Why is it that a quiet PC is still a luxury 30 years after the first PC´s entered our homes and offices?
If you are like me and easily disturbed by noise when you work, finding ways to eliminate or minimize computer noise is a good investment of both time and money. Even though price is indeed an issue for most of us, many are willing to spend more to get a quiet PC that will not cause stress and distraction.
You may not know much about the inner workings of your laptop or desktop computer, but it does not have to be complicated. In this article I´ll share tips and tricks of various technical complexity that can help you get a quiet PC in your home office.
Whether you build your computer yourself or buy it assembled, your choices can have a huge impact on the noise level in your home office.
So, let´s have a look at how to build or buy a quiet PC that will not put extra stress on your workday.
Table of Contents
Why are PC´s often so noisy?
Heat is still one of the main problems in most areas of computing and there are only a few ways to cool the components. In personal computers, this always involves ventilation in some shape of form.
You would think, that with so much focus on ergonomics, productivity and healthy workspaces these days, the demand and technology would have enabled and motivated the manufacturers to come up with 100% silent PC solutions.
Well, to some extend they have. Silent or quiet PC´s and components are available, or at least very quiet ones. But choosing the right quiet products involves technical tradeoffs, budget, needs and how much time you can spend on research.
What is computer noise?
This may sound like a silly question, but knowing which components create what kind of noise, can help you spend your money in the right places.
You basically have four kinds of noise to deal with:
- Moving air
- Fans (Mechanical)
- Traditional hard drives
Air cooling is by far the most commonly used form of computer cooling. It´s quite effective and it is also cheaper than other solutions. The problem is that many component manufacturers answer to the demand for low prices by using small, cheap and loud fans.
The most difficult kind of noise to eliminate is ventilation noise. Traditional hard drive and electrical noise can easily be eliminated by replacing the components or adjusting your storage setup.
The traditional approach to a quiet PC
The most common way to build a quiet PC is to focus on low noise fans, soundproofing or water cooling.
While these are all perfectly valid ways to approach the computer noise issue, they are also quite often not as effective as you could hope, or they have other issues that you need to consider before you make your decision.
A different approach to a quiet PC ► Oversizing!
Earlier, when I tried to lower the noise level of my computers, I mainly focused on the fans themselves to lower the noise. I spend a lot of time looking for good quality case and processor cooler fans, but I was never really successful.
I also had my fun with soundproofing which was a time-consuming and fruitless endeavor.
I realized that symptom treatment may not be the right way to approach this problem. So, when I build my current PC, I decided to adjust my approach to selecting components.
Instead of only focusing on reducing the noise, I decided to try building a system where the fans didn´t need to run at all or at least only periodically.
My theory was that by oversizing the components, the fans would be inactive most of the time because the component would work much less than it was designed to.
By oversizing, I mean choosing components with a higher performance or capacity than you need.
This approach has worked beyond all expectations! I now have a high-performance PC which I barely notice. It´s not totally silent, but it´s very quiet indeed.
Obviously, the initial investment is higher by selecting components with a higher performance than you need. But by approaching the noise issue in this way, you get components that do not require further attention.
An additional bonus you get from oversizing, is that you have the option to upgrade the computer later without having to start from scratch. Obviously, this may influence the noise level of the computer when that time comes.
The main noise villains
The following components are usually the worst noise sources:
- CPU cooler (Processor)
- GPU (Graphics card)
- Case fans
- PSU (Power supply)
- Mechanical hard drives
Great “oversize for silence” opportunity
The CPU develops a lot of heat when it´s under load. Not only that, it can go from cool to overheating in seconds. Therefore it´s extremely important to treat the CPU well with ample cooling capacity.
In a personal computer, you have three options how to cool your CPU:
- The original, boxed/stock cooler
- Aftermarket coolers
- Liquid cooling
The original boxed cooler
The original coolers which come with Intel and AMD processors are often called boxed or stock coolers. These coolers have a terrible reputation for being noisy and for many years it was simply customary not to use the original cooler. But these coolers should no longer be dismissed out of hand.
When I chose the components for my current PC (i7 Quad Core), I picked a massive copper based cooler. However, in the middle of the build, I realized that it fit the mainboard so badly that I had to give it up even though the specs said it would fit.
(There may have been a little cursing involved at this point).
So, I removed the giant cooler, as well as the overpriced cooling paste from my new 450-dollar processor and in frustration, I installed the infamous original Intel cooler.
It fit like a glove and it took 30 seconds to install. You did not even have to use excessive force to install it. As an extra bonus, it had cooling paste attached out of the box.
To my surprise, it was whisper quiet at normal processor load and still is after 4+ years of daily use.
I have no experience with AMD processors, but their latest “Wraith” stock cooler looks very impressive.
You have a ton of choices in this arena. CPU coolers receive almost religious attention among PC builders and you can get coolers in a myriad of different shapes and sizes.
These huge CPU coolers look quite impressive and to some people, cosmetics is indeed a factor when they choose a cooler. However, it´s not all fluff. The material is always aluminum, copper or a combination of both.
Copper and aluminum are great heat conductors, but copper is the most effective by far. This means that the processor can quickly get rid of a lot of heat which is then typically transported to large airflow friendly grills via massive copper heat pipes.
Most of these coolers make it possible to attach large high quality fans. Large fans can move more air at lower fan speeds (RPM) than smaller fans, so this can result in a significant noise reduction.
This is especially interesting if you are pushing your processor on a regular basis. Games or video editing, for example, will regularly task the processor to a point where the boxed cooler may indeed be too loud or inadequate for the duration.
- Some of these coolers are so heavy that they can damage the mainboard
- Sometimes cooling paste is applied from the factory, but in most cases, you need to apply cooling paste yourself. (Cooling paste is used to maximize the contact between processor and cooler)
Liquid cooling can potentially take the noise level down a notch. It is also a more efficient cooling method and is often used by gamers who want to overclock their CPU.
This cooling method is a step up in complexity and price and may not be the way to go for the average user.
At first it may sound like a noiseless option, but the system still needs cooling. This works just like the radiator in a car in the way that the liquid passes through a grill with a fan/fans attached.
The fan arrangement can be quite large and you need to make sure that your case has room for the fan. You can get setups with one or two fans depending on your cooling need and case size.
Personally, I don´t like the thought of having any kind of fluid near my expensive components not to mention my wooden floor. No matter how well such systems are build there is always the risk of leakage when there is fluid involved. But hey, that´s just me.
In part two of this article series I will continue looking at components that offer opportunities for you to build or buy a quiet PC.