With the likes of Steam's Big Picture mode and better controller support making it more attractive then ever to get a gaming PC in the living room, the business of keeping that box of spinning fans and clicking hard drives quiet is essential. After all, the last thing you want while sitting down to play your favourite games on the couch is to have all the game audio pouring out of your classy surround system drowned out by the incessant whine of a cooling fan. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to quiet down a PC, which have the added benefit of keeping it cooler too. Whether it's an existing box, or a brand new build, here are our top tips for making your PC cool and quiet.
Clean Your Computer
An obvious one, perhaps, but giving your PC a thoroughly good clean is one the easiest, and cheapest ways to help reduce noise, particularly if you've had the machine a while. The fanciest things you'll need are a can of compressed air, a dust cloth, and maybe a dust buster if you have one. The vast majority of PCs will have some cooling fans on it somewhere, usually on the front and rear of the case, and inside on the CPU. Even water-cooled machines use fans to cool the liquid inside the radiator that circulates over your components. Naturally, as fans draw in air, they draw in dust too. If your components are clogged with dust, the harder your fans have to work to keep them cool, thus increasing noise.
First, look to see if your PC has removable dust filters--they're often just clipped on or attached with magnets--and give them a good clean, removing all that trapped dust. Next, open up your PC (unplug it first!) and go in with your can of compressed air or a cloth and remove the dust around fans and heatsinks inside the case. You may need to remove things like the GPU, or the CPU heatsink to give things a really good clean, but only do so if you're confident with the inner workings of a PC. A carefully placed dust buster will make short work of any large amounts of dust, but don't be too heavy handed, and remember that PC components are sensitive items!
How to do it: Remove dust filters and give them a thoroughly good clean. Open up your PC and get to work with a can of compressed air, a dust cloth, and a dust buster, cleaning up dust from around fans and heatsinks.
Do Some Cable Management
Cable management is a similarly cheap and easy way to boost airflow in your case, and thus make cooling more efficient. Typically, there are myriad of cables knocking around a PC case, connecting power and data to various components. If they're left in an untidy state, particularly if they're blocking fans, then air can't circulate, and case temperatures rise. It's a very easy fix, though, and all it takes is a few minutes of your time and some cable ties that you can pick up for mere cents.
First off, identify if your case has space behind the motherboard to stash cables. Enthusiast cases like Corsair's 450D come equipped with holes and rubber grommets so you can thread cables behind the motherboard and secure them with cable ties. Also, be aware that smaller Mini ITX cases like Bitfenix's Prodigy might look pretty on the outside, but their smaller size means there's less room for cables, which makes keeping them tidy that much trickier. But, even if your case doesn't have built in cable management, there's nothing to stop you from getting a little creative. For example, when I was building the budget AMD PC for GameSpot, I used one of the 5 1/2" drive bays of Fractal's Core 1000 case to bundle up any unused power cables.
How to do it: Grab some cable ties and find places where you can bundle cables up, or tuck them out of the way of fans, and components like the GPU or traditional spinning platter hard drives that get hot. As an added bonus, clean cabling looks far better than a random bundle of wires, especially if you have a windowed case.
Upgrade Your CPU and GPU Cooling
If cleaning and cable tidying don't help, then it might be time to look at buying a few new bits and pieces to help keep your PC quiet. The two noisiest parts of PC tend to be the CPU and GPU, because they run the hottest, and all that heat needs to be dispersed as efficiently as possible. If you've got a standard, off-the-shelf PC, it's more than likely it'll come equipped with a stock CPU cooler supplied by the CPU manufacturer. The same will apply if you bought a retail CPU from a store that came with a cooler in the box.
While these coolers mostly do their job just fine, they're designed to a budget, and to do nothing more than keep your PC's CPU within tolerable temperatures: noise and efficiency tend to be an afterthought. Fortunately, it's not too tricky to swap a CPU cooler, although, you'll need to be reasonably proficient with a screwdriver and comfortable working inside your PC case. There are numerous types of CPU cooler to choose from, including excellent air coolers from the likes Noctua and all-in-one water-cooling setups from Corsair.
The one thing they have in common is that they increase the surface area for heat to dissipate. This means heat is more efficiently moved away from the CPU, and because they use larger fans, more air is moved at slower fan speeds, making your PC quieter. Things are a little trickier on the GPU side, in that it's difficult to change their cooling systems. That said, it's not impossible, and if you're confident with PC building there are third-party solutions like Arctic's Accelero Xtreme IV you can fit to an existing GPU. Alternatively, if you're putting together a new PC, get a GPU with either Nvidia's excellent all-metal cooler or a decent third-party solution. You can read more about GPU cooling in our guide on how to pick the right GPU for your PC.
