Awards Show: Best & Worst PC Cases of 2018

By Published November 20, 2018 at 3:57 pm
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It’s time for the annual GN Awards series, starting off with the best – and worst – cases of 2018. Using our database of over 160 test results for cases, we crawled through our reviews for the year to pull cases that had the best out of the box thermals, the best noise levels, best quality at a budget, best design, best all-around, the most overhyped case, and the most disappointing cases. We hit every price category in this round-up and cover cases that are both subjective and objectively good. Links will be provided for anyone shopping this season.

Leading into Black Friday and Cyber Monday, let's walk through the best and worst PC cases of 2018.

Every manufacturer featured in this content will receive one of our Large GN Awards for the Best Of categories – no award for the worst categories, sadly. The GN Award Crystal is only given out for prestige, featuring a detailed 3D laser-engraved GN tear-down logo with fine detail, like VRM components, fans, and electrical circuitry in the design. Although manufacturers have to earn their award, you can buy one for yourself on store.gamersnexus.net in large and medium sizes.

Best Out of the Box Thermals: H500P (CPU) & SL600M (GPU)

Best CPU Thermals: Cooler Master H500P Mesh (Amazon)
Best GPU Thermals: Cooler Master SL600M (Newegg)

The first award, Best Out of the Box Thermals, gets split into categories of CPU and GPU torture thermals. One company manages to lay claim to both, and after 2017’s Disappointment Build, it’s almost surprising who that company is:

cooler master h500p mesh 1

Cooler Master has completely reinvented itself this year, taking seriously our criticism of its original H500P closed-panel case and revamping the lineup with an airflow focus in 2018. The rebuilt cases have completely resolved issues of build quality, ensuring we couldn’t knock another case for falling apart on camera again. Outside of build quality, most critically, Cooler Master also re-launched its H500P in an H500P Mesh variant, which both reinforced the structure of the case and opened up its ventilation. We praised the H500P Mesh when it came out, as it posted similar results to our own mesh mod of the original H500P.

best cases 2018 h500p mesh cpu

The H500P Mesh managed some of the absolute best unmodified CPU thermals on our benchmark charts for 2018. In our CPU torture chart, the H500P Mesh chart-tops for stock, unmodified thermals, with a thermal result of 45.4 degrees Celsius over ambient. The only case that beats this one when unmodified is the RV02, but that case is 9 years old and no longer available. Beyond that, the Lian Li O11 Air gets an honorable mention: It can do better than the H500P Mesh, but only when the dust filter is removed. That, unfortunately, doesn’t count as “out-of-the-box thermals,” and so must be disqualified from this category. The H500P Mesh is well-deserving of this award and, at roughly $150, the price lands it below the more expensive H500M that came out later in the year. Honorable mention to the Lian Li O11 Air in this category, which is priced at around $150 with a set of fans.

cooler master sl600m 1

best cases 2018 sl600m gpu

GPU: Although the H500P Mesh doesn’t hold the crown for best unmodified GPU thermals, another Cooler Master case does: That’s the Cooler Master SL600M stock, landing at 45 degrees over ambient for GPU thermals. The closest competition comes from other Cooler Master cases, primarily the old HAF X with its 200mm side intake. The SilverStone RL06 is the next competitor, with the Lian Li Dynamic and Dark Base Pro 900 Rev. 2 following those. Note that the SL600M suffers in CPU thermals with large video cards, as they can seal the CPU compartment completely off from intake. You’ll want to make sure you don’t use a card that fully fills the GPU compartment and might want to favor a CLC. The SL600M lacks the balance of the H500P Mesh, and so we give the coveted Overall Best OOTB Thermals award to the H500P Mesh, with a runner-up award to the O11 Air with its filter removed.

