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Can we build a PC that’s quiet and cool without sacrificing performance—or spending a fortune?

Anyone can build a gaming PC. Seriously, it’s easy. Minus a few technological bits of know-how here and there, there’s really nothing that tough about buying the fastest components you can afford and slapping them in whatever chassis you happen to have on hand. Done, right?

Maximum PC never shies away from a challenge, however, and Sr. Associate Editor Nathan Edwards has upped the ante for this month’s build-it. One of the key problems of building a tricked-out rig is that you’re sure to increase the ambient volume of the system as you increase its power. But I’m not here for a trade-off: No, I’ve accepted the challenge to build a gaming system that’s as quiet as a mouse.

Spoiler: It’s a lot harder than it seems.

Ingredients

Total for Sound-Dampening Parts (incl. case): $278

Total for PC: $2,318

Choosing the Right Hardware

The backbone of my proposed gaming PC is fairly standard: a Core i7 CPU paired with an Nvidia GTX 480 videocard. That is more than enough to frag my friends in any title I toss at it, and more to the point, if you already own a PC you want to hush, these are parts that a Maximum PC reader could very well have. Of course, you don’t need these exact components—though the total cost of my silenced rig exceeds $2,000, the cost for the sound-damping materials (including case) is less than $300, and you can easily apply those materials to the PC you already have.

There’s no shortage of devices that promise awesome performance at an ultra-low acoustic profile. My plan was to stick as many quiet-themed products in my PC as possible—including a silent CPU cooler, an aftermarket cooler for my videocard, quieter fans, and as much acoustic padding as I had room to mount into the case.

But that’s not all. For comparison’s sake, I also decided to build a rig inside of Fractal Design’s R3 chassis—a $120 case that arrives on your doorstep pre-configured for silence (see review here). Besting this quiet beast was my secondary goal.

Thermaltake

Jing With two 12cm fans to push air over the heat fins, it’s a much quieter cooler than the stock Intel model that came with our CPU.

Zalman VF300F

This aftermarket GPU cooler replaces the hot-
and-noisy stock cooler of our EVGA GeForce GTX 480 with something larger and quieter.

Fan Controller

The inside of our case looked a lot cleaner before we inserted the PCB for our fan controller (and its tangle of fan cables and temperature probes).

Small Extras

Rubber mounting pegs rather than screws cut down on fan-vibration noise.

Putting It All Together

Staring at an empty case can be a daunting moment for the would-be soundproofer. Every part of the building process must be meticulously planned to avoid inducing rage and/or headaches caused by backtracking. The last thing you want is to try tacking acoustical foam all around a chassis once you already have your parts and wiring in place. I cannot think of a greater frustration than that, save for stripping the super-tiny screw on a videocard. More on that later.

Because of this, it’s really important to start this kind of build by determining how much soundproof padding you’re going to need and where you’re going to place it. You can pick up acoustical foam in a variety of configurations and sizes. Without getting too much into the intricate details, a simple rule of thumb is that more foam equals more soundproofing. Yes, you can buy super-fancy foam packs that are composed of multiple layers of various densities, but a single ordinary (albeit thick) density is fine.

Mounting the foam in my case was a relatively simple process. Next, I installed two 12cm fans into the chassis, using their included rubber fasteners rather than metal screws to adhere them to the case. The more I can cut down on unnecessary vibrations, the better.

You have to be careful, yet firm, when pulling the rubber fasteners through the fan and case. Too much pressure and you’ll rip the rubber fastener in two.

Although I intended to use some Yate Loon D12SM-12C fans, the 1,500rpm Silverstone fans that shipped with my chassis actually turned out to be a little quieter in an impromptu head-to-head contest. As always, the rear fan on the case was installed to push air out of the case, with the front fan sucking air in across the hard drive bays.

The Jing’s two fans pop off easily, which is good because you can’t install the cooler when they’re mounted.

I tossed in the system’s standard DVD burner to reward myself for my efforts thus far before tackling the elephant in the room: the aftermarket Thermaltake Jing CPU cooler that I picked up to replace the stock Intel cooler. Thoroughly describing how to install this particular add-on would require an article in itself. The short version is that it involved such enjoyable tasks as using two different cleaners to wipe thermal goop off the CPU; installing all sorts of screws, dividers, and other such accessories just to mount this behemoth of a cooler; and replacing one such mission-critical screw upon finding that it had snapped off within one of the mounting brackets. Thank [deity of your choice here] for spare parts.

