Okay so we have our base components all setup now lets turn to some fine tuning. We will begin with keeping our system cool.
The stock Node 304 (the case for our build) comes with some pretty solid cooling out of the box. It has dual 92mm fans for intake and a 140mm fan for exhaust. Add to this the fact that with a stock Intel cooler we can get our overclock of 3.9 GHz on our 3450, we should be all set right? Well doing good is okay for most but I hate mediocrity so I want to push this a little.
Lets being by addressing our CPU cooler, I HATE stock coolers and am not a huge fan of after market tower coolers. So that leaves me with my cooler of choice, the all in one liquid cooling solutions.
Now because of the size of our case and the fan layouts our choices are limited to a standard 120mm cooler, a 140mm cooler or a double width 120mm cooler. For our build I wanted some decent cooling power but I wanted to keep things small as well so I chose a standard 120mm cooler.
For this build our friends over at Thermaltake sent me a Water 2.0 Performer, a cooler we reviewed in August of last year. This is a very good water cooling solution for anyone not wanting to deal with a full customer water cooling rig. It comes stock with dual 120mm fans for a push/pull configuration meaning at it’s price point it is the best at keep a CPU with an all in one unit. However I was concerned about how thick we move out from the back of the case. As you can see the radiator is direct connected to the case, a fan in between would have pushed the radiator back quite a bit over the board and potentially hindering the air flow on the rest of the motherboard.
With this in mind I elected to go with a single cooling fan in a push configuration, the most efficient setup for a single fan. The stock fans from Thermaltake can get the fan done an using the stock fan generated some good cooling numbers but I wanted something a bit more. To kick things up a notched I turn to the fine folks at Noctua, a company known for making some of the best fans in the world for your PC.
The Noctua fan we chose was the NF-F12 PWM. This fan has a very high static pressure which is a must for work with a radiator. The fan also has a very low operating noise and has PWM control. PWM means the fan is able to receive instructions from the motherboard and control it’s speed based on the temperature of the CPU across a very broad range of speeds.
The result was exactly what I hoped, under gaming loads the overclocked CPU is usually around 55C topping at about 60C, under super stress testing we lock down at 70C and do not move. At low usage and even gaming the system is practically silent and under heavy load the noise is so low as not to matter. Using a second fan or a double width radiator solution we could have gotten the numbers even lower but in the end lower CPU temps would not make any difference in our system and the other solutions would have been louder under load.
Now as I said from the start the Node comes with three good cooling fans and it has in the back a small switch to let you set the fans at low, medium or high speed. I have found the medium setting gave the best balance of noise to cooling. However I HATE switch fan controllers. The computer has a solid, built in, method of telling a fan to speed up or slow down and we should make use of that. So lets look at the front fans.
As we showed in our review of the Node 304, the case comes stock with dual 92mm fans. These fans are great, very quiet and move a good amount of air. However they are speed locked and must use the switch controller on the back of the case to change their speed. YUCK. So again I have turned to Noctua for a solution and found the solution with the NF-B9 PWM. There are actually two Noctua fans that could work, the second is the NF-A9x14 PWM which is a thinner 90mm fan. The low profile design of the A9 really intrigued me but in the end the B9 has the better air flow and so was the fan of choice.
The dual Noctua will allow for complete control of the cases airflow to be handled based on the system needs, no fan in the case will just be always blasting at a set speed. However to do this we need a way to make two of the B9 fans work off a single motherboard fan header. The fan for the CPU cooler has the CPU header and the Z77N only has one additional header. The solution is actually very simple, a PWM splitter. The header can handle two fans easily so we just need to split the power. You can buy these for about $5 easily enough but the good news is the Noctua fans come with the splitter we need.
So with all our little tweaking done what did we gain? The CPU with a stock cooler at stock speeds under gaming conditions and stock case fans set to medium. we saw the CPU hover around 70C to 75C and at idle around 40C. With the new cooling system in place the CPU is overclocked to 3.9GHz. At idle the CPU hovers around 30C under gaming conditions around 55C. Now in fairness the majority of that cooling comes from the water cooling unit but the 92mm change works in other areas. For example at idle with the stock setup the computer room was measuring around 33db and under load around 44db. The new cooler setup drops that idle noise level to 31db and under load to 39db.
