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Cases come in many shapes, sizes, colors and levels of functionality. Before purchasing a case you'll want to consider several factors.
Functionality vs. Aesthetics
The average PC user often chooses a computer case by its outside appearance and price. Computer enthusiasts often choose functionality and brand recognition. In the past few years, aesthetically pleasing cases have significantly increased in build quality. This means that you can now get the best of both worlds: style and utility.
The build quality of cases has made leaps and bounds in the past five years. Let’s go over a few key characteristics that determine case build quality. First, there is the material used by the manufacturer. This often means ABS plastic on the outside of the case, which allows manufacturers to form the durable molds that give the chassis its style. Similarly, this usually means SECC steel for the inside of the case, which gives the chassis structural integrity and rigidity. Second, the thickness of this plastic and steel usually denotes the quality and price of the case. Thicker plastic and steel usually means a higher price. The third, and last, major characteristic one should consider when determining the build quality of a case is its utility. In this we consider what features the case has such as tool-less installation of hard drives, space to route cables, rubber sound dampeners on the fans (if there are any included), a fan speed controller, dust filters for your air intake, a USB interface, an external hard drive dock, and sometimes even LED lights. All of these characteristics will help you determine if a case is up to par with your needs and standards of quality.
SECC (steel, electrogalvanized, cold-rolled, coil) and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic are the dominant materials used in the construction of a computer chassis. Steel cases are inexpensive and rigid, but heavy. Cases constructed with aluminum have become increasingly popular, especially among those who are DIY enthusiasts. Aluminum cases are significantly lighter than steel cases. This makes these cases an optimal choice for those who transport their computers often. LAN party goers will appreciate this the most. It is believed by some that aluminum cases offer slightly better cooling than their steel counterparts. Aluminum cases look modern and exotic compared to their steel cousins. In the past few years, manufactures have begun to utilize aluminum for the inner structure of the chassis, and steel for the side panels. This means a lighter weight while maintaining the overall strength of the case.
Ease of Access:
A case with lots of room makes everything a lot easier on you, the consumer, and us, the technicians. We carry tried and true cases that we love to work with, and we think you will too. If you’re the type of person that is always upgrading an old part, managing cables, or swapping out drives on the fly, then make sure you invest in a case that implements features that will save you time and trouble. Pre-cut holes in a motherboard tray, with rubber grommets and plenty of room behind the motherboard to route cables, is a great start and makes for a clean interior. Optical drive bays that are tool-less don’t hurt either. It’s all about making things easier, so go with whatever helps facilitate that.
Ample cooling for your parts is definitely a key factor when looking for a case. With new graphics cards, processors, memory, and hard drives, heat can quickly become an issue with the wrong case. Excess amounts of heat can decrease the longevity of your components, so make sure you keep that in mind. After you decide what components you’re going to be using in your build, you can make a more educated decision on how much cooling will be optimal. If upgrading your components is a future possibility, you might want to purchase a case that has the option to install an additional fan (or two). Keep in mind where your computer will be stored as well. Areas with high ambient temperature could be problematic. If you’re machine is in a desk, cabinet, or another small area, you might need extra fans to keep air flow at an acceptable level. Alternatively, if your computer sits in the open then it might be possible to have fewer fans and still achieve a constant flow of air. Heat can destroy or degrade the performance of your processor, hard drive(s), power supply, and video card(s). Remember, a cool machine is a stable machine.
Years ago, almost all cases came with power supplies in them (Antec comes to mind). This is now the exception, not the rule. Additionally, it’s safe to say that power supplies bought separately from your case are usually of better quality. So if you’re buying a case without a power supply, or wish to have one of higher quality, you must carefully choose one that compliments your PC hardware. Research must be done on your current setup to see what wattage is necessary to power your components. There is a wide range of power supply wattage out there, so it’s difficult to give an average on all setups. For PC’s running current generation processors, one or two hard drives, and integrated/onboard graphics, a 350 400 watt power supply should be sufficient. Gaming PC’s need more watts than your average machine, usually because of a dedicated graphics card and a high-end processor. Multiple hard drives can also add to your minimum wattage as well. The muscle necessary to power these parts can range from 550 1200 watts. It’s optimal for you as a purchaser to get a case first then buy a power supply based upon your needs to ensure that you have adequate power for your hardware.
