PC Noise Revisited

The response to last week's commentary about PC noise was amazing. Thanks to everyone who emailed me; you provided some great feedback. I'd like to address a few concerns I missed the first time around, and offer more solutions based on my experiences as well as the email responses.

My family is moving soon, and to prepare our house to sell, we cleaned it and stored unnecessary clutter. My home office is now clean and uncluttered, but the newfound space amplifies the sound from the one remaining PC because it sits on a wood floor with no obstructions to deaden the sound. In addition to the quieter power supply I mentioned last week, I added some padding under the PC to prevent vibrations from echoing around the room, and that made a huge difference.

Since then, I've ordered other quieting components, and I'll let you know how they work. First, I purchased a 100GB Western Digital "Special Edition" hard disk (which uses 8MB of cache memory instead of the usual 2MB) to replace my system's two hard disks. Readers recommended various other units, especially those that use fluid dynamic bearings. Maxtor, IBM, and Seagate offer hard disks with this quieting technology. Second, I ordered a device called the NoVibe, a noise-dampening hard-disk harness that fits in a 5.25" PC enclosure. The NoVibe suspends the hard disk in rubber netting that prevents the unit from transferring vibrations to the case and, eventually, to my ears. And because the NoVibe isn't a full wraparound enclosure, it doesn't create a heat problem.

I also tested my loudest laptop to determine whether it makes less noise than my desktop. Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes: My large Dell Latitude C800 is far quieter, even with both fans cranking during heavy game playing (all in the name of research, of course). Unfortunately, the laptop is about twice as expensive as the desktop it temporarily replaced. When I'm settled into my new home, I intend to look at PC enclosures and will move a PC server to the cellar to use as a file server over 100Mbps Ethernet. I'll load the server with hard disks and use it for storing data, especially space-consuming audio and video files.

Finding complete PC solutions that are optimized for quiet operation is difficult, but readers repeatedly recommended two European companies: UK-based Quiet PC (http://www.quietpc.com) and a Danish company called Intercom Solutions, (http://www.intercom.dk) which makes water-cooled systems. Among PC and small-client recommendations, Dell was first by a landslide, with OptiPlex, Precision Workstation, and Dimension 4x00 series boxes getting the most votes (note that my systems are Dell Dimensions). Small form-factor Compaq boxes such as the Evo 500 also received several reader recommendations, as did the HP Vectra VL420 DT and IBM NetVista legacy-free devices.

Incidentally, the number one reader recommendation was to get a Macintosh! Apple's desktop and laptop products are far quieter than any PC. I have an iBook already and a new iMac on the way. But of course, I can't just switch to the rival platform because most of my work revolves around Windows, and I suspect that's true for most of you.

To improve an existing PC, you have to pay for silence, just like you pay for performance. Several solutions can help you decrease the sound and heat exiting your PC. IDE drives with fluid dynamic bearings will likely reduce noise levels. Also, replacing your CRT monitor with an LCD unit will definitely help. I replaced both of my CRT units and will never go back. Several readers recommended commercial sound-insulation panels, such as those used in automobiles and music recording studios: You can cut these panels and insert them inside the PC's case to deaden sound.

Many readers suggested what I call distance solutions—separating the PC display, keyboard, and mouse from the box. You'll need 25- to 30-foot keyboard/video/mouse (KVM) solutions, very long cables, and a separate room for the PC(s). This arrangement requires an occasional trip to the PC room to access optical drives and whatnot, but for many readers, the silence is worth the inconvenience. A similar solution is to use in-room PC cabinets or enclosures to deaden PC sound.

Several people recommended noise-reduction headsets, such as the Bose QuietComfort and the Sony MDR-NC20. I use and recommend such a headset while flying, but I wear glasses and the headset bothers me, so I can't wear it full time.

A couple of readers joked that the constant interruptions from co-workers were more bothersome than any noise from the PC, and as expected, some people find PC noise to be comforting: I can't help either of these groups. However, for the rest of you, here's a list of links to quiet-computing-related Web sites. Thanks to the many readers that forwarded these resources!

Quiet Computing Resources

How to Build a Quiet PC: A Simple Guide
Silent PC Guide
Calm PC Cool & Silent Systems
Silicon Acoustics
Carillon PC Noise Solutions
Antec PC Cooling Products
Koolance Liquid-Cooled PCs
Water Cooling Construction Guide
Sony MDR-NC20 Noise Canceling Headsets
BOSE QuietComfort Noise Canceling Headsets

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