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Jan 10, 2006 by Mike Chin
Along with the growth and increased visibility of SPCR, a degree of personal "fame" or "notoriety" has come my way. (I use both terms with some amusement. The latter is more likely to be used by some members of the PC industry; the former only by naive SPCR enthusiasts.) As a result of this exposure, I get asked occasionally to build someone a quiet computer. If I am not drowning in lab work or articles or whatever crisis happens to be on us, and if the project is interesting in some way, I usually comply. I charge for my time and expertise, and use review samples when I can, so there's a little financial incentive. More importantly, it's a good opportunity to keep in touch with the roots of how this site developed: Hands-on experience and experimentation building quiet/silent computers. It gives me a chance to work in a practical way with gear we've recently tested, to stay attuned to real-world applications of the products.
View during a trek in northern Thailand, Jan 2005. It may look cool, but it was actually sweltering.
It's somewhere near the destination of this PC.
These custom computer requests usually come from people who know me personally, friends, friends of friends, relatives, etc., mostly in the Vancouver area. Sometimes they come from SPCR readers. Once in a while, though, I get requests from people much farther away, in other parts of Canada or the US. The project I just finished takes the cake for unusual destinations, though. It's for an old friend who I haven't seen in more than 20 years, who lives now in the north of Thailand somewhere in the vicinity of Chiang Mai, in a quiet rural area that's apparently on the edge of the jungle. Frank, who hails originally from England, retired and built his dream oasis there after an unexpected inheritance made it possible for him to give up his university teaching job in Hong Kong.
Frank's original e-mail asked my opinion on whether a particular Hewlett Packard PC would be quiet compared to his very quiet laptop, which is now a few years old. My assessment, after a close reading of the specs on HP's website: No Way! We discussed various desktop and laptop options back and forth... and in the end, he asked me to build him a desktop with enough computing power and features to last several years, with some ability to play games, with some expansion capability, a computer that would be as quiet as the computers I build and use for myself.
There was some initial hesitation on my part, for several reasons:
1) The trials and tribulations of shipping a PC across the Pacific. I'd never tried to send anything this big (probably over 40 lbs) that far. Would the shipping companies do a good job? What if there was damage?
2) If transit damage did occur, how could the PC be repaired, especially if it involved anything I had modified or customized for low noise? Was there anyone near Frank who could tackle this? (The answer was no, which dictates extreme care in packing.)
3) Technically, it was a big challenge. The temperature range in my working environment here in Vancouver ranges from about 20°C to maybe 28~29°C in summer. Once in a great while, it might actually reach 30°C. In other words, thermally, it's mild. Thailand, by contrast, is a hot and humid place. In the hot season, 40°C in the shade is almost routine.
However, as you know already since you're reading this article, I could not resist the challenge of building a quiet computer that could stay quiet even in an environment as hot as Thailand can be.
Frank is not a hardware nut. His interest in computers is in using them productively and for fun. So I was free to make choices on his behalf based on his stated requirements and his budget. These are the components I chose:
Antec P150 mid-tower case: This is about the best "conventional" layout mid-tower case for quiet computing I know of. I would have gone for the P180, but its bulk and weight would have doubled the cost of air freight, estimated at ~$300 with the P150. With one major modification and the right choice of components, I would make the P150 the equal of the P180 for Frank's system.
Antec NeoHE-430 power supply: It's the PSU that comes with the P150. It's quite efficient, has a great fan and a good fan controller. It's also an 80mm fan unit, which is so rare these days and is perfect for the PSU fresh air intake duct system I had in mind for this system. It has Active PFC, can help in less stable AC conditions, and it's a universal AC input design, which is great for Thailand's 220VAC. The original PSU would not work with the motherboard of my choice, however, so I had to wait for an improved compatibility replacement, which arrived just before Christmas. The replacement PSU works just fine.
Asus A8N-SLI Premium motherboard: There was a handful of options among nVidia nForce4 motherboards, but this one won me over with its huge feature set and the passive heatpipe cooling of its chipset and voltage regulators.
AMD X2 3800+ dualcore processor: It was a natural choice for processing power, longevity and power efficiency. For all the tasks Frank considers important, this is more than adequate now, and should remain so for several years. It's also very good value.
Scythe Heatlane Zen NCU-2000 heatsink: It is meant to be fanless, but I'd be using a fan on it. There are many ways to attach a Nexus 120 fan. The big size, the widely spaced cooling fins, the unidirectional flat Heatlane heatpipe -- all these would be invaluable for quiet cooling of the CPU in Thailand's hot climate.
Nexus 120 fan (for CPU heatsink) + 2 Nexus 92mm fans for the front intake
EVGA eGeForce 6800GS graphics card: It seemed a good card, a big step down in price from the top-of-line cards, but still quite powerful with 256MB of DDR3 memory. Bottom line: The Salesman talked me into it.
Arctic Cooling NV Silencer 5 (Rev 3): To replace the noisy stock heatsink/fan on the EVGA video card.
OCZ Dual Channel PC3700 Gold Edition (Rev.2) 2x512MB DDRAM: Reliable, fast pair of sticks for a gigabyte of RAM.
Samsung SpinPoint P120 SP2004C 200GB SATA HDD: The earlier P80s are quieter, generally, but this one is pretty close, and it does have more capacity and appears to be a true SATA.
LG GSA-4167B - 16x DVD +/- R/RW/RAM, Double-Layer: An all-purpose optical drive that's pretty smooth and quiet, and seems to work well.
Memory Card Reader/ Writer + 1.44MB Floppy Disk Drive: A combo device to handle various memory cards and the old floppy.
Modder's Mesh: For modifying the case.
Various other materials and parts, described later in the text.
|Most of the system components were purchased through Canadian retailer NCIX, who supports SPCR with advertising. They offer very good pricing and have a good good online store.
The principles applied to the design of this PC are the same as that espoused for silent computing throughout SPCR:
- Use cooler and quieter components whenever possible.
- The case must be sturdy and provide for good, minimally restricted airflow
through it, in and out.
- Easy and direct access to cool outside air for hot components; fast and efficient evacuation of heat.
- Vibrating components should be mechanically isolated to reduce noise by conduction to the chassis.
- Fans should run as slowly and quietly as possible while providing good cooling
- There should be substantial cooling headroom in anticipation of the hot operating environment of this system.
The project took shape in the waning weeks of 2005. It was finally finished, tweaked and fully tested over the last few days. Here's a photo of the finished system, ready for packing after almost a week of intensive stress testing, which it passed with flying colors.
Frank's system, ready to be packed.
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