How to fix a noisy notebook or desktop PC

Save energy and get a quiet life

When we're trying to concentrate, there's nothing more irritating than a noisy, overheating computer. Follow our tips to get a quiet life and save energy in the process.

I can't imagine how I'd cope without my laptop. It takes up much less workspace than a desktop PC would, and I can simply scoop it up and dash out the door should I need to work on the go. But when I'm trying to concentrate, there's nothing more irritating than the hum of its fan. It also amazes me just how hot it gets sitting on my lap.

Excessive noise and heat output are the warning signs of an inefficient laptop that's wasting power. And this doesn't earn it many Brownie points at a time when most of us are trying to reduce our energy consumption.

Fed up with the racket and the nagging guilt as I watched the battery level drain before my eyes, I decided to look into what I could do to bring my trusty machine back to full power and perky efficiency - and how to make it run more quietly, too.

It turns out that both laptops and desktop PCs can be easily tweaked to run cooler, quicker and quieter. Not all the options covered in the following pages are simple to implement but, depending on your level of expertise and confidence, you can have a quieter work companion in no time.

Quieter, more efficient PCs use less energy too, so you'll be saving money as well as regaining your peace of mind.

Fix a noisy, overheating laptop

The most likely culprit for a noisy laptop is its cooling fan. But before you start panicking about the complexity of replacing the fan, there is a simple way to reduce the noise output. You'll need no more than a screwdriver and a can of compressed air.

Turn off your laptop, remove the battery and unplug the AC adaptor. Look for an air vent on the outer edge of the laptop; there should be an access panel on the bottom nearby. Unscrew the panel and remove it. You should see the fan immediately underneath. This design isn't universal, but most laptops use a similar chassis and internal configuration.

Now it's time to blow out the dust. You may prefer to do this outdoors rather than in a tidy study. Hit the fan with short bursts from various angles, blowing most frequently in the direction of the air vent.

If you're using an air compressor, keep the pressure relatively low and don't get too close with the nozzle. You don't want to damage any of the internal components.

Raising your laptop just a few centimetres away from your lap or desk can also considerably improve things. Not only will this improve the airflow around the vents on your laptop, which means the fan won't have to work as hard and won't be as noisy, it'll also stop whatever lies underneath the laptop from getting hot.

Most laptop cooler stands also let you move the display closer to eye level and put the keyboard at a more ergonomic angle.

Kensington's Easy Riser Cooling Notebook Stand is a good example. It's suitable for laptops with screens sized from 12 to 17in and it folds flat for easy transportation. The tiltable plastic device features a lip and rubber pads to grip your laptop into place. You can then adjust both the angle of the display and the base - thereby altering the height - to achieve a comfortable viewing position. Note that you will need to use a separate keyboard, however, since the stand doesn't afford a comfortable typing position.

If you don't want to lug around a spare keyboard, or you'd prefer to sit your machine on your lap rather than a desk, Antec's Notebook Cooler 200 is ideal. The device rests on your lap, with the laptop placed on top. It contains a 200mm USB-powered 'Big Boy' fan that runs at either 400 or 600rpm, depending on the amount of cooling required. The Antec isn't a cheap buy, but it's recommended for high-spec laptops.

If yours is a middle-of-the-road laptop, you'll probably prefer to pay less and get a less high-tech solution. A good device here is the Targus HeatDefence for Laptops. This quilted plastic mat is filled with heat-absorbing crystals that liquify as they absorb heat and crystallise as they cool. Be warned that once the crystals liquify under the part of your laptop base that gets hot, the bottom of the pad in that spot can get pretty warm itself. You can easily turn the mat to move a crystallised part under the hot spot.

The 10mm-thick Targus HeatDefence is suitable for laptops with screen sizes up to 15.4in and is available in red or black. It's easy to fold up and carry with you, so expect to be able to spread it out and get to work wherever you may be.

It's not always the fan that is to blame for a noisy laptop, however. The hard drive has a number of moving parts that can make a noise as they spin. Although you can't actually silence the hard drive, it's worth considering that solid-state disk (SSD) drives have no moving parts and are therefore quieter than traditional hard drives.

If you're feeling confident enough, replace your hard drive with an SSD. Alternatively, keep an eye out for a model that uses an SSD when the time comes to replace your laptop.

