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Project Lab: Building a 'Silent' PC from Legacy Hardware

Subject: Editorial, Systems
Manufacturer: General
Tagged: silent, legacy

Take One

So, how do I even start building a silent PC with the thought of trying to accomplish it with no moving parts?  Well, before I could do anything, I had to dig into my closet(s) to see what pieces and parts I had at my disposal. After a few hours of fighting dust bunnies and electrostatic bags, I came up with the following components for my first test machine.

Motherboard: Gigabyte P35 DS3R – Released back in 2008, this low-to-mid-range motherboard used the Intel P35 chipset. While the board doesn’t have many of the features or capabilities available with new motherboards, it can still handle up to a Core 2 Quad CPU (LGA775) and 8 GB of DDR2 RAM. It has more than enough expansion slots and connectivity options to meet my needs.

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CPU: Celeron E3300 – Launched back in the fall of 2009, this dual-core CPU runs at 2.5 Ghz with a maximum TDP of 65 watts. While many of the old Celeron CPU’s were dogs, this chip was a favorite budget CPU for enthusiasts due to the ease at which it overclocked–and it could hit 3.3 Ghz with a little bit of tweaking. Even at stock speeds, this chip should handle the basic audio/video recording tasks I throw at it with ease.

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CPU Fan/Heatsink: The little aluminum heatsink and fan (HSF) unit that Intel bundled with the e3300 was adequate for regular cooling, but any overclocking would likely require an aftermarket cooler.

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Memory: 4 GB Kingston HyperX DDR2 800 (KHX6400D2) – The motherboard uses older DDR2 and I can use original four 1 GB sticks I used with the machine. While they aren’t as fast as newer DDR3, for what I need it for they will work well enough.

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Graphics Card: Sapphire Radeon HD5450 – The Radeon HD 5450 (10292DDR3L) with 512 MB of RAM is overkill for what I need, but was from a HTPC that I am no longer using. The card is passively cooled, and has VGA, DVI and HDMI outputs. It will be perfect for what I need.

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Hard Drive: Western Digital 160 GB Caviar Blue – This was an old WD drive (WD1600AAJS) that used to be the boot drive in one of my earlier PC’s. Specs include: 7200 RPM spindle speed, 8 MB of cache and around 64 MB/s read/write speeds.

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Power Supply: Thermaltake TR2-430 – Nothing more than a simple ATX power supply with enough wattage for my basic needs here. I rescued it from a neighbor who was going to throw it out.

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Optical Drive: LG CD/DVD Burner – Just your basic all around CD/DVD Drive. I think I have 4 or 5 of them scattered in the closet(s).  Though I only recall putting 2 of them in there.  Maybe I should separate them…

NIC: Intel Pro/1000 GT Desktop Adapter – I could have just used the Gigabit LAN port on the motherboard, but this card is sitting my closet with nothing to do. I had originally purchased it for a home server, but ended up pulling it from there when I figured out it was causing issues with a Minecraft server setup I was messing around with. These are great NIC’s and since Skype is very reliant on bandwidth, I figured it couldn’t hurt to use in the machine.

Case: Thermaltake M9 – This is a good mid-tower case that was used as my main PC case a few cases ago. The case has six 5.25” bays, three 3.5” bays, seven expansion slots and two 120mm fans in the front and rear. The power button is broken (I’ll just plug the reset button lead into the power button header pins and use that for power) and the fans have this annoying blue LED light built into them, but the M9 is an all-around generic PC case that will be fine for what I need.

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Monitor: Soyo 24” Topaz S LCD Monitor – This is a great 1920 x 1200 (16:10) LCD monitor I purchased between three and four years ago. I would still be using it if I hadn’t decided to upgrade to a 3 screen Eyefinity setup on my main machine–and found it was cheaper to buy 3 new 23” Asus 1920 x 1080 resolution monitors than it was to buy two more of the Soyo’s. Though lately I have been eyeing those Catleap 270’s...

Keyboard: Lenovo KB0225 PS2 Keyboard – To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure where I got this keyboard since I don’t actually own any Lenovo machines. But, of all the keyboards in my closet, this one had the quietest key strokes. You’d be surprised how loud typing can sound on a recording.

