Answer Line: Quiet, Please! Cut Your PC's Clatter the Cool Way

Illustration: Timothy Cook
Today's systems make way too much noise. We spend good money on high-quality speakers so that our CDs and MP3 files will sound terrific, and then we force those speakers to share a room with a PC that roars like a fully loaded B-52.

A quieter PC just generally makes your life nicer. Reducing your computer's roar to something approaching a whisper is surprisingly cheap and easy. You don't have to make it completely silent (which may not be possible, anyway), just quiet enough for the ambient level of your environment. This month I take a break from my initial reader question to help you identify and replace the parts in your PC that are making the most noise.

Noise vs. Heat

Your system's noisiest parts are its fans, and most PCs use a lot of them. My test machine--a Pentium 4 clone--has four fans: in the power supply, attached to the CPU, on the graphics board, and screwed onto the back of the case. Initially, my PC sounded like a textile mill.

Of course, fans keep your system's delicate circuitry cool--an important job. But with the right equipment, you can prevent PC overheating and ditch the earmuffs; you'll have a computer that's silent but cool, like Steve McQueen.

First, you could buy new fans. Slower fans make less noise, but they don't push as much cooling air over the CPU and other internal components. Bigger fans can safely turn more slowly because they move more air per revolution--but a larger fan may not fit in your case. Some more-expensive fans (in the neighborhood of $20 instead of $2) of the same size and speed are designed specifically to be extra quiet. Finally, you can reduce your dependence on fans by installing efficient heat sinks on your CPU and elsewhere in your system.

To gauge your system's heat, use a program that monitors its internal temperature. Your PC or motherboard may have come with such a program, or the manufacturer may offer one as a free download. If your machine doesn't have a built-in way to measure its temperature, try Alex van Kaam's free Motherboard Monitor (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: TAKE YOUR PC'S TEMPERATURE with the free Motherboard Monitor utility created by Alex van Kaam.
). This program reports your PC's temperature and even sounds an alarm when the internal heat reaches a preset danger level. Another option is Podien's $15 CPUCool utility (a free trial version is available).

Before you open your computer and start mucking around with its innards, keep some safety tips in mind:

Unplug the power cord (at both ends) before opening your PC. For anything other than installing drives, lay your PC on its side, with the motherboard at the bottom. When you remove a part, loosen all of the screws before you remove any of them. And when installing a device, insert all of the screws halfway before fully tightening any. When you're done, plug in the power cord and turn on your PC. If it works, turn the system off, unplug the power cord, close the case, and then plug in the power cord again.

Find the Noisemakers

Replacing every potentially noisy component in your PC is a waste of time and money, so instead start with the loudest offender. If the machine is still too noisy after you make your first change, replace the next-noisiest component.

To identify the source of noise, use the ever-popular Cardboard Tube Test. Hold one end of a cardboard tube from an empty paper towel roll to your ear, and hold the other end near various drives, fans, and other devices inside your PC's case to determine the loudest ones.

If this leaves you unsure, try the Elimination Test: Turn fans and hard drives off and on to see which are the loudest. (There's no harm in operating an open computer without fans for a few seconds.) To silence a fan or hard drive (the one major noisemaker that isn't a fan), unplug its power (make certain that the PC is unplugged first). Fans are usually connected through tiny, three-hole plugs on the motherboard; hard drives by larger, four-prong connectors from the power supply. Plug the PC's power cord back in, turn it on, and listen without using the cardboard tube.

Of course, this technique won't work with the power supply's fan, which can't be unplugged. With your PC turned off but plugged in, insert a small wooden stick between the fan's blades, and hold it there while you turn the PC on. If the machine remains as quiet as a weeknight in Yuba City, you've found your peace-disturber.

Your power supply may well be the first noise source you'll want to replace, since its fan is often the loudest thing in the case. Look for a replacement power supply that provides at least as much wattage as your current one. Note, though, that while a supply that delivers more watts gives you power to upgrade your PC's equipment, it also costs more and might be noisier than a less-powerful model.

In my test PC, I tried Seasonic's 330-watt S12-330 power supply (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: A NEW POWER SUPPLY MAY give your PC more oomph while also reducing the machine's noise level.
), which costs about $60 online. The S12-330's 120mm fan spins more slowly and quietly than the 80mm fans found in most power supplies. The product even provides an adapter that lets you lower the speed of your system's case and CPU fans.

