Scott's Quest to Build a Silent PC

Last updated: 10 September, 2002 Please email comments to quiet-pc at ... of course, replacing "at" with an "@" symbol!

Copyright (c) 2002, Scott Lystig Fritchie. All rights reserved. Void where prohibited. Don't try this at home without consulting an attorney, an electrical engineer, or your mother. Eat your vegetables!

Why Build a Quiet PC?

The computer noise in our home office started to really bother me. I wanted a quiet PC, a really, really quiet PC. Silent would be wonderful, but then again I didn't want a completely silent PC so badly that I'd spend $1,000 to buy or build one. So, I wanted as quiet a PC as I could get for a modest budget.

One of my former coworkers pointed out that it was ironic that I lived close enough to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport to qualify for its sound insulation program ... so I'm trying to build a silent PC with DC-9 and Boeing 727 aircraft roaring overhead. Alright, so call me crazy. The computer noise was driving me nuts. Perhaps the construction on our house tipped me over the edge. Perhaps instead it was inspiration.

Researching the Quiet PC

There's a huge segment of the PC market that's focused on the overclocking hobbyist. Some boast as much about many fans they've put in their PC cases (6 or 7 fans being quite common) as they might brag about how far they've overclocked their CPUs. A cousin of mine was startled one day while visiting a friend's house: he thought a dog had brushed past his leg, but it was only the airflow of his friend's PC when he turned it, and its multiple 120mm fans, on.

Compared to the overclocker's market, the quiet/silent PC marketplace is microscopic. I put a lot of research into trying to build a cheap, quiet PC. I found myself getting a bit compulsive, digging deeper to try to find a magic vendor to solve my problem on the cheap. I didn't find one, but perhaps you'll find the collection of hyperlinks useful.

Reminder: See the resources links below for details on all the stuff I discuss below.

The easiest decision to make ended up being what to do with the disk drive. I first thought about buying a SilentDrive enclosure or two. But I read so many good things about the Seagate Barracuda IV IDE drive that I just decided to buy a couple. (For an example review, see

Those drives are extremely, impressively quiet. Sitting in a quiet room, I cannot hear one spinning if I'm about 5 feet away. If the heads are moving, I can't hear it from about 10 feet away. Put into a computer case, the thing is just silent. In a case when moving heads, I can barely hear the heads if I know what I'm listening for ... but, as I'll describe later, my case is now pretty darn quiet. :-)

The next easiest choice was what to do about the CPU. Again, the reviews I read on the Net were very helpful. The VIA C3 processor was highly recommended as cool cucumber. They also point out that, performance-wide, it's definitely slower than a comparably-clocked AMD or Intel CPU. But since the C3 dissipates so much less power than those CPUs, it was an easy choice. I was looking to make a quiet box, not a rocket box.

The case and power supply was the hardest thing to choose. I found several cases that are fanless but are made outside the US as well as being too expensive. I thought about a standard ATX case and trying to find the quietest PSU I could find in it.... And then I had a conversation with a cousin, Rob, who'd put together a couple of systems based on the Shuttle SV24 barebones system. He bit me with the SV24 bug.

I read a number of reviews on the Shuttle SV24. (Links to many of them can be found below in my incomplete SV24 link collection. All but one said that it was impressively quiet. One said it was quite noisy. I didn't know what to believe. Rob said that he thought that they were fairly quiet but didn't really trust his memory.

I recalled seeing the Cappuccino advertised at ThinkGeek. I found a Slashdot article on the Cappuccino that had a comment that says, in part, "Only down side is the thing is that it is fairly loud, for something so tiny. I've got it sitting in my living room, and it's fan noise is rather noticable."

The Book PC folks specialize in making small PCs. However, nothing I found on their Web site mentioned them specializing in small and quiet PCs. Oh well.

I decided to try out the SV24 after all. I liked its highly-integrated motherboard, its size, and its overall cuteness. When it arrived, I plugged it in as soon as I could ... and the darn thing sounded as if it had a small hairdryer inside. {sigh}

Warning: Don't open your power supply case unless you know what you're doing. Those things can hurt or kill you, even if they were last plugged in weeks or even months ago. Here are a couple of articles a Silent PC Review that discuss the dangers and rewards of modifying power supplies: article one and article two.

