Last week we focused on the basic case sizes and form factors available when building a new PC. This week, we’ll talk about specific features to look for when shopping for a new case.
As always, if something I recommend doesn’t meet your needs, or you just plain disagree, feel free to ignore it. It’s not my goal to evangelize The One Correct Way of Doing Things, just sharing some of the things I’ve learned in a half decade of building PCs and testing components, including scores of cases.
Cooling it Smartly
Balance is the name of the game in cooling. It’s easy to go overboard with fans--look at the Antec LanBoy Air for an example. It cools pretty well, but by brute force, rather than intelligent design. Instead, look for a case that has the following three attributes: coherent airflow, positive air pressure, and filtered intakes.
You don’t want fans blowing in every direction in your case. Try for a case with intake fans in the front and exhaust fans at the rear. This allows cool air to flow over the drives, then motherboard, GPU, and CPU cooler. The now-warm air is then exhausted from the top rear quadrant of the case. Many cases have an additional intake fan on the side panel to provide cool air to the GPU, and some more exhaust fans at the top. This is fine if the GPU is not getting enough airflow from a standard configuration.
In-the-front, out-the-back is the most common arrangement, it’s not the only option. Silverstone’s FT02, one of the best air-cooled cases, has three 180mm fans at the bottom that blow air straight up to the top of the case. Its motherboard tray is rotated 90 degrees clockwise, so the airflow is parallel to the GPU and the CPU cooling fans.
Positive Air Pressure
If a case has more air intake than exhaust, it creates positive air pressure. This ensures that air only comes into the case through the intake fans (which should be filtered), and leaves through the exhaust fans and any other gaps or holes in the case. If filtered air is going out of those gaps, unfiltered air can’t come in. It also makes sure that air that’s been warmed by your components is always being forced out of the case.
I hate to keep bringing up Silverstone, but these guys know about positive air pressure. The TJ08-E micro-ATX case I’ve mentioned a few times has decent air cooling and positive pressure with just one 180mm air intake fan and no stock exhaust fan.
Ever taken the side off of your PC and been appalled by the dust inside? Friend, you need filters. Most modern cases come with screens in front of the intake fans to stop dust from getting into your case. Look for a case that has all of its intakes filtered, and make sure those filters are easy to remove and clean. You’ll cut down on dust, and less dust means less heat retention in your system. If you find a case that doesn’t have filtered intakes, make or buy your own. In a pinch, use pantyhose. Really.
Optional: Water-cooling Support
Water-cooling loops come in two flavors: all-in-one and custom. Most all-in-one systems contain one 120mm or 140mm radiator, which mounts in place of your rear exhaust fan. Some have 240mm or 280mm radiators, so if you’re planning on using one of those, you need a case with 240mm or 280mm radiator support on top. Check your case’s spec sheet.
Custom water-cooling loops require lots of advance planning, and are outside the scope of this article, but some cases are better for water-cooling than others--NZXT’s Switch 810 and CM Stryker get a lot of love in the water-cooling community, as do Silverstone’s SJ07 and the monstrously high-end TJ11. If you’re not sure whether a water-cooling loop will fit in your case, try googling its name along with “water-cooling”. You’ll find build logs and discussion threads that can help you decide whether to do it.
Materials & Build Quality
You have two basic choices in PC cases: aluminum or steel. Aluminum is lighter but more expensive, and steel is cheaper but heavier. Many cases use steel for the frame and aluminum for the panels, and some have front and top panels that look like aluminum but are actually plastic. Some have plastic shrouding on the top and front panels. This can help give the case a less rectangular, more interesting look, and provides room for more in the way of cooling, since fans and radiators can be mounted to the exterior of the steel chassis and still covered by the shroud.
Look for a case that’s painted inside and out. If a case isn’t painted on the inside it’s a good indication that corners were cut, and you’ll likely find others, like rough unfinished edges, shoddy construction, or just bad design.
If you want a quiet PC, you will probably want a steel mid-tower. Most “quiet” cases, like the Antec P280, Corsair 550D, NXZT H2, and Fractal Design Define R4, are heavy steel with sound-damping panels on the insides. Since the sound-damping stuff adds weight anyway, there’s no point going with aluminum for a quiet case.
A clean wiring job makes your build look better, and it also improves airflow and minimizes dust buildup. Look for a case that has cable-routing cutouts in the motherboard tray, so you can route cables behind the motherboard. The cable routing cutouts should have rubber grommets to protect your cables, or at the very least be finished and free from burrs and sharp edges.
The red Phantom 410 in the above image, for example, has all its power supply cables routed behind the motherboard tray and brought back out near their destinations. Make sure the case has at least a half an inch between the motherboard tray and the right side panel, so you actually have room for those cables. One of the few weaknesses of the otherwise fantastic Silverstone Fortress FT02 is that there’s very little room between the motherboard tray and the side panel.
Trays ‘n Bays
Your case should have enough hard drive cages for all the drives you’re starting with, and probably a few extras for upgrading. If your case has dedicated 2.5-inch drive mounts for your SSDs, that’s great, but most SSDs come with adapter trays for 3.5-inch drive mounts.
Many cases have tool-less drive trays so you don’t need a screwdriver to add or remove drives. These are nice to have, but if you don’t plan on swapping drives frequently you can do without them if you find a case that meets all your other criteria. It’s more important to make sure your drive trays aren’t bare metal--or if they are, there’s some sort of rubber or plastic grommet or standoff to reduce metal-on-metal vibrations.
