Computer Cases Roundup

David Murphy

7 computer cases reviewed: Cooler Master HAF XB,Thermaltake Soprano, Corsair Carbide 200R, and more!

If you thought that the only innovation in modern chassis design was the (long-awaited) switch from USB 2.0 ports to USB 3.0 ports at all price levels, you haven’t seen anything yet.  The cases in our roundup this time around really run the gamut of features: From inexpensive cases that attempt to deliver a lot of functionality without fattening up the price tag, to simple-looking chassis that hide a wealth of must-haves, to some of the most eye-opening cases we’ve seen – that don’t quite stack up once you look beyond their crazy offerings. In other words, it’s a typical computer cases roundup.

Just to lay out our criteria a bit, here are some of the elements we’re typically looking for when we run the magnifying glass over a computer case: Features that take time and effort out of the installation or upgrade process, like screwless drive bays.  Minimal annoyances – like having to snap off a case’s entire front panel just to remove its drive bay covers.  Adequate cooling, ideally positioned such that one’s hard drives, video cards, and general motherboard area all receive a steady stream of air.  And, of course, strong cable management: Nobody likes to open up a case and find a Medusa.

Beyond that, the great computer case race is anyone’s to win.  As for how each manufacturer balances “cool” with “functional,” you’ll have to read on for all the gory details!

Cooler Master HAF XB

Don’t call this case “stumpy.”  It bites.

Cooler Master’s HAF XB computer case is a hybrid design that attempts to kill two PC birds with one stone: An open-air design for system builders who want to be able to swap out their components like a pit stop, and a standard, covered chassis for those who like having four walls and a roof around their system’s precious parts from time to time.  For the most part, it works—but we would have love to have seen a few tweaks to make the system even easier to use for the frequent parts-swapper.

The cube-like case leaves little room for error.  Its 17.5x13x16.5-inch size split into a top and bottom half on the inside: Your ATX, Micro-ATX, or Mini-ITX motherboard rests up-top—pray you don’t have a huge cooler overtop your CPU, as you get just under six and a half inches of vertical space (from the silicon on your motherboard) to play with if you have any intention of attaching a 20-centimeter fan to the case’s top.  The bottom portion of the HAF XB is where you’ll precariously thread your 7-inch-or-shorter power supply; connect up the case’s two front hot-swap bays; stuff your optical drive in one of the case’s two, tool-free 5.25-inch bays; or slap some SSD s in the four additional 2.5-inch bays provided.

It’s not very often you see a manufacturer going for the fabled, “cube design,” but this is not your standard case by any stretch of the imagination.

As for the hybrid bit we previously mentioned, Cooler Master has designed the open-air case to work just like that, with the case’s sides and top bare to the world.  However, when you want to transform the chassis into a normal, box-like enclosure, you just need to reattach the case’s sides and top with the provided thumbscrews.

While the process is certainly easy for those who have ever screwed in a side panel before (that’s most of you reading this), we wish that Cooler Master could have used the kind of thumbscrews that remain attached to the case (or panel) after you’ve loosened them.  Losing those at a LAN party would be a real nightmare.  That, or Cooler Master could have used quick-snap latches instead – an even stronger match for this Transformer of a computer case.

The beauty of Cooler Master’s split-insides concept is that you only have the annoyance of stringing cables around the lower half once. Most of the parts you’ll likely manipulate sit up top.

The case gives you a lot of expandability for its size— including room for seven PCIe devices in all and videocards up to 13.1 inches in length—as well as two USB 3.0 ports on the front and two beefy, 1,800-RPM, 12-centimeter fans directly behind that for air intake. If you’re crazy enough to try water-cooling given the tight confines of this chassis, it does support a single 24-centimeter radiator on the front if you first remove these fans in addition to a single 12-centimeter radiator on the case’s rear.  While indentations on the rear of the chassis indicated a place where tubing could have been threaded, Cooler Master oddly omits any rubberized holes for doing so.

