When Hot Is Not

by David Czepanski Apr 17, 2006

People (read PC users) often lament what is missing from the Mac.

“They’re not very expandable are they?”
“No Publisher?”
“Where are the built in media card readers?”
“What do you mean there’s no huge, ugly button to launch email?”
“How do I turn up the volume without a knob the size of a dinner plate?”

Some of the claims are fair enough - but for the most part it boils down to a design philosophy from Apple; they have made a choice to NOT put card readers and volume knobs on their computers. It keeps with the Zen-like “less-is-more” idea that we see time and time again from Apple; no card readers in the computers, no FM tuners in the music players, no extra buttons and knobs to launch and control applications.

However, all computer manufacturers would do well to leave at least two things off every machine that they make; heat and noise.

I do a lot of work around servers and two things that you notice in rooms with lots machines running at full speed is that they make a lot of noise and give off quite a bit of heat.

That’s okay sometimes, such as when you can close the door on a purpose built room and leave the noise and heat behind, but in a home environment it can get to be a problem.

Right now there is an Acer laptop not 4 meters from me and every minute or so, the fan cranks up to a level that is distracting. No one is using it, it’s just sitting there booted up from a live Linux CD. It’s not like it’s summer here - and yet the idling computer needs to cool itself down.

As I type this on our iBook, I know that there is a fan inside of it, but I cannot hear it and I have to wonder, how come the difference?

Some Macs (Indigo iMacs for example) didn’t have fans and all you heard was the whirring of the hard drive. But as things have moved on, the demands on processors has increased, as has their performance which in turn means that they run hotter, which means that they need to be cooled by fans; more heat and more noise.

I notice this particularly on PCs. To my ears they generate more noise than Macs, which isn’t surprising - PCs usually have more fans and the cases that contain them are typically thin metal boxes with little sound insulation.

Some people don’t notice this sort of ambient noise and could work undistracted while a hair dryer was running at full speed on the desk next to them. On the other hand, I personally know someone that purchased a 10 meter KVM (keyboard, video and mouse) cable for his PC and stuck the CPU in a cupboard so that he could work in his bedroom without the noise.

What we were told in the past was that the PPC chip was much more efficient than its counterpart in the PC world. It ran cooler, did more calculations per second and kept its elbows off the table when it went out to dinner.

But what’s the story now that the Intel Macs are coming out?

I don’t own a Macintel but I’ve used them and I can’t notice any significant difference in fan noise, so that’s a good sign. In fact I could go so far as to say that the Intel iMacs that I have used seem to run quieter than my PPC equivalent.

It’s been said by a few commentators that the next race in the computer industry is the power per watt race. There is a limit to how fast current design can take chip speeds, and when that limit is reached power per watt will be the next thing. In other words—who can deliver a chip with the best performance using the least power? If you’re into fast vehicles, the closest thing is probably power to weight ratio.

It may not make much difference to you at home, but think of the savings that Yahoo! and Google would make by using more efficient processors. Then think of that on a global scale or borrow from Bob Cringely to see where that might lead.

I have often thought of PC users as hot-rodders. Some of them love to customise their machines and really make them perform. There are entire web sites devoted to such things and in fact there’s an entire industry built around keeping PCs running fast, quiet and cool.

Personally, I’m happy to sacrifice speed for peace and quiet. Others aren’t. The trick is to find that sweet spot.


  • I"ve noticed the same thing. My iMac runs extrtememly quietly, aside from when the disc drive is spinning a disc really quickly, but my roommate has a PC.. just a standard box, nothing too special.  Every time he turns it on it’s like I’m standing inside a wind tunnel waiting for the engineers to roll out an airplane prototype…. and now that his friend has brought his new computer into the room it’s even worse…
    I think the unofficial PC start-up sound is the fans… not the chime they’re supposed to have.

    Dudeguy had this to say on Apr 17, 2006 Posts: 20
  • Personally, I think the analogy would be to fuel economy, i.e. the race now to see which car manufacturer can make the nicest, most powerful car that also gets 30 miles to the gallon.  Power to weight ratio would be when software and OS developers being ridding their applications of bloat to improve performance.

    Taco John had this to say on Apr 17, 2006 Posts: 5
  • Ah, yes! A much better comparison, Taco John!

    David Czepanski had this to say on Apr 17, 2006 Posts: 25
  • My dual-G5 at the office has a fan system that, when it cranks up, sounds like an F-14 winding up for takeoff from the USS Saratoga. The XServe right behind my desk is also pretty robust.

    The fan on my G4 laptop is unnoticeable, certainly as compared to the time I upgraded the processor on an old G3-500 Pismo to a G4-550. I didn’t know until then that the thing even had a fan. But when it overheated, that sucker would crank up with the highest pitch whine I’d ever heard - annoying! Plus, to add insult to injury, performance would tank. I actually unhooked the thing once and stuck it in the freezer for a few minutes to cool it off.

    tao51nyc had this to say on Apr 17, 2006 Posts: 45
  • I can’t take a phone call while I am working on a 1st generation Xserve - callers can’t hear me!

    Macs certainly aren’t immune to noise and heat problems but I think that Apple have (had - up until now with the intel chip??) managed the problem better than the folks in the PC world.

    Having said that, there have been times when our iBook is anything BUT a laptop - it’s too hot to have on your lap!

    There’s the rub - heat/noise/performance.

    David Czepanski had this to say on Apr 17, 2006 Posts: 25
  • This is an old thing. When I got my PowerBook G3, I worked in an office with laptop-PC users. It annoyed the heck out of me: either keep the fans constant or not at all, but switching them on in rather short intervals (minutes) is distracting. (can’t that be a setting: slow constant or fast intermittant?)
    I discussed it with them: I couldn’t even tell if my machine had a fan or not. Never heard it and actually never thought about it. I assumed there was none.
    On a really, really hot day, I sat at home in the garden, I couldn’t wear more then shorts, and I was doing some work. I heard a faint noise that I could not make out. It went away soon enough, but it came back later. Turned out: in full sunlight the machine heats up enough to start puffing. So, only if ambient temparature is high would the G3 turn on it’s fan.

    Later Macs would produce more heat, but still: noise is something Apple is aware of.

    Eddy had this to say on Apr 17, 2006 Posts: 11
  • My new Mac mini Core duo is the quietest machine I’ve ever had - even when it’s burning a disc.  I’m very impressed.

    My Dual 2.3 G5 at work is also pretty quiet, although I keep it under my desk.  I’ve never had the fans ramp up before, except when I take the side panel off.

    My G4 powerbook is another story altogether.  It heats up very quickly and is pretty noisy even when it’s sitting idle.  When the fan gets going, it almost drowns out the built-in speakers.  Then there’s the sound of my thighs frying…  But I digress.

    destructo had this to say on Apr 17, 2006 Posts: 11
  • Noise in a PC desktop comes from the fans in: CPU cooler, Case power source and any supplemental case coolers. All of these are components which on a PC can be upgraded. There are many ways to build a silent PC. The price difference between a mainstream PC and a desktop Mac covers a lot more that what this operation would cost.

    Regarding annoying fan acceleration: at work I use a 1.6 G5, which from times to times makes me twitch with fan noises accelerating and hard-disk scratching, but I admit that it is a bit old.

    ediedi had this to say on Apr 18, 2006 Posts: 16
  • My Core Duo iMac is just as quiet as the sans-fan iMac G3 it replaced.  I know there is a fan in there, but I have yet to hear it.  I’ve been very impressed with the overall design and operation of my new iMac.

    Ric and Nickie Wiessner had this to say on May 05, 2006 Posts: 1
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