Cocoon Culture No.47

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"Shut that damn thing up!"
How to minimize or eliminate PC noise

A by Cub Lea
released by permission of The Feature Creeps despite the protests of our lawyers

Introduction
Not a healthy hum: the noise PCs produce

First things first: the power supply fan
Minimizing the risks of p/s fan removal

Now for the CPU fan...
Minimizing the risks of CPU fan modification

"Quit whining": how to soften up a hard disk
Minimizing the risks of hard disk muffling

In summary...

Warning

The information on this page has the potential to cause both harm to your PC and to your health if applied carelessly. None of the information or advice offered here should be construed as diagnostic information or expert technical advice. Although the author has considerable experience both in PC ergonomics and construction, he is neither a licensed health practitioner nor a certified technician. Several of the modifications discussed here will reduce the lifespan of the hardware, and it is possible that ergonomic and stress-related advice offered here could mask symptoms of an underlying illness. In all cases, the author and publisher recommend seeking the advice of a licensed PC technician or health practitioner before putting any of these tips into practice for any purpose related to stress or noise reduction. Also note that in some jurisdictions, the types of PC modification discussed here may actually be prohibited by law due to the potential for increased emissions from the PC.

Under no circumstances will the author and/or publisher, the author/publishers' families, friends, lawyers, lawyers' families, chiropractors or greengrocers be responsible for any injury, loss or inconvenience caused directly or indirectly by the application of any of the information provided in this article. This material is offered as entertainment only.

The first edit of this article, sent to a selected group of friends and colleagues as an email attachment, actually got me a 5:00 a.m. phone call from a very pissed off consulting professional who promised to see that I paid a heavy price if I ever again dared to disseminate such irresponsible advice. Fuck him.

Introduction: how I got from there to here

If your senses are working overtime, you shouldn't be.

There's nothing like botched psychotherapy and a bad love affair to show you where you really stand in terms of your health and sanity. In my case, I got a double-whammy several years back. (The details are unimportant to the subject matter but if you really must know...in fact this statement by itself ought to be taken as a reminder of just how reliable the information in this essay really is.) The whole situation essentially left me raw...it brought the state of my nerves and the monstrous stress level I was enduring on a daily basis into sharp relief.

As with so many other skinny geeks, I turned to my PC for consolation, amusement and employment. But unlike most of the geek-kind I've known, I discovered to my horror just how much of a stressor the PC itself really was.

Necessity, as they say, is a real mother. And in order to make peace with my soul and my nerves I had little choice but to de-stress the box...in other words, decrease the stress caused by the PC itself. And while many radiation specialists may disagree, it's my opinion that the number one cause of PC stress is noise.

Not a healthy hum: the noise PCs produce

Millions of dollars have been spent on devices designed to produce noise as an aid to relaxation. You'll find these devices in virtually any "new age" boutique. They usually reproduce the soft swell of waves washing against a shore or a emulate the swoosh of a diffuse light wind. The sound they produce is usually referred to as "pink noise". This modulated, broadband random noise has documented therapeutic properties.

What color is your PC noise?

White noise, on the other hand, is not therapeutic. White noise is the steady noise such as you might hear from a TV tuned to a dead channel. It doesn't contain the full audible spectrum and is often less dense than pink noise. Make no mistake about it, white noise is stressor. Some people claim find it easier to sleep with white noise in the background, but this effect is due more to the masking of other background noises, or a habituated response to audible stimulus, than to any measurable therapeutic quality in the noise itself.

PCs do not produce "pink noise". It's debatable whether they even produce white noise. The background noise generated by two (sometimes four or more) cooling fans, the whine of hard disk motors and low-level modem cackle combine to form a potent stressor, a fact well-known to workplace ergonomists. It's likely that employers will eventually have to design around PC noise to avoid employee and union complaints, just as they now design around PC interfaces with ergonomic chairs and special keyboards built to minimize hand, wrist and back injuries.