Having known that for years, I opened up the power supply. The 40mm fan isn't nearly as loud when it's outside the power supply. The shape of the narrow power supply seems to amplify the fan's noise by (subjectively) about double. So, I clipped the fan's power leads and ran them outside the PSU to a Zalman Fan Mate 1. It's a simple variable resistor, but it's one male and one female 3-prong connector for easy insertion between a motherboard connector and fan. I've got the PSU fan, normally 5000 RPM, turned down to 3600 RPM. I connected a second Fan Mate to the SV24's 60mm case fan (located in the back), reducing its speed from 2500 RPM to down to 1900 RPM. The CPU's temperature during normal use is about 43C.

The End Result

In the end, I got a cute little PC that is a very quiet hum when it's located underneath a desk (sitting a small stack of books sitting on the floor) and I'm standing 10 feet away. I'm hum is audible when sitting at the desk, but Kinesis Professional Contoured Keyboard makes enough noise to cover it up. FreeBSD runs quite happily on it, as does XFree86. What more can a person want? :-)

Performance-wise, many reviewers felt the built-in graphics system is not competitive in this day and age. I'm a curmudgeon who doesn't need speedy 3D graphics acceleration, so the built-in S3 Savage graphics engine is just fine. Here are some results compiling various software packages using my old machine, an AMD K6-2 233Mhz box, and the new one.
AMD K6-2 233MHz VIA C3 800MHz
FreeBSD 4.5 generic kernel make depend 4:34 1:41
FreeBSD 4.5 generic kernel make kernel 13:11 4:43
Erlang R8B-1 compile 1:33:26 0:35:57

This shows that the C3 800MHz CPU is a bit less than three times faster than the K6-2 233MHz. The difference in CPU clock rate is about 3.4 times, but given the design tradeoffs made in the C3, my observed 2.7-2.8 times speed increase is reasonable.

I'm a software developer, not a gamer. Hey, it took me all these years to replace a 233MHz PC with something faster, right? As far as I'm concerned, something that's roughly 3x faster and much, much quieter was a successful upgrade.

Total cost: $440, which includes the SV24, C3 CPU, 256MB RAM, Zalman Fan Mates, and a Seagate Barracuda IV hard drive.

Overall, I'm happy with my SV24-based box. If I have a problem with my modified power supply, well, I'm not worried about not being able to make a warranty claim. It isn't silent, but it's close enough ... given the amount of money I was willing to spend.

If I were to do this again, I would do things differently:

  1. I'd start with a standard-size PC case. They're easier to find and easier to work with: small spaces can cause big problems for big fingers. Standard-sized cases can also use much larger fans (80-120mm), which can then be slowed & quieted down using handy & cheap gizmos like the Zalman Fan Mate 1.
  2. The VIA C3 CPU will run at least 10-15C cooler if there's a fan on the CPU heat sink. Most CPU heat sinks are designed for active airflow; purely passive heat sinks are apparently designed much differently. A variable resistor on the fan can have it run at an inaudible level and will make a big difference in the CPU's operating temperature.

    I usually don't run my desktop at 100% CPU busy for many hours at a time, but if I did, I'd probably get the C3 above 70C (eventually). With a slowly-spinning heat sink fan on it, I would never worry.

  3. I'd look much more seriously at fanless PSUs.
  4. If fanless PSUs are still too expensive or hard to find, perhaps a handmade duct, placed inside the case, to blow air from a quiet 90mm or 120mm fan (running at a slow speed!) through a standard PSU (with its fan removed) would be an adequate compromise?

Resources on Quiet PCs

Vendors: Variety

These vendors sell a variety of noise-reducing products. I haven't anything good or bad to say about most of them: let the buyer beware.
Lots of good products. Lots of testimonials on-site, though I've also encountered nothing but positive things elsewhere: and appear to have a good reputation. {shrug}
A wide array of cooling stuff. Has a special section at I ordered my Shuttle SV24 barebone system as well as misc other parts from this vendor; I had a good experience and would recommend it.
Fair number of cooling products. Useful links to third-party reviews of various cooling products.
Another quiet equipment/parts specialist with good selection.
A vendor that specializes in small PCs. What a concept! Currently running a special on a complete "book" PC with VIA C3 processor 667MHz for $350 @
Big selection. Includes complete systems and bare bones systems compatible with VIA C3 as well as C3 CPU alone. I ordered a couple of 800MHz C3 CPUs from this outfit: they charged a fortune ($30) for 2nd day air for 2 CPUs (!) and still neglected to include a suite number (I gave it to them with the order) on the shipping label, which delayed delivery another day. I was glad that they had the CPUs in stock, but I think I'll look elsewhere next time.
I dunno why, but I never thought of mounting a 1U 19" rackable PC like that before. Silly me.
Fair selection of products. Carries a fanless PSU, the TKPower 300W fanless, $195 US. I'm not quite that desperate yet, though it's featured in this review at SilentPCReview.
Spiffy looking fanless PC, apparently designed for markets such as point-of-sale terminals and other pretty tough environments. Claims that noise is "<35db". It'd be quite interesting to find anyone selling those things retail in the US. Hrm, there's apparently a distributor in Canada....

