Building a Silent Yet Powerful PC: mATX Core i7 Edition

When building a computer, one often has to compromise on one of the three conflicting factors of power, noise, and price. Powerful machines are usually noisy due to the high heat output, and therefore required cooling. Advanced cooling solutions with low noise can be had, albeit at high price points. A cheaper computer tends to lack power and/or silence. These 3 tradeoffs are inherent in any computer build and is more of a problem today than ever as newer components produce more heat along with the increased power they bring.

I recently had the need to build a new computer from scratch as my main desktop PC. Finding the noise of most computers unbearable to use in a quite environment, I went through a thorough research process to select the most efficient components to balance the needs for power and silence at an affordable price point. As part of the efficiency, I also wanted to minimize the amount of physical space the computer would take up.

This guide shows you the computer parts I picked, along with alternatives I considered, with explanations on every component. Hopefully this will help you make your own choices for a silent computer to suit your needs.

The Build

Let’s start with an overview of the selected components. Note that I will only be looking at internal components, not peripherals such as the monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

All of the vendors I’ve linked to are reputable ones I have ordered from. They also supply great prices on the products listed (which may change after this posting). Prices do not reflect possible taxes, rebates, or additional shipping costs. Now let’s take a look at each section in detail. But before that…

Why Not Buy Prebuilt?

When I started putting together the pieces for this system, I also looked at pre-built solutions. Some of the vendors that offer pre-built silent PCs include EndPCNoise and Puget Systems. While this would be less time-consuming, there are 2 main reasons why I decided not to go this route: price and selection. These pre-built systems are often much more expensive than buying the parts separately and building it yourself. Also, and for obvious reasons, computer builders cannot offer all of the variety of parts that an enthusiast may desire. In this particular case, the balance of speed, noise, and form factor that I wanted could not be found without building it myself.

Part-by-Part Breakdown and Alternatives

Let’s take a look at reasons why I selected each component, as well as some viable alternatives.

Case: SilverStone TJ08 (microATX)

The chosen case is the black version of the SilverStone TJ08, an eye-pleasing and well-designed microATX case. It features a front and rear 120mm fan without restrictive fan grills, pretty much the optimal setup for a silent computer case. In fact, SilentPCReview (SPCR), the best resource for silent computing on the Internet, even built an 11dBA silent PC using the TJ08 for their testing chamber. It also features a removable motherboard tray for easier installation, which is much appreciated when working with small microATX cases. Despite the form factor, the TJ08 is able to fit very large heatsinks, including the recommended not-so-tiny Prolimatech Megahalems. The only weaknesses of this case may be that the sides are a bit thin and the front mesh opening may leak some sound. The price is also a bit more expensive than the alternatives, as it does not come with a PSU. [Buy SilverStone TJ08 for $89.99 @ Amazon]

The Antec NSK3480 was the closest competitor here. I had a hard time deciding between these two cases, but finally chose the TJ08 due to the restricted depth of the NSK3480, which makes installing longer power supplies and/or optical drives difficult. Blu-ray drives are especially hard to fit, as they are typically longer than DVD drives and exceed the length limit of the NSK3480. The problem is alleviated somewhat by our recommended PSU (see below) being 15mm shorter than normal PSUs, making it ideal for this case. The NSK3480 is smaller than the TJ08, so it makes a good choice if you want the smallest possible microATX tower. Another minor issue is the front fan being 92mm instead of 120mm in size, though this shouldn’t really matter as there is no real need to use the front fan when building a silent computer. The case also comes with a PSU, though I recommend swapping it out for a quieter one. [Buy Antec NSK3480 for $95.17 @ Amazon]

Another alternative to the TJ08 is the CoolerMaster Elite 340. The Elite 340 is essentially the same case as the TJ08 on the inside. The main differences are the styling (non-aluminum front) and restrictive fan grills present on the 340. If you don’t mind the style and cutting the grills yourself, you could save quite a bit of money as the Elite 340 can often be found for half the price of the TJ08. However, the side panel on the 340 has even more vents than the TJ08, allowing more noise from the CPU and graphics card coolers to pass through. [Buy CoolerMaster Elite 340 from Amazon]

