Want the quietest PC? Just get the right chip . . .

I replaced both my home and work desktop PCs during the past year. My previous home system was a noisy, energy hogging, budget 2006 Dell model that was preloaded with useless software while my work system was a 2004 Dell that was also noisy. I’m done with Dell.

More importantly, I’m done with noisy PCs. This time I was determined to get the cleanest, quietest PC I could get for less than $700.

Clean system is easy. Stick to Asus or Lenovo systems while avoiding Dell and HP systems, especially those intended for homes. Or switch to Macs.

It took a bit of research to find out that quiet is also easy. Brands, fan types, case types, hard drive quality, DVD drive type, or quality builds are minor factors compared to one dominating factor:

The main chips must generate little heat.

To get quiet along with decent performance, you simply limit your chip choice to mainstream mobile CPUs with integrated graphics from AMD or Intel that have been released in 2011-2012: Lllano, Trinity, Sandy Bridge, and soon Ivy Bridge.

The rest of this post answers in more detail the two questions implied above: For about $600-$700 can an ordinary person with no technical knowledge buy an off-the-shelf system with mainstream performance that is very quiet (and clean, while you’re at it)? Among the thousands of possible off-the-shelf systems, what simple rules of thumb can you apply that insure the system will be quiet and clean?

But first, to understand the basics of why processors are so important to quiet systems . . .

CPU and graphics chips both consume most of the power inside PCs or laptops. The more power they consume, the more heat they generate, and the more cooling is required to prevent damage by overheating. Cooling is usually done by fans, which are effective and inexpensive, but get louder in proportion to how much heat must be dissipated. Therefore:

Less power –> less heat –> slower fan speeds –> quieter system.

The Best CPUs for a Quiet, Affordable PC

To determine which CPUs offered an appropriate mix of high performance and little power usage, I read half a dozen lengthy articles about the latest chip technologies, dove into tech forums, and took extensive notes. It ended up boiling down to just a few points:

1) Chips which require the least amount of power also tend to be too slow for your main system. These include Intel’s Atom and AMD’s E-350 chips. AMD E-350 chips are faster than Atom so some claim they’re good enough for systems used mainly for office work. This may be true for a newly purchased PC. But if you want your system to still feel snappy after a few years of software and operating system updates (or if you use more computationally intensive software), you want a faster chip inside.

2) Mainstream chips since 2011 from AMD (Llano and Trinity) and Intel (Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge) are very fast and power efficient compared to prior generations. Intel’s chips are better suited for computationally intensive tasks like large spreadsheets while AMD’s systems have better integrated graphics and are therefore more suitable for light gaming. Both handle all routine mainstream tasks with ease, including 1080p video playback. Both are not adequate alone to handle heavy gaming, which will generally require the addition of a discrete graphics card.

3) Mobile versions of these chips are geared for lower power consumption, which ultimately means a quieter system than systems using desktop chips. Furthermore, in Intel’s case the mobile version includes better integrated graphics. Intel chose not to include very good integrated graphics with most desktop versions of their Sandy Bridge chips, so most desktop systems will include a graphics card that generates even more heat, leading to an even noisier system. This is very annoying for those (like myself) who prefer desktops over laptops. And, for reasons unknown to me, large Windows system vendors don’t build Windows desktop systems with mainstream mobile chips at mainstream prices.

4) Therefore, to get the best combination of quiet, low power system with good performance (also known as best “performance per watt”), you’re best off with mainstream mobile chips inside. Apple figured this out long ago with its Mac Mini model—the main reason it’s so much quieter than other desktop systems is the mobile CPU inside.

5) Currently the sweet spot for quiet systems with good performance at affordable prices is mobile systems based on AMD’s Llano or Intel’s Sandy Bridge. Recently released AMD Trinity and Intel’s Ivy Bridge systems coming out later in 2012 have better performance per watt, but cost more. You can have a very quiet system with any of these.

How to Get Quiet Systems with Best Performance per Watt at Mainstream Prices

1) To achieve mainstream prices of less than $700 for a very quiet, pre-built Windows system that includes a display and a high performance CPU, you’ll have to get a laptop (or notebook or ultrabook or whatever they call it these days).

