When it comes to building a first computer, the beginning DIYer always starts in the same place, worrying about what CPU they will use. Now there is no doubt that the CPU is an important part of the PC and will effect how the computer performs but this choice is soon followed by looking at the GPU, RAM and HD. The internal parts are all prioritized based on what the builder has in mind and then he will take whatever is left over and find a cheap computer case.
The computer case is often overlooked and much misunderstood by beginning DIYers. They do not realize that is some ways it is important as the other components and perhaps more so to the DIY concept. You see over the years the internal parts of the PC will be upgrade and changed as new technology develops but the case could be around for a long time. It can offer a stable place to build each new PC, to put each upgrade and with this in mind the case is worth take some time to look at.
A computer case is more than just a box to hold your PC. It provides the protection for your PC from damage and is a MAJOR component in cooling the internal workings of your PC. A case can limit where you computer can be placed and can also be a determining factor in some cases as to what components you can use.
Cases today come is roughly 5 sizes, the Mini-ITX, Micro-ATX, Mini, Mid and Full. The sizes listed are all based for the most part on the size of the motherboard that can be used in the case. Also each size tends to lean toward certain usage ideas when building your PC. For the purposes of the beginning DIYer I think it is best we try not to explain all the potential here because the list can become quite long and confusing. We will instead for this article focus on the two primary cases of use, the Mid and Full.
The reason I have chosen these two sizes as our focus is they offer the greatest flexibility in picking components. Other designs tend to be very specific in component selection while a Mid or Full case can handle all of the smaller component design and most of the largest ones.
Mid towers are one of the most commonly used size of all the tower cases. The reason is the fact they can fit full sized motherboards, offer solid feature selection, can fit more versatile in cramped office or computing spaces and cost less money typically than a full tower case.
While mid tower cases tend to be less expensive than full tower they are none the less nearly as feature packed. The choice of a mid tower over a full tower case seldom comes down to features or cooling but is usually made based on price and space for the computer.
Full tower cases tend to be considered enthusiasts cases, this is mostly due to the LARGE space they provide for adding components. Full towers can fit just about any component you can imagine and still have room, they tend to be more expensive on average than mid towers and of course can be an issue if you have limited area for placing your computer.
The most common reason for choosing a full tower over a mid tower is the extra internal room. This makes it easier to work with multiple video cards and large heat sinks and fans for more advanced cooling.
When looking at case features it is important to look first at the cooling offered. The good news is that from the beginner perspective most cases today will offer enough cooling for the most common component choices.
A computer case provides cooling by creating a directed air flow. This means that is channels the “wind” in the case along a limited path that allows it to carry over the components in need of the cooling. Case fans are used to create the wind that the case design will direct. Cases today come with typically 4 potential fan positions. First is the exhaust fan, this is typically at the top/rear of the case and is put in place to blow air from inside the case out. A variant of this and our second position is the chimney fan. This is fan in the top of the case also pulling air out of the case. Many lower cost cases will only come with exhaust fans, this is called a negative air flow case. The air pressure in the case is decreased until it is below the outside air pressure, ie negative, by default the outside pressure forces the cooler outside air into the case and allows the fans to pull this cooler air across the war components.
The third position is the front intake. This is a fan typically at the front and down lower on the case. The fan increases the amount of cool air going into the case and thus will help cool the components. The top rear design pulls this air up through the case and directs it over the components that need cooling. The last position we see commonly is the side fan. These are meant to blast cool air directly into the case and usually right at the components most in need of cooling, thus increasing the amount of cool air in the case still further.
When you have more intake than exhaust you create what is called a positive air flow design. In this setup the air pressure inside the case rises because more air is forced in the case than can leave. This has the effect of forcing the air in the case to move a bit more and thus kills off dead spots in the cases air flow that can form with a negative flow case.
The best method of cooling however is a balanced design. Now a perfect balance is not all that easy to achieve but what you want to find if cooling is your concern is a good balance of intake vs. exhaust fans.
