Quiet Computing

New chassis based on the BTX design will keep PCs quieter, cooler and smaller.

Computer makers have begun phasing out the current decade-old desktop PC chassis in favor of a newer design aimed at giving PCs the thermal headroom they need to handle new, hotter-running processors and graphics cards.

The result for end users will be smaller form factors that run more quietly and reliably, while enabling them to have the latest technology at costs not much higher than those for traditional models.

Most of the new systems will be based on the BTX chassis design, championed by Intel Corp. and various component makers to replace the current ATX model.

BTX, or Balanced Technology Extended, puts the hottest components—such as the processor, chip sets and graphics controllers—in the center of the chassis, where they are cooled by a front-to-back airflow.

Air is pushed through the chassis by a fan in the front that is larger, moves more slowly and is quieter than current fans. In addition, the enhanced airflow means that some of the component-dedicated smaller fans used in ATX designs—particularly for processors—arent needed, further reducing noise and power consumption.

That is good news to Ray Jaskot, IS manager at the Chicago-based architectural engineering company Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., which runs PCs from Dell Inc. and MPC Computers LLC.

"The more they can reduce [the noise], the better," said Jaskot. "You dont really recognize how loud it is until [the noise] goes away. Its really like white noise. ... It gives you a headache. If its quieter, you can concentrate more and get more work done."

Vendors are already making PCs using the BTX form factor. IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., in August rolled out two desktops, the ThinkCentre S50 ultra small and ThinkCentre S51, both of which are built on the new BTX design.

In September, Gateway Inc. launched the 700GR PC for consumers and later this year will roll out a similar commercial desktop, said Marc DeMars, director of product planning for professional desktops for the Irvine, Calif., company.

Pointer/zimages/6/134204.jpgClick here to read more about the Gateway 700GR PC.

MPC, of Nampa, Idaho, will begin shipping ClientPro desktops with the BTX design in the first quarter of next year.

Hewlett-Packard Co. in June, in conjunction with Intels release of its "Grantsdale" 915 chip set, rolled out the HP Compaq dc7100 small-form-factor desktop based on a design similar to BTX, with the hottest components placed in the middle of front-to-back airflow, said officials with the Palo Alto, Calif., company.

HP has no immediate plans to adopt the BTX design, since its small-form-factor design mirrors the thermal and acoustic benefits of BTX, company officials said.

Roger Kay, an IDC analyst, said that it will probably take three to four years but that the BTX design will be broadly adopted by most desktop makers. The increasingly faster processors on Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. product road maps and hot-running graphics technology from companies such as ATI Technologies Inc. and nVidia Corp. will force the issue, Kay said.

"[The ATX design] really has pretty much gone to the edge of the envelope as overall performance rises," said Kay in Framingham, Mass. "BTX is coming just in time. There is a lot of pressure on the upper end of performance PCs. ... If you have eight fans running loudly [as in the ATX design], that is not a good thing. If you have two fans running more slowly, its quieter."

Cost is a big issue for computer makers, which have to reconfigure their manufacturing processes to adapt to the new design, according to Howard Locker, chief architect for desktop and mobile development at IBMs Personal Computing Division. However, most OEMs will migrate to BTX, industry observers said. "Its a big financial situation," Locker said. "Its like buying a new house. Its better in a new house, but it costs you money."

The smaller form factor wont boost prices too much, according to Gateways DeMars. A BTX computer will cost about $30 more than a similarly configured microATX design desktop, DeMars said.

BTX benefits

  • Smaller form factors through a redesigned backplane
  • Less noise because of a larger fan that rotates more slowly and the ability to remove some component- specific fans
  • Front-to-back airflow over the hottest components, enabling better thermal management within the chassis
  • Comparable price vs. current desktops
  • IBMs ThinkCentre S50 ultra small is built on BTX.

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