November 25, 2021

A computer case

One of the last components most people think about when building a computer is the case in which it will reside. That's because one needs to have a general idea of what PC components are going to be used to actually build the PC in order to get a case that fits. However, building a computer cannot really get going without the case so its importance cannot be overstated.

Although the case is the least technical component of any PC build, which may make it appear to be the easiest part to choose, it is more than just a box into which all the other components are placed. There are several things to consider when choosing a PC case, and with the plethora of PC cases out there, this can make the PC case buying decision a difficult one. One of the ways to decide which case is right for you is to establish the criteria, in order of importance, that the new case should conform to.

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PC case criteria

Form factor

In most PC builds, the first decision to be made is to determine the overall form factor that the computer will adhere to. Today, the most common format is the ATX form factor, so this will be the one that we will focus on here. PC cases are also categorised according to these formats, so if you are building an ATX form factor PC, the case to get is also an ATX one.

The vast majority of ATX cases on the market are medium-sized ‘Mid-Tower’ types. These provide sufficient room to house all of the system’s components and still have room to spare to allow for sufficient airflow to move through the case. However, although fewer in number, bigger ‘Full-Tower’ cases also exist for the PC enthusiast that needs or wants even more room for their build.

Brand

As with choosing a power supply for a computer, there is an overwhelming number of brands and models of PC cases to choose from. One way to go about narrowing down the field of options so that we can pick the best case for our particular setup is to limit our choice to reputable PC case brands only. This increases the likelihood that the design will be well-thought-out and tested and the materials used to construct it will be of decent quality. Some of the reputable PC case brands are:

  • NZXT
  • Phanteks
  • Fractal Design
  • Corsair
  • be quiet!
  • Thermaltake
  • Silverstone
  • Cooler Master
  • Lian Li

(this is a non-exhaustive list, and other brands could surely be included here, however, this is more than enough for our purposes)

Airflow

Cooler Master MasterBox TD500

The Cooler Master MasterBox TD500 has a mesh front panel

One of the most important aspects of PC building is ensuring that the case has sufficient cooling airflow going through it. This is to aid in the removal of unwanted waste heat from inside the case where expensive PC components are negatively impacted by higher temperatures. One of the simplest ways to optimise the airflow through a PC case is to ensure that the front panel, which is usually responsible for the taking in of cool ambient air, consists of a mesh or grill extending over the whole of its surface. This will ensure the maximum amount of air can be taken into the case.

Usefully, by insisting on a meshed or grilled front panel, this narrows down potential PC case candidates significantly. That's because many of today’s designs tend to prioritise style over optimised air cooling, with manufacturers opting for solid steel, plastic or glass front panels with small side vents, which are almost always going to be less efficient at taking in air than front panel mesh or grill designs.

As an aside, front panels should also have sufficient room to house three 120mm or two 140mm intake fans to provide the maximum amount of airflow into the case. Fortunately, the vast majority of ATX PC cases fulfil this criterion so this should be an easy requirement to attain.

Cost

Since building a gaming or high-end desktop (HEDT) computer is an expensive affair, anywhere one can make savings is always going to be a welcome prospect. Fortunately, cases are one such PC part where one can help keep the overall budget of the computer build down without significantly affecting the power or usefulness of the machine itself.

In the UK, a good PC case can be had for around the £100 mark so we will make our budget at no more than £130 or so. Usefully, this eliminates another subset of PC cases that are just too expensive for our particular PC build.

ATX cases from a reputable brand with a mesh or grill front panel for under £130

Armed with these criteria: An ATX form factor PC case with a front mesh or grill panel from a reputable brand and costing less than £130, we can organise and eliminate a lot of the PC cases on retail sites like scan.co.uk, overclockers.com, or newegg.com to narrow down potential candidate cases for further assessment. In our example, we filtered for ATX form factor (Mid- and Full-tower) cases under £130, separately on both Scan and Overclockers. We then systematically went through the list to identify those with a grill or mesh front panel, before eliminating any duplicates between the two retail sites to come up with the following table of potential PC case candidates:

