Eco-Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs

Computer fans clog with dust, make horrible noises and waste energy. Why put up with that when consumers can go silent and green? A huge number of options popped up for setting up highly efficient fanless computers. Because of their ideal acoustic properties, fanless PCs make ideal home theater PCs, workstations and industrial computers.

There are effectively two kinds of fanless computer: Those powered by ARM-based chips and those with x86-based. ARM-powered CPUs generally consume less power at the expense of performance. In comparison, the x86 instruction set architecture possesses power at the expense of wattage, particularly at lower wattages. Hardware giants AMD and Intel design almost exclusively in the realm of x86. However, AMD plans on producing ARM-based processors for the server market, with the help of ARM Holdings.

This article summarizes some of the upcoming fanless desktop computing available or on the horizon. For those of you looking for passively cooled tablet technologies, check out our tablet buying guide.

ARM (Linux or Android)

ARM chips run a great deal cooler than contemporaneous devices from Intel or AMD. On the downside, ARM chips lack the performance of x86 designs. However, for the vast majority of online activity, such as web browsing, Facebook and search, ARM chips are more than enough.

Utilite: Fanless Linux Desktop

A variety of ARM-powered designs don’t require fans and use extremely low wattages. In particular, the Utilite series of desktop contain Cortex-A9 CPUs in single, dual and quad-core variants. It also can do dual-gigabit LAN and supports simultaneous HDMI and DVI video output, meaning you can run two monitors off of one machine. The cheapest version of the Utilite weighs in at a mere $99 and a quad-core system will set you back $199.

utilite   Eco Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs

MiiPC

The successful MiiPC Kickstarter campaign led to the crowdsourcing of an ARM-based, fanless family-oriented PC. The MiiPC dual boots Linux and Android, while supporting multiple user logins. Its design emphasizes low-cost and built-in content filtering, to prevent children from accessing adult-oriented sites. You can currently place a pre-order on their website.

miipc   Eco Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs

X86 (Windows or Linux)

For x86-based operating systems, such as Windows or Linux, a huge number of fanless computer options exist. These range in price from the more expensive MintBox systems, to the inexpensive NUCs.

Intel NUC

Intel’s “Next Unit of Computing” mini-computers, with an ignoble acronym, “NUC”, recently rumored to possess fanless variants. While the fanless versions aren’t yet available, early prototypes show a variety of passively cooled, fully-enclosed NUC PCs. It’s believed that upcoming NUCs could include specs as beefy as the Core i7 in a form factor similar to a masonry brick.

For the early adopters, you can purchase fan-equipped NUCs today.

nuc   Eco Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs

MintBox

The FitPC MintBox line of desktop computer uses AMD’s APU technology combined with the Linux operating system. The MintBox comes into two different variants: The “Basic” version, which includes a dual-core 1.0 GHz APU and a solid integrated graphics processor and the “Pro” version, which uses a 1.6GHz dual-core APU with good graphics processor.

The MintBox makes an excellent light productivity station, particularly paired with such amazing, and free, software as Kingsoft’s WPS word processor.

mintbox   Eco Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs

Do It Yourself Option

Did you know you can build your own fanless PC from scratch? The key is in finding the right passive heat sink. Fortunately several manufacturers specialize in fanless or fanless-optional coolers. Here’s several of the best passive coolers, in both low-profile and full-sized form factors:

Low Profile (31 mm/1.5U low height)

Because desktop computers run extremely hot (wattages range from 45 to 100 watts), it takes an extremely large heat sink to cool them. If you have an extremely low wattage CPU, such as a Core i3 35-watt, smaller heat sinks can handle the cooling, in ideal conditions. Among the best passive, low-profile coolers are is the Evercool HPL-815 (a licensed, rebranded copy of Titan’s TTC-NC25 heat-sink-fan combination). The HPL-815 can passively cool up to 35 watts. For the height, it ranks among the best passive coolers.

evercool HPL   Eco Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs

Passive Coolers Requiring Full-Sized Cases

I found two high quality passive heat-sinks for the x86 desktop market. Unlike ARM-based chips, x86′s raw power requires a great deal of cooling to prevent overheating. Consequently, on higher wattage systems, heat-sinks show up in extremely large dimensions.