Other case features access points for USB and headphones. While all modern cases have front connectors they do not all mount them in the same place. This is where planning comes in. A case that will sit on the floor will not have easy access if the connectors are at the bottom, likewise connectors at the top of a large case sitting on the desk make no sense.
Back to cooling I suggest looking for a case that has filters on the intake fans. These fans pull a lot of air into the case and no matter how clean your home there will be dust. A decent filter system will make the difference between cleaning out you PC once a month or twice a year.
Inside the case we see a lot of talk about the motherboard tray. One of the really neat features is the removable tray. This allows you to pull out a section of the case that holds the motherboard and work on it in a very open environment and then slide it back into place when you are done. This however is typically only found on very expensive cases. Another feature is the back plate cutout. This is a part of the motherboard tray that has been removed to allow easy access to the back of the board where heatsink mounting plate is. If you are going to be pulling or changing your heatsink a lot then this is really useful. The good news is that this is becoming standard on most DIY cases.
There is also the cable management system. Some cases keep things simple and will create a little cubby hole in the case design to shove cables into. Others will have openings in the back of the case for routing cables behind the motherboard and still others will have nothing special for this at all. Cable management is something beginning DIYers dread and old timers live by. There is an art to hiding cables out the way, it creates a very clean system look, however it has a real benefit as well. By removing the clutter the cases airflow is improved helping to cool the system.
There are two more features to take into account, the first is noise. Lets face it no one wants their computer to be so loud you need a headset to sit by it safely. Some locations that the computer will be placed might need more attention paid to noise level than others. The rule to remember is the quieter the case the less cooling potential, and the opposite the more cooling potential the more noise.
And this brings us then to the last major consideration, the way the case looks. Remember what I said earlier we are looking at a case with the idea of it lasting through a few builds. This means if it is not aesthetically pleasing you will not like having it around. This is of course purely subject and with way to many variables to create any set rules. The good news is that cases run the gambit from simple boxes to crazy designs with lights all over them. There is something that will appeal to everyone.
The case is the basis on which the DIYer will be building his PC, not just today but tomorrow if he makes good choices. Take everything into account and find something that is a perfect fit for you, 5 years later you might have had 3 CPUs and 4 GPUs but you could still have that one case.
You know the one gift every Dad would love for Fathers Days? A day off, no worries, no honey do lists, nothing but a day to do just what Dad wants to do for fun. Well I cannot take the day off fully as I still have the radio show to do, but I can take the blog off and that is what we are going to do. SO this Sunday tune in to Computer Ed, enjoy the show and then all you Dads go out and find the thing that is fun for you. That’s my plan…
HAPPY FATHERS DAY!
When it comes to the world of computer cases the Thermaltake Armor is something of a legend. It seems forever ago that this line of cases was introduced with it’s distinctive large fans and wings for doors on the front. The case was designed from the ground up for the enthusiast market with it’s features made specifically to help those of us that love to tinker.
Enter 2010 and Thermaltake has decided that it was time for a fresh look at the Armor. This time however they decided to take a completely different route and go a bit more budget in the build as well as a make a radical change in the look, welcome the Armor A90.
Gone are the winged front doors and in it’s place we find armor plating on the case. Thermaltake recognized the rise of the MMO in the computer gaming world, something the general enthusiast market seems to ignore. The decision here was to design a case that would aesthetically appeal to the MMO market and deliver a great platform in which to build that MMO gaming machine.
The front of the case sports the armor plating look with the top plate actually being the door to access the optical drives. The armor “feel” of the case when it comes to this door is not limited to it’s look. The door is not a thin piece of molded plastic but rather a very solid construct with a large flat plate in the back, the door is SOLID! Held in place with a strong magnet the door does not flop open and the solid construction means it is unlikely to warp. The door is limited to about a 110° however this is plenty of room for accessing the drive inside.
Along the right side of the front you see the front access for 2 USB connections as well as the traditional headphone and microphone jacks. There is a blue LED for power and a red LED for HD activity. Beneath the LEDs is a small recessed button for the reset and the power button is the small triangle you see in the front of the case just below the door.