The fan replacements and cooler upgrade did a lot to make our system quieter and cooler. Now let me be clear, the system is a gaming brute at stock and the stock cooling setup will easily keep your system running through your marathon gaming sessions. However if you want to up things a notch making a few changes to the cooling setup can give you lower temps and quieter operation.
Thank you to the folks at Thermaltake for providing us the Water 2.0 Performer used in our build and to the folks at Noctua for sending us a number of different fans to look at for this build.
Show segment from show airing the weekend of April 27th, 2013
Alright we have covered a lot of material until now and we begin to get into some areas that are more open in choices. What I mean by that is while in the other areas it was easier for us to give a clear product answer, here the choices vary depending on your own personal needs.
The optical drive is a device, that in the PC world, is beginning to disappear. Over the years it has evolved from the CD to the DVD and today the Blu-Ray but even that is not keeping it’s place in the PC world thanks to digital distribution. When we can get our music, movies, software and well pretty much anything we want via a download off the internet the need to store and have a bunch of CD/DVDs laying around has passed. Installation of your OS even no longer need an optical drive with Microsoft offer a tool to install the OS via USB Flash Drives. The tool you will download says it for Windows 7 but I have used it with Windows 8 as well, all you need is an ISO of your install DVD. Now just copy your latest drivers from the various components websites and put them on a flash drive and you are all set.
Now there are a few people that still use optical drives, okay well they at least have them in their systems. Even Doug has mentioned that he uses his optical drive so seldom that he has trouble recalling the last time. However, as he points at, at around $20 for an optical drive he does not see the harm in buying it. This argument does not work with me because I can see that $20 used to move up to a better motherboard, better cooler, more RAM or any number of uses which will have more of a daily impact on your computer use.
I would be remiss however in having this discussion without pointing out one obvious exception to my position, if you plan to use your ITX gaming system as an HTPC as well. If this is your plan then the addition of a DVD or even a Blu-Ray player to the system makes sense to some degree as you can then play these to your TV without the need for a separate box. Again I would point out that with so many good streaming services the need for this type of drive had diminished. However for the times when the internet is down and you want a movie this is a solid option.
Despite the validity of this argument in the system we are building, our case choice has limited us. The Node 304 does not have an optical bay in it so if we decided to go with an optical drive we would need to use an external model. The external model will cost a bit more than an internal drive but can be added after the fact to any PC without opening the case. Often it is as simple as plugging in the USB and your off. For our build we are suggesting passing on the optical drive and grabbing an external Blu-Ray if you decide later you need an optical drive.
As we move to the hard drive or mass storage for your PC we again hit a choice that will be based on personal preferences. All of you that are regular listeners know my position on the “PC Hoarder Mentality”, if not read the article I linked. I took a lot of negative votes on that article but popularity does not determine my position on this facts do. Without doing the entire article again, I really do recommend reading it if you have not, let me just say that once we take a serious look we can find that we can easily live with smaller hard drives than the community suggests. However some people still want that massive storage space and in the end this is a personal choice.
Larger hard drives are a solid value if you want or need the storage space, however for our ITX build I am going to suggest looking at the smaller 2.5” models over the 3.5”. Now you will pay a premium for making this choice, the smaller form factor tends to run quieter and cooler so they make a great choice for our ITX build, plus they take up little space, leaving more room in the case for air flow and other components. By a premium, what I found was that to achieve the same 7200 RPM speed for the drive you will go from a 1 TB drive to a 750 GB drive when using our friends at Western Digital. To get the full 1 TB drive in the smaller form factor you would move up in price about $30 and go to the slower 5400 RPM models.
The SSD side of this is worse when we consider pricing vs size. as a 240 GIG SSD will set you back around $120 more than the 3.5” drive if we go with one of the major brands. We could go smaller, with a 120 GIG SSD and shave that cost down but I feel the 240 is a near perfect size for a gamer build. You get your OS install and still have room for quite a few games as well as are able to some game streaming and recording if you like. The 120 GIG drive can work but you really need to be a hard core single or possible dual gamer to do this. What I mean is if you have only one or two games you play the 120 can work well.
