Silence Your Noisy Computer And Keep It Cool

So you've got a kickass computer, but it's also turning out to be a hotter computer, which explains it sometimes sounds like it is impersonating a jet engine, even in the depths of winter. If your computer's generating a bit too much heat and noise, here's how to give its cooling system an overhaul for cool, silent operation.

Whether you have an old desktop or a brand-new home-built machine, you can reduce the noise in a number of ways. What you'll need depends on your case, your hardware, and your own personal preferences, so we'll go through each tweak separately to help you put together the perfect cooling system.

Understanding Heat

Like most electronic devices, your computer heats up when it's in use. Your processor, graphics card, motherboard and power supply all get hotter the harder they work. Without some sort of cooling system, they'd quickly overheat and fry themselves. We traditionally use large metal heatsinks to direct the heat away from those components, and then blow that hot air out of your computer with fans. The problem is that fans can be noisy, and the fans that come with your computer are often cheap, loud and ineffective.

So, the first step in silencing your computer is improving your cooling. The more efficient your cooling system, the fewer fans you'll need running at full blast. We're going to take a look at hardware that can make your cooling more efficient, fans that run a little bit quieter, and a way to control it all so you can keep it quiet when your computer isn't working hard.

Step Zero: Clean Your Computer

Before you do anything else, make sure your computer is clean and dust-free. If you've had it for more than a year, chances are it has built up some dust on the fans and heatsinks, which will make it run hotter (and thus louder), so grab a can of compressed air and clean that sucker out. When you're done, you may find that it has become a little quieter already.

Step One: Get a New Heatsink (Or A Water Cooler)

Some of the loudest components in your computer are the CPU cooler and the fan on your graphics card. Often, the ones that come with your computer are super loud, and they aren't all that great at cooling in the first place. So, one of the best things you can do to keep noise and temperatures down is to buy an aftermarket cooler. You have two choices: heatsinks and water coolers.

Heatsinks are large, metal constructs that conduct heat away from your hardware and then blow it through a fan to keep everything running cool. Aftermarket heatsinks can be quite inexpensive, costing from around $50. If your CPU or GPU fan is very loud, adding a higher quality heatsink with a quiet fan can keep everything much quieter (not to mention much cooler). Photo by Robert Freiberger.

If you want to get a little more extreme, you can try water cooling your hardware, which runs water over the components and cools them through a radiator. The radiator still requires fans, but is so effective at cooling that you can often use fewer fans in your case, and run them at lower speeds. We've talked about this a bit before, so I won't get into all the details much here, but it can be a great alternative to air cooling if you're looking for something quiet. You can use an inexpensive all-in-one cooler like the Corsair Hydro Series, or put together a loop yourself. A homebrew loop will require a lot of maintenance and cost a lot of money (at least $200), but it will be very effective and very quiet. For more info on setting up a homebrew loop, I recommend checking out NCIX Tech Tips' ultimate water cooling guide. Photo by Dave Linger.

Step Two: Upgrade Your Fans

Price: From $10-$40 per fan

How many fans you choose depends on your case, so you need to take a look at what you have before you start buying fans. Let's take a typical mid tower computer case, for example, with two fan slots in the front, and one in the back. We want the air to follow one path through the system, from front to back. That means we'll use our front fans as intakes, and our back fan as exhaust. Air comes in through the front, blows over your hard drives, then to the rest of your hardware and out through the back. Having the back fan at the top is especially handy since hot air rises, so it will blow out hot air first. Your graphics card and power supply will cool themselves on their own, but it's nice to have some of that cool air flowing over them as well -- if you have a side intake fan or bottom intake fan, that can help.

Generally, we recommend setting up your fans for positive air pressure -- that is, that you have more fans taking in air than you do exhausting it. This not only cools your graphics card better, but coupled with a few dust filters on your intake fans, it can keep a lot of dust out of your case, since you won't have any air creeping in through the nooks and crannies of your machine:

That way, the only air that comes in is air through your filtered intake fans, which keep the majority of dust out. For more information, check out this article on Silverstone's web site.

Your case may have more than three fan slots, so you'll obviously need to adjust this plan based on how many fans your case can take and how many you actually want to use (remember: more fans = more noise, but also better cooling). Once you've figured out how many fans you want, you'll need to research what kind of fans you want. As you browse different products online, you'll want to look at a few things:

  • Air Flow: This rating, usually expressed in cubic feet per minute (CFM), is how much air that fan will blow -- essentially, how good it is at cooling. The higher the CFM rating, the better it's going to cool down your hardware.
  • Noise Level: Expressed in dBA, this tells you how loud the fan will be at its maximum speed. You'll find fans with 20 dBA of noise or less are very quiet, while fans with 25 or 30 dBA are a bit louder.
  • Size: Fans come in multiple sizes, and each fan slot on your case or heatsink will usually only fit one size fan. So make sure when you're shopping that the size of the fan matches where you're going to put it in your case.

If you know what model fans are currently in your case, look them up online and see what their air flow and noise level ratings are -- that way you'll know what you need to look for if you want something quieter or with better cooling.

Lastly, if your case doesn't come with dust filters, grab a few filters for each of your intake fans. This will help you keep dust out of your case, which can make your computer run hot and your fans run loud.

