Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Gear: Pursuit of the Silent Computer

Today we've got a guest blogger, my older brother and the family guru on silent computing. This is the first in a small series he's going to write about the concept and pursuit of silent computers. (Also note that Silent PC Review -- the bible for this topic area -- has been added to the 'Gear Links' sidebar.)

With all the noisy things in the world these days (my 9-month old is a good example), it's nice to have a serene place where you can relax in silence. Unfortunately, if you have a computer running in that place, you may have trouble relaxing, due to all the racket it generates.

Fortunately, quieting the jet engine sitting next to you is easier than you may think. Our parents' computer, for example, was a major offender, but with some easy changes, Chris (even without silence as his objective) dramatically reduced its noise footprint -- I'll get to how in just a bit. Hopefully this entry will get you thinking about the all noise your computer makes, or more specifically, all the noise it doesn't need to make.

To start, a little theory. The first law of silent computing:

Heat = Noise

To elaborate: computer parts generate heat, which must be dissipated to prevent damage. Heat dissipation usually occurs through airflow across the parts and their heatsinks. The more heat that is generated, the more airflow that is required. The more airflow that is required, the faster fans must spin and the more turbulence in the airflow, both of which generate noise.

So what is the major source of heat in a computer? The CPU: by far the hottest element in a computer. Fortunately, as CPUs get faster, smaller, and hotter, a lot of engineering has gone into increasing their energy efficiency and mitigating their heat generation. The CPUs available today are much more power efficient (power consumed has a direct relationship to heat generation) than the prior generation of processors. Systems based on AMD's Athlon X2 and Intel's Core 2 Duo can consume less than half the power of the dominant processors of just three years ago: the spaceheaters from AMD (Athlon XP) and Intel (Pentium 4). I won't comment about the performance increase these new processors also offer, suffice it to say it is quite significant.

Which brings me to the change Chris made: he upgraded our parents' computer from an Athlon XP to a Core 2 Duo, mainly for performance reasons. This involved purchasing a new CPU, motherboard, and RAM, with a total cost of around $250. His objective was easily achieved: the updated system runs circles around the one it replaced. But the collateral improvement in the noise generation was what had both Chris and me swooning as our ears breathed a sigh of relief.

So my main recommendation for today: if you've got an older computer, consider an upgrade to a Core 2 Duo or Athlon X2 system. You'll get an impressive trifecta: (1) a performance bump, (2) a noise reduction, and (3) a reduction in the energy you consume.

Is our parents' computer quiet enough for the way they use it? Sure. Could more be done to make it even quieter if they needed to? You bet, and I'll explore silent computing and its tools and techniques even further in future guest entries.

Enjoy the silence!

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