Viewpoint: Silence Is Golden


The adage "silence is golden" should be the mantra of manufacturers interested in selling multimedia-focused PCs, especially if they want the PCs to end up in customers' living rooms or bedrooms.

While PCs can enhance home entertainment--such as by providing easier recording and storage of TV shows and streaming digital content throughout a house--their success in this area has been slowed because most of them look and sound too much like typical computers. With televisions, DVD players and DVRs running silently and inconspicuously, it has been a bit of a jump to convince many consumers to buy a noisy, oversized PC just to manage their media.

Excessive noise output is the No. 1 shortcoming in most multimedia PCs. In some Digital Connect Lab reviews, testers had to turn up the volume of a DVD being played to drown out the noise of the PC.

Some vendors and system builders have found creative
workarounds to that problem. Niveus Media offers Intel-based Media Center PCs that run almost silently by employing heat fins on the case to dissipate heat, instead of noisy fans. And Polywell Computers along with (aptly named) Tranquil PC soon plan to offer a quiet Media Center PC based on a low-power processor from Via Technologies.

However a larger industry effort is needed to tackle the noise problem. This month we look at efforts by Intel and AMD to improve Media Center PCs, especially their sound output. Each company offers tools that automatically adjust the performance of their processors based on a system's particular demands, reducing the need for noisy fans.

Yet Jeffrey Stephenson, founder of system builder
SlipperySkip, says much more work is required to produce quiet PCs than just improving power consumption and processor cooling. Stephenson builds computers based mainly on Via processors and hides them inside humidors, pieces of art and other nontraditional locations, and so noise elimination is an absolute requirement.

Most name-brand PC makers install a heat sink and/or fan directly above the processors and additional fans elsewhere in the system to cool other components. Stephenson
points out that in such arrangements, each fan makes noise, and the fans together synchronize into an additional source of noise.

But the systems and cases of SlipperySkip's products are designed and configured to optimize air flow and cooling. In fact, Stephenson tries to avoid fans or at the most use a single fan.

A typical solution for Stephenson is to install a large, slowly spinning--and therefore quiet--fan on one side of a PC, directly opposite a hole cut in the other side of the case. The fan then can pull cool air from outside the PC through the hole and across the system's components, instead of recirculating warm air inside the case, as most fans do.

The industry needs more companies like Stephenson's SlipperySkip that understand the need for PCs to be silent and invisible. Intel is working toward building quieter home PCs with better designs, and to that end it's offering a barebones Media
Center PC model
that resembles a DVD player. Hewlett-Packard's z540 family of Media Center PCs also resemble DVD players and operate very quietly.

Hopefully, more component manufacturers, PC vendors, system builders and other players will recognize the priority of silence. Then the industry's success in pushing multimedia PCs into homes won't be marked by the sounds of boxes moving but by the silence of their operation.

MICHAEL GROS is associate editor of Digital Connect. He can be reached at (516) 562-7276 or via e-mail at mgros@cmp.com.