Best Noise Levels: be quiet! Dark Base Pro 900 Rev 2, SB 601

Best Noise Levels: be quiet! Dark Base Pro 900 Rev 2 (Amazon)
Cheaper best noise levels: be quiet! Silent Base 601 (Newegg)

dbp 900 rev2 1

The award for Best Noise Levels is next, narrowing in on a single brand for the top ranking results in our noise charts: be quiet!. We recently ran a piece talking about how airflow-focused cases can surpass silenced cases in thermals at normalized noise levels, but we noted that there’s still an important market for quiet cases. That market is primarily for the ultra-silent – when a lower noise floor is needed than can be achieved in an airflow case – or in instances where the user doesn’t want to play with fan profiles. Noise-damped cases can also assist in mitigating high-frequency noises like coil whine, using thick foam paneling like in the Silent Base 601 to break-up short wavelength sound waves. Thick paneling, like that used in the Dark Base Pro 900 Rev 2, can be used to help diminish the impact of longer wavelength, low-frequency hums.

best cases dbp 900 noise

For Best Noise Levels, our charts indicate that, unmodified and while still running usable thermals, the Dark Base Pro 900 Rev 2 must take the GN Award Crystal. The be quiet! Silent Base 600 gets an honorable mention for its noise levels, but we favor the Dark Base Pro 900 Rev 2 for its superior thermals, build quality, and for maintaining usable thermals under lower noise levels than the Silent Base 601.

The Dark Base Pro 900 got an award from us last year for being the Best Full Tower on the market, and the DBP 900 Rev 2 comes back to reclaim an award for the noise category. The DBP 900 Rev 2 adds a few things, like a PSU shroud in place of a hard drive cage, but otherwise is largely the same case as its predecessor. That’s a good thing, because we found the predecessor to be one of the best full towers we’ve worked with in recent years. We still prefer the original for its lack of PSU shroud, but if you prefer shrouds for cable management, Rev 2 exists for that purpose. The case costs about $250, making it expensive enough to consider alternatives. If you want a cheaper-but-silent case still from be quiet!, the Silent Base 601 costs about $100 and is a smaller, more thermally constrained version of the DBP 900. That said, with some extra fans added to the front, it’d do well enough in specific use cases.

Best Budget Case: NZXT H500

Best Budget Case: NZXT H500 (Amazon)

nzxt h500 review 1

Best Budget Case is a tough one, partly because the price range is difficult to define. If we’re going for cases as close to the $50 mark as possible, we can recommend NZXT’s H500. To be clear, that’s not the H500P, the H500P Mesh, the H500 Blank, the H500M, the A500, or the 500D. It’s the NZXT H500.

NZXT’s H500 got praise from us for its incredibly competitive price of about $68, and despite its closed-off front, it managed to actually perform well thermally. This is from smarter leverage of basic air pressure systems to push air to the right places in the case. NZXT’s H500 ended up at about 54.5 degrees over ambient for the GPU temperature in our 3DMark stress test, placing it as right around where the Core P3, H700, and View 71 land. It’s not the best case, but at $70, it was never trying to be the best. The case also placed completely acceptably for its price in our torture tests, something for which you can check our original review.

case roundup 3dmark stress all

We liked the H500 for its responsiveness to criticism, as it removed the smart device for a much more affordable budget-class case. The H500 also improves the cable management bar from the H700, flattening the style in a more similar fashion to the S340. This is, by the way, the spiritual successor to NZXT’s top-selling S340 case, which dominated sales charts for North America in previous years. The H500 uses tightly-regulated plastic cable management channels with built-in Velcro ties, making neatness easier than in most competing cases. The H500 filters all intakes, but makes those easily removable. This is important, as the case uses a stock negative pressure setup that works surprisingly well – but it does mean those dust filters are necessary. The perforated PSU shroud in the H500 is also well-suited for the case, and still manages to fit plenty of drive support under the shroud.

As an honorable mention, the SilverStone RL06 Pro remains one of the best-cooled options at around $90, but isn’t exactly in the “budget” class at this price-point. Its competitor, the Cooler Master H500 – that’s, again, just H500, no suffix – also performs exceptionally well for a $100 airflow-focused case. Neither of these are cheap enough for this category, though, and so NZXT’s H500 takes the GN Crystal for the Best Budget Case of 2018.