Most people need between zero and one optical drive, so unless you master a lot of discs or have other devices that fit in a 5.25-inch drive bay, you’ll only need a couple of optical bays. Still, make sure the case you’re buying has enough for you.
Make sure your case has enough expansion slots for your motherboard. That means at least two if you’re planning a mini-ITX gaming rig, four or more for micro-ATX, and 7+ for ATX.
Front Panel Connectors
Any new case should come with front-panel USB 3.0 ports with an internal header--not a passthrough cable. It should plug into the internal USB 3.0 header on your motherboard, not the USB 3.0 ports on the rear panel. If it doesn’t, don’t buy it. Unless the manufacturer makes an upgrade kit.
Only if you want. If a case doesn’t come with a fan controller, and you really want one, you can get one that fits in an optical drive bay. Most motherboards let you control fan speed directly from the headers, though a physical fan controller can help you undervolt loud stock fans so they’re quieter and will give you precise control.
Don’t underestimate the importance of aesthetics. Good cases are easy enough to find that you shouldn't need to be embarrassed by yours.
Don’t underestimate the importance of aesthetics. Good cases are easy enough to find that you shouldn’t need to be embarrassed by yours. If you like blingy, more-is-more cases, get one of those. If your tastes run more minimalistic, that’s great too. I tend toward the minimal, but my current case is bright red and covered in chrome, so what do I know?
Many cases have transparent windows on the sides so you can show off your build, and many others have bright LEDs on the front. If your computer is going to be in the same room where you sleep, you’ll probably appreciate a case without side windows or lots of LEDs. Ditto if it’s on top of your desk. If you do want to show off, though, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just make sure your wiring job isn’t an embarrassment--yet another reason to get a case with good cable management features.
Once you’ve found a case you’re thinking about plunking down money on, read the reviews--both from hardware reviewers and customers. Case reviewers bring breadth of experience--many have reviewed and built into hundreds of cases over their tenure, and they can tell the standouts from the generic cases. But customer reviews are good for depth of experience, because they come from people who have to live with those cases for months and years, not just a few weeks. Read both for a balanced perspective. Take the one-star and five-star customer reviews with a grain of salt, and pay attention to the two- through four-star reviews. They usually have more useful detail than "OMG THIS SUXXXX or BEST CASE EVARRRRRR".
As for specific case reviewers, Dave Murphy does a good job over at Maximum PC (taking over from me, natch), and I like Dustin Sklavos’ reviews at AnandTech. SilentPCReview has a great test setup for acoustic performance.
Say it with me, kids: the best case for you is the one that meets your needs. Bonus points if it looks awesome.
Bonus: Specific Recommendations
I made some general recommendations last week in Part One, but for those hoping for some more explicit ones, here are some. I’m only recommending cases I’ve personally built systems in, and only ones I like. These are not the only good cases on the market, and they’re not even the only cases I like. They’re just here to give you a starting point if you want it. I promise I’m not purposely ignoring your favorite case.
Mini-ITX: Gotta hand it to Silverstone’s Sugo SG08 here. This is a great shoebox-style gaming case with room for one really long dual-slot GPU, a mini-ITX mobo, a low-profile cooler, two 3.5-inch drives, two 2.5-inch drives, a slimline optical drive, and...nothing else. But if that’s all you need, why not? Bonus: it comes with a 600W PSU built in.
Micro-ATX: The Silverstone TJ08-E, which I’ve mentioned several times already, is frankly astonishing, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. It’s a bit of a tight fit when you’re building, and you’re limited in the amount of components you can fit into it, but its cooling power is really impressive for a case with just one fan. It’s also small, reasonably priced, and not gaudy. I used this case very happily for my micro-ATX build.
Mid-tower: If I was building a mid-tower today, I’d go with the Fractal Design Define R4. It has almost everything I want: It has sound-damping foam and focused airflow, but plenty of room for additional fans if I want them. It has front-panel USB ports, filtered air intakes, cable-routing cutouts in the motherboard tray and room behind the mobo to use them. There’s a three-speed fan controller on the front panel. It has seven expansion slots, plus another on the side for non-connected accessories. The top hard drive bay with its five trays is removable, leaving three trays and room for longer GPUs. The hard drive trays themselves are just cheap steel, but they include silicon grommets for hard drives and mounting holes for SSDs. The R4 has a version with a side window if you want it, and one without if you don’t. I’d take the one without, add a second front-panel intake fan, and call it a day. For $110 it’s one of the best all-around cases on the market.
Full-tower: I love almost everything about the Silverstone Fortress FT02 except for the fact that there’s not much room behind the motherboard tray. It has fantastic positive pressure cooling, can fit an EATX motherboard, and has room for plenty of hard drives and a few optical drives. Silverstone has a Fortress FT04 coming out soon, and I can’t wait to see what it’s capable of.
The Rosewill Thor v2 is a full-tower with excellent air cooling performance for $130. I also enjoy the Cooler Master Storm Stryker and NZXT Switch 810. Both are great for balls-to-the-wall multi-GPU setups and both can accommodate complex custom water-cooling setups or big air cooling setups.
Premium Cases: I have a soft spot for the Cooler Master Cosmos II and Silverstone TJ11. These are both massive premium ultra-towers, and we used them for the last two Maximum PC Dream Machines I was part of. They’re way too big and way too much for anything I’d need or want at home, but if you absolutely have to have a huge, $4000 gaming rig, give it somewhere nice to live.
Images via Silverstone, NZXT, Rosewill, Fractal Design