This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Building a quiet Linux system doesn't have to mean tearing up your box and starting over. Follow a few simple tips for a placid work environment.

Step 1. Figure Out What You Really Need

The first rule of Linux box quieting is there's a balance between silence, coolness and power. Servers aren't noisy to impress customers; they're noisy because they're designed to stay cool even if some fans fail, so they have more and bigger fans than they need.

Outside the server room, though, silence is golden.

When starting this article, the home office where the victim PC lives measured about 41 dBA with the computer off and 49 dBA with the computer on. The goal is to get the box quiet enough that it's not noticeable in its normal environment. A system for a factory floor or a recording studio would be handled differently.

Step 2. Learn to Measure Your Results

Because you'll be changing the balance of power, cooling and sound, you need to measure all three. A general rule that applies to both management and hacking is, "Don't change anything unless you know how to measure the effect of the change." Therefore, let's get the measurement tools down before we start changing stuff.

Power is up to you. Use your favorite benchmark. If your Intel-inside system suddenly drops to half speed, the processor is trying desperately not to fry itself, and you need to cool it down again.

Cooling is an area where the PC hardware manufacturers thoughtfully help you out with temperature sensors on the critical components. Get lm_sensors working to keep an eye on your processor temperature, and use smartmontools to log the temperature of your hard drive or drives. Helpful LJ articles on both are in Resources for your convenience. As you make quieting improvements, check to make sure the temperatures don't go out of spec. If you weren't sure that your system was cool enough to start with, you can look up the specs on the processor vendor's and hard drive vendor's Web sites.

For measuring the noise level, get a small sound pressure level (SPL) meter, such as the Check Mate CM-100 from Galaxy Audio.

Step 3. Cheat by Moving the System

The noise that reaches your ear is what counts. If you're silencing your Linux box purely for the hack value, skip this section. Otherwise, remember that moving the system is allowed. Put the noisy box on the other side of the desk or even in another room.

In most cases, every device that you want to touch--the mouse, keyboard, CD burner, scanner and any other input device--is available in a USB version. That's good news, because it means you need to run only one VGA cable per monitor, plus one USB cable, from the system unit to your work area. Put one USB hub in your work area and a second USB hub somewhere in between if you need to go more than five meters.

If you're an IBM Model M keyboard aficionado or otherwise attached to one particular PS/2 keyboard and pointing device, use a pair of PS/2 extension cables, which are inexpensive. Alternatively, invest in one of the USB adapters that make your old-school keyboard and mouse show up as a standard USB keyboard and mouse.

Putting the box in another room involves cutting a hole in the wall that looks like it's supposed to be there. You'll need a drill, a jab saw, two low-voltage rings, two junction box covers, and--very important--a vacuum cleaner for the drywall dust. Do a neat job and practice saying, "I don't know, it was like that when I got here", just in case. If your Linux box ends up in someone else's office, though, you'll have to explain it. Just say it's "for security".

Step 4. Listen for Loud Parts and Make Improvements

In most cases, the four loud parts to deal with are the processor fan, the power supply, the hard drive or drives and miscellaneous fans.

The processor fan accounts for a surprising amount of the noise from the system, because it's coupled to a resonating surface, the motherboard. Replace the fan and heat sink with a high quality cooling unit that has a lot of surface area. We used a Zalman CNPS7000A-Cu, which is specific to the Intel Pentium 4 processor. Zalman's coolers come with a speed control knob, so you can adjust the fan speed to meet your processor temperature goal.

Zalman recently introduced a new cooler in which the fan is attached to the case, not the motherboard. We'll try that when we get a hold of one, as we expect that not making the motherboard resonate will be a big win.

The second loud part to deal with is the power supply. Zalman comes to the rescue again, with the ZM400B-APS. It has a thermostat, which is a "why doesn't everyone do this" feature. If the system heats up too much, the power supply fan speeds up to compensate--no knob tweaking here.

Seagate Barracuda drives receive good recommendations in quiet PC circles, and this one doesn't disappoint. Because we thought ahead and already had one in the test system, we don't have before and after numbers.

As home office system is a run-of-the-mill PC, we're able to get by without extra case fans by positioning the hard drive in a good spot and keeping an eye on it with smartmontools.

