There’s no volume dial for the spinning components of a computer, but there are plenty of tricks to hush the hum.
Anything that moves makes noise. And like many household machines, the personal computer is an assemblage of whirring, spinning, vibrating parts – hard drives, optical drives, heat sink and exhaust fans – and each of these components contributes to the overall noise of the computer. Depending on your particular machine and your sensitivity to such things, this can amount to a comforting white noise, or an irritating background drone that makes you want to kick a hole in the side of your computer to let the demons out.
As with many aspects of the technology world, there is a modder subculture dedicated to quiet computing. (You can follow their obsessive efforts on sites such as silentpcreview.com.) And wherever such subcultures exist, there is a market for products that cater to them. In this case, it means there are plenty of options for lowering your computer’s volume. As a side benefit, since the guiltiest noisemakers within a PC tend to be part of the cooling apparatus, much of the same equipment that can hush a computer will also increase its cooling efficiency – and can even shave a few watts off its power consumption to boot.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty tips and tricks, let’s dispense with the bad news: laptops, the most popular kind of computer right now, are so hard to quiet down that it’s not worth trying for most end users. A considerable amount of effort goes into engineering laptops that can run quietly, but that is largely a challenge for manufacturers. And the most obvious way of quieting a laptop – using it on top of a pillow – can have dire consequences for the machine’s ability to dissipate heat.
Desktop computers, however, are easy to shush. And how quiet you can make your desktop is entirely dependent upon how much money, time and effort you’re willing to throw at the problem. So let’s tackle the challenge by degrees.
The easy stuff
A simple fact of fluid dynamics: a 120- mm fan rotating at a low speed moves more air than a smaller fan running at top speed. Now consider that, inside the average PC, there are four to six 80-mm fans hard at work dispersing the heat generated by internal components such as the CPU, chipset, graphics processor and power supply. Keeping the computer cool is a good thing, but your PC doesn’t need to sound like it’s taxiing down the runway to do it. The PC we selected for our own sound-baffling experiment had a typical configuration, with five 80-mm fans and two hard drives. We measured the noise level at up to 80 decibels (about the level of a telephone dial tone).
The fix for this sort of sonic overload is to simply replace those small, noisy blowers (rated at 32 dBA each) with larger, quieter ones. We swapped out the fans that came with our computer for a few 120-mm S-Flex fans from Scythe (about R300 each – there are alternatives). Not only were these fans larger and slower, but they are built with fluid-dynamic bearings for a smoother spin, which brings the decibel rating of each down to only 8,7. If your fans don’t natively run slow, you can dial them down manually by installing a controller module (available from manufacturers such as Thermaltake for around R160). These typically mount in a 5,25 inch drive bay – such as the one that houses your optical drive – and allow you to turn down the fan speed with the twist of a dial. Just remember to watch your computer’s temperature, which you can do with monitoring software such as SpeedFan.
One more note about fans. If possible, it’s always a good idea to power them off of motherboard “system fan” plugs, rather than directly off the power supply. By supplying juice from the motherboard, the computer can control the speed of the fans based on its own temperature measurements, instead of simply running them at maximum power constantly.
Ever notice how your PC shivers whenever the CD-ROM spins up? Spinning components such as optical drives and hard drives can communicate plenty of vibration to the computer’s case, and that translates directly into sound. There are a variety of options for silencing these shakes and shudders. The 60-second fi x is to take a screwdriver and tighten all the screws holding in your drives (loose screws cause the loudest rattles) and apply a drop of rubber cement over the top of the screws.
With our test computer, we opted for a more meticulous solution, relocating the hard drives away from the front of the case, installing silicone bushings under hard-drive screws and placing silicone rubber jackets (like the ones used in iPod cases) over the hard drives, power supply and fans to reduce metal-to-metal contact.
A step up from simple dampers is to completely enclose your hard drives inside sound-isolating cases, such as the AeroCool AVN-1000 ($35 on-line). These boxes surround the drives with foam and aluminum (for heat dissipation), making them far quieter. One drawback to this approach: sound-isolating boxes are too large to fit in standard 3,5-inch harddrive bays, so you’ll need to mount your hard-drive-in-a-box in a the bigger size drive bay.
Zero-tolerance sound damping
There’s a curious effort-to-results ratio to PC sound control. Easy stuff such as changing out fans and putting rubber gaskets on drives will take care of 90 per cent of your noise. Eliminating the last 10 per cent requires considerably more work – but once you go down the quiet- PC path, the quest can become addictive. With our PC, we decided that a few more steps were appropriate. We applied sheets of Dynamat (a peel-and-stick sound-absorbent foam fi lm that is usually used to kill road noise in cars) to several acoustically vulnerable areas inside our case. It’s available at car sound specialists; the company also sells a cut-to-fit PC kit (see dynamat.com).