While SSDs lack the space of a traditional “spindle” style drive, they make up for it with blazing speeds. We have said on this show many times that an SSD is one of the most impressive upgrades you can do to a modern computer when it comes to a notice change in the computing experience. Once you experience an SSD you will find it hard to rely on a traditional HD any more.
The good news is that because we are looking at the smaller drive sizes, the SSDs are 2.5” as well as the laptop style spindle drives, we can fit both in a system if we want to. This means we could get the SSD for our games and OS and then a spindle drive if we wanted more storage space. Of course we have two other options, the first is called a Hybrid Drive. These are essentially a traditional HD with a massive cache that give some speed increases over traditional drives. While these drives are fast for sure, they do not match the performance, or even come close to that of a pure SSD solution. The second option is to use a small 60 gig or under, SSD as a caching drive. For our build this can be done on the Z77N board using Intel’s software or we can buy a caching SSD from OCZ or Corsair. Our own testing has shown that there is a performance boost but again, in my opinion it is not worth the cost. In the end for only a little more money you can move to a full 120 Gig SSD and use it for the OS and most used apps and get a much nicer performance boost.
So with all of this information what are we left with? Well first we will not be using an optical drive in our build. Our case choice precludes it but I just do not see the need for the drive in a gaming machine. For our mass storage I am suggesting we use a 240 GIG SSD. This will give the system a nice snap in everything it does and gives us enough room to spread our wings a bit in gaming. As for what SSD to buy that is not so easy to suggest. The folks at Kingston, OCZ, Corsair and Samsung all make some great SSD drives and while benchmark numbers might show transfer rate difference, the truth is you will never notice the difference while you are using the PC. Right now I would look at these three brands and choose the least expensive at the time of preaches. Kingston has amazing value with their V300 and HyperX 3K but OCZ has always had aggressive pricing and the Vector is the fastest drive we have had in house, then Samsung has built up a reputation for incredible reliability, with Corsair sitting in the middle of this pack with solid options. Any of these will give you a great drive, so look for deals and find the best one.
Thank you to the folks at Kingston, OCZ and Corsair for providing SSDs for us to look at.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of April 13th, 2013
With our case, PSU and motherboard firmly behind us we turn our attention now to the CPU and RAM for our build. These are actually some of the easiest choices of our build ad in the case of the CPU, the choice is made for us when we choose the motherboard, well at least for the brand.
With the choice of a Z77 based motherboard we are looking at using an Intel for the CPU. We could go down the food chain and pick an i3 or jump to the top and grab an i7 but extremes are something we have sought to avoid and I feel so should you. Extremes in computer hardware carry little in the way of true benefit. The lowest extreme means that you have fewer cores for any multi-threaded work you might be doing and the highest extreme is great performance but no true benefit for 99% of consumers when taking the cost vs. experience into account.
From the i5 processors we get a solid quad core CPU and at a reasonable price point. The question now is which one?
If you look back a bit there is an article I did that explored the i5 processor lineup when we are looking at real world gaming experience and performance. In this article I noted that from top to bottom of the i5 lineup there is only about an average performance boost of 4.7%. Now let me be clear in the world of PC gaming a difference of 5% means ZIP when it comes to your gaming experience.
With this information in hand it should be clear that at stock speeds there is no real advantage at buying at the top of the i5 rack over the bottom. However as some will note, we picked a Z77 motherboard for our build and this gives overclocking options. With this motherboard surely the i5 3570K is the better choice, right?
Well when you consider that we had a professional overclocking , Shannon Robb, explain to use that anything over about 4 GHz is not going to be worth the effort in a single GPU gaming setup. There is really no reason to seek a high end overclocking chip for this build, since gaming is our goal and an ITX build will only be a single card. (Okay technically you can extreme this and get a dual chip card but again that is the extreme)
This information BTW is further muddled with the fact that in our own testing, pushing a CPU to 4.1 GHz only gave us a bump of 6.1% above the low end stock i5. Again 6% is not anything amazing when it comes to the gaming experience. Pushing much past 4.1 we see the increase in performance vs. clock speed begin to fall off, as Shannon said we would.
