I wrote on March 14 that Zalman Tech Co., a Korean manufacturer, had developed two specialized PC cases that act as giant heat sinks, cooling a computer's electronic components without any noisy fans. On March 21, I reported on my experience buying and installing a computer using a Zalman case. It's quiet, indeed.
All the copper and aluminum that goes into these cases, though, makes them much more expensive than ordinary PC towers. Fortunately, you may be able to quiet the roaring beasts around you by spending only a few dollars, instead of hundreds.
Dampening Noise by Following a 1-2-3 Approach
Ideally, PCs would come to us from the factory with whisper-quiet fans, automated monitoring of component temperatures, and an automated ramp-up of fan speeds only when electronic parts such as the CPU were heating up.
That isn't the reality with most computers that are sold today. So you'll have to take matters into your own hands if you want to silence the PCs that roar around you.
The cheapest routes to a quieter PC represent three different strategies: fan-control software, heat-sink/fan combos, and liquid cooling.
1. Free software. First of all, check to see whether the BIOS in your particular brand of PC supports automatic fan control. If so, this can reduce fan noise to nearly nothing, free of charge.
To check the BIOS settings, reboot the PC and press whatever key combination is indicated on screen to enter the BIOS utility. If there's a section on "power management" or "heat sensors," read the help text or your system's documentation to see whether the PC's fan speeds can be automatically controlled.
If not, you can download a free piece of software named SpeedFan that may be able to control the fans for you. SpeedFan, developed by Alfredo Milani Comparetti and available from Almico.com, can monitor component temperatures using embedded sensors found in most modern CPUs, hard drives, and other electronic parts. It can then lower a PC's fan speeds, reducing the noise output to almost zero, as long as the components remain cool enough to be safe. If the temperature of a component rise, SpeedFan can increase the speed of the fans to keep it below a threshold you set.
The Almico site says SpeedFan can currently handle 535 different configurations of motherboards, out of 856 that are known to exist. You can search a database of these configurations at Almico's site to obtain a specific recommendation for your equipment. The site requires a free registration to gain access to these configurations but says it doesn't release the information that's collected.
I've used SpeedFan myself for months on a tower PC that holds a small mail server. The utility keeps the components well below any dangerous temperatures while reducing the system's default fan speeds (and therefore their noise) to about 1/4 of the original level.
SpeedFan can be pretty technical in the beginning. You'll need to know the make and model of each motherboard you want to silence before you can look up the best configuration.
2. Add heat sinks with quiet fans. The fans that come stock with most PCs are often designed to operate at full blast when the systems are running. Most of the time, this much air flow simply isn't needed and merely annoys everyone working nearby.
Replacing the old, noisy fans and replacing them with silent metal heat sinks or sinks with quiet fans requires you to open the case. You'll need to know the model of the CPU, video chip, and other components so you can purchase the corresponding coolers.
Zalman USA, the Los Angeles headquarters of Zalman for U.S. sales, has a convenient Web site chart showing quiet devices that fit on various PC components. Many of these easily clip onto the correct location on a motherboard by hand or require minimal tools to install.
3. Liquid cooling. If the above steps aren't enough to cool and quiet your PCs adequately, it's time to bring out the heavy guns. You can now reliably clip sealed hoses onto your hottest components and wick the heat away using the power of liquid cooling.
Zalman Tech's Reserator 1 Plus cools the innards of a PC case by circulating a nonconducting fluid through the case and into a slim metal tower, which radiates the warm air harmlessly. Cool Tech PC, the Portland, Ore., company that I purchased my test Zalman case from, sells the Reserator for about $270 U.S. -- about 1/3 the cost of the TNN 300 silent case I tested last week.
Pete Nickol, technical supervisor for Cool Tech, said in an interview that his company has carried Zalman's Reserator products for about two years. Early models sometimes dripped fluid, which is similar to automobile antifreeze. But the current designs don't leak, thanks to new valves that seal themselves when the system's hoses are being clipped together or unhooked, Nickol says.
The Reserator uses a small pump in an external tower that circulates the cooling liquid out of the PC case. This pump is quiet and shouldn't be noticeable unless you put your ear directly up to it.
Liquid cooling may seem like a radical solution to incessant PC fan noise. But the option is now a solid one for companies with numerous loud PCs that must be quieted without spending the money to replace them.
In the years to come, PC makers may increasingly market their systems as quiet as well as powerful. It's not particularly expensive to use quiet fans instead of loud ones and passive cooling (metal heat sinks) instead of active cooling (roaring fans). Quiet components might not even add anything to the price of a well-thought-out PC.
Until the day comes when quiet PCs are the norm, a few add-ons can give you a bit of peace without breaking the bank.