The Cooler Master HAF XB isn’t for beginners.  You’re going to get to pretend you’re a surgeon when you try to thread wires around the inside of this tight chassis, even given the HAF XB’s system-builder focus.  It’s still a compelling case for tinkerers that comes with plenty of useful features, and one that’s worth looking into for those afraid to (or uninterested in) making the switch to a fully open-air design. Just don’t try to water-cool it.

Cooler Master HAF XB
Plus

Hot-swap drive bays, easy-to-access motherboard maintenance, excellent cooling

Minus

Removable panels need more than thumbscrews, tight chassis for huge CPU coolers and basic PSU installation

$99, www.coolermaster.com

CoolerMaster Scout 2

Cooler Master makes it easy to carry this case around.

There’s no doubt in our minds that the design of Cooler Master’s Storm Scout 2 chassis is going to draw eyeballs.  On the outside, it’s a beautiful case – punctuated ever-so-slightly by red LED fan viewable through the case’s windowed side panel and ever-so-dramatically by the case’s unique, rubber-coated steel handle up top.

Looks can be deceiving. From the outside, this case is a winner. But from the inside, we’re a bit skeptical.

The case’s inside is less eye-catching. We love the three screwless 5.25-inch drive bays that merely require you to flick a switch from “open” to “lock” to secure your components in place.  However, we’re a little turned off by the flimsier rails that Cooler Master delivers to secure up to seven, 3.5-inch hard drives in place; drive trays would have been better.  Additionally, four of the drive bays have to go if you’re using a video card that’s larger than 28.7 centimeters in length – and there’s no easy way to just pull them out sans screwdriver.

Thumbscrews are your new friends for the case’s seven PCIe expansion slots, and you’ll have to install both standoffs and screws for your motherboard.  That said, the Storm Scout 2 makes cable management easier with the five holes (three rubberized) Cooler Master cuts right into the motherboard tray–though they could have been a little bigger.

Our biggest problem with the Storm Scout 2 is its cooling—not due to its potential, as the case supports up to nine fans in total (a mix of 12- and 14-centimeter fans, but mostly 12-centimeter).  Rather the case ships with just one fan preinstalled: The aforementioned 12-centimeter LED fan on the case’s rear.  You can toggle the light on and off, as the flames shooting out from your hot components will be all the dramatic lighting you really need.

Two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports adorn the case’s front, which you can hide with a little pull-down cover if you so desire.  It’s another one of the many tricks Cooler Master stuffs into the Storm Scout 2’s hat; we just wish we could have some more fans, too.

CoolerMaster Scout 2
Plus

Super-mobile case, easy cable management and good connectivity

Minus

Poor prebuilt cooling (one fan!), requires sacrifice of drive bays for larger videocards, flimsier rails for hard drive installation

$99, www.coolermaster.com

MSI Stealth

You’ll love this case’s color scheme, we promise

Were there an award for “best case color scheme,” MSI’s Stealth computer case wins by a mile from its lovely black and light-blue-accented aesthetic.  As for the case’s design, however, MSI packs in a few problems to balance out the good bits.

Just wait until you pop off the side of this chassis: a pretty world of black and blue awaits you.

We never thought we’d have to struggle so much with this case just to get a simple optical drive secured into one of its three free bays.  That involves popping off the front panel just so you can remove the 5.25-inch bay covers–annoyance number one–and then somehow use the case’s big, blue locking mechanisms of fail to roughly secure your drive in place.  Spoiler: They not very secure.

MSI does provide full trays for the four hard drives the case supports, which alleviates our frustration somewhat. It also packs two graphics card stabilizers right above that–a fun and quasi-useful addition that allows the case to support video cards up to 31 centimeters in length, but some extra 2.5-inch bays might have been more useful in general.

What the case lacks in big, fat cable routing holes (you get four small, thin ones), it makes up for in the ludicrous amount of space between the rear of the motherboard tray and the case’s right side panel. You could hide a garden hose in this case, not just your power supply cables.