Thermalright Macho 120: Larger heat-sinks displace heat much better than small ones, due to having a larger surface area. The Thermalright Macho 120 remains among the best of the large, passive coolers. Rumored to handle up to 65 watts without a fan, the Macho 120′s reputation looms large over smaller coolers. Some of its users successfully fitted the Macho 120to a mini-ITX case.

macho   Eco Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs

NoFan CR-95C and CR-100A: A South Korean corporation, NoFan, creates heat-sinks for one purpose: silence. All of their products oriented themselves toward passive operation. These rely entirely upon convection cooling for temperature control. The two best coolers, the CR-95C and CR100A, cool up to 95 and 100 watt CPUs, respectively.

On the downside, the CR series are absolutely huge. The radial shape of their cooler takes up the entirety of most full-sized ATX cases and compatibility issues may abound.

nofan   Eco Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs

Conclusion

Fanless PCs oftentimes cost less to buy and maintain than full-sized desktops. They are far less prone to dust collection and therefore require less maintenance than full-sized machines. As HTPCs, you can find no better machine. However, they frequently fall behind traditional desktops in raw processing power.

In addition to coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, they also provide excellent operating system options, with both Windows, Android and Linux flavors. For more information on fanless technology, check out the amazing FanlessTech.com. Another great place is the XBMC forums.

Anyone else love passively cooled computing? Please share with us in the comments.

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

12 Comments -

0 votes

likefunbutnot

An article suggesting a quiet desktop computing experience should at least mention a PicoPSU, tiny, completely fanless power supplies that can deliver up to 120W using a laptop-style transformer with desktop-type parts.

0 votes

Stephan

What about Water-cooling? Isn’t that silent as well?

1 votes

Like Fun B

Surprisingly, not always. The liquid you’re circulating still has to be cooled somehow and a giant heat sink by itself usually doesn’t cut it.

Water cooling as a general rule is a far bigger hassle than it’s worth.

0 votes

Kannon Y

That’s a good point.

Water cooling typically has a fan attached to the heatsink. I’ve seen some, like fully enclosed server style water cooling that simply wants to move the heat outside the case and thus dispenses with the fans, though.

1 votes

dragonmouth

What about the CuBox?

0 votes

Kannon Y

Wow! I thought I was pretty hip on fanless devices – the CuBox was totally off my radar. There’s a lot of potential applications for it. Thanks for sharing!

0 votes

Eric

The Utilite looks cool, but it’d be even cooler if it ran ChromeOS. What the heck happened to all the rumors about a $99 chromebox?

0 votes

Kannon Y

I think the Chromecast is basically what people thought the Chromebox would be. :-(

It’s a shame because ChromeOS would make for a really great light desktop.

0 votes

Daniel E

1. I’d add the Raspberry Pi or the Beaglebone, both of which you can run with your choice of OS (more or less — no Windows)

2. <quote&rt;
Intel’s “Next Unit of Computing” mini-computers,
</quote&rt;
Please, no redefinition of terms. Minicomputers are computers in between mainframes and minis, and the dash isn’t going to change it

1 votes

Kannon Y

:-) I can’t believe I missed the Beaglebone and Raspberry Pi.

My use of minicomputer was colloquial, but in the future I’ll simply use a more descriptive term. I looked it up and you were totally right! :-)

0 votes

Daniel E

Thanks, Kannon. Forgot to propose an alternative term: mini-PC. The Pi, Beagle, and the other computers in the article and the comments are after all personal although they may or may not fully satisfy Wikipedia’s definition of being able to run office or database software.

OTOH, I haven’t really tried running LibreOffice or OpenOffice.org on my Beaglebone. May yet try it :)

0 votes

Kannon Y

Thanks for the mention – I actually have a 120watt PicoPSU on my other PC. That was an unfortunate oversight.

I think that some go as high as 200W (and higher), though, so they can power most consumer desktops.