Build a PC 2013: ITX Gamer Case
When most people build a PC they get a case with have little regard for the size of the case. I mean lets face it most cases will easily fit a full size motherboard, multiple drives, a large video card and liquid cooling with still having room to spare. However with an ITX build things are not that simple, planning needs to go into how you want to build the system and all that planning starts with the case.
For purposes of our build series we had two cases provided to us, a Lian Li Q25 and a Fractal Node 304. Both cases are very compact in size and are priced around a $100 price point. The two cases, as you can see in the picture, are of similar size. But lets take a moment and look at each.
First up we will look at the Lian Li Q25B. This is our first look at a Lian Li case and to be honest I was excited about this. Lian Li is well known among the enthusiast communities for their simple elegance and all aluminum construction. The Q25 is a traditional styling computer case in that is had a tower style to it, however in a diminutive size. This case only comes in at 11” tall. To put this into perspective, the Level 10 GT, which is a full tower case hits 23”, over double the height. A typical mid tower, like Corsair C70 is almost 20”, so this case is about half the size of a typical case.
Externally the Q25 looks like a simple box, the case has no opening at the front for fans or even an optical drive. The air intake for the front of the case is done through cutouts on the left and right side panel. At the top rear is a 120mm exhaust fan and there are no front panel connectors. In fact the only things on the front of the case is the Lian Li label and a power button that doubles as a power light. The result, along with the smooth brushed aluminum surface is a very clean and elegant look.
The case opens in a very unique manner with the side panels not sliding or swinging off but rather popping off. This means no thumb screws or awkward efforts to put the panels back on. When you look inside the case, it is mostly dominated by the large HD drive bay bracket. This has has a hot swap system in place and allows for 5 hard drives to be mounted in this bay. In front of the HD bay is a single 140mm fan that is used for intake. The fan has a filter mounted to it and the filter requires the fan be removed for cleaning. The mounting system however makes this easy to do with no tools required.
At the bottom of the case there is a bracket that can be used to mount additional HDs is desired and under it is a 120mm opening for air intake. Unlike the main HD bay this lower bracket can be removed. At the back of the case is the motherboard try, this is removable with just taking out 4 screws making motherboard mounting easy.
In the picture to the left you can see the motherboard and video card (this test we used a GTX 660 Ti) in place. The PSU has not yet been installed, it will sit in the case with it’s fan on the side pointed at the motherboard and will draw case air in and through then exhaust out of the case. This position makes picking a PSU very important if this is the case you choose for your build.
Using stock cooling this case was the coolest of the cases we looked at for the CPU but was also the loudest. The case stock fans use a 3 pin header or a molex adapter. The noise is mostly from the 120mm fan at the top of the case. Because of the position of the PSU this case limits your options for cooling the CPU unless you plan to do a lot of modding to the case.
The second case up on the list is the Fractal Node 304. Where the Lian Li took it’s space vertically, the Node took it horizontally. Coming in at only around 8” tall but is wider, coming in at about 10” wide while the Q25 was only 8”.
Like the Q25 the front of the Node is a blank slate of brushed aluminum. There is no optical drive or fan openings and the only markings at the front is a small Fractal logo with a blue power light. Unlike the Q25 the Node does have front port access with 2x USB3 ports, headphone and mic ports as well as a power button on the right side of case.
The air intake for the case is at the top and bottom of the front panel, with a mesh area at the top and an opening at the bottom that is also used for you to pull off the front panel. This gives you access to the cases front intake filter and its two 92mm fans. The side panels on the Node however are not a blank slate. The right side panel has a small grilled area on it and the left a much larger one. The left grill is there to provide a way for a large video card to intake cool air. The one on the right we will talk about in a moment. Speaking of the side panels, there is really only one panel that is taken off by removing 4 thumb screws and then the entire case outer body, the top/left/right panels, slide off.
The case opens to show a large 140mm fan at the rear for exhaust and the motherboard sits flat in the case at the rear. Those large white brackets at the front are for HD mounting and can hold a total of 6 drives if you wanted to have that many. They are removable and the one on the left of the case has to be removed to use a full size video card. The area under the drive bays is where the PSU sits. There is a power cord from the back of the case to this location for the external power plug. The PSU will draw air from a filtered opening at the bottom of the case and exhaust air out the right side of the case using that small opening I spoke of.
This design works really well and allows easy system building and gives some PSU flexibility compared to the Lian Li. At the top rear of the case on the left side is a three position fan controller so you can set the three fans in the case to low, medium and high.
The picture on the right shows the motherboard in the case along with a PSU, as you can see there is actually a decent amount of room to work with. The design means that you have a lot of options when it comes to a CPU cooler. Most tower coolers will fit in the case, on the motherboard is a different story but more on that in a few weeks. You are also able to fit a self contained liquid cooler in this case if you desire.