Big and gaudy, just the way we like our CPU coolers.

Why go aftermarket, you ask? By slapping an ungodly large dual-fan cooler over the Intel Core i7-930 CPU, I believed I could achieve stronger cooling without having to crank the device’s fans to ear-splitting revolutions.

I slapped the cooler onto the CPU, then screwed the whole assemblage—motherboard and all—onto the chassis using the case’s built-in mounts. At this point, it appeared that I had reached the halfway point in our little adventure. The sweet silence of raw gaming power was in my grasp!

 


How to Install Acoustic Foam

Sticking a hunk of acoustic foam in one’s case is far easier than it might appear at first glance. Cut the foam to the desired length, remove the adhesive, and let ‘er rip.

Soundproofing foam, meet case door. Case door, meet soundproofing foam.

Now, where do you stick the material? Anywhere you’d like—provided you aren’t covering any active ventilation areas, like the cut-out holes used by a spinning fan. I stuck soundproofing foam to the top, bottom, sides, and front of my chassis. The more foam you use—or the thicker the material—the more you’ll be able to keep errant noise from escaping.

Simply peel back the adhesive backing on your foam to begin—careful, it’s sticky!

One caveat: Make sure you measure how much wiggle room you have to work with. Slap a full 2 inches of foam on the side panel of your case, for example, and you might not be able to actually get the panel on.

Gently apply foam to the case, ensuring that you don’t (accidentally) cover any ventilation holes or mounting bits.

Drive Silencing

I opted to try out some NoiseMagic No-Vibes III hard drive silencers for the rig, in the hopes that every little bit of sound-dampening available would allow the system to achieve top-notch results. Hard drive vibration, after all, can have an impact on the acoustic profile of a PC. However, I only ended up using the kit on one of the two hard drives—the 2TB Seagate Barracuda XT storage drive.

Though it looks like a futuristic torture device, the NoiseMagic No-Vibes III is really more like a hammock for your drive.

Why’s that? The other drive, a 600GB WD VelociRaptor, is a 2.5-inch device mounted on a 3.5-inch cooling bracket affectionately known as an IcePak. And the rubber-based drive tray that I used to stash it in my Silverstone PS05’s drive bay was more than adequate for preventing extraneous noise. Turning the drive on added nothing to the case’s overall noise.

Glorified rubber bands suspend your hard drive so it never touches metal. No metal-on-metal contact, no vibration. No vibes, no noise. Got it?

Also, using one of the NoiseMagic No-Vibes III drive silencers turned my 3.5-inch device into a 5.25-inch extravaganza. I’d much rather keep the system’s primary drive nice and cool in the proper drive bay area of the case—right in front of a fan—as opposed to the fanless 5.25-inch bay section.

…And Then The Fun Began

Using the same logic as I did for the CPU cooling, I opted to pick up Zalman’s aftermarket VF3000F cooler for the system’s Nvidia GTX 480 graphics card. A flashy heatsink coupled with two 92mm fans for cooling should, in theory, allow the card to hit lower temperatures and cut down on the GTX 480’s infamous noise production.

I’ll go over how one actually installs an aftermarket cooler in a moment. Just know that it is a far more difficult process than that of an aftermarket CPU cooler. With the GTX 480 in particular, it’s maddening. As other online forum posters have noted, Nvidia has really applied a ton of torque to the super-tiny screws it uses to connect the videocard’s proprietary heatsink to its circuit board, so much so that I completely stripped one of the screws when trying to remove it from the graphics card.

The worst thing about NZXT’s Sentry LXE is its medusa of cables and thermal probes.

What do you do in this kind of a situation? Cry. Because nothing short of drastic measures—including an attempt to superglue a screwdriver into the bored hole that was once a Phillips head—is going to get that screw out. In my case, I strapped on my +10 Goggles of Bravery, took a brief detour down to the hardware store a few minutes before it closed, and picked up a drill and a 1/16-inch bit. I bored a hole through the screw while visions of destroyed electronics and angry editors flashed through my head.

The new GPU cooler ended up working out just fine. I then attached the cable for its fans—and every other fan in the case—to my final, secret weapon: the NZXT Sentry LXE five-fan controller.

Yes, Virginia, that’s a touch-sensitive display. Control your fans with your fingers to totally customize your cooling.