  Front
Mesh / Grill
GPU
length
max
(mm)
PSU
length
max
(mm)
Air cooler
height
max
(mm)
Top panel
radiator
length max
(mm)
Dust
Filters
2.5"
Drive
Bays
3.5"
Drive
Bays
Front
USB 2
Type-A
ports
Front
USB 3
Type-A
ports
Front
USB 3
Type-C
port
Tempered
Glass
Side
Panel
Silverstone Fara R1
322160165240front
top
bottom
3112
Lian Li Lancool 205 Mesh
350165160280front
bottom
top
222
Silverstone Black PM01 Primera
419240180360front
bottom
5422
Corsair 275R Airflow
370180170240front
PSU
top
422
Phanteks Eclipse P360 Air
400250160240top
bottom
PSU
222
Fractal Design Meshify C
315175172240front
top
bottom
322
Corsair White iCUE 220T RGB Airflow
300180160240front
PSU
top
222
Cooler Master MasterBox TD500
410180165360bottom
front
top
422
Corsair 4000D Airflow
360180170280front
PSU
top
221
Corsair 5000D Airflow
420225170360front
PSU
side
top
422
Thermaltake Divider 300 TG Air390180145side
top
front
bottom
522
Fractal Design Meshify S2
440300185420bottom
front
PSU
top
232
Fractal Design Meshify 2
467250185420bottom
front
top
262

This reduced list of PC cases that fit the initial criteria makes the process of deciding on a case much more manageable. From here, other case specifications can be used to make the final decision on which one to actually buy.

Dimensions

The next specifications to check when choosing a computer case are its internal dimensions which will need to accommodate all of the PC components. However, the four key dimensions to investigate when choosing a PC case are:

Maximum graphics card length: Although graphics cards primarily exist in either of two forms, namely Nvidia-based or AMD-based cards, they are actually designed and manufactured by a variety of different companies, the likes of EVGA, Gigabyte, and others. This means that the final physical design of the circuit board and integral cooling solution of a graphics card can vary widely which, in turn, translates into overall dimensions that vary as well.

There is usually sufficient space within most ATX tower cases to accommodate the variety of different height and width dimensions of the majority of graphics cards, so one usually does not have to pay too much attention to these dimensions. However, the same cannot be said of graphics card lengths which can exceed the space available within some ATX towers. Consequently, this is one PC case specification that needs to be checked to ensure that your graphics card of choice is compatible.

Maximum PSU length: There is also a limited amount of space within PC cases for power supply units. If both the case and the power supply are classed as ATX, then the width and height of the power supply should not pose any fitting issues. However, similar to graphic cards, the critical case dimension to pay attention to here is the maximum length of a PSU the PC case can accommodate, as some ATX power supplies may be too long to fit in some ATX cases.

Maximum air cooler height: Computer CPUs are usually either air-cooled or liquid-cooled. If your CPU is to be cooled using an air cooler, consisting of a large heatsink and fan, the important dimension here to consider is the air cooler’s overall height. Most PC cases will indicate the maximum height of air cooler it will accommodate before it conflicts with the placement of the left wall panel.

Maximum all-in-one (AIO) cooler radiator length (and height): If your CPU is to be liquid-cooled with an All-in-one (AIO) cooler, the size of the AIO heat sink and pump that usually sit atop the CPU is usually small enough not to be a size issue for most PC cases. However, an AIO cooler also consists of a large radiator and fans which need to be attached to one of the case's vented wall panels. In the vast majority of ATX towers, this means the top panel of the PC case. AIO radiators come in a number of different lengths so it is important to check that the radiator of your AIO of choice will fit length-wise along the top panel of the PC case. Typical AIO radiator lengths are 240mm, 280mm, 360mm and 420mm.

Additionally, AIO radiators with their large fans are often quite substantial in total thickness as well. This means that if they are installed on the top panel of a PC case they will usually protrude significantly downwards in the direction of the motherboard. In some PC cases, the distance between the motherboard and the upper wall panel is not very large which means that components inserted into the motherboard can potentially conflict space-wise with the AIO radiator. This is often particularly true of RAM sticks that often protrude significantly from the motherboard and whose slots are often located high up close to the upper case panel. Therefore, it is important to check that there is sufficient space below the upper vented wall panel of a PC case to house the radiator of your AIO of choice.