That made a noticeable difference, but when listening closely, we could still hear the whir of the CPU heat-sink fan spinning. The guaranteed way to cut out heat-sink noise and drastically improve cooling is a liquid-cooling system (sometimes called water cooling). Usually, that’s a pretty elaborate project, but we made things easy by using Corsair’s prebuilt, self-contained Hydro Series H50 water-cooling kit (about R850). The H50 requires a little tinkering with the mother board to attach the water block to your CPU, and you have to bolt its small radiator over one of the case fans, but it is remarkably easier than the traditional DIY approach to liquid cooling, which involves cutting hoses and filling the system with glycol.
All of our fan-swapping and vibrationdamping efforts reduced the maximum acoustic output to the point where it hardly showed up on our sound meter, which had a low-end range of 50 dBA. Only once, when we positioned our meter within 5 cm of the fans, did we get a reading of 51 dBA (a whisper is generally rated at 40 dBA). That was a level suffi cient for us to declare our work complete.
However, for the intellectually curious, it is possible to create a truly noiseless PC. To do so requires using nothing but solid-state drives (SSDs) for data storage and passively cooling all the hot bits (graphics processor, CPU, power supply) with a specially designed case. If you are so inclined, be warned, your obsession will cost you thousands of rand in lowcapacity SSDs and may require submerging all of your components in a tank of mineral oil. Now that’s crazy quiet.
Ditching extra decibels
Get bigger fans
Replacing small 80-mm fans with larger, slower 120-mm fans goes a long way toward cutting noise and is one of the easiest fixes to do. The old ones screw out, the new ones screw in, and you’re up and running in 10 minutes. To adjust speed manually, install a front-panel fan control.
Swaddle your hard drive
Spinning hard drives can send vibrations through the case and rattle things that shouldn’t rattle. A simple fix is to buffer the screws that mount the drive to the case with rubber washers. Or install your hard drive in an enclosure such as the AeroCool AVN-1000 for total soundproofing.
The same stuff that squelches road noise in cars does wonders for personal computers. Dynamat sells cut-to-fit soundbarrier panels that peel and stick to the inside of the PC. Whatever you do, however, don’t block any of the airintake or exhaust vents.
Cool differently You replaced your whiny fans with quiet ones, and you still hear noise? It’s probably coming from the CPU heat sink, which has its own fan. If you’re willing to do a little motherboard modification, try liquid cooling. The easiest liquid kits are self-contained, such as the Corsair H50.
Three things to know about WiGig
It’s really fast.
WiGig, a wireless networking protocol that should show up in equipment this year, is like Wi-Fi times 10. WiGig is based on a variant of Wi-Fi’s underlying IEEE 802.11 networking protocol known as 802.11ad, which operates at the very high-frequency range of 60 GHz. But whereas the fastest Wi-Fi standard (802.11n) maxes out at 600 megabits per second, WiGig has a maximum data throughput of 7 gigabits per second, which puts it on par with some of the fastest wired networks.
It’s not a replacement for Wi-Fi.
WiGig and Wi-Fi are complementary technologies. WiGig doesn’t have the whole-house 100-metre-radius range that Wi-Fi does. “It’s more of an inroom transmission technology,” says Mark Grodzinsky of the WiGig Alliance. So look for equipment that combines the two standards – using Wi-Fi for basic networking, and WiGig for high-bandwidth short hops. Plus, WiGig is designed to make ad hoc (device-to-device) networking easy and seamless, so that a smartphone, for instance, could link directly to a computer to upload a movie file without having to join a larger network.
What do we need that kind of speed for?
Good question. Considering that most broadband Internet connections operate in the 1,5- to 20-megabit-per-second range, WiGig isn’t going to make Web surfing any faster. But AV equipment will see definite benefits. WiGig can serve as a wireless conduit for HDMI connections (current wireless HDMI tech is specialised and expensive), moving hi-def streams from Blu-ray players or computers to TVs. WiGig can also enable networked displays, so that any PC in a room can connect cable-free to a WiGig-enabled screen. Still, WiGig is not ensured success – many people already have a wirelessnetwork setup that works just fine for their needs. For them, WiGig’s big- bandwidth pipe may seem like drinking out of a fire hose. – Glenn Derene