Step Three: Invest in a Fan Controller

Price: $20-$60

No matter how you arrange your setup, you'll want some way to control your fans. That way, they'll be silent when your computer is idle, and louder when you need the cooling performance (during intensive processes like gaming or video conversion). If you only have a couple of fans, you may be able to control them automatically, but if you have more than a few fans -- or if you just want a bit more control over the noise levels -- I can't recommend a fan controller enough. It fits in one of your computer's drive bays and lets you adjust fan speed with physical knobs. Some will even monitor the temperature of your hardware for you, which is pretty handy.

Most fan controllers can take up to four fans, but with an adapter like this one, you can control multiple fans with one knob. If your fan controller has a screen that measures RPM, you may need to cut one of the yellow cables to get an accurate reading (since having two fans sending fan speed info can confuse most controllers). Also remember that if your fan controller measures temperatures, it won't be reliable for something like the CPU -- you'll need an app like Core Temp to measure the true temperature of your CPU.

Other Noise-Dampening Products You Might Want To Try

As you're buying the main hardware for your case, you may also want to check out some of these accessories that are designed to keep your case quiet:

  • Silicone Fan Fasteners: Your fans can often vibrate between your case and their housing, which causes extra noise. You can solve this problem in most fan mounts by using rubber or silicone fasteners instead of metal screws. It'll keep them in tight, but dampen all of the vibration. Most higher end fans come with their own set, but you can also buy a big pack separately for about $5.
  • Hard Drive Enclosures: While replacing your hard drive with an SSD will get rid of that annoying hard drive whine, it isn't practical for everyone, so you may want a way to keep that hard drive quiet. You can try an internal enclosure like the SilenX Luxurae or the Smart Drive, but those are expensive enough that you'd actually be better off just getting a new hard drive designed for silence. It only costs a bit more and you'll get much better results.
  • Acoustic Foam: Some silence enthusiasts recommend an acoustic foam like AcoustiPack insulation, which you can apply to the insides of your case to keep the noise level down. I've never found this necessary myself, and you'd have to be very careful not to restrict the airflow inside your case, but if you really want complete silence, it may help.
  • Dust Filters: I mentioned this already above, but get dust filters for all your intake fans. If you have positive air pressure in your case, then the only air coming in will be from your intake fans, and if they're filtered, then you'll have very little dust entering your case. The less dust you have, the less maintenance you'll have to do down the road, and your PC will stay quieter for longer.

The last piece of advice I can give is to start off with quality hardware. If you buy a cheap hard drive or a cheap power supply, you're going to end up with something that's loud. It's just the way of things. The next time you go to upgrade computer -- whether it's all at once or on a part-by-part basis over time -- take into account cooling and noise. Read reviews, look at its nose specifications (if it has any), and remember that you get what you pay for. You may spend a little more upfront for something quiet, but it's likely going to be higher quality and make you happier, not to mention maybe last a little longer.

Got any of your own tips for creating the perfect, silent cooling system? Share them with us in the comments below.


Comments

    I have my fans exactly as shown in the negative air pressure diagram they do seem to run most of the time. I'll turn the top one around and see what happens.

    Its bloody winter, just unplug your fans, thats what I have done. Just remember to plug them back in when the weather finally gets warmer

      Unplug my fans? Sounds like a HOT tip. Not to mention a quick way to an early death of my comp.

      The longer your computer stays as cool as possible - the longer your components will last. Unplugging your fan(s) is ridiculously moronic.

    Funny this article came up, cleaned mine out yesterday. It was starting to
    sound like my old vacuum cleaner.

    Not wanting to sound like one of "those" people... but seriously though.. for many years I built/assembled/maintained/upgraded etc my own computers. I too was on the quest for quiete/cheap/easy (pick two). In the end I simply made the change to iMac's for our household PC's.

    Not silent.. in the height of summer, under high load.. the fans do come on... but for the other 95% of the time... it's the easiest most silent, zero maintenance, practical computer you can get off-the-shelf.

    The other one to consider is the MacBook Air... I've used for couple years now and only just discovered they even HAVE a fan inside... I just assumed they were all passive.. either way.. that really IS a SILENT powerful computing device that can easily be used as desktop with the 27" display and a single thunderbolt cable.

    Do I have time to mention the Mac Mini... ?
    Another silent, powerful, off-the-shelf alternative that can run Windows if that's your need.

    Seriously I'm not "that guy"... I just sound like him :-)

    I have a i5- 760 chip that has always run very hot. In order to have a quiet system with acceptable temps (with the stock cooler, which is very poor btw) I found it was necessary to the the VCC (chip voltage) manually, rather than use the 'auto voltage' setting in BIOS, which had my chip cooking at 70 deg Celsius at rest 0_0.....

    If you have any overclocking experience you will know how this works

    I was able to lower the voltage by 0.2v under the auto setting while retaining system stability. This lowered the chip temp to 40 deg at rest!! a vast improvement.

    Be careful if you have a 'cheap' motherboard, as going too far may prevent your system from booting, requiring you to reset the bios (make a backup of your settings if possible) which can be a mission on cheap boards.
    Most motherboards of decent quality will automatically reset the bios on a failure to boot (you will still need to remember/backup your settings)

    use 'prime95' to test stability (5-10minutes will do) and i used 'RealTemp' to monitor temperatures.
    Lower the voltage in small steps (0.025 - 0.05) untill the system fails the prime95 test or fails to boot properly, then increase the voltage to the last stable setting or slightly higher.

    If your PC runs a negative pressure setup (most do) be careful to ensure air is pulled from the front of the system, and not just through a side vent and straight out the back without moving the air inside the box...

    I could build my equivalent system 3 times for the price of an iMac....

    Silent = Noctua

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