At the bottom you see the open area that houses the stock 120mm fan for air intake. The case is capable of mounting a second 120mm fan but an examination of the way the front is laid out reveals this is just not practical.
With the front panel off, btw it is easy to remove, you can where the second fan would mount. Now looking at this picture also look above at the full case front. As you can see the second armor plate on the front will block better than 80% of the second fans intake area. That plate solid without hidden edge cutouts so the blockage is real.
This early front panel off gives a quick peak at the inside of the case which is painted nicely in black and has solid construction with rounded edges.
Moving back to the outside of the case we see at the top a second set of USB connections as well as a ESATA port. The armor look carries here as well and the rear of the top is open to allow a 200mm fan to exhaust hot air from inside the case. The large front plate at the right of the top is sloped to the outside of the case, this shows a serious attention to detail in the design of the looks. You see real armor plating is seldom “flat”, it is usually designed to have an angle to it’s facing. In that way an attack on the armor cannot get a full on force hit and the deflection of the attack works with the armor itself to offer protection.
The main side panel has a small triangular window that does little to let you see in the case but in the dark does add to the ambience of the cases lighting. At the bottom back we see a grilled area to allow for the use of a 120mm fan to provide extra air intake.
This intake, unlike the front is not filtered and this bugs me. With the attention to detail shown in getting the are Armor design just right you would think something like a filtered intake area would have been done. Even without a fan this will intake air as the GPU as well as the exhaust fans will full as much as they can get.
The inside of the case is surprisingly roomy for a mid tower design. Stand-offs for the motherboard are built into the tray area for the basic motherboard types and a large cut-out is present for CPU cooler changes. While some have found this cutout a bit small for some of the Intel designs I am pleased to say it fits AMD designs PERFECTLY! This was a pleasant surprise as most of these cut outs fit Intel correctly and AMD is slightly off. You can see here an 890FX board in place and the AMD backplate position is wide open.
As I said the case is surprisingly room, who roomy?
Notice the open space at the top of the case between the motherboard and the 200mm fan, also the nice open area between the the motherboard and the bays. This board, the Gigabyte 890FXA-UD5 is a full sized board in every sense of the word. Despite the lack of a removable motherboard tray this went in EASY! There was no angling or maneuvering, there is that much room.
The power supply in this case is bottom mounted and has a filtered opening at the bottom of the case. To accommodate this the case has a moveable PSU mount bar that allows for adjustment through various lengths of PSUs, the bar is held in place by two screws at the bottom of the case. Speaking of the bottom of the case Thermaltake also realized they needed some more lift for the air flow and so installed a skirted foot system that gives the case a nice rise off the floor.
Now I can tell you I am not a big fan of letting the PSU pull air from the bottom outside of the case. While in theory it sounds great in practice it is a sure way to full the PSU with dirt and dust. While a filter would sound like the logical solution the issue here is cleaning it. The only way to clean the filter is turn the case over and clean the bottom. The problem is that it is hard enough for most people to remember to clean the easy to access filters let alone one hidden from sight at the bottom of the case.
This is further aggravated in this particular case by the fact the filter employed is useless. The filter on the bottom of the A90 is a stiff metal grill with larger openings that the screen material used in a screen door. Now the basic system they have in place does work well, the PSU can get great air flow from the way the case is designed, however it will require monitoring to make sure the PSU does not get gunked up.
Speaking of filters, the front filter is easy to take out and washable. This filter is made of a fine nylon mesh and is the kind of filter you expect in a quality case build. The plastic tab allows for it to be easily lifted from the bevel once it is removed and it snaps right back in. The filter does cover ALL of the intake area that the bevel has.
For purposes of testing I thought we would put this case to the test against a completely mismatched opponent, the Thermaltake Spedo that we used in the X-Ray build. For this test then I moved the entire X-Ray build into the A90 case and fired it up. Under idle the CPU and GPU temps where right on with there the Spedo case was. This actually surprised me a lot as I would have thought the massive fan difference of the Spedo would have shown from the start, but the A90 proved it can keep an overclocked 1090T build just as cool at idle as a more expensive case.