What this tells me is the upper extreme is not going to offer enough to justify an extra
This chip is near the bottom of the i5 lineup in price. At stock speeds it delivers a great gaming experience and despite being a locked chip, our Z77 board can eek a little more kick out of her, we were able to to push up to 3.9 GHz. Now true this is not going to give us a huge boost but it puts us past the high end of the i5 lineup at stock and puts us very close to a moderate overclock of that higher end i5.
With the CPU choice made we turn our attention toward the RAM. ITX motherboards have a premium on space so gone are the 4 stick options we have with a typical socket 1155 motherboard. With our limit at 2 sticks the amount of memory we choose is also limited. While the system can go up to 16 gig using a 2×8 configuration, none of our testing showed a performance boost over 8 gigs in any games or in day to day use.
Since we are pretty sure we want 8 gig for the RAM, what about the speed. I mean logic would dictate that faster RAM would make a faster system. In our testing the folks at Kingston sent us a set of their HyperX BEAST memory. The particular model they sent is us a 16 gig (2×8) kit with speeds as high as 2133. We also have some Kingston HyperX ram with speeds of 2400.
For our testing I used the RAM at all the speed options I was given by the XMS settings on the motherboard, as well default of no setting which is 1333 on our board of choice. The BEAST had 1600 and 2133 for it’s two XMS settings but we also tested the 2400 speed vs 1600 using an 8 gig kit. The result was not what we expected. It seems that while there is a boost in benchmarking the memory, in the actually gaming the speed difference did not make all that much difference.
Checking with some other people I found that the general consensus is that with the Intel platform anything past 1600 seems to have little real benefit to the user. Our own testing bore this out. With a price premium of roughly $20 for the higher speed RAM at an 8 gig configuration and no real performance boost I think we will suggest that the good 8 gig (2×4) kit of DDR3 1600 is the best choice for our build. As for which specifically, well Kingston has a number of great choices in the HyperX lineup at all roughly the same price point right now on Newegg. I would say find the color that best fits your build style and enjoy. We have never been disappointed with buy ANY Kingston RAM.
So there we have it, we will be using an i5 3450 and Kingston HyperX DDR3 1600 RAM for our build and suggest you do the same.
Thank you to the folks at Intel for the processors they have provided as well as Kingston for our RAM selection.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of April 6th, 2013
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.
The personal computer era has been around for a while, for those that have missed the memo, and during that time the consumers have had very little say in the direction this industry has headed. What I mean by that is that we, as consumers did not get a say as to when advancements were needed or even wanted. We would make our purchase and suddenly 6 months to a year later find out that we “needed” to buy again. The good news for consumers however, is that over the last couple of years that has changed. The technology has been forced to slow down by more clearly defined consumer demands and software jumping off the hardware bandwagon and working with consumers instead of hardware companies to figure out what the next product needs to have.
The good news is many of the tech companies out there have figure out this shift in the way business is done and have begun to adapt. They have changed the business model from telling consumers what they want to instead listing to what consumers want. However a few old die-hards have decided that they know best and we should listen to them, drink what they tell us as it were.
We can see some of this in todays offerings for consumer level computers. We could start with Apple and spend the entire article there, this is basically their business model and always has been. However I think we should instead focus on Microsoft. Windows 8 is an old story so I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about the OS itself. I have covered that pretty well I think and if you missed the three articles I did on it feel free to browse the archives and read them. However I will focus on their efforts to change the way we look at a computer.
Now let me explain this a bit before I make my point. You see Microsoft has always made an effort to help define the image of a what people see as a personal computer. It was after all in their best interest to exercise some level of control in this area. However up until recently that control has been a quiet guiding hand. To use the popular phrase, they led us to water but never forced us to drink. That however has begun to change.
