The Quest For PC Silence

For the last decade I’ve had the luxury of owning every gaming platform available, so the need to marry myself to one device or another hasn’t existed for a long time. I’ve sampled the best every publisher has had to offer. I’ve swung peripherals, lost handheld devices and given plenty of stuff away. Today’s Xbox becomes a gift for my nephew once it’s been replaced with a new 360.

For all this time and for all these devices, the one constant has been my PC. While the console upgrades and revisions are easily tracked, my computer has shambled through the past decade shedding old parts in favor of new ones. AMD processors have fallen and been replaced with Intel. Nvidia cards replaced with ATI. Water cooling systems, faster burners and solid state drives have found their way in and out of my cases. But there’s never been a full stop, build a brand new computer moment. I can imagine my old motherboard whispering fevered instructions to the long-standing CD burner to be passed onto its replacement. Soon enough it’s put to pasture at my mother-in-law’s house to live out its years watching the occasional email go by and on a good day, Solitaire.

The gift and curse of being on the upgrade treadmill is most apparent when you take steps to silence the beastly fans running in your machine.

The PC continues to be my occasional hotrod project. Every year or so, for a week at a time, I’ll obsesses over what’s new and replace some parts. The timing usually coincides with the steady hammering of new games pushing my system to its limits. Lately, with PC gaming taking a lot of my play time, I decided I’d had enough with all the noise emanating from my supposedly “silent” Cooler Master Silencio 550 case.

The main culprit has been the video card. The AMD Radeon 6950 was running so loud while playing The Witcher 2 that I had to either wear headphones or crank the speakers to drown it out. Most video cards tend to do that unless you look to aftermarket cooling solutions. After searching far and wide, I settled on the Accelero XTREME (sigh) Plus VGA cooler. It runs nearly silent under load and wasn’t actually too tough to install. You just have to remember to buy the proper accessory kit with it depending on your video card model. With the fans and heat sinks mounted on the card, I ran into my first problem. This thing is 13 inches long, a full two inches past the hard-drive bay in my case.

This is the point when a switch flips in my brain and I become my father working on a “small” project in the basement that turns into dropping a few hundred at the nearest Home Depot. If you Give a Mouse a Cookie also springs to mind. Off to the store I go to buy a Cooler Master HAF 922. Still a mid-size computer case, but large enough to accommodate the extra long video card space I needed. After an hour of transplanting the parts from the old to the new, I was up and running. The Accelero is no joke. You launch a game, you don’t get any additional noise at all. It worked as advertised and knocked about 10 degrees off the GPU temperature to boot.

I’d had my cookie and my glass of milk, but I soon realized I wanted more. You see, without the video card fan blasting out of the case, the stock Intel Core i5 fan could have the spotlight for its whining, high pitched noises. My eye started to twitch.

Thor’s Hammer is Xigmatek’s double layer, heat-pipe, direct touch CPU heat sink. Measuring nearly 7 inches tall, I would never have fit this fanless monstrosity in my old Silencio case. It’s basically a tower of interconnected metal wafers. It’s also probably the manliest thing I’ve ever put into my case. If I bored a hole into the top of it and jammed a stick in there, I could use it for home defense. You can attach a couple fans to it if you’re inclined, but the Cooler Master case has good airflow and I don’t overclock, so the fans aren’t necessary.

The final bill was roughly $80 for the video card fan, $80 for Thor’s Hammer and about $100 for the case. I can play my games with the gentle white noise thrum of a few fans and without the gurgling fear of a water-cooled system. We’ve clearly come a long way in building not only bigger and better computers, but quieter ones too.

I know we live in a world of iPads and streamlined interfaces. We want things to just work and let us focus on creation and play. I want those things too, but I will shed a silent tear the day our PCs become sealed cubes with no fiddly bits to tweak and replace. Let them have their GelaSkins and fancy decals. My individuality thrums along quietly inside my big, metal box. I love it.

Maybe butter would help?
Heat sinks applied
Final Construction
Thor's Hammer

Comments

No other gaming system will give you the same satisfaction as hearing that 'beep' after you've finished assembling/re-configuring your rig.

