Hooray for cheap PCs. The price of systems and components alike continues to drop faster than Gordon Brown's approval ratings – but there's a sacrifice.
A budget system might have surprisingly decent components, but mass production is the watchword. The most obvious reflection of this is with cooling – there's no finesse to it: instead, a generic, brute-force approach. Slap in a cheap, fast-spinning fan and, while it'll be woefully inefficient - its manic rotations will be enough to keep the heat manageable.
That just won't do. It's increasingly the case that a PC is the hub of all our home entertainment, spelling the end of hi-fis, DVD players and the like. You don't want your merry watching and listening to be undermined by a noise like a bumblebee orgy inside a tin bath. Fortunately, an enormous third-party market has sprung up; there are more ways to cool and quieten your PC than there are chocolates in Belgium.
It's worth noting that 'silence' is a broad term when it comes to PC cooling. You'll see fans and PSUs described as silent when they're patently not, and indeed you'll read features in PC mags about 'silencing' your PC when in fact they mean 'quietening' your PC. Cough. But actually silencing a PC is a huge and potentially expensive project; though reducing the noise to a point where you can't hear it over the sounds of explosions from your games and movies is a walk in the park.
The first step: identify which parts of your PC are responsible for causing the most racket. The processor fan's the usual suspect, specially if it's fitted with one of the bog-standard coolers that Intel and AMD supply with their chips. Try a process of elimination. If attentive listening doesn't reveal the culprit, try either unplugging your system's various fans from the motherboard one by one (where possible) or gently placing a finger over the solid circle in their centres to stop 'em spinning for a second. Don't do it for long, or you'll risk burning out the motor.
If the noisiest tenant inside your PC is a case fan, you're laughing: generally these are standardised 80mm or 120mm that you can simply replace with a higher quality replacement. Even if they look identical – the quality of construction can make an enormous difference. If you picked up a cheapie case or system, replacing the fans bolted to its shell should be your first task to quieten it down: expect to pay £10-20 for decent new 'uns. If you have the choice – if there's room in the case and mountings already supplied – upgrade smaller, 80mm fans to their wider 92 or 120mm kin. Their increased size means they don't need to spin quite as fast to shift air. It may even be worth drilling new holes in the case to take 'em.
As little as £20 buys a reasonably quiet replacement for a processor fan. Most of the decent ones will involve removing your motherboard from the case and often replacing the CPU socket backing plate on the board's underside. It's a bit of a hassle, but bolting on a CPU heatsink (rather than just clipping it on, as is the case with the cheap-'n'-crappy standard ones) achieves significantly more heat-drawing efficiency. As a result, the fan doesn't need to spin quite as fast and thus quite as loudly.
Should your noisemaker turn out to be something more bespoke, such as the fan on your mobo's northbridge or bolted to your graphics card, the job gets a bit more fiddly. Aftermarket coolers are available for almost anything, and great things are indeed possible with these replacements – such as taking a tubby dual-slot graphics card down to a svelte single-slot model. NVIDIA and ATI's predilection for redesigning cards from the ground up with every generation means there isn't a single, one-size-fits- all aftermarket cooler: you'll have to search for one that fits your specific model of card – and suits your wallet.
Also effective is to increase the efficiency of your cooling. Most systems worth their salt will automatically monitor temperatures at which their major components are running, and reduce or increase fan rotational speed to compensate. So, if you reduce the heat generated, the fans won't have to work as hard and thus will be quieter.
Investigate your system's airflow: ideally, cool air should be sucked into it from one end and hot air expelled from the other. Major blockages across the motherboard cause concentrated pockets of hot air, pushing up every components' temperatures. Clear a path by flattening down cables – sandwich bag ties will do the trick – and rearrange PCI cards if you need to.
Another option: isolate the hottest-running component – usually the CPU. Some cases have an exhaust fitted to their side: a tube that sits around the CPU cooler, usually with a fan on the other end, so its heat is drawn away and vented out the side of the case, rather than spread willy-nilly inside. If your case lacks one and you lack the will/money/nerve to mod it, you can achieve a similar effect with cardboard tubing. Just be sure its exit- end points towards a vent, rather than being pressed against a solid surface.
As dust builds up inside your case – and it will – heat dissipation decreases due to all those dead skin cells coating the heatsinks. Give it a clean every couple of months – a compressed air spray or a vacuum cleaner set to blow should do the trick.
Something else to try is replacing the thermal paste on the CPU with something a little fruitier. Thermal paste is the bond between the CPU and its cooler, there to ensure the heat does transfer from one to the other rather than just lurk between them.
