PC*Base #3 – Cases

In previous weeks I’ve written about different parts, and how to look for what you’re buying.  Now it’s time to finally start looking at specific hardware.  We’re starting with cases because it’s the base for everything you do.  Since everything goes inside the case, and you will have to stare at it, picking out a good one is pretty important.

There are a few things to know when you’re picking out a case.  First, there are different sizes which are called form factors.  There have been many form factors over the years, but there are only 3 important ones you may be interested in.

My current PC barely fits the desk. The power button is on the top and makes it hard to turn on, or reset.

The first form factor and the most prevalent for over 15+ years is ATX which stands for Advanced Technology eXtended.   These are usually big standing tower cases.  They also make ATX cases that lie flat, but now more often than not the flat cases are other form factors.  Micro-ATX (mATX) is a smaller size.  If you are looking to put a powerful computer in a smaller space, a mATX case is a good way to go.  The final form factor and the smallest is Mini-ITX (mITX).  Up until recently mITX computers were very underpowered.  Now they can be just as powerful as a full-blown ATX computer.  You often find mITX computers in very small spaces.  I have one sitting with the rest of my living room equipment connected up to my TV, and if you weren’t looking closely you would miss it.

There are positives and negatives to each case type.  An ATX case is your all around juggernaut.  In a full tower ATX case you can fit multiple DVD/Blu-ray drives, and hard drives.  In the past if you wanted a fully fledged computer, this was your best bet.  Strangely ATX cases on average are cheaper than their counterparts.  The downside is the size.  Currently I have a large ATX case that I’m replacing because it doesn’t fit well under my desk.  The power button and case USB ports are on the top of my ATX case so I have to squeeze my hand between the case and desk to turn it on.   The case USB ports are completely unusable to me so I have to run a USB extension cord from the motherboard USB ports to the front of the desk.   A smaller case will be easier to deal with.

mATX cases are nice because they are smaller, but you don’t have to compromise on power.  Because they are smaller and lighter some people use them for travel purposes at LAN parties (gaming parties where you bring your computer to play multiplayer PC games with others).  The negative is that sometimes the smaller cases have a hard time fitting large video cards.  They also have less room for additional drives, but with 3 Terabyte hard drives this isn’t as big of a concern anymore.  Because of the size, airflow and cooling can be an issue.  On a larger case you can fit larger fans to help keep the PC cool.  Modern motherboards and processors are less energy hungry so they generate less heat, so this isn’t as big of an issue unless you plan on seriously overclocking (I’ll explain that in a later segment) the machine.  Personally I recently purchased the Thermaltake Armor A30 because I wanted a small form factor and a modular case (more on that later).

This video features the Thermaltake Armor A30 unboxing, and a look on the inside.

mITX cases in general are small which is their biggest advantage.  They are great home theater PC’s to connect to your TV.  Now you can make a mITX computer just as powerful as an ATX computer, but there are some caveats.  Sometimes mITX cases have their own small power supplies that don’t have enough wattage to support powerful video cards.  If you get a case without a power supply you can bypass this issue.  You still have to make sure all of the parts you plan on getting will fit the case you pick out.  Some mITX cases are bigger than others so it’s not always a concern. The Bitfenix Prodigy is an excellent mITX case.  They are kind of hard to find.  I might have ordered it myself if it was in stock when I was looking for it.  Just like mATX cases, due to the size limitations, air flow and cooling will be more difficult.

On the inside of a case you have connections that go to your motherboard, like the power switch, reset switch, and fan connections.  Some cases come with small speakers so that you can hear the PC beep when there is a problem.  Cases usually have fans inside.  When picking out a good case the most important thing to look for when doing research is how noisy the case fans are.  They can usually be replaced with quieter fans, but that means more money out of your pocket.

The other important factor to look into is air flow.  Some cases don’t have enough places to put fans on for proper air flow.  Or they might do something stupid like cover the place where the fan is with more plastic so the fan isn’t really doing what it’s supposed to.  Other times the case comes with the right fans and the right placement, but it might be better to reverse the fans on the case so that they blow out instead of in, or vice versa.  When doing your research, you will find all the info you need on how to make your case work the best.

This is a comparison shot between my old case and my new Thermaltake Armor A30

Some cases are modular which means you can slide things around to get at what you need.  If I need to access the motherboard on a traditional case I have to take a lot of pieces apart to get to it.  I’m also reaching over and into the case to do whatever I need to do.  With a modular case design I can slide out the tray that the motherboard sits on, without popping open the rest of the case.  This also makes adding other parts a lot easier.

Next week on PC*Base I’ll be covering power supplies.  In theory power supplies should be simple, but they can be a pain in your butt when choosing the right one.

So, what do you think?

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