The State of Computer Noise: January 2003

The Silent Front

January 24, 2003 by Mike Chin

It's amazing to look back and see that it's been three quarters of a year since the launch of Silent PC Review. Time flies when you're having fun - and busy beyond belief! As it is the beginning of a new year, it seems appropriate to review the State of Computing Noise.

Our opening editorial piece Quiet and Fast published March 25 last year suggested that there is evidence of a backlash against noisy computers after several years of continued increases in noise brought on by increasingly powerful and hotter PCs. Some of the evidence included the popularity of Zalman CNPS (Computer Noise Prevention System) products; VIA's commitment to the quiet C3 CPU and their new low-thermal SFF platform, Mini-ITX; and the international expansion of pioneer retailer QuietPC.com as well as the emergence of new retailers such as Silicon Acoustics in the US and KoolnQuiet in the UK, catering to the noise-averse crowd.

QUIET SIGNS

The trend continued though the year, with the promise -- or at least the mention -- of quiet bandied about by many a marketer. Among the signs...

  • Motherboard-embedded Fan Controllers: The first one we noticed was the simple Q-Fan on an Asus board. Then Intel got into the act with one (not user adjustable but what did you expect?). Shuttle appears to offer something in their boards, but don't really promote it. The best effort was by AOpen, whose SilentTek feature is a serious, mostly successful effort at intelligent thermal / noise fan control that provide the necessary flexibility for different applications. That these larger, core-industry companies are doing anything with noise control at all is a real sign of the times. It was not at all evident a year ago.
  • Heatsink Makers and Reviewers: The HSF makers finally began to back off a bit from what appeared for a while to be straight line increases in the airflow and noise of the fans they were using. By year's end, most of the better-known brands were making some attempt at offering a noise-reduced model or two. Major PC hardware sites actually began commenting on and providing some measurements of noise in HSF reviews.
  • Fan Controllers: Known as fan bays or bay buses, they could be counted on the fingers of one hand at the beginning of 2002; by Dec, there were many new products in this category. Rather than just simple on/off switches, they now offer a variety of features including continuous variable manual speed, thermal control, and even temperature probes and displays. Virtually every online components retailer carries a few these days.
  • Quiet Power Supplies: For the longest time, there was only one name: Q-Technology. Then came Zalman. Now there are numerous noise-reduced PSUs from Seasonic, Nexus, Antec, and a slew of others, inlcuding standard units custom-fitted with super quiet fans by third party companies. Plus many other noisy PSU that are claimed to be otherwise. Whatever the truth, both claims of low noise PSUs and actually quieter PSUs are now very visible in the PC landscape.
  • Quiet Cases: Quiet PC specialists like Acousti Products and Nexus came up with new noise-optimized cases, but the big surprise was the late-year entry of the Sonata case by big case maker Antec, who will target their established mainstream market with this quiet-specific design.
  • SilentPCReview.com: We, too, are one of the signs. SPCR went live at the end of March on a shoestring budget, few resources and a "night staff" of just 2, only 1 in editorial. SPCR remains the only web site dedicated to examining computer hardware from a noise perspective. Our traffic has been exceeding 100,000 unique IPs (visitors) and 1 million pageviews monthly on a regular basis since October. The activity in our forums is constant and lively, and SPCR has been featured in web sites and magazines all round the world. (Look for more coverage in PC World, March 2003.)

So there is little question that silent -- or at least quiet -- computing emerged in 2002 as a real trend. But there are still hurdles.