The beauty of this device is twofold: It provides detailed precision over exactly how much juice the cooling devices receive and, more importantly, it does so via a wicked touch-screen panel that you can stash just about anywhere you’d like. With but the press of a finger, you can adjust your fans for any situation.

How to Install an Aftermarket GPU Cooler: Very Carefully

An aftermarket GPU cooler is exceedingly complicated to install, and you run the risk of bricking your card if you do it wrong. Here’s the gist: You unscrew the stock heatsink on the card via the super-tiny screws on the underside of the card. Take care not to bend or otherwise grip your card too tightly and, for the love of all things holy, be gentle—but forceful—when removing the tiny screws.

Note the sheer size difference between the card’s stock heatsink (far left) and our aftermarket cooler on the right. Goodbye, noise!

You’ll have to clean off the GPU (rubbing alcohol works great) and likely apply more thermal paste to it and to any of the other raised components that touch your new heatsink. You’ll also have a complicated series of washers, standoffs, and screws to fiddle with as you mount your new cooler in place—this varies based on the aftermarket cooler you’re using. No matter what, be careful: A videocard is a delicate object. Snap off or otherwise bump the wrong electronic element, and you’ll find yourself with a $300 coaster… or worse.

Taking a videocard down to its raw components—a circuit board and chip, in this case—is an extremely delicate process. You can easily brick a PC part.

So, How Did I Do?

Ultimately, my silent build was both a win and a loss. My work did indeed improve acoustical performance over my default Maximum PC test bed, which has stock coolers, no aftermarket accessories, and standard fans in an NZXT Panzerbox case. Using a Digital Sound Level Meter by Extech Instruments—which starts its measurements at 40 decibels—I clocked significantly higher sound readings from all measured portions of the Panzerbox chassis versus
my customized rig.

Extech’s 407727, which we found in the Lab, is a good sound-level meter, but it can’t match ultra-sensitive professional models, which cost about 40 times the price.

I also beat the results of the exact same system built in the soundproofed R3 case from Fractal Design, although not by quite as much as I had hoped, save for the hurricane of sound coming from the rear of the Fractal’s chassis.

Fractal’s R3 case is a crafted beauty, offering easy installation and preset soundproofing material for folks looking for a good off-the-shelf, silenced solution.

However, here’s the kicker: My system did not perform nearly as well against either rig in the recorded temperature tests. What I gained in acoustical excellence, I traded off in higher temperatures. This fact couldn’t have been made any clearer than when I ran an unofficial test to see if I could kick up the thermal performance of my hand-built rig. I cranked all of the system’s internal fans (save for the aftermarket GPU cooler) to maximum and my recorded temperatures still couldn’t match either my test bed or the Fractal R3–based system.

Sounding It Out

There are three key elements that you have to concern yourself with—above all others—when crafting a quiet PC: acoustic foam, fans, and the case itself. I think I did the best job possible with the foam, although I can appreciate the design of the pre-configured-for-silence Fractal R3. Because that case has a front door with side vents, air can be drawn in from the sides of the front panel while enabling the interior of the door to be fully covered with acoustic-damping foam.

Regardless, were I to do it again, I’d roll my own chassis in a heartbeat. However, next time I’ll select a chassis that allows me to use larger fans across all measured areas. A larger fan, after all, allows you to push more air at a lower speed, giving you the best of both worlds: less noise and increased cooling. I would also give myself more room for even thicker soundproofing foam where possible, to ensure the best possible trade-off of exposed space for cooling versus completely covered space for silence.

The noise levels of the aftermarket GPU and CPU coolers met my expectations. But I was surprised by the CPU cooler’s lack of, well, cooling. I wasn’t expecting a miracle, but I did have hopes that it would perform better than the stock cooler. I suspect a lack of external airflow into the case to be the primary culprit—with only one intake fan, the PS05 is hard pressed to provide the intake the Jing cooler needs. GPU temperatures weren’t recorded with the aftermarket GPU cooler, since we removed the onboard temperature sensor with the stock heatsink.

Just about any case can be quieted with the use of sound-damping materials and anti-vibration mounting—our Silverstone PS05 is quiet, but doesn’t look stuffy.

I would veer away from using special mounts for hard drives, preferring instead the simple rubber fasteners that give you some protection against vibration without forcing you to stash your hard drive in a different-size bay entirely. I’m not sure the trade-off of cooling loss versus potential acoustic savings was worth the effort or cost.

