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Chapter 4. Playing with Hardware > Build a Quiet, Killer Gaming Rig

Hack 35. Build a Quiet, Killer Gaming Rig

Make your game worlds more immersive by quieting the real world.

The highest-end monster PC is likely a noisy tower with fans and hard drives spinning away. That may be fine when you're blasting hordes of alien zombies to a heavy metal soundtrack, but a 10,000-rpm drive spinning up at the wrong time can ruin the suspense of sneaking around in the dark. Even with 1,000 watts of power driving your speakers, sometimes nothing beats the sound of silence.

A quiet, distraction-free environment can make your game experience more immersive. Fortunately, you can modify your current rig to run more quietly. The same tips apply if you're building a new PC. Here's how to assess where you stand now and plan to make your computer quieter.

4.2.1. Understanding Noise

Understanding how to attack your computer's noise problem is closely related to how audio compression algorithms (such as the one in MP3s) work. Your brain will hear only the loudest noise at any given time; you won't hear any quieter noises. In order to compress sound, audio engineers drop the quieter information because listeners won't hear it. When you attempt to quiet your computers, this phenomenon applies in reverse. Removing one loud noise often unmasks another noise beneath the sound threshold of the first one.

Quieting your computer as much as possible is often a matter of trial and error. It might take several attempts to reach an acceptable noise level. To identify your biggest problem areas, start by purchasing an inexpensive Radio Shack SPL (sound pressure level) meter. Using an SPL meter

Set the meter to C weighting and the response time to "slow." Set the SPL meter on your work area a couple of feet away from the computer, and point the business end right at your rig. Now fire up your computer and take readings. You can unplug your various components to see which are the biggest offenders and diagnose what to change first. It's also satisfying to take before and after volume readings.

In fact, there are people who actually make a hobby out of getting the quietest PC possible. Check out the SilentPC Review forums (http://forums.silentpcreview.com/).

4.2.2. Choosing Soundproof and Quiet Components

If you're building a computer from scratch, start with an aluminum case. This material will act as its own heat sink, naturally reducing the internal temperature. A well-designed steel case can also be cool, and the denser material will dampen sounds from spinning components. Make sure to buy a solid case, because thin walls vibrate more easily.

Next, do your homework: pick your components based on reseller dB ratings, if possible. Be aware that there is no set standard for how to measure component noise. Manufacturers often reengineer their specs in order to make the product look better on paper and generate more sales, so use your common sense, and buy from trusted manufacturers.

Second, your case should contain some noise-absorbing material to soak up internal fan noise. The goal here is to limit noises of high frequencies. To do that, use a porous, noninsulating foam material. Any soft, pliable packing foam will do the trick, but you probably need more than what came packed around your motherboard. Muffled Computing (check out http://www.muffledcomputing.com/) sells a hybrid porous/semiporous foam material with a sticky backing on one side (http://www.muffledcomputing.com/foam.html). This Whispermat is the best white-noise-deadening foam on the market today. It comes in half- and 1-inch thicknesses on 12-inch square sheets. You'll probably need two or three sheets to do your entire case.

Some people claim some success using standard car-audio sound-deadening material (like Dynamat) inside their computer case. Dynamat is a heavy, nonporous material used for soaking up low-frequency noise—ideal for use in automobiles. It also does a fantastic job of insulating your car from outside heat due to its high density.

However, these aren't desirable properties for computer-case soundproofing.

Sound will leak out of any available space in the computer case, including unused drive bays, card slots, and venting—anywhere. Try to cover every space inside the case without a vent or fan, especially around the GPU and CPU. This will absorb most of the sound that bounces around the case before it can escape out the fan or vent holes. Most cases have vents intended to pull air across your hard drives. Be careful not to cover those vents unless you use auxiliary hard-drive cooling fans.

If you are building a new rig or upgrading your motherboard, consider a board with a fanless chipset. If your board has a fan, you can add an aftermarket heatsink with little risk of malfunction as long as you have adequate airflow.

Finally, before you start replacing noisy components, think about your wire management. Even floppy-disk drives come with rounded cables these days, but you can go one step further; use plastic wire wraps to group and tuck away your cables as much as possible, making an unobstructed path for air to stream through the computer.

4.2.3. Reducing Component Noise

Now that you have reduced case noise, it's time to concentrate on lowering component noise. Here are the most common noisy components, in order of loudest first. Power supply unit

The power-hungry components of an elite gamer require more juice than a normal computer user needs. Heavy power supply units (PSUs) can be extremely noisy, however. The biggest mistake you can make is to buy an overpowered PSU. Monster 500+watt power supplies are notoriously noisy, and unnecessary for most of us.

If you're building your own rig, determine your maximum power needs before springing for an oversized power supply. There is quite a lot of "spec engineering" when it comes to PSUs, so stick to a good brand like Antec or Enermax. One tried-and-true (if unscientific) method is to buy the heaviest PSU available in the wattage category. This usually guarantees quality components and good heatsinks in your new PSU.