It doesn't take a genius

You don't need to wait until PC noise stress makes headlines. And if you care about your mental health or productivity, you shouldn't wait. Anything you can do to reduce noise now is bound to make a difference over the short and long term. Modifying your PC to reduce the noise it generates is a relatively easy task. It doesn't require a soldering iron, and doesn't even require a lot of knowledge about PC construction (although it will help to know your way around "under the hood").

First things first: the power supply fan

Let's begin by dealing with what is likely the most significant noise producer in the average PC: the power supply fan. The sooner you can get rid of it, the better. If that notion scares you, that's good. If it doesn't scare you, you probably never got a basic grounding in PC maintenance. There are some circumstances where it is a little too scary, but even in those circumstances the fan can be replaced with a much quieter cooling solution at a very low cost.

Easy, yes...scary, yes...worth it, ohhh yesss!!!

Removing the power supply's fan is an easy job even for technophobes, and as you'll discover in a moment, isn't as risky as you might expect.

Simply remove the power supply from the PC and remove the screws from the power supply housing. Take the cover off and stash it for later. (You'll need to retrieve it and reattach it when reselling the PC some time down the road; any intelligent buyer is going to raise a stink if they see you selling a PC with no p/s cover.)

Next unplug the fan from the power supply's circuit board and unscrew the fan from the housing. Stash the fan with the housing and you're finished with fan removal.

Look but don't touch, or the 500-volt wakeup call

In many cases you can simply remount the power supply to the case. But there is something you should look for before you do this. There are two or more heat sinks (odd-shaped aluminum widgets designed to dissipate component heat) in most PC power supplies which connect to the all-important voltage regulators.

Hot air rises, so these heat sinks should face up, not down, to insure that hot air doesn't travel from the heat sinks back across the circuit board again. If you notice that your power supply's circuit board is configured so that the heat sinks point downward, you'll need to remount the power supply upside-down in order to insure safe continuous operation.

The handyman's secret weapon

The power supply in my ATX case does have downward-facing heatsinks, so I had to remount my power supply upside-down. In most AT cases, you can simply use two screws instead of four or six to remount the power supply upside-down, but in most ATX cases you won't have that option. I wound up using heavy-duty duct tape to fasten the power supply to the top "shelf" of the case. It's not nearly as secure a fit as screws, but it's certainly secure enough for a PC that won't be moved very often.

Oh, and don't think you can cut corners simply by unplugging the fan. You have to remove it completely. With forced-air cooling removed, the vents at the back of the power supply are needed to exhaust warm air currents rising through the case. If the fan sits idle in the power supply housing, it will act as an impediment to air trying to get through those vents.

When not to remove the power supply fan

Note that there are some situations where complete removal of the power supply fan is not advisable. The average home PC with a good graphics card, sound card and modem can easily survive without the fan. A PC built for heavy-duty professional use might contain a combination of one or more graphics accelerators, a network card, two or more audio cards, two or more modems, SCSI interface and other heat-generating peripherals. Warm air will still rise from these components through the vents and knockouts in the back of the case, but the more cards you have producing heat, and the hotter they run, the less practical it becomes to completely remove the forced-air cooling provided by the power supply fan.

It should also be noted that some poorly-engineered CD-ROM drives owe their very lives to forced-air cooling. While you have the cover off of your PC case, check the operating temperature of your CD-ROM drive. If it seems more than slightly warm, it likely needs cooling that it won't get from a fanless PC, and should be replaced or supported with at least some forced-air cooling. If it runs so hot that you can't keep your fingers on the housing for more than a few seconds, either figure out some way to get rid of it or accept the fact that it is almost certain to fail from premature heat-related wear within a couple of years of steady use.

An alternative to p/s fan removal: sit back and have a Pabst

Thousands of writers and creative professionals know about Pabst. It's a slightly woody-tasting American lager with a rich heritage in the American midwest and parts of central Canada and a kick that will...oh, pardon me, wrong Pabst, bad joke, forget I even said that.

The legendary Pabst brand of PC fans are among the quietest equipment fans in the world...and also among the costliest. You can certainly invest $30-$60 in a genuine Pabst fan to replace the power supply fan, but there's a much cheaper alternative for PCs that simply can't afford to run fanless.

