Defining Generic Requirements
- Functional: It must fit all the components comfortably, whether it's an HTPC (like this $475 HTPC we listed) or a multi-GPU rig.
- Cool: The case has to allow for sufficient airflow to cool all active components.
- Cool: PC gaming is just as much about style as it is functionality; the case must fit any user-defined requirements. Examples are below.
Defining YOUR Requirements
With the above in mind as some generic necessities for a case, it's time to consider what you need to get the job done. HTPCs and budget gaming machines won't produce the heat that a more expensive variant might, so those two archetypes can get away with just about any $50 case. It's not quite that simple, though -- we want to maximize the performance for the cost, so simply "getting away" with a case isn't nearly as desirable, of course, as finding a case that can be used for future builds and will last for many years of gaming.
Size: Micro-ATX and mini-ITX cases have grown significantly in popularity - especially with Intel's 3rd Generation push and AMD's pending Trinity line - and as miniaturized gaming becomes a more viable option, we see an increase in effective and tiny enclosures. Determine if there's any reason you'd prefer a small case or a large case (the HAF X is a good example of a large and well-known case); if neither of these is appropriate, lock in your requirements for a mid-tower ATX case. Large cases will allow for better airflow with larger components packed in, but they are, of course, large. Don't plan to lug it up and down stairs too often.
Exterior Design: Everyone has different tastes in cases for different reasons; these idiosyncracies are present everywhere, though, and so manufacturers have already prepared for various tastes. Determine whether you'll want a discrete, sleek exterior design or if you'd prefer something more flashy and edgy. Bling can look great when done right, but sleepers have just as much potential to awe their onlookers.
Interior Design: Cable management, for those who haven't worked with nicer cases yet, can easily become incredibly addicting and turn just about anyone into nut for cleanliness. The reason for its increased fun-factor is its equally-increased accessibility. Rubber grommets, compartmentalized power supplies, and removable drive bays have made cable management fluid and sensible to maintain. Other interior design factors, like distance between the motherboard and right panel (arguably a subset of cable management), intake and exhaust placement, distance between the CPU heatsink and the left wall, and more, all play a major role in the decision-making process. As a final note on this front: Ensure that the selected case has enough expansion slots for add-on cards and multi-GPU configurations, enough drive bays, and compatibility with the motherboard's form factor.
What Makes a "Functional" Case?
Advancements in the technology behind gaming hardware are normally accompanied by improved heat dissipation designs and overall decreased thermals, which means good things for gamers. These graphics technology overhauls are, thankfully, not necessarily parallel to thermal levels (otherwise we'd be running liquid cooling for nearly everything), so that means tried-and-true air cooling is still a perfectly viable option for most gaming rigs.
We've discussed the basics of fan placement, how to achieve quieter air cooling, and the differences of fan bearings in the past, so this section will be very simplified in comparison: We always recommend -- for sake of comfort and ease of mind -- a minimum of three fans for a "standard" gaming machine (see our $550-$600 range builds in our PC builds section for samples). This is, of course, very simplistic -- there are numerous fan sizes, speeds, and so forth, but assuming a standard fan size of 140mm (or 120mm, even) and other generic features on the case, it'll be plenty for most mid-range machines.
If liquid cooling is a consideration, be sure the case will accommodate your preferred liquid cooling units.
More serious system builders will likely already have a spec in mind for cooling, but if not, feel free to ask below for specific help and we'll get your questions answered.
There's more to functionality than cooling, and as mentioned above, case manufacturers have grown evermore competitive in recent years and have introduced numerous new features and small changes with each iteration of case. Key features to look out for when case-shopping are:
- Cable Management Features.
- Rubber grommets! Cable management accessibility is huge and will make your life easy.
- Back-plate spacing: Make sure you try to judge the depth between the back of the motherboard and the right side panel. Anywhere in the range of 25mm (~1in) should be enough room for the fatter cables. This space is normally listed on the specs page for the case.
- Rear-facing drive bays: These allow you to route cables through the back of the case, ensuring they don't obstruct precious airflow and keeping them out-of-sight.
- Compartmentalized PSU channels: This design technique has been around for ages in enterprise and server markets, but it's finally becoming more mainstream with gaming cases. These separated channels will isolate power supplies from the rest of the system, helping keep air channels focused and optimized (see the image above).
- Notches: Anywhere to tie-off zip-ties is a good thing to have.
- Cooling Features.
- Foam Insulation: Cases with a bit of light padding around the edges can greatly increase the case's ability to retain cool air; sufficient exhaust will ensure warm air is evacuated quickly.
- Defined Air Channels: Study the placement of the case's fans and assess whether these will logically and effectively cool core components without too much efficiency loss.
- Liquid Cooling Options: If liquid cooling is a consideration, check to ensure the case can mount any reservoirs, 240mm radiators, or other liquid cooling accessories that you plan to run.
- Add-on Fans: More fans is always nice. More fans that are bigger are even nicer... and quieter. Having a single, quieter, and more reliable 220mm fan instead of several 120mm fans is always preferable.
