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Silence versus power: the quest for the quiet PC

Passive cooling, miniITX, what works?

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Regular readers will have noted this writer's concern (oh, all right, obsession) with quiet, unobtrusive PC, but may not have entirely grasped why. Particularly as I don't recall ever telling you. But there are good reasons for this, in addition to the semi-bigoted (e.g. a Sinclairesque prejudice against moving parts, and a readiness to rant about cheap fans, particularly those fitted to allegedly fault-tolerant web servers) ones.

It's perfectly simple, really. First, I'm enthusiastic about the Internet and communications in general being pervasive, and therefore delivered to every room in the house (and everywhere else too, but we won't get into that today); second, as I at least aspire to having a normal life, the things that deliver this shouldn't make their presence felt when you don't want them too, so the house shouldn't look like some techie geek version of a battleship's engine room; and third, having spent nearly 20 years giving the record industry pigopolists sackloads of money for CDs, I want to put all of these onto hard disk and be able to play them anywhere in the house I like.

The third reason is the prosaic, non-philosophical one, but it is a primary motivator - if I wasn't doing this, then I'd surely still be sitting thinking about the first two, rather than beginning to act on them.

The system as it is now works adequately, but is subject to ongoing engineering works, and has gone through several phases over the past couple of years, the basic tension being between the quest for the unobtrusive computer and the need for the powerful computer. This has probably cheered the kids up no end, because several rather large, powerful boxes in groovy aluminium cases (I'm a sucker for these) have been partially debarked, then deemed still too big and noisy, and then consigned to the kids' rooms for high-performance graphical, er, homework. All of this passes first through the front room, where the ground rules are no obvious PCs (an LCD display is permissible, and a nice-looking one will replace the current nasty one just as soon as I can afford it), a decent set of speakers, jukebox access and a large TV I never get around to watching.

So the recent history of the invisible PC room has been as follows. The very large, very pretty Coolermaster-cased box went into the clutches of firstborn about two months ago, at which point the miniITX experiment commenced. The first candidate was the Lindows Media Computer, which was ejected largely because of PSU noise, but would probably have gone anyway due to the less than whelming hardware spec. This was replaced by a slightly faster home-built (with the aid of some bits from those nice people at Via Technologies) unit, which was briefly swapped out with a similarly-specced but spectacularly-cased Hush Technologies system. The Hush system was, I have to tell you, the clear winner, but as Hush repossessed it on Monday, the homebrew system is back. And really, it's very nice in its own right, it's just that the totally silent Hush box speaks volumes about what PC case design should be all about, when PCs meet consumer electronics.

How noise happens

In my particular case, much noise is self-inflicted. I check CPU prices at the slightly trailing edge, thus ending up with a processor that needs a lot of cooling and therefore takes up a lot of space. The Zalman Flower Cooler is a pretty good example of this, and you can see a picture of it over at QuietPC, where I buy much of my shutting PCs up gear. At the price of space, you can just about shut the CPU up. But next, I get waylaid by graphics, where again I wind up buying at the slightly trailing edge, and then have to consider whether or not I'm going to risk pulling the fans off the board and replacing them with heatsinks from QuietPC. Whatever, I now have something that won't be happy with a low-spec power supply, and even when I've put in a quality one it never seems to change gear downwards enough to not make much noise, as such. Plus I've (d'oh) gone and bought another svelte Coolermaster case, and I've got to figure out how many of the numerous case fans I should not connect to power, and whether it's worth swapping the remaining ones out for more expensive ones.

Well, that's how noise happens to me, anyway. But I'm fairly sure more iron-willed individuals must also experience similar processes.

The rebound

I haven't entirely stopped building such systems, merely paused, and with the aid of miniITX bounced off in the other direction for a while. The engine of miniITX is the Via C3 E-Series processor or the Eden. The latter doesn't need a fan, so is more receptive to being shut up, but it's a low-beef implementation of a line that isn't very beefy in the first place, so it's a question of how much power you want to trade off for quiet. For my purposes, the Via EPIA M-Series board with a 933MHz C3 plus fan, and rather more upmarket Apollo CLE266 graphics, was about as far down as I'm currently willing to trade. Besides, that's the one Via sent me, and it's the one Hush uses, so there's some kind of consensus here (although while I've been not quite getting around to doing the write-up Via has notched the clock speed a tad).

The M-Series' overall spec sits nicely with consumer electronics - you've got TV out, S-Video port, embedded MPEG-2 decoder and a clutch of USB 2.0 and 1394 connectors, so it's happy doing DVD playback and can talk to all of those consumer electronics 1394 devices. Not that I currently own any of these, nor indeed am I much concerned about DVD playback, given that dumb consumer electronics ones are cheap, and the kind that record too are getting cheaper. So from a personal perspective, DVD playback is something not wildly important that I view as a free extra, but for those of you more interested, our good friends at Tomshardware.com did some benchmarks fairly recently, and as you can see the EPIA-M 9000 can just about cut it.

Where it can't cut it, as Tom's benchmarks show and my own anecdotal experience with Medieval Total War (which last year prompted an expensive round of new graphics cards for the entire family round here) confirms, is in games. Quake III Arena damns it (Tom's) as "anything approaching a reasonable performance", and attempts at Total War battle sequences are just plain laughable. But I shall tell you why that is, perhaps, the point.

It's supposed to be unobtrusive, right?
Exactly. Consider that in the quiet room, the one where you want to socialise, pretend to have a life, chat, have a few drinks, play music, you don't want somebody sitting with their back to you all night playing games, you don't want somebody working on the computer eight hours a day, strewing papers around them and freezing everybody else out. Oops, yes, that seems to be what I'm doing right now, but on the portable, I'm trying to discourage myself from doing it, and hey, I could move if I wanted to, right?

