Article by Kevin Savetz

First Published:
Date Published:
Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


Is there any escape from noise? As computers get more powerful, they also seem to get noisier. High-powered processors, speedy video cards, and other power-hungry components generate a lot of heat. Most PC manufacturers cool down those sweltering components with fans: A typical PC might have four or more, each contributing to the din. In the end, you could end up with a computer that acts and sounds like an F-14 fighter: fast and powerful, but way too noisy to keep in your den.

A typical PC generates 35dBs (decibels) to 50dBs of sound. The higher end of that scale is loud enough to distract you and, after extended time near the computer, seriously stress you out. By comparison, an average office is about 50dBs, typical conversational speech is 30dBs to 50dBs, and a whisper is about 10dBs.

The World Health Organization recommends an ambient noise floor of 35dBs for easily understanding speech and to avoid irritation with the background noise. You don't need to take a decibel meter to your PC--if it is too loud, you're already keenly aware.

The components that typically make noise are the power supply fan, which cools the PC's main power source; the case fan, which brings cool air in from the outside; the CPU fan; and the video card fan, which cools the graphics processor. Hard drives are another source of noise, and additional drives mean additional noise.

With some customization, you can reduce the amount of noise that your PC generates. You can use sound dampening material to diminish the constant drone that fans and hard drives make. You may be able to replace some of those fans with passive cooling: larger heatsinks that spread out the heat without any moving parts. When passive cooling isn't possible, you can replace stock fans with ones that are larger or smarter, spinning only as fast as necessary depending on the component's current temperature. "Fans that have bigger blades are able to spin slower, but they still push a good amount of air," Darin Rohatinsky, manager at EndPCNoise.com (http://endpcnoise.com), says.

"Often you have one component that is making a lot of noise, which is generally the CPU fan, the power supply, or the case fans. The Northbridge fan and VGA board fan can also be loud, as well," Steve Farnsworth, co-owner of Quiet PC USA (http://www.quietpcusa.com), says. "Address the noise source itself. Don't try to cover it up--replace it with a quieter part." One way to do that is with the Silent Solution Kit, which includes a very quiet power supply, CPU cooler, and system fan. Replacing your old power supply and fans is a simple task that takes only a screwdriver.

You may be able to squelch the PC's noise without buying new fans or other expensive parts. First, make sure the side panels are secure: If not screwed on tight, they will amplify vibrations from inside the PC. If the PC sits on a hard surface, sound can be amplified. Inexpensive rubber feet can cushion the PC, isolating it from desktop vibrations.

More information about quieting your PC is available from http://www.silentpcreview.com and http://www.silent.se. Several online stores, including EndPCNoise.com and Quiet PC USA, specialize in components for muffling your PC.

Shush Your Video Card

Video cards can be an additional source of noise within your computer. The video chip that runs the show gets hot, so a small fan is typically attached to a small heatsink mounted on the chip. That small fan can make a large amount of noise: replacing it with a large passive heatsink will quiet things down.

Know the model of your video card and make sure to choose a heatsink that is compatible with your card. Some heatsinks require mounting holes that your video card may lack. Others may seem to work but might not draw enough heat from particularly hot cards, which can cause premature video card death. Also, make sure there is enough room. Passive heatsinks are often significantly larger than fan-based models and will take up more physical space inside the PC.

First, you'll need to remove the video card's current heatsink and fan. Unplug the video card from the computer and place it on a static-free work area. Unscrew the fan and disconnect its power supply. It should lift out without any trouble.

The next step, removing the old heatsink on which the fan was mounted, might seem a tad tricky. The heatsink is stuck to the graphics processor chip with thermal grease, a sort of glue that transfers heat well. Use a long, thin, flathead screwdriver to gently pry the heatsink from the chip. The thermal adhesive gets brittle as the temperature drops, so let the video card cool down before you do this. The heatsink will overhang the chip by a few millimeters--just fit the screwdriver underneath the heatsink and gently twist or lift until it pops off. Thermal grease is sticky stuff that takes a bit of force to undo, but be careful not to break anything on the video card in the process. In addition, some cards hold their heatsinks tight with other mechanisms, such as small graspers that must be pinched to let go.