A single 12-centimeter fan in the front balances out a similarly sized blue LED fan in the front, positioned directly next to the hard drive bays.  On the top of the case’s front are two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and a special USB port that dovetails with your MSI motherboard’s “SuperCharger” functionality for speedy device charging.  If you haven’t drunk MSI’s Flavor Aid, however, it’s just a standard USB 2.0 connection. Great looks, polarizing design: The MSI Stealth chassis leaves us feeling a little blue.

MSI Stealth
Plus

Lovely aesthetic, plenty of room for huge videocards, front-panel connectivity with an MSI-themed bonus

Minus

Videocard stabilizers seem silly, horrible 5.25-inch bay locking mechanism (and installation process)

$99, us.msi.com

Click the next page to check out our new kick-ass best-of-the-best case!

ThermalTake New Soprano

A soprano could sing inside of this case and you’d never hear it.

Find a chassis that successfully combines practical noise dampening, useful features, and cooling can be a bit of a needle in the haystack sometimes—but in this case (pardon the pun), that’s Thermaltake’s New Soprano .  The solid construction of this chassis creates an upgrading or installation experience that’s free of frustration.  Our only complaint with the case, if you could really call it that, is that it lacks pizazz.

This case might look fairly simple on the outside, but it has just about everything you’d ever want or need. Trust us.

That said, give us function over pretty lights any day.

The jet-black exterior of the case uses a front-panel door to create a sleek, uncluttered aesthetic by allowing you to hide your components when you aren’t specifically using them.  The door doubles as an excellent noise-dampener and, we argue, a heavier-than-you-might-expect blunt object for use when squaring off against midnight intruders or zombie hordes.

Two USB 3.0 ports sit alongside two USB 2.0 ports on the top-front of the case; we’re even more enthusiastic about the built-in hot-swap hard drive docking station for 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch drives that Thermaltake’s constructed on the top of the chassis itself.  It’s a delightful and unexpected addition to the case that brings a lot of additional connectivity without harming the case’s overall look or feel.

On the inside, Thermaltake uses four simple locking mechanisms to keep your 5.25-inch device held tightly.  Installing an optical drive requires you to remove the drive bay’s front panels— easily done without having to rip off any part of the case’s front.  Four screwless hard drive trays rest behind the case’s secret weapon: A huge, blue-LED, 20-centimeter fan that delivers plenty of air over your drives without blowing out your eardrums to do so.  Above the primary 3.5-inch bays rests a single additional 3.5-inch drive bay and a single 2.5-inch bay for your solid-state needs (both not screwless). Thermaltake positions the thumbscrews for the case’s seven expansion slots on the exterior of the case.  While that saves you a little room on the inside—giving the case space for a video card up to 12.2-inches in length—it also means that it’s really hard to actually use your fingers to tighten or loosen the screws.

Thermaltake pulls out all the stops to make it as easy as possible for you to install or upgrade parts—minus the expansion slots, which will require a screwdriver.

Motherboard standoffs are built directly into the case–an excellent touch that saves would-be system builders a bit of time and hassle.  A huge hole on the upper half of the motherboard tray exposes your CPU area for easier installation of aftermarket coolers, and that’s joined by five other holes on the tray itself (four rubberized) for cable management.  There’s plenty of room between the rear of the tray and the case’s right side panel, even including the acoustical foam that Thermaltake’s attached to the panel to give your ears a respite.

The only other fan in the case is a single, 12-centimeter exhaust fan attached to its rear, and the only other fan you can install beyond that would be an optional 12-centimeter intake fan on the case’s bottom.  That’s the trade-off of having a “sound-proof” rig: more potential for heat.  However, Thermaltake’s done a masterful job of addressing this issue while building out a case that’s packed with just about everything you’d want to have—assuming you care more about function than flash.

Thermaltake New Soprano VO900M1N2N
Plus

Good cooling, great soundproofing, mostly easy installation, slick aesthetics

Minus

Expansion slots a little fussy with thumbscrews, case isn’t extraordinarily “flashy”

$119, www.thermaltakeusa.com

Xclio Touch 787

Meet the future, and the past, of cases.