Microsoft has launched a number of sites that are supposed to be designed to help the lay people, such as many of you, make a good choice when it comes to getting a new PC. On the surface this sounds like a great idea, something to help people see the choices they have and help them make solid decisions. We do this all the time on the show and people find it helpful. That would be good it did offer real choices. Every one of these setups I have looked at only offer laptops, tablets or all in one systems. Now this would not be bad except many of these recommendations are being listed as good for gaming. NONE of the recommendations I saw would make a good gaming PC for any but the most casual gamer. Also what about other form factors?
Thing this is just because of the move to Windows 8? You would be wrong, this started before that. Go back and look at the various Windows commercials were Microsoft talks about helping people buy a new PC. Every one of them were laptop and all in one models. You did not even seen an HTPC or tower configuration system in the videos.
One of the things I have always loved about the PC and the PC world is the freedom of choice. You can have a PC that is HUGE or tiny. One that is designed for pure hard core gaming or design for only light web browsing. Companies would offer us a range of choices, often to our dismay because we had so many but still we had choices. Over the years as the focus has shifted from hardware to software we have seen those choices diminish, not in a bad way. We have found that the budget system, at least the cost of it we used to pay, now buys us a more powerful machine. This has caused some overlap in the type of PC we buy but that is a natural progression. A natural change to the way we see PCs might not be something we like but I for one can accept it. However when we see companies that have traditionally let the market direct the path with them offering gentle nudges, switch to heavy handed tactics of forcing a direction, this is a problem to me.
Is our hobby moving to smaller form factors, well of course it is, I mean why do you think our build series is looking at ITX designs? However we can make this move in a way that does not limit our choices. Small Form factor of today is not the same as yesterday. Heck even yesterday was not that bad. Back in 2008 when enthusiasts said you needed a full tower to build a “real” gaming rig, I did a build we called the Itsy Bitsy Might Spider. This was a full powered gaming rig built in a micro ATX case. Now we see the move to even smaller, but the key here is that we can make this move without making a sacrifice. That is not the choice given to us today by some in the industry.
This of course is all my opinion and I would love to hear your opinions on this subject. Email in your comments or post them here under comments for this entry. Any comments of course might be used on the air for further discussion on this topic.
Here at Computer Ed our Summer of Cases continues and to say we are overwhelmed with cases is an understatement. People think, when I explain to them what we do, that reviewing cases is easy, they could not be more wrong. Cases are one of those things that have a large aesthetic component to it and so a great deal of determining a great case is personal choice. To counter this many reviewer will look at a case with a feature check list and judge based on the list but this in my opinion is wrong as it leaves out that entire aesthetic component and fails to look at the case as a whole.
The next case up on the Computer Ed work bench is the Fractal Design Core 3000. Fractal is a smaller company that has really begun to make it’s move into the US market. They essentially have two product lines, their quiet computing live, the Define series and their gaming line up that is currently led by the Arc. The Core 3000 is their value entry in that gaming line up.
Looking at the packaging, a simple brown box with a picture of the case in black line art and then seeing the case itself you can see an obvious pattern, subdued. This case right from the start does not seek to grab your attention or stand out in any way. The front bevel is essentially a grill design with 2 external 5.25” bays at the top and the rest is for a 140mm stock intake fan with the mount to hold an additional 120mm fan. The subdued look continues even to the logo at the top of the bevel with is engraved into the base, no extra color added.
The top of the case has room for dual 140/120mm fans with a single 140mm fan coming with the case stock. The front panel sports the traditional power button, power LED, HD activity LED, reset, headset jacks and 4 USB 2.0 ports. I am torn in my thoughts about the 4 front ports. I mean having 4 front ports is a good thing, lots of easy access however the lack of USB 3.0 ports seems an oversight. This is especially true with the appearance of USB headers on more motherboards, not just Intel either, I have a 970 based board with it sitting in the lab right now.
Moving to the bottom of the case we find an easy access filter for a PSU air intake as well as an area for a bottom fan intake, un-filtered. Note the case feet, they provide a good lift for air intake space and the rubber bottoms mean the case does not move around a lot plus does not transmit any noise through the floor or desk.