Keep your desktop PC quiet

When it comes to reducing the noise output of your desktop PC, many of the laptop-oriented principles we suggested earlier apply. The fan is usually a huge contributor to noise, so it's worth cleaning this.

Shut down the system and unplug all the cables except for the power lead. Touch a metal part of the system case to ground yourself and discharge any static, then unplug the power cable. Doing this should prevent any damage occurring to the electrically sensitive components inside the system case. Wear shoes and work in an uncarpeted room.

Spread a layer of rubber (mouse pads are useful here) between the PC and your desk. Wear an antistatic bracelet and connect it to a metal part of the PC chassis. Open the PC case. Pull out any loose clots of hair, dirt or other obstructions. Then use a can of compressed air to blast anything else away and out of the PC.

While you're poking around inside the case, make sure that the internal cables lie clear of the vents. You can use cable ties to fix these to the sides. Close the system case and reconnect the cables.

To prevent future dirt accumulation, try to keep your PC chassis off the floor - this is where much of the grime originates. Repeat this cleaning process on an annual basis, and more often if you have pets.

If this doesn't improve things, consider installing a fan that's designed to produce minimal noise. QuietPC offers a range of fans (sized from 40 to 140mm) from reputable manufacturers such as Acousti, Noctua and Scythe. Many such fans have three-pin connectors that will simply clip on to your motherboard.

It's also worth considering the types of screws and mounts used for items that vibrate, such as the fan and the hard drive. Swap metal screws, washers and fan mounts with rubber varieties to reduce the noise caused by vibrations.

Another culprit for a noisy desktop PC is the hard drive. As we mentioned earlier, it contains moving parts which can cause a racket as they spin. Quieter solid-state disks (SSDs) can be installed in desktop PCs, either in place of the hard-disk drive or in addition to it.

Alternatively, a number of companies, including Western Digital and Samsung, make near-silent hard drives. Western Digital says its Caviar Green model saves energy to make it better for the environment - and for your pocket - and produces less noise than comparable drives by spinning at 5,400rpm.

If you're not confident about replacing your hard drive, it's worth noting that most modern hard drives - Seagate drives being a notable exception - have a feature called Automatic Acoustic Management. This feature reduces the noise made by the drive when seeking from one part of the disc to another. However, the feature is often disabled because it reduces performance.

Before you enable this feature, visit your drive manufacturer's website. Maxtor, Samsung and others provide configuration utilities that let you turn acoustic management on and off.

If you can't find a utility for your drive, try the Hitachi Feature Tool. It works with most brands of drives, even though it's designed for Hitachi products. The utility can't be run from Windows, so you must either download the Windows disk creator, which will make a bootable floppy disk, or the CD image, which you can burn to CD to create a bootable disc. You then put the disc in the drive and restart the PC.

The Hitachi tool has a text mode interface and supports a mouse, so it's quite easy to use. It allows you to change many options besides acoustic management. Be warned: some of these options could change the way data is organised on the drive, while others could switch the drive into a mode in which it can no longer talk to the controller, giving you no way to switch it back.

Don't tweak what you don't understand and, if you don't have a backup of your important files, on your own head be it.

The next step is to look at your PC case as a source of noise. Cheaper cases are made of aluminium, which will conduct the vibrations from fans and hard drives and create noise. Antec offers a number of quiet PC case ranges, including the Performance One and Sonata series.

These cases use a dual-chamber design that isolates heat and noise and provides a separate chamber for the power supply. However, if you're planning to swap cases, bear in mind that the quieter acoustic cases often have a horizontal media centre PC-style chassis.

If you don't feel confident dismantling your PC and installing it in a new case, you could instead pack your current case with insulating material. Two types of noise are generated by your PC: 'airborne' is created by components including fans and hard drives; 'structure-borne' is created by the same components but amplified by the case. Thankfully, most insulating materials combat both types of noise.

The AcoustiPack Ultimate Multi-layered Material Kit comprises two sheets of 4mm (two-layer), and one sheet of 7mm (three-layer) acoustic material. These sheets feature a self-adhesive backing and can easily be cut to size and applied to the inside of your case. It's non-flammable, too, so you can mount it wherever it's needed most.

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Carrie-Ann Skinner

PC Advisor (UK)
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