Power Supply: Nexus Value 430

The Nexus Value 430 is an interesting beast; despite being on the value line, it performs exceptionally well with over 80% efficiency and silently at that. In fact, it is the quietest fan-equipped PSU that SPCR has ever reviewed, reaching a maximum of 19dBA@1m. The PSU is also ideal for smaller microATX cases as the length is only 125mm compared to the standard 140mm. These days, many PSUs–especially modular ones–are actually much longer, extending up to 190mm! [Buy Nexus Value 430 for $79.99 @ EndPCNoise]

The 430W of power provided by this PSU is more than enough to run a powerful system as long as power-hungry dual graphics cards are not used. I would not recommend running high-end dual-card solutions, as they do not provide the best value and are difficult to silence. For those who think we need 1000W of power to run a Core i7 system, check out this article by X-bit labs to see power consumption tests for various PC configurations.

There was never really an alternative PSU considered for this build, though any 400W-500W quiet (and not too long) PSU could work. Check out SPCR’s recommended PSU list for some ideas.

Motherboard: MSI X58m (microATX)

The MSI X58m was reviewed by Anandtech to be a strong, full-featured performer. It also happens to be one of the least expensive Core i7 motherboards available on the market. For these reasons, and the fact that it uses passive and thus silent cooling, this is the recommended board. [Buy MSI X58m for $179.99 @ Amazon

There are few alternatives when it comes to mATX Core i7 motherboards. The 2 primary contenders are the ASUS Rampage II Gene and DFI LANParty Jr X58-T3H6. The DFI board has much lower power usage compared to the ASUS, and is probably the better alternative for this build. Both boards are $50+ more expensive than the MSI, however. [Buy ASUS Rampage II Gene for $240.57 @ Amazon] [Buy DFI LANParty Jr X58-T3H6 for $229.99 @ Newegg]

Processor: Intel Core i7 920

Being a Core i7 build, we naturally need an Intel Core i7 920 processor. The 920 is the best bang-for-the-buck i7 CPU on the market and is also the cheapest. There is no reason to go for a higher model as overclocking can easily reach those speeds if necessary. As of this writing, Microcenter is running a special $199 in-store pickup offering for this CPU, making it an amazing deal. [Buy Intel Core i7 920 for $279.99 @ Amazon]

AMD may have competing products that also provide a good value, but they were not considered for this particular build.

Video Card: Sapphire Radeon HD 4770 512mb

The graphics card was a difficult choice but I eventually decided on the Sapphire Radeon HD 4770 512mb. Any brand 4770 is essentially the same in providing a powerful yet inexpensive GPU that also happens to be extremely efficient. However, the new 40nm process used to make it has yield problems that effectively make this card very rare, bumping its price higher than it should be. In fact, I was only able to secure a 4770 when Newegg got some in-stock, which happens on occasion. [Buy Radeon HD 4770 from Newegg]

In response, AMD cut the prices of the Radeon HD 4850 down to the same $99 to compensate. While the 4770 is more ideal for this system due to its high efficiency, the 4850, which performs slightly better, is also a great value. The final choice in video cards really depends on how much and what type of games you play. In the budget market, AMD has the better value currently compared to nVidia cards. [Buy Radeon HD 4850 from Newegg]

The default cooler on the 4770 is fairly quiet; at idle, it stays around 32% fan speed and is very quiet. It ramps up at load, which should usually happen only during a gaming session with loud noise anyway. If using the 4850, it may be worthwhile to invest in a 3rd party cooler such as the Arctic Cooler Accelero S1 Rev 2. As the 4850 can get fairly hot, I recommend strapping an additional undervolted 120mm cooling fan on there, perhaps using Stretch Magic (see Hard Drive Mount and Fans sections below). The S1 is also usable on the 4770 (passively even), but the card’s layout is such that the cooler extends too far towards the back of the case. In order to make it fit, you would have to cut off an inch or so from the side, which many people have done with success. [Buy Arctic Cooling Accelero S1 Rev 2 for $24.99 @ Newegg]