Vendors: VIA C3 Processors

Note that some of the vendors mentioned in the variety vendors section also sell the C3.
VIA's list of C3 resellers.
Search for "VIA C3". Has some really cheap full systems, too, though I suspect that many of them are "get what you pay for" systems.
They sell C3 processors: perform a product search for "VIA C3".
Power supplies by Enermax, including a 250W unit for 1U cases.
Review of the VIA EPIA All-In-One motherboard and Eden processor.

Vendors: PSUs and Cases

See also: variety vendors section above.
Completely fanless @ 2.2GHz. Expensive, it figures. German company, buyable in the US?
Evaporation-based PC cooling system, fanless. They do have an on-line ordering section, believe it or not: click the word "Shopping" in the head graphic that's below the text links at the top of the page.
Announced in early June 2002: a fanless ATX power supply a 300W. Wow. At full load they say that it'll require a fan to move air through the box, but that shouldn't be a surprise. It's much easier to find quiet fans than quiet PSUs....
Nifty German supplier of quiet chassis & parts. Too bad it's German, say all we Americans who's have to pay evil shipping costs....
300W ATX power supply that uses a blower instead of of a standard fan. Claims it's much quieter than a standard PSU. I dunno of any comparisons of this PSU against Enermax Whisper series, Zalman, or Q Technology which have been reviewed extensively as being quiet. {shrug}
110W ATX "open frame" PSU
Hrm ... for a small box like my 1 hard drive, 0 CD-ROM drive, VIA C3 system like the one I just built, 110 watts ought to be more than enough. With a large case fan (spinning at low speed) to exchange some air in the box, this baby just might be the right thing....

Vendors: Misc

Transmeta ...
I can't find any home or office desktop system made by anyone with a Crusoe chip in it. Weird. I guess its thermal advantages aren't enough to penetrate that part of the market yet.
Google search for 'Therm-A-Pipe'
The Shuttle SV40G (FS40??) uses uses something like this to help draw heat from the CPU heatsink to another sink several inches away and much closer to a big, theoretically quiet fan. See this review at t-break for photos. Supposedly there's a Minnesota company that distributes Therm-A-Pipe, see this query for details.

Info sites
Beginner's step-by-step guide. Well written.
Another good step-by-step. See also links on left side of
and (old version) Very interesting writing by a guy with the same goal as me: make the silly PC silent. Good stuff.
Tons of info articles incl max temp guidelines for various cpus, thermal compound info, "cool CPU s/w" for Windows to get it to slow !#!#$# down CPU utilization when not busy, etc.
This is one of the many FAQs from the Linux Terminal Server Project, which specializes in diskless workstations and the servers they use. The fanless FAQ has a tantalizing mention of a 100W PSU by TK Power that was designed for 1U rackmount cases and is fanless. For building a modest PC with a VIA C3 processor, a highly-integrated motherboard, a single hard drive, and perhaps a CD-ROM drive, 100W is probably sufficient. A fanless PSU is veryvery appealing to me....
1st page of 2 page article on building a FlexATX system from scratch. page 2 is quite intersting with cost breakdown & total: $290 for all hardware and VIA C3 CPU.
Part of VIA's propaganda on the C3. Includes some useful recommendations for specific quiet HDs, PSUs, heat sinks.
Whole boatload of "silent PC" info, gotta wade through it, but lots of good recommendations and links can be found in there.
Windows software like Rain et al.
In combination with aggressive hdparm settings ... more useful for battery life in portables than noise, but they're related topics.
Good mailing list archives, but you gotta wade through lots of stuff just like any other list archive. Gotta deal with yahoo groups ads, too.
Lots of good stuff. I haven't yet read all the the advice here, but I am working on it.
Hey, here's a guy who wrote up his experiences making a quiet PC. He has a couple of chapters to his story, one from October 2000 and one from April 2002.
Decent collection of links, if a bit small compared to other collections I've seen. All the links appear live, though, which is always A Good Thing.

Unorganized Links and Sometimes Wacky Stuff

Additional Shuttle SV24 Links

Here are some of the reviews of the Shuttle SV24 barebones system that I read before purchasing one. As I described above, my idea of "quiet" and most of these reviewers' idea of "quiet" are not the same.