Quiet and Fast?

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In these days of multi-gigahertz processors, the juxtaposition of the words quiet and fast seems contradictory. If it isn’t loud, how can it be fast? This exposition tells a little of the history of silence — or noise, rather — in computing, its current state and of Silent PC Review’s role for the future.

March 25, 2002
by Mike Chin

In these days of multi-gigahertz processors, the juxtaposition of the words quiet and fast seems contradictory. If it isn’t loud, how
can it be fast?

PCs were never really quiet, except for the odd Apple. The G4 Cube, for example was a wonderful example of industrial design, a fan-less PC cooled by convection alone. Sadly it was retired in 2001 after lackluster sales caused by its non-upgradeability and high price. I remember putting my loud 80286-based IBM-clone (oh-oh, am I dating myself?) in a cabinet under my desk to quiet it down. It’s likely that the 286 generated no more that a watt of heat; it had no cooling device whatsoever. The noise was
caused mostly a loud power supply fan and hard drive.

The 386 didn’t have any cooling either. A passive heatsink began to appear on the faster 486 models, but it was not until the 486DX2 in 1990 that a fan-equipped heatsink made its first appearance on a PC CPU. The most power-hungry of these generated around 6 watts. Sounds laughable, doesn’t it?

The last decade has seen an acceleration of computing power, accompanied by huge increases in heat generation. The 1994 Pentium Classic 100 put out 10W. Eight years later, the Intel P4-2.0GHz generates a whopping 75W. AMD’s 1.733GHz Athlon XP-2100+ is not far behind at 72W.

At the same time, the number of peripherals in PCs has grown substantially. Today, the HD spins faster and hotter, there are CD-ROM and CD-RW drives alongside the floppy drive, even dual hard drives, sound cards, network cards, modems, video cards; peripheral card slots on motherboards are routinely filled up with stuff. There is so much more stuff in computers, and so much of it needs heatsinks and fans: motherboards sport high-pitched fans to cool chipsets, video cards almost all come with at least a 40mm fan, and fast CD writers commonly have noisy fans.

Computer enthusiasts know very well what all this means: extreme noise. 7000-rpm screamer fans on CPU heatsinks are commonplace, and judging by the photos of personal PCs posted on the web, so are
systems with 4, 6, 8 and even more case fans all buzzing to keep that hot overclocked beast at bay. In some corporate offices, the level of noise is akin to a small factory, and much of the noise comes from computers.

But it is possible that today’s PC is as loud as it will ever be. There is evidence of a backlash against noisy computers, even in the forums of PC gaming websites where the most fanatical speed addicts hang out. Noise has long been known to be bad for health and productivity. Quiet and efficient
fans (YSTech’s new Tip-Magnetic
Driving Fan
for example), quieter alternatives to air-cooling (C-System‘s
heat-pipe solutions), bigger heatsinks (like the Zalman flowers), and quieter hard drives
(such as Seagate‘s
Barracuda IV) – these products are steadily gaining prominence. There are companies marketing not only quiet components or quieting accessories, but entire PC systems described as silent. Companies as mainstream as Compaq and Dell have promoted quiet PCs in recent months.

VIA, better know as a chip maker, continues developing the C3 as a cool CPU
, their 0.13 micron 866 MHz model of efficiency consuming just 9.6W, less power than a P100 of nearly a decade ago. Intel’s new 0.13 micron P4 also appear highly tweaked for better efficiency, their 2.2GHz model dissipating a “mere” 55W, 20W less than slower 0.18 micron flagship of just a couple month ago. Similarly, AMD’s soon to be released 0.13 core version promise improved efficiency.

Whether the drive to multi-gig processors quickly wipes out the power dissipation improvements achieved by the smaller core is difficult to say. Nevertheless, the demand for quieter PCs may be growing, and the industry seems to be trying to respond – albeit, in piecemeal fashion, and too slowly for many.

It will be a while before PC assemblers and component manufacturers are forced to quiet their machines to meet new workplace noise standards. And even when those standards become government regulations, power machines will probably always be louder, the way all-terrain vehicles are often exempt from many ordinary passenger car regulations.

This does not mean that enthusiasts need suffer noise today as the price for computing speed and power. On the pages of SilentPCReview, you will find DIY articles on silencing 2
Gigahertz systems, running PCs without fans, alternative cooling methods, new
quiet PC technologies, and software solutions. The entire gamut of quiet options will be presented
— from reviews of complete PC systems to total DIY inventions of mind-boggling ingenuity, and
all the cheap little tricks that can help tame your noisy beast while you search out a more permanent solution. Stay with us and enjoy the ride. It’ll get quieter.

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