Another alternative: downgrading the fan

The alternative is replacing the big, noisy power supply fan with a much smaller, much quieter CPU fan which is suspended from the power supply. Once the housing is removed from the power supply, less force is required to exhaust air from the bottom of the PC, since there's less of a barrier between the fan and the components that require cooling.

A CPU fan hung by wire or heat-resistant fishing line from any handy screw holes on the case, (or even adhered to the case using sponge tape...our preferred method) will achieve virtually the same amount of effective cooling as a full-size 100mm power supply fan. The smaller blades won't push even a quarter as much air, but then, in most cases it doesn't have to push more than that.

Wire suspension or use of a foam barrier (sponge tape) will all but eliminate any audible resonance between the fan and the case, rendering the fan as quiet as it can get without complete removal. The only part of the PC which will run hotter than normal with this configuration is the power supply itself, which is also likely to be the cheapest component to replace should it happen to "tank" prematurely.

You can find quiet-running, high-quality 60mm ball-bearing CPU fans at most better mom-and-pop PC shops and computer superstores for well under $20. In most cases they're all you need to provide steady, effective circulation through a properly-vented PC.

Risks and downsides, and how to minimize them

Completely removing the fan from the power supply sounds like a risky operation, and it is...to a degree. And it should be stressed that this action will almost certainly reduce the life of the power supply even if it has no substantial effect on any other components of the PC.

But consider the benefits. If the power supply's service life is reduced from 8 years to 2-1/2, should you care? Of course not.

The worst case scenario is still better than the status quo

Assume the worst, that the voltage regulators die every six months due to lack of forced-air cooling. The price of a new power supply (usually under $50) still buys you six months of peace, quiet, and the improved productivity or enjoyment that come as a result. In my books, that's not a dilemma. That's a bargain.

It also bears repeating that in PCs without dedicated chassis cooling solutions, the power supply fan is the main cooling fan for the whole system, exhausting heat from all components. A clear path must exist between the the bottom of the case and the fan vents at the top or you will almost certainly place critical components, most notably your CD-ROM drive, in jeopardy of heat-related failure.

Hot air rises, so normal convection will take care of normal cooling, but only if there is a clear path for the hot air to rise. In some cases you can significantly improve the airflow through the upper vents by folding back, or even cutting off, the back plate of the power supply. This should have no effect whatsoever on the integrity of your CD-ROM drive or any other drives mounted in the top bays of the case. After all, these drives are (or damn well should be) built into shielded metal cases of their own.

Cosmetics

Let's also get realistic for a moment about cosmetics. For example, the motherboard slot flanges used to cover unused slots at the back of the PC look nice (okay, well, nicer than they look when they're not there), but they also reduce ventilation. Removing them can substantially increase convection airflow through the case but at the cost of a slight increase in radiation emissions through the back of the case.

The plastic "knockouts" covering unused drive bays at the front of the case are generally as disposable as a ten-year-old Yugo. Some better cases paint the backs of these knockouts with conductive material so that they prevent electromagnetic radiation leakage when they're in place, but most cases don't have front-panel knockouts with this feature. Remove these flanges and knockouts from a standard PC case and airflow through the chassis will improve dramatically whether you have a fan operating or not.

Point blank, unless your PC's case was specifically designed with convection in mind, and unless the warranty on the PC expressly states that shielding and hardware reliability depend upon having these knockouts in place, you may as well get rid of them and ley your PC breathe free.

Strategic mounting of the power supply

Another way to improve ventilation is strategic mounting of the power supply. It doesn't have to be bolted to the back of the case. It can be fastened to the shelf at the top of the chassis using heavy tape, heat-resistant fishing line, cable ties or other fasteners. And if it is fastened an inch or so from the back of the case, leaving a recess in the case, this gap creates a fairly significant opening for hot air to escape from the bottom of the chassis. This is especially important if your graphics card or CPU run particularly hot.