Mouse: Logitech MX510 – Like keyboards, my closet has more mice [mice do tend to multiple as fast, if not faster than, dust bunnies] than I know what to do with. The MX510 is a great mouse and seemed to make the least amount of noise on button presses compared to any of the others. 

Microphone: Blue Yeti USB Microphone – One of the better USB microphones that I’ve found for voice recording. Of course, the downside of a decent microphone is that it is very sensitive and will pick up a lot of background noise. [I have noticed this as well when using my Blue Yeti for recordings.] 

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Headphones: Audio Technica ATH-M30 – During my test recordings, I discovered that I needed a set of ‘closed’ headphones. Closed headphones seal around the ear and don’t allow any of the sound to escape, whereas open headphones are not sealed and you’ll get sound leakage. During my recording tests with others, I would get an echo caused by callers' voices leaking out of the headphones and getting picked up a second time by the microphone. You can spend a crazy amount of money on headphones, and at $45, these are a steal.

Webcam: Logitech Pro 9000 Webcam – A 2 Megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens that I got a few years back. The camera can capture up to 720p video, but it’s always been a bit flaky for me.

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As I started putting everything into the case, I noticed that the TR2-430 power supply did not have any SATA power connectors for the hard drive and optical drive. Luckily I had a few SATA/Molex power converters lying around, and was still able to use the power supply. As a quick side note, any time you order a cable or a connector, it’s not a bad idea to order an extra one or two. You always seem to need one during a 2 AM PC repair session, and it never hurts to have some extras floating around.

Once I had everything together the machine booted up fine, and I began installing an extra copy of Windows 7 Home Premium I had. Before I had even finished the OS install, I recognized that the first build of the ‘silent’ PC, wasn’t silent by any means.

All of the fans were raising a ruckus. To start with, the Intel aluminum heatsink and fan for the E3300 is pretty small (looks to be around 80mm), and as soon as the CPU was under load the fan spun up and whined like a banshee. The optical drive did make some noises during bootup as it was initialized by the BIOS, but once the machine was up and running and it wasn’t in use, it stayed silent. The Thermaltake TR2-430 had two small 80mm fans that spin up to 2400 RPM and once the PSU started to warm up, each of these started making as much noise as the CPU fan did. To add to the noise symphony, any time I accessed anything on the hard disk I could hear the hard drive spin, whine, click and clatter. Finally, the ‘silent’ dual 120mm case fans that came with M9 were pretty old–and the bearings are starting to wear, so even spinning at only 1300 RPM, they just cranked up the noise to 11.

The first thing I did was scrap the optical drive. While it wasn’t in use often and didn’t make a lot of noise, I just didn’t need it. I could install the OS using a USB thumb drive, and pull any software installs I needed over my local network or off the internet. Next up on the hit list was the OEM Intel CPU fan. After digging through my closet, I found I had an old Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus heat sink and 120mm fan that I could swap in. During normal audio/video recording, there is not a whole lot of heat being generated in the PC–other than the CPU–and with the CPU covered by the Cooler Master; I figured the case fans could go as well. 

As for the hard drive and the power supply, I was somewhat up a creek without a paddle. Either I had to live with the noise the hard drive and PSU were making, or I had to buy some upgrades. Living with the noise would not mesh with my goal of building a ‘silent’ PC, so I decided to spend a few dollars to upgrade both. When in doubt, buy something new from Newegg I always say. Going with a SSD would take care of any hard drive noise, so I ordered an OCZ Agility 3 120 GB SSD for about $120 after rebate (it’s now about $90 with rebate.) To deal with the power supply noise, I recalled seeing a few reviews of fanless PSU options out there. After a bit of research I settled on the SeaSonic SS-460L 460W fanless PSU for $115.

August 20, 2012 | 11:41 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

i have 2 pentium 4's in the house that still run like brand new.

January 10, 2014 | 08:30 AM - Posted by scrap metal (not verified)

i also use that product.. no problem now it self it is good and best.

August 21, 2012 | 10:18 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Your desk is the best part of the whole project!! =)

August 21, 2012 | 02:26 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Heh, thanks! Tried a couple of setups before I figured it was better to just keep things simple. :)

August 21, 2012 | 11:13 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Possibly a bigger heatsink on CPU and open chassis would lower temps without need of fans?

