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Enjoy the silence

After reading Craig’s web log Fun Friday, What’s in your bag?, I was wondering what I, as a (web) developer, have in my bag of tools. The thing that I came up with was hardware. In my office I have 2 PC’s (a Windows and a Dual boot Debian and Fedora Linux machine), a Powerbook G4 and a Pocket PC. “What’s the use of that?”, I hear you say. One can only work on one PC at a time. You’re absolutely right. The reason is simple though. As mentioned in don’t Mention the (Browser) War, we need to test and support our applications on a multitude of browsers and platforms.

Surprisingly, performance is not the most important factor for all these machines. It’s useless to test an application on blasting speed machinery if the user only has a mediocre desktop machine anyway. No, the most important factor to me is something that shouldn’t be there:  noise. I have rather good hearing – depending on who’s talking to me 🙂 – and if all the machines are running on a hot summer day I get an enormous headache in the evening due to the noise that they produce. Before you say that this subject is off topic, I do find this is takes part of development. Ergonomics are essential when you’re working whole days at (a) computer(s).

Sound is nothing more than waves which can be measured by their frequency (in Hz) and level (dB). Noise can’t be measured at all. There is a saying “de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum”. From my perspective, there should be sonitus added to this. Btw, did you know that the word noise was traced back to the Latin word nausea, “seasickness, feeling of sickness.”?  So it alldepends on the person hearing the sound. There are some interesting facts concerning sound. 1 dB is commonly the smallest difference an ear can catch, and it does this starting from around 20 dB (the noise of leaves). 10 dB (e.g. 75->85 dB) difference is perceived as twice as loud, but two sources of 30 dB makes 33 dB. The (A) after dB indicates that the measured level was adapted to human ear conditions. More info on this can be found at Noise in Computing: A Primer for PC Silencers.

So what sound level are we aiming for?  In Germany §15 of the “Arbeitsstaettenverordnung” allows a maximum level of 55db(A) if you are doing intellectual work. For repetitive office jobs / manual work a level of up to 70db(A) is allowed by the German law. This description doesn’t say much to me though. That’s why I would prefer to see all products indicate how many sone they produce. Whereas doubling two identical audio sources makes only 3 dB difference, it’ll double the amount of sone. 1 sone has the equivalent of 40 dB (1 kHz), but strangely enough 80 dB is 16 sone. I’m not into physics too much, so I gladly refer to sites like Schools of Physics.

But that’s theory; let’s see what we can do in practice. I started my crusade for silence a good year ago. I did this at home on a non brand machine. I was rather frustrated by the noise it made. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a brand machine or not. Despite the growing demand of the customer and WHO (World Health Organisation) recommendations, most manufactures don’t have noise reduction high on their priority list. The list of Blauer Engel compliant systems is ridiculously short. I didn’t find too many shops selling goods with noise reduction stuff. One said to me that they didn’t have anything to do with casemodding and the casemodder shops didn’t find it “cool” enough to sell. That’s why you’ll find that lots of goods used in my crusade are from the same brand. No, I’m not sponsored, but I can only buy what’s available. I even had to bring some goods over from the Netherlands and Germany which sometimes double as expensive or even worse. I needed a 12–>5volt converter cable. One can makeit oneself, but I’m not good at that, so I ordered it abroad. Its freight costs were double the value of this piece of wire. In the next paragraphs I’ll describe the steps I’ve taken in order to have a more silent PC. You can pick out some of these steps or do them in any order, it’s entirely up to you.

Step 1. I wanted to start cheaply and first bought one of those case damping kits. It looked very promising, but in reality was rather a disappointment. It only made the lids of my PC rattle due to vibrations. The foam made the lids heavier and secured the lids better in the case but it didn’t dampen the other annoying noises. My advice: don’t buy them and certainly don’t buy those insulation foam pads from a DIY store (like I read on a web site). First of all, you’ll never know how fire proof they are. Secondly it disturbs the air flow and even warms the PC up. The CPU fan needs to work harder and generates more noise.

Step 2.  Replace your CPU fan. Now that’s not for the faint hearted (like me), so get it installed by someone who’s used to doing that sort of things. A CPU is rather costly. Since I have an Intel P4 2.8 (HT),  I found out that a Zalman CNPS7700-AlCu would be sufficient. The copper variant cools even better, but the weight is above the Intel maximum fan weight specifications. A fan speed controller is also delivered with it. The lower the speed, the lower the noise. You need to experiment with that. BUT, you need a tool like Motherboard Monitor for monitoring the temperature while running the most CPU intensive app you have for a couple of hours in order to stress your CPU. Don’t forget to adjust your BIOS, otherwise you’ll get a lot of alerts indicating that something is wrong with the fan speed.

Step 3.  Replace your Power Supply Unit. A lot of noise is produced by the fans of your PSU. You can opt to replace them, but that’s rather dangerous and you will void the warranty of your PSU. A complete PSU replacement is more advisable. I chose the Zalman ZM400B-APS.

Step 4.  Go for a new case.  Now there are different type and flavours, including damping kits or not. If you have a lot of money thenmaybe the Zalman TNN 500A is for you. It has no fans, so it doesn’t generate noise. One can describe it as a giant heat sink. The only suggestion that I have is not to go for a case modded model and look for a spacious model for the best air flow. I found the Antec SLK3700-BQE an affordable solution which fit my needs. Besides being silent by design, it also has individual drive trays with rubber grommets to absorb hard drive vibration. The only downside is that it also has a silent PSU, and I had already bought one. That’s the problem with buying stuff without a general plan :-(. You can opt for extra case damping by e.g. Acousti, but remember what I said in step 1. Despite what the manufacturer says, air flow can be disturbed, with the known result.

Step 5.  Replace your hard drive(s). It makes a huge difference. Don’t purchase these silencers; you’ll only heat up the drive. I chose the Seagate ST-3120827AS, Barracuda 7200.7. The newer Samsung Spinpoint P80SP1213C has the same specifications, but according to the reviews it performs better both on the noise and read access front. Add an additional fan in the front, preferably in the neighbourhood of your hard drives. This is somewhat contradictive, since the more fans you have, the more noise you have. But you will create more air flow and thus the CPU fan has less work with less noise as a result. I chose a PAPST 92mm 3412N2/GL running at 5V instead of 12V.

So that’s it? Yes, you now have a very silent (still audible, but less annoying) PC running. You can of course do more: – choose silent DVD/CD ROM drives. Sometime I have the feeling that these drives are about to take off since they make noises similar to a plane. – choose VGA cards with a heat sink instead of fans. I know that the performance isn’t great  but – unless you’re developing games in SAP – they do what they need to do. If you can’t live without Doom, consider replacing the standard fan with a more silent one. – don’t always go for the newest and fastest CPU but choose the more silent one. The Intel P4 Prescott is infamous for the amount of heat that it produces. The newer releases off the Prescott are improved and produce less heat. – for the same reason, don’t overclock. You might end up with extreme solutions like the Koolance Exos 2 water cooling or even  Asetek Vapochill fridge/freezers. Besides the price, they are not very Kyoto friendly in my opinion , and I have some serious doubts about the noise factor. Anyway, the amount and speed of internal memory and space on your hard drive (consider e.g. RAID 0/1) is more important than the CPU.

More info, tests, etc. can be found at SilentPCReview.

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