Holiday Buyers' Guide: Cases, Power, and Storageby Jarred, Gary, and Christoph on November 28, 2007 8:00 AM EST
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In our first Holiday Buyers' Guide, we put together the core of the system; now it's time to take care of the remaining pieces. Need to know where you're going to store all those programs, movies, pictures, music, etc.? Perhaps you're more concerned with the box that all of the parts are going to call home. Maybe you're looking for a quiet, energy efficient power supply to make everything work. We'll put together the remaining pieces in this installment of our Holiday Buyers' Guide.
We still have a few other areas to look at as well, but parts one and two will provide everything you need for the large (or perhaps not so large) black box that sits on the floor. If you're worried about peripherals like speakers, keyboards, mice, or displays, we'll cover those areas and others in part three. Now let's find all of our parts a home, by looking at some computer case options.
This is definitely not for people looking for your average PC case. Silverstone provides an attractive case design capable of housing full-size ATX motherboards as well as micro ATX boards, all clearly intended for use as part of a home theater system. This is a larger HTPC chassis, but it comes with a multifunction display, remote control, and a flash memory reader. The case features a brushed aluminum finish, and unlike many other HTPC cases you truly get the ability to create a system capable of storing large amounts of data. There are six internal 3.5" drive bays, one external 5.25" bay, and one 120mm rear fan for cooling. (There are two additional 92mm fan mounts on the bottom should you require additional cooling.) $400 might seem like a lot of money for a computer case, but this HTPC would be right at home with a top-end stereo system.
Zalman HD160XT - $549
Zalman catches most of the features of Silverstone, but they go one step further when it comes to integrated displays. Instead of a small LED, they include a 7" 1024x768 touch sensitive LCD on the front of the chassis. In addition to a remote control, software is included that will run on the front display. Fan Speed Control Software provides for customized edition of cooling performance and noise control. The front panel LCD can also display a graphic equalizer, volume, CPU use, network speed, time, fan speed, or virtually any other information you might desire. You also get five internal 3.5" and one external 5.25" drive bays.
Silverstone gets a second entry in the HTPC options, offering most of the features of their Crown Series but with a much lower price. You also lose the aluminum casing, replaced by a 0.8mm SECC steel body, although the front panel is still aluminum. The other major difference is in the cooling setup: two 80mm rear fans, with an additional 80mm mounting point on the side and 80mm/92mm mounting locations at the front of the chassis. The GD01MX is shorter than the CW02 as well, if size is a concern.
It's the season of giving right now, and what you'll find is that many retailers are offering some serious mail-in rebates. This appears to be especially true on enthusiast/gaming cases, where some of the rebates almost cut the price in half. If you're interested in snapping up one of these deals, you want to act fast. Even without the rebates, however, the following are some of the debtor computer cases currently available.
Cooler Master COSMOS - $110 (after $90 rebate)
The Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 as a full-size tower that's vaguely reminiscent of the Mac G5 design - minus the Apple logo, of course. There's also the fact that it's quite a bit larger than the Mac G5, but then sometimes you just need a large case to handle all of the components you plan on installing. Capable of mounting ATX and EATX motherboards, the Cosmos is a good fit for do-it-yourself workstations or enthusiast gaming systems. Plenty of cooling capability allows for the use of top-performing components, all with an attractive exterior.
The Antec Nine Hundred is a popular chassis for gaming enthusiasts with a rather unique design. Cooling seems to be one of the biggest selling points of this case, as you get the typical 120mm fan mounts (four total, three with included fans) plus a monstrous 200mm fan on the top of the case. Those concerned with noise levels need not worry, as fan speed controls help to keep the case relatively quiet.
The Thermaltake Armor is another popular case for enthusiasts, currently available with a huge mail-in rebate that cuts the price in half. Even without the rebate, however, the Thermaltake Armor is worth considering. Features include BTX and ATX support -- not that there are many BTX motherboards available -- and on certain models a gigantic 25 cm side fan. Accumulation of dust might be a problem, but at least you know you're going to have plenty of airflow. The large chassis is also a good candidate for water-cooling setups.
