It seems obvious, right? The more stuff you have, the bigger the box you need to put it in. And in computer-land, you have options ranging from tiny micro-ATX cases the size of a hardback book to enormous full-tower cases into which you could cram every computer part you’ve ever owned. But not everybody needs or wants a full-tower case. Medium-size cases, or mid-towers, take up less space, weigh less, are more portable, and (hopefully) cost less than their full-tower brethren. What’s more, features that were once exclusive to full-tower cases, like dust filters, toolless construction, and CPU cutouts, are now finding their way into mid-size chassis—and not always accompanied by price increases. Indeed, just because you have two 5970 videocards and want to water-cool your CPU, it doesn’t mean you have to go with a full-tower anymore; some mid-towers have radiator mount points and room for your beefiest cards.
We have certain criteria for testing any computer chassis, and no case is exempt. Cases gain points for build quality, ease of installation, toolless mounting—but only if it’s sturdy!—stock-cooling ability, cable-routing options, and extra features like support for water-cooling installs, space for extra-long videocards, filtered intakes, and SSD brackets. Bonus points are earned for style and going above-and-beyond the expected. Points are deducted for thoughtless design flaws, poor build quality, bad cooling performance, lack of room for essential parts, and general suckitude. We don’t automatically add or subtract points for LEDs or other aesthetic flourishes, though tasteful use is appreciated.
This month, Maximum PC tests five of the newest and hottest mid-tower cases out there, from budget to luxe, steel to aluminum, tiny to nearly full-tower-size. These enclosures have their differences, but some of the similarities are surprising. All the cases in this roundup, for example, have CPU backplate cutouts in the motherboard tray (a first), and all have very similar front-panel connections. From the small and sub-$100 Zalman Z7 Plus to the big, beautiful, expensive Silverstone Fortress FT02, Maximum PC is, shall we say, on the case.
From beige to bling, how PC enclosures have evolved through the ages
Since 1995, ATX has been the de facto standard for motherboards, power supplies, and cases. The aging formfactor has informed the past decade-and-a-half of case design, from the bland beige-box era to today’s enormous water-cooled, windowed monstrosities. While the formfactor has stayed the same, enthusiast parts and attitudes have propelled cases to new heights of usefulness and blingitude.
Cooler Master’s ATC aluminum chassis series, starting with the ATC 200 in early 2000, was the kiss of death for the beige box. With four 8cm fans, six hard drive bays, and a removable motherboard tray, the ATC series proved that the chassis wasn’t just a commodity part to hold your real hardware, but an essential part of your rig—one you could be OK spending $250 on.
Soon, case manufacturers realized that builders could be just as proud of their rigs’ exteriors as their interiors, but not everyone wanted to manually cut windows and add LEDs to their stock enclosures, so the race to add acrylic windows, LEDs, and fans was on. NZXT’s first case, the 2004-era Guardian, exemplifies this trend. It features a molded plastic and “chrome” case door in the shape of an armored mask, red and blue lights that emit illuminated patterns, a side case fan with flame décor, a chromed dragon emblem, and tricolor LEDs.
It wasn’t all about looks, though—the Guardian’s interior featured ahead-of-its-time toolless PCI expansion card holders, optical drive bays, and hard drive bays. Many modern cases eschew the LEDs but keep the toolless interiors.
Both the ATC 201 and the Guardian have their modern descendents—the ATCS 840 and Guardian 921, respectively. Despite a brief flirtation with BTX in the middle of the decade, modern PCs still use the ATX formfactor, so case design, while hardly stagnant, has remained consistent for years. Thermaltake’s Level 10 concept chassis ( reviewed December 2009 ) maintains ATX compatibility while mounting all components in separate boxes hanging from a central pillar. It’s one of the most innovative cases we’ve seen recently.