I love my third party coolers. For a device that is on so much in reasonably close proximity to me, spending a little bit to quieten it is money well spent. I love how ingenious some of the cooler designs are too, fitting what shouldn't work onto the stock card.

In fact, my current graphics card will be the first one in at least 6 years that I haven't swapped the cooler on, because it already comes with a great cooler and that's part of the reason why I got that particular one.

One thing to bare in mind is that noise is often proportional to the power. I know I could get a little more out of my chips if I overclocked them, but I'm mostly happy with my current performance, and overclocking would mean more heat to get rid of, and that means faster fans, which leads to the dreaded noise level increasing. It's also something I actively consider when shopping for components now, the noise, heat and power consumption are considered alongside the performance and price.

I went through a similar thing recently. Ended up changing out like 6 fans and a new CPU cooler.

Still running the stock cooler on my videocards though. There's not enough room between the two cards on the motherboard, or between the bottom card and my sound card for any of the custom coolers that would be worthwhile from a noise standpoint.

There are lots of good quiet options available that don't require expensive modification but it does involve many hours of shopping around. My current system that I'm just about to replace has a Palit 4850 Sonic Edition which even under load, doesn't make a sound and I put an oversize OCZ fan/heatsink on the CPU (which you sadly can't buy anymore) that is similarly quiet. Even with the open-air Antec Skeleton case it's using (which don't ever buy I might add), this system only makes a small hum under 100% load. The key thing is to try to buy big fans. Lower needed RPM = lower noise.

It's a shame that most video card manufacturers don't focus on quiet cooling, even on really expensive models. I've found Palit to be very good on this front and the card going into my next system will be their GTX570 Sonic Edition which is also supposedly dead quiet. You don't necessarily have to spend a lot of extra money to get quiet cooling, you just have to find manufacturers who make that a priority.

Glad to hear you replaced that stock cooler as from the pictures that was gonna be my first suggestion.

Btw, that vga cooler is insane. INSANE.

Oh, and I like fiddly bits. I too hope they hand around for a while.

Edit: Actually, so is that cpu cooler. Surprised to see you didn't put a fan on it.

My favorite part of building my most recent PC was taking off the stock fans and heatsink from my 2 4850's and installing a completely silent heatsink (the Accelero S1 Rev. 2). I ended up needing to hack off part of the original heatsink and connect it back to the card. It was an absolute blast getting to this point and what was left was the barely audible hum of the case and CPU fan.

Love tinkering with the ol' PC box.

I had watercooling on my rig for a while. Not worth the hassle. Algae eventually brought it down. I tried everything to kill that stuff, but I think it evolved. I had to ditch the system before the goo achieved sentience.

Hans

Garion wrote:

Edit: Actually, so is that cpu cooler. Surprised to see you didn't put a fan on it.

I kind of am too. But in testing, the max any of my cores hit was 50C under load. Since I'm not bothering with overclocking, that's plenty of overhead.

Certis wrote:
Garion wrote:

Edit: Actually, so is that cpu cooler. Surprised to see you didn't put a fan on it.

I kind of am too. But in testing, the max any of my cores hit was 50C under load. Since I'm not bothering with overclocking, that's plenty of overhead.

I figured that was the case. A push/pull fan system would probably keep that at 30C overclocked and under load.

So that's where http://video.adultswim.com/robot-chicken/give-a-mouse-a-cookie.html came from.

I will shed a silent tear the day our PCs become sealed cubes with no fiddly bits to tweak and replace

Depends on what you mean by "our". Most people buy Dells or some other prepackaged pc.

I also built my own but all I've done is replace the stock cooler with one from zerotherm, but I did that to keep it cooler.
One of my six chassis fans is starting to make noise. It's still a lot quieter than my old machine was by the time I retired it.

I love PC building/upgrading stories like these. Building computers is such a satisfying hobby.

I'm glad to see the tinkering instinct is alive and well. I've never tried to replace stock cooling, mostly because items like Thor's Hammer up there look like they'll swallow me alive. Also partly because I like using the computer as a mini heater in the winter.

There's something really special about building a computer from scratch. From the hours of research into the parts, to the wait, and finally the actual build, there's a really odd nerdy anticipation about it all. I was involved in an after school program this year that allowed some kids to build a computer. There was so much anxiety leading up to it that the kids were genuinely surprised how easy it was to piece everything together.

Personally, though, I haven't performed a major upgrade since 2006. If I ever get the cash to do so, I'm going back to my old HP case (which was pretty well built, for a mass-market computer). Guess that makes me nostalgic?

All I can think of is...

Spaz wrote:

I'm glad to see the tinkering instinct is alive and well. I've never tried to replace stock cooling, mostly because items like Thor's Hammer up there look like they'll swallow me alive. Also partly because I like using the computer as a mini heater in the winter.

Replaced stock (original to computer build, since my 1st comp build used an OEM CPU) cooler for the first time this year with a Cooler Master Hyper 212 plus, which looks similar to Thor's Hammer, but comes with a fan to be used. Not really much of a problem as long as you either mount it before the mobo gets installed, or you have an open back behind the spot where the mobo mounts to the inside of your case. As for the heat. The CPU should always generate that same amount of heat, but aftermarket coolers pull the heat away better. I would think they would spread heat out into the room better.

imbiginjapan wrote:

All I can think of is...

I heart you so much. That's from my favorite scene in my favorite movie of all time.

mrtomaytohead wrote:

As for the heat. The CPU should always generate that same amount of heat, but aftermarket coolers pull the heat away better. I would think they would spread heat out into the room better.

That's always the thing to remember with coolers, they're not magic. All they do is move heat from one area to another, you still have to get rid of it by moving hot air away and cool air in to replace it, and it everything is only as good as the ambient temperature allows it to be.

Awesome article, though I've never been more aware of the gentle whirr my PC makes. I can't not hear it now.

Anyone ever consider soundproofing the case?

I know that that would also insulate it (bad) and it wouldn't cover the fans anyway (bad), but come on people, dream with me here. Nothing is impossible. I went to university with a guy who built a PC inside of a functional mini-fridge.

I got obsessed about silencing my pc when I had a home theater PC going. I discovered the ultimate solution. My pc is in the basement. The monitors, speakers, and dozen USB devices are a floor away, in my office. Total silence. I haven't needed to stick a DVD in a drive in ages. I have powered USB extender and good monoprice shielded audio and video cables, and drilled a few holes in the floor.

Love it.

Yes. A thousand times yes. The ability to build a PC with the parts I want, made to do what I need it to do, and with a variety of options along the price/performance line is what keeps me out of the Mac world. Sure, the days of game availability being a problem on the Mac are falling away in our brave new world of Flash, Java, and multi-platform releases. Yes, I think Apple is clearly leading the way into the "computing ecosystem" of the future. But, to paraphrase a great philosopher, if you have the means to assemble a custom PC, I highly recommend picking one up.

(And with the friendly aid of a certain community, you can gain all the knowledge you need.)

The PC continues to be my occasional hotrod project. Every year or so, for a week at a time, I’ll obsesses over what’s new and replace some parts.

Thanks for the the cooling recommendations Certis, Parallax Abstraction, and StaggerLee. My wish lists just grew by a few items. I'm obsessing over my next rig, loading my brain and bookmarks with useful info like that found here.

Like others posted, it's a great cycle: research, research, research, buy, build, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, and eventually . . .

the steady hammering of new games pushing my system to its limits

For me, a big part of the satisfaction is in getting exactly the components you want. You're not limited to the 2-6 radio buttons offered by the commodity PC configurator.

I learned after my first system build to completely disconnect from the tech details after placing my order. It's too painful watching all the newer, better, faster components come out while the price drops on everything you just bought.

rabbit wrote:

I got obsessed about silencing my pc when I had a home theater PC going. I discovered the ultimate solution. My pc is in the basement. The monitors, speakers, and dozen USB devices are a floor away, in my office. Total silence. I haven't needed to stick a DVD in a drive in ages. I have powered USB extender and good monoprice shielded audio and video cables, and drilled a few holes in the floor.

Aha! That explains something cryptic you'd said on the podcast.

And shows one more thing that's made possible by the gradual fading away of CDs/DVDs/physical, removable media for data.

Seems to me like there's an untapped market for do-it-yourself parts combination store in the US. In my locality, I can just go to the PC store, point to the parts I want off of a large catalogue, and they assemble it all for me, complete with compatibility advice, optimization advice, and parts installation. Never have to touch a screwdriver.

