What first captures your attention when you cast your judgmental eyes upon a computer system?
Assuming nothing weird is juxtaposed next to it, the shape — the manifestation of the builder’s design — will be the initial and greatest impression imposed on you by the machine. The structure of a computer is presented through the craftsmanship of its chassis.
The case of a computer system is evidently lower on the component importance ladder when compared to essential hardware such as the central processing unit or the motherboard. After all, a computer works perfectly fine even without a chassis.
For those who rather not have electronic innards littering their desk (which I suspect is most), a case plays a crucial role in the computer’s … anatomy? Mechanism? System? Pretending I used ‘anatomy’ in correct context, the case acts as the skeleton, or framework, of the computer; anchoring the components and giving structure to the machine you spent so much time (and money) on building.
Picking a computer case is incredibly easy. Any living thing with signs of intelligence and concepts of currency can point at a random case and buy it, but choosing the right computer case is more complicated than you might think, and buyers with no experience might eventually find themselves wandering a dark and terrifying dimension I call “internet forums”. Allow me to rescue you from this environment of despair and bring you into the slightly brighter realm of internet blogs. This article will take you on a marvelous journey filled with mystery, wonder, and unhealthy amounts of sarcasm.
The size of the case is the number 1 priority
Read the large bolded letters once more. And again. One last time.
The whole reason of buying a case is to fit all your computer hardware neatly into a compact container. That purpose will be ruined if you buy a motherboard that’s larger than the case. This is why in terms of purchasing parts, I believe the case should be first.
As stated sarcastically in the section above, you shouldn’t absentmindedly pick out a chassis. To ensure a smooth and rage-free hardware installation session, you’ll need to do a bit of planning beforehand. The case that you choose will be primarily based on 3 considerations: where the computer will be placed, what the system will be used for, and what sort of motherboard you’re buying as a result.
Where should I put you?
This is the question you need to ask before you start building your system, assuming you talk to inanimate objects like I do. Will your potential system be stuffed under a desk or proudly displayed next to your monitors? The case size you choose needs to reflect that decision.
Sometimes that can be a hard question, especially if you didn’t bother to measure anything. The case might be taller or fatter than you thought, forcing you to relocate it or restructure your setup. Maybe you don’t even know where you want to put it and was just thinking of improvising. Either way, if you don’t have an answer, it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to buy a case. There’s no rule regarding this, I think. You just might run into unexpected problems later on. So, keep this in mind while case shopping.
I didn’t put much thought about this question. I was lazy. Now, if I connect anything to the USB ports on the front I/O panels of my computer, my desk drawer can’t open. Oh, the struggles.
What are you using the computer for?
Building a computer without first knowing what it’ll be used for is kinda like buying paint without knowing the colors needed for the job — you’ll get the job done, but you might end up with questionable results.
The parts you end up choosing for your system greatly depends on the life you intend to grant it. A computer dedicated to a task will be built differently from one committed to another job. Components might be specialized and larger, therefore requiring a corresponding case of matching size. This will ultimately increase the total cost of the system. The components chosen to fulfill your system’s purpose will immensely affect the case that ends up housing them, so it’ll be smart to decide the function of the computer early.
In which case, what kind of motherboard are you buying?
So, you’ve decided what kind of computer you want to build.
While everything I said in the previous section was true, I must admit that I exaggerated a little. The one component that really holds any influence over the case size is the motherboard. The other parts need to be compatible with the motherboard, and if the motherboard fits the case, the remaining components will as well. Of course, there are exceptions.
Continuing with our lesson in computer anatomy, the motherboard acts as the nervous system for mechanical bodies. It connects parts of the computer together and distributes orders from the brain: the processor. In humans, the nervous system fits the body perfectly without being too large or too small. Discarding the anatomy analogy, the motherboard similarly cannot be larger than the case, but differs in that it can be smaller.