Finally, we make a pass through the system to look and feel for loose screws, cables that rub against things, loose case parts and other annoyances. Tighten everything up, remembering never to use a screwdriver on a thumbscrew that goes into a threaded aluminum part; it will strip before you think you're putting any torque on it at all. Fasten cables with Velcro, not cable ties, so they're easier to reposition if needed.

Step 5. Configure the System to Minimize Noisy Activity

We can get the hard drive to be quiet by putting the system into laptop mode, a new 2.6 kernel feature that minimizes disk activity. Although it originally was intended for laptops, any reduction in hard drive noise is good news for quiet desktops too.

Watch the September issue for an easy introduction to laptop mode.

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DVD speed control?

Anonymous's picture

setcd/hdparm only seems to work with CD media in my dvd drive. I had to use Pioneer's tool under windows to slow the drive down to be able to enjoy dvd playback...

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

My ASUS Mobo, K8V Deluxe, has "cool n' quiet" but it also has a separate bios setting that adjusts fan speed based on cpu temp so you can use it with any OS. When the cpu goes >50 degrees, the fan speed picks up to a max of about 5700 rpm until the temp drops. (When disabled, it also defaults to around 5700rpm.) However, that only happens when I'm running video, etc. Otherwise, the fan runs around 3200-3600rpm most of the time for regular web browsing, email. And it only required enabling one setting in the bios. Much, much quieter and requires basically only one tweak.

Otherwise, I also recommend moving your box. To the person who claims the temp in their room raises "several degrees" because of their box. That's one HOT cpu or one SMALL room. :)

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

It's probably his CRT that is warming the room. CRTs put out quite a lot of heat.

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

cyclocommuter's picture

Here are the steps I took to build a quiet Linux PC:

1. Got an Intel D865 PERLK motherboard with a total of 4 fan headers on the motherboard (1 for the CPU and 3 for chassis, PSU fans). The fans attached to these headers rotate much slower (1000-1300 rpm) when the PC is not being stressed. The fans speed (up to 2000+ rpm) increases as soon as temperatures (monitored by the motherboard) increases.

2. Used a Zalman 7000 AlCu heatsink to cool the the P4 CPU.

3. Installed Seagate Barracuda hard drives which I find are quieter than other brands.

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

My ASUS Mobo, K8V Deluxe, has "cool n' quiet" but it also has a separate bios setting that adjusts fan speed based on cpu temp so you can use it with any OS. When the cpu goes >50 degrees, the fan speed picks up to a max of about 5700 rpm until the temp drops. (When disabled, it also defaults to around 5700rpm.) However, that only happens when I'm running video, etc. Otherwise, the fan runs around 3200-3600rpm most of the time for regular web browsing, email. And it only required enabling one setting in the bios. Much, much quieter and requires basically only one tweak.

Otherwise, I also recommend moving your box. To the person who claims the temp in their room raises "several degrees" because of their box. That's one HOT cpu or one SMALL room. :)

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

I wrote an article of how i powered my 12V cpu fan directly to 5V, instead of the "recommended" 7V.

Noise reduction is significant although there's no measuring that proves it. CPU temp is acceptable: 35C right now.

It's in spanish, but altavista seems to make it understandable. Lots of graphs too...

Babelfish translation

Original article (spanish)

4 months and it seems to be running OK.

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

dmarti's picture

Some 12V fans won't even turn at 5V -- but I connected 2 fans in series to get 6V and much quieter operation on a previous system.

Re: Slow your fans down

Anonymous's picture

A 12v fan run really quietly at 7v (with less cooling of course).
Hook your 12v fan to the +5v and +12v (i.e. 7v drop).

Make sure you still have enough airflow.

I'm guessing that the fans will last longer too.

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

Well what I did was...
- get a power suply(psu) with a fan that is temp controled... got it real chep as well

- got a tr2m4 cpu cooler... has a control knob and I'm running it at 3000rpm or lower... it's virtualy soundless...

- reduced the core voltage on my athlon-xp from factory defualt 1.75 iirc to 1.65 or something like it... don't remember the exact values anymore... that alone reduced the total heat output by 5

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

You should really point out in your resources section a web site with lots of info and discussions about how to silence PC's:

http://www.silentpcreview.com/

I would also push other cpu coolers and power supplies. Zalman is a good place to point people in general, but choice is always a good thing, and there are other companies which do good work in keeping things cool and quiet. People can poke around at silent PC review for lots of suggestions.

