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I grew up with the Pong, NES, SNES, Mega Drive, Saturn, Nintendo 64, PlayStation, Game Boys, etc. None of these made any kind of noise when powered on. They were 100% silent. You just flicked them on, and they electrically were powering the game cartridge/disc with their chips and processors to full power.

Once the Dreamcast was released, that console and every other console after it has had these obnoxious, loud fans. So called "active cooling".

Why is it that the old consoles apparently had superior technology to the new ones? Why are the old ones not noisy whereas the modern ones (such as Xbox 360) sound like a jet engine when you turn them on?

Even if we exclude the major issue of the noise pollution, they just generally feel way more "fragile" than the old ones, since you know there's some fans in there spinning away at super speed to cool down this (apparently) badly designed system.

The Nintendo 64 was anything but "weak". It featured insanely advanced 3D graphics and effects, unthinkable for previous generations, yet still had no fan whatsoever.

There are "Raspberry Pi" computers today which also have no cooling, so clearly they are still able to technically make ones that don't require a fan.

Why, 23-24 years after the Nintendo 64 was released, is the only option to buy these loud, inferior (IMO) consoles? Why is there not a console like Nintendo 64 now, which makes zero noise and has no "active cooling" inside? With several decades of technological progress, what could they do today fanless?

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  • $\begingroup$ Power consumption due to frequency of processors and peripherals like DVD. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 14:52

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Power Consumption

The shortest answer to your question is to look at the amount of power consumed by some of the consoles you listed as examples:

As you can see, compared to their predecessors, modern consoles consume roughly 10 times as much power. That power is used to run more powerful CPUs and GPUs in modern consoles. When an electrical component consumes power, the vast majority is dissipated as heat. Therefore, modern consoles need a way to dissipate almost 10 times as much heat as older consoles.

Heat Dissipation

In order to dissipate heat in electronics, we often use heat sinks. Heat sinks are metal pieces with long fins that conduct heat away from a processor or other electrical component, and dissipate that heat into the air. You can use heat sinks without fans, but they are much less effective because you rely on the air naturally flowing away from the fins due to natural convection. Natural convection is generally slow, so you would need to build a larger heat sink if you wanted to dissipate more heat. If you want to keep the heat sink small, you can use forced convection by blowing air through the heat sink with a fan. Because air is being forced through the heat sink, it spends less time near the fins and stays cooler overall. This keeps the heat sink cooler and therefore improves heat transfer a lot.

Noisy Fans

"But why are the fans so noisy?" you might be wondering. Well, that is a design sacrifice on the part of the console designers. Generally speaking, the amount of air a fan can blow is increased by either increasing the size of the fan or rotating the fan faster. When fans rotate faster, they usually get noisier as well. Console designers can only make their consoles so big, so if they need more heat dissipation the only thing they can really do is increase the speed of the fans. Compare that to some PC gaming enthusiasts who build their systems in large cases: they can put really big fans (and water cooling as well, but that's expensive and a whole other story) into their builds so they can have massive power dissipation but whisper-quiet fans.

Summary

The reason modern consoles have noisy active cooling, compared to consoles from 20 - 30 years ago, is that modern consoles draw more power and therefore must dissipate more heat; and to do that in a small footprint they must use small fans spinning really fast. You could make a console that doesn't need active cooling or fast-spinning fans by either reducing the power consumption (for example, the Nintendo Switch is small and quiet) or by increasing the size of the console itself.

Modern consoles aren't necessarily inferior or badly designed compared to past consoles, rather they represent the priorities of the companies and their customers: packing as much computing power into as small a footprint as possible.

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You could make a much smaller console (with no fan) with modern technology but the performance wouldn't be as great compared to name brand consoles. Check out retropi's- raspberry pi's with classic games loaded in. You have the equivalent of a dozen old consoles in one PCB because those games don't require the computing power of modern games. But running anything more heavy than GoldenEye would probably crash it. Moore's law applies to games as well, not just PC's.

There's the story of the Air Force building a supercomputer out of a 1,000 PS3's. You would probably need every Atari and Genesis ever made to even come close to that.

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I can relate to the original question at hand. The first consoles didn't consume that much power and were graphically "advanced" for that timeframe. No cooling required and very low power consumption.

Comparing the first Nintendo system from the 80's and the first PlayStation, there was a huge leap in graphical performance yet they used roughly the same power, ~10w. Does that mean the programming code was leaned out to the point where it did not rely heavily on the hardware? Was the hardware actually better back then? Or did big tech companies decide to purposely make the hardware consume more power and less efficient which increases operating costs to the consumer?

Dreamers can dream I guess :)

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi, Anthony. You've posted this in the "Your Answer" box. I think you'll need to edit it to give an actual answer to the question at the top of the page or it will be deleted. Take the Tour if you want to learn how Q&A works on SE sites. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Transistor
    Commented Mar 21 at 15:22

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