Good riddance.

Usually when I hear the words “upgrade your PC,” I think of buying a new CPU or graphics card. But there are a lot of smaller, less expensive things you can upgrade that still make a pretty big difference. For example: fans.

Last weekend I finally fully upgraded my gaming PC’s case fans, and it has made a massive difference in how pleasant it is to use my PC every day. I am here now to advise you to at least consider doing the same.

I’ve had my PC in its current case for four or five years now, and I’ve slowly made improvements and swapped in new parts over that time. As the weather in Portland has warmed up this spring, I noticed that my rig has been running loud, particularly when I’m playing CPU-intensive games like Far Cry 5 or Assassin’s Creed Origins. I’d be playing the game, then realize I could hear the whirr of the fans and, more distractingly, a low-level hum coming out of my PC’s case any time the CPU hit a certain temperature and the fans kicked into high gear. It was audible through my gaming headphones, and once I heard it, I couldn’t un-hear it.

First thing I did, of course, was clean my PC. I keep my fans and case reasonably clean these days, so it wasn’t that hard to do, but it’s always a good first step when determining why your PC seems louder than you remember it being. Ages ago, when I was playing on one of my first self-built PCs, I remember noticing it was making horrendous noises and even beginning to shut down due to overheating. I cracked open the case and wound up pulling out a shocking amount of dust, after which it ran much more quietly and coolly. There was nothing so dramatic this time around, but it’s still never a bad idea to clean things up.

Next, I turned my attention to my fans. I have a Cooler Master Trooper case, which I had left in a configuration that ran two 120mm case fans across the front of the case, so that air passes through from the left side to the right side out in front of the motherboard. I use a Corsair H100i v2 all-in-one liquid cooler to cool an i7 7700k CPU. I had bought a couple of Noctua fans when I installed that cooling system, so I had a 140mm Noctua case fan venting out the back of the case and one 120mm Noctua blowing up and out across the CPU cooler’s radiator. The radiator can actually take two fans, but there was only one Noctua in stock at Amazon when I ordered it, so I had a stock Corsair fan as the second fan on the radiator.

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So, to break that down: Two stock Cooler Master 120mm fans blowing across the front, one stock 120mm Corsair fan blowing up over the radiator, one Noctua 120mm fan blowing up across the radiator, and a Noctua 140mm fan venting exhaust out the back of the case.

This isn’t exactly what my case looks like on the inside, but this diagram should give you a sense of where I had which fans after I rotated the front two intake fans to pull air directly into the case.

The first thing I did was flip the front two fans so that they would be pulling air directly into the case, which would create more direct airflow from the bottom-front of the case to the top-back. That’d keep the inside of the case cooler. (It’d also probably suck more dust into the case, so I would have to remember to check and clean it more regularly.) After I did that, though, the sound was actually worse. The fans on the front were closer to where I sat and easier to hear. And still, there was that loud fan hum coming from inside the case.

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I started isolating each fan to try to figure out where the sound was coming from. Was it the water cooler itself? The front fans? Or maybe the fans on my GPU? I ran a test. With the PC turned on, I opened the case, reached in and stopped each fan from spinning to see how much sound each one was making. (I know that reaching into your case when the PC is running is generally inadvisable, but I don’t have a fan control pod and this method was much faster and easier than unplugging each fan would’ve been. Try at your own risk!)

As I temporarily stopped fans from running, it immediately became clear that the stock fans were my problem. The two Noctua fans were almost silent, but the stock Cooler Master and Corsair fans were way louder. Those were my culprits.

Swapping out the front case fans.

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I ordered three more 120mm Noctua fans and swapped them in. With the new fans, my PC is nearly silent. It’s a remarkable change, and one that’s put into focus how noisy it had been before.

If you’d asked me how loud my PC was a year ago, I would’ve said it was relatively quiet. I’d just gotten used to it. That kind of low-level sonic pollution is increasingly common in our homes, filled as they are with processors, cooling apparatuses, fans, appliances, and ventilation systems. We’re often surrounded by a constant thrum of low-frequency noise, and while we don’t consciously notice it, it still contributes to a subtle, pervasive loudness.

Since swapping my fans, I’ve also noticed better cooling in general. Despite the fact that my PC almost sounds like it isn’t turned on at all, it’s running noticeably cooler. (Worth noting that I’ve also lowered the voltage on my CPU’s overclock, which has reduced how hot the CPU gets.)

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The fans I bought cost around $20 each, so the five new fans ran me around $100 total. That’s not exactly cheap, but if you’re already buying expensive PC parts, it’s not exactly bank-breaking, either. And it’s been worth it, at least in my opinion. I don’t actually know if Noctua fans are the absolute best fans or anything, so I don’t mean to make a specific endorsement of them over their competitors. I’ve always seen them get high marks at various hardware sites, particularly for how quietly they run. I’m sure there are other brands out there that are good, too.

Really though, this is just another straightforward post about a relatively unexciting hardware investment that’s made my gaming life noticeably better. I hadn’t even realized that those three stock fans were making my PC as loud as they were. Swapping them out for better, quieter fans has made a significant improvement to my day-to-day PC gaming.