Blog Post

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

macbook_quietAmong the things I love about my unibody MacBook (s aapl) is the barely audible whisper of its 160 GB, 5400 RPM Hitachi (s hit) 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 (s msft) 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, 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?

20 Responses to “An Apple Is Best Seen and Not Heard: My Quest for Quiet Computing”

  1. —thanks for the word on silent computers! My ears are sensitive to
    motor sounds and other sounds. The mac 1100$ laptop may be a solution
    —all the best…
    Tim B., MFA

  2. My main PC and what I rely on is a cheapest Dell, now 4 yrs old, running Ubuntu. I also have a Apple Mac Mini (March 2009 revision) which I mainly use for iTunes and some software that I cannot get for Linux, so I don’t use it too often, until…….

    ….it’s summer when the room temperature gets to 34C (93F). The Dell even moments after turning it on sounds like a vacuum cleaner which makes difficult to use, and not too healthy for the PC, my ears or energy levels. (Note that running Windows on it makes it worse and it uses more CPU than Ubuntu)….but….

    …the Mac Mini, wow, what a relief it brings, emits just a whispering purr, alot less tiring using it. For a quiet and powerful computer, I recommend it.

  3. Jeff Flowers

    Win39: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but no one makes laptops anymore. They are portable computers or notebooks. Many manufacturers, including Apple I believe, recommend AGAINST placing them in your lap.

  4. win39, as someone who lives in the frigid north, I actually quite love the fact that my MacBook Pro gets very warm. I’ve never had to stop holding it in my lap (even in summer, I can just prop it up on my knees a bit and I’m fine) as long as I’m wearing pants. I wouldn’t really recommend using it without pants (or any other laptop really, ew). I do have to admit however, being a woman, my lap might not be representative of all possible ergonomic situations…

  5. lok cheung

    not sure about the Mac 128k or the Mac Plus, but my Mac SE do have a fan in the AC/DC convertor. the fan actually pull air from button of the Mac SE, passing the mother board, floppy drive/HD drive, the CRT monitor, then finally reach the AC/DC convertor and out. so i don’t think i would consider it is convection-cooled.

  6. Switching to an SSD drive not only eliminated heat around my 1st-gen MacBook trackpad hand-rest, but noticeably reduced the overall incidence of my fans kicking in as well.

    If the dozens of hopelessly dead hard drives I’ve thrown in the garbage over the course of my consulting career are any indication — I’ll take my chances with a SSD and a good backup over the ‘time-proven’ failure rates of spinning platter hard drives any day.. :)

  7. win39

    I would say that noise in a MacBook normal or Pro is the tiniest problem compared to heat. It is silly to call it a laptop if you cannot use it on your lap if heat cannot be transferred out of it before that nice conductive case singes your legs.

  8. Howard Lauther

    My iMac is five years old and I’m considering purchasing a new one. However, the only thing that stops me from doing so is that my current version of Safari (1.3.2) crashes a lot and getting any email information from Apple is impossible. (They want to sell you stuff, but they don’t really want to hear your problems about any of it.) For example, Safari always crashes when I open an Associated Press article in Google News; however, this doesn’t happen when I use Netscape. If I shell out well over a thousand bucks for a new iMac and the same thing happens, I’ll turn blue with anger and return the machine to the Apple Store. If anyone can be of any assistance in terms of OLD Safari vs. NEW Safari, I would certainly appreciate it.

  9. Kathe

    I just parted out a G4 MDD in favor of using my uni MacBook Pro as a desktop. I experimented by first using a 15″ Al G4 PowerBook and it was great. Firing up the MBPro, the first thing that hit me was the absolute silence of the rig. I was a benefit I’d not even considered. Of course, going from a G4 MDD where I had multiple PCI slot fans stuck all over the inside, it’s definitely an improvement. I was hesitant at first to consider using a “fragile” laptop as a desktop, but I’m a believer now. Actually have more hard drive capacity in the MBPro then any of the desktop Macs I’ve owned, plus an external hard drive for backup with additional space for storage just adds to the mix.

  10. Ben Chuang

    I have noticed that many of my systems run hot and sound like a jet plane when the following are active: Flash and Java.

    Sometimes, Flash seems to be active enough that it prevents a system from going to sleep.

    Maybe that would be material for another article?

  11. Charles W. Moore

    Hi Mike:

    No that I know of. That behavior seems to be written into the firmware.

    Back when I bought my first Pismo PowerBook in 2001, it did not initially check the DVD drive on start-up or wakeup, but began doing so after I upgraded the firmware. Indeed it would kick open the drawer of the tray-loader DVD-ROM drive, which was even more annoying that the sound, which at least doesn’t last very long. I’ve long since replaced the old tray-loader drive with a slot-loading SuperDrive DVD burner module, so now it’s just the sound on startup.

    joecab – I’ve been using laptops as my primary workstation since 1996, and can’t imagine going back to a desktop computer. My last one of those purchssed was a G4 Cube (which I eventually swapped even for a Pismo), although I still have an old 604e SuperMac S-900 clone which hasn’t been booted up for a very ling time.

    You can drive a good sized external monitor with a MAcBook or MacBook Pro these days. The main drawback of using laptops IMHO is limited expandability, but there are many advantages as well.


  12. joecab

    I’d love to switch to a workstation with a big Cinema Display for my next Mac, but my concern about how noisy it would be prevents me from doing so. I’m not sure I could just deal with a laptop as my main computer…

  13. I was one of the unfortunate ones to get a G5 “wind-tunnel” model. The fans on that beast would fire up for no reason at any given time and stay on for long periods of time. It was truly the worst computing experience I had ever had.

    I took it in to the Apple store (under warranty), where across three visits they replaced both processors, the stock RAM, the power supply, and finally the entire motherboard. They never could fix it.

    I sold the G5 at barely two years old – got almost all my money back on the deal! I replaced it with a MacPro that even with 2 hard drives and sitting in a cabinet under my desk makes so little noise that were it not for the little light on the front I wouldn’t know it was on.