Whatever happened to Dr. Thomas Pabst?

In 1996, Dr. Thomas Pabst, a German MD then living in England, created a web page where he talked about motherboards, video cards, and a then little-known phenomenon called overclocking. Dubbed Tom’s Hardware Guide, it spawned a long list of imitators, creating a new industry: PC hardware enthusiast sites.

In 2006 he sold the site and walked away.

Dr. Thomas Pabst’s legacy

Dr. Thomas Pabst's web site in 1996
In 1996, Tom’s Hardware Guide put overclocking into the mainstream.

Dr. Thomas Pabst didn’t invent overclocking. But Tom’s Hardware Guide dramatically increased exposure to the practice and made it more common. His writeups told people how to do it and what kind of results they could expect. Relating his own personal experience lent the site enough authority to make people less reluctant to try it.

But besides overclocking, he also lent credibility to the idea that not all components are created equal. I remember calling a computer store in the mid 1990s asking what brand of motherboards they carry.

“Tritons,” they said.

“Triton is the name of an Intel chipset. Who made the motherboard?”

“It doesn’t matter,” they said.

I said I’d read it does matter. They got me off the phone as quickly as they could. Today, a computer store with that kind of attitude doesn’t stay in business long.

Dr. Pabst, the reluctant journalist

As a journalist, Dr. Tom Pabst was a mixed bag. He broke a lot of rules. This made him at times a brilliant journalist and a questionable one. His defiant attitude toward Intel was outstanding journalism. His practice of breaking articles into a dozen pages to deliver more ad impressions wasn’t quite so great. And at times he did seem to get a bit too cozy with some vendors.

Journalists’ work has to sell advertising to keep the lights on. That’s reality. But there’s a balance that an ethical journalist has to strike between serving the reader and serving the advertiser. When in doubt, serve the reader. Journalism school spends a lot of time on that.

But Dr. Pabst didn’t exactly ask to become a journalist. The site started out as a hobby. Then it got huge and selling advertising became a necessity. At some point he potentially could have made more off the site than he could make practicing medicine.

Dr. Thomas Pabst and Intel

Dr. Thomas Pabst and Intel
When the 1.13 GHz Pentium III CPU had problems, Pabst called Intel on it. When the Pentium 4 ran slower than the P3 in spite of a higher clock speed and higher cost, Pabst called Intel on that too.

And let’s go back to that Intel thing for a minute. When Intel released a 1.13 GHz Pentium III that didn’t work, he called them to task for it when no one else would. When the Pentium 4 came along, it was clocked faster than the Pentium III and it cost more, but it ran slower. Most tech journalists played right along, but Dr. Pabst didn’t.

I do think he was fair to Intel. When Intel released a product that was particularly good at something, he mentioned it. Sometimes Intel released something that was accidentally good at something. He pointed that out too. The first Celerons were really poor performing chips. But he pointed out that the things Intel cheaped out on also made them easy to overclock, in spite of their locked clock multipliers. And a Celeron running at 400 MHz turned out to be pretty good at 3D gaming in the late 90s. In his mind, those Celerons were good chips. They weren’t what Intel intended to make, and I’m sure that made him smile.

And when Intel released its second-generation Celerons with cache and Abit made a dual-CPU motherboard intended for them, Pabst and his audience loved it. Intel, not so much.

Polarization

Nevertheless, Dr. Pabst became a polarizing figure. I think there were several reasons for it. He had an ego and it showed. That can turn people off. At times he gave off the vibe that he really would rather be practicing medicine. That’s understandable. He went to medical school instead of journalism school for a reason. Well, at least one reason.

And toward the end he clearly was bored with it all. Maybe you agree with him and maybe you don’t. But in the mid 2000s, he thought computers and gaming lost innovation and imagination. I happen to agree with his view. Others disagree. There’s room in this world for both views.

When we look at who Dr. Thomas Pabst was, you can understand. He never was the stereotypical 1990s computer geek. He was intelligent and highly educated, yes. But he made it clear from the beginning that he was a multi-dimensional person. Sure, he understood the physics of computing, but he was a surgeon. That suggests he liked biology better. Otherwise he probably would have chosen to be a radiologist. He liked video games, but he also liked physical fitness. His mountain bike was as important to him as his computer. His fame gave him an audience to talk about those other things, and I noticed a different tone in his writing when he asked about mountain biking and cars.

The long, slow walk away

Over time, one thing became clear. Dr. Pabst was a medical doctor turned technology journalist losing interest in the technology he covered. Not only did it show in his writing, at times he even said it, and he said it as early as 2001. All of this made him more polarizing and I’m sure his ego didn’t like that.

I don’t blame him for walking away in 2006. I’ve walked away from a few things myself. When you’re unhappy, sometimes that’s the best thing to do. There’s little doubt there were times he told himself he didn’t go to medical school to write reviews of CPUs and motherboards he didn’t like.

He left a few clues about his whereabouts but didn’t make himself easy to find. The easy conclusion to draw is that he just wanted to go back to being a doctor and no longer wanted the attention.

He resurfaced in 2015. A web site called VR World named him senior fellow. He wrote exactly one editorial, in mid-March 2015. Aside from a few life changes he probably could have written it any time in 2006 though. His life had changed a bit but the man had not. He observed the industry was more innovative in 2015 than in 2006 but still argued it wasn’t enough. The comeback editorial, 22 months after its publication, had a mere five comments.

Maybe it wasn’t the reception he expected. Maybe it was the wrong venue, as VR hasn’t turned into the killer app that some expected. And maybe he decided the work still wasn’t interesting to him. Whether it was for one of those reasons or some other, Dr. Tom Pabst went back to being a pioneer computer journalist turned enigma.

Speaking out about Tom’s Hardware Guide in 2018

Tom Pabst never publicly spoke of his old site after selling it in late 2006. However, after a controversial August 24, 2018 editorial by editor Avram Piltch urging readers to buy the new Nvidia RTX GPU, even though the site had not yet reviewed the hardware independently, Pabst spoke out. Youtube hardware reviewer Steve Burke posted a rebuttal on his channel Gamers Nexus, and Pabst responded on Facebook, emphasizing he no longer has anything to do with the site, that he has two sons, and called the editorial “suicidal” and “epically nonsensical.”

He noted that buying unproven hardware too early turns you into, in effect, a paid beta tester and that he was scratching his head.

Pabst didn’t elaborate, but for those familiar with his work, he didn’t need to. After all, the old Tom’s Hardware didn’t endorse hardware sight unseen. That was kind of the point. Extensive testing and tinkering with the product in hand was how Tom’s Hardware Guide discovered the secrets, good and bad, of those original Celerons, the later P3s, and early P4s.

And Dr. Thomas Pabst can speak of somewhat recent experience. VR hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. In light of that, spending $850 to be the first to have real-time ray tracing does seem a bit premature, just like someone paying $599 for VR in 2015 now seems premature. VR is one of many promising technologies that didn’t catch on as quickly as people expected. The Amiga, the first consumer computer to make ray tracing of any kind practical, is a cautionary tale. In 1985 it looked like it would change the world, and yet, today it’s only a footnote.

One thought on “Whatever happened to Dr. Thomas Pabst?

  • September 5, 2018 at 3:27 am
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    Great article! Glad Tom is still the bad ass he has always been and is still thinking logically!

    Reply

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