An open and never-shut case

Let's not forget the "open-case" solution. Hackers and high-performance PC enthusiasts have run their PCs without chassis covers ever since the first production runs of 80386 chips necessitated extreme cooling solutions. Some of those early 386 chips ran so hot that some users claimed even the chassis cover was too hot to touch when the computer was in use.

Open-case operation is an option, but it's not the ideal solution. For starters, the chassis cover helps to shield electronics outside your PC from the computer's electromagnetic emanations. The chassis cover also help muffle noise from fans and disk drives.

Commercial noise reduction solutions

Oh yes...let us not forget commercial solutions to the CPU noise problem. Silent Systems Corp. markets a product line called HushKit™ which appears unique in its ability to reduce PC noise.

The full HushKit™ package includes a sheathed CPU cooler, a special sleeve for the hard disk, and a uniquely-engineered power supply designed for quiet operation. If you can afford the HushKit™, which lists at over US$100 for the full kit, or need to make sure your PC investment is protected from bad advice from hackers like me, it's apparently a very effective solution. I've spoken to professional sound engineers who swear by HushKits as reliable and quiet solutions, although they admit that they don't completely eliminate PC noise.

There's no such thing as a 100% guarantee

Now, let's be clear about this. None of these tips are guaranteed to insure that power supply fan removal is safe. In PCs that don't need a lot of cooling, fan removal may not significantly affect component health or lifespan. These tips will, however, make fan removal safer and should result in negligible compromise to PC function.

Finally, remember that hot air rises, so be sure your PC is mounted vertically, not horizontally. Simple convection will allow enough air to flow through a well-ventilated PC to keep the system cool unless you have particularly hot-running components installed or work in an especially warm environment.

Now for the CPU fan...

Once you've created enough ventilation in the case to safely remove the power supply fan, you could very well have enough ventilation to take similar action with your CPU fan.

Why it pays not to be on the cutting edge

This might sound like an extremely risky proposition. But whether manufacturers intend it or not (and they probably don't), in many cases the CPU fan simply isn't needed for any purpose other than to protect the CPU from defects in manufacture. While early production runs of virtually all new CPU models are notorious for operating at high temperatures, later runs almost always run cooler thanks to improvements in the manufacturing process.

Minor defects that pass the manufacturer's inspection could result in premature failure, and a fan will help insure somewhat less premature a failure than would otherwise be the case. Removing the CPU fan will force a borderline CPU to show its weakness a lot sooner than normal, but in the case of a well-made CPU, all it will do is shorten its life expectancy.

Considering that your CPU will be virtually worthless in four years, do you really care if fan removal causes it to die in three years rather than ten? Especially if this hack gives you more peace and productivity?

An important consideration: hardware warranties

There is one very important point to consider here, though. Fan removal may void the warranty on the chip. It may not be a wise idea to remove the fan until the warranty period has expired, or unless you know you have a CPU from a production run known to have produced particularly robust chips.

On the other hand, running the CPU "hot" isn't likely to "fast-fry" the chip. It's far more likely that slight manufacturing defects and design weaknesses will show up as unexplained crashes and flakey behavior long before the chip actually suffers irreversible damage.

If you replace the CPU fan the moment you suspect flakey system behavior caused by a hot-running CPU, you can almost always prevent permanent damage to the chip. But before you take that as my personal guarantee, re-read the warning at the top of this page.

Years of performance and never a fan

I've run all five of the PCs I've owned, from my 80286 through my current Celeron 300a system, fanless. (To be honest, I have to run a CPU fan on my 300a since I always run it overclocked. It seems relatively stable at 300MHz with no fan installed at room temperatures lower than 26C.) I've never had a CPU failure; in fact I've never even had flakey behavior from my PCs.

My last workhorse PC was a Pentium 133 with nothing but the standard "postage stamp" heat sink and no fan. That machine operated approximately 20 hours a day for 29 months and was still working fine as my spare PC when I reattached the fans and sold it to a local family. Months later, I've heard no complaints about the PC, and I actually warranted the machine against failure even though it was a heavily-used second-hand unit.

