The Scream of the Hard Drive, the Roar of the Fan

Over the course of our species' parallel evolution with the desktop personal computer, we have learned simply to accept certain things. We take for granted, for example, that the machines on our desks are, with rare exception, putty-colored. We assume that the computer's working parts are housed in either a vertical tower or a horizontal case. We believe in the rectangle screen, the 101 keyboard, the delay at boot time, the trapezoidal 9-pin joystick port. Above all, we have taken it on faith that every desktop computer has a right to make noise: hard-drive noise, fan noise, beeps and squawks and hums; noise that, in the average office at home or away, is so persistent we hardly notice it's there.

Until it isn't. Only a few weeks ago, I counted myself among the racket-inured masses. I rebelled in small but significant ways, never imagining I could ask for a revolution. I shut down my machine at night because the white noise of the cooling fans, rumbling at a pitch of around 20Hz, disturbed my sleep; I instructed my modem to AT&M0 - to shut off its speaker. As for hard-drive noise, which sends the PC decibel level up past 40 (the ambient noise in a living room is 28), I've always figured that a system audibly grinding away on a problem is at least a system that isn't frozen.

Recently, however, my tolerance for PC noise ran out. I met someone at a party who told me he was looking for a new computer and wondered if I had any suggestions. I asked him what he wanted from his machine, expecting him to say something about speed, size or graphics. But there was only one thing that mattered. "I want a computer," he said, "that's dead silent."

"Is there such a thing?" I asked, incredulous.

"Yes," he assured me. "I've heard there are one or two."

Since then, the drone of the parts inside the box has begun to wear on my psyche like an unrepented bad deed. I've started to believe it accounts for lapses in my concentration; I suspect it's the cause of late-afternoon fatigue. The headache I used to blame on caffeine withdrawal I now attribute to the 1-3 KHz pitch of a busy hard drive, a frequency on par with human screaming. I crave silence.

But where to get it? The Information Technology and Telecommunications Equipment Working Group called a meeting last June to discuss the possibilities of a quieter machine, a gathering attended by acoustic-noise experts from several major computer manufacturers as well as by engineers from Larson Davis Labs and Silent Systems, a Massachusetts-based firm manufacturing "after market" solutions for noisy PCs. But the meeting ended inconclusively, with only a reiteration of standards dictated by the already sensitized European Computer Manufacturers Association. Microsoft, with its dreams of transforming home computers into 24-hour devices that will answer your phone and time your toast, has been gently nudging hardware manufacturers toward noise-reduction standards, but manufacturers have balked. Microsoft's official statement on the matter is that "no time frame has yet been established for noise limits as part of the 'Designed for Microsoft Windows' logo program."

So far, according to Silent Systems V.P. Dennis Buchenholz, the demand for quiet PCs in the United States has been small, so few manufacturers are willing to do what it takes to make one. But what it takes, as it turns out, is relatively little: For $38 to $44, depending on the computer, Silent Systems sells a Hush Kit, which includes an acoustic hard-drive "sleeve" that muffles noise with a foam lining and transfers heat with aluminum plates, and a microprocessor fan designed to cool at slower speeds. Buchenholz says it reduces PC noise by 90 percent, but no hardware maker seems to care. "They're all looking to sell sexy features," he complains. "Things like memory, faster speed, higher resolution."

While it waits for a U.S. noise-consciousness raising, Silent Systems devotes its energy to providing solutions for people who need quiet, most of them in sound and video recording. "If you're doing multimedia and your computer makes noise," says Buchenholz, "you'll ruin the effects of your multimedia." Silent Systems also sells to hospitals, libraries and people at reservation desks. But the company's most promising customer and ally remains Bill Gates - if he can just shake that pesky Justice Department off his corporate back. "What Microsoft was trying to do this year was send all the computers through their Windows Hardware Quality Lab tests and publish all the audible-noise results so customers would be more knowledgeable about noise levels," Buchenholz says. "But now that the government's looking into them, they're being - well, quiet about all this stuff." Pun intended, of course.