Next we fired up some stress inducing software and tried to heat up our armor a bit. After an hour of baking we came back to see if our Armor A90 was done, the computer was still chugging along nicely so we began taking readings. The CPU and GPU where warmer in the A90 over the Spedo but only by 4C! Neither was close to being at problem temperatures and where running along happy as clams. Considering that difference in air flow potential this was AMAZING! A check of the actual internal case temperature showed that it was about 6C warmer, still not as bad as I would have expected.
I should add that all this was not only done with a less expensive case that had less air flow potential but was done SILENTLY compared to the Spedo. When sitting at my desk and bringing the Spedo out of sleep mode there is an noticeable hum that I can hear each morning, I know it is awake as much from the sound as the computer working. Now I am not saying it is so loud as to be an issue but there is a noticeable noise level reached. The A90 however stayed below my hearing threshold unless I got down next to it.
Remember I said earlier that this case was roomy for a mid tower design. Well last night I was finishing some other testing I was working on and was at the extreme level. I had this all put into the A90 case and wanted to show you the room this little guy offers.
What you see here is a full build using a Coolit ECO in a push/pull configuration using a full ATX board and a 5870 for video. The case is still ROOMY!
The A90 is not a “perfect” case though in fairness I am not sure one exists. The front fan area makes the optional second fan useless and the filtering for the PSU is almost as useless.
However the case does have solid base cooling, a good amount of room to work in as as you can see the simple cable management system it has works really well. But does it live up to it’s hype?
Thermaltake claimed the A90 was a “bulletproof” case, well we considered grabbing a 22 and putting it to the test but decided not to. I am pretty sure a bullet can get into the case.
Thermaltake also claims this was designed with the MMO gamer in mind. Aesthetics is not something most reviewers really spend a lot of time “testing” because lets face it, that is all about pure opinion. However Aesthetics is an important consideration when it comes to case selection. We want a case we like the looks of. With the case geared toward the MMO market I thought I would put that to the test. I grabbed 10 different MMO gamers I know, from hardcore to casual, from teenager to old fart, male and female and let them take a look at this case. Seven out of the ten MMO gamers I asked liked the looks of the case enough they where considering buying one for a new build or an upgrade. The remaining three thought the case was nice but nothing to get excited about.
While the above test is hardly scientific or even likely to be really accurate I feel safe to say that Thermaltake has a great case here. The looks make it stand out in a crowd and it does seem to appeal to the MMO crowd they designed it for. The lighting on this case is outstanding with the blue being subdued enough to not overwhelm but still look nice. The operation is near silent and the cooling more than enough for a good gaming build. The case is also roomy meaning it will offer a wide range of options when choosing the components to build your PC. All of this at a sub $100 price.
The Armor A90 might not be what we expect when we hear the Armor name, but is definitely a worth member of the lineage.
For anyone that knows me the Gigabyte MA770T-UD3P was my favorite build motherboard. While it only had a single PCIe slot it was one of the best made boards I had seen in a long time and was set at the excellent sub $100 price point. So when Gigabyte offered for me to look at their new 800 series boards I got really excited when I found out that they where sending me not just the 890FXA-UD5 but also the replacement for the 770, the 870A-UD3.
The board I got was straight from the factory, literally, they had not even started boxing them yet, so I had to get a box shot from Gigabyte. Okay for some odd reason all my pictures of the 870 are fuzzied up. I will just use the reference shot.
This board comes with all the features we have come to expect from a Gigabyte motherboard. Excellent power systems, a well made motherboard, all solid capacitors and good onboard sound. This time around they up the ante with USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0 support as well.
They also added a new feature that I must say I really like, On/Off Charge. Basically what has been done is that the USB ports now draw their power more directly from the main motherboard power. This allows the USB ports to have almost 3 times the power supplied to them that traditional USB ports gain.