Memory: OCZ Gold 6GB (3x2GB) DDR3 (Model OCZ3G1600LV6GK)

6GB DDR3 memory kits are the most plentiful these days, and the OCZ Gold series is one of the best. There are quality brands of memory as well, so the choice may come down to price. One thing to avoid is memory that has extremely large heatsinks, as that may interfere with larger CPU coolers on the cramped mATX motherboard. [Buy OCZ Gold 6GB (3x2GB) DDR3 (Model OCZ3G1600LV6GK) for $99.99 @ Newegg]

Hard Drives Intel X25-M 80GB (SSD) and Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB (2.5” HDD)

Two hard drives are recommended for this build for a few reasons. First, the speed, silence, and power savings of Solid State Disk drives over traditional hard drives is hard to resist. However, SSDs are expensive and much lower capacity as well. The solution then, is to use an SSD as the main operating system and application drive and a larger HDD to store data. 60-80GB should be enough for the application drive, and is near the price sweet point for current SSDs. Another reason to do this is to separate applications and data, enabling easier re-installs, system upgrades, etc. Even with this setup, however, I recommend (and use) a separate external hard drive to backup the data drive on a regular basis.

The choice of which SSD to use comes down to quality. Intel’s X25-M series is simply the best performing drive on the market today and does not suffer from the slowdown and stutter issues found in drives with JMicron controllers. A great article from Anandtech explains the problems in-depth should you be interested. More recently, drives using Indilinx controllers such as the OCZ Vertex have appeared without the JMicron problems. These are slightly less expensive and lower performing than the Intel drives, but are great alternatives. [Buy Intel X25-M 80GB (SSD) for $314 @ Amazon] [Buy OCZ Vertex 60GB for $223.75 @ Amazon]

The data drive I recommend is the WD Scorpio Blue 500GB. Note that this is also a 2.5″ drive instead of the typical 3.5″ desktop hard drive. The reason for this is because 2.5″ drives are much quieter than 3.5″ drives. Until more recently, drive capacity was a main reason to go with the larger drives. However, 2.5″ drives are now available up to 1TB in size, and growing. This is enough size for most people’s needs. The Scorpio Blue 500GB is the best value at the moment and also performs much like a desktop drive. A decent alternative is the Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB drive. [Buy Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB (2.5” HDD) for $94.99 @ Amazon] [Buy Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB for $89.99 @ Amazon]

Note: The prices of SSDs may be dropping soon with Intel’s newest 34nm drives.

Hard Drive Mount: Stretch Magic 1.8mm (3 meters long)

You might be wondering why a package of string is in this build list. Although the recommended hard drives above are fairly quiet already, they can still cause vibration noise if hard-mounted into the case. The noise is much less than 3.5″ drives, but suspending the drives would eliminate most if not all of this noise for much more silent computing experience.

Stretch Magic makes suspending hard drives easy and cheap. A $3 roll is more than enough to suspend all the drives in your computer and can be found in many arts and crafts stores. I recommend getting the thicker 1.8mm variety for the boosted strength so the string does not accidentally snap. Rather than use the hard drive mounting mechanism supported by the case, simply find some holes to attach pieces of Stretch Magic through to create cradling bands. Then, just slide the hard drives through these bands. There are many ways to use Stretch Magic to suspend the hard drives, so do it the way you prefer. [Buy Stretch Magic 1.8mm (3 meters long) for $2.99 at Artbeads]

Optical Drive: Samsung WriteMaster SH-S203N

The optical drive choice is not such an important consideration for this silent PC build. Most optical drives are actually quite noisy, so finding a quiet one may be difficult. However, this is not all that bad, since the optical drive is usually dormant unless installing software, burning discs, or watching a movie. For movie watching, many optical drives are capable of reading at slower speeds to reduce noise.

