Are mid-towers the future of PC chassis design? Used to be that a mid-tower case was a compromise—an admission that you were willing to sacrifice a few features for a rig that could fit under your desk (or on top of it) without making drastic changes to your decor or furniture. Based on the products we’ve seen in the Lab over the last few months, those days are all but over.
Read on to learn more about five of the hottest (or coolest) cases around.
Cases with handles are nothing new. Cases billed as LAN-ready are nothing new, either. But BitFenix’s first mid-tower chassis, the Survivor, has a wraparound rubberized plastic bumper that’s kinda new. We love the so-called “SofTouch” coating on the case’s wraparound shell—many editors said it was the coolest case they’d ever felt. We won’t name names, but some Lab members wouldn’t stop touching it, which disturbed us a little. The shell protects every corner on the machine—you have to remove two rear bumpers in order to remove the side panels—a slight inconvenience when building, but another step between your components and a hard surface (or a grabby thief) at a LAN event.
The NZXT Phantom is gorgeous in a Dark Side kind of way—whether you opt for Darth Vader black, Imperial Guard red, or our favorite: Stormtrooper white. Though NZXT considers the Phantom a full-tower chassis, at 8.75 inches wide, 21.25 inches tall, and 24.5 inches deep (and with no EATX support), it’s no taller or wider (and barely deeper) than the other mid-tower chassis that make up the rest of this roundup. The Phantom packs seven toolless hard drive trays in a dual-bay configuration that (hooray!) leaves room for long cards like the Radeon HD 5970. We’re not crazy about front-panel doors like the one that covers the Phantom’s five (toolless) optical drive bays, but the Phantom’s door is at least nicely weighted and has a magnetic latch.
It’s no secret that we really like Corsair’s full-tower case, the 800D. That chassis earned a Kick Ass Award for its no-nonsense exterior, gloriously roomy interior, and its mysterious ability to make every build look fantastic. Of course, it was enormous and cost close to $300. So we had high hopes for the mid-tower 600T: Sure, it’s graphite-colored and clad in (gasp!) curvy plastic, but it’s still Corsair on the inside, right?
Lian Li’s chassis are renowned for their all-aluminum construction and superb build quality, but are also known equally well for costing a fortune and featuring questionable design choices. The mid-tower PC-8FI, thankfully, brings the legendary build quality, adds some nice new toolless touches, and for the most part eschews silly design elements—aside from a giant spider-shaped side window, that is.
Fractal Design’s Define R3—the first Fractal case that will be widely available in the States—marries cool Scandinavian design with a hefty dose of acoustic foam and lots of nice touches.
It’s easy to install a 12cm or 14cm fan on the side panel in place of that acoustic damping foam.
The Define R3 is available in four colors: black, grey, silver, and white. We chose the white one because, damn, something about an all-white case with a great paint job just gives us the warm-and-fuzzies. And it really is a great paint job—it’s all smooth and glossy on the outside and matte on the inside, like the gods intended. The case’s frame and panels are all steel, and the side panels are quite heavy—due in part to the dense sound-absorbing foam panels they include. The case includes a nicely weighted front-panel door (with the hinges on the left), with acoustic foam on the inside and side vents so the front fans can continue to pull air into the chassis.
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We dinged September’s Antec Sonata Proto for being feature-poor. Can’t say the same of the flagship of Antec’s Dark Fleet line, the DF-85. This full-tower chassis looks great, is packed with fans, and includes luxury extras that wouldn’t be out of place in a case twice the price.
The DF-85 stands 23.5 inches high by 20 inches deep by 8.4 inches wide, and is constructed of matte-black painted steel. The entire front is taken up by hinged door compartments: three removable optical-drive doors and three mesh-covered front doors with 12cm three-speed LED fans—removable, washable dust filters included. The DF-85 also has two 14cm top exhaust fans and two 12cm rear LED exhaust fans. All four exhaust fans are two-speed and controlled by switches at the case’s rear. The case’s front-panel connectors include a hot-swap 2.5-inch drive bay (similar to the CM 690 II Advanced), three USB 2.0 ports, and one USB 3.0 port, fed by a pass-through to the rear panel, à la last month’s HAF X.
The HAF X is the third case in Cooler Master’s High Air Flow lineup: The full-tower HAF 932 won our Kick Ass award in November 2008, and we continue to admire the mid-tower HAF 922 we first saw in October 2009—the red version is in this month’s cover story. With the HAF X, Cooler Master updates the full tower for 2010.
At 21.7x23.2x9.1 inches, the HAF X is barely bigger than the mid-tower HAF 922 and a full inch shorter and shallower than the Corsair 800D, yet it’s still roomy enough to fit a 12.1-inch graphics card. The HAF X’s rolled-steel frame and plastic bezels hew closely to the HAF series’ lines, and the internals offer few surprises. As we’d expect, there are plenty of large fans: a front 23cm red LED fan, top and side 20cm fans (and room for another at the top), and a 14cm rear exhaust. In lieu of two 20cm fans, the top panel can accommodate a triple radiator and its 12cm fans.
Say this for the Pitstop PC-T1: It turns heads. Lian Li is known for its clean, all-aluminum chassis, which range from the budget to the exorbitant—mostly the latter. This time, it has spawned an all-aluminum Mini-ITX case that just happens to look like a spider. Practical? No. Ridiculous? Yes. Usable? Eh.
The Pitstop T1 comes flat-packed, like an Ikea desk. It has four two-piece legs, a main body piece, a motherboard tray, and two PSU brackets that hang from the rear and accommodate one standard ATX PSU. Given the three-segment body (spiders only have two) and four legs (spiders have eight), it’s not anatomically correct. Then again, most spiders aren’t Mini-ITX rigs, either.
We’ve always been attracted to microATX cases and have long fantasized about building a high-performance PC in a small package. But cases designed for Micro ATX motherboards have always disappointed. Cube-shaped cases are typically cramped, despite consuming twice the floor space of a tower. And while micro-towers take up less space, they often look like something from Home Depot’s appliance department.
When NZXT’s Vulcan arrived, we thought this might be the one. The Vulcan offers up military-industrial styling and front-mounted manual fan controls. On top you’ll find two USB ports, power and reset buttons, audio jacks, an eSATA port, and a removable handle for easy carrying. It’s black inside and out. It boasts a cutout on the motherboard tray for easy installation of advanced CPU coolers and the requisite liquid cooling tubes. It can accommodate as many as four hard drives and two optical drives. And the power-supply compartment at the bottom has a down-facing vent for PSUs with 120mm cooling fans.