January 31, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Computing's silent revolution

It wasn't until Mike Chin added a third PC to his home office a few years ago that he realized all those whirling fans, clicking hard drives and humming power supplies were adding up to one big racket.

"It drove me crazy," says Chin, a freelance technical writer in Vancouver. "It was a state-of-the-art machine, and it was so noisy I couldn't keep it on. Everything made such a racket, I just couldn't work in that environment."

Chin's frustration drove him on a months-long quest to isolate noise-making components and replace them with quieter alternatives, a mission numerous PC users and a growing number of manufacturers have followed in the years since.


What's new:
PC noise is raising a ruckus as more powerful computers require stronger and often louder cooling systems and PCs begin to move from the office into living rooms and bedrooms.

Bottom line:
The quest for quiet computing has inspired a cottage industry of specialist manufacturers, growing attention from major PC makers and a small underground of acoustic cultists. Will average consumers pay more to dim the decibels?

Once a minor annoyance, noise from PCs has become a growing concern as ever-more powerful computers require stronger and often noisier cooling systems--especially with PCs moving out of the office into living rooms and bedrooms. The quest for quiet computing has inspired a cottage industry of specialist manufacturers, growing attention from major PC companies and a small underground of acoustic cultists who'll go to any extreme to eliminate another decibel of PC din.

"People are writing in all the time saying, 'It sounds like a jet engine taking off when I run my PC--what can I do about it?'" said Chin, who started Silent PC Review to share what he learned building a quiet PC. The site has become one of the leading resources for PC owners looking to muffle their rackety rigs.

"In most cases, it's just bad, inconsiderate design," Chin said. "You see some companies really paying attention and trying to do better, but acoustics still doesn't get much attention."

Most PC noise issues come down to heat. As processors and other components have become more powerful and electricity-hungry, they've required bigger and faster fans to keep them from burning to a crisp. Graphics chip giant Nvidia may have pushed the trend to its extreme about two years ago with the GeForce FX 5800, a chip that ran so hot it required an elaborate fan and duct system so noisy early models are still commonly referred to as "Nvidia leaf blowers" by PC buffs.

Complaints about the Nvidia fans and other extreme noisemakers have prompted manufacturers to make some concessions to acoustics. But truly quiet computing is still largely a niche market, served by specialty manufacturers such as South Korea's Zalman Tech, which makes huge copper heatsinks, water-cooling pumps and other components that dramatically reduce the airflow needed to cool PC chips.

Early adopters have included tech-savvy musicians and sound engineers, who can't afford to have a humming PC drown out the subtle aspects of the music they're making, said Michael Farnsworth, president of Quiet PC North America, the U.S. branch of a British company and one of the first specialty retailers devoted to quiet computing equipment.

Lawyers have also turned out to be a good market, Farnsworth said. "Noise reduces your attention and ability to think," he said. "When your time is worth $300 an hour, that's a big deal."

Interest in quiet computing has varied by region as well as occupation. Robert Jung, general manager of technology and business development for Zalman USA, said it's no accident the company that started the quiet-computing movement was launched in South Korea.

"In Asia, most people live in apartments that are small, concrete rooms," Jung said. "The sound doesn't dissipate very well, so you really notice anything noisy."

Zalman Tech founder Sang-Cheol Lee started the company to sell variations on the super-efficient heatsinks he developed to make his PC tolerably quiet. Zalman has gone on to provide quiet cooling systems for numerous other PC heat-spewers and is now looking at items such as plasma TVs and projectors. "Anything you can think of that creates heat, we're trying to provide a quiet, fanless solution for it," Jung said.

While most quiet-computing buffs start out with such practical goals, a small subset goes extreme, launching

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Add your comment
Apple Computer got it right!
I've never owned a P.C. personally, but I have worked on them in
computer labs and in business settings. I agree that they are
SOOO Loud! I personally own 3 Apple Macintosh computers.
Amazing! Steve Jobs understands the meaning of quiet and
strives to make sure the Apple product line is quiet! I love it!
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
You must be intentionally forgetting about the release of the PowerMac G4, which received public media attention for sporting an AMAZINGLY loud PSU and CPU fans.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.g4noise.com/news.php?ID=72" target="_newWindow">http://www.g4noise.com/news.php?ID=72</a>

Nice try.
Posted by katamari (310 comments )
Link Flag
Any computer can be made quieter...at the expense of performance
Your belief that all PCs are noisy is false. There is a wide variety of components and cases. Companies like Lian-Li make solid cases that dampen noise. Companies like ASUS include fan control logic on their motherboards.