Motherboards are conventionally referred to by their form factor, or size, in other terms. The 3 most common types are ATX boards (12 x 9.6 inches), microATX boards (up to 9.6 x 9.6 inches), and mini-ITX boards (6.7 inches square). As you can imagine, the dimensions of the boards limit their functionality and the number of hardware they can connect to. The following listed are the matching form factors for the motherboards mentioned above. Note that I’m only detailing the regularly used sizes, and there exists more classifications for both motherboards and computer cases than just these.
Most of the PC systems in our little blue world implement ATX motherboard form factors. The cases used to house these motherboards are appropriately named ATX towers. ATX cases are the most popular simply because of their ample space. Due to their sheer numbers, they’re further split into 2 specific family groups: Full-Tower and Mid-Tower cases.
These are the largest cases made available. They allow you to essentially fit anything and everything inside them and still have room to spare. The most powerful graphic cards, the largest motherboards, and all types of secret treasures can be positioned exactly according to your design. Adored by gaming enthusiasts and worshiped by computer building gurus, the most monstrous systems ever to exist are constructed using these towers as the framework.
Typically, full tower cases are reserved for hyper performance gaming rigs and super powerful workstations that require immense amounts of processing and graphic capability. And with great power comes the need for even greater cooling. These cases have excess room for the most intricate air cooling systems and even space for liquid cooling mechanisms.
The sheer size of these cases allow support for XL-ATX and E-ATX (extended ATX) motherboards. They’ll also innately allow smaller board sizes all the way down to mini-ITX to be installed, which, in my opinion, is a massive waste of potential for the system and will look absolutely ridiculous (and hilarious). It’ll be like specifically buying a monster truck just to visit your mother down the block every day.
These cases allow up to 9 expansion slots for your graphic cards or various obsolete expansion cards such as high-end sound cards or networking cards. In addition, they can also support up to an almost unusable total of 12 expansion bays, in case you ever wanted to create your own server or build a homicidal A.I.
Because of the potential components that can be fitted inside a full ATX tower, manufacturers have put an emphasis on build quality, ensuring the framework is structurally sound and can handle the bulkiest of weight loads. As a result, these cases are heavy; and that’s just by itself. Most higher-end models are made from metal and tempered glass. With the appropriate hardware installed, a full system becomes incredibly burdensome and very difficult to move. Some can weigh more than 60 pounds. But this doesn’t stop people from dragging their gaming rigs to participate in LAN gaming parties. If you’re one of them, NCIX (and I) urges you to lift with proper form to prevent injuries — you ARE one of our precious customers after all. We, too, have hearts.
A mid sized computer case is the most widely used form factor in the world. When you look at a PC system whose life is dedicated to the sole purpose of playing video games, you’ll most likely be seeing a mid-tower. Systems built with these cases are used for all sorts of activities from casual gaming to business workhorses.
As stated somewhere above, mid-towers can support a full-sized ATX motherboard. This means that a mid-sized system can potentially be installed with the hardware used in a full-sized tower, provided the mid-sized case has enough expansion slots to support the upgrades. These cases commonly have up to 7 expansion slots, which is more than most people need.
Mid-towers are the most popular form factor for a good reason. You can fit all necessary components into one affordable case and still have space for future upgrades. The versatility of these cases makes for an invaluable investment. Unless they’re building a behemoth of a machine, most people will find that mid-towers fulfills every one of their needs.
As the name implies, these computer cases are compatible with microATX and lower motherboards. Interesting fact time: mATX boards use the same chipsets as ordinary ATX boards, meaning many of the same components can be installed; with the only restriction being the size of the hardware. Since microATX cases are typically smaller than regular ATX cases, they have fewer expansion slots, maxing out at 4 compared to the 7 or 9 of their larger brethren.
The microATX motherboard is usually purchased by cost-conscious customers with no plans for massive upgrades in the future. A corresponding microATX case normally follows to continue the money-saving trend. Note that mATX boards will fit in larger cases, so you’re not restricted to a microATX chassis. But, refer to the”Full-Tower” section paragraph 3 for the reason why I think this is a bad idea.