Best Overall Design: 3 Winners

This next category is entirely subjective, and it’s for Best Overall Design. For this one, we’re looking strictly at its visual or mechanical elements, and ignoring all other factors. That means we’re ignoring price, performance, and build quality. We also all weighed-in on it, since it’s subjective.

cooler master sl600m 2

Patrick gave kudos to the Cooler Master SL600M for its uniqueness of design, almost looking like some sort of intergalactic UFO with its smooth aluminum finishes and rounded edges. The case makes smart plays to bypass some of the traditional closed-panel issues by taking air in through the bottom, and completely closes the back and front for a looks-focused case. This one deserves marks for just being sort of different and weird.

lian li o11 air 1

Andrew liked the Lian Li O11 Air for its front ventilation design, which manages to be both functional and good-looking.

As for what I think, I have to give it to the SilverStone CS381. This case is built for use as a micro-ATX server, something we’re excited to use to build our own internal high-density storage solution. The CS381 can fit 10 drives, a couple of 120mm side intake fans for a wind tunnel of air, and a micro-ATX motherboard. Ideally, we’d set this up with an i9 or Threadripper CPU for nonstop video compression and storage, while allowing us to host more drives than an affordable NAS, be more customizable, and more easily enable 10GbE for the internal network. The design is compact, effective, and functional, which is exactly what we look for in cases.

“Best Worst” Trend – Bad Case Refreshes: PM02 & S2

Worst Refresh: SilverStone PM02 (Amazon)
Worst Refresh: Fractal Define S2 (Amazon)

Of course, it wouldn’t be GN without some criticism. We always include a couple of “Best Worst” categories in these, giving props to the products that just really messed it all up. In this year’s Best Worst category, we look at the trend of bad case refreshes.

silverstone pm02 1

The recipient of this award is two-fold: SilverStone’s PM02 was genuinely disappointing, and Fractal’s S2 is about tied with SilverStone for pointless refreshes.

The PM02 was SilverStone’s rehashed version of the PM01, a case that received critical acclaim from GamersNexus for its airflow. We still use the PM01 for one of our render machines today, but that’s because the PM02 wasn’t suitable as a replacement. The PM02 ruins everything good about the PM01 in an effort to chase trends of closing off the front panel, while otherwise offering completely forgettable changes over the first iteration. This case marred the brand of the Primera series, and left SilverStone with a follow-up that likely caused more damage to brand credibility than anything else.

fractal define s2 review 1

For different reasons, Fractal’s Define S2 is disappointing and unnecessary. There’s no compelling argument to buy this case over the already-good R6 by Fractal. There are 16 SKUs of the R6 on Fractal’s website, and yet the S2 somehow needs to exist as a refreshed, same-price counterpart that downgrades the existing series. The S2 is effectively an overpriced conversion kit for the Define R6, and at any point in time, the question of “which is better, the R6 or S2?” can be answered with “whichever is cheaper.” It added nothing to Fractal’s lineup, and leaves us feeling like this was a rushed refresh to force something into the channel.

Most Overhyped Case – Phanteks Evolv X

Overhyped: Phanteks Evolv X (Newegg)

phanteks evolv x 1

The Most Overhyped Case award isn’t exactly a coveted one – at least, not by the recipient – and it stands as a reminder of when the community got collectively over-excited by a case’s marketing. For this year, that award – if you can call it that – goes to Phanteks for its mediocre Evolv X.

In our review, the Evolv X was simply OK. We weren’t offended by it and we didn’t find it overall bad, it just was sort of OK for its price, and is far from being a “perfect case.” Thermal performance is decidedly adequate, landing below average in our 3DMark stress test at 55.6 degrees over ambient GPU temperature, slightly above average in the CPU thermal stress test at 51.2 degress over ambient, and slightly below average in GPU torture thermals. All of these charts combine to create one thing: An average, unexciting case from a thermal standpoint. Looking at dual system thermals, we see that it is again acceptable, but the lack of a PCIe slot alongside the top system configuration means that this build loses half of its potential to combine streaming systems with ATX systems. Instead, users must buy a riser cable separately – because Phanteks was too cheap to include it in the $400 combo price – and then attach a capture card to that. Alternatively, as we did, you could run an external capture card with an IGP-enabled system up top for H264 encoding.

case roundup 3dmark stress all

As a $200 case, dumping the MITX expansion, it’s simply OK. The case has fierce competition this year, facing the Dark Base Pro 900, H500P Mesh, H500M, NZXT H700, and more.