Dust filters

One of the objectives of any PC build is to circulate as much air through the computer case as possible to keep sensitive components cool. This, however, will also mean that ample amounts of dust will circulate too. Dust is detrimental to your PC especially if it is left to accumulate. Fortunately, most PC cases have been designed to reduce dust ingress through the use of dust filters positioned over the vents of PC case wall panels. Therefore, when choosing a computer case, dust panels should, at the very minimum, be present on all of its air intake vents. In the typical PC build, this means the front panel air intake vent as well as the PSU air intake vent which is usually found on the bottom wall panel.

The top and rear case walls will usually house the exhaust fans so filters over these vents are not absolutely required unless you intend to configure the airflow through your case differently. PC case airflow configurations will also usually ensure that there is a small amount of positive air pressure within the case by having more intake airflow than exhaust airflow. This will discourage dust from entering the PC through any unfiltered openings or gaps within the case walls.

Drive bays

One of the primary characteristics of a computer is its permanent storage capacity. This is usually mediated by the presence of several hard disk drives (HDDs) and/or solid-state drives (SSDs) housed within the PC case’s drive bays.  Today's PC case drive bays come in two sizes: 2.5” and 3.5” formats. 2.5”-sized drives were traditionally the size used for laptop hard drives, although today SATA-based SSDs now mostly occupy this niche (importantly, these are distinct from M.2-based SSDs which are incorporated directly on to the motherboard). The 3.5” drive format has been and continues to be the size format for large capacity desktop HDDs.

PC cases come with different numbers of 2.5” and 3.5” drive bays that can accommodate these different types of storage drives. Therefore, when choosing a PC case, some thought needs to go into how many and which type of storage drives you intend to install in your computer. This should take into account both current needs and those of any future upgrades, so that a PC case with the appropriate number and type of drive bays can be selected.

Front panel I/O ports

Although motherboard-based input/output (I/O) panels, usually arranged to protrude from the back of a computer, are primarily responsible for making connections with devices external to the PC, a front or top PC case-based I/O panel containing a select number of connection ports can be a very convenient feature to have. This front connection panel is particularly important if you envision inserting external USB storage drives into your PC regularly or if you need to quickly connect a game controller or similar device. Currently, PC cases come with one or more of the following front panel ports:

  • USB 2 Type-A
  • USB 3 Type-A
  • USB 3 Type-C
  • Audio In (microphone)
  • Audio Out (headphone)

Today, two USB 3 Type-A ports should be the minimum specification that one should look for on the front or top panel of a PC case. Although the inclusion of USB Type-C ports is becoming increasingly common in today’s devices, when it comes to PC case front connections, having a Type-C port does not appear to offer a significant advantage over Type-A ports that are equally compatible with the correct USB cable.

Importantly, when deciding on the ports that should be on the front/top panel, one needs to ensure that the motherboard is capable of supporting them in the first place. Consulting the motherboard manual will provide the information needed on what motherboard pin headers are available to support these front panel connections.

Vanity window

Today, PC building often includes an element of showing off your completed machine to friends, family and social media followers. One of the common ways this activity is enhanced is through the use of a transparent window that gives a view into the fascinating innards of the PC. Windows are usually made of acrylic or tempered glass with the latter material the preferred choice due to its resistance to scratching. These days the majority of PC cases on the market today include a tempered glass window, so you are more likely than not to have one in your PC case of choice.

One other thing to keep in mind here is the orientation of the PC within your work or play space since most PC cases are constructed with the window on the left side of the case. Therefore, the orientation of the PC can be an important consideration if it will be on display. Cases with windows on the right side panel do exist but they are few in number so your PC case options will be severely restricted.

Thumbscrews

One final minor feature to be on the look out for, when choosing a PC case, is the inclusion of thumbscrews into the design of the case. Rather than using ordinary fixings which require the use of a screwdriver or other tool to undo and tighten them, thumbscrews can usually be completely manipulated by hand. This can make the building of a PC as well as any future changes or upgrades to the machine much more convenient.


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