Are fanless PCs now a sensible purchase? I do a lot of sound recording and the idea of a genuinely silent PC is very attractive. Peter
Recent innovations in the PC market have been devoted to producing cheaper fanless PCs, though that wasn’t actually the goal. The focus was on producing thinner laptops and tablets, but these have huge problems dissipating heat. Intel tackled this problem by gradually reducing the amount of power its chips consume. Now they don’t get as hot, they have less need for fans.
For example, a very fast desktop processor such as the Intel Core i7-4960X has a TDP (thermal design power) of 130W, which is hot. Laptops used to have 45W or 35W processors, which fell to 15W to 17W for thin machines. Intel’s Core M range brought that down to 4.5W. Today, even cheap Intel Atom-based chips (often Pentium or Celeron branded) run at 6-10W.
There are drawbacks. When these chips get hot, their performance has to be throttled, or they are shut down altogether. This is fine for intermittent uses such as word processing and web browsing. However, these chips are not suitable for sustained processing jobs such as video editing and gaming, and they could struggle with audio mixing and editing.
How many fans?
A powerful desktop PC may have three or more fans. The CPU and power supply will have their own fans, and so will fast graphics cards with GPUs (graphics processing units). Sometimes, separate case fans will circulate air to keep disk drives and other parts reasonably cool.
Of course, thin laptops and tablets run from batteries, so they don’t need internal power supplies. Nor do they have separate graphics cards: they usually have GPUs integrated with the processor, as in “Intel Integrated Graphics”.
If you don’t need a lot of power, then there are plenty of small, cheap PCs that use the same technologies as thin laptops. They are either fanless, or their fans are almost noiseless, except when the processor is driven hard.
However, if you need high performance for tasks such as video editing or serious gaming, then it’s still a challenge. You may need a fanless power supply and more innovative approaches to cooling. These include heat pipes – which are increasingly common in thin laptops – and sometimes liquid cooling.
Mini PCs and nettops
If you want something small and cheap, there’s the usual plethora of choice: searching for “Mini PC” on Amazon.co.uk gets more than a thousand results. Searching for “nettop PC” finds a more manageable 34 results, because this term has mostly dropped out of us. Not all these machines are fanless, but most should run quietly if not overloaded.
People typically attach these systems to their flat-screen TV sets: they’re fine for video streaming, catch-up TV services, and simple computing. They can also run Spectrum, MAME and other game emulators.
At the low end, there are cheap systems such as the fanless Voyo Sleek Mini PC. This has a 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3735F, 2GB of memory and 64GB of eMMC chip storage and a 4K HDMI port for only £89.99. It’s much the same spec as an entry-level 10in Windows laptop or 2-in-1, but without the keyboard and screen. It runs a 32-bit Windows 8.1With Bing (presumably the free version), but gets a free upgrade to Windows 10.
If you want something more powerful, there’s the Eggsnow range of fanless, aluminium mini PCs. These include Core i3-4010U or Core i5-4200U versions with 4GB of memory and a 64GB SSD for £212.99 and £248.99 respectively. However, they can take up to 16GB of memory, up to 256GB SSDs, and up to 1.5TB hard drives. You could buy a base Core i3 system for £156.99 and fit your own memory and SSD.
The Eggsnow models compete with Apple’s Mac Mini, which starts at £399 for a Core i5 system with 4GB of memory and a 500GB hard drive, and tops out at £799 for one with 8GB and a 1TB drive (or £1,759 with all the upgrades). However, the latest 2014 Mac Mini has soldered-in memory and is due for an update.
Building quiet PCs used to be an art that involved specialised components, such as fanless power supplies and liquid cooling, added damping for rotating drives, and paying attention to the airflow through the case. I assume Chillblast still does some of this. However, things are easier today, because companies can start with barebones cases like the Shuttle and small ITX motherboards, or just use a tiny Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing).
The NUC usually includes a large heatsink and a small fan, so I would not expect an off-the-shelf version to be silent. However, some companies have designed NUC cases that, in essence, work as large heat sinks. Obviously, you wouldn’t run one in a confined space, but in normal conditions, they can radiate enough heat to stay within the TDP limits.
Quiet PC’s UltraNUC is an example, with systems being built-to-order in the UK. The UltraNUC Atom version starts at £325, while the Abel-cased UltraNUC Pro fanless starts at £595. Quiet PC also offers many other silent or quiet PCs, media centres and entertainment systems, so you might find something that suits you better.
Aleutia’s R50 Fanless – “carved and crafted in the UK” – is a robust but classy-looking NUC variant. However, it’s really intended for industrial and commercial uses. An R50 standard with a Core i3, 4GB of memory and 60GB SSD costs £599. Aleutia also sells a T1 nettop “Eco PC” with a Celeron J1800 and 2GB of memory for £349, or with 4GB, a 120GB SSD and Microsoft Windows for £499. Tiny Green PC is an alternative supplier.
In all the above cases, double-check to see if the price includes a copy of Windows. Most do, but some mini PCs are sold without an operating system for people who want to run Linux.
Most modern desktops now run quietly, except when stressed, and the trend towards low-TDP Atom processors and SSDs is making them even quieter. (You can check the TDPs and benchmarks of different chips at Notebookcheck’s Comparison of Mobile Processors.)
The questions you now have to answer are (a) how much power do you need, and (b) how much are you prepared to pay for silence?
If you want to make recordings in the same room as your PC, bear in mind that a mouse-wheel may make a clicking noise – yes, I’ve been caught out by that – and keyboard use is probably out of the question. There are times when a touch-screen has the advantage of being quieter.
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