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.

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