It's also important to understand that there is a fundamental tradeoff between performance/heat and noise. The fastest components, like 10K RPM PATA hard drives and 15K RPM Ultra320 SCSI hard drives, will always be noisy.

Here's a little story about Apple's quiet hardware...

My PowerMacintosh G4 (Gigabit Ethernet) is super-quiet. However, Apple crippled it with a weak cooling system. The machine can only accommodate two 3.5-inch hard drives, one 5.25-inch CD or DVD drive, and a ZIP drive, if you want. Though there's plenty of room inside its gigantic case, there's no additional cooling capacity. My favorite is the second 5.25-inch bay, which has a welded steel bracket that absolutely prevents you from installing anything larger than a ZIP drive. Apple admits (<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=58200" target="_newWindow">http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=58200</a>) that this is due to heat. A PC case of the same size allows you to install extra fans and hence, extra drives.
Posted by rpms (96 comments )
Link Flag
Apple has been listening for years...
The only problem is they live on such a fine edge of the thermal tolerance on their computer parts that death by heat becomes more of an issue on a Mac simply because of Steve's unwillingness to allow some noise to occur. I can tell you from the experiences of my Mac friends that failure of internal components on PowerBooks and iBooks becomes a larger issue because of heat.
Posted by Jonathan (832 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So I wonder, based on your post, how the Mini stacks up on heat?
Posted by Sboston (498 comments )
Link Flag
Ok, whatever. I've never had a component go bad in either of my
Mac laptops, nor have I ever heard or read of such a thing
happening due to overheating. I'm sure it's happened, but it's far
from a common occurrence.
Posted by (15 comments )
Link Flag
You must be intentionally forgetting about the release of the PowerMac G4, which received public media attention for sporting an AMAZINGLY loud PSU and CPU fans.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.g4noise.com/news.php?ID=72" target="_newWindow">http://www.g4noise.com/news.php?ID=72</a>

Nice try!
Posted by katamari (310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yes, years... decades, even
There have been a few loud Macintoshes, but in general Apple's machines have been the quiestest in the industry throughout their history. The original Macintosh had no fan at all through the Plus. When the SE added a fan there was a near revolt among Mac users. Through the last 20 years, though, Macintoshes have been among the quietest machines in the industry, and their current lineup are probably all orders of magnitude quieter than comparable PCs.

It's extremely ironic that this article doesn't mention Apple once.
Posted by samkass (310 comments )
Link Flag
Shhhhhhh! .. the fanless are coming the fanless are coming
Last couple of years I have noticed a demand for quiet machines especially from the over-clockers. Even Antec has come out with a cool (could be hot) 250W ATX Power Supply. <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.antec.com/us/productDetails.php?ProdID=24350" target="_newWindow">http://www.antec.com/us/productDetails.php?ProdID=24350</a>

Looks like VIA gear have offered fanless solutions for the past couple years on the various ITX sites. Obviously the VIA processors are easier to cool than a top AMD or Intel CPU. I noticed that even the Intel Mobile processor is being used in Fanless designs. Check out the Fanless that fits in your hand - looks like some kind of high-end stereo component. <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.littlepc.com/products_fanless_p4.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.littlepc.com/products_fanless_p4.htm</a>
Posted by lookoutmama (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Actual Powerful Fanless Mini PCs
No offence to the VIA cpus but they really aren't that powerful and they definately lack in performance. The only decent thing about ITX stuff is that it is super cheap.

If you really want more perfomance and still want a small mini computer system then you should look into something like this:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.littlepc.com/products_fanless_p4.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.littlepc.com/products_fanless_p4.htm</a>

In those systems you can even buy solid state flash hard drives as well for a true fanless noise free system.
Posted by (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sounds of Silence = Apple
Original iMac was super quiet, energy efficient &#38; fanless.

PowerMac Cube was super quiet, energy efficient &#38; fanless.

PowerMac G5 tower, super quiet, energy efficient &#38; thermal
zoned with computer controlled fans per zone that turn on &#38; off
as needed, yet QUIET due to multiple fans (instead of one large
loud fan in most PCs) an water cooled dual G5 processors.

