Toward Silent Computing

An audiophile's voyage to find the quietest laptop silentmac_615.jpg


I changed laptops about a month ago. I had a Windows netbook, and I opted up, as it were, to a Macbook Air. Part of the attraction of the Macbook Air was its solid-state drive. Unlike a traditional hard drive, which is in effect a high-tech LP player with read-write capability, the SSD has no moving parts -- well, except at the level of the electrical charge that allows data to be stored. (If you can hear that, please get in touch while the next X-Men movie is still in pre-production.) The lack of a physical interface means the SSD is silent, and also less likely to trigger the computer's fan, which in most cases is the primary producer of computer noise on a laptop or desktop. (Note: You can, indeed, upgrade netbooks to SSD drives, but the one I had, a slim Acer, had its drive buried so deep in the device that it was beyond my abilities and my time.)

Beyond the fan, the main mechanical part of a laptop is its keyboard. The Macbook Air's keyboard is one of the best I've worked with. I've long been skeptical of Apple keyboards, believing that they at times achieve their pronounced elegance, their fiercely minimalist silhouette, at the expense of functionality. The one on the Air, however, is splendid. (Mine is the "2011 Air," so unlike its Air predecessors, the keyboard has the additional benefit of being backlit). I've typed on both my iPad 2 and my Air next to my sleeping 14-month-old, and it's possible that the Air keyboard is the quieter of the two -- perhaps not quantitatively, in terms of measurable amplitude, but almost certainly qualitatively: The finger-tap sound of the iPad screen is akin to cold, hard raindrops. It's a sound is so singular and strong that it can seem even louder than the cushioned noise of the Air's keyboard.

Like the single physical button on the iPad, the trackpad click on the Air emits a peculiarly hard crunch. It's like a small chitinous thing being stepped on.

With one prominent exception (the trackpad), the deficits I've come across on the Air, in terms of troubling sonic properties, are restricted to its operating system (OS X Lion), and the very near silence of the SSD may be responsible for bringing them to the foreground. Here are some notes on the three most persistent of those sounds, and on compensating for them:

TRACKING ERROR: The Air's keyboard may be blissfully quiet, but its trackpad is another story. Like the single physical button on the iPad, the trackpad click on the Air emits a peculiarly hard crunch. It's like a small chitinous thing being stepped on. Fortunately for iPad users, the latest major upgrade of its operating system, iOS 5, made that button less necessary than it had been in the past: various swipes accomplish the majority of its tasks. The Macbook Air default setting requires you to click hard on the trackpad to click on anything (like a webpage link, for example). However, there is a setting under "System Preferences" to correct this. Just select "Trackpad," which appears under "Hardware." Then select the "Point & Click" menu. And then click on "Tap to click." In most but not all cases, a simple (and near silent) tap on the trackpad will now accomplish most of the hard-click tasks. By the way, I have noticed a few instances when you still need to click hard, but very few (example: when selecting a user account on the laptop after turning on the machine).

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Marc Weidenbaum runs the ambient-music webzine Disquiet, has contributed to Nature, and is writing a book about Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II for the 33 1/3 series.

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