How to do it: If you're using a stock CPU cooler, look into a buying a new one from the likes of Noctua or Corsair, which will make cooling more efficient, and therefore quieter. Invest in a GPU with a decent cooling system, or--if you're confident with PC building--kit out your GPU with a new cooler like Arctic's Accelero Xtreme IV.
Upgrade Your Fans and Consider Airflow
PC fans come in all shapes, sizes, and colours. While they're not the most glamorous of purchases and it might be tempting to just go for the cheapest you can find, or the ones with the brightest LEDs, investing in a decent set of fans can work wonders on the noise levels of your PC, and how efficiently it's cooled. Before you splurge all your cash on Newegg, though, it's good to take a look at just how the air is being moved through your PC. A typical mid-tower case will have a couple of fans on the front, with an exhaust in the back. Ideally, you want air to flow in one direction from the front of case, over your components, and then dissipate out the back. Some cases have fans on the side or on the bottom as intakes, which help move things along.
If there are more fans bringing air in than exhausting it, it's called positive air pressure. This is often the preferred method for cooling, because it's far better at keeping dust out of your PC, making cooling efficient and quiet. The higher pressure of air inside the case means it's forced out of various other unfiltered holes and vents on your PC--aside from the exhaust fan--where dust can easily escape, preventing it from entering the case. With this is mind, take a look at how your PC is currently cooled, and whether fans are blowing air out or sucking it in and adjust accordingly. You might choose to add more fans, which makes for better cooling, but will be noisier, so choose wisely.
Next look at the fans themselves. Cheaper fans are typically noisier and less efficient then their slightly pricier counterparts. When buying a fan, look at specs like airflow, noise level, and static pressure. Airflow is expressed in cubic feet per minute (CFM). The higher the number, the more air that fan can move, which is better for cooling. Noise level is expressed in dBA, and here the lower the number the quieter the fan. Anything around 20 dBA is regarded as a quiet fan, although, there's no standard method between manufacturers for testing this, so it's best to look at reviews online before taking the plunge. Static pressure is measured in units of mmH2O. The higher this number is, the more force the fan can exert on an object, which is important if you're mounting your fan next to something that will block some of its airflow, such as a water cooling radiator, CPU heat sink, or an hard drive cage.
Fan size is also important. Typically, PC cases are equipped with 120mm fans, but you can often swap these out for 140mm versions or larger. Have a look at where your fan is mounted and see if there are extra mounting holes around it, which means you should be able to fit a larger fan. Some cases even feature mounts for fans as large as 200mm. The larger the fan, the more air it can move at a lower speed, which is exactly what you want for a quieter PC. Also, look at what speed your fans are running at. Sometimes, if your motherboard settings are incorrectly adjusted, fans will run at full speed all the time, which is horribly loud. The same thing will happen if you hook up a fan directly to your power supply via a Molex connector without a separate fan controller. There are too many variances in motherboards to go into how to change fan settings here, but dive into your motherboard manual and make sure that your fans are automatically adjusting their speed based on a certain temperature threshold.
Finally, invest in some dust filters for your intake fans if your PC doesn't come equipped with them, and screw them in with the aid of silicone fan fasteners, which will help dampen out any vibrations. If you're rocking a lot of fans in your PC, then a separate fan controller that mounts in a spare drive bay will give you instant control over their speed.
How to do it: Look at how the air flows through your case and aim for positive air pressure. Invest in bigger fans where possible, and look at specs like airflow, noise level, and static pressure when making a purchase. Dust filters and silicone fan fasteners are cheap ways of improving cooling and reducing noise.
Acoustic Foam, Hard Drives, and the Rest
If you're still not satisfied with the noise performance of your PC, you can look into attaching sheets of acoustic foam to the inside of your case from manufacturers like AcousticPack to help dampen noise. If you do use them, just be careful not to restrict airflow inside your case. Some cases like Fractal's Define R4 come with acoustic foam pre-installed, should you not wish to do the dirty work. Noisy PC components like hard drives can be housed in things like Arctic's HC01 hard drive silencer, but if your hard drive is particularly old and noisy, you're better off looking to replace it with a new one. Or, better yet, go for an SSD, which will be miles quicker, and--thanks to a lack of moving parts--completely silent.
Power supply units can often be another source of noise, particularly in cheaper models. We're going to be taking a more in-depth look at PSUs at a later date, but suffice to say, don't cheap out on it! Look for 80-plus rated units from reputable manufacturers like Corsair and Silverstone, and study the same fan stats like airflow and noise level to help you choose the right one for you. If you really want the quietest gaming PC around, though, then the absolute best solution is to look at water-cooling the whole thing. That's a whole other world of PC building to dive into, though, something we'll be investigating at a later date.
How to do it: Acoustic foam is a cheap way to dampen noise, but watch that you're not reducing airflow in your case. Consider replacing spinning platter drives with SSDs, and make sure your PSU is up to snuff.