I ended up getting the Samsung WriteMaster SH-S203N, a 20x SATA DVD burner with LightScribe. I had originally planned to get the 22x version, but it was out of stock and Microcenter had this one for fairly cheap. Generally, any brand name 20x or 22x drive is fine if you can find it for around $30 or less. [Buy Samsung WriteMaster SH-S203N for $29.95 @ Amazon]

CPU Heatsink: Prolimatech Megahalems

There are plenty of CPU Heatsinks to choose from these days. The Prolimatech Megahalems is a relative newcomer to the scene that managed to snag many titles by rising to the top of the performance crown, particularly at low fan speeds (the ideal for low-noise computing). The heatsink is purely for Intel systems and comes with a very easy-to-install and secure mounting system. The only downside is a relatively high price. The Megahalems fits snugly in the recommended SilverStone TJ08 case. [Buy Prolimatech Megahalems for $59.95 @ Jab-tech]

A good and cheaper alternative is the Xigmatek HDT-S1283 cooler. Unlike the Megahalems, this one comes with a fan, though it should be replaced with a quieter one (see below). It is also much cheaper, though the price difference becomes smaller when the price of the LGA1366 bracket (an additional $10) is factored in. Performance is slightly below the Megahalems, but great for the price. I preferred the Megahalems in the end to save the hassle of having to order a separate mounting bracket and for the superior mounting and performance. [Buy Xigmatek HDT-S1283 for $36.61 @ Amazon] [Buy Xigmatek ACK-I7361 Crossbow Bracket for $9.99 @ Amazon]

CPU & Case Fans: Scythe S-Flex SFF21E (1,200 RPM)

Depending on the case and heatsinks you buy, they may already come with fans. The default fans of most products are sorely lacking in the quietness department, however. Replacing them with the Scythe S-Flex SFF21E is a good idea; these fans were tested by SPCR to be some of the best silent fans available. [Buy Scythe S-Flex SFF21E (1,200 RPM) for $12.95 @ Jab-tech]

120mm fans are preferred for silent computing because they exhaust a lot of air at lower fan speeds and noise levels compared to smaller fans. Only 2 fans are necessary: one for the rear of the case as the exhaust fan and another for the CPU heatsink. The front case fan should be removed if pre-installed and only used if the extra cooling is needed.

Fan Control: Scythe Kaze Master Fan Controller

Although quiet 120mm fans are quiet, they are still not silent at default voltage. Using a fan controller of some sort is a definite must in order to control fan speeds to balance cooling and noise requirements. I went with the Scythe Kaze Master Fan Controller for a couple reasons: 1) it looks great and controls up to 4 fans along with temperature sensors and 2) it boosts the cost at EndPCNoise to over $100 when combined with the Nexus Value 430 PSU, thereby enabling free shipping. [Buy Scythe Kaze Master Fan Controller for $33.95 @ EndPCNoise]

An alternative to the bay fan controller is the Zalman Fan Mate 2, a small device that connects to a single fan to allow voltage adjustment. These are cheaper, but they also mean having to open the case to adjust the fan settings. Also, there is no display to tell you how fast the fans are spinning, which the Kaze Master provides. For either solution, you can find them at EndPCNoise to use as a price booster. Keep in mind that you will need a Zalman Fan Mate 2 for each fan in your system. [Buy Zalman Fan Mate 2 for $4.95 @ EndPCNoise]

Additional Components

All of the required system components have been covered. There may be additional system components you may wish to add, such as additional bay drives, hard drives, cable ties, and so forth. When considering a component, make sure that it is silent enough and also that the mATX case can fit it.

If you are looking for some cable ties, consider these Nexus Velcro Cable Ties from EndPCNoise. They can also serve as a good price booster to get to the $100 mark.

Small, Silent, Powerful

If you follow the recommended system guidelines, you should be able to put together a small, efficient, powerful, and silent computer. The computing landscape is changing all the time so better parts may come along. However, you can’t go wrong with these components if you are looking to build a silent yet powerful PC today.

I hope you enjoyed the article and please feel free to leave your own recommendations or any comments.

One thought on “Building a Silent Yet Powerful PC: mATX Core i7 Edition

  • July 28, 2014 at 10:06 am
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    Excellent write-up. Thanks very much for writing it. I was considering a build very much like it and reading your post gives me the confidence that everything fits!

    Reply

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