Mini-ITX cases make for highly optimized and very small builds. Originally, these tiny for-factors were designed by home theater PC, largely thanks to the low power consumption architecture of their motherboards and convenient ability of fan-less cooling. In modern times, mini-ITX systems have become increasingly popular for gaming or casual use, with some people still using them as HTPCs. The need for power coupled with size limitations have led to specialized components engineered towards mini-ITX systems.
One disadvantage a mini-ITX system possesses is the single expansion slot on their motherboards. This means a mini-ITX tower can fit only one graphic card, if the user chooses to implement one. Due to the small sizes of the towers, not many GPUs can fit inside the case, and instead requires specially made graphic cards. One example is AMD’s tiny, yet powerful Fury Nano. Another is the Zotac GeForce GTX 1080 Mini. Note that some mini-ITX cases can actually fit full length graphics, so keep an eye out for that.
A more long-term problem regarding a mini-ITX computer is the limitations when it comes to upgrading. In addition to the single expansion slot mentioned above, mini-ITX boards only has room for 2 sticks of RAM. This implies the user can only replace the total memory instead of adding to it. In a way, this applies to the graphics as well. With only a single expansion slot, two graphics cards in the same chassis will not be possible — the only way to upgrade would be to replace the graphic card.
You might think mini-ITX cases and components aren’t as popular as micro or regular ATX boards, but manufacturers and retailers have recently paid a lot of attention to these smaller boards. Many parts have been created especially for customers looking to build a more compact system. If you’re in the market for a computer like that, you’ll be pleased to know that you have a diverse selection to create your perfect mini system.
As you might have noticed from the form factors above, a lot of the peripheral is dependent on the size of the case, which in turn is reliant on the form of the motherboard. I wanted to take the time to expand further on the peripheral categories that were briefly mentioned but never explained with detail, and mention some that were never mentioned but can be important.
Drive bays are slots inside the computer case used for adding pieces of hardware. Usually, these bays are fixed to the insides, but some models of cases come with removable drive bay cages.
The most common form factors for drive bays refer to the width of the disks used by the drives that are mounted in the bays.
25”: This is the most commonly used size of drives, but are quickly replaced by slimmer models. 5.25 inches is the standard for CD/DVD drives and most hard disk drives. The obsolete floppy disk drives also have this width.
5”: These are usually used for floppy disk drives. With the abandonment of floppy disks, the 3.5” bay have become commonly used for smart card and memory card readers, or for panels with USB ports.
5”: Not many cases have 2.5” bays as of writing this article, but that is quickly changing with the rapid rise in popularity for SSDs (solid state drives). These bays are currently predominantly used by laptop manufacturers.
The case that I have is Fractal Design’s Define XL R2 (above). It features 2 removable 3.5” drive bay cages consisting of 4 internal bay slots each. It also has 4 built-in external 5.25” bays for a total of 12 expansion bays.
When talking about motherboards, an expansion slot is commonly referred to as a bus slot or an expansion port, and is a connection/port that allows for a computer hardware expansion card to be connected. One example is the PCI/PCI-E slots used primarily for graphic cards.
Regarding computer cases, an expansion slot is a cut-out in the case that corresponds to the hardware expansion card installed in a motherboard. The cable connections/ports for the expansion card (for example a graphic card) are fitted through the computer case expansions slots for easy access. A larger number means more ports can be connected through the expansion cards to the motherboard.
The Define R2 has a total of 9 expansion slot. This doesn’t mean that I can have 9 individual expansion cards though. Many pieces of hardware, such as GPUS, take up 2 or even 3 of these slots.
I never mentioned this in the article above, but I feel it would be good to mention it. Some manufacturers have included built-in power supplies with their cases. You might think this is a great deal, but it’s not always so. The power supply included in the chassis possibly won’t be the right one for the system you’re trying to build. The problem is, the included PSU might not be strong enough to handle the various components you wish to install. I recommend you buy the power supply separately to ensure nothing goes wrong with your build.
