Want The Quietest PC? It's All About The Chip

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  4. 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

  1. 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).
  2. For Intel, this means any chip model number on this Wikipedia list for mobile Sandy Bridge, or this Wikipedia list for mobile Ivy Bridge.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

That's it!

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 Amazon Review on Lenovo ThinkPad Edge e420s

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:

My Review of the Lenovo Thinkpad Edge e520 on Amazon

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.


Comments

    Typo? "who set out with $6700"
    With that sort of money to spend I could probably build a pc with negative noise impact. That is a pc so quiet it actually makes surrounding noises quieter ;)

    Or, alternately.
    You can buy any number of silent pcs already on the market.

    So...basically the dude ended up buying laptops?

    I'm really not sure that the author arrived at the best possible outcome.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    I thought if you were going for true quiet you buy the most modern chip, under-clock the thing and passively cool it, this results in less power and you combine it with SSDs and the like.

    Its really not that hard - to make the PC clean, just remove all the offending software/bloatware - to make it quiet, just soundproof the case.

    Or just turn up the volume on your Dr. Dre Beats headphones!

    You can still build a completely solid-state computer, if you put effort into it. No moving parts means no noise while running.
    1) power-efficient fanless psu
    2) underclocked CPU and a great big heatsink (mobile CPUs are also pretty good here)
    3) ssd
    4) no optical drive.

    Alternatively, you can just completely submerge your computer in oil.

      this is lifehacker man... we all basically frown upon products manufactured by monster cable!

    If you want a quite system use noctua fan config's and coolers. If you want an over sized netbook, then surely listen to this guys advice. Who needs a DVD drive? Thats why we invented flash drives..fan controllers and ssd's. A good quality gaming pc case with loads of air flow will fix half these problems, but i guess the OP is used to writing news articles and watching his fav copys of dvd movies. I really wonder how one can work at a computer related magazine and own a pre fab dell desktop.

    Ive got an fractal design case and soundproofed case that works really well, my bluray drive is silent operation (didnt actually know that when I bought it, nice surprise!), if I was to replace my psu and gpu fan i Could make it super quite.

    Is this for real? People really read this and take advice you know. Do some real research and come up with real answers. If you want a silent desktop, you do NOT get a laptop/netbook/notebook . You ONLY get those for portability reasons.
    ANY PC on the market be it a desktop or a laptop built by the so called 'computer manufactures' (like dell/emachines/Lenovo, etc.) that came with windows is ALWAYS a bloated copy of windows that contain all kinds of useless propitiatory/shareware/adware software. You need a clean install of windows that is cleaned of useless propitiatory/shareware/adware software, optimised for performance, all useless stuff included by microsoft themselves disabled, services optimised, network speed/web browsers optimised, everything disabled at startup except the essentials (virus scanner, firewall, etc.). That's your gripe with dell systems SOLVED and this WILL also decrease power usage, and heat issues as you system will NOT have to work as hard.
    Next, If you want a quiet desktop, then build one yourself. Its so easy a complete noob could do this. Just research your parts. You should always go for the performance to cost ratio when looking for parts. The cheapest parts that give you the best performance is the way to approach your research, no matter what kind of system you want to build. In your case you want a quiet system.......if you have a lot of money, you'd go for liquid cooling, if not, you'd go for the cheapest, quietest fans that have the best airflow and set them for passive cooling, plenty of soundproofing equipment is on the market and most of it is pretty cheap, this is mentioned by another reader. You can easily reduce the sound of a cd\dvd drive by reducing its reading/writing speed, SSD's will improve performance and save a lot of power and be much quieter than any other type of hard drive. Reduce heat and consequently cooling from CPU and GPU by under-clocking as another reader suggested. This is harmless as there is no risk of burning the chips out like there is with over-clocking. Make sure you have plenty of natural airflow by getting a case that is designed for good airflow. You could easily run a state of the art gaming system WITHOUT hearing anything at all (except what you want to hear through the speakers of course) If you apply the right know how and parts. That's what google is for.
    You can easily build a decent, quiet system for $600 if that's what you want.
    Something that you should have learned in your research but you didn't emphasise is that its always a trade off between power-saving and performance, you cannot have both. Your article comes across as performance is not that important, or at least not as important as power-saving when it comes to a quiet computer. That is simply untrue. Performance is important with any computer. If performance suffers people get frustrated. That's just how it is, so performance is probably more important than power-saving, Intel, AMD and others get that which is why they always try and stick a balance between performance and power-saving when it comes to power-saving. If they just tried to produce stuff that saves power, performance would be significantly impaired, it would be slow, wouldn't handle much and it would be really frustrating to use. Your on the right track but unfortunately the reasoning in your article is deeply flawed, probably because you didn't put enough time in your research. Bottom line - ALWAYS focus on performance FIRST, then focus on other stuff like making it all quiet, otherwise you end up with a system that, could be quicker, could be saving more energy, and could be more responsive - all while retaining the same level of audible noise.

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