Quiet Computing

Back at the dawn of the personal computer revolution, the most popular personal computers were all quiet. The TRS‑80, the Apple II, and the Commodore PET didn’t have fans, cooling themselves with convection only. I grew to like quiet computing, with only the sound of the keyboard and the floppy drive to interrupt my thoughts.

But after several years, the quiet computing environment became a thing of the past. Newer computer models, especially after the introduction of the IBM PC, came equipped with fans, sometimes multiple fans. These loud fans changed computing from a silent experience to a very noisy one. Computers still had power lights to indicate they were powered on, but, as one reviewer put it, that would only be necessary in a war zone.

Quiet computing seems to have come back into fashion in recent years. The change has been almost completely unheralded, but I’ve noticed that each new computer I use is a little bit quieter than the previous one.

I can think of three factors that might be contributing to this move away from loud fans:

  1. Industry pressure to reduce the computer power consumption has led to more efficient designs. Almost by definition, the more power a computer uses, the greater its need for cooling (and the louder the fan).
  2. As the share of laptops (versus desktops) increases, people are less willing to tolerate a noisy laptop than a noisy desktop.
  3. Portable devices, such as phones and tablets, have never used fans. This must put pressure on desktop and laptop computer designers to minimize noise.

My current computer is so quiet that I can only hear the fan when I put my ear to the case. It is possible to forget that it is turned on. I like this return to quiet computing and I hope the trend continues.

3 comments on “Quiet Computing

  • Marsilius Bolduc wrote:

    My first computer, an Atari was silent also. The AST computer I replaced it with caused noise complaints from the bowling alley next door :-) But it is getting better.

  • Evan Parry wrote:

    I got into computers late so I didn’t know they started out silent. But I recommend handheld devices for anyone looking to cut down noise. An iPhone or a Nexus 7 can accomplish everything most people need to do without a bit of noise.

  • Jens Richter wrote:

    Think you are neglecting the pressures from the Mac side of the coin. Back in 1999 my Powerbook G3 Pismo served me well with no fan noise at all. Macs have always been quieter than Windows.

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