Form Factors and Compatibility:
A major influence on case size is your motherboards form factor. ATX (Advanced Technology eXtended) is the standard, but there are also smaller versions called microATX and miniATX, which need significantly less space. Smaller cases will only support smaller motherboards, while larger (mid-tower and above) cases can usually fit all sizes. Here’s a breakdown:
- E-ATX The Extended ATX form factor is typically found in full-tower cases and server rack mounts. The size of these boards range from 12" x 11" to 12" x 13". If a case supports this size then it will also support ATX, microATX, and flexATX.
- ATX A large majority of current motherboards utilize the ATX form factor, or some variant thereof. ATX motherboards are typically 12" x 9.6", or slightly smaller. The most common chassis size used to house an ATX motherboard is a mid-tower or full-tower case. If a chassis supports ATX, then it is also compatible with microATX and flexATX.
- microATX / flexATX This form factor is preferred for small system builds. MicroATX motherboards have a max size of 9.6" x 9.6". FlexATX boards are typically much smaller, with the most common size being around 9.0" x 7.5". Standard ATX motherboards do not fit in a microATX case, but a microATX motherboard will fit in an ATX case.
- Mini-ITX Mini-ITX is an extremely small form factor. Mini-ITX motherboards measure in at a shocking 17cm x 17 cm (~6.693" x ~6.693"). Its screw mounting points are compatible with microATX and flexATX. Consequently, it can be used in any case that supports those standards. Dedicated Mini-ITX cases are very small and will only accept Mini-ITX boards.
Notes on Noise:
There are four moving parts in a computer: the CPU cooler, case fan(s), the power supply fan, and your hard drives. These are the main contributors to your computers noise level. Choosing reliable and quiet fans can make a considerable difference in your PCs decibel output. Some other factors that affect noise levels are: the size of your motherboard, the mounting mechanism for your CPU cooler, and the way your motherboard is mounted to your chassis. These contribute to your noise level because the CPU cooler can cause the motherboard to resonate against the case, generating vibration and excess noise. Generally speaking, a larger motherboard will generate less noise. A solid mount for your CPU cooler and motherboard will lower noise as well. We recommend using metal screws instead of plastic spacers to cut down on the decibel level whenever possible.
Vibration Transfer Control
In thin steel cases, aluminum cases, and some of the ultra low cost models, vibration can be problematic. Vibration transfer can occur if a component with moving parts (such as a fan, hard drive, power supply, or optical drive) is screwed directly into the case. In severe cases this vibration can be transferred to the side panels, which causes them to act as noise amplifiers (think steel drums). As a rule of thumb: the thicker the case is, the less likely this is to be a problem. Thicker materials tend not to vibrate easily. There is also something to be said for the quality of the case in this regard. Very high quality cases will always have a much thicker drive mounting area / frame than their side panels / mounting tray. This increases stability and reduces the possibility of transfer. Another approach to this issue is to use plastic or another substance as an intermediary between the two mounting surfaces. To that end, a large number of cases now use plastic fan mounts (sometimes with rubber sound dampeners) instead of traditional fan mounting screws. Fans tend to be a bigger source of vibration than drives. An effective way to approach this problem is to use noise isolation materials such as rubber fasteners, Grommets, or Shake-Proof Washers.
DIY Modification Capability:
Some chassis’ are more case mod friendly then others. If you are thinking about purchasing a case and modding it, then we recommend that you look for a case that has solid metal panels (either metal or aluminum) instead of plastic or a plastic/steel mix. These types of panels are easier to alter. Also, it is better to have separated sides and top instead of joined sides and top as joined sides are difficult to alter. For top-window / blowhole mods, it is best to find a case that uses screws instead of bolts to hold the top of the case on, and to use a case that has a flat-metal top versus a curved-plastic top.
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