Thermaltake MozartTx - $249
For a unique take on what a computer chassis can look like, look no further than Thermaltake's MozartTx. Instead of your typical case design, Thermaltake has created a large tower. No, we're not talking about your standard tower chassis; in this case has a (roughly) square base and is twice as tall as it is wide/deep. Thermaltake also offers several upgrade kits so you can install a 7" LCD, or BTX motherboards. The case also comes loaded with brute force cooling potential: five 120mm fans are included, with room to add five more.
Readers of past Buyers' Guides should already be familiar with the Cooler Master Centurion case, as it's one of our favorites in the price/performance category. It's easy to work with, inexpensive, and attractive. Models with and without power supplies are available, so if you're looking to build an entry-level system you can kill two birds with one stone. The included 120mm (rear) and 80mm (front) case fans provide ample cooling for most computer setups, without creating a lot of noise.
Antec is another familiar name in computer cases, and they have had many successful midrange products over the years. Normally priced at up to $100, nearly currently has a killer deal available for the Antec Solo. What you get is an attractive case that's easy to work with and the typical front USB/audio/FireWire ports. The single 120mm fan that's included is nearly silent, and perfect for office use or more moderate computer configurations.
The Lian Li PC-7B has shown up frequently in our Buyers' Guides, with good reason. It's well-built, easy to work with, attractive, and is currently available at an all-time low price. It includes two 120mm fans that provide a reasonable amount of airflow suitable for everything up through high-end configurations.
Cooler Master deserves a second mention with their RC690. The general appearance is similar to the Centurion 5, but a closer look reveals quite a few differences. The RC690 has audio/USB/FireWire on top of the case instead of on the front, and it also includes an eSATA port. Three 120mm fans are included for the side, front, and back -- the front plan also includes blue LEDs. We would normally rate this as being slightly better than the Centurion 5, which makes the currently lower price (after rebate) all the more attractive.
Not everyone needs or wants a large computer case. For those that like micro ATX designs, you can save desk space without having to compromise on performance. The Thermaltake LANBOX offers an inexpensive alternative to proprietary small form factor designs from companies like Shuttle, in an attractive design. Just add an appropriate motherboard and other components.
Shuttle SP35P2-Pro - $400
On the other hand, some people don't want to be bothered with much of the chore of assembly, and they would like an even smaller chassis. Shuttle pretty much created the small form factor market in 2001, and they continue to offer new and updated designs. The latest SP35P2-Pro uses a P35 chipset and has support for quad core processors. It isn't cheap, but it's about half the total volume of your typical mATX design.
Lian Li PC-A01A - $119
The PC-A01A is designed for use in either a mini tower configuration or as a desktop. Since part of the attraction of mATX is being able to show off your diminutive case, we tend to prefer using this as a desktop system. Lian Li claims that this case will work in a fanless configuration, but we would recommend being very careful about what components you choose to use if you decide to try that approach. There is room for an optional 80mm fan, and you can still get a low noise, attractive case to set on top of your desk.
Silverstone SG03 - $119
The Silverstone SG03 is a mini tower that places a greater emphasis on cooling. A large 120mm fan sits at the front of the case, and a large ventilation grille dominates the left side. Two hinged doors open on the front to provide access to the USB/FireWire/audio ports and indicator lights. Thankfully, you don't need to open the doors to access the optical drive.
One size rarely fits all in the world of computer cases, so if you don't like any of the above, or if you just want to see some other possibilities, the following cases are also worth a look. Naturally, there are plenty of other cases that could also work well that we won't mention here because of time and space constraints.
Antec P182 - $115
NZXT HUSH - $60 after rebate
nMedia HTPC 500 - $149
APEVIA X-Cruiser BK/420 - $50 after rebate
Thermaltake VF1000 - $129
Silverstone SG01W - $109
Nexus Caterpillar - $139 (Should be available in the US in December, fantastic case for Silent Systems)