This Computer Is As Quiet As The Mouse

[Tim aka tp69] built a completely silent desktop computer. It can’t be heard – at all. The average desktop will have several fans whirring inside – cooling the CPU, GPU, SMPS, and probably one more for enclosure circulation – all of which end up making quite a racket, decibel wise. Liquid cooling might help make it quieter, but the pump would still be a source of noise. To completely eliminate noise, you have to get rid of all the rotating / moving parts and use passive cooling.

[Tim]’s computer is built from standard, off-the-shelf parts but what’s interesting for us is the detailed build log. Knowing what goes inside such a build, the decisions required while choosing the parts and the various gotchas that you need to be aware of, all make it an engaging read.

It all starts with a cubic aluminum chassis designed to hold a mini-ITX motherboard. The top and side walls are essentially huge extruded heat sinks designed to efficiently carry heat away from inside the case. The heat is extracted and channeled away to the side panels via heat sinks embedded with sealed copper tubing filled with coolant fluid. Every part, from the motherboard onwards, needs to be selected to fit within the mechanical and thermal constraints of the enclosure. Using an upgrade kit available as an enclosure accessory allows [Tim] to use CPUs rated for a power dissipation of almost 100 W. This not only lets him narrow down his choice of motherboards, but also provides enough overhead for future upgrades. The GPU gets a similar heat extractor kit in exchange for the fan cooling assembly. A fanless power supply, selected for its power capacity as well as high-efficiency even under low loads, keeps the computer humming quietly, figuratively.

Once the computer was up and running, he spent some time analysing the thermal profile of his system to check if it was really worth all the effort. The numbers and charts look very promising. At 100% load, the AMD Ryzen 5 1600 CPU levelled off at 60 ºC (40 ºC above ambient) without any performance effect. And the outer enclosure temperature was 42 ºC — warm, but not dangerous. Of course, performance hinges around “ambient temperature”, so you have to start getting careful when that goes up.

Getting such silence comes at a price – some may consider it quite steep. [Tim] spent about A$3000 building this whole system, thanks in part due to high GPU prices because of demand from bitcoin mining. But cost is a relative measure. He’s spent less on this system compared to several of his earlier projects and it let’s him enjoy the sounds of nature instead of whiny cooling fans. Some would suggest a pair of ear buds would have been a super cheap solution, but he wanted a quiet computer, not something to cancel out every other sound in his surroundings.

67 thoughts on “This Computer Is As Quiet As The Mouse

    1. It should be pretty quiet but still far from complete silence. It should be physically impossible to accomplish that as event the fact it’s warmer than surroundings will make some noise. But even apart from that – electronics makes “a lot” of noise on their own. Switching transistors for example.

      1. No. It transmits the sound by being in physical contact with the source.

        I used to have a motherboard that had power regulator coils which would sing like little songbirds when using certain software. Depending on how the CPU load was shaped, they’d beep, whine, tweet, chirp…

        1. I still have one computer (in a box in the garage…) that whistles any time you move the mouse.

          It drove me to distraction, and aggravation, since I had purchased the motherboard but then let it sit too long to return it by the time I found it was so musically inclined.

    2. True jpa — a young person with exceptional hearing might be able to hear something. Right now, however, I’m in a very quiet room and I can’t hear anything. In fact, I haven’t heard a single sound from this system since I built it. Maybe one day the PSU will start humming, or the GPU will develop coil whine. I’ll update my blog if it happens. Cheerio!

  1. Another solution is to put the computer in another room or the cellar and find a way to neatly get all signals to the place you use it.
    And with HDMI/displayport and USB3.0/3.1 WiFi and the disappearance of DVD that is much more easy than it used to be.

    You’ll need a ESP8266 or some such for activating the reset button though.

    1. A room mate of mine did something like that where he ran a power switch wire to his desk, ran wire extension cables for the other devices and kept all the hardware in a closet in the next room over other than the USB cable end, mouse, keyboard and monitor on the desk. I’ve done similar for a bar install at my old house.

      Currently… or really more-so a few months back, I was sensing signals anomalies in all the devices, and even objects around me, so haven’t been shielding though thinking about ferrites on each end of the USB cables, copper braid over the cables attached to the Faraday caged area and acoustic foam lining also… preferably under the copper braid also. Would be interesting to make a optical wireless keyboard and mouse option like an opto coupler for higher frequency signals challenge to hack sound and other body or mind RFI/EMI into.