Here's the real testament to the durability of the P133's components. From the moment I removed the CPU fan, the postage-stamp heat sink was been so hot in normal operation that it blistered the skin on a fingertip in about ten seconds. And the power supply, which hadn't seen a fan since it was first turned on, was the absolute cheapest power supply I could find in mid-1996.

From the time when I acquired that PC to when I sold it, the retail value of the chip dropped from $200 to about $20. The only drawback to fan removal was the effort required to replace the fans and power supply housing to prepare the PC for sale as a second-hand unit.

Risks and downsides, and how to minimize them

Rarely a wise idea with early production runs

Remember that initial production runs of most new model CPUs are likely to run substantially hotter than later runs and often have construction or design weaknesses that don't appear in later runs. Removing the fan from an early production run CPU is probably not a wise idea.

CPU cooling and overclocked PCs: "dual fans" my ass.

Overclocked systems run a major risk of premature CPU failure if they lack sufficient cooling, but as mentioned previously, unstable behavior will usually appear long before the CPU actually suffers permanent damage.

This instability will give you plenty of warning to either reduce the clock speed or replace the CPU fan. And while dual fan kits seem to be the rage for overclocking, they don't appear to be necessary. A good heat sink and a single fan, such as that provided in the "boxed" Intel CPU package, are all that is needed to provide adequate cooling for the ever-popular C300a-at-450MHz powerhouse. Of the dozen-plus heavy PC users I know who bought single-fan heatsinks for their overclocked C300a's not one of them has reported a need for a second fan in nearly nine months.

Quieter CPU fans

Optionally you can replace Intel's stock fan with a ball-bearing fan and enjoy a reduced noise level. And if you bought an OEM C300a, , Cool-It Dudes sells quiet, inexpensive and very efficient cooling solutions for overclockers including a pair of ball-bearing fans and a heavy-duty heatsink.

(Note that the Cool-It Dudes range of products is aimed at hardcore hackers and they've got a solid reputation among friends and colleagues for service and reliability. Their standard C300a/C366b overclocking kits shouldn't require more than their bottom-of-the-line cooling kit unless you work in a very hot area, and you can safely remove one of the fans for use in place of the power supply fan or keep it as a spare.)

Overclockers who can't bear the sound of even a single CPU fan can still work in silence...provided they're willing to work at the rated speed of the CPU. If you own a motherboard that allows the CPU to be overclocked from the BIOS setup software, it's a simple task to wire a small switch to the case and connect the switch to the CPU fan. The fan can then be turned off when running the CPU at its rated speed and turned on when overclocked horsepower is needed or when your core temperature monitoring software indicates a heat problem. You can even get a free utility, SoftFSB, which will allow you to boost the clock and/or bus speed of most Intel and AMD CPUs on the fly from within Windows 95 and 98 for those times when you really need that extra power.

A bit of common sense

One last question is in order to those who fear running their CPU fanless. How many notebooks have you seen that use CPU fans? Of those that do use them, how many have enough ventilation area that the fan actually does more than good convection cooling can do in a standard PC case?

Quit whining: how to soften up a hard disk

The CPU fan might not be the noisiest part of your PC after the power supply fan is removed. In many cases, hard disk whine and click become annoyingly noticeable once the power supply fan is gone. Fortunately, eliminating some or all of this remaining noise is virtually a no-risk proposition.

The key to understanding hard disk noise

Here's the secret to understanding hard disk noise. Remove the cover from your PC and unmount the hard disk from the drive bay. Set the hard disk gently on the bottom of the case. Set up a copy of a large batch of files or open your slowest-loading app, anything to keep the drive thrashing for a minute or so. Then pick up the hard disk with your hand and listen.

Notice how much quieter it is when it's held in your hand? It's the resonance of the hard disk through the frame of the case that causes most of the noise. The PC case's cover actually works as a sounding board, further amplifying this noise. Eliminate PC case resonance and you eliminate most of your hard disk noise.

