rAge Cape Town 2016: Interview with HWBot’s Timothee Pineau (Part 1)

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It’s not very often that you get an opportunity to talk to some of the people who run the machines that keep organisations like HWBot running. While the community online is amazing and incredibly large (and growing each year), HWBot has faced challenges in the past with organisation, getting the right partnerships with trusted companies, and becoming the de facto destination for overclockers to submit their scores. Going from strength to strength, they have slowly conquered the hurdles they’ve faced, and become one of the best places to compete online in an amateur and professional-friendly environment.

Today, HWBot rivals the likes of 3DMark and Passmark, and it has grown into what could be argued as a monopoly in the overclocking scene. If you’re not on HWBot with some scores and achievements to your name, you might as well not be competing at all. I got the opportunity to chat with Timothee Pineau, project development lead at HWBot, and the founder and producer of content on Overclock TV. What followed was the most enlightening interview I’ve had in a while, and a deep dive into the philosophies guiding HWBot’s business decisions.

NAG: So HWBot is in South Africa for the first time as part of the world tour. Why did you choose South Africa to be a part of the tour this year?

Timothee Pineau: We tried to extend the world tour this year compared to previous years. The very first year, in 2014, we had only one stop which was Computex Taipei. Last year we did three stops, one in North America (Montreal, Canada), another in Europe (Poiters, France), and a third stop in Taipei city.  This year we wanted more stops and people were asking us for more stops, so we looked at targets in different countries, where we could see where we were in demand and where there was a high-end market. So, South Africa, basically beat the whole continent of Africa.

(side note: This sentiment echoes what I was told by Intel at rAge expo 2015 in Johannesburg. South Africa is not only a very fluid country when it comes to hardware purchases, it’s also a very hungry one for good, high-end parts)

NAG: Do you base your decisions for the stops on how much high-end hardware is being bought, or do you look at the submissions on HWBot as well?

TP: Yeah, we look at a lot of different things. We look at how many overclockers we could have, for example, and we look at how high people have been submitting in previous years. We also go by who our existing contacts in that region are, the people who help us arrange the show. For example, because we’ve worked with Neo [Sibeko] from NAG, using rAge expo was more practical for us to get our foot in the door. We call these people our “local fixers”. He knew, much better than us, what the landscape looked like here.

NAG: Is there anything different, or unique, about South Africa compared to other stops on the world tour?

TP: South Africa is very interesting because, in terms of how remote it is, and where it’s placed geographically, you would not expect it to be so westernised and up there with technology appreciation. When we go, for example, to Brazil, it’s almost a cultural shock, where they have a very low income and the PC’s they use – while the industry is growing really fast – are much weaker and cost-effective. The workshops that we do there are adapted to the environment where, for example, Pentium G3258 chips are used that go for around $80 US instead of the latest Skylake. High-end Skylake chips are really not on sale in Brazil because it costs so much.

For South Africa, it’s a very connected crowd with a mid-range to high-end set of hardware, and they’re also enthusiastic about it all. Because there are lots of gamers it is also a very fluid environment, because there’s generally more people who, even though they don’t understand everything from the start, they’re still eager to learn.

NAG: There seems to, today, the one crowd that started overclocking on Pentium 3 chips and Celeron 300 systems and fiddling in the BIOS with everything, and the modern-day crowd who is comfortable with just adjusting sliders and finding stability. Is the world tour trying to change this, and get people interested in learning the “dark art” properly?

TP: Well, the world tour’s goal is to grow the community wherever we go, and to nurture the next generation of overclockers. By “next generation” we’re also implying that they’re not going to be like the previous generation. We’re seeing the same three generations of overclockers, like you mention. The old guys, like Hipo5 in 2005, those were really technical people. Those were the guys benching on jumpers with Intel 486 CPUs back in the day.

Today’s overclockers who are active and winning competitions are the middle-ground. That’s guys like Neo, and DrWeez or Vivi, where they’re still very technically minded. They still went into the BIOS and did all the complicated work, but they’re keeping up with the new UEFI BIOS and the slider culture.

The people we’re training here, those are the more modern overclockers. Those guys, we show them how to overclock without the BIOS because it’s not necessary anymore, there’s no more reboots, it’s faster, you won’t lock up your system on a reboot, it’s just more convenient. By removing a lot of the limitations with starting out, and making submitting scores easier, we’ve hopefully made getting involved in overclocking much more friendly to those starting out. But because it’s so much easier, if you had to tell a pro from back then that competing for six hours at a time isn’t needed anymore, they’d never be able to understand it.

NAG: Do you think that, because of how their starting point is so different from the past, that there might be a loss of knowledge for the younger generation?