Overall, I’m pleased with my results. My system’s temperatures were a touch higher, but it’s a small price to pay for a stacked rig that purrs like a kitten when I fire it up. The NZXT fan controller single-handedly made this challenge a success, if for nothing else than allowing me to test cooling against acoustics on-the-fly. I highly recommend adding it to the top of your shopping list. The bottom line is that silence doesn’t come easy, and a truly noiseless PC doesn’t ever come cheap.

Benchmarks

Sound-Dampened PC Fractal R3 PC Stock PC
Temperatures (C)  
CPU Temp (idle) 47.25 39 36
CPU Temp (Max) 83.75 77.75 76.5
GPU Temp (idle) No Reading 40 36
GPU Temp (max) No Reading 92 85
HDD Temp (Barracuda) 37 26 24
HDD Temp (Raptor) 33 25 26
Sound (dB)
Front (min/max) Low/Low Low/Low 56.1/58.2
Side (min/max) Low/Low Low/44 51.3/55.6
Top (min/max) Low/40.1
Low/42.1 54.5/56.8
Rear (min/max) Low/43.4
56.5/60.6 64.5/68.8

All temperatures measured using HWMonitor. CPU temps measured after an hour of inactivity and an hour of full CPU load. GPU temps measured after two successive iterations of the Heaven benchmark at maximum settings. Acoustics measured using Extech 407727 SLM at 6 inches from center of panel. Min and max levels recorded; “low” indicates sub-40dB.

Never Built a PC Before?

Your case, motherboard, and cooler all come with useful instructions, but be sure to check out our most recent step-by-step guide at http://bit.ly/bldcreed.

Intel’s chip plant in Kiryat Gat, Israel, is about to be upgraded to 22nm production capability, the chip maker said at a news conference. The upgrade will see the company invest around $2.7 billion, including a $210 million grant that was recently approved by the Israeli government. The fab is expected to begin production on 22nm process technology in December, which is in keeping with the late 2011/early 2012 launch of Ivy Bridge processors — 22nm die shrink of Sandy Bridge. A few months back, Intel announced that it would spend up to $8 billion on similar upgrades to four of its existing plants in Oregon and Arizona and the construction of a new 22nm fab in Oregon.

Image Credit: Crown Heights

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Nokia has unexpectedly, and at the last minute, cancelled the US launch of the X7 smartphone. The device was apparently slated for a big announcement with AT&T as the exclusive partner at Mobile World Congress in February. This isn’t just another phone for Nokia, the X7 was to be the first US exclusive launch of a device since former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop took the reins of the faltering company. 

Sources said that Nokia decided to pull the device for fear that it wouldn’t receive marketing and subsidy dollars from AT&T. This leaves Nokia with the N8 as it’s only modern flagship phone, and there is no carrier support for the device in the US, despite it having a versatile penta-band UMTS radio. Clearly, the US market is a sore spot for Nokia.

It could be that Nokia is just biding its time until their next gen software platform, MeeGo, is ready for use on phones. Symbian is seen as clunky and old-fashioned by many in the industry. Even if Nokia has a plan, the US market isn’t going to wait forever. iOS and Android are already claiming users as their own in droves.

x7

Cirago’s device fills plenty of media roles, but it doesn’t excel at any

The Cirago TV Platinum CMC3000 is a small, network-connected box with HDMI output and an internal hard drive. This box can play back all manner of content, record TV from your set-top box, and provide 1TB of network-attached storage. You get all this for a street price less of than $200. What’s not to like? As it turns out, the Cirago is a classic jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

The box connects to your TV or A/V receiver via HDMI, and it has three USB ports on its side. Two of these are device ports and one is a host port (enabling you to connect the device to your PC for file transfers). There’s also a five-in-one flash memory card reader (Compact Flash cards aren’t supported, but SD and SDHC cards work fine.)

The CMC3000 ships with a full-size remote that’s laid out much like any DVR remote. The controls offer modest tactile feedback and button presses feel solid.

Setting up the Cirago is a straightforward process. According to the manual, you connect the Cirago via USB to your PC and transfer your multimedia files. You then unplug it and move it to your home theater or HDTV setup. This is probably a good idea, since the unit only supports 100Mb/s Fast Ethernet; USB 2.0 will be quite faster if you’re copying a lot of digital media. In this day and age of huge files and gigabit wired networks, it’s silly to ship a networked storage device with a slow network connection. Cirago also offers an optional USB Wi-Fi adapter that supports 802.11n. Depending on the performance of your home network, this could deliver higher data-transfer speeds than a wired connection.

