Basics of silent computer

Computers make noise. For their office/household appliance status – too much noise at times.

And unfortunately that noise is very hard to eliminate.

silence

Photo by helmet13

Performance and cooling

  1. Computers work by consuming electricity.
  2. Since electronics can’t be 100% efficient – part of that electricity is lost and transformed into heat.
  3. Heat over threshold value (different for different PC components) is dangerous to consumer-grade electronics so they require cooling.
  4. Blowing some air on heated components is cheapest form of cooling.
  5. Fast air movement is noise.
  6. Moving air actively creates vibration, which may create additional noise.

For years release of more powerful and more hot components consumed more energy, created more heat, required more cooling and created more noise. To the point of people becoming aware of problem and rising need for more efficient and less noisy computing.

Noise sources

Fans:

  • video card fan;
  • processor fan;
  • power supply fan;
  • motherboard fans;
  • case fans.

Air based cooling can be replaced with superior (more efficient and expensive) or alternate (water, passive) solutions to reduce noise.

Hard drives:

  • engine noise (hum);
  • heads movement noise;
  • vibration that may cause case to resonate and amplify noise level.

Not much can be done with hard drive vibration except tinkering with case and picking efficient and quiet drives.

Casing dilemma

Common (and wrong in my opinion) way to reduce noise is containing it inside of the case.

  1. This is achieved by making case soundproof – more thick and with less outlets.
  2. Soundproofing helps to contain noise and air movement.
  3. Most of cooling is based on active or passive moving of hot air outside case – soundproofing makes that harder.
  4. Which increases amount of cooling required.
  5. Which increases internal noise.
  6. Which requires more soundproofing. Loop.

Instead of trying to keep noise inside case should:

  • help dissipate heat – more outlets, good heat-conducting materials, smarter airflow design;
  • help reduce vibration – heavier weight, solid construction.

Choice of parts

Simply forget about last model ultra-x-something parts.

  1. Estimate your computing needs.
  2. Choose configuration that will be enough for those plus some extra for software progress bloat over time.
  3. Look into availability of silent (passively-cooled) versions for components you need.
  4. Spend money saved on case and cooling.

Few years ago, when heat issue was really bad, I took few years off Intel (Pentium 4 sucked) in favor of AMD Ahtlon64. Which run cooler and pioneered dynamic switching of speed to fit current load.

But some (more dedicated) people started looking at using notebook parts in desktop computers. Number of manufacturers that cater to latter is very small. Still some parts like hard drives are relatively easy to replace with smaller and quieter notebook-grade alternatives.

Reliability

Quieter computer in general case will run hotter and that will somewhat reduce its lifespan. I don’t think there is any hard data on computer life expectancy freely available to consumers. My personal rough estimation is that silence-optimized computer (a lot of passing cooling, running fewer fans at low speeds) lasts approximately three years.

Overall

Chasing silent computing may seem like a lot of trouble. And it is.

I think silent home server and working in calm and quiet room is worth every extra dollar and minute spend. What’s your take?

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9 Comments

  • I expected lees theory and more practical advices :)

    So here’s what I’ve learned over the past few years: no chipset fans, no graphic card fans (that one is tough nowadays), no cheap processor fans.

    What you need is a cool heavy case (as you said), I just love Antec Sonata series, and a good PSU with big vents that only run when necessary (Antec is nice, I use Enermax Liberty myself). Then there is the CPU cooling, which means BIG heatsink and big, slow and silent vent. Thermaltake Big Typ was a choice of many back then, they’ve probably come up with something even better until today, still it’s a good pick.
    And then the airflow… Getting your cables in one corner, see where the air is going, free its path.

    And that’s about it. I despise small vents with neon lights that make alot of noise. I would recommend NB (noiseblocker) blacksilent X1, 12 cm.

    I think you made a very good point, picking your CPU wisely and concerning the heat it produces makes all the difference between almost silent and noisy computer.

  • @Klemen

    Post is called “basics” not “specifics”. :) Problem with specifics that it is hard to name components that are available wordlwide. Most of the brands you have named don’t sell where I live for example.

    I disagree about video cards. Choice of passively cooled cards is times better than it was in the past (as long as you don’t chase top of the line) and IGP are better and better each year. Actually I am now looking at monitor hooked to MHD 4500HD and I hardly miss external video card.

    I have most of trouble with silencing PSUs and HDD. It’s pain to find good quiet PSU (and passive are impossible to find at all) and silencing HDD is no fun, thinking about 2.5″ drives.

    CPU is important but easy to cool with all those supercoolers. :) I use oldish Scythe Ninja, but hadn’t installed it on new motherboard yet (lazy me).

  • As far as availability goes: ebay & amazon save :) That is why I was giving examples, not just “buy this, dont buy that”.
    You are right about the graphic cards, I’ve checked online stores again and there’s alot more high-end video cards with passive cooling than there it was a few months ago. I’m loving it :) (I am also using motherboards integrated graphics, since I don’t play video games, but a little more gpu power would be helpful with graphic design software)
    And HDDs have a great future: they will be replaced with SSD, so looking forward to that, I just have to wait for OCZ to drop their prices for 75 % and then we’ll only be using hdds as external storage drives. Minimal power consumption, basically no heating and the best of all – completely silent. Not mentioning the speed, of course :)

  • @Klemen

    >As far as availability goes: ebay & amazon save
    Believe me, there are countries where these are distant myth. :)

    On SSD – call me paranoid but I have 1-2 flash drives dying on me every year and I only use expensive ones.
    https://www.rarst.net/hardware/flash-drive/
    Doesn’t boost trust in SSD at all. Phasing HDDs out will be extremely slow and painful so I’ll probably have plenty of time to play with 2.5″ drives till then.

  • I understand the view you are taking. I tried pursuing a more silent computer but realized it would either require me to decrease the speed of the fans or purchase more expensive fans. What did I do? Simply stick with the hum. I managed to ignore it so it’s all good.

  • @Diego

    Yeah, as I wrote in post finances definitely matter in silent computing. :) My desktop acts as home server so it is kinda hard to ignore noise issue, especially at night.

    It seems new wave of nettops (on Atom processors) would make great home servers with small footprint and passive cooling, but will take them some time to get to the market.

  • I don’t normally comment on blogs but your post was a real call to action. Thank you for a great read, I will be sure to bookmark your site and check in now and again. Cheers, Amy xXx.

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