Step-by-Step: Building a Quiet PC From The Ground Up

Very detailed How-To – Chris McQuistion

In my last article Step-by-Step: How to Build a Cheap and Quiet AMD Dually, I discussed the requirements and some specific recommendations for building a dual CPU AMD system, inexpensively and with quiet-operation in mind.

Fortunately, single-CPU computer systems don’t require as much airflow as dual-CPU computers, so it is possible to build an extremely quiet system, if you know the right components, techniques and modifications.

This article is the second in a three part series on quiet computing. In this installment, I will discuss the requirements for building a cheap and quiet single-CPU PC, give specific purchasing recommendations, and show some simple modifications that can help lower computer system noise. This article is geared toward new system builders, but can be helpful to upgraders and system-modders, too.

I won’t give specific recommendations on motherboards, processors, or memory, because those particular components aren’t the noisemakers of a computer. Also, the choice in those components is highly dependent on other factors, such as the budget, personal tastes, and primary purpose of the machine.

I am always looking for ways to build quieter computer systems. Over the years, I have built many computers and used many different computer cases, fans, power supplies, heatsinks, and hard drives. I have learned what works well, what is just hype, and what products should be avoided at all costs. This article will explain the sources of noise, what can be done about them, and what parts I recommend purchasing for building a quiet and inexpensive computer system.

THEORY AND APPLICATION

In order to build a quiet computer, you need to know which computer components are the noisemakers. The main sources of noise are as follows:

  • Case fans
  • Heatsink fans
  • Power supplies
  • Hard drives

The computer case, itself, while not actually a noise producer on its own, has a large impact on overall system noise as well. Its design is, perhaps, one of the most important considerations when trying to build a quiet system.

*CASE FANS*

One of the most obvious contributors to computer system noise are case fans. Most OEM manufacturers and custom system builders use cheap, less-than-quiet case fans. When trying to buy your own fans, difficulty arises from the fact that different fan manufacturers use different methods of testing noise levels of their fans. You can’t get a realistic impression of their real noise level, unless comparing fan noise specifications from the same manufacturer.

There are a few places on the Internet, where you can find real, scientific comparisons of different fans. One of them is HERE. Many so-called comparative reviews just use the specifications given by the manufacturers. This data is irrelevant when the different manufacturers use different testing techniques. The good comparative reviews are the ones that do actual testing, themselves.

The most common case fan size is 80 mm. Avoid, at all costs, any case that comes with 60 mm case fans – they must run significantly faster, and louder, to achieve the same CFM (cubic feet per minute) of airflow as their 80 mm counterparts.

Cases with 120 mm fans, such as the SLK3700AMB I mentioned in my previous article, are great for airflow, but it is VERY RARE to find a 120 mm fan that can operate at the low noise level achievable from a good quality, quiet 80 mm fan. In some cases, such as dual processor computers or EXTREMELY overclocked computers, it is advisable to have more airflow than dual 80 mm fans can provide. In those rare cases, it is better to have a case that supports dual 120 mm fans. You can find a list of these cases HERE.

My two favorite 80 mm fans for quiet computing are the Panaflo L1A and the PC Power & Cooling Silencer. The L1A is slightly louder than the Silencer, but it makes a great heatsink fan or replacement Power Supply fan.

The Silencer doesn’t work well as a heatsink fan, but it is a FANTASTIC case fan. Its noise level and airflow can’t be beat. It makes a decent replacement power supply fan, but can’t push the amount of air that the L1A is capable of in an airflow-resistant environment, such as a Power Supply or Heatsink. The Silencer is also offered in a 92 mm variety for those cases that support 92 mm fans.
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Chris McQuistion

*HEATSINKS & FANS*

Heatsinks and their accompanying fans are, perhaps, the most notorious noisemakers in a computer. Most heatsinks run 60, 72, or 80 mm fans, running anywhere from 1000 RPM to 7000 RPM. There are perhaps hundreds of heatsinks to choose from, but almost all of them are loud and many of the loud ones are still quite inefficient coolers. One of the keys to a quiet computer is getting a good quality, efficient, and quiet heatsink and fan.