2) For Intel, this means any chip model number on this Wikipedia list for mobile Sandy Bridge, or this Wikipedia list for mobile Ivy Bridge.

3) For AMD, this means any chip model on this Wikipedia list for mobile Llano, and any chip model on the mobile portion of this Wikipedia list for mobile Trinity.

4) If you think you’ll want to do light gaming on your system, then get AMD. If you think you’ll do heavy calculating (i.e. very large spreadsheets), then Intel. If neither of these applies to you, then it doesn’t matter whether you use AMD or Intel, so long as the mobile chip is on one of the lists I linked to.

That’s it!

Are My Systems Actually Quiet?

Yes and No. Yes for my work system, thanks to being paired with a quality slot loading DVD drive. I review it here:

My Amazon Review on Lenovo ThinkPad Edge e420s

My home Lenovo system has a tray-loaded DVD drive which is noisy when spinning at high speeds. A bug in Windows Media Center forces noisy, high speed spinning when movies are played from DVD. If not using Windows Media Center to play movies, the less expensive home system is as quiet as the work system:

My Review of the Lenovo Thinkpad Edge e520 on Amazon

If I had to do it all over again I would have purchased both Lenovo Edge e420s systems. The e420s can often be found for less than $600 with an Intel Sandy Bridge i3 inside and has better overall build quality, with the DVD drive mattering most from the noise perspective.

But I’m happy with both of my new systems, despite the fact that Intel marketing pushed me to buy laptops when I really wanted desktops. I’ve even begun to use my systems away from my desk, on occasion.

Bottom Line: My new systems are fast, clean, and quiet. I’m done with Dell. I’m done with useless pre-loaded software. And most importantly, I’m done with noise.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

13 thoughts on “Want the quietest PC? Just get the right chip . . .”

  1. You can also buy any desktop system and relocate the tower into another room. Use long wires for video/USB/audio. Gives you the choice to run any hardware and you don’t have to loose out on speed due to optimizing for noise. As far as a clean system, reinstall your OS once you get it.

  2. little background: I live in India, with two pre-school kids at home, and i need good graphics, not worried about calculations.

    and as you mentioned we do not have choise of choosing mobile MB/processor and suitable cabinate for them.

    and Price in India for these laptop is way high thanks to my govt taxations.

    and I do not want my kids to start using laptops, this early. so my choices are very limited to get quieter desktop.

    did you came accross any good cobination of processor and MB for desktop which does not use mobile technologies?


  3. Paul – I appreciate your alternative perspective for the technically inclined. Everything you say is correct, but does not target the same audience as this post. This post is meant to answer the questions:

    For about $600-$700 can an ordinary person with no technical know how buy an off-the-shelf system that is very quiet (and clean, while you’re at it)? Among the thousands of possible off-the-shelf systems, what simple rules of thumb can you apply that insure the system will be quiet and clean?

    I have a question for you: Are there pre-built water-cooled systems that can be purchased (with monitor) for less than $700 in the U.S.?

  4. There are a couple of ways to do it. Here in the UK Cyberpower.co.uk will configure a PC around £500 (computer kit tends to be £1~$1 exchange) with various watercooling options. I suspect in your local region you will find companies that do a similar thing, but they tend to be relatively local.

    You can also get a prebuilt water cooler for a CPU, such as a H50 for about $100 that can be fitted to most desktops if its get a 120mm fan slot at the back. Then you can buy a Dell/HP/Sony and fit just the cooler yourself to rid some of the noise. It’ll offer higher performance at less cost but with a little bit of effort to fit the cooler, but its pretty simple to do.

  5. Pinak – The Indian market has a different set of choices and price points than what I’m familiar with in the U.S. So not sure how much I can help you. What is the price of a Mac Mini in India? If it’s reasonably priced then that would be a good choice.

  6. I am surprised to hear about your experience with Dells. I generally recommend used Optiplex 755 or 780 for businesses on a budget. They are ultra quiet, cheap and very reliable. I believe Lenovo makes a great product too.

  7. I got a http://www.asrock.com/nettop/overview.asp?Model=ION%20330Pro for my gf’s father. Changed the fans (the cpu-fan is kind of noicy), and the computer doesn’t give a sound. The performance is enough for web browsing and playing solitaire – which is all he do.

