Hate noisy PCs? So does Joe Golton, who set out with $600 to see if an ordinary person with no technical know-how can buy an off-the-shelf system that's also very quiet. Here's what he learnt.
Photo by Dave Monk.
I replaced both my home and work desktop PCs during the past year. My previous home system was a noisy, energy-hogging, budget 2006 Dell model that was bogged down with useless preloaded software, while my work system was a 2004 Dell that was also noisy. I'm done with Dell.
More importantly, I'm done with noisy PCs. This time, I was determined to get the cleanest, quietest PC I could get for less than $600.
Clean system is easy. Stick to Asus or Lenovo systems while avoiding Dell and HP systems, especially those intended for homes. Or switch to Macs.
It took a bit of research to find out that quiet is also easy. Brands, fan types, case types, hard-drive quality, DVD drive type or quality builds are minor factors compared to one dominating factor:
The main chips must generate little heat.
To get quiet along with decent performance, you simply limit your chip choice to mainstream mobile CPUs with integrated graphics from AMD or Intel that have been released in 2011-2012: Lllano, Trinity, Sandy Bridge, and soon, Ivy Bridge.
The rest of this post answers in more detail the two questions implied above: for $600 (give or take a little) can an ordinary person with no technical know buy an off-the-shelf system that is very quiet (and clean, while you're at it)? Among the thousands of possible off-the-shelf systems, what simple rules of thumb can you apply that ensure the system will be quiet and clean?
But first, to understand the basics of why processors are so important to quiet systems...
CPU and graphics chips both consume most of the power inside PCs or laptops. The more power they consume, the more heat they generate, and the more cooling that is required to prevent damage by overheating. Cooling is usually done by fans, which are effective and inexpensive, but get louder in proportion to how much heat must be dissipated. Therefore:
Less power –> less heat –> slower fan speeds –> quieter system.
The Best CPUs For A Quiet, Affordable PC
To determine which CPUs offered an appropriate mix of high performance and little power usage, I read half-a-dozen lengthy articles about the latest chip technologies, dove into tech forums and took extensive notes. It ended up boiling down to just a few points:
- Chips which require the least amount of power also tend to be too slow for your main system. These include Intel's Atom and AMD's E-350 chips. AMD E-350 chips are faster than Atom, so some claim they're good enough for systems used mainly for office work. This may be true for a newly-purchased PC, but if you want your system to still feel snappy after a few years of software and operating system updates (or if you use more computationally intensive software), you want a faster chip inside.
- Mainstream chips since 2011 from AMD (Llano and Trinity) and Intel (Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge) are very fast and power efficient compared to prior generations. Intel's chips are better suited for computationally intensive tasks like large spreadsheets while AMD's systems have better integrated graphics and are therefore more suitable for light gaming. Both handle all routine mainstream tasks with ease, including 1080p video playback.
- Mobile versions of these chips are geared for lower power consumption, which ultimately means a quieter system than systems using desktop chips. Furthermore, in Intel's case the mobile version includes better integrated graphics. Intel chose not to include very good integrated graphics with most desktop versions of its Sandy Bridge chips, so most desktop systems will include a graphics card that generates even more heat, leading to an even noisier system. This is very annoying for those (like myself) who prefer desktops over laptops. And, for reasons unknown to me, large Windows system vendors don't build Windows desktop systems with mainstream mobile chips at mainstream prices.
Therefore, to get the best combination of quiet, low power system with good performance (also known as best "performance per watt"), you're best off with mainstream mobile chips inside. Apple figured this out long ago with its Mac Mini model — the main reason it's so much quieter than other desktop systems is the mobile CPU inside.
- Currently the sweet spot for quiet systems with good performance at affordable prices is mobile systems based on AMD's Llano or Intel's Sandy Bridge. Recently released AMD Trinity and Intel's Ivy Bridge systems coming out later in 2012 have better performance per watt, but they cost more. You can have a very quiet system with any of these.
How To Get Quiet Systems With Best Performance Per Watt At Mainstream Prices
- To achieve mainstream prices of less than $600 for a very quiet, pre-built Windows system that includes a display and a high-performance CPU, you'll have to get a laptop (or notebook or ultrabook or whatever they call it these days).
- For Intel, this means any chip model number on this Wikipedia list for mobile Sandy Bridge, or this Wikipedia list for mobile Ivy Bridge.
- For AMD, this means any chip model on this Wikipedia list for mobile Llano, and any chip model on the mobile portion of this Wikipedia list for mobile Trinity.
- If you think you'll want to do light gaming on your system, then get AMD. If you think you'll do heavy calculating that involves large spreadsheets, then get Intel. If neither of these apply to you, then it doesn't matter whether you use AMD or Intel, so long as the mobile chip is on one of the lists I linked to.
Are My Systems Actually Quiet?
Yes and no. Yes, for my work system, thanks to being paired with a quality slot loading DVD drive. I review it here:
My home Lenovo system has a tray-loaded DVD drive that is noisy when spinning at high speeds. A bug in Windows Media Center forces noisy, high-speed spinning when movies are played from DVD. If not using Windows Media Center to play movies, the less expensive home system is as quiet as the work system:
If I had to do it all over again I would have purchased both Lenovo Edge e420s systems. The e420s can often be found for less than $600 with an Intel Sandy Bridge i3 inside and has better overall build quality, with the DVD drive mattering most from the noise perspective. (Right now, Lenovo in Australia is selling both models at $499.)
But I'm happy with both of my new systems, despite the fact that Intel marketing pushed me to buy laptops when I really wanted desktops. I've even begun to use my systems away from my desk, on occasion.
Bottom line: My new systems are fast, clean and quiet. I'm done with Dell. I'm done with useless preloaded software. And most importantly, I'm done with noise.
Want the Quietest PC? Just Get the Right Chip... [FilterJoe]
Joe Golton is an ex-hedge fund manager who has developed a passion for increasing the internet's signal to noise ratio, especially around product information (filterjoe.com). Joe is cofounding a startup which aims to greatly improve online product information.