As can be seen in the Overclockers.com Heatsink and Watercooling Performance Ratings, the Thermalright SLK-800 and SK-7 are two of the top performing heatsinks on the market today for Socket A systems. One of their best features is that they work very well, even with low speed, low noise fans. Socket 478 users can use the SLK-800U, which is designed for P4 use.

These heatsinks all support 80 mm fans, which I highly recommend using for quiet operation. An 80 mm fan can run slower and quieter than a 70 mm or 60 mm fan, yet move more air and provide better cooling. An 80 mm Panaflo L1A on one of these heatsinks makes a great CPU cooler, and the noise level is VERY low. Those trying to save a few bucks may be interested in the SK-6+ heatsink. The SK-6+ is designed for 60 mm fans, but you can use an 80 mm fan (with a little ingenuity) and get results identical to the SK-7. I will go into this later.

*HARD DRIVES*

Hard Drives are a major contributor to system noise for a couple reasons. I won’t go too deep into the physical characteristics of their construction and operation, but for a detailed explanation of what a hard drive is and how it works, please check HERE.

There are two main noises that come from hard drives. The first is normal-operation spindle-spinning noise, characterized by high pitch whining. The second is seek noise, characterized by lower pitch, chugging noises.

There is a third characteristic of hard drives, however, which is important, although it is not necessarily noise: VIBRATION.

The high-speed rotation of the hard drive platters, along with the vibrations caused by hard drive seeks, cause quite a bit of vibration. Some of this vibration is loud enough to cause audible noise. Much of it, however, is actually transferred through the metal hard drive housing and into the computer case.

This vibration, which wasn’t originally noise, now has a large metal surface (your computer case) which it resonates. This amplifies the vibration into noise.

(Think of an Acoustic Guitar. The strings, themselves, don’t make that much noise. What happens is that their vibrations are transferred though the bridge into the wooden guitar case. This large hollow case then resonates, producing a lot of noise from a little vibration. The same thing happens in your computer case.)

Why is this vibration stuff important? It’s important because your case selection should be made with this characteristic in mind. I will talk about this in the next section, regarding cases.

As for hard drive recommendations, in my previous article I gave some specific recommendations which I will repeat here:

Over the years, I have discovered three hard drives that I just love. Each is quiet and is suitable for different needs.

The Western Digital JB series of drives is just great. They are one of the few IDE drives that are still sold with a 3-year warranty. They have an 8 MB cache, great performance and quieter than most other IDE drives. The only exception is their drives below 80 GB. For some reason, those below 80 GB, such as the 400JB, are designed slightly differently and are VERY loud. The WD 800JB and up are very good.

The Seagate Barracuda V is the quietest IDE drive you can get. It too is 7200 RPM and features a 2 MB cache. Its performance isn’t quite as good as the Western Digital JB drives, but it is still very good and quieter than the WDs. If you want the absolute, quietest computer you can get, get a Seagate Barracuda V.

The Seagate Cheetah 15K.3 is the quietest 15K SCSI drive available. It is also one of the highest performance drives – anywhere. If you can afford to go with 15K SCSI, I highly recommend it. I think that my upgrade to 15K SCSI gave me more of a performance increase than any other upgrade I have EVER made. For a SCSI controller, I highly recommend the LSI U160. It is a great SCSI controller and only costs about $42. HERE is a good place to get cheap, round SCSI/IDE/Floppy cables.

On my primary machine, I have a Seagate 15K.3 for my Operating Systems and Games partitions. I have a Seagate Barracuda V for my Files partition, where I keep backups and stuff I need permanent storage for.

A great resource for good hard drive data, including performance and noise, is Storage Review.com. You can access their Benchmark Database HERE. Change the drop down menu and click “Sort” to see how drives compare in a variety of real benchmarks and measurements. They have one especially useful database just for Drive Idle Noise.
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Chris McQuistion

*CASES*

Cases by themselves don’t produce noise. Their construction is important, however, when trying to build a quiet computer system. Most computer cases are built with hard drive mounts which mount a hard drive in direct contact with the metal chassis or with a metal tray, which is then mounted directly to the metal hard drive chassis. If you want a quiet computer, then this kind of case design is flawed. Remember my vibration rant, earlier?

There are some computer cases, fortunately, which have shock mounts for the hard drives. Basically, a shock mount is some kind of mounting method which keeps the metal hard drive casing from coming into direct contact with the metal part of the case.

