same performance.  In the event this happens we would apologise, explain the situation and offer a refund or discount in compensation.  On the basis that we would still be offering the fastest commercially available machine of this specification anyway we think this is fair and our customers generally appreciate this.

2.       It’s a dud of a CPU that overheats or has some sort of an electrical block to overclocking.  This is simple we discard it and just get another CPU.  Normally we would avoid this scenario by ensuring we get CPU’s from known good batches.  However like any manufacturing process there is variability in the CPU’s and occasionally flaws that cause problems.  A CPU can abnormally overheat due to bad IHS contact with the IC for example.

3.       If the chipset and CPU are under a lot of load with other components on the motherboard, especially large volumes of memory, then it may have the side effect of limiting CPU and/or motherboard overclockability.  We know what these circumstances typically are before we build the machine so we discuss it at the time of putting together a customer design quote.  We explain that the final clock speed might be lower, and explain how you might change the spec if you want it increased again.”

KitGuru wants to know, in Johnson’s opinion, if someone wanted to get into overclocking – where should they start?

“KitGuru for tips of course!  There is a lot of good online info and the Internet is a great resource to be used mercilessly.  However, there is no substitute for having a virtual or real chat with an experienced overclocker from one of the well-known overclocking team forums, such as BenchTec.  We are always glad to help people even if they want to Do-It-Themselves, we also have articles on our own site that are specifically for DIY Overclockers, as we don’t discourage our customers from experimenting further with the machines we provide. We just ask them to remember not to overwrite our carefully nurtured and perfected BIOS profiles!  We can also provide our systems in kit form, so at least the customer knows they are starting with parts that are up to the job. We will even give you a starting configuration to get you going, and tell you what setting limits not to breach”.

Cryo PC seem to be a friendly and knowledgeable bunch. We look forward to working with more of their systems in the future.

Alan Johnson claims to have a face for radio, but he was caught by KitGuru's cameras while trying to guard the secret of i7 cooling

KitGuru says: If you know of a PC manufacturer or component store that should be highlighted to the KitGuru audience, then please let us know. We’ll try to get to everyone eventually!

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