Apple Archive

Does Intel Mean the End of Apple's Silent Computing?

, 2005.06.17

One thing that's always bothered me about just about every computer that I've owned has been the noise. The stereotypical PC of 15 years ago was a large box that sat there, sounding like it was about to take off and race a 767 while blinking a multitude of multicolored lights.

Even the PC that I currently own is fairly loud - perhaps not compared to a 15-year-old PC, but you can certainly tell the difference if you compare it to a machine from Dell or Gateway - or a Mac.

Macs have always been significantly quieter than PCs, even prebuilt ones. They've always had fewer lights to distract you. In fact, on most Macs the only light on the front of the case would be a power light, and only a few models (like the IIci) had a blinking hard disk activity light (which, as on a PC, could be disconnected if it bothered you - and again it was generally easier to do that on a Mac, since the light plugged right into the hard drive).

Then again, certain G4s had very loud power supplies, which were replaced under a recall. In general, it seems that Apple began their move toward "silent computing" when the fanless slot-loading iMacs were introduced in October 1999.

The Cube was the first recent Mac without an internal display that didn't have a fan, and after that the only systems that had fans that ran constantly were the professional models, the G4 Power Macs and later G5s.

This still holds true. Neither the Mac mini nor the iMac run their fans full-time. The iBooks and PowerBooks have fans, but they tend not to come on unless the system's getting too warm. The Power Mac G5s are the only Macs to have fans running constantly.

Even without a fan, computing still isn't completely silent. The hard drive makes its share of noise, and as they get older, they tend to get a bit louder. Then again, newer hard drives are getting quieter - and staying quieter.

It seems that Apple has achieved the silent computing goal while using PowerPC processors, but how about with Intel's offerings? Will they be able to bring their designs over to the new platform without reworking them completely?

Pentium 4 PCs require a processor fan and a power supply fan, and many high-end video cards have their own fans. Many PC users install an optional case fan to keep things running just a little bit cooler.

Imagine the Mac mini running with several fans - it would double in size! It remains to be seen how Apple will pull it off.

One option, which they're already doing in the Mac mini, is to use a low-power chip such as is used in laptops. Intel's Centrino runs somewhat slower than a full Pentium 4, but it includes wireless technology, which is a feature Apple currently pushes for its PowerPC models. Using a low-power chip would mean that the fan (which would be small) could be off most of the time and only come on when the system starts really getting warm.

I wonder whether it really is silent computing that Apple's pushing now - or annoyance-free computing? With spyware and security issues dominating the Windows world, Apple is making things simpler. "Switch away from your Windows machine, and life will be easier," they're trying to say.

Quiet machines only enhance that argument. The less noise, the more you can concentrate on writing papers, listening to music, or whatever else you're doing with your computer.

But can Apple keep up the silence once they switch to Intel? LEM


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