The sides of the case as with all of the exterior are understated with the left side panel having a vented area for a 120/140mm fan and the right being a blank slate. The rear of the case allows for 7 expansion slots, all of the covers are in a nice white, providing a bit of contrast to the rest of the black case. We also find the PSU opening, 2 water cooling holes and a 120mm exhaust fan.
Opening the side panel we now look at the inside of the Core 3000. The first thing you will notice is the 6 easy to remove HD trays. They are hard to miss with their white paint job in the back case. The trays are metal, making them very sturdy and use screws to hold the drives into place. Unlike most HD mounting systems these make use of the bottom mounting holes of a 3.5” drive, with rubber grommets to help reduce vibration. Each of the trays also has holes for mounting 2.5” drives as well.
Normally at this point I would be having my normal tirade about mounting the HD bays across the intake fan axis and reducing air flow. However it seems Fractal noticed this as well and put in a feature to correct this for people wanting the intake fan to be more effective. The top tray area is removable and can be rotated 90 degrees to allow it to act as achannel for the 140 mm stock fan. This is a great idea that is very well implemented. If you have a large video card, removing the bay gives you all the room you will need. If you have a normal sized or even smaller card and want better air flow then you rotate the HD bay and remove the mounting trays. The bay then acts as a tunnel for the intake, keeping the air directed right toward the video card. It is a simple design that performs it’s function perfectly and shows attention to detail.
The bottom of the case houses the PSU as we noted with an intake for cool air through the bottom, it also has room for mounting a 120mm intake fan. I really wish they would have extended the PSU filter to include this intake. A bottom intake is a good idea as it brings in cool air and channels it up to take advantage of the natural air flow created by the cases warm internal air. However it is also a potential dust magnet that really should be filtered. The PSU has rubber mounts to reduce noise and right in front of the PSU is an elongated cutout for routing power cables behind the motherboard tray. The back plate has two more elongated cutouts running up the tray area for cable management and there is a nice cutout for CPU cooler back plates.
As with the Define, which we reviewed a few weeks ago, the looks of the Core 3000 are subdued, they do not draw attention to themselves but that is NOT a bad thing. There has been a slow and quite movement within the DIY community away from the bling and noisy looking cases to the more stately, simple look. For those that want a louder appearance though the Core 3000 offers a great blank slate for case modding.
Opening up the case you find a design that takes into account people will actually build a computer in this case. The HD mounting system appeals to those that like the easy drive access of the side mount setup and those that want max air flow provided by the inline system. The solution they came up with keeps both happy, works really well and offers a good option set. The cable management is adequate, especially since there is no stock side window. You can get a clean tidy build with a little bit of effort.
From a cooling perspective the stock setup gets the job done, a three fan setup at this price point is pretty much par for the course and the use of 140mm fans over 120mm fans means we get a quieter experience. You have good fan options being able to use two more 120mm intake fans as well as another 140mm top exhaust and still can add a 120 or 140 to the side panel. The Fractal fans provided with the case however play a large part in the quiet operation of this case, and it is quiet. These fans do not move a ton of air, but they move air quietly. With a full fan load this case is still quieter than many cases with less fans.
We began this review by using the word subdued when describing this case and that is a word that is used often and fits through this entire review. Price at $75 on Newegg this case is in the middle of the road on price point. It’s feature set is solid but nothing that screams out in a crowd and it’s looks can be described the same way. However this is NOT a bad thing. You often see people get caught up in the extremes, be it extreme looks, feature or price. I am not just talking upper extremes but lower as well. The truth however is usually not found in the extremes but in the middle and the same can be said for value.
At $75 the Core 3000 gives you a case with classic, stately, simple looks as well as solid construction and a good feature set that makes building a PC an enjoyable process. It has enough cooling potential for an overclocker and can handle even some of the most high end hardware when it comes to room for mounting. While this may not be a case that screams for attention it is deserving of some and should be in anyone’s short list of looking for a value case.
For more pictures of the Core 3000 case head over to our Facebook page, Facebook.com/computered.
Core 3000 review segment aired live 4 September 2011