Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Silent but Deadly

Let's take a closer look at noise. If you're like me, you'd rather not be able to hear your PC from the other room. Noisy components can be quite irritating, and your computing experience may be enhanced by not just increasing performance, but by reducing noise.

What causes noise in a computer?

Noise is caused by components in your machine that move. Most of these moving components are fans, but there are two other common components with parts that move often and generate noise:

Hard Drive
Optical Drive (CD, DVD, Blu-Ray)

Both of these drives use moving components to read and write data. You may recognize their sounds - audible hard drives will often start clicking when you fire up a program and DVD drives will whirr up when you pop in a disk. These sounds are often in sync with lights on the front of your computer case.

The electrical components in your computer can get quite hot. This is bad for electronics, because they can only tolerate so much heat before they become damaged. These components are usually very small, so heatsinks are used to dissipate the heat over a large surface area. Larger heatsinks can spread the heat over a larger area, keeping things cooler.

In order to help heat spread from an electrical component to a heatsink, a form of "thermal paste" is usually applied between the two parts. The purpose of this paste is to displace the small pockets of air that end up between two touching pieces of metal. Air acts as an insulator, (keeping your components hot by preventing the spreading of heat) but the paste is made of components that conduct heat well, allowing it to spread more evenly.

To better understand this effect, imagine a metal pot with a wooden handle. The handle is safe to hold while cooking because the wood is full of air pockets that insulate your hand from the heat. If you touch any metal, however, you will get burned because the heat travels through the metal much easier. Inside a computer, this free travel of heat is actually desired because we want to suck all the heat out of those little microchips. (Did you know your pot would heat up more efficiently if you put thermal paste on the burner? ...until the paste burns up, anyway. Not recommended.)

Whenever you buy a heatsink, it will usually come with its own thermal paste. However, you can also purchase thermal paste separately. People often praise Arctic Silver as being more efficient than other thermal paste, and there are some benchmarks out there to support these claims. I am of the opinion that the marginal difference is not worth the added cost, but I that's really up to the buyer.

Having a fan blow air through heatsinks helps to drastically cool hot electronics. Fans are what cause the general humming that you hear in the background whenever your computer is on. They rarely change speed during use, so it is often easy to forget they are running. Generally, larger fans can move more air while spinning at slower speeds. This means that larger heatsinks and fans tend to keep things cooler and quieter.

Common components that use fans include:

Video Card
Power Supply

Basically, this means that just about any component in your computer, except for the RAM, has the potential to generate noise. It is a good idea, then, to do a little research on each part before deciding it is right for you. Sure, that Radeon 4870 might be a bargain, but it has the potential to turn your otherwise quiet system into something that will make the dog howl.

How do I find out if a component is noisy before I buy it?

There are two main ways, other than personal observation, to determine whether a component will be noisy. First, look at the customer reviews. Newegg's customer reviews are a vital part of making purchasing decisions. If the sound generated by the component is noteworthy, people will talk about it. People will either complain that it is too loud, or remark at how pleased they were with its silence. Go to the customer review pages for a part and do a search for words like, "quiet," "noise," and "silent." These reviews are objective, of course, but it still gives you a good place to start.

The other way to find out how loud a component will be is to look for hardware review articles. Benchmark sites sometimes compare sound levels between components in order to give potential buyers a more objective measurement.

What can I do to reduce noise?

One way to reduce noise is to buy an "aftermarket" cooler for your component. This is mostly done for processors and video cards. CPUs and GPUs always come with their own stock heatsink and fan, but they are often not as effective as one would like. CPU stock coolers seem to be consistently mediocre. However, GPU manufacturers are often more flexible with their solutions and you will sometimes get lucky with a very silent and cool stock solution.