A popular method to achieve this is to have rubber grommets for mounting the hard drives. The screws securing the hard drive go through the rubber grommet and fasten securely to the hard drive. The hard drive is now secured to the grommet. The grommet is secured to the case, but the rubber grommet absorbs much of the vibration from the hard drive, preventing this vibration from getting to the case.

The SLK3700AMB case I mentioned in my previous article is one case that has this kind of mounting system. You can find an excellent review of this case, including a picture of the shock mount hard drive tray, HERE.

The SLK3700AMB is a great case for dual-CPU systems, where you must have a lot of airflow, but it is overkill for a single CPU system. Since it has 120 mm intake and exhaust fans, it is hard to get it as quiet as a case with a single 80 mm intake and single 80 mm exhaust. If you build your single-CPU computer with the right components, especially a high performance heatsink, then you won’t need more than one 80 mm intake and one 80 mm exhaust.

My favorite case for quiet computing for a single-CPU system is the EverCase E4252. There are several different models of essentially the same case. It is available in beige or black, with or without a power supply. You can find it HERE. There are window mods available as well.

This case isn’t particularly fancy-shmancy, but it is a well-built case and costs only $25 – you can’t beat the price. It has a front 80 mm intake, a side 80 mm intake and a rear 80 mm exhaust. It also features a shock mount hard drive method that works GREAT! With some simple modifications, this case can be quieter than almost any other case available, no matter what their cost. I will describe the modifications a little later.

*POWER SUPPLIES*

There are a few buzzwords you hear in the power supply market quite a bit. “Silent, Quiet, Whisper, Stealth, and Noise-Killer” are words used by power supply manufacturers to describe their products. The reason you hear that is because power supplies are, sometimes, one of the noisiest components of a computer. They often have one, two, three, or even four fans, yet are described as “Whisper Quiet.” Don’t believe them.

There are VERY few power supplies I have used that I consider to be whisper quiet. Most are as quiet as a good stiff wind in your ear.

There are a few things to look for when buying a power supply and a few things to avoid, if you can. Power supplies with one rear exhaust fan and one bottom-mounted intake fan are a bad design. They are made that way to take hot air from the neighborhood of the CPU and force it into the power supply, which will then exhaust it out the back. That is good. The noise it causes, is not.

The bottom-mounted fan, blowing air up and at 90 degrees to the exhaust fan, causes turbulence and a disruption in the airflow and the operation of the rear exhaust fan. This causes noise. As a result, the power supply is noisier than if it just had the exhaust fan and no intake. If you have a power supply like this and you want it to be quieter, try removing the bottom fan completely.

A better dual-fan design for power supplies is one with a rear exhaust fan and an intake fan of the same airflow specifications, mounted on the opposite side. This kind of arrangement causes less noise, since both fans are pushing air in the same direction. The design is still less-than-optimal however, because you have two noise-making fans.

The power supplies with three to four fans, including a bottom-mounted intake fan or fans, are just a horrible design. These make lots of noise. Many manufacturers build power supplies like this. Vantec sells a series of these, called the Vantec “Stealth” Power Supply. It features three fans, a rear exhaust, a bottom-mounted intake, and another intake, opposite the exhaust.

The only thing that these are stealthy to are deaf people. They are loud. They have three speed settings: a little loud, really loud, and automatically loud. I have their 550-watt version and I kick myself for buying it. Reviews of the lower wattage versions claimed that they were quiet. Either the reviewers aren’t as picky as I am about noise, or the 550-watt version is just louder than the others. It is easily the loudest power supply I have ever used.

The best power supply design would be one with just one exhaust fan or just one intake fan (and a passive exhaust.)
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Chris McQuistion

My recommendation is the quietest power supply I have ever used. It is the Fortron FSP300 300-Watt Power Supply (alternately labeled as P300XFPN.) You can find it HERE. This power supply is just great. Instead of using an 80 mm exhaust fan, it has a single 120 mm intake fan, which is unusually quiet. This fan is mounted on the bottom of the unit and the back of the power supply is a mesh grill. Air is pushed into the power supply by the bottom-mounted 120 mm fan and is then passively exhausted out the back.