If that’s not enough, here’s a litany of oversights: The case lacks PCIe risers for the ITX system with the $400 combo, for which you essentially get a metal plate for MITX motherboards and a dual-system PSU. You’d need a 600mm riser for a separate capture card or GPU for the top system. The power supply gets credit for being unique, but that’s stopping halfway on this dual-system setup. There’s a poorly thought-out SSD mounting solution that easily snaps cables in its current configuration while offering poor cable management. Instead of these, we’d recommend traditional SSD mounts – but unfortunately, those must be paid for separately as DLC with the Evolv X. The case also includes low static pressure stock fans that struggle to push air past the closed-off front panel; that said, the panel isn’t as bad as most cases, to Phanteks’ credit, it’s just that the fans have trouble fighting it. The ITX frame clamps to the radiator mount, which limits accessibility and ease-of-installation. This should instead be screwed in like a radiator so that it can be more readily popped-in or out.

The Evolv X does plenty of things well, like a triple-wide vertical GPU mount that allows better vertical thermals on air-cooled cards, and RGB LEDs that are actually somewhat tasteful, but it ultimately balances out to an average case. We don’t recommend against it, but also don’t recommend for it. The case is simply fine, and if it fits your unique needs, there’s no reason to feel bad about buying it – it just isn’t something that’s worth increasing budget for. This case was hyped to the moon, and we never quite figured out why it deserved all that hype.

Best All-Around - Lian Li O11 Dynamic

lian li o11 dynamic 1

Best All-Around: Lian Li O11 Dynamic (Amazon)

For Best All-Around case, we have to give it up for the Lian Li O11 Dynamic. The O11 Dynamic impressed us for its build quality, compactness of design without sacrifice, and ability to serve both liquid and air cooling solutions well. When we tested the O11 Dynamic with our standardized air-cooled test bench, we found that just adding three side intake fans allowed for excellent overall thermal performance as a result of its compact design and straight-forward airflow paths. In neutral or negative configurations, pressure will naturally pull air in through the bottom, cooling the GPU well, with side intake well-suited for CPU coolers. We’ve since adapted the O11 Dynamic into an office production system, running an EK Phoenix semi-open loop for my main production system.

The O11 Dynamic is meant to be used as a liquid cooling enclosure, and it’s well-suited for this demand: Working with Der8auer, Lian Li built a case that has large reservoir support in the front of the chassis, with 360mm radiator support in the top and side. Additional fans can be mounted in the bottom, although note that ATX motherboards will make it impossible to fit more than some fans, and that’s still a tight fit. Critically, the case also has modularity of design for the hard drive cages, which can be completely removed and instead replaced with a second power supply, if so desired. This is one of the only cases that can fit two power supplies internally, which could prove useful for heavily overclocked rigs that would be better supported by two PSUs than an ultra-expensive high capacity PSU.

We also like the O11 Dynamic for its assembly: The side panels are socketed rather than screwed-in, and that means you only need to remove the top panel in order to easily remove the side panels. Our biggest criticism with this case is its front panel, which does have a propensity to fall off as the glue dries from hot/cold cycles. We re-attached ours with gorilla glue and it has been fine ever since.

Recap

We look forward to another year of extensive case reviews in 2019, and perhaps a few cases sneaking into 2018 before end of year. Links to all of these are in the article above. Subscribe for more of our awards series as you work on PC builds for this season, and if you want one of the GN crystals for your own build, head to store.gamersnexus.net and pick one up.

Editorial, Host: Steve Burke
Video: Andrew Coleman

Last modified on November 20, 2018 at 3:57 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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