TP: For sure. At the start we don’t teach them as much because they’d need to be capable first of submitting anything. But it is different. The newer generation reads a lot less and also wins less competitions! This is also the generation that’s tuned to social media, to Facebook and Twitter, and has shorter attention spans, there’s also a need to tune these workshops to keep them interested. Some of them will get into it more because they’re already enthusiastic and interested to learn more to improve their scores, and they’ll go on to learn about silicon and architecture. There will be, of course, be some people who will be, “Cool, I know about it”, and there are definitely those who are already intimidated just by the sliders and not knowing how it works.

NAG: But they’re also inside Windows, which they’re used to.

TP: Yeah, they’re using Windows, which is familiar and easy to pick up, and the way XTU works makes it very easy to do these sorts of things without damaging the hardware.

NAG: Since we’re on the subject of Windows, what’s the latest on the timing issue?

[side note: this was an issue where several overclockers on HWBot were using what was technically an exploit to boost their numbers on Windows 8. Naturally, some people didn’t do this on purpose because of how Intel instituted power savings on the CPU with Haswell, so it was a problem that legitimately affected each and every overclocker out there.]

TP: Well that’s been fixed with Skylake and Windows 10! Windows 10 installs on Skylake chips use a different timer to the one that is used for Broadwell and older CPUs, so that solves the problem. Of course, for competitions it’s always difficult to tell all the guys online those rules, and you’d see the older chips and Windows 10 and… you’d have to throw those results away!

NAG: Do you think that there’s any chance that, in the future, Windows benchmarks could be replaced by benchmarks on Linux?

TP: It could happen, but it’s tough to even get really good benchmarks that are reliable on Windows systems. There are hundreds of benchmarks out there for Linux and for Windows, but none of them are reliable for competitions, or at the right grade for competitive purposes. Most aren’t even approved for HWBot, and most don’t have any sort of integration with a benchmark database. They’re not connected with any tuning utilities and they exist in their own space.

Ideally, the ultimate dream we have at HWBot, is a benchmark utility where you have a 2D and a 3D test included along with others, and it’s all integrated in a nice way [with the overclocking utility] with an internet connection, just like in games where you now have integrated servers and server browsing. In the early days of games when that first started out, you’d join a room and say, “Oh, there are other people I can play with here!” That’s what we’d like to see in future, where there’s integration in the benchmark and the utilities, and the anti-cheat systems. You’d open up the benchmark, and it would show all the competitions available that you can participate in. You do your tweaks, you run the tests, compete against others in real-time, and you could submit online.

ASUS recently released a new version of Realbench, which has integration with the competition API that we have available on HWBot. There’s a list of competitions available, and you can submit directly to our servers. So, we’re getting there with this one program, but it takes time. And it already takes so much time to validate and set up things on Windows, that I can’t see us ever doing Linux in the near future. But you never know. Android, actually is further along than Linux itself. We do some testing and validation with HWBot Prime, and the devs work with us on Android and use our service to grab the specs of the phone…

NAG: You have an Android bechmark for HWBot? I didn’t know that existed!

TP: Yeah! So, HWBot Prime connects to our database for the tests and scores and to also get all the specs of the phone or tablet. It’s multi-platform, but kind of a proof of concept rather than an actual launch of commercial software. It’s open-source, so there’s some guys who wanted to write these things up [the integration]… but it runs on Windows, it runs on Linux and it runs on Android. So to my knowledge, that’s the only multi-platform benchmark that uses us.

NAG: To fill the gaps then, would you suppose it’s possible that HWBot would end up writing their own benchmark software to fill in the gaps?

TP: Oh, we’ve thought about it. It’s been on our minds before. But, you see, it’s not something that we’ve prioritised. We’ve spent so much time organising the community into the current structures, where we’ve separated the database entries from the competitive submissions, and really tried to bring things up. If someone out there would like to volunteer to write something for us… maybe? We already provide so much integration that anyone can use for their program, so you can just… knock on our door and say, “Hey, can I get API access for my program?” and you can link up to us.

NAG: So if the devs for Catzilla approached you, for example, then they could integrate HWBot rankings?

TP: Exactly. For example we had this one guy who wrote a H.264 and H.265 benchmark that’s available on our site. Antron used our API in his benchmark. You log into your account from the benchmark, and it submits scores straight to your account. It also takes the screenshot automatically, as well. That’s the kind of thing we want to encourage and foster in the community, instead of us building something from scratch and trying to maintain it. That’s not part of our business.

This concludes part one of my interview with Timothee. Our interview lasted over thirty minutes, with the off-mic talk going up to an hour, during which we discussed the future of overclocking, the changes they’re introducing into the community through OC TV, and why things need to change to improve the engagement among new or younger viewers. Stay tuned to NAG for the next part in what became an enlightening conversation!