HURDLES

But if they can do it, so can we! (photo by F.L. Morris, Honolulu Star Bulletin)

The absence of any consensus or even beginning discussions on a PC noise reporting / labelling standard remains a daunting obstacle to industry-wide progress in PC noise emissions. A snapshot of some of the big boys reveals a mixed bag:

  • Microsoft had a statement about noise for PCs running Windows XP -- for maybe 6 to 12 months. Something about 55 dBA maximum in active modes, and no more than 37 dBA in sleep mode. Knowledgeable folks know these are not standards; these numbers, already bettered by typical computers, are far too high. This info was removed by summer 2002. In the fall, I was told by a MS representative that the noise statement was removed because they needed to rethink the numbers. As far as I am aware, no statement about PC noise has been reissued by Microsoft.
  • HP, with Compaq, is now the world's biggest PC maker. They had an advanced, enlightened white paper on their web site titled HP PCs and Acoustic Noise, dating back to 1997. It was removed from the HP site by November 2002. As far as I am aware, it has not been replaced by any other documentation or position paper on PC noise. HP does make some quiet models, and declares their sound power specification -- but only for their business PCs. It is not clear why they believe the noise data is not important for non-business users.
  • Intel remains the most dominant hardware company in the PC world. They have divisions working on noise control issues. I reported from the Intel Developer Forum in September 2002 about their development on SFF Tidewater and Bigwater reduced noise PC form factor projects, as well as the embedded ADI dBCool fan control chip in their new motherboards. But these projects appear to take a back seat to the main business of selling ever more speed. Intel spokespeople indicated to me that they cannot suggest or impose guidelines about PC noise or noise declartions on their partners without risking loss of business.
  • Dell has been making some quiet PC models for a while but you won't find out about this easily. At least not on their product tech specs. You have to dig and search hard to find the relevant documents. This page lists 4 Environmental Data Sheets for OptiPlex GX60 and SX260 models. Both sound power and sound pressure level at listener position are provided. But just check the convoluted URL! One model is said to be 21 dBA SPL at idle, which is impressively quiet. Why is this information so well hidden?

BOLD TARGETS & A SILENT GAMING PC

A quiet office is said to be 40 dBA, a large noisier office, 50. These kinds of numbers are sometimes used to justify PCs (and other machinery) that are loud: If the ambient noise is that high... My home office is sometimes 20 dBA or less, and sometimes over 40 dBA. Regardless, a noisy computer affects my productivity; there is absolutely no question of that.

My own personal PCs and some open-bench test PCs at SPCR labs include systems with >2 GHz CPUs and dual HDDs. They do not measure higher than 20 dBA @ 1 meter. One system is likely at or below 10 dBA. They run cool enough, and with stability, a wide range of software applications on various flavors of Windows. Given what do-it-yourself enthusiasts can achieve with just creativity, desire and minimal funds, it seems clear that if the industry focused its enormous resources on the noise issue, it would be solved overnight at minimal cost to them or to the consumer.

So. I propose a bold, plain minimum target for commercial PC makers. I speak for SPCR, and perhaps for the core membership of SPCR, some of the most enthusiastic silent PC activists on the planet. The noise reference used here is dBA SPL at 1 meter, in view of my lack of hand-on (ears-on?) knowledge of how the ISO 7779 and 9296 measurements relate to what I hear. (My apology to Tomas Risberg of The Silent PC, who remains the untiring activist for a rational PC noise declaration / labelling standard.)

  • No PC needs to be louder than 30 dBA at idle and 35 dBA at maximum load. It is not at all difficult to achieve this kind of noise performance with most PCs. If it is louder than this, it's just bad design, bad ergonomic design that ignores human health. Even a high performance workstation or game machine can reach this noise target if the engineers are given noise targets. Normally, it appears that there are only performance, cooling and budget targets. Noise must be factored into the design process!
  • Every PC should come with at least a simple dBA SPL @ 1M (from front center of case) measurement. Perhaps it is too ambitious to hope for adherence to ISO 7779. But this test is something that can be done by almost any PC maker, perhaps with a bit of assistance from a local university with a sound lab or anechoic chamber. It is at least a start.

SPCR will show what can be done by building a top-flight gaming PC that demolishes the above noise target while delivering amazing gaming performance. This project is already under way.

  • Our targets are 20 dBA idle and 25 dBA maximum.
  • We hope to unveil this Super Quiet PC before the end of the first quarter.
  • It will be torture tested and benchmarked by "professional gamers" from a game software company.
  • If the timing works out, we will participate in a major gaming event to show the world how fast and powerful a quiet PC can be.

Stay tuned.

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