Quick and easy overclocking poses risks to PDAs

Several software companies have developed small programs that allow handheld users who crave pure performance to run their processor's clock speed faster than advertised. However, just because something can be done, doesn't mean it should, according to analysts.

PC enthusiasts have been tweaking their systems -- a practice known as overclocking -- to get better than advertised performance out of their CPUs, motherboards, and other components for a long time. But that effort required the user to tinker with the motherboard and BIOS, activities beyond the comfort level of average users. Now several companies are offering software downloads that allow users to increase the speed of their handheld's processor with just a few clicks, and a few bucks.

Two applets, XScaleCtrl from wibble-wobble.com and Clear Speed from Revolutionary Software Front, allow users to adjust the speed of their processor from 100MHz to 500MHz by simply downloading a piece of software and clicking a few buttons. XScaleCtrl is available for US$3.50 on the Handango.com Web site, which sells handheld-related products.

Handhelds with faster processors can cost almost US$100 more than slower models. Typically users get additional memory or peripherals with the faster model, but the chance to get high performance on low-end handhelds for less than US$5 might be tempting to budget-conscious users.

The programs seem to be confined to handhelds running processors from Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC 2002 operating system, said Dave Linsalata, an analyst for smart handheld devices with market research company IDC, based in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Intel's PXA200 series chips use something called XScale technology to allow the processor to easily scale its clock speed, said David Rogers, PCA client group marketing manager from Intel, based in Santa Clara, California. This allows handhelds with XScale processors to quickly increase the speed of the processor to handle a complex application or download, and then quickly decrease the clock speed to save power when working on normal applications, Rogers said.

The applets take advantage of this architecture by allowing the user to lock in that higher clock speed, resulting in better performance for all applications, not only for the computing-intensive ones such as video playback or large downloads, Linsalata said. The programs also allow users to underclock their handhelds, which can extend battery life during a long trip away from a recharging station, for example, he said.

But increased performance comes at a price. Faster clock speeds result in more power consumption, decreased battery life and increased heat given off by the device. This can lead to system failures, and the loss of critical data, analysts and vendors warned.

Both Intel and Dell Computer Corp. strongly recommend avoiding overclocking software. In fact, if users break their handheld while using an overclocking program, the handheld's warranty doesn't apply, representatives from both companies said.

When Intel cuts usable chips from a silicon wafer, known as the yield, it tests and validates those chips at certain frequencies. If a PXA250 processor fails to achieve 400MHz during a test, it is often tossed back in the testing bin and retested at 300MHz. If it works at that frequency, it is labeled a 300MHz processor, and released for sale, Rogers said.

This doesn't happen very often, but there are 300MHz processors in handhelds that didn't work at 400MHz and will cause significant problems if the user attempts to increase the clock speed, he said. Intel does not release specific yield statistics or details.

Representatives from wibble-wobble.com and Revolutionary Software Front did not immediately respond to e-mailed inquiries.

So while the process of tweaking processor speed is easier than ever before, at least for handhelds, users should keep in mind the inherent risks of running their handhelds faster than the specified clock speed.

"For most people, the number of tasks you can perform on older processors are just fine without the need for overclocking," said Alex Slawsby, an IDC analyst. "And as price points go down, the urge to get more performance for less money starts to balance out."

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Tom Krazit

IDG News Service
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