What is a Silent Computer?

R. Kayne

Computers have become part of our everyday lives at work and at home. They’ve become sleeker, faster, and more powerful – and along the way, they’ve also become louder. The average computer incorporates an aggressive cooling system consisting of multiple electric case fans, a power supply fan, a central processing unit (CPU) fan, a Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) chip fan, and in most cases, a video card fan. Systems with two processors or a set of graphics cards have even more fans. All of these fans create constant noise, which has led to a growing demand for a silent computer.

Heat sinks are often components of silent computers.
Heat sinks are often components of silent computers.

The term silent computer is a recognized misnomer, as nothing is silent except empty space. Atmosphere carries sound or pressure waves, so we are always surrounded by some type of ambient noise. The wind, the birds in the trees… even our own breathing creates noise. A silent computer is rather better described a computer that does not make sufficient noise to stand out from the ambient background noises of its immediate environment. It’s a computer that can go unnoticed.

The fan in a power supply can be one of the nosiest part of a computer.
The fan in a power supply can be one of the nosiest part of a computer.

Since every environment is different, and hearing acuity fluctuates among individuals, one person’s silent computer may not be silent to another. This makes it difficult for the industry to manufacture a “silent computer” per se, though there are some specialty fanless computers designed to be very quiet. Silent computers of this type feature fanless cases that resemble massive vented heat sinks and incorporate components that can be cooled passively. Once silent flash drives are available to replace spinning platter technology, these computers would likely satisfy anyone in terms of decibels generated. They are, however, quite large and considerably more expensive than your average system.

As an alternative, some people are choosing to build a less expensive silent computer by handpicking components that can use passive heat sink cooling inside standard, well ventilated cases. These components are usually among the top performers of their class without being bleeding edge. Quiet power supplies are plentiful, but they usually cost more than the standard model with the same wattage. Aftermarket passive heat sinks or specialty fans for CPUs, BIOS chips and graphics cards are often used in silent computers. Fanless video cards with factory passive heat sinks are also available.

To keep cases cool on a silent computer, several slow-spinning fans provide a compromise between noise and cooling. The fans must be located correctly inside the case so that internal heat is forced out, while fresh room air is drawn inside. Though computers can’t be completely silent, for those who want a silent computer, there is a lot of room for improvement over the standard setup. If willing to sacrifice a little time and money, a far quieter system can be yours.

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