Computers have enjoyed impressive efficiency improvements over the last decade. A few readers might remember how computers powered by Intel’s power-hungry and hot Pentium 4 made many systems feel – and sound – more like space heaters than PCs. Those days are thankfully over – but noise has not been banished altogether. Some rigs remain an audible annoyance.
That doesn’t have to be true, however. With the correct equipment and a few incantations, most users can exorcise the demon howling in their desktop.
Identify the problem
Before modifying a computer’s cooling, the problem must first be recognized. Most issues fall in one of two categories: first is the computer which is rather loud at all times; and second is the computer that is really loud only at high load, and may even mean high noise only when using specific applications, like games.
Another possible cause is dust. Haven’t cleaned your PC lately? Stop right now and do it! It’s easy, free and might solve the problem.
Computers that never shut up
A system that is always noisy suffers from bad fans, too many fans, or both. Take a look at what’s inside your desktop. Do you only see one or two fans? Then they’re probably cheap or old, and are making more noise than they should.
We have good news and bad news: the bad news is that those fans will need to be replaced; the good news is that fans are cheap! Most users will want to look for fans that offer an adjustable speed switch, or ones that support fan speed modulation via a program like SpeedFan. Antec’s TriCool series is a great example. These fans can be set to low speed for near-silent operation. A couple of good fans can be purchased for $20 to $30.
What if you have too many fans? Remove some! Start with fans on the side or top of the case, then move to intake fans on the front, and then finally move to exhaust fans at the rear. Make sure that you leave at least one intake fan and one exhaust fan.
Now that you’ve installed new fans, or removed extras, you’ll want to see how the computer’s cooling performs. SpeedFan can report temperatures. So can PC Wizard, Real Temp, and HWMonitor. The processor should idle no higher than 50 degrees Celsius and stay below 70 degrees Celsius at load. If you have a graphics card, you should monitor that, too. It should idle below 60 degrees Celsius and stay below 95 degrees Celsius at load.
Computers that occasionally annoy
While some systems consistently annoy, others will only spin up occasionally. This will usually correlate with demanding applications like video encoders, image editors, or games.
Before taking action, pay attention to when a system becomes noisy. Games and productivity apps are the two common causes for creating noise, and each strain different components.
If your PC is loud during games, then the source is almost certainly the video card (you can confirm this by opening your PC, running a game, and listening for the source of noise). Unfortunately, there’s not much to do in this instance. Some video cards are loud and the only potential solution is a costly third-party cooler. We don’t recommend that route. The better option is to purchase a new video card with a custom cooler designed to enable quiet operation.
If other apps seem to send your system howling, the problem is fan quality. Go take a look at high-quality case fans from companies like Antec, Corsair, and Cooler Master. Replacing current fans with these could reduce noise by generating more airflow at lower fan speeds.
On the case
The case is another area where you might find improvement. Many inexpensive computers come in cases that were built without considering acoustics. The case might amplify sound or let it freely flow from the case to your ears.
This problem can be solved with sound insulation. Sound extreme? It’s not. Insulation is nothing more than molded foam that can be purchased for between $20 and $60 and stuck inside a PC. The foam can be used to plug up un-used fan mounts or layered across the side panels. It’s easy to cut and can be attached with bundled adhesive or two-sided tape from your local hardware store.
One quick note, though: buy the real stuff. Foam meant for use with electronics will be flame resistant, whereas foam salvaged from an old mattress may or may not be, depending on age and quality. We don’t think it’s worth the risk.
What about laptops?
Laptop owners generally can’t replace system fans. A system that seems unusually loud might be defective, and you should contact the laptop’s manufacturer if you think that’s the problem. But you can’t just open the case, pop in a third-party fan, and be on your way.
What can you do? Try a cooling stand. These might make the laptop cooler because, though they add fans, they transfer work from the small, loud, and quick internal fan to larger, quieter external fans. That means less noise. Maybe. You’ll just have to give it a shot.
Replacing or removing fans and sound-proofing a case can significantly improve system noise. It’s not a guaranteed solution because, as said earlier, all computers with fans will make some noise all of the time. Still, new fans and a few bucks of sound insulation can turn a tower filled with howling banshees into a peaceful system barely audible over ambient noise. The distracting whirr of fans is not a requirement – it’s a choice!