Assembling the Fractal Design Node 304

Befitting the Fractal Design Node 304's simple aesthetic is an equally simple assembly, but there are definitely measures that could've been taken to make it easier still. In its own way this is par for the course with Fractal Design's cases; they're easy to build but they could've optimized things even further.

The biggest problem is actually installing the motherboard. Before installing anything you need to remove the three drive brackets, all of which are secured by two thumbscrews and a single small Phillips head screw. Getting the I/O shield in is easy enough, but Fractal Design makes you install the standoffs on your own despite the fact that mITX boards only ever have four and they're all in the same place. That's a minor nitpick, but note that clearance is going to be a bit difficult as the power supply region and bracket sits almost flush with the motherboard and they recommend you install the PSU first.

Getting the PSU in is also a bit of a tight squeeze; our test PSU is 180mm with modular connections, essentially longer than the Node 304's spec. As a result, the PCIe slot is rendered essentially unusable to cards longer than the motherboard itself. The problem is that a modular power supply is practically essential for a case like this as there simply isn't anywhere else for the cables to go. I don't think this is a dire situation, but it's one of the places where I feel like the SFX power supply standard really needs to proliferate and would be more ideal. You just don't need a full ATX PSU in a case this size, and space is at a premium.

With no optical drive bay to speak of, we're left with the drive mounting brackets, and I think they're for the most part a solid design. There are three, but really you're going to want to use the bare minimum, which for the purposes of testing was just one. Drives bottom-mount to the sides of the brackets (which took our Corsair Link box out of the equation), and then the brackets go in. One potential problem is that a pair of 3.5" drives run the risk of blocking an intake, and I don't see people filling this case up with six drives as I'm just not sure there's space for them.

Because of the way the cables stuck out of the power supply and the length of the power supply itself, I was unable to fit our GeForce GTX 560 Ti inside the Node 304 for testing. The short, single-slot Zotac GeForce GTS 450 Eco, however, went in just fine and was surprisingly easy to install and remove. Cable spaghetti is a foregone conclusion in a case like this and unfortunately that made getting the shroud back on that much more difficult.

As far as small cases go, assembly in the Node 304 was tight but not impossible and if anything might've stood to be a little more involved. I'm not sure how I feel about the drive brackets, but since Fractal Design is targeting small home servers with this case I can understand the need to cram as much storage in as possible and the intakes probably serve more to keep the drives from overheating than actually circulating air through the chassis. I do think they could've gone with an SFX power supply instead, though, and even though it would've been more involved, splitting the shroud into two or even three panels might make assembly and service much easier.

In and Around the Fractal Design Node 304 Testing Methodology
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  • Grok42 - Friday, November 23, 2012 - link

    You can never be too thin right? While I get your point, especially for a server, it's also hard to see how you would ever regret going with the smaller case assuming it met your requirements at build time. I can certainly see how it's possible that you might wish a larger server didn't take up so much space later on.

    I've had many full ATX and mid-tower ATX cases over the years and with the exception of my current mid-tower ATX, I've never come close to filling them. While my current server system wouldn't fit into this case, if I were building it again today I'd use and SSD for the system drive as well as bigger HDs and it would easily fit with no problem.

    I couldn't agree more with you on not putting all this stuff in an HTPC. I'm even more extreme and don't want anything even remotely like a computer in my living room. I use a tiny WD-Live to stream all the content from the sever in the closet upstairs.
    Reply
  • londiste - Friday, November 23, 2012 - link

    itx by its definition is still niche.

    whether you like it or not, good flex/matx psu-s are bloody expensive and there aren't that many of those. especially if we are talking about anything that might want to be an htpc - i.e. quiet. picopsu in the lower end and atx psus on the other end are a lot better and less expensive options.

    i for one do not have a staircase nor a closet that would be sufficiently closed (to muffle the noise) and sufficiently open (for fresh air) at the same time.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - link

    Kind of sad is it not ?