If you have a bigger budget when building a computer or are ready to upgrade your PSU, several manufacturers offer quiet PSUs, including the excellent Zalman (http://www.zalman.co.kr/eng/product/code_list.asp?code=015) and Nexus (http://www.nexustek.nl/index_headquarters.html) lines. These power supplies have temperature-regulated fan speeds and often have aluminum housings that draw away heat.

Completely solid-state and dead silent, fanless PSUs have started to enter the market. These types of power supplies will work well with carefully conceived cooling strategies; unlike most PSUs, they contain no fans themselves to provide heat exhaustion from the computer case. They're also reliable only in a low-power computing environment, making them unsuitable for a high-power gaming computer. Stay away from them for now.

Finally, if a brand new PSU isn't in the budget, consider an inexpensive Fan Muffler (http://www.muffledcomputing.com/mufflers.html), also from Muffled Computing. Their universal ATX PSU fan muffler attaches to the back of your case and routes the exhaust through a noise-absorbing channel. For under $30, you can even make a mammoth 550W PSU livable. Download the PDF template to see if your case will accept a muffler. They also make mufflers for your auxiliary and front fans. They are extremely well-made, are surprisingly effective, and come in three different colors. CPU fan

It's often a toss-up between your CPU fan and your PSU cooler in regards to which one is the loudest. After replacing just one, you may often find that the other is nearly as loud. If you are serious about quieting your computer, consider replacing the PSU and the CPU fan at the same time to improve your overall noise level dramatically.

Keep in mind that a modern computer will regulate the rpm of your CPU fan automatically, besides letting you control your own parameters through software, so a larger heatsink combined with a quieter fan is extremely effective at limiting noise. I really like the Zalman CNPS7000 Cu "flower" CPU cooler (http://www.zalman.co.kr/). It's quite large and won't fit on every motherboard, so check your case dimensions first. GPU fan

Some of the more recent high-end video cards are infamously loud, so much so that they might even make the top of your noise list. This will also happen after you've quieted your CPU fan and PSU. Several manufacturers make quieter graphics-processing-unit (GPU) fans and even giant heatsinks that eliminate the need for a fan on your GPU altogether. You can also often buy third-party video cards that incorporate these solutions out of the box, if you want to avoid a complicated installation.

A GPU cooler is easily the most intricate of any of the recommended mods on this list, so a prebuilt solution is a great idea. Keep in mind that these heatsinks often take up an additional PCI slot next to your AGP input; budget some room. Case fans

Extreme gaming rigs can't survive on only one exhaust fan; your machine needs a clear airflow path for best performance. Matching the cubic-feet-per-minute rating of your intake to your exhaust fans is also a good idea, because it will make your overall cooling strategy as efficient as possible. Start with fans that spin at or below 2,500 rpm and look for the lowest dB rating you can find. Newer fans have a three-wire connector that will allow modern motherboards to self-regulate all the case fans according to internal temperature. Even without this type of motherboard, you might still want to purchase the three-wire units; you can always throw an add-on fan controller into an unused drive bay. These controllers can be fully automatic, with programmable modes that spin your fans at a certain speed when the interior of your case reaches a preset temperature. Some also have manual dial controls to set the fan speed, which is also quite effective. Hard drives

If your loudest component is your hard-disk drive, this can be good or bad news. If you have 10,000-rpm RAID arrays, invest in an auxiliary hard-drive cooling fan that incorporates a noise-dampening mounting solution as well and surround the drives with noise-absorbing foam. There are also fanless heat pipe coolers on the market that will silently help your HDD keep a stable temperature. If you have an especially noisy HDD array, consider a separate enclosure and tossing the whole thing in the closet—just the drive enclosure, not your high-end gaming PC.

If you're on the market for a new hard drive, you may have a tough time finding a dB rating on the spec sheet, but there are a couple of guidelines you can go by. As common sense dictates, a faster-spinning hard drive will make more noise than a slower one, and larger hard drives (3.5 inches) are noisier than smaller (2.5 inches) ones.

Start with a 5,400-rpm hard drive if you're building a second computer for a quiet environment, such as a bedroom. These drives are also great for infrequently accessed deep storage archives on your main rig. If you have a noisy drive that you use only for storage, schedule it to shut down after a period of inactivity. See the Power Options menu on your Control Panel if you run Windows, for example.

Some of the newest drives on the market come with very quiet fluid dynamic bearings. These drives typically have high-performance platters that spin at 10,000 and 15,000 rpm, but we'll probably see this technology move to slower drives. If you have a drive with fluid bearings, expect a volume decrease of 4 dB over conventional bearing drives of similar speed. Drives with fluid bearings that run at 15,000 rpm are often quieter than some drives with standard bearings spinning at 7,200 rpm.

4.2.4. See Also

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