If you want a good aftermarket cooler for your Phenom II or Core 2 processor, I recommend the Xigmatek HDT-S1283. You can see my personal results with it in my first blog post. For $27 plus shipping, it's a steal. It's also very large, so you'll need to make sure your case has room for it. It comes with its own large fan which is very quiet. The heatsink is so effective that you might even be able to get away without using the fan at all! You'll need good case airflow if you want to try that.

Apparently, there are two good solutions for a video card, which I mentioned in my last post. The Thermalright HR-03 is the most effective, but it is also a bit pricey at around $45. You'll have to go somewhere other than Newegg to find one as well. A more reasonable choice is the Arctic Cooling Accelero S1 Rev.2. This one is also very effective and only costs $25 plus shipping. Neither of these two coolers come with fans, but they are able to keep things cool anyway. You can attach a quiet 120mm fan if you like.

Another way to reduce noise in your system is to adjust the fan speeds. For CPUs and motherboards, your BIOS may allow you to set fan speeds that will be used at certain temperatures. As long as your components are staying cool, you might as well let the fans run at around 20% because faster speeds are not needed. Of course, different motherboards will allow you to do different things.

For GPUs, you can try using ATI Tray Tools for ATI cards or RivaTuner for NVIDIA cards. These software programs allow you to change many settings on your video cards, overclock them, and even adjust fan speeds for different temperatures. You can even use them to monitor temperatures for most components in your system. Your options for fan speed will depend on what video card you have.

If a component of yours is running cool enough and you are unable to adjust the fan speed, you may be able to get away with simply removing the fan. Always check the temperatures after doing this to ensure that the heatsink alone is enough to passively keep your parts cool. I did this with an annoying motherboard chipset fan in my previous machine, and it hardly made a difference on the chipset temperature at all.

Another option is to purchase a fan voltage regulator. These usually come with panels of knobs that can be attached to either the front or back of your case. You can wire up knobs to just about any fan in your system and use them to manually control the fan speed. This is usually done for case fans when there is no other way to control them.

If you use headphones while you game, you will notice the computer's noise less. You could also try noise reduction headphones for an even greater effect.

Finally, just try turning up your stereo. With Metallica rocking away, your computer won't stand a chance.

What are some good components that are natively quiet?

Most motherboards are generally quiet, so if you don't see any noise comments you probably don't have anything to worry about.

Stock CPU coolers, while often not the greatest at dissipating heat, are generally not too loud either.

The Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 I suggested earlier is probably very quiet with the stock cooler. You'll notice that many commenters had very positive things to say about the heat and sound level.

While the Cavair Black hard drives are not necessarily known for being exceptionally hot or loud, the Caviar Green disks are known for being exceptionally cool and quiet. There are several versions of these, so pick the size and price that are right for you. Do note that while all Caviar Black disks have 32MB cache, the Caviar Greens below 750MB do not.

Owners of the LG Black 22X SATA DVD+-RW drive seem to agree that it's very quiet.

I haven't mentioned this power supply yet, but you might want to check out the Raidmax Hybrid 2 RX-530SS 530W PSU. It uses a huge 135mm fan, and the commenters consistently note how silent it is. It's also modular, which means you can detach the power cables you don't need. For $40 with free shipping, it's hard to ignore.

The NZXT Tempest is $90 and the shipping is usually pretty hefty because it's so large. Still, there is no denying that getting this case is probably the best way to keep everything inside your machine cool. Its airflow is ridiculously effective, and this is very important. All the best heatsinks in the world won't do you any good if your case can't move the hot air out. This case is also incredibly silent; it uses four 120mm and two 140mm fans. It's a cool breeze on a summer day.

One of the neat things about the NZXT Tempest is that the two 140mm fans push the air out the top. My huge Xigmatek CPU cooler is located near the top of the case, and I have the fan located on the bottom so it pushes the air up through the heatsink while the case pulls from the other side. There couldn't be a better arrangement.

As you can see, you don't necessarily have to spend a lot to get a noiseless machine. There's something very satisfying about having a computer that is both powerful and silent. Teddy Roosevelt would be proud.

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