The primary reason this was done it that IPhone and IPads will use as much power as they can get to recharge faster, by upping this power these devices charge in half the time. Additionally the more direct power tie allows the ports to pull power when the computer is in sleep mode or even turned off.
While the “I” stuff might have been the primary reason there is a nice side benefit, it works for other devices as well. Lisa’s LG Touch can recharge off this board no matter the power state with no issues. The extra power has the side benefit that some devices that before needed two USB hookups to get the juice they wanted can now do this with one. I have confirmed this with my external HD docking station. Where before it would not work on a single USB connection do to lack of power it works fine now with just one plug in.
This is an incredibly useful feature as it has allowed me to do away with my “charging” station since my PC can now function the same way no matter it’s power state. All however is not perfect. My Motorola Q does not like the state changes with the power and in essence locks up. However Gigabyte has assured me that they are looking at reports of problem devices to help them track down what they need to do to fix these kinds of issues.
Along with the 870, Gigabyte also sent along the 890FXA-UD5. While this is not the TOP of the line it is awful close. The 890 board packs all the same features as the 870 board and then some, adding Dual BIOS and Smart Dual LAN.
The smart dual LAN has two parts to it’s “smart” feature. The first and most obvious is the ability to use both LAN connections at the same and and have them split the workload to increase bandwidth for large data transfers. The second function is the one that intrigues me the most. In the event that one of the LAN chips fail the system detects the failure and redirects the second chip to cover the port for the failed chip. This means if your LAN chip dies in mid work the system compensates without you having to switch cables.
As a higher end motherboard you expect some nice features and it as them. Buttons and options for easier overclocking as well as a BIOS reset button that is easy to find. I like the reset button for the BIOS better on the Gigabyte board than similar offerings from the Crosshair. The Crosshair put the button on the outside back making it way to easy to be accidently hit. The Gigabyte button is on the inside and under a cover to make accidental hits very unlikely.
Gigabyte pulled one more rabbit out of their USB hat for this board as well. The rear panel sports to ESATA ports, these double as SATA 2 ports as well. This means you have the potential for up to 10 USB ports in the back. 8 standard, 2 USB 3 and 2 that are ESATA/USB.
Both of these boards delivered outstanding performance, doing their jobs with no glitches at all. The 870A is not just a worth successor to the 770 but actually kicks it in the butt, the extra features take what is a budget chipset and step things up a notch.
With the 870 currently selling at just a little more than the old budget king this is a perfect storm of great price and feature set.
At the higher end the timing of this review was nearly perfect. I was able to compare this board directly to the Asus Crosshair IV. The UD5 might not be top of the line but at $180 it is not a budget board by any measure. In terms of performance the Gigabyte 870 and 890 both stayed right with the Crosshair with all settings at stock, the board where equal across the board in performance.
Once we started overclocking the the 870 fell behind and the extra overclocking features of the two 890FX brutes came into play. I was able to achieve identical results when it came to overclocking with either board, the performance comparison was a dead heat, well sort of.
If you recall I published a piece a bit back discussing a BIOS flaw I found in the Crosshair IV. To date and numerous BIOS tests later it is still there. The two Gigabyte boards however worked perfect out of the gate with Cool n Quiet enabled.
The only area in fact I could really give a win to for Asus was the aesthetics department. As I have said repeatedly the Crosshair IV is a work of art but at the end of the day the look of the motherboard is not as important as the performance.
With a more stable BIOS, better usability features such as the Smart LAN, On/Off Charge and the ability to gain extra USB ports from the ESATA the UD5 in my opinion just pulled away from the Crosshair. Add to this a lower cost by almost $40 and the choice for me was clear.
With these two boards Gigabyte has again delivered outstanding products for building a computer around. If you are a DIYer on a limited budget that will be using discrete video and does not want the onboard then the 870A-UD3 is the best choice out there right now. If you are hardcore and want higher end parts to give more room to tweak then the 890FXA-UD5 gives a great part and some really usable extras.