In Search of Quiet Computing

I've worked from home for about 7 years, and even in my small office environment, I'm assaulted by a constant and insidious predator on my senses and sanity—noise. I have several PCs and laptops in my office that emit a variety of humming and buzzing sounds and fill the room with extra heat. I've visited many offices that are even noisier, and in large, partitioned workspaces, the ambient noise resembles an airport runway on a busy morning. I suspect that noise is eating into the productivity benefits we gain from modern PCs.

My battle against computer noise began a few years ago when I realized that maybe a multi-PC office wasn't the grand idea it appeared to be on paper. Computer noise was often so loud that I had to leave the office to speak on the phone, and when wireless networking became fast and affordable, I began to branch out into other areas of my home to escape from the constant background noise in the office.

Desktop PCs generally are much louder than laptops, and as these PCs become more powerful and sophisticated, their noise levels rise. Bigger, faster, more powerful CPUs such as the Pentium 4 run hotter than older processors, require massive heat sinks and huge fans, and often have a ventilation tunnel to siphon heat out the back of the unit. Hard disks also contribute to the noise and heat problem. Older 5400rpm IDE units usually generate less heat than 7200rpm drives (or 10,000rpm and 15,000rpm SCSI drives—the loudest, hottest drives of all), but these older drives use fairly low-quality materials that generate plenty of noise in their own right. Newer, hotter-running 7200rpm IDE drives require better ventilation, so their fans have to run more often, creating more noise. Even optical drives—especially new high-speed CD-RW units, can create quite a racket, especially when they're accessing or writing to a disc.

Video cards can also contribute to the noise problem. New 3-D video cards generate a lot of heat, and as a result, many of them have small on-card fans that are even louder than those in the PC's power supply.

So what can you do to combat PC noise? Although I'm still investigating this topic, the logical place to start is with the most egregious components. I recently replaced the stock power supply in my Dell Dimension PC with a super-quiet power supply from PC Power & Cooling, a company that makes devices that cool and quiet PCs. This change reduced the PC's noise level by 50 percent, an appreciable difference. You also can purchase hard-disk enclosures that cut noise output up to 90 percent. If possible, use one larger hard disk or optical drive in lieu of two smaller capacity units (and a combination DVD/CD-RW drive is typically quieter than separate DVD and CD-RW drives). If these adjustments don't solve the noise problem, PC enclosures are a possibility, although the units I've seen target the recording and movie-making industries and thus carry heady price tags that often surpass the cost of the PCs they're protecting.

If you're buying new computer equipment, search for companies that approach the noise problem from the get-go. I know that Compaq began an initiative a few years ago to develop quieter components, and other companies likely have done similar work. Slim-line and thin-client systems also tend to be cooler and less noisy because they usually don't require huge metal shells and whopping processors. Laptops are often a solution, although I've run into quite a few portable computers that generate plenty of fan, hard disk, and optical drive noise.

To their credit, Microsoft and Intel have tried in their yearly PC reference design specifications to convince PC makers to make quieter PC components, a nod toward the idea that PCs will soon move from the office into the living room. But we shouldn't have to move out of the office to get quieter PCs. If you sit in front of a computer day after day, as I do, you deserve better.

I'm interested in your perspective on PC noise and whether it's a concern in your workplace or home office. Let me know what you think!

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