    I have one of my own as a HTPC using XBMC and it works great. That’s an alternative for 3000 SEK (I would guess like 300 USD).

  8. Isak – Thanks for your comment. Asrock is another nice boutique manufacturer I ran across in my research for this post. But you are forced to choose between weak CPUs to hit the sub $700 price or more expensive units to match what is commonly found in laptops these days. The particular unit you referenced has a dual core Atom 330 CPU and Ion GPU. This unit will be noticeably slower to boot, launch apps, and load internet tabs that make heavy use of flash or javascript. It will be even more painful to use with more demanding applications.

    The Asrock CoreHT 252B has a CPU that is nearly identical to what is in my 2 laptops (i5 2520m). It is actually currently on sale at Amazon for $679.99. I’ve looked at this unit in the past and the price had always been closer to $1000 than $700. Don’t know if this is a temporary sale or permanent price reduction but when this is available for less than $700 USD, it is a reasonable alternative to a laptop. However, note that Windows must be purchased separately so the real price even with this particular sale is close to $800, and requires installing Windows after purchase, which is not quite the “2 clicks to buy a quiet, ready to use PC” I’m trying to describe in my post.

    The Asrock CoreHT 252B is the best prebuilt Windows capable unit I found in my research and for those who want an HTPC in their living room and refuse to have a bulkier laptop for that purpose, this is the best alternative. If they sold a version with Windows pre-installed for less than $700, I bet they would sell well due to lack of competition.

  9. Kinda confused. This blog post starts off talking about (or implying) about how to get a quiet desktop computer, then concludes that the solution is to get a quiet laptop. What if you want or need a desktop computer? Can you use a mobile CPU in a desktop computer?

  10. Dr Doodle – Perhaps I should have included a separate section about getting mobile CPUs inside of desktop units. In the Mac world it’s easy – get a Mac Mini. It’s a small desktop unit with a mobile CPU inside. Very low power and very quiet for all the reasons stated in the post and the low end version retails for $600 or less.

    Unfortunately in the Windows world the major PC vendors do not make systems with equivalent price and quality to the Mac Mini. Dell has sold the Zino in the past but the product line had lower powered parts than the Mac Mini and they seem to be phasing out of it. Note that the Dell Zino 410 was the pinnacle of Dell’s success with the Zino line and had its fans (as well as some good reviews). So it’s a bit mysterious why gave up just when they were getting very close to competitive with the Mac Mini.

    Boutique PC makers make some high quality systems that are in some ways better than the Mac Mini but they are over $1000 for the most part. This is why I ended up with 2 laptops each costing around $600, as they do everything the $1000+ systems can do with the only real sacrifice being the form factor. If price is not that important to you, I would suggest you look at the following two vendors:

    Puget (the echo line): http://www.pugetsystems.com/echo.php

    Asrock nettops: http://www.asrock.com/nettop/index.asp

    You can also buy much lower cost nettops (Asus makes these well) but the CPUs are far weaker Atom chips. Atom-based Nettops can be a fine choice for a system used for internet/email/word processing, but if you’re intending this for your main system that will do more processor intensive activities, you want to avoid Atom.

    Let me know if you have any more questions.

  11. Hi there – really enjoyed your article on finding the quietest PC. Have a question though. Am just about to buy a MAC mini. You mention that integreated graphics is efficient. I would like to buy the one with the additional AMD graphics card – Do you think that is more likely to make the unit more noisy?

    So many thanks in advance for replying!

  12. Kenneth,

    I spent a few minutes to see if I could find a definitive answer but could not. However, I would expect that anything which causes extra watts to be used is going to be noisier because the fan will spin at higher speeds. The graphics may only kick in for long periods of time when playing games, doing video editing, etc. so with normal use there may be no difference at all. Also, even at the higher speeds it can’t be all that noisy.

    If you plan to get a used Mac Mini with a DVD drive, then the loudest component by far will be the DVD drive when you’re using a disc for any purpose, including watching a movie. So I wouldn’t worry too much about the graphics chip unless keeping the system whisper quiet is very important to you.

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