Seems like every thermal paste available claims to be a revolution in cooling and similar guff, and it's true that more expensive stuff can make the difference, but it's as much in the application as it is the gunk itself. Too much can cause as much of a problem as too little, as it ends up being a barrier rather than a radiator. You shouldn't put more than a ricegrain- sized blob on there, and you need to whack the cooler onto the chip as soon as possible so you don't end up with air bubbles inside the goo. Definitely don't re-use it – if you have to take the cooler off for any reason, you must replace the thermal paste when you hook it back on.
Once you've cut the main fan noise, you'll notice other annoyances from the system, such as the distracting insectoid chatter of a busy hard drive. The trick here is to reduce the vibrations caused by its spinning platters and clicking heads. Some rubber washers between it and the case can be all it takes, but if you've got a really noisy drive, about £40 buys a full enclosure for it, to effectively block out all its noise (though will often make it run hotter).
As often as not, it's a democracy of cacophony: every component is making its damnable voice heard. Which means you've potentially got a big job on your hands. Equally potentially, you haven't. Again, if perfect, absolute silence isn't your goal, the task is a whole lot easier. A first step worth trying is the BIOS – most motherboards have some sort of fan control option. A fair few boards also have Windows apps to allow fan control from the desktop, which makes life easier.
Whichever of you can set the fans spinning more slowly, whether it's a prescribed 'silent' option or just reactive to system heat. Note that the heat will go up when you drop the RPM; monitor your system with an app such as CPU- cool to check the temperature isn't going through the roof. A system will continue to function even when the processor's running at around 80°C, but the risk of damage, especially to the chip's overall lifespan, rises sharply.
If software fan control isn't doing the trick – some fans simply ignore the signals the system sends them – then a spot of extra hardware might do the trick. A fan controller gizmo goes for as little as £3 (try overclockers.co.uk), though you'll need to fork out more if you want to puppeteer multiple fans.
Simply plug your fan(s) into the controller, then the controller's own cable into the motherboard's fan connectors, then spinning a pleasingly eighties-style dial gets you your noise reduction. Turning a dial down reduces the power supplied to the fan, so it can't spin as fast: it's as simple as that. Conversely, if your system's running too hot, just spin 'em up a bit. You can even make this slightly ungainly setup into something of a virtue by picking up a front-mounted panel that slides into an empty optical drive bay. If there's one thing to make your PC look more powerful than it is, it's an array of dials and twinkly LEDs on the front of it.
Another option is cladding – affixing foam sheeting to the inside of your case to muffle noise. It's less than graceful, but it can make a big difference. Plus, it's cheap. You can pick up a few sticky- backed sheets for around a tenner, which you can then carve into suitable shapes for your system. More expensive cases come with padding already affixed, which can save headaches.
A surprisingly sensible option if you're running a media centre system: bung the PC in the next room. Nothing acoustically insulates as effectively as a brick wall. With networking, keyboard and mouse all available in longish range wireless versions, the only physical connections you need are video and audio. Drill a hole in the wall, and you can run this pair of cables through from the next room pretty easily. It's also a good way of having a single PC double up as a standard system in one room and a movie player in another.
Genuine silence? It's eminently possible, but is often a fairly titanic job. Cases that are essentially a giant heatsink can cost £200-300 and up. The CPU, northbridge and graphics card are fitted with passive coolers and heatpipes that ferry heat out to the case shell, whose fin-riddled design radiates it away silently. As a side-effect, you won't ever need to turn on the radiator in that room; which leaves watercooling as the more viable method.
While a closed system of liquid- filled tubing remains very much on the arcane end of the system-building scale, it's nowhere near as horrific a task as it used to be. Watercooling's crept a little closer to standardisation over the last few years. Where once you'd be locked into one firm's parts and required to cut holes in your case, now it's often possible to mix-'n'-match and to use standard mounting points.
The simplest watercooling kits sort out only the CPU: usually the guiltiest noisenik. A small reservoir of coolant pumps through plastic tubing into a small, fanless block atop the processor, which in turn is connected to a radiator elsewhere in or outside the case. Cold liquid runs over the chip, is heated by it, then cooled by the radiator, and so on. It's a bit of a faff to setup, but once done you can pretty much leave it alone until your next system upgrade, bar the occasional coolant top-up. Optionally you can add in additional blocks for graphics card, northbridge and RAM; once they're liquid-cooled, there's almost nothing pumping heat into the case, so you can turn off the damnable fans.
A kit that contains everything you need for CPU cooling for as little as £60, but expect to pay almost as much again for a block to cool a high-end 3D card. If you're after total silence, these lower- end models won't do, as they still sport a slow fan attached to their radiator, but drop a couple of ton and you can pick up an external watercooling kit such as the Zalman Reserator.