      The articles build is passive design awesomeness though.

      1. You are right, an optocoupler might do the trick.
        I was worried about cable length and spurious signals (and of course having yet another cable might be a bit much too).

          1. Uhm… how about think of the power supply like a wall wart then run wires in a shielding choke AC filtered bundle or have a battery rotation where the system runs off DC directly with one set of batteries in the Faraday cage anechoic chamber and another set is charging outside… maybe from a solar panel or turbine to get off the hackable grid more.

        1. You want to worry about cable length and quality of cable since you might need to boost the signal after a certain length due to losses, this I found more an issue with USB. Kind of like radio operations where “cables” are feedlines that have electrical/magnetic losses, properties and specifications… plus can act like antennas if not shielded/filtered critically thinking.

        1. Servers generally aren’t “turned off”, and there are power strips that can be turned off remotely, but then this is HaD so that would be a weekend project anyway.

        2. Oh to completely turn it off you mean? Because the BMC will be able to shut it down. It won’t be able to turn off the mains power going in but who does that to a desktop? If you do that the power button doesn’t work.

          Anyway assuming you mean completely remove all mains power, how’s about a wifi-controllable plug socket? Computers don’t tend to break 2kW so one of those would be fine.

    2. This is what I do with my “desktop”. It’s a server running in my basement (an OpenCompute unit to be exact, part of a twelve-node cluster), running Ubuntu Desktop. On my desk is a RasperryPi 2 acting as a thin client, connecting to my desktop machine with VNC. Since everything is wired over ethernet there’s no lag, everything works nicely over VNC (including audio, remarkably).

      The only main disadvantage of the setup is that the RPi can’t drive multiple displays, but a more capable thin client machine would do it just fine.

      I almost never shut down my server cluster, but the NICs support Wake-on-LAN, so I can hibernate the machines and re-wake them with WOL commands if needed.

        1. I’m using ThinLinc for VNC. It’s a proprietary VNC solution that has a free trial… I’m only using it because I ran into issues with Ubuntu’s Unity desktop not working properly over other VNC. The standard VNC solutions worked fine for Gnome (tigerVNC, tightVNC, etc).

          I believe ThinLinc is basically a tweaked TigerVNC. From what I can tell, it also spins up a PulseAudio server and forwards that over SSH too. So I suppose it’s not really audio over VNC, just that ThinLinc bundles it all up together and makes it work together nice.y

    1. Mouse trap and a bit of boiling water :-)
      Now seriously, is it alright to have a heat exchanger (or whatever it’s called) made from two different metals, copper and alluminium in this case? Is it not going to corrode fast, expecially in the presence of fluid?

      1. The fluid needs to be electrically conductive, which typical silicon oxide paste isn’t, and aside from the electrolyte you also need a return path for the current. Think of a galvanic cell – you dunk two dissimiliar metals in a beaker of electrolyte, and what happens? Nothing, until you connect the two by a wire.

    2. I remember first hearing that some computer mice have a constant high-pitched sound coming from them, I laughed until I put my mouse to my ear.. and there it was.

      1. Yep, that’s the ceramic resonator used to produce the USB 12 MHz clock. It sends ultrasound everywhere, and that ultrasound interferes with itself or excites other resonances at even fractions, all the way down to 23.4375 kHz, 11.71875 kHz, 5.859375 kHz… etc.

      1. Maybe replace the switches with dome switches :)
        Amusing since it’s so counter what you want in a mouse.
        I wonder, do they actually sell some sort of single dome-switch switch you can drop into existing devices? Or maybe one of us can be the first to introduce such a thing to the world.

    1. You mostly hear them messing about with their tiny feet and teeth. At least the mice in my walls and ceiling. Only once in a blue moon there’s a soft squeak.

      A recent UK prime-minister once killed a mouse in № 10 Downing Street the news said. Typical that he had to go and kill it, but whatever.

  2. Sooo – throwing money at a company that builds silent and fanless PCs is now a hack?
    Nice one – done that in the past.
    Sorry but from one of the first pictures on the blow I thought he BUILT his own case. But yeah …. sadly not.

    The case is nice and the build is neat. But I for myself would find it much more appreciable if he had to really hack some stuff together. I own an old HTPC-case tat can take an micro-ITX board. But now it boasts a full blown ATX board because I chopped half the case up to throw out unneccesary stuff.

