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Searching for the very silent PC

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SEATTLE, Washington (Reuters) -- Finding it harder to concentrate at your desk? Maybe it's the constant drone of your personal computer.

A small but growing niche of users fed up with office noise pollution are turning to very quiet PCs to take back the sound of computing silence.

While the first computers, especially those that used punch cards, made a racket, the advent of microchips and standardized components helped make computers silent and small enough to put on every desk.

But recently, PCs have started to become noisier again as they become more powerful.

That's because faster chips, which need to cope with increasingly complex software, generate more heat, which in turn needs to be dissipated with fans, heat pipes and vents, making computers sound more like mini-power plants.

"Progressively, PCs have been getting louder and louder over the years," said Paul Holstein, a business owner.

"I just snapped. If you can hear the PC through your walls from the bedroom, you've got a problem," Holstein said.

Holstein contacted (, a Vancouver, Washington-based custom outlet that specializes in creating nearly silent PCs. After buying one for himself, Holstein is now outfitting his entire business,, with silent PCs.

"We're building computers you just can't hear," said Jon Schoenborn, general manager of NW Custom Computers Inc., which owns and operates

Schoenborn, the business' co-founder, said that their orders have multiplied several times over the past year, but declined to give specific sales figures.

Other businesses are also cropping up to sell to users seeking silent PCs, including Tranquil PC in Britain and SilentPC in the Netherlands as well as various part suppliers in the United States.

Large PC manufacturers, such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., do not specifically offer quieter PCs, although they do market some models as being quieter than others. But a lot of Endpcnoise's business comes from making PCs from these companies quieter.

Most of this market concentrates on computers running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. Rival Apple Computer Inc., known for their cutting-edge designs, has long been conscious of computer noise, but some of the latest models also tend to get noisy.

Is it on?

Typically, PCs have several noise sources.

The power unit that provides power to the motherboard, hard drive and other components all emit noise. Fast central processing units (CPUs), as well as some types of video cards also have their own fans that cause noise, while hard drives and CD-ROM drives also emit whirring and mechanical noises.

Users have two options to create silent PCs: they can add new accessories to their existing computers to hush them, or build a new silent system.

A typical brand new silent PC will include a power unit designed to be barely audible, a slower-spinning CPU fan with a large radiator to dissipate heat more efficiently, and drives that are designed to be quieter.

The PC case, which usually has its own fan to keep air circulating within the box, comes without a fan but is instead bigger so that air can escape before it overheats the components.

Other exotic materials include noise dampening material for the walls of the case, specially designed cables to maximize airflow and cases to enclose hard drives.

Typically, these PCs can drop their noise levels to 25 or 26 decibels, while a human's lowest hearing threshold is generally considered to be about 20 decibels. A busy road is about 80 decibels and a quiet bedroom at night is about 30 decibels.

The typical silent treatment raises a PC's cost by about $150, according to Schoenborn. That's small change for businesses that need silent PCs, such as recording studios and design firms.

And increasingly, as computer users turn to their PCs to watch DVDs and listen to music, they don't want to hear the steady drone of a fan or a whirring hard drive in the background.

"The biggest complaint I get about these computers is that people can't tell if its on, or whether its in sleep mode or not," Schoenborn said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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