They also allow you to assemble it yourself, at your own risk, of course. They'll even sell you Windows and Office and install it for you. Very convenient. I like how they let you do your thing or various increments of help from totally parts-only source to order-and-pick-up.

Where I live it seems like it's Bargain Hunter Land. I've never seen a decent case in a store and that Thor Hammer thing is outofthisworldly to me. God, now I've YET another costly craving.

and without the gurgling fear of a water-cooled system.

Nice turn of phrase.

I went the water cooling route a number of years back, on the theory that it would be quieter. This was when chip and video TDPs were getting completely ridiculous, and power supplies were getting overloaded from the sheer demand for all that 12V goodness.

It worked really well, but it wasn't any quieter. This was a Koolance unit, and it was ridiculously loud. It also slowly lost water through the tubing, and you'd have to top it up every six weeks, or it would start to gurgle. (and eventually, I assume, fail.)

And then I started having big trouble with the machine, and when I finally got frustrated and troubleshot it, I found that I'd cooked my RAM by not having any airflow in the case at all. So I had to buy a couple of special water coolers for RAM. (they're actually pretty cool, these soft foil-ish plastic packs inside a hard shell that surround the RAM, kind of like a double-sided waterbed.... maybe a waterbed sandwich? Not sure how to describe it.)

No matter what I did, no matter how crazy I got with load, my whole system never went much above 38C, and that was cooling the video, the motherboard chipset, the CPU, the RAM, and four hard drives. And it never leaked a drop.

But it was still noisy. SO frustrating.

I eventually settled on an Antec P182; combined with a Noctua CPU cooler and some Scythe SFF21E fans (which have, sadly, been discontinued), I was able to absolutely silence a Core 2 with an 8800GT in routine use. It made some noise when gaming, because the 8800 was just a stock cooler, but it wasn't bad. Overall, that P182 + Noctua + Scythe fans was quieter than my Mac Pro, especially under load. (The MP is dead silent at idle, but it got loud and obnoxious during gaming, mostly because of the video card.)

When I replaced the C2D/8800 with an i7/5870, it took more airflow to keep the beast cool, so it became audible, but only just.

My big complaint with the P182 was that it was a little too small to easily work with. It's hard to route cables, and there's just not enough clearance around the edges to get your fingers in to work on the motherboard or plug in cables. Getting cables plugged in an ordeal, especially the secondary motherboard power on the top edge.

The P183 is an inch or two larger in every dimension, and I think that would be just about perfect, just enough room to get in there and work without being ginormous.

There's a P280 coming in the next couple months, too. It'll be interesting to see what they do with it. At the moment, I think of the P183 as the pinnacle of quiet PC computing, as long as you replace the stock "Tri-Cool" fans. They're kinda crappy and noisy.

It'll be a tough case to beat.

I've been very pleased with Tom's Hardware lately. They have both smart people and seemingly deep pockets. They pimped 6 cases specifically designed for quiet builds most recently.

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/...

The last build I did was more proof of concept, to prove to me (and my wife) that it could be done, but the next build will be intended to be near silent. Certis, I think you've inspired me to make a noble donation of my current PC in a few years.

This is a rewarding and fun rabbit hole to dip your toe into. I have been hooked on silencing my pc for years. I have also worked up to a bench rack due to the frequency of my changes/tinkerings.
One of the greatest resources I have found is http://www.silentpcreview.com/ you can get very deep there. I also learned a lot about fans and under voting them to get better noise profiles.

I have my computer on my desk with me with an open case and can barely hear it (except the bdrom)

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Malor wrote:

kind of like a double-sided waterbed.... maybe a waterbed sandwich? Not sure how to describe it.

Kinky?

Xigmatek makes an 'Elysium' cooler...Hmmm You went with the Thor's Hammer though.

Maybe this exposes me as just a half-hearted modder, but what I did in my last two builds was go to Newegg and just buy the most expensive fanless GPU. Leaves me with sub-powered graphics, sure, but totally worth the noise reduction (and, of course, the lower energy overhead). I believe my current CPU draws 45W which is also underpowered but perfectly fine for the mostly strategy and indie games I play. (SC2 runs fine enough for me).