When it came to using this case with stock cooling it was the worst at CPU temp of the cases we looked at but the quietest when it came to noise. Even at high the Fractal fans were fairly quiet. The difference in cooling between high, medium and low was not enough to really be concerned with and the noise between low and medium was to close to call, this means medium was the optimal setting.
Now while only these two cases were sent to us I did not think we could discuss building an ITX gaming rig without discussing the case the entire ITX community is abuzz about, the Bitfenix Prodigy. So I went out and purchased a Prodigy for us to look at. As you can see the Prodigy case I got was the black model, this comes with a mesh front for better air flow. The Prodigy is a large case compared to the Node of the Q25, measuring 16” tall this makes it almost 50% taller than the Q25. While still smaller than a mid tower case the difference is less dramatic than the Q25 or Node.
The front of the case is a large grill area with a place for an optical drive if you want to add one. The USB, audio jacks and lights are all on the right side panel. The left side panel has a grilled area for a video card to intake cool air. The top opens to allow the use of a 240mm radiator if desired for cooling. The front comes stock with a 120mm fan but can add a second 120mm, a 200mm or a 230mm fan for intake. The rear supports a 120mm or a 140mm fan.
Inside the case had dual HD bays, both of which can be removed, but even removed the case has mounting for 5 SSDs or 2.5” HDs. The optical drive bay at the top of the case is removable and must be taken out to use a radiator at the top for cooling.
At the end of the day all three cases offer a great build for an ITX gaming system. The Prodigy is a very versatile case but I was surprised as I read reviews how no one pointed out the flaws of this case. The size first just makes this a brute compared to other ITX cases and makes it a poor choice for a living room PC. The handles are awesome if you are going to LAN Parties, in fact for that purpose I would say this case is a clear winner. However using the handles as feet for the case, was to me a questionable design decision. The shape of the feet means the case has stability issues left to right, it is easy to rock the case. Also the material and design of the feet means the case slides easily on most surfaces we tested the case on.
The Lian Li case at first glance is the least versatile of the cases we looked at and this assessment is correct. The case offers very limited cooling options but in our testing we found that even with stock cooling we could get an i5 overclocked to 3.9GHz and not have temps get so high as to be an issue. The all aluminum body is drop dead sexy and very light weight. I wish they had however made the HD bracket removable, this would have given extra cooling options and made the case design more versatile.
The Node 304 is a middle ground case when comparing versatility in building. While not able to add the cooling options that Prodigy brings to the table, you can fit a wide range of coolers including some basic liquid cooling. The design of the Node is actually the easiest of the three to work in. The Prodigy has more room but putting in the motherboard screws can be awkward unless you have a short screwdriver. The Lian Li is a close second to the Node in this regard.
The pricing on these cases are actually fairly close, the Prodigy can typically be gotten for around $80, the Node for around $90 and the Q25 for $109. I have built in all three cases and made use of them for a few days to test noise, heat and features. In the end the decision was tough because all three cases have appealing features. I dismissed the Prodigy first due to the wobble in the footing as well as the fact it slides around the desk. What however was the killer for me was the attitude of the people at Bitfenix when I asked tech support about options in regards to this and if they might make a trim kit for those that wanted to remove the handles.
The Lian Li is a case I keep coming back to, it is just a pure sexy case in it’s simplicity and I love the side panel system they used. The cooling options being limited is actually a minor issue as I have been able to find coolers that allow for some really decent temperatures, even with an overclock. However I had to do some work to fix the noise issue. I had two choices, using a step down on the power of the fan to lower the speed or replace the fan.
The Node in the end was able to hold off the Lian Li’s push for the finish. The Node shares the same brushed aluminum look at the front of the case, making it a very attractive piece that can be placed anywhere in a home. Is is wider than the Lian Li and seems a little bit “fat” compared to the Q25 however the this is a minor appearance effect and gives the Node a kind of sub woofer look. The wide stance means the case is shorter and this works in the fact it allows me a number of placement options the Lian did not, such as in my entertainment center or the DVD shelves next to the TV. This in addition to versatile cooling options and having front panel access was to me enough to name this the case we are choosing for this build.
Now you may have noticed that in the Lian Li and the Fractal case, both do not offer an optical drive. For a modern gaming PC this is a none option since gamers will be using STEAM or one of the other digital services to get their games. If you decide you do need an optical drive with one of these cases, there are a number of good USB options.
Compact, versatile cooling, great looks and a reasonable price, the Node is a winner for any ITX build and specifically for this build.
Thank you to the folks at Lian Li and Fractal Design for providing a case for our build.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of March 16th, 2013.