By Josh Norem
We’ve already shown you how to build a really, really quiet PC (February 2005), and many of you did just that. Some folks, however, balked at the idea of buying a Pentium M motherboard, a new CPU, a new case, and other gear to obtain peace and quiet—you simply wanted to hush the machine you currently own.
So this month, we’ve compiled an easy-to-use guide to reducing the noise levels of your rig’s various components. We’ll take a close look at each of your computer’s subsystems and identify its most common sonic maladies, then offer suggestions for reducing—if not eliminating—the noise. We’ll recommend bolt-on fixes and tweaks wherever possible, but in some cases, a hardware upgrade will be your best option.
1. CPU COOLING
The CPU is usually the hottest component in today’s PCs; as such, it typically requires the most extravagant—and often the noisiest—cooling apparatus. Reducing the amount of noise emanating from your CPU’s cooling system is a huge step toward muting your machine, so let’s examine this hotspot first.
As luck would have it, we examine 10 of the best CPU coolers you can buy in this very issue (see page 48), and our two favorites—Cooler Master’s Hyper 6+ and Gigabyte’s G-Power—are exceptionally quiet while providing frigid temps. If you’re using a stock cooler or an aftermarket unit that sounds like a Hoover, upgrading to one of these silent wonders will bring joy to your ears. Both cost less than $50, so they’re an upgrade anyone can afford.
Water cooling is another way to reduce both CPU temps and overall noise levels. It takes care of the heat around your CPU, making a rear exhaust fan—a major source of noise—unnecessary in most cases. Unless you’re a serious overclocker, however, water cooling probably isn’t worth the time, money, and effort. You can usually achieve quietude with a massive heatsink/fan contraption.
2. CASE FANS
Much of the noise your PC produces comes from the fans whirling away inside it. Choosing the appropriate type and size of case fans, therefore, is a critical step in any PC-silencing venture. As a general rule, bigger is better; larger fans don’t need to spin very fast to move lots of air. Small fans, or those running at higher rpms, generate a great deal of noise. A slow-spinning 120mm fan will always be quieter than a fast-spinning 80mm fan, and both can provide the same amount of cooling.
These days, our favorite case fans are Antec’s TriCool series. Offered in both 80mm and 120mm sizes, they’re equipped with switches that enable you to set their rotational speeds to 1,200, 1,600, or 2,000rpm. Vantec’s Stealth series and Panasonic’s Panaflo fans are also very popular with PC enthusiasts.
When shopping for a fan, you should always evaluate the volume of air it can move (expressed in cubic feet per minute, or CFM), and the amount of acoustical noise it produces (expressed in adjusted decibels, or dBA). In a perfect world, you could buy a fan with an ultra-high CFM rating and zero dBA output; but because that’s impossible, seek an acceptable middle ground: a fan that can generate 40CFM of airflow while producing 30dBA of noise will provide adequate cooling and remain nearly silent.
3. THE CASE
There’s not much you can do to make your case quieter, aside from adding acoustic absorption mats to its side panels to dampen the high-pitched whine from fans and drives. We’ve sampled a few of these mats, including Dynamat and Akasa’s Paxmate, and they work well. But you should keep in mind that they also increase case temps a bit.
If you’re in the mood for a new case anyway, we recommend purchasing one specifically designed for silent operation: Antec’s Sonata II, for example, or its new P180, which is outfitted with TriCool case fans and noise-reducing triple-layer side panels.
4. MAGNETIC AND OPTICAL STORAGE
Aside from fans, your PC’s hard drive is one of its noisiest components, but it’s traditionally difficult to silence. One solution is to place the drive inside a padded and sealed anti-vibration drive enclosure. This will reduce its noise profile and restrict the amount of vibration the drive transfers to the case. Using this type of enclosure will also allow you to remove the intake fan from the lower-front of most PCs. Alternatively, you can buy some cheap rubber O-rings at a hardware store and use one on each of the four mounting screws.
If you’re looking to replace your hard drive altogether, the introduction of fluid-bearing spindle motors has rendered modern hard drives exceedingly quiet. For even further quieting, Hitachi’s new DeskStar drives come with a unique software utility that will slow down the drive’s seek time for near-silent operation.
Silencing optical drives is nigh impossible; your best option is to upgrade to Samsung’s model TS-H552U. Thanks to a fluid-bearing spindle motor, this is the quietest drive we’ve ever tested—it’s whisper quiet even at full speed!
The cooling contraptions on many of today’s videocards are insanely loud, and if you’re going for full-monty performance, you should stick with the stock cooler. Low-noise videocard cooling solutions are generally designed to handle midrange cards—not dual GeForce 6800 Ultras in SLI. The only quiet solutions we’ve seen for high-end videocards are water-cooling setups with water blocks, pumps, and so forth. While it’s acceptable to put a 5-inch-tall copper heatsink on top of a CPU, a videocard’s clearance requirements limit your options—you don’t want to block adjacent PCI Express slots. The primary objective of most VGA-cooler designs, therefore, is quiet operation as opposed to super-cool operation.
If you’re running a midrange card and can’t stand the noise, here are a few options: Zalman and Thermalright both manufacture VGA coolers that are essentially massive bolt-on heatsinks equipped with slow-spinning fans (we’ve tested Zalman’s, and it worked just fine on our vanilla GeForce 6800 card). There are also several fanless VGA heatsinks on the market, including Thermaltake’s Schooner. The Schooner uses heat pipes to move heat away from the GPU core and into an aluminum heatsink that wraps around both sides of the card.
6. POWER SUPPLY
If you want a zero-decibel PSU, the only solution is a fanless model. Antec’s Phantom series, Thermaltake’s PurePower, and Silverstone’s Nightjar PSU all use large passive coolers instead of noisy fans. We discovered that fanless supplies don’t work well with fanless water-cooling setups—with absolutely no air circulating around the CPU area, the capacitors, memory, and MOSFETs on the PSU get way too hot.
If you’re not ready to buy a new power supply, installing rubber gaskets where the PSU mounts to the case will at least reduce the amount of vibration (and noise) that’s transferred from the supply.
7. FAN CONTROLLERS
Who says your case fans must spin at a constant velocity? Connect them to a fan bus and you can spin them up while gaming or tasking your PC with other high-load chores, then spin them down to reduce system noise when the PC is idle. You’ll see many such devices on the market.
Thermaltake’s HardCano is one of our all-time favorite fan buses. The latest model, the HardCano 13, comes with a set of thermal probes that you can mount in various areas in your PC. Connect your system fans to the device and they’ll spin up and down as the probes report temperature increases and decreases. You can even set thermal alarms for each probe. Now that is cool (pun intended).