NVIDIA insists the ability to overclock is "a bug" and its "fixing" the issue

NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) is stirring up controversy after it broke its silence on overclocking of its mobile GPUs, an increasingly popular practice in recent years, banning the practice the practice with driver updates.

I. Overclockability -- a Feature?

The recent updates related to Maxwell mobile chips for laptop and hybrid computers, including:
Maxwell's overclocking has been disabled by recent driver updates. [Image Source: NVIDIA]

For the nonenthusiasts overclocking is the art of pushing the clock speeds of your CPU, GPU, or memory beyond the manufacturer suggested levels, frequently by "overvolting" or adding slightly higher voltage levels.  Overclocking ups your performance, but increases the waste heat causing a chip to run hot.

For years now some intrepid souls have been braving fussy laptop thermals and the risk of voiding their warranty, overclocking mobile GPUs to get as much as a 20-30 percent boost in framerates.  Back in 2009 (the days of the GeForce 100M series) a common technique was to download a desktop driver and then modify configuration files to trick the driver into thinking NVIDIA supported that mobile GPU [source].

Starting with the Fermi drivers, though, a software overclock was possible in the drivers, which allowed you to adjust your laptop GPU's clockspeeds at will.  Tools like AfterBurner from Micro-Star International Comp., Ltd. (TPE:2377) and Turbomaster by ASUSTek Computer Inc.'s (TPE:2357) allowed users to more easily and safely tweak their GPU's clockspeeds on select gaming laptops with cooling solutions designed to cope with the higher thermal load.  Companies like the Clevo Comp. (TPE:2362), Sager, ASUS, MSI, and Dell's Alienware regularly sold models billing overclockability as a sales feature.

ASUS Gamefaster

What OEMs apparently didn't expect was that NVIDIA would rob customers of that feature.  But that appears to be precisely what happened.

II. Bugging Its Customers

At first it was unclear whether NVIDIA had intentionally disabled the feature.  The change was first noticed with the release of the NVIDIA GeForce Driver 347.09 for Windows on Dec. 17.  When the next two drivers releases also enforced the prohibition on the overclocking that customers paid for, the ban began to look more purposeful.

With the release of GeForce Driver 347.52 last week customers began to demand answers on NVIDIA's own product support forums, the GeForce Forums.
GeForce GTX 970M and 980M

That's when "ManuelG", NVIDIA customer care representative, stepped in to "clarify" the issue:

Unfortunately GeForce notebooks were not designed to support overclocking. Overclocking is by no means a trivial feature, and depends on thoughtful design of thermal, electrical, and other considerations. By overclocking a notebook, a user risks serious damage to the system that could result in non-functional systems, reduced notebook life, or many other effects.

There was a bug introduced into our drivers which enabled some systems to overclock. This was fixed in a recent update. Our intent was not to remove features from GeForce notebooks, but rather to safeguard systems from operating outside design limits.

NVIDIA GeForce 900M

The claim that overclockability in Maxwell GPUs was a bug brought swift condemnation from NVIDIA customers. "Gandem" wrote:

Why don't you let the users decide by themselves if they want to overclock or not?

Recent laptops equipped with 9xxM have excellent thermal patterns, so no. Just, no.

It wasn't your intent to remove features, but that's what your clearly did. It wasn't either your intent to have a crappy memory in the GTX 970, I guess.

You lost a customer, and I'm clearly not the only one.

"Mickyd1234" writes:

This is just outrageous behaviour. Not even a word that this was 'by design' following months of complaints.

I have just ordered an Sli 980m enthusiast machine. Now I find you blocked overclocking deliberately. I am so mad I cannot even comment any more without resorting to bad language.


The thread quickly filled with dozens of similar comments from outraged customers, while a single customer Sora (whom other commenters accused of being a forum troll on NVIDIA's payroll) defending the prohibition.  Customers even went as far as to organize a petition demanding NVIDIA undo the ban on overclocking.
NVIDIA can abuse the market with little recourse, thanks to its dominant position in the mobile gaming GPU market. [Image Source: Republic of Gamers]

NVIDIA has yet to release a more high level statement about the ban, despite numerous reports on the issue.  The customer reactions are certainly understandable.  Even if the feature was indeed created by "a bug", it's baffling and frustrating why NVIDIA didn't work with OEMs to create a patch that left the feature open to high end users that had specifically paid for systems that billed overclockability as a feature.  In the end it appears NVIDIA didn't care whether its customers had paid for overclocking -- it was its way or the highway.

The bad news for gamers is that whether they like it or not, NVIDIA has a virtual monopoly on mobile gaming graphics with Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) largely ignoring the high end laptop graphics market to focus on the high volume console business, where it has achieved ubiquity.

Thus for now gamers only recourse may be legal action against NVIDIA.  Given that NVIDIA's partner OEMs advertised overclocking as a feature.  They and/or NVIDIA could face lawsuits now that customers have been robbed of the ability to overclock.

Sources: GeForce Forums [official NVIDIA response], via Neowin, [petition against NVIDIA's ban]

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