Once the heatsink is removed, the graphics chip will have a glob of dried glue on it. You'll need to remove it by scraping it with a knife. (Be careful not to cut the chip.) When it is smooth and glue-free, thoroughly clean the top of the chip with a Q-Tip and a few drops of rubbing alcohol.

When the chip is clean and dry, it's time to install the new heatsink. The exact procedure will vary depending on the particular heatsink and thermal grease that you've chosen. Follow the manufacturer's guidelines.

The heatsink will include a one-dose tube of thermal adhesive or thermal grease: Spread the contents of the tube evenly across the entire chip top. You can use a thick piece of paper to spread it. If the chip is concave, spread more adhesive toward the center. Some adhesives are a two-part solution: if yours is, spread the tube of "B" solution on the flat side of the replacement heatsink.

When everything is properly greased up, place the new heatsink on the graphics chip, making sure it is centered, and firmly press down. Give the adhesive some time to set--10 to 15 minutes--and then reinstall the video card. You can now power up the PC and enjoy the sound of silence.

Users who follow this procedure should be aware that it has the potential to void the card's warranty, so check your users manual before tackling this modification.

Hush That Hard Drive

You can replace fans with quieter ones or omit some of them altogether. But there's another noisy, spinning thing in the computer that you can't remove: the hard drive. PC noise warriors have a solution for that, too, and one that is downright easy to install.

The technology works something like this: Things inside a box are harder to hear. A hard drive enclosure is a foam-and-metal box that encases the hard drive. If you can install a hard drive, you can perform this easy modification.

We used the Smart Drive 2002, available from EndPCNoise.com and costing about $65. You'll need a standard hard drive and an empty 5.25-inch drive bay. Open the PC and unscrew the screws that hold in the hard drive. Put the drive in the enclosure, feed the cables through the back, and screw on the enclosure's top. Install the enclosure in the optical drive bay. Total time: 10 minutes.

The result is a drive that's 4dB quieter. The downside with drive enclosures is keeping the hard drive cooped up reduces ventilation, making it run hotter than normal. Some enclosures are better than others when it comes to ventilation. Know the speed of your drive (for instance, 5400rpm or 7200rpm) and check with the manufacturer to see if an enclosure is right for your PC.

Insulation

Insulation may seem like a low-tech solution, and it is. But it works. You can use sound-dampening material, such as the stuff they use in recording studios, in and around the PC to keep noise from spreading. We tried the AcoustiPack Deluxe kit, which is available from Quiet PC for about $85. That may seem like a lot of cash for foam, but it can definitely reduce the noise level.

The kit has two parts: first, acoustic foam precut into blocks the shape of 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch drive bays. You simply slip them into any vacant bays, where they can reduce noise from adjacent drives and fans.

The second part is thin sheets of acoustic composite with adhesive backing. Cut the material to fit the inside walls of the PC and stick it on. The material absorbs some of the noise so your eardrums don't have to. You must take care not to restrict airflow within the PC or block ventilation holes.

If cutting up foam and sticking it inside your PC isn't your speed, consider simply installing noise-dampening material on the walls around your computer. With this easy fix, noise will be absorbed by the acoustic dampening material rather than bouncing off the walls. This works especially well if the computer is in an enclosed area where sound is prone to echoing.

Eloquent Silence

Which of these modifications should you make to your PC? You probably don't need them all. Just dealing with the noisiest component or two can make a significant difference. Let your ears tell you which ones are the biggest offenders. Most PCs will run when the case is open: Remove the side panel, turn on the PC, and listen to find out which fans or drives are the loudest. If a particular component is making more than its share of noise, replace its fan. If the noise seems to be a combination of several components, use a general fix, such as acoustic foam.

In the end, you'll have a computer that runs quickly, coolly, and quietly. That will be music to your ears.

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz