Closer to quietness

Originally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


So - what's it take to build a PC with no moving parts?

No hard drives, no fans. Disco balls are allowed, as long as they don't rotate.

I'm not talking about an industrial process controller, network appliance or GPS-linked 386 to tell dozy combine harvester drivers when they should do their U-turns. I mean a real home-or-business computer on which you can, should you desire it, run Windows. Perhaps only Win98, but XP would be nice.

People have been fooling around with this sort of thing for years; it's definitely old hat for the desktop UNIX crowd. And some of the components involved are straightforward.

Case with a whole lot of ventilation holes, with special attention paid to the power supply vents - Dremel (or better), ahoy!

Video card made to run without a fan - or fanned card retrofitted with a humungous passive heat sink.

Even more humungous heat sink on CPU, if you're not willing to settle for some low-heat Via product.

(Note that some "passive" CPU heat sinks expect to be installed in a box with lots of throughflow ventilation, like a rackmount enclosure. If the passive sink you're considering is suspiciously small, that's why.)

Getting enough air flow through the box can still be a challenge, and many no-moving-parts projects have ended with their creators admitting defeat and installing one large slow near-silent fan to stop the machine flaking out in summer. But even that's not a bad result; a big lazy Casablanca (or, if you prefer, beginning-of-Apocalypse-Now) computer fan is pretty nifty, if you ask me, and the machine can still end up functionally inaudible.

Two recent developments have made rotating-object-free computer projects a lot easier.

Development one is the continuing precipitous slide in flash RAM prices. The hard drive companies keep coming closer and closer to making Solid State Disks (SSDs) with ATA interfaces and reasonable prices, but a CompactFlash memory card plugged into a cheap pin adapter turns into a PATA drive that'll work on any PC motherboard (and yes, you can do SATA as well now). This setup's been the poor man's (SSD) for years, now.

As I write this, "two gigabyte" (formatted capacity 1.9 gigabytes...) CompactFlash cards are bottoming out around $AU120 delivered on eBay. That's about a twenty-fifth of what a couple of "1Gb" cards would have cost you in 2002.

And then, of course, there's Gigabyte's i-RAM, which is the computing equivalent of a show car that actually made it to retail; it took a while doing it, but various lunatics have concluded it was worth the wait.

In case you missed all of the reviews, the i-RAM's a PCI card that draws only power from the PCI slot, accepts up to 4Gb of DDR RAM in four slots, and connects to the motherboard via a SATA cable, looking to the computer like a hard drive with really fast access times. Transfer rate isn't that amazing (it only supports the original 150 megabyte per second SATA standard, which can't deliver anything like that much user data throughput), but it's got battery backup so it doesn't lose its brain if you unplug the computer (for less than about 10 hours - if the PC's turned off but still plugged in, the i-RAM should stay charged via the 5 volt standby rail), and the i-RAM board itself isn't very expensive. As I write this, Aus PC Market here in Australia are selling it for $AU231 delivered, and US ex-delivery prices are floating down around the $US125 mark.

Add 4Gb of RAM and it's not such a bargain; Aus PC have a 4Gb bundle pack for $AU704 delivered, and a 2Gb one for $AU506 delivered. But it's still a solid option for a fast no-moving-parts PC, especially if you've got some PC3200 modules sitting around. As long as you're not planning to turn the thing off for terribly long.

Back in the cheap seats, for a basic Win98 machine, a 2Gb CompactFlash card makes a more than adequate system drive. Just install 512Mb to 1Gb of RAM (also cheap these days), remember the system tweak that stops Win98 from freaking out over more than 512Mb of memory, turn off virtual memory, and you're in business.

(Note that if your 98 machine is based on appropriately vintage hardware, including classic overclockers' BX boards of yore, you'll probably get three RAM slots that can only handle 768Mb at most, and may have Issues with double sided memory modules or single sided modules or triple sided modules or, basically, whatever kind of darn module you're trying to use. Don't assume that you can just drop any apparently compatible memory module you like into a cheap eBay motherboard, if you're trying to max out its RAM.)

Why do you need virtual memory turned off? Because Flash RAM will only last for a limited number of write cycles. You can read from your memory card until the cows come home, but the millions of writes that a scratch disk can accumulate surprisingly quickly will kill the card.

Memory card firmware spreads writes out - you can't write to the same spot over and over again, no matter how hard you try. So Flash cards last very well in digital cameras, MP3 players and PDAs. If you put a Windows swap file on a CompactFlash card, though, you'll toast it very quickly indeed.

Win98 is happy (and fast) with no swap as long as there's enough physical memory. Win2000 and XP aren't. You've got to have at least some swap space.

(The i-RAM can be used as a swap drive, and a very good one, too.)

That swap space can, in theory, be on a good old fashioned RAM disk (aah, floppy-boot Amiga nostalgia...), but not if the RAM disk driver starts up after Windows has already tried to find the swap file. Your old DOS RAMdisk driver will work great - in Win98, which doesn't need it.

The coming of the i-RAM more or less brings no-moving-parts consumer computing into the 21st century. You can even have a reasonable amount of stuff installed, if you supplement the i-RAM with a few ATA-adapted CompactFlash cards on which you don't put the swap file. CF-to-IDE adapters are commodity items on eBay, and there are even dual slot adapters now that let you set up one CF card as Master and one as Slave in the one not-much-bigger-than-a-matchbox device.

Even with Win98 installed on a humble 1Gb card, though, you'll still have room for a whole lot of MAME ROMs!

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