August 21, 2012 | 02:27 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Probably would work, though I was trying to keep costs at a minimum and use gear I had on hand. I'm sure with a big enough heat sink, you can easily go fully fanless.

August 22, 2012 | 05:19 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

A very nice build with parts laying around doing nothing. You can't beat that with a stick!

I pressed my old AMD Athlon 64-X2 4600+ back into service using its original MSI MB and 2GB of DDR RAM with a new Radeon 5450 1GB card and DVD drive, all running Windows 8 Release Preview. It is also very quiet and serves as my HTPC for the time being. It will run most hi-def videos and plays music just fine. Moreover, it runs my web browser with aplomb. I use my 52" HDTV for a monitor and it works perfectly well for my purposes!

Come on guys and gals! You must have something laying around that still has a few more years of usefulness! Have at it and let us know! :)

August 22, 2012 | 07:55 AM - Posted by Chris Barbere

How do you like the Windows 8 Media Center? I've got two Win 7 Media Center/HTPC's setup and been wondering if there's any reason to upgrade them to Win 8.

August 24, 2012 | 03:58 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I'm running an old socket 939 X2 3800+ with 2gb of ram and an nVidia 6600 in the man cave. It's attached to a 32" tv and I use it for web browsing and streaming content from the server or, eh, sports ;) I also installed air mouse so I can use my phone as a keyboard and mouse.

August 22, 2012 | 10:39 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Actually, I haven't fiddled with the Win 8 Media Centre yet. But, in my humble opinion, there is little reason to upgrade to Win 8 if you like Win 7. Win 8 runs a little easier on older gear, as it is built to leverage every part of your PC to gain whatever extra performance it can, including your video card, but the difference is pretty small in my experience. I am running Win 8 64 bit and with my Athlon 64 X2 4600+ it does run happily on just 2 GB of RAM. Still, Win 7 64 bit runs pretty well on 2 GB, too.

Running things that really tax a system like mine, like 60 fps HD video, it doesn't thank you for the work out and stutters a fair amount. However, if you can keep things down to 1080p at 30 or 24 fps, you won't have difficulties.

Of course, you don't want to run multimedia creation apps on this kind of machine, it is just too much for it handle without waiting a fairly long time for results. But playback of HD video and any kind of audio you please, works great.

Nevertheless, I don't think MS has anything special in Win 8. I, personally, don't like the interface at all and don't think many other people will either.

Hope that helps a bit.

August 25, 2012 | 10:39 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Great article! Typo on the last page. Fourth sentence of the section starting with 'Final Build' is missing a letter. Says 'depending'.

August 26, 2012 | 07:35 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I'm really happy to see this article. I've been working on the exact same project with a Biostar p45 board and an e3300 that I had lying around for a Windows 7 DVR box.

My main issues are similar to yours. The pc is in my bedroom so I need it to be quiet.

-Haven't found a socket 775 cooler that is quiet. Anyone have suggestions of what is currently available?

-Was eyeing up the same PSU but still need to order it.

-running a similar video card so good there

-need a large hdd for the television recordings. I suppose I could switch to an SSD and then copy the videos that I want to keep over to an external drive manually, I have a few usb3 enclosures with large drives in them

Chris, how come you didn't swap out the cpu fan with the quieter and newer one? Is it because of a 3 wire vs. 4 wire connector issue? No fan speed control on the new fan perhaps?

August 27, 2012 | 09:05 AM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Be careful with the external HD's, I've found those can be a lot louder than hiding a drive in your case. WD does make some "AV Class' hard drives that are built to be put into DVR's and run cooler/quieter that might be worth a look.

http://wdc.com/en/products/internal/av/

As for the CPU fan, I didn't swap it out with the Scythe because there was no simple way to mount it to the heatsink. If you look at the 212, you'll see the clips that hold the fan on the heatsink are actually molded to the fan and snap into a notch on the heatsink. It doesn't have metal clips, like many other heatsinks, that would have let me put and fan on.

August 28, 2012 | 02:23 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Chris, Thanks for the reply.

Just to clarify, I was thinking of simply using the externals only during file copy operations, and then just shutting them off otherwise. They won't need to be on 24/7.

I'd just mount the drives in the case but noise and power consupmption, as well as hours on the drives are all keeping me from installing them in the system.

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