The fan is temperature controlled, so it spins VERY, VERY slowly at low temperatures and speeds up when necessary. The fan and the overall design of this power supply make it nearly inaudible. Perhaps best, this power supply only costs $27. For a quality power supply, that is an unbeatable price. I have used this power supply on an overclocked AMD systems up to 2 GHz, with several peripherals. Although only rated for 300 Watts, this power supply has a LOT of juice. If you think you need a higher wattage power supply, Fortron makes a 350 Watt version called the FSP350.

PURCHASING RECOMMENDATIONS

*CASE FANS*

Two PC Power and Cooling Silencers -> $7.50 each

You can get these from PC Power & Cooling. They usually offer free shipping, too.

*HEATSINK*

For AMD Socket A systems:

SK-7 -> $15-20 or SK-6+ -> $10 (for those willing to do the mod)

SVC is a good place to find these heatsinks and they have cheap shipping.

For Intel Socket 478 systems:

SLK-800U -> $38

SVC is a good place to find this heatsink, too.

*HEATSINK FAN*

Panaflo L1A -> $5-10

Lots of places carry these fans, including HERE and HERE. When you order this fan, make sure to order a “fan tail” as well, since the fan comes from the factory with bare leads.

*HARD DRIVES*

I have three recommendations, depending on preference, as explained before:

Seagate Barracuda V -> $68-138, depending on capacity.

Capacities available include 40, 80, 120, and 160 GB. You can find these HERE.

Western Digital “Special Edition” JB Drive -> $86-252, depending on capacity.

80, 120 and 250 GB capacities available. You can find these HERE.

Seagate 15K.3 SCSI Drive -> $207-555, depending on capacity.

18, 36, and 73 GB capacities available. You can find these HERE. These drives aren’t cheap, but they are the quietest 15K SCSI drives available, so I include them here. If you get a SCSI drive, you will also need a SCSI card and SCSI cable. The LSI U160 SCSI card is only $42 and its performance is great. You can find it HERE. You can get cheap rounded SCSI, IDE, and Floppy cables from SVC.

There are a few, newer drives that are supposedly very quiet and high performance, but I haven’t had an opportunity to use them. Most notable is the IBM/Hitachi 180 GXP drive. It is higher performance then the Western Digital JB drives and with lower noise. Its noise level, according to StorageReview’s tests, is very close to the Seagate Barracuda V. The 180 GB version comes with an 8MB cache and 3 year warranty. This is the high performance drive. Lower capacity 180 GXPs come with 2 MB cache and 1 year warranties. Their performance will not be as good due to their limited cache.
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Chris McQuistion

*CASE*

EverCase 4252 -> $25

You can find it HERE.

*POWER SUPPLY*

Fortron FSP300 -> $27

You can find it HERE.

*MISCELLANEOUS SUPPLIES*

Pack of Rubber Grommets with 1/4″ inside Diameter -> $1-2

You will need four grommets for each hard drive. You can buy these from your local hardware store. Although the EverCase 4252 is has the option of mounting your hard drives with rubber grommets, it doesn’t come with them.

Superglue -> $1

You will need some glue for one of the mods.

Two Plastic Zip Ties -> less than $1.

You will need these, if you do the SK-6+ mod.

*OTHER QUIET COMPUTING PARTS I RECOMMEND*

For CD-ROM’s, my highest praise goes to the MSI 8152 CD-ROM. It is available in white or black, very cheap and incredibly quiet.

You can find it HERE.

For CD-RW’s and DVD-ROM’s, I have always had good experiences with Lite-On drives. Mine have always been inexpensive and quieter than most other manufacturers’ drives.

You can find them HERE and HERE.

As mentioned in my previous article, I have used a product called “Akasa Pax Mate” on many of my computers. It is available from SVC. It is a thin, foam insulation that you put on the sides, top, and bottom of your case. It is supposed to absorb some sound and make your computer quieter. I don’t know if it really works or not. I do know that it makes your temperatures higher, since some of the heat inside your case can’t radiate through the metal sides.

This should be considered a luxury item for the truly noise-picky who aren’t afraid to have slightly higher temperatures.

You can find it HERE.

MODIFICATIONS AND ASSEMBLY

OK, you’ve bought the case, power supply, case fans, heatsink & fan and hard drive. The case, power supply and SK-6+ (if you got this heatsink) will require some simple modifications – it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to do them.