    I've had this nagging feeling for the last couple of years. That in order to get what *I* want, in a mini-ITX system; I would have to either build my own case from scratch. Or mod an existing case. Perhaps, then i could make a little money providing the same to others ( where the case manufactures failed ). But as you said, the market is not really all that large. So yeah. . .

    Next, if "we" could only convince the OEM's that quality power supplies do not *need* to be in the 600W to 1KW range . . . I think we would be golden. I certainly could use a good 80 Plus certified 200W ATX power supply myself. Perhaps even less wattage.
    .
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - link

    I agree with you, while at the same time disagree.

    Mini-ITX has its good points. Power usage by comparison can be a lot lower since many mini-ITX boards do not have a ton of bells and whistles most people do not need on them. For me, we're 100% off-grid ( solar / wind power with a battery bank for power storage). Currently, I use a laptop, but would like to make the move to something more flexible, and better performance potential. Without using a whole lot more power.

    As for using an actual mini-ITX case. I could go either way. I have a decent Lian-Li reverse ATX case that I like a lot so I would possibly opt for that. Its standard width at only 15.5" tall. with lots of room for mods or storage with bay converters. However with our power concerns as mentioned above, I could see going with a smaller attractive case. Since less room taken up by the system would be a good thing. While having tons of HDDs internal, up and running whenever the system is -> not a good idea. I'd rather use external drives, saving power by turning them off when not needed.

    With all that said. Micro ATX boards can be had with limited peripherals as well. However, it is always nice to have more options. Especially if some or perhaps most of those options better suite your own needs.
    Reply
  • Kepe - Friday, November 23, 2012 - link

    Hi and thanks for the review, Dustin!
    I stumbled upon this case a week or two ago while looking for an HTPC case with sufficient expandability storage-wise, and was left wondering what it could be used for.
    Isn't the 750W, 180mm PSU a bit overkill for an ITX build, though? I know you try to use the same components for every case review, but wouldn't it have been better to use a smaller PSU and then be able to test with the GTX 560Ti, instead of the measly GTS 450 Eco??
    Reply
  • Grok42 - Friday, November 23, 2012 - link

    I agree it seems this would have been the better trade off if given that something had to give and you couldn't keep the exact same components your used for other reviews.

    I'm not sure when Dustin resets his testing components, but perhaps he should consider a smaller lower watt PSU for 2013. I used a PSU calculator and couldn't get it to recommend more than 420 watts without going with multiple video cards. Since the testing doesn't use multiple video cards and SLI setups represent a very small segment and testing smaller cases is happening more maybe it's time for a change. The specs I used to get the 420w recommendation were:

    Intel i7 3770k
    16GB RAM
    6x 5400 RPM HDs
    1x SSD
    1x CD/DVD RW
    2x 140mm Fans

    I'd say this is a pretty loaded system by most accounts.
    Reply
  • martyrant - Friday, November 23, 2012 - link

    Drop the optical for 2 to 4 ssds...raiding an ssd is very common for builds, especially if you are throwing in a 3770k cpu.

    Did you omit the gfx used? 'Cause I would peg that as a 7970 or a GTX 680 for power requirements
    Reply
  • Grok42 - Friday, November 23, 2012 - link

    Your are correct, I did omit the GPU in the list when I typed it up but I did include it in the calculator that recommended 420W PSU. I added more equipment and topped out at less than 460w with the following equipment:

    Intel i7 3770k
    Nvidia 660 Ti
    32GB RAM
    6x 5400 RPM HDs
    4x SSD
    1x CD/DVD RW
    4x 140mm Fans
    1x Fan Controler
    Reply
  • frabber - Friday, November 23, 2012 - link

    Me myself have a i7 2600 running inside a m350 box (Scythe Kozuti cooling). To my knowledge that is the smallest mITX case around.

    The problem I have with the bigger mITX cases is that they take up desk space and you cannot place them on the ground either. So I would end up using some sort of furniture to place them on, which kind of defeat the space saving factor.

    So I for one would love to see some desktop saving design mITX cases, or other solutions. mITX case stands, racks?
    Reply
  • dingetje - Friday, November 23, 2012 - link

    too bad it's only available in black Reply

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