Having used WinPC towers &#38; PowerMac Towers for years, my
ears are very thankful of the quiet, well designed &#38; engineered
products from Apple.
Open any PowerMac G5 tower &#38; see how Apple sweats the
details in layout, engineering, user upgradability &#38; acoustics.

Think Different &#38; Hear Different, use an Apple Computer.
Posted by Llib Setag (951 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The best and far cheaper way to
Have a quiet computer is to build one from scratch, not only is it more bang for your buck but you choose what you put in it.

There are plenty of brands of power supply, heat sink and case fans that make supper quiet componets.

But since apple doesn't open there hardware up, it's hard to build a super mac from scratch. So I stay away from apple because I like power.
Posted by simcity1976 (136 comments )
Link Flag
High importance?
This is definately not a high importance story. For one thing, in another cnet article 3/4 of those surveyed said they didn't have a home network. Probably those 3/4 don't have multiple computers, and would be too impacted by noise. So we have 3/4 of the people pretty much unaffected by this story.
Secondly, most families are busy and have something going in their house that is louder than the computer fan, ie. kids yelling, tv, telephone, you name it.
This only high importance to the overpaid editors of cnet who can actually afford to have enough of the latest technology in their house to worry about noise.
Posted by (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
This is definitely not an important article.

I like the way you put it into perspective, by comparing the noise from a computer with the noise from children in the household. It reminds me of the reply I give when people make claims about the "sound quality" of an MP3 player: not noticeable over the noise in the listening environment (gym, bus, street, train, plane, etc.).

Here's another perspective on the original article: it glosses over the fundamental tradeoff between performance and noise. My 15K RPM Ultra160 SCSI hard drive is rather noisy, but I do appreciate its speedy response time and high throughput.
Posted by rpms (96 comments )
Link Flag
noise maker noise maker you have no complaint
Dude - I believe the story is about emerging trends in microcomputer technology. If its a non-story to you then great - why bother everyone with your noisy blabbering about kids yelling, tv and telephones? Please do not assume that most people live/work in the same environment as you. Believe it or not computers do get used in environments where noise levels have to be extremely low.
Posted by lookoutmama (9 comments )
Link Flag
uhh.. noise cancelation anybody? hello!
Why does every article about computer noise fail to mention the
most promising technology of ACTIVE NOISE CANCELATION? Not
only does it allow you to use any system of cooling you choose
but it also keeps quiet every other device that makes noise
(most often, disc-based storage). Also in addition to the
auditory benefits, it can reduce the amount of vibration in the
devices before they even reach the air.

This ain't rocket science, people! It's proven, cheap and really
easy to apply in enclosed spaces like the inside of a computer.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.school-for-champions.com/science/" target="_newWindow">http://www.school-for-champions.com/science/</a>
Posted by Hobyx (24 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Dell PC is quiet too......
And so is Sony. Just to let those Apple fanatics know there are some good PCs out there so they won't stay in their little Apple world and know nothing.
Posted by 201293546946733175101343322673 (722 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Something you should know
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.apple.com/powermac/design.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.apple.com/powermac/design.html</a>

ALSO, read the CNET articles above all the comments about all
of the LOUD PC's &#38; how they are trying to deal with it.

By the way, I use UNIX/Wintel PCs / Sun Sparc / SGI / Macs
frequently &#38; provide system analysis for creative architectural,
3D, animation &#38; video teams.
Posted by Llib Setag (951 comments )
Link Flag
White box is the way to go
Want a quiet computer?
Either build your own white box or have it built for you.
You can specify components that are quieter.
For example:
1. a video board that does not have its own fan
2. fluid bearing disk drives
3. rubber grommets on the disk drive mounts
4. variable speed CPU cooling fan
5. "whisper quiet" power supply
6. aluminum case with larger diameter fans
7. higher quality, quieter fans

All of these add only a little bit to the overall cost and can drop the noise level by 10-20 dB.

It is what I did.

Posted by davebarnes (40 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Years later, WinTel catches on. Apple led the way.
When I go into a Lab of WinTel PCS at school, the noise level and
heat is immediately noticeable.

When I walk into a Lab of iMacs that were "engineered to be
nosieless, with NO fans", it is an incredible contrast. The only
thing clicking is a working hard drive, and Apple pays attention
to that nosie factor as well. Attention to detail and the user
experience are what Apple computers are about.
Posted by technewsjunkie (1265 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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