This kills us—it absolutely kills us. The Xclio Touch 787 has one of the most innovative, fun-to-use, Star-Trekian features we’ve ever seen on a case.  And the substantial air-cooling on this case feels just a few miles per hour short of a category four.  It looks good; it’s one of the few cases that we actually really enjoy interacting with on a daily basis.

Words fail us. The touchscreen controls on this case must be seen to be believed.

But why, oh why, does Xclio have no idea how to build hard drive mounts?

Allow us to explain. The single most noteworthy and compelling feature of the Touch 787 is—as the name alludes—the giant touch-sensitive panel on front of the case’s top. It looks as if it was ripped out of a standard Star Trek: TNG episode, and it functions about as well. After wiring up the panel with a standard Molex connection, you can tap its huge, circular buttons to turn the case’s fans on and off; adjust their speeds to low, medium, or high; turn the fans’ lights on and off; or lock and unlock the panel itself (to prevent accidental bumping).

Call it gimmicky if you want, but the responsiveness of the controls – and pretty blue lighting when you’ve activated an option – is just downright cool. Unfortunately, Xclio seems to have spent most of its R&D on this case on just that— the panel. Or perhaps the fans, as this system comes with no fewer than ten 12-centimeter fans in total: One on the case’s rear, two on the top, one in the front, and six (!) on the case’s side panel. Cooling overkill? Yes. We appreciate the enthusiasm, but one large fan on the side panel (for example) could have pushed plenty of air at a lower RPM and noise level.

All the standard features on this case are the same as what you’d expect to find in this price range: Cable mounting holes, motherboard tray cutouts behind the CPU, locking mechanisms for the case’s three free 5.25-inch bays, et cetera. We’re not going to waste words going over these, simply because the design of the case’s 3.5-inch bays—or lack thereof— presents a critical flaw in any user’s enjoyment of this wind tunnel of a chassis.

It’s too bad that Xclio didn't put some more thought into this case’s internals. As is, they’re not very good.

To access the case’s two actual hard drive bays, you have to unscrew and take apart a stupid bar of-sorts that runs vertically from the case’s bottom to just under its 5.25-inch bays. Upon further inspection, however, Xclio actually wants you to mount your drives to this bar as well, just floating out there in mid-air. Presumably, Xclio wants to put nothing between the intake fan and your system’s motherboard, but it’s a bad design concept that’s ugly for cable management, annoying to work with, and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever: It’s the very definition of, “If it ain’t broke…”

If it wasn’t for Xclio’s choices in designing its mounting “system” for hard drives, we’d consider this case–loud and over-the-top as it might be–to actually be something worth considering if for nothing else than its uniqueness. The more we think about it, however, the more Xclio’s design decisions tease the idea that they don’t actually know how to build a functional case, just a really cool-looking one.

Xclio Touch 787
Plus

Amazing touch-panel controls, good cable management, more cooling than you’ll ever need.

Minus

Very loud, horrible design for hard drive mounting, plenty of wiring to manage even before you put any parts into the case.

$149, www.xclio.com

Click the next page to read reviews on the budget computer cases.

The Battle of the Inexpensive Cases

Want a case on the cheap?  Be sure you don’t get what you’re paying for…

Here we go—a descent into the budget barrel.  It’s understandable that you might be a little concerned about the quality of offerings you’re going to see in the sub-$100 case market.  You have every right to be: Just go to your local geeky retailer of choice and check out some of the horrible cases on the shelves that get offered up at rock-bottom prices.  We wouldn’t want to put our worst enemy’s motherboard into those; why should you install yours?

Of course, you can find some real diamonds in the rough, but you’re definitely going to have to do a little digging to uncover quality, inexpensive cases – especially given the sacrifices manufacturers typically have to make in order to hit these low price targets. We’ve dragged up two of these budget cases to show you just what we mean by the differences you’ll find at this end of the spectrum: Take a look!

