Tech Innovation

Competition Pushes PC Modding to Extremes

Ken Kaplan Executive Editor, iQ by Intel

YouTube video series pits PC modding masters in fast-paced competition, testing their creativity, ingenuity and ability to build and customize a PC in a matter of minutes.

In the heat of competition, it only took 15 minutes for Travis Jank, a modder who creates customized computers, to assemble a full-functioning PC. That’s less than half the time it takes most skilled PC builders. For anyone else, it might take hours or even days to get it right.

Jank pulled off this impressive feat in the spring, during the recording of “Rig Wars,” the second episode in a YouTube video series called Expert Mode.Expert_Mode_Rig_Wars_2016

In the first season of Expert Mode, Jank built his dream machine, the overclocked Refrigerator Rig built with two air-conditioning units that cooled the microprocessor 200-degrees below zero.

For “Rig Wars,” Janks faced off against Marc Molella and Hassan Alaw in a high-octane game show, where the three battled for top modder bragging rights.

Five rounds of drills tested their creativity, ingenuity and ability to build a PC under intense pressure of time and surprise roadblocks, while show hosts Michele Marrow and Malik Forte provided tech insights and commentary.

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“‘Expert Mode’ is the type of thing most guys like me dream of being a part of when we first began our journey with computers, so no way I was going to pass it up the opportunity,” said Marc Molella, owner of Precision Computing. He recently created a PC in the shape of a Delorean car.

Just as the first Ford Model T in 1908 came in one simple shape and color (black), the first IBM personal computer in 1981 came in a bland, beige box. People soon began modifying computer shells, transforming their PC into something more artistically interesting.

They dove inside to tinker with standardized components, eager to boost computer speed and overall performance. At the turn of the millennium, a PC modding movement was inspiring the new generations growing up with video games.

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“Modding, to me, is like a culture that is ever growing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns into a new sport or the next reality TV show,” said Lee Harington, a California-based PC modder and owner of Pcjunkiemods.

Lee was a technology director for “Expert Mode,” helping compile the components for every round. With Eleague eSports debuting this year on the TBS network, it’s easy to imagine how competitive PC modding could be a hit for TV audiences.

The three modders competed in five rounds: Quick Build, Cooling, Overclocking, Lighting and Distraction. In each round, the race against time tested their mettle.

“The biggest challenge for me were the time constraints,” said Molella. “While I normally work quickly, I ensure there are no mistakes, so the time crunch made me feel added pressure.”

Jank is used to going into the garage, cranking up music, relaxing and working out the finer aspects of a system.

“But the competition forced me to throw all that out window,” he said.

With the clock counting down in the first round of system building, Jank slipped and accidently stabbed his motherboard with power drill, a tool he doesn’t typically use but figured it’d move him along faster.

“That could’ve put me down for the whole competition,” he said. “I sat there for a second before hitting power button, wondering if it turn on. When it started up with no smoke from the motherboard, I felt the biggest relief.”

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He finished round one in 14 minutes and 56 seconds, which was five minutes faster than second place Alaw, but that motherboard stabbing haunted Jank later during the overclocking round.

“Competition puts you on your toes,” he said. “You have to sacrifice a lot of things that you wouldn’t if you had more time. Making those sacrifices each time is emotionally draining.”

Molella said the overclocking round jolted him with an adrenaline rush similar to how a racecar driver feels.

“You are pushing the computer components to the bleeding edge of stability in hopes to gain the most performance from your computer,” said Molella.

“Sometimes you fail and have to start all over, but when you succeed, the thrill is great!”

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Alaw was the youngest “upstart” modder among the contestants. He’s CEO and founder of V1 Tech, a company that makes custom parts that make PC modding easier and more affordable.

Looking back at the heat of competition, Alaw said he was satisfied with how fast he built a system despite only having manual tools. His creativity flowed during the aesthetic round, but the overclocking match was challenging because he felt rusty.

“I haven’t played with overclocking in a while, but luckily overclocking has never been easier because of the efficiency and stability of new processors today,” Alaw said.

Modding in Extreme Conditions

The final round, dubbed Distractions, was full of outlandish surprises. Janks called it the most challenging round.

Having to connect components properly while wearing oven mitts was downright awkward. When heating tubing so it would bend, a huge fan began blowing hurricane winds in his face. It got even more chaotic when soap bubbles came flying at him.

“It stung my eyes, and I couldn’t see,” said Janks.

While covering wires, the crew turned on a smoked machine.

“I couldn’t see well so I moved in closer, and that’s when they turned on a strobe light that nearly blinded me.”

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The Distraction round left Alaw flabbergasted.

“The pressure and stress got to me, and I wasn’t thinking through how I needed to work, so I made a lot of mistakes,” he said.

Hooked on Modding

Molella was 13 when he used his own money to buy components to build a PC with a tech-savvy family member.

“Not many people had a personal computer in 1993, but I loved the technology,” he said.

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A decade later, he got into overclocking and gaming, which led to modding where he could express his creativity.

“Younger generations are first drawn into gaming then modding,” he said. “Once that fascination is fueled, there is no going back!”

Molella remembers before social media, the PC Modding community shared their work and knowledge in online forums. Today, modding is more mainstream fueled by LAN parties.

Alaw began building computers just before high school. After months of saving money and researching, he learned it was possible to build a PC that would perform better than pre-built desktops sold at the same price.

“The first PC I built let me play Crysis, but discovered that I enjoyed the process of learning about the hardware and putting it together more than I did playing games,” he said.

Alaw sees PC building is easier and easier to get into because the hardware is becoming much more powerful and efficient.

“It’s never been easier to make a PC look so good,” he said. “There are all kinds of components out there now with fully programmable lighting, cases in every style and color imaginable, plus tips and instructions are readily available.”

Alaw turned his passion for modding into a successful business that helps first-time builders and veteran modders make unique PCs affordably.

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“This and many other companies making similar advancements in the industry are pushing the modding scene to a new level because even hardline water cooling, custom cable sleeving and awesome lighting just doesn’t cut it anymore when trying to stand out above the pros,” Alaw said.

A growing desire to play games with friends and family drove Jank into modding. The spirit of competition kicked into gear early after his brother got a better computer, which made him realize how slow his computer was. It drove him crazy.

“I learned if I could cool down my computer, I could overclock it and push it faster to play new games,” he said. “Eventually, I had to buy new tech, and it became an obsession to get the most from my computer, like tuning a hot rod for quarter mile race.

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Jank is well known for his innovative cooling techniques that lead to overclocking performance records.

On May 31, the day the Intel Core i7 processor Extreme Edition with 10 cores came out, Janks woke up, grabbed his smartphone, read the news and ordered one before getting out of bed.

“It’s only two more cores than what I have now, but I want to see if it will overclock more,” he said. “But no matter it will get me closer to a world record (just under 7 GHz).”

Modding is a hobby and culture.

“For us nerds, who shall inherit the earth, it’s how we express ourselves,” said Janks.

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