So actually, maybe for this room you want an unobtrusive system that's a bit 'broken', won't play games acceptably and most definitely doesn't have full-spec productivity tools on it? At least accept it as a point of view - it works for me, and although the current system has XP on it (no special reason, it was the CD that was handiest), if you've ruled out Windows games anyway one of the reasons for not going Linux vanishes. Matter of fact, if music is one of the machine's primary purposes, Linux is possibly better, because you're not troubled by ripping and playback software vendors pestering you for money, getting uppity about networked jukeboxes and showing every sign of tagging you as America's Most Wanted MP3 pirate.

The 9000 is no great shakes at MP3 encoding, and you're really not going to be able to do anything much else while it's about it. But again, given my particular purposing of the machine, this is no massive defect. It gets the job done, and I can just shove in another CD every now and again while getting on with something else. It's not every day you rip your entire CD collection, so there doesn't seem any great rush to me. g

Cases and construction

Here we get back to the noise issue, and the specifics of how the two configurations tackle it. Both the case Via shipped, which is an ATCS-TEK Slim, use external power supplies, which eliminates the PSU noise issue. The ATCS case has room for a floppy, but I ignored this, and both again only have space for portable-style slimline CD/DVD drives. These are pretty cheap these days, and power, noise and aesthetic considerations greatly outweigh the cost. Both have a single expansion slot on a riser card, but there's probably not an absolutely vital need for this - mine now has a PC Card slot in it, possibly handy for reading memory cards but as yet, not used.

Getting everything into the ATCS case is a squeeze, and this can cause noise issues, given that you haven't any serious room for insulation, and the case is sufficiently light for it to be vulnerable to sympathetic vibration. It comes with little plastic stands for use in bookcase configuration, but the obsessive using it in hi-fi stacking mode (which is how it fits under my TV) might wish to buy little rubber stick-on feet for it. As it happens, vibrations turned out to be set off by the USB 2.0 Bustek external hard disk I use to keep the jukebox on (it's handy to be able to just pull it and take it out to the up-country lair), which gets bored and gibbers to itself if you leave it switched on for a couple of hours, but I'm really more concerned by the problem than whose fault it is.

The ATCS noise profile is completed by a brace of small case fans at the rear, under the expansion card slot, and the little fan atop the CPU. One could possibly dispense with the case fans, depending on what you have ahead of them, but they seem not to be a major issue compared to the CPU fan. I've got a 3.5in hard disk in front of them, because I'm cheap and because it doesn't seem to me to be a major noise issue, but 2.5in isn't that expensive now, and that'd probably also allow you to safely kill off the case fans. For the record, Hush seems not to think this much of an issue either, and ships with a 3.5in, which is about the only thing in the Hush that makes any kind of noise.

Ah, but that CPU fan... It's quiet, you don't hear it above the radio or the music, but switch everything else off and you hear it. Which is a pity, because Hush demonstrates that it's not necessary, if you're prepared to go the whole hog with passive cooling.

So the winner is...
The Hush is bigger, and the easiest way to show how it works is for you to look here and here. The case is a chunky piece of finned aluminium designed to dissipate heat and heavy enough to kill vibrations, and the fan on the CPU is replaced by a heatsink and heat pipe that transfers heat to that case. The result is silence so profound that you suddenly realise the other one does make a noise, and you momentarily wonder why it hasn't switched on when you have just switched it on.

And what else can you say? Note the rounded cables, which are a nice touch for an interior that will by nature be cramped, and note also Hush mentions a 120W PSU is in development - wonder what they might intend that to drive? It comes in multiple colours, the "silver" of the review machine being more of an auto industry metallic to my eyes, but not objectionable for all that. Absolutely struggling to find an objection to it, the only thing I can fix on is the baleful blue of the on switch, which is a tad too geeky for my civilised room. But it's a very small, and otherwise very nice, switch, so I merely pick.

In my view, clearly, this is the way to go.

And next?
The Hush approach makes sense, and might make even more sense if applied to more mainstream processor lines. Quite powerful notebooks are small and almost quiet already, and there is already a small crossover market - take, for example, Elitegroup's iBuddie line. There's a fan in there, the specs reveal, but granted you can put a Pentium 4 desktop CPU in a package this size, which is (sort of) mobile, if your concern was quiet and a bit of design rather than partial mobility, alternative finned aluminium packaging could well give you spec plus silence.

Regrettably, although Via's CPU line can be expected to get progressively more powerful, it doesn't really seem plausible that what is in essence a sideline for the company can keep pace with Intel development. This is likely to keep EPIA and successors special-purpose, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but as some of Microsoft's latest rumblings cover 3D graphics, you can foresee another trend that will leave the Via line looking comparatively burned-off. And, for that matter, that could cause a lot of trouble for smaller footprint boards with built-in graphics.

The space saving for miniITX is not that great unless you're using one of the low-beef implementations, in which case you don't need something with quite the heft of the Hush box. At current state of the art, it seems to me that microATX format in something Hush-style could be a logical next step. And as it happens, one of the quieter machines that has come into my possession over the past couple of years does kind of look like it might take a microATX. It's a Fujitsu-Siemens pre-production model, aluminium case and passive cooling on a FlexATX 815 board with a Pentium III. So, figure out if I can get a board to fit, then figure out what class of processor it could sustain with only a heatsink and a heat pipe to the case? I think I feel the next project coming on... ®

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