This ferries the liquid out to a large, external, passively-cooled box. While this takes up a chunk of room and means you won't be carrying your PC to any LAN parties in a hurry, it will make your PC almost entirely noiseless. While you can go even crazier and adopt nitrogen cooling or a submerged system, that's more the realm of crazy overclocking than simple silencing.
Silence and quietening are two very different things. There's something a little obsessive-compulsive about total silencing, but it can get to even the most cavalier system-builder. Once you're rid of one problem, you get hung up on the next seemingly noisy component, and so on. Forcing yourself to think more practically, you'll find that reducing noise to a low background hum is actually very straightforward. All the better to drown out with the calming tones of zombie genocide or racecar engines.
In The Beginning
Is your PC being cooled too little or – hopefully – too much? The PC Health screen of the BIOS or a free app such as CPU-Cool will tell you – really you don't want the processor to be running higher than 50ºC even under heavy load. If it's idling around 30- 40, it may well be that you can simply unplug a case fan or two, or that you can reduce the CPU fan speed (either with software or a hardwired fan controller) without causing any problems.
If that's not an option, then replacing the case fans might knock out the worst of the noise. In pretty much every case, the fans are a standard size – either 80mm or 120mm – with a standard fitting. So find yourself a nice fan billed as super-quiet, remove the screw from each corner of the old one then bung the new one on instead: as simple as that. Next: if you're running a stock Intel or AMD processor fan, it needs replacing: simple as that. It's no good for overclocking and makes a noise like a dying snake.
A decent replacement doesn't cost much, but the majority are significantly larger, which is something to consider if there isn't much space inside your case. A few butt against graphics cards and RAM too, so make sure you can return it should it turn out that your motherboard layout doesn't take it.
No Moving Parts
Once upon a time, passive cooling was all it took. Those days aren't quite as long gone as you might think, but the teeny cooling blocks of yesteryear have been replaced with vast heatsinks the size of paperback books. You can viably replace quite a few of your system's fans with passive coolers – the motherboard's northbridge and the graphics card are the easiest to achieve.
If you're trying to go silent but don't need a high-end gaming PC, you can buy a cheap 3D card that's already passively cooled – a GeForce 9600GT will be about as good as it gets, which is enough for WoW or TF2. If you want to passively cool something meatier, you'll need to be prepared to spend a fair whack of cash to do so, and often for the card to take up an extra upgrade slot as a result.
In either case, the trouble is that, while the heatsinks can radiate away a fair amount of the temperature, you really need a fan nearby sucking it away a little more quickly. That passively cooled 3D card will be beaming its heat over the motherboard, so you'll need a fan close by to whisk it away.
It is possible to slap an almighty passive cooler onto a lower-power processor – which you could always underclock if you're trying to build a near-silent PC for media centre use only – but you'll likely only end up with your case fans spinning harder to cope with the increased overall system temperature. If you only need a PC for everyday desktop work, you could pick up an Intel Atom or Via Eden ITX board – these teeny processors barely generate any heat, so their minute cooling blocks are entirely passive. Just don't expect to be watching a cavalcade of high def video on 'em.
Enjoy the Silence
For a truly silent PC, even watercooling won't do the trick – there'll always be the subtle gurgle of liquid trickling through all those tubes and the pump that makes it happen. What you want is no moving parts whatsoever. To do that, you need to defy what common sense is screaming at you and submerge your entire PC, sitting it inside a liquid bath, surrounded by so much juice that fans simply aren't necessary. Just so long as it's nonconductive liquid.
What you need is mineral oil, and lots of it – a few dozen pints of the stuff. Given it's commonly used as a laxative and as Vaseline, acquiring the stuff may be a little embarrassing, plus expensive. A top tip, apparently, is to speak to a friendly vet, as they keep the requisite gallons of it around to relieve the bowels of constipated horses. Delightful.
It's possible to use vegetable oil instead, but as anyone who doesn't clean their kitchen regularly will know, that stuff turns nasty after a while. Once you have your oil, you can build your PC inside a suitably-sized aquarium, fill 'er up and you're most of the way there. Two things to bear in mind: firstly, you'll need to make your system air-tight to prevent evaporation, unless you want to be topping it up on a regular basis.
Secondly, you won't be able to submerge the hard drive, due to the infamous tiny hole you're not supposed to cover. An external enclosure will pretty much silence it, or alternatively you pick up a solid state drive which can be safely sunk – there's a guide to the parts you'll need and how to do it at www.pugetsystems.com/submerged.php.
First published in PC Format, Issue 220