*CASE MODS*

OK, here is a shot of that brand new case:

Case

Here is a picture of a side view:

Case Side

The blue circled part is the vents for air intake on the front of the case. This is a good design. Air can be sucked in through those vents and is then blown into the case by the front intake fan. The green circled part is the first project.
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Chris McQuistion

When you take off the side of the case, you will see this:

Unmod

The green circled fan is an undesirable part of this case – it is a side intake fan designed to blow fresh air over the CPU. This is somewhat helpful for cooling but it is bad for noise. When you have a fan blowing air into another fan, you get air turbulence and noise. If you have a good heatsink to begin with and some decent case airflow, then you don’t need this side intake fan.

First mod: Take that side intake fan assembly off. It is attached to the back of the case with three small screws. When you remove it, your case should look like this:

Mod

Now you’ve got that taken off, but the side of you case has ventilation holes where it used to have an intake fan. Covering those holes is mod #2. Just cover them on the inside part of the panel with some tape.

Here are two shots of the modded side panel:

Side

Inside view.

Out

Outside view.

Two mods done. Next, we will look at the intake and exhaust fan locations.

After you take off the two sides of the case, then take off the front of the case – you will see the front fan intake:

In

You can see that this case is better than most. It doesn’t have little tiny holes drilled where the intake and exhaust fans go, but it does have some mesh-like construction which will block some air and cause a little noise, due to turbulence.

The next mod is to cut out this mesh. There are a few ways you can do this. You can use a Dremel (the slow, clean method); you can use a hole saw or jigsaw (quick, dirty methods); or you can grab a pair of angle cutters and clip it away by hand. Since we are just cutting mesh, a pair of angle cutters will do just fine and it is a common tool to have around:

Cut

After cutting out the mesh out and installing a case fan, it should look like this:

Mod

There is no need to put a finger guard over this, since the front of the case will keep fingers and curious kitties away from it.

Next, we need to do the same procedure to the exhaust fan on the back of the case.

This is what the case looks like, before modification:

Ex

After cutting out the mesh, it will look like this:

Ex Mod

After mounting a fan and a finger guard (we must protect the kiddies and kitties) it will look like this:

Mod3

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Chris McQuistion

OK – one more mod to the case and we’re finished.

As I mentioned earlier, the case is designed for rubber-grommet-mounting the hard drives. The problem is, it doesn’t come with grommets. It also doesn’t come with the kind of screws that you need to use when rubber-grommet-mounting a hard drive.

You can buy the grommets at a hardware store – they are cheap. Look for ones with a 1/4″ inside diameter. This is what they look like:

Gr

You can’t use the standard screws to mount the hard drive through a rubber grommet, whose inside diameter is 1/4″ and is 1/4″ thick. You need screws with a long standoff. I hunted and hunted around for these. I couldn’t ever find any, except for the ones that came with my SLK3700AMB case. I finally realized that I could make my own, using only the parts that shipped with the EverCase. When you get the case, you will find a little goody bag inside, full of screws and other parts:

Bag

Inside this bag, you will find the two parts you need. The first part is a standard case/hard drive screw:

Screw

The second part needed is a motherboard standoff. The case, itself, has built-in motherboard standoffs. The ones in the goody bag are just extras:

St

Put a drop of superglue inside of the standoff, and then screw in the screw into it:

ScrewStand

The reason you use the glue is this: if you don’t glue these together, then when you try to take out your hard drive later, you will have problems. The top screw will come out of the standoff. The standoff will still be inside the grommet, though, and you will have a hard time getting it out to remove your hard drive. By gluing these together, you avoid that little problem. If you have to remove these they will come out together.

With this contraption I call the ScrewStand, you can tighten it up and you will have a secure connection with the hard drive. The stand part will be resting inside of the grommet. It won’t be really tight, just a little snug. In this way, it is able to vibrate and the rubber absorbs most of the vibration before that vibration gets to the case and resonates.