The CMC3000 has an HDMI 1.3 output and an optical digital-audio output, but its audio and video inputs are strictly analog (and its video input and output are limited to composite).

In our case, we connected to our wired gigabit network. The CMC3000 had no problems obtaining an IP address via DHCP. We then moved a variety of digital media files, which took some time given the slow connection, but was reliable. Once you connect the CMC3000, you’ll likely be moving data via a LAN connection anyway, unless you want to be running back and forth with a USB key or flash memory card.

When you connect the CMC3000, you’ll notice an HDMI 1.3 port and an obsolete composite video connection; there’s nothing in between, no S-video and no component video. What’s worse is that the only video input is via composite video, so you won’t be able to record high-definition video from that spiffy HD set-top box.

We connected the CMC3000 to our A/V system to the HDMI input on our Onkyo TX-NR3000 receiver, which is in turn connected to a Sony HDTV. Audio pass-through worked like a charm, so we could get audio either direct to the TV or through the receiver to our surround-sound speaker setup.
We experienced HDMI handshake problems, however, if we powered up the Onkyo receiver first and then fired up Cirago’s device. If we turned the CMC3000 on first, the system would sync without problems.

Once you turn the CMC3000 on, you’re presented with this rather obtuse interface.

One of the CMC300’s promised benefits is its ability to record live TV via a timer, much like using a DVR. Unfortunately, this feature is limited. First, you have only a composite video input to work with. Secondly, you can only set up timers that trigger the device to begin recording whatever signal is coming into that composite video port—there’s no on-screen program guide that would let you schedule recordings of shows on cable or satellite TV. Even if you could add external device control via something like an IR blaster, you’d first have to program the source to power up and tune to the right channel at whatever time you want the recording to happen. That means you need to set up two timers on two devices every time you wish to schedule a recording.

The rest of the user interface isn’t quite as minimalist. The built-in browser works pretty well, and it allowed us to browse our network and to find media on our Windows Home Server. We also had content copied directly to the CMC300’s internal hard drive. That’s when we ran into playback issues. We have a number of AVI and Quicktime .MOV files encoded using the DVC (digital video) codec used in some camcorders, but the Cirago couldn’t play these back. It also couldn’t handle digital music encoded in WMV Lossless format. If you want support for Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and other online streaming services, you’ll need to install a copy of PlayOn (subscriptions to this service cost $40 for the first year and $20 each subsequent year, or you can purchase a license for the lifetime of the hardware—not your lifetime—for $80).

The bottom line: if you have bog-standard encoded media, the Cirago will probably play it back. It will also play back H.264 files, which are becoming increasingly common in online web video. We were also able to play back 1080p WMV-HD clips, which looked good and played back smoothly. The Cirago’s web interface for video is also a limited affair, but we didn’t encounter any issues with playing back supported web video. In the end, the Cirago is a strange mix of obsolete and cutting-edge technology coupled with relatively narrow codec support. Not a lot to get excited about here.

Cirago TV Platinum CMC3000

High Def

Relatively low cost; easy to set up.

Standard Def

HDMI sync issues; limited codec support; obtuse UI; Slow Ethernet; no built-in Wi-Fi.

score:6

According to All Things D, T-Mobile USA is preparing to launch a new app and service that seeks to make driving safer for customers. The Drive Smart Plus app will manage the user’s phone automatically in order to turn off many voice and SMS features. If a Bluetooth device is attached, the app can send calls there by default. SMS messages will be auto-replied to with a notice that the user is driving. The key here is the automatic part. Drive Smart Plus will turn itself on when it believes the user is driving. 

The apps and service will be opt-in, and at first it will only be available on the LG Optimus T, but other phones are in the works. It will cost subscribers $4.99 per month for the Drive Safe Plus service, but a free Drive Plus Basic app will be available. The key difference is that users must manually activate the blocking features of the basic app.

The Drive Safe initiative is based on technology from Location Labs. We imagine it tracks GPS much as Google Latitude does, and takes note of acceleration on roads to switch on the app. That means GPS-related battery use, and another thing to run in the background. Will users want to deal with the possible issues, and fees? Let us know if you’d be in.

ds plus

 

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