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s neatly done – but then again its just money spend on all components to make it silent. Heatpipes, Case etc. all from the same manufacturer to do this project.

    1. PS:
      The 3 grand total won’t come from the “Crypto craze”. 200 bucks for a 1050 Ti. Hardly a dent. I paid 150 for mine when it launched and now it’s up 50 bucks. So you still have nearly 2 grand for the case and cooling alone. Around 1K for the Hardware – Deflate 1K price down 30% as a buffer for Crypto-currency-prices and you have a base price of around 700 – 800 bucks for the HW alone. Still expensive AF or a silent PC.

      I wouldn’t spend that much money on it. Just leave the case-fans out. Don’t need one if you don’t plow your machine. Get a proper CPU cooler that is large and with really low RPM / Noise levels. Get MSI Afterburner for these Pesky GPUs because they are a PAIN when idling. Shut them off they won’t overheat or let them idle at 10 – 15% RPM. Near silent and can’t be heard from sitting distance.

      Again – not fanless – but costs a fraction of that.
      To each his own.

      1. It’s 3kAUD, not USD. That’s about 2kUSD. And there’s the whole way that everything is expensive in Australia. The case is only $320 on newegg. The rest of the parts are pretty standard.

  3. Back in the heydays of 68000-machines just about EVERY Computer was quiet: Mac Plus, Atari ST, Amiga 500.
    Well, at least until the floppies spun up :-)

  4. > Of course, performance hinges around “ambient temperature”, so you have to start getting careful when that goes up.

    unless you’ve stuck a heat pump (peltier or otherwise) into your computer, your CPU temperature and max performance are always a function of ambient temperature. all the fans in the world can’t get you below ambient.

      1. I thought at first embedded piping in the case was the custom built.

        “The top and side walls are essentially huge extruded heat sinks designed to efficiently carry heat away from inside the case. The heat is extracted and channeled away to the side panels via heat sinks embedded with sealed copper tubing filled with coolant fluid.”

        Then found reading more is COTS using heat sinks. Embedded in the walls would be more efficient. Swagelock quick connect fittings maybe for interface? Seems with more integrated heat pipes, you could penetrate a RFI/EMI gasketed interface steel case and acoustic foam easier and not have to worry about fancy baffling with chore boy for air heat exchange without sound & RF also.

        Even cooler… pun intended… would be to run the copper outside to a heat exchanger underground maybe even in hot climates or like a central air unit. You could have a closed loop I’m thinking if needing more shielding.

  5. I wish I could get a silent PC, but there is this background droning undulating sound in my house that drives me nuts if there isn’t some other sound to drown it out.

      1. Some days I wonder if the bomb squad or ES/TS leaked to much tech regarding remote sensing devices with even the fired departments who figured out how to transmit directionaly/focused coupled to the remote sensing listening devices.

  6. Not in the same league, but my Shuttke server has no fan and can reach 29W under a heavy load. I fondly remember the story kf an Apple that was fanless. It had all low pwr chios, and overheated… until they used regukar chips. Then it got hot enough fir thermal convection to come into play.

  7. Another great example of how ‘building’ a computer and “building” something else are very very different.

    A guy who ‘builds computers’ is asking himself the same kinds of questions as any other design engineer, but he is working with an extremely limited number of parts that are technically designed to work together. That’s not what the first guys who ‘built an airplane’ did… Building a computer is more like doing automotive maintenance than building a car.

    I guess my real question is, why is this guy proud it took him thirty years to do this? It could have been done thirty years ago. He’s either exaggerating about how important this was, or he’s an idiot. One thing for sure is that he has a lot of money but very little perspective.

    1. 1) You misread the article if you think I was ‘proud’ it took 30 years.
      2) It couldn’t have been done 30 years ago because a) SSDs didn’t exist back then, b) large-capacity RAM didn’t exist back then, c) mITX cases didn’t exist back then, d) CPUs were woefully underpowered back then, e) CPUs were horribly inefficient back then, etc., etc.
      3) Being able to build a computer from consumer-grade parts, that fits inside a 17L case, that is powerful enough to run demanding simulations for ~15 hours a day — every day, that consumes only ~65W on average, that is completely passively cooled, that makes no audible sound whatsoever… well, yes, I think that’s pretty freaking awesome.

      Have a nice day.

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