The solution is simplicity itself. If your PC doesn't get moved on a regular basis, there's nothing to stop you from removing the hard disk from the chassis and mounting it on some sort of cushion on the floor of the case. I affix the smooth underside of my hard disk to two small 3/4"x1"x4" soft foam blocks which act as the cushion. This method leaves plenty of uncovered surface for air to pass over, but the case is definitely a bit warmer where the foam contacts the drive's case.

An important note about physical mounting of hard disks

I originally believed that hard disks don't care if they're run upside-down or right side up. If you think about it, it shouldn't matter. Apparently it does. You can literally void the warranty of some disks by mounting them upside-down or sideways in a PC case. It could be that bearing tolerances are much higher on the bottom bearings of these drives than on the top, and you should check the owner's manual and the fine print in the warranty before attempting this with any oddball drive. I doubt that this condition would apply to any standard IBM, Quantum, Maxtor, Seagate or Western Digital drives, but better safe than sorry.

Cushion cautions and hotheads

If this is a concern, you could also try affixing a CPU-type heatsink to the top of the drive for extra cooling, turn the drive upside-down and rest the heatsink on a foam block.

Be careful to affix cushioning to as little of the drive surface as possible. The two small blocks I use cover less than 1/4 of the surface of the drive, and provide enough elevation (about an inch) to insure that air can circulate across the remaining surface.

Some newer high-speed models run so hot that they must be screwed to the chassis. They actually require heat transfer through the case frame to dissipate heat generated by the motor. In desperate situations, large Pentium II-type CPU heat sinks can be mounted to the hard disk to replace the cooling lost when attempting to mount a hard disk free in the case.

Putting that whiney bastard in its place

Most PCs either don't use the last slot on the motherboard, or use it for a card short enough to allow plenty of room on the case floor for a free-standing hard disk or two. While the resonance will return with a vengeance if the case is jostled enough that the hard disk touches the chassis cover, this arrangement will be fine for PCs that don't get moved often.

When set on the bottom of a PC case, my foam-supported hard disks are magnitudes quieter than they are when mounted in the drive bays, but the foam isn't a complete insulator. Motor hum still resonates through the case. Any remaining resonance can be virtually eliminated by setting foam-supported hard disks on top of a double-folded section of terry cloth, or even an old, folded sock. Mounting a hard disk in this fashion is pretty much risk-free unless you own a hard disk that runs particularly hot.

Most consumer-grade hard disks never get so hot that they can't be held in the palm of the hand indefinitely without discomfort. I always choose hard disk models known for cool operation so I never need to use heat sinks.

"I can still heeaar you..."

But while the foam-and-old-socks contraption dramatically reduces the noise from my current hard disk, it doesn't eliminate it. I decided to go one step further and completely remove the hard disk from the case.

I threaded the IDE cable out through one of the card slot knockouts and through a small, tight slit at the bottom of an 8"x8"x10" cardboard box. I then placed a folded terry cloth towel at the bottom of the box and set the foam side of the hard disks gently down on the towelling. Finally I plugged in the hard disk, and -- here comes the scary part -- closed the cardboard box.

Disk thrash was completely inaudible, and I thought I'd found the ideal solution. After several hours of continuous operation in this small, closed box with virtually no ventilation, the hard disk felt only slightly warmer than when it was mounted free-standing at the bottom of the case. It certainly wasn't hot enough to worry about. I admit though that my heart stopped for a moment when I opened the box to check the temperature and felt a blast of warm air drift across my forearm. I expected the hard disk to be blistering hot, but the air around it absorbed and dissipated enough heat to sufficiently protect the drive.

Double-boxing: it's good for this environment

My quest for the silent PC wasn't complete yet. That night, as traffic and neighborhood noise faded away with the setting sun, I started to hear the click-click of the hard disk again. It was faint, but noticeable enough to bother me. I decided that if one box was good, two would be better. Sure enough, after placing the first box in a second, larger box, it was totally inaudible even in the silence of the wee hours. There was an additional rise in the operating temperature of the hard disk after several hours, but the drive was still reassuringly cool. Since double-boxing my hard disk I haven't heard a sound out of any part of my PC except the CD-ROM drive unless I kick in the CPU fan to run the Celeron A overclocked.