Now, back to the case. Here is a picture of the case with its removable hard drives racks in their stock condition:

HD

These removable hard drive racks are pretty handy. It is sometimes handy to be able to slide out the hard drives. The racks support two hard drive mounting methods. You can mount the hard drives directly to the metal tray using the holes circled in green, below. Alternately, you can rubber-grommet-mount the hard drives by slipping rubber grommets into the tray, in the locations circled blue below (You actually slip the rubber grommets into the middle location, then slide them down toward the corners.):

HD 2

Here is a picture of the rubber grommets in place, with the hard drive ready, before screwing in the ScrewStands:

HD Top

Here it is, after screwing in the ScrewStands:

HD Top1

The hard drive is now rubber-grommet-mounted. I did a side-by-side comparison with two identical drives; one mounted the traditional way with screws and the other one rubber-grommet-mounted. The rubber-grommet-mounted hard drive produces noticeably less noise than if mounted in direct contact with the case. All this mod takes is a couple of minutes and about a dollars worth of grommets.

One of the important reasons for the front intake fan, by the way, is to blow some cool air across the hard drives. I believe the number one reason for hard drive failure is overheating. Having a quiet intake fan blowing across the hard drives is a cheap and easy way to extend the life of your hard drive.

I have noticed that overheated hard drives often times become louder with age, while hard drives that are actively cooled don’t seem to exhibit this behavior. If quiet computing is your goal, this is something to keep in mind.

OK, we are now completely done modifying the case. Time to move on to the Power Supply.
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Chris McQuistion

*POWER SUPPLY MODS*

The Fortron FSP300 is a great power supply, but it has one small inconvenience: Its fan grill, over the bottom intake fan, isn’t flush with its chassis. It sticks out from the casing just a little bit. This can cause mounting problems with some cases. The EverCase 4252 is one of those affected. Fortunately, this is an easy fix.

Here is a picture of the bottom of the Power Supply:

Fortron

The mod is simple – grab those angle cutters and make two cuts. The Power Supply will now look like this:

F Mod

That’s it. Now the Power Supply will mount in the case easily and won’t cause problems. Here is a close-up picture of the Power Supply:

Close

You should be able to see in that picture why we have to cut off that one ring of the finger guard.

Here is a shot of the back of the Power Supply where you can see the mesh. Air is pushed into the Power Supply by the bottom intake fan and exhausts out this mesh. The result is a VERY quiet Power Supply:

Back

OK, the case and Power Supply mods are done. Only one mod left, if you’ve got the SK-6+ heatsink.

*HEATSINK MODS*

I like this heatsink because it is very cheap and incredibly effective with some simple modifications. With the mod I will describe, the SK-6+ will perform identically to the more expensive SK-7 when using the same fan.

Here’s a shot of the bare heatsink:

HS

Here is an 80 mm Panaflo L1A fan sitting on top of this heatsink that is designed for 60 mm fans:

Fan 1

Round hole? Square peg? Getting this 80 mm fan to attach to this 60 mm fan isn’t really that hard.

Here are the steps:

First, attach the brackets that are designed for 60×25 mm fans to the heatsink, except don’t put them on correctly. Normally, you would attach them with the little barbs pointing inwards. These barbs go into the mounting holes of a 60×25 mm fan and hold it down securely. We don’t want it going into our fan, though. Mount them with the barbs pointing out, like this:

HSB 1

Now, slide the 80 mm fan onto the heatsink into these brackets, like this:

Br

From the side, it will look like this:

BR 2

Now, you need two plastic zip-ties. You will simply run them through the brackets and tighten them up. This will hold the fan securely to the heatsink:

P

Now this modified SK-6+ will be slightly more difficult to mount to the motherboard, but not too terribly bad. I don’t recommend this mod for dual AMD system because this 80 mm fan at an angle on CPU2 will interfere with the AGP slot. For single CPU AMD systems, however, I have yet to have any problems. This combo is cheap, quiet and effective.

When mounted, this is what the modded heatsink will look like:

P

CONCLUSION

I hope you have found this article enlightening and I wish you many years of happy, quiet and thoroughly overclocked computing.

You can find my previous article HERE. Since I have the ability to update my forum threads, I have made some edits and updates to the forum version of the article.

You can find this article in our forums HERE. I will edit it and keep it updated, with relevant information and tips.

In my next article, I will show how to build a shock-mount hard drive rack that will fit in almost any case and significantly reduce hard drive noise. Best of all, it only costs about $2 to build it.

Chris McQuistion

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