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Time to Go Fanless?

Intel’s Broadwell processors cut heat and power consumption more than previous-generation chips, opening the market for more fanless PC designs. By Hank Hogan

Some PC users have always been fans of going fanless, particularly when low noise or operation in a dusty environment is all-important. In the past, however, such users often had to be content with wimpy performance or shell out bucks to dissipate heat in a fan-free way.

Now Intel’s line of Broadwell processors promises to move fanless PC designs into the mainstream, enabling system builders to produce more reliable, thinner, and quieter—yet capable—machines. “System builders can take advantage of these new properties and still have enough performance to do real work,” says Nathan Brookwood, research fellow at market research consultancy Insight 64, in Saratoga, Calif.

Cool Tech PC Inc., a Battle Ground, Wash.-based custom PC builder that also sells quiet PCs under the brand, has been designing and building fanless PCs for more than a decade. One early high-performance design used the whole case as a 70-pound extruded aluminum heat sink to meet specifications, according to Peter Nickol, technical manager.

Since then the heat generated by the processor, known as its thermal design power, has dropped steadily with each new chip family. That has made it easier to create systems that can meet performance requirements while taking advantage of fanless designs. “Fanless PCs are inherently low maintenance because they do not have fans that collect dust,” says Nickol. “They are a great choice for any industrial environment. They are also dead silent.”

The introduction of Broadwell processors further cuts heat and power consumption over the previous generation. For instance, a desktop version of Broadwell should be down to around 70 watts, Nickol says. For comparison, a similar previous-generation Haswell chip would run in the mid-80s. At the low end, important for battery life in mobile products and general power savings, Haswell bottomed out at around 10 watts. Broadwell runs as low 3 to 5 watts, doubling power efficiency.

Less heat generated makes going fanless more viable and could lead to increased competition in fan-free systems, Nickol says. For its part, Cool Tech PC is planning its own line of fanless cases, with other innovations possible.

Candidates for Fanless Designs
Jon Bach, president of Auburn, Wash.-based Puget Systems, also predicts that the new processors will lead to more fanless machines. Prime candidates are portable devices; entry-level, small-form-factor desktops; and all-in-ones. Applications of these devices will join already existing fanless uses found in manufacturing, the military, and other environments where corrosion or dust is a major problem.

Because fanless designs have fewer moving parts, they are more reliable and rugged. As PCs get smaller and thinner, there will be greater use of external power adapters, Bach says. At the same time, fans won’t disappear entirely. “As performance of fanless PCs improves, you'll see them in more and more places, but there will always be applications that need the highest performance available. Workstations and servers will remain actively cooled for as far out as I can see,” he says, adding that even systems that still have fans will, on average, be quieter, since the fans will power off when the system isn’t under heavy load.

Insight 64’s Brookwood points out that the arrival of Broadwell elicits more than a discussion of fan vs. fanless PCs for custom builders; it also influences their choice of operating system. To eliminate fans, he says, designers often had to go with low-performance CPUs that struggled to be snappy in the Windows environment. In contrast, an Android or Linux OS can run on much lighter-weight systems and still be responsive.

Many fanless Windows-based systems ran on Intel’s Atom chips but they felt sluggish, according to Brookwood. Now, the situation has changed: “The latest generation of Bay Trail–based Atom CPUs began to feel better, but a low-power Broadwell runs rings around Atom.”

About the Author

HANK HOGAN is a freelance writer in Reno, Nev.

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