What About Heat?

Anonymous's picture

Noise in one thing, but my Athlon XP box puts out enough heat to boost the temperature of the room by several degrees.

I'd hide the thing in a closet to cut the noise, but I'm sure it would roast itself in short order.

Anything I can do....other than stuffing it in a refrigerator?

Re: What About Heat?

douglas_slac's picture

Well, stuffing it in a fridge might make the computer cooler, but room will get hotter. Actually I heard of someone doing this, and having problems because of water condensing on the system.

But maybe you need to put a fan in your room? Or perhaps your cpu should run slower or at lower voltage? This can be done with some kinds of athlons and motherboards, lowering the clock speed and cpu voltage will lower the heat produced, sometimes by quite a bit, and usually a desktop user won't notice. Plus heat means less fans, and less noise.

Also the power supply can produce heat if it is not that eff. There are new power supplies that are 80% from Seasonic and Enermax, most power supplies are 65% to 70%. A new power supply could cut down the heat.

Or if heat is the only problem, not the noise, then pipe the heat to someother part of the house, and have it help in the heating bills.

Re: What About Heat?

dmarti's picture

If fan noise is the main issue, try to identify the most annoying fans and replace them with higher-quality ones that will move the same amount of air with less noise. Be sure to measure temperature before and after.

Instead on lm_sensors...

Anonymous's picture

try mbmon. Totally userland, extremely simple to use.

How about that silent air cleaner from Sharper Image?

Anonymous's picture

Has anyone hooked up one of those silent air cleaners (Quadra?) advertized by Sharper Image? A blower without blades, it might work well enough.

What'cha think?

Re: How about that silent air cleaner from Sharper Image?

Anonymous's picture

The Sharper Image cleaner isn't silent. It makes an annoying noise like a broken CRT monitor.

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

Watch out for your hard drive when you're using Laptop Mode though. Most desktop hard drives are rated for approx 40-50K spindowns/spinups, which amounts to only 27 spinups a day during a 5-year period. That's about once every hour. Laptop mode will make your drive spin up and down at least once every ten minutes. That'll reduce the lifetime by a factor 6, or under a year. If you only use your PC for 24/6 = 4 hours a day then that compensates, but still -- these are not limits you want to push.

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

Power supply noise can be reduced to virtually silent by using one which is fanless. Silenx, who also carry a number of other quiet computer parts, is now selling these.

Silenx Luxurae Power Supply

A bit expensive, but you'd be hard pressed to find a quieter power supply. I've ordered one and am looking forward to trying it out. I'll be checking temps regularly to reassure myself that case fans alone are enough to keep things from getting too hot.

Ye canna defy the laws of physics!

Anonymous's picture

Got it, tried it. Verdict: if you already have more than enough cooling from the case fans, you'll get a reduction in noise if you replace a psu with fan with one without. However, if you've already gone to some trouble to reduce fan noise with speed controllers like those by Zalman, you may find that you have to tweak up the speed on the case fans to keep the luxurae from cutting power (it has safety built in to prevent melt down). In that case the benefit isn't as great if there is any at all (YMMV, etc).

Even in the case where you have more than enough cooling power from the case fans, given the expense of the luxurae it would be smart to price out the cost of greater control of case fans speed, and quieter fans if you haven't already got them. Of course, if you've got money to burn you could do both. The luxurae is a nice power supply overall, not just for its silence.

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

I would say too expensive. There are power supplies from Seasonic, and the NoiseTakers from Enermax, which are 1/3 the price and will probably be quiet enough for people.

Re: This Linux Box Is too Loud!

Anonymous's picture

At some point it becomes very subjective. And the quest for a quiet computer can become like an obsession, where anything other than absolute quiet is an annoyance. Reduce the noise on one component, then suddenly the noise of another component becomes more apparent. I am such a one obsessed, and my 'quiet' Seasonic may be quiet but it is not silent. And it calls attention to itself when the speed of the fan changes causing a change in the volume and pitch of the sound.

Beware all ye who enter upon this quest, for this way madness lies. Or if not madness, then at very least a slimmer wallet.

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