Antec One

This case might be inexpensive, but there’s so much more Antec could have done

One… singular sensation is not this chassis.  The mid-tower Antec One feels a little flimsy in a few areas, which otherwise detracts from some of the better elements in this ultra-inexpensive case.

The Antec One comes with three 5.25-inch bays that use pre-attached locking mechanisms to keep your devices all snug and attached.  However, this is the kind of case that requires you to pop off the entire front panel in order to remove the grilled covers over the empty bays— be careful with that, as we definitely broke off some of the tabs on these covers when trying to remove them ourselves.

The Antec is light enough that you could probably balance it on your fingers and spin it like a basketball. (You-Tube that, if you try).

Antec positions the entrance for the case’s five 3.5-inch bays on the opposite side of the chassis–the right of the case, if you’re looking at it from the front, rather than the left.  This decision boggled us at first, but the more we thought about it, it makes sense: You would have to pop off both sides of the case anyway were you to install the drives from the left side of the chassis (using the provided rails) and this method allows Antec manages to build in some additional space for much-needed cable management.  It’s just a little weird at first.

The case’s seven expansion card brackets don’t come with screws pre-installed into the case; a bit of an annoyance for those looking to ensure that the flimsy tabs stay on at all times.  We do, however, like the recessed side pane that sits behind a huge hold cut out for the top half of one’s motherboard: Cable-management and CPU cooler installations are a breeze.

Antec slaps two 12-centimeter fans in the top-rear corner of the case; none over the hard drives.  You get two USB 3.0 ports on the case’s front; that’s it. That’s the Antec One: A price-conscious chassis that’s good in a pinch, but could be a lot better.

Antec One
Plus

Hard drive bay design is odd at first, but functional; screwless 5.25-inch bays; good cable management

Minus

Lacks screws on PCI brackets, no cooling on hard drives, frustrating 5.25-inch device installation

$49, www.antec.com

Corsair Carbide 200R

It’s not “super” inexpensive, but it’s worth saving pennies for

Delightful.  Truly delightful.  That’s the best way to sum up Corsair’s sub-$100 Carbide 200R mid-tower chassis.  It’s roomy, it’s well-designed, and—most importantly— it doesn’t invite any annoying features or ill-designed elements along for its inexpensive ride.

The Carbide 200R doesn't win huge points for its looks, but there's a lot going on inside this chassis for its low price.

All of the Carbide 200R’s drive bays are completely screwless, a wonderful touch for those looking to make modifications to their system without busting out the tool kit.  Popping off the flat, solid panels covering the case’s three 5.25-inch bays is easy and destruction-free— almost as easy as it is to slide and lock up to four 3.5-inch hard drives into the case’s left-facing bays.  You can use screws to attach up to four 2.5-inch drives into a provided internal enclosure if you really don’t want your solid-state-drives to jiggle.

Motherboard standoffs are built directly into the Carbide 200R: Just slap down your board, grab a few screws, and you’re set.  Five different cable routing holes cut directly into the tray make it easy for you to hide your ugly wires, and a large area cut out behind the top of the motherboard tray speeds along the (often agonizing) process of aftermarket CPU cooler installation.

The case comes with a single 12-centimeter fan in the rear and the front.  While we would have preferred that the front fan was placed to push some air over your hard drives, at least it’s able to direct much-need cooling on your video card (up to 11.8-inches long).  You can also stick up to five additional 12- or 14-centimeter fans around the case’s top, side, and bottom, as well as one more 12-centimeter fan in the front (covering your hard drives).

The case comes with two USB 3.0 ports on the front—more importantly, popping off the front panel to do any modifications to the Carbide 200R doesn’t result in a tangle of wires coming with it.  It’s these little touches, and more, that make this case such an inexpensive delight.

Corsair Carbide 200R
Plus

Plenty of drive bays, lots of options for additional cooling, a great emphasis on reducing the amount of screwdriver time needed

Minus

Front preinstalled fan could have pushed more air over the hard drives directly, 2.5-inch bays still require screws

$60, www.corsair.com

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