- Build Quality: This one's a category of its own; check the case's external materials to get a sense of its overall quality. Aluminum or other metals are preferable for overall solidity and cooling, but many cases are made with crumbly plastic shells that can crack if pushed in the wrong way. Be careful about what you buy - check the specs thoroughly.
- Fan Speed Controllers: These little knobbies are finally getting integrated in mid-range (~$90) cases, as shown by Rosewill's R5. Case fan speed controllers can help keep things quiet when it's time to get work done, but can easily be mashed into gear for serious gaming.
- Dust Management: Any form of removable filter (preferably those that can be cleansed under running water and then left to thoroughly dry) is a huge advantage in preventative maintenance.
- Clear Side Panels: Plexiglass side panels (and those made of other materials) can be highly-desirable for systems that have internals worth flaunting; not every case has these - granted, a grated aluminum side panel might cool more effectively - so be sure to check if the case of your dreams offers separately-sold clear panel options.
- Everything Else: At this point, anything in addition to the above is just icing on the cake.
When it comes down to it, even the cases with the most accessories shouldn't outweigh the importance of personal flair. If two cases are largely functionally equivalent, but one case lacks -- for instance -- a fan or maybe a filter and a fan controller, but looks the part for your build, go with it. You can always add more fans later. Those who feel adventurous and are good with power tools can always mod cheaper cases, but we'll assume that the average user won't be drilling 120mm holes into a case (though it is an option).
Above: Not every case has to be massive.
Your system has character; whether it's a discrete rig that you're trying to keep out-of-sight or it's a souped-up gaming machine, it has a certain style that should be emitted by the case.
How Much is "Enough?"
Here's the hard part: There is a limit to how much a "cool" case should counterbalance functionality. It's tough to define how much should be spent on a case, but I can tell you what we normally do for our builds at GN as a guideline; nothing is definitive - you can spend as much or as little on a case as you'd like, just use these as guiding lights:
Ultra Budget (~$450): $30-$50 on the case, depending on other deals. You're not getting much with a "Cheap Bastard's build," as we call them, but it'll do the job. Just make sure it has at least one or two fans (or one fan and slots for more). Be prepared to buy another fan for $5.
Budget (~$550-$600): $50-$80 on the case. $80 is definitely in the high-range, but if those few bucks are the difference between (A) your happiness or (B) your system's functionality, it's worth it. Every time. You'll probably want at least 3-4 fans at the upper-end of this range, but some cases opt for finer details (cable management features, controllers, design, etc.) that may sacrifice a fan or two in favor of these. Either way's probably fine, just ask us below if you have any specific questions.
Mid-range ($650-$800): $80-$150 on the case. Again, $150 is in the uppermost-range of that boundary, but as above, if it's the difference between functionality and/or your contentedness with the system, do it. There are always bad cases and bad manufacturers out there, but for the most part, if you read the reviews and stick to this range, it's pretty hard to get a bad case. This is the point where they start getting fairly ubiquitous, so you'll be narrowing down your options based on more minute details than in the previous two ranges.
Everything Else: Go wild, just make sure it'll get the job done. The HAF X is a great example of a case that (at one point, anyway) was $200 and was well worth it at the time; I bought it for my own ~$1500 build in the latter half of 2010 and I never looked back. That's not to say you should spend a lot, though; functionally speaking, the $100-$150 cases are very reliable and solid, so those will work just fine.
Words of Wisdom from GN's Staff
I've learned that images aren't always realistic. At least, that's what the internets has taught me. GN's staff almost always looks up video reviews, unboxings, or photos not taken by the manufacturer to determine the appearance of a case. Many of the alternatively-colored cases (like the now-popular red NZXT Phantom or the growing desire for white cases) don't look at all like they do in the manufacturer images -- partly due to either doctoring, flash, or unrealistic lighting conditions -- and may be disappointing in person. Always check elsewhere for images or videos of the case.
Similarly, watch out for cheap, flimsy plastic on some cases. Corsair's been doing great work with using metal exteriors, Cooler Master uses a heavier-duty, thick plastic and metal interior that works well, and NZXT does a bit of both. There are a lot of case companies out there and, for the most part, they're all quite reasonable in the mid-upper range of cases; anything in the sub-$90 range (and even stuff above it, if you're not careful) may be composed of plastic that's destined to break. Just look closely at the images to check for material and workmanship, find video reviews if possible, and if there's a store near you that stocks it, go check it out on the shelf to see if you like it.
This isn't as hardware-related, and we don't mean to get too philosophical on anyone, but we repeat this quite frequently on our hardware support forums and should do so here: Don't pass on what you have your heart set on. Sure, if you're dying for a $200 case and your budget is ~$550, it's not realistic; if the difference between the case you love (within reason) and the case you can afford is $20, just wait on it. Don't eat for a day or something. It's always worth it if it guarantees contentedness -- this is something you'll be looking at (or not, if you like discrete setups) for years, so make sure you like it.
Hopefully that gives everyone a decent overview of how we pick cases for our builds. As always, please hit the comments section below with your hardest questions, we'll get 'em answered. For more in-depth discussion, join our forums.
-Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.