Computing's silent revolution

PC owners say they're tired of high-powered but noisy parts. Are hardware makers listening? Photos: Keepin' it quiet

It wasn't until Mike Chin added a third PC to his home office a few years ago that he realized all those whirling fans, clicking hard drives and humming power supplies were adding up to one big racket.

"It drove me crazy," says Chin, a freelance technical writer in Vancouver. "It was a state-of-the-art machine, and it was so noisy I couldn't keep it on. Everything made such a racket, I just couldn't work in that environment."

Chin's frustration drove him on a months-long quest to isolate noise-making components and replace them with quieter alternatives, a mission numerous PC users and a growing number of manufacturers have followed in the years since.


What's new:
PC noise is raising a ruckus as more powerful computers require stronger and often louder cooling systems and PCs begin to move from the office into living rooms and bedrooms.

Bottom line:
The quest for quiet computing has inspired a cottage industry of specialist manufacturers, growing attention from major PC makers and a small underground of acoustic cultists. Will average consumers pay more to dim the decibels?

Once a minor annoyance, noise from PCs has become a growing concern as ever-more powerful computers require stronger and often noisier cooling systems--especially with PCs moving out of the office into living rooms and bedrooms. The quest for quiet computing has inspired a cottage industry of specialist manufacturers, growing attention from major PC companies and a small underground of acoustic cultists who'll go to any extreme to eliminate another decibel of PC din.

"People are writing in all the time saying, 'It sounds like a jet engine taking off when I run my PC--what can I do about it?'" said Chin, who started Silent PC Review to share what he learned building a quiet PC. The site has become one of the leading resources for PC owners looking to muffle their rackety rigs.

"In most cases, it's just bad, inconsiderate design," Chin said. "You see some companies really paying attention and trying to do better, but acoustics still doesn't get much attention."

Most PC noise issues come down to heat. As processors and other components have become more powerful and electricity-hungry, they've required bigger and faster fans to keep them from burning to a crisp. Graphics chip giant Nvidia may have pushed the trend to its extreme about two years ago with the , a chip that ran so hot it required an elaborate fan and duct system so noisy early models are still commonly referred to as "Nvidia leaf blowers" by PC buffs.

Complaints about the Nvidia fans and other extreme noisemakers have prompted manufacturers to make some concessions to acoustics. But truly quiet computing is still largely a niche market, served by specialty manufacturers such as South Korea's , which makes huge copper heatsinks, water-cooling pumps and other components that dramatically reduce the airflow needed to cool PC chips.

Early adopters have included tech-savvy musicians and sound engineers, who can't afford to have a humming PC drown out the subtle aspects of the music they're making, said Michael Farnsworth, president of Quiet PC North America, the U.S. branch of a British company and one of the first specialty retailers devoted to quiet computing equipment.

Lawyers have also turned out to be a good market, Farnsworth said. "Noise reduces your attention and ability to think," he said. "When your time is worth $300 an hour, that's a big deal."

Interest in quiet computing has varied by region as well as occupation. Robert Jung, general manager of technology and business development for Zalman USA, said it's no accident the company that started the quiet-computing movement was launched in South Korea.

"In Asia, most people live in apartments that are small, concrete rooms," Jung said. "The sound doesn't dissipate very well, so you really notice anything noisy."

Zalman Tech founder Sang-Cheol Lee started the company to sell variations on the super-efficient heatsinks he developed to make his PC tolerably quiet. Zalman has gone on to provide quiet cooling systems for numerous other PC heat-spewers and is now looking at items such as plasma TVs and projectors. "Anything you can think of that creates heat, we're trying to provide a quiet, fanless solution for it," Jung said.

While most quiet-computing buffs start out with such practical goals, a small subset goes extreme, launching

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