Building a Silent PC: My Quest for Quiet

Chapter One: Introduction

Terry Gray

Original: 11 Oct 2000
Revised: Apr 2002
Revised: 14 Jul 2003


One of my most treasured freedoms is the freedom to choose what I am listening to, and one of the most difficult things to find in a modern urban environment is silence.

There are lots of things I enjoy listening to, including nature, music, even TV and the Blue Angels at appropriate times. On the other hand, there are things I despise listening to. Certain political figures or pundits, of course, but beyond those, the top of the list belongs solely to personal computers. No, not computer-generated audio; I'm talking about noise from fans and hard drives.

In many ways, the best days of "pseudo personal" computing were when X terminals held sway. They were small, simple, and silent! Of course, I too argued in favor of real PCs and freedom from the tyranny of central timesharing, but I sure do miss that totally noiseless little box on my desk (that also never crashed :)

In a former life, I worked for 3Com Corporation. I vividly recall a poster advertising their "3Station" network PC. It had a picture of the device, and a caption at the bottom that said "Actual size, Actual sound." This was in 1988. Perhaps they were ahead of their time...

Kudos to Steve Jobs for making quiet a priority in recent Mac designs... at least sometimes. In the Eighties, I clearly remember the shock and disappointment of upgrading from the silent Mac Plus to the Mac SE with its hover craft fan... so I was delighted to learn that the (now discontinued) Mac "Cube" was a fan-free design. And equally disappointed to learn that the new-for-2002 "luxo lamp" iMac does have a fan, though an allegedly quiet one.

So why aren't the Intel/AMD-based PC vendors listening? I used an HP eVectra PC for awhile, and it was better than most... but not good enough. Dell announced in late 2000 a new generation of their Optiplex machines that were "40% quieter". That's good... but not good enough. Why not an inaudible PC? Is it because the vendors don't think there is a market? Or is it because they don't think it is possible?

I set out to find out if it was possible. I had been tracking efforts in this space for many years, and had tried various band-aid approaches, such as power supplies with quieter-than-average fans, etc. In June 2000 I stumbled on a link to a Salon article by Robert Bryce. Here I found a fellow-traveller lamenting the same lack of acoustic sensitivity in PC vendors that I found so annoying. This article triggered me to re-start my quest for a quiet PC.


By now my "quest for quiet" (or "search for silence") story has two chapters:

Chapter one, written in October 2000, describes the design issues and my first efforts to build a fan-free PC. The result was a very successful system configuration based on underclocking a 667MHz Pentium III processor.

Chapter two, written in April 2002, takes up the quest when I try to find out whether a low-power VIA C3 processor can be used to build a system that is both silent and small. The punchline is "a definite maybe" since I was not able to find a suitable commercial case for this project; however I have come to appreciate the aesthetics of the IKEA wooden drawer I used instead. Click here for a photo of my "IKEA computer".


So what's next? Given that Intel and AMD are locked in a race for highest possible performance, they have effectively ceded the low-end/silent marketplace to VIA. But we need to see more system solutions based on the C3 family to validate the hypothesis that people will buy moderate performance machines that are silent. I certainly believe a silent C3-based solution would be a viable product, but where are they? I'm watching the market closely to see whether the needed system components (silent power supplies and convection-cooled cases) become available, or whether a credible "appliance PC" will ever be offered. Toward this end, I'm hoping consumer motherboard manufacturers will embrace VIA's mini-ITX specification with its simplified power requirements --or perhaps something even more radical: a full function motherboard (along the lines of the Shuttle FV24) that only requires +5 and +12v.

Notwithstanding the above, I confess to occasionally harboring thoughts of life in the fast lane. Having enjoyed fan-free computing for some time now, I have no desire to backslide, but I am mildly curious about personal computing in the one-to-two Gigahertz range --if and only if it could be done at acceptably low noise levels. Perhaps a Northwood Pentium IV underclocked and undervolted a bit would be an interesting experiment. Unfortunately, if I'm reading the CPU power dissipation numbers correctly, we've got nearly 40 watts to deal with in an entry level P-IV, and that's two-to-three times more than my underclocked Pentium III generates, much less a VIA C3, so a fan is probably necessary.

The mobile version of the Pentium IV may be more promising, coming in at 30w or less, but I'm not sure whether it is either available thru retailers or compatible with consumer P-IV motherboards. Even the slowest .13 micron (Tualatin) versions of the Pentium III generate a lot more heat that I would have expected --perhaps because of more on-chip cache memory than their predecessors-- so I am not encouraged by Intel's prospects in the silent PC space, notwithstanding the scare that Transmeta gave them. Alas, Intel seems to think that low power chips are only interesting for laptops (and, because of Transmeta, servers), as indicated by the next-generation Banias core, due in 2003, being targeted for laptops.

Life without fans in my computers has, however, both spoiled me and also revealed that totally eliminating all noise is going to be tough: disk drives will remain the silence-seeker's achilles heel. Very quiet hard drives with Fluid Drive Bearings such as the Seagate Barracuda-IV are a terrific improvement, but they are not inaudible (in typical mounting conditions, with ears a couple of feet away, in quiet surroundings.) Moreover, the fact that Windows seems to access the C: drive constantly makes a mockery of noise and power-saving settings, like a 5min drive spin down. So maybe an intriguing idea would be to create a file/print server from a CD-ROM based Linux distro that only had user data on the hard drive. Given a silent file/print server "appliance" --whose hard drive only spins up when needed-- perhaps one's "main" application PCs could stay in standby more often. Apparently a fellow in the UK offers a commercial version of this idea (using compact flash to store the OS), under the name "pizza box servers". The Devil-Linux firewall distribution recently added hard drive and SMB server capability, so that might be a starting point.

Another option might be to explore the world of Single Board Computers (SBCs), which --while expensive for what you get-- do work with readily available convection-cooled power supplies.

Meanwhile I patiently wait, along with so many others, for PC vendors to show some sign that they understand there is a market for quiet systems, even if they are not the fastest machines around. It may be that the vendors don't believe people want "information appliance PCs" --but how would they know, since the early attempts at the genre all had fatal design flaws? At least they could give us a desktop system with Speedstep(tm), or equivalent, so the user could choose between speed and silence. (Remember the "Turbo" button on old PCs? Maybe it's time for something like that to return: a front panel switch to choose between "silent" and "performance" modes.)

There are reports that some recent models of Dell and Compaq PCs are much quieter than earlier models. Let's hope this is true, and that it is indicative of growing interest in acoustics among the PC vendors.

This is one of a series of articles describing my silent computing adventures. This link will take you to the beginning of the story.