Risks and downsides, and how to minimize them

When using Quantum or IBM single-platter IDE/UDMA hard disks (at this writing the coolest-running units on the market) you should never experience heat-related problems when applying one of these cooling solutions, even when "double-boxing" the hard disk...provided that you choose large enough boxes. You can't simply shove a hard disk inside a 5"x5"x3" box and expect there to be enough air surrounding the hard disk to allow for adequate heat dissipation. And the second box should be at least 2-1/2" taller and wider than the first to insure a proper insulating layer between the two boxes both for sound and heat absorption.

When you can't get away with the best

As any experienced PC technician can tell you, not all hard disks are engineered to operate as coolly as the Quantums and IBMs. If your hard disk produces a lot of heat, you may not be able to get away with double-boxing your hard disk without "baffling" the double-box setup with alternating sets of air holes in the two boxes large enough to insure significant air exchange and less concentration of heat around the hard disk, You may also need to affix a heat sink to the drive with conductive grease or paste.

More RAM: the best life insurance for hard disks

It should also be noted that temperature may not be the biggest factor in premature hard disk failure. Low-memory configurations combined with memory-hungry apps or operating systems will dramatically increase the amount of work that the drive head motors need to perform. It's likely that a part of the head assembly, not the motors themselves, will be the first components to show signs of wear in PCs where the disk is constantly thrashing. An investment in memory may do more to prolong the life of a hard disk than any cooling solution.

Video interference and other EM emissions

You may also notice increased video interference from some poorly shielded hard disks when mounted externally to the case. If this interference is unacceptable, you may have to return the hard disk to the case. In some cases you can eliminate it by running a simple ground wire from one of the screw holes in the hard disk to the metal frame of the case, but this isn't a universal solution to this problem.

Keep external cable runs short

It's also important to allow as little of the hard disk cable as possible to be unshielded. If you do decide to try the double-boxing trick, try to set the box as close to the case as possible, and set the hard disk down in the box as close to the side of the box as possible without touching. There should be no more than a couple of inches of unshielded ribbon cable extending from the case through the sides of the two boxes and onto the hard disk connector. Depending on what kind of appliances you have, unshielded hard disk cable can cause interference with other devices, which will most commonly result in static or snow; or receive interference, which in extreme cases could result in something you absolutely must avoid: data transmission errors to the hard disk. In worst-case scenarios, wrap the ribbon cable in tin foil and insure that the foil touches bare metal on the case at some point.

In summary...

Using a combination of the techniques described above, you should be able to all but eliminate PC noise in all but the most demanding situations. It should take less than an hour and cost next to nothing.

Even if you can't eliminiate noise, chances are excellent that you can dramatically reduce it. With a little luck, common sense and careful planning, you should actually be able to run a completely fanless PC, even a newer 300MHz-plus unit, with an almost dead-quiet hard disk for days, weeks or even months on end with no significant heat-related problems, especially if the PC is housed in an air-conditioned building or used in a temperate climate.

Don't let fear prevent you from taking a chance. The silent PC is a very real possibility for most of us, and even the occasional heat-related premature failure should not deter you from trying. The rewards of peace are simply too high. You've got to realize that every hack carries a risk, and while the risks are usually worth taking for the results you achieve, you have to be prepared to live with (and eat the cost of) experiments that don't work out.

As for me, if my CPU, hard disk and power supply all die tomorrow from heat prostration, it will still have been worth it. I've had six good years of quiet, productive computing, and I can't calculate in dollars and cents the value that a quiet work environment has added to my computing experience.


Cub Lea is a freelance writer, programmer, documentation specialist and hypertext developer currently living in Western Canada. Cub is a member of The Feature Creeps, a virtual team of programmers, creative professionals and content developers spread across three continents, most of whom felt he should have charged by the hour for writing this article.

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