An Apple Is Best Seen and Not Heard: My Quest for Quiet Computing

macbook_quietAmong the things I love about my unibody MacBook is the barely audible whisper of its 160 GB, 5400 RPM Hitachi HDD shrouded in solid carved aluminum, which makes it the most blessedly silent personal computer I’ve ever owned.

It easily beats the previous high-water mark set by my commendably quiet 700 MHz G3 iBook with its 20 GB IBM/Hitachi HDD. Of course a solid-state drive would be quieter still, but I’m not yet convinced that the SSD’s higher cost, lower capacity, and unproven reliability over the long haul make it a satisfactory alternative to time-proven and relatively inexpensive electromechanical hard disk-drive technology.

This is the history of my personal quest for the most silent computing experience possible on a Mac. It’s been a long and winding (and somewhat circular) road, but recent developments definitely give me hope for the future.

The Quietest Of Computers

The Hitachi HDD in my MacBook emits a sound so subtle that virtually any amount of ambient noise drowns it out. I’m a big fan of silence, and certain Mac notebooks have been among the quietest of computers.

The first Macs — the 128k and the 512k, had no hard drives and were convection-cooled, so were very quiet. My first Mac was a Mac Plus, also convection-cooled, but had an external hard drive (a bulky 20 MB Seagate unit) that made a tiresome racket. You could boot and run the Mac Plus from a floppy as well, which I used to do when all I needed was a typing platform. The Mac Plus in this mode wasn’t completely silent. The floppy drive would grunt and click periodically, and early Mac keyboards were very noisy, but at least when you stopped to think or read the noise stopped, too.

Running Off A RAM Disk

My most silent computing came when I bought my first PowerBook, a 5300. No fan, a relatively subdued hard drive, but even better — you could turn the hard drive down and work from a RAM disk. Even though I only had 24 MB of RAM in that machine, that was plenty for a slimmed-down OS 7.5.2, a minimum installation of Word 5.1, Globalfax software and whatever documents were on the go at the time.

In those days, before we had Internet access here in southeastern mainland Nova Scotia, I communicated with editors and research sources by fax, floppy, and the occasional modem-to-modem link, all of which could be done off the RAM disk. I would spin the hard drive up from time to time to save a document or find something I needed on the disk, but I could go for hours in blissful silence. And the 5300 keyboard was much quieter than that of the Mac Plus.

Banshee Howl

Running off RAM disks with the hard disk spun down petered out with the introduction of New World ROM, but happily, hard disk manufacturers began concentrating more on quietness around that time. On the downside, Apple started equipping notebooks with internal cooling fans beginning with the PowerBook 3400c. At least these fans were thermostatically toggled, but their banshee howl was more annoying than the noisiest hard drive I’ve ever experienced.

Keeping running temperature below the fan’s activation threshold has been an operational priority for me since the introduction of cooling fans in Apple laptops. Happily, the MacBook’s fan is the least offensive I’ve encountered so far. It’s only kicked in three times since I got the unibody in February, all during brief spikes of processor activity, and it’s much less raucous than the fans in my older computers, possibly again thanks to the solid aluminum enclosure’s sound-damping effect.

Aside from those original compact Macs, Mac desktops deserving honorable mention for quietness include the G4 Cube (I bought one partly because it had no cooling fan), and the last-generation G3 teardrop iMacs, which were also convection-cooled.

“What is a “Silent” Computer?

If you’re interested in the topic of quiet computing, check out SilentPCReview.com, a web site dedicated to reviews, news and information about quiet, low noise, and/or silent computers and components as well as their energy efficiency and thermal performance. There are in-depth articles, equipment reviews and news stories related to silent computing. The site is quite PC- and desktop-centric, although it does credit the fan-cooled Core Duo 17″ iMac as “the quietest mass production PC I’ve ever heard,” and there’s a lot of interesting stuff there for silent computing aficionados. This article, “What is a “Silent” Computer?,” provides an excellent general overview of the topic.

Quiet Mice

There’s also a firm called Quiet Mouse Innovations, whose $39 and $49 QuietSmooth USB Optical mice (wired and wireless respectively) are Mac-compatible and feature three quiet switches (right, left, and scroll-wheel switch) and a scroll wheel with a smooth, quiet roll. The microswitches used in QuietSmooth mice use a patented quiet design of which the company claims to be sole licensee.

I obviously take quiet computing very seriously, and I’m wondering if any of you share my obsession. What lengths have you gone to in pursuit of silence?

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