If the Seasonic isn't quiet enough for you, try Antec's 500-watt Phantom 500 it is absolutely silent--most of the time. The device is also very big, very heavy, and (at about $175 online) very expensive. The Phantom's body acts as a heat sink to keep the box's interior cool, and the fan kicks in only when the heat rises above a user-defined level. Still, for many people complete quiet most of the time is worse than slightly noisy performance all of the time. It is much easier to ignore a constant noise than one that turns off and on at seemingly random times.

Installing a new power supply is easy: Unplug the motherboard and drives from the existing power supply, unscrew and remove the device, insert the new power supply, tighten its holding screws, and then plug everything back into it. Seasonic and Antec include installation instructions, but not all power-supply vendors do.

If your PC has a case fan--one screwed onto the case rather than attached to the CPU, power supply, or other device--you may want to replace it with a less-noisy model. My test PC's 92mm case fan was its loudest component. The best solution would be to swap in a bigger fan, but that's tricky. Your case probably doesn't have a hole for a 120mm fan. Still, using a higher-quality (and perhaps slower) fan should reduce your system's noise level.

Nexus makes quiet case fans in various sizes, each of them priced below $20. The fans lack installation instructions, but replacing a fan is simple: Just unplug the old fan's power cord, remove it, and then install and plug in the replacement.

Nexus's 92mm Real Silent case fan (see FIGURE 3

FIGURE 3: KEEP YOUR PC COOL and quiet with a slower-turning replacement fan such as the Nexus 92mm Real Silent model.
) worked fine in my test system. I was a little worried because, according to my motherboard-specific monitoring program, it spins at about half the rate of my old fan. But the slower turning speed has not caused the PC's temperature to rise.

Most hard drives don't have fans, but they still make plenty of noise when they spin. However, many new models make less noise, as they use fluid dynamic bearings in place of ball bearings. So if you want a quieter PC environment, now may be a good time to upgrade your hard drive.

A Hard-Drive Muffler

Alternatively, you could place your current drive in a soundproof box that fits in a 5.25-inch bay (the kind you'd normally use for a CD or DVD drive). I recommend the Nexus Drive-A-Way, which costs about $60 (I looked at an early production unit before the company had settled on a price). I installed the Drive-A-Way with only minor problems--and before I discovered the instructions hidden on the bottom of the box. The device silenced my drive almost completely.

The most cost-effective CPU coolers are a small heat sink and a cheap, loud fan. For a little more money, you can buy something less raucous. But be warned: Replacing a CPU cooler isn't easy.

Part of the problem is sheer size: Quiet CPU coolers can be huge, with towering heat sinks that look like model skyscrapers attached to fans the size of portable disc players. You have to make sure the new cooler will fit your motherboard and CPU socket. You may know what processor you have, but some CPUs support more than one socket type. Check your computer or motherboard documentation--or the manufacturer's Web site--for the information you'll need.

Once you find the right cooler, you have to attach it. Start by removing the old cooler. It's probably clipped onto the socket in ways you can't see and in places where your fingers barely fit. Next, wipe the thermal paste (also called thermal grease) off the top of the CPU. Now apply a thin layer of paste (your cooler probably comes with a tube of the stuff). Finally, insert the new cooler into those clips your fingers can barely reach. Easy, right?

For Socket 478 motherboards, I recommend Arctic Cooling's reasonably compact Freezer 4 (see FIGURE 4

FIGURE 4: ARCTIC COOLING'S Freezer 4 replacement motherboard fan cuts down on both your PC's heat and its decibel level.
). Though the device is not as quiet as some of the giant alternatives, it's more likely to fit in your PC, and it costs only about $30 online. (Arctic Cooling sells similar coolers for other sockets.)

If changing your PC's CPU cooler sounds too daunting, don't even consider replacing the tiny fan that's probably attached to your graphics card. Such fans aren't particularly loud, and fiddling with the surface of a graphics card is perilous.

I also advise against hassling with case insulation. The foam-rubber material attaches to the inside of your case to muffle sound, but this chore is a lot of work for a very minor difference.

Keep Your Backup Drive Off When It's Not in Use

External hard drives make great backups: They're much easier to work with than DVDs, and they hold far more data. You may be tempted to leave these drives on continuously; but if you do, anything that damages your original files could also destroy the backup. For better protection--regardless of the backup program you use--keep the backup drive turned off or unplugged when you're not using it, and turn it on or plug it in only when you need to back up. Better yet, hide the drive when you unplug it. That way, burglars won't deprive you of your PC and your backup drive.

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