While it’s rare, some cases also offer compatibility for dual power supplies. Remember my homicidal A.I. comment? Hmm…
Tool-free installations are common with modern higher-end computer cases. A “tool-free” design refers to certain parts in a case that doesn’t require screws or a screwdriver to install. The typical area for a tool-free design implementation are in drive bays. If a case is classified as such, they will make use of quirky hardware designs such as twist-on or snap-on brackets and levers.
Front Panel Ports
Many modern cases will include a front I/O panel for easily accessible ports. While they’re called “front” panel ports, they can be anywhere from the top, the front, or even down the side of the case. For most designs, you’ll get headphone and microphone jacks as well as USB 3.0 and 2.0 slots. If your case has a front I/O panel, then you should make sure your motherboard is compatible with these ports; otherwise you’ll end up with dead slots that won’t do anything when you plug things in.
I mentioned the Define R2’s front I/O panel briefly before. It consists of a headphone and mic jack, a restart button, the power button, and two USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports.
Cooling is extremely important to ensure your computer system runs smoothly for extended periods of time. You can ask anyone you like, but they’ll all say that overheating is the bane of any PC system. This hold especially true for high-end gaming PCs, workstations, or anything you suspect might be a Transformer in disguise. The immense amounts of heat waste produced by these ultra-powerful systems can cause unexpected system shutdowns or even hardware malfunctions unless they’re dissipated by an intricate cooling system. I say “intricate”, but it’s really just a whole bunch of fans.
All kinds of systems — no matter how powerfully destructive they are — can be cooled down enough to prevent internal damage provided an appropriate number of fans are used. All computer cases have strategically placed locations for these fans to be at their most effective. This generally involves directly exhausting heat from disk drives, graphic cards, and the processor. The higher quality of fans used, the more effective and quieter the entire process will be.
There are some people who feel measly fans aren’t enough for their 10 thousand-dollar systems. So, in a laborious effort to prove themselves better, they install (admittedly intricate) liquid cooling systems into the cases. Although it physically pains me to say it, water cooling does do an excellent job of dispensing heat from the entire computer and is much more effective than air cooling. It’s also incredibly quiet, which is something many enthusiasts strive for. Generally, only ATX towers will have the room to support liquid cooling systems. The one downside to using liquid over air cooling is the potential for leaks, but newer manufacturer designs greatly minimize that risk.
Fractal Design’s Define XL R2 can support up to 7 fans, with 3 already included with purchase. Being a full-size tower, it can also be installed with water cooling. The case comes with a fan speed controller in the front. I have a very simple setup and I’m very lazy/broke, so I haven’t customized the cooling for my system.
As you can tell, I don’t like liquid cooling. Admittedly, it’s because I’m salty that I can’t afford it.
In the end…
The perfect computer case should be large enough for your system ambitions and is compatible with all potential components you buy. If you’re planning to upgrade sometime in the future, be sure it has enough expansion slots to accommodate.
This article merely touches on the basics of computer cases. I should really give myself more credit. This article has informed you about mostly everything regarding computer cases, but there is still a higher realm reserved for enthusiasts and computer system devotees that I haven’t touched on. Some of the cases floating around that dimension are large enough to store 2 water cooling systems (Corsair Slate), made almost completely of glass (EVGA DG-7), and even made partially of wood (InWin 806). We humble people have no need for those.
Remember, size of the case is important, you need research before you build, and cooling is necessary to prevent your computer from blowing up. I hope you found our journey together filled with an appropriate amount of useful information with equal portions of tasteless humor.
If you need a guide for choosing the rest of your computer parts, then I’m afraid you’re asking the wrong person. I don’t have an article for that (yet?). Instead, you can watch this video. Or you can read this completely unrelated article about picking a gaming headset.
Disclaimer: There are lots of very good cases on the market, and just because yours or a specific one wasn’t mentioned doesn’t mean they’re bad cases. I’m limited by product availability and demo models we have on hand. Also, sometimes I just forget that particular model exists.