|Introduction and In Win H-Frame|
|If you love building computers, you probably appreciate a good case or chassis. While there are plenty of excellent products available for a song, there’s also an upper echelon of models that cost quite a bit and offer all the premiere features you could hope for. While it seems as though there’s a lot of similarity between low-end and midrange cases, once you get to a certain price point, various companies take things in very different directions. The three premium chassis we’re looking at in this roundup certainly bear that out.
In Win, Lian Li, and SilverStone all make some beautiful cases. And when we asked them to send us one of their top of the line products, they all responded in kind: In Win with the unique H-Frame, Lian Li with the tall, all-black PC-X2000FN, and Silverstone with the Fortress FT02. (Regular readers will remember the H-Frame as a CES 2013 darling that overshadowed its less sexy but still interesting younger brother, the D-Frame.)
We dug in with these cases to evaluate their design, construction quality, and features, as well as the experience of installing and managing a build within each. And of course, we put them through some thermal tests to compare their cooling capabilities.
Each chassis had something unique to offer, but all three shared at least two things in common: They’re all tasty eye candy that sport steep sticker prices, and they’ll all make you wish you owned one. Let’s get cracking.
In Win H-Frame
In Win’s H-Frame case is a traffic-stopper. Not only is the silver, blue, and gold color scheme sharp and eye-catching, the thing looks like slices of a spaceship with its parallel, metal plate design. In Win’s concept here was essentially to build a case that is itself a giant passive heatsink.
There’s more than ample space for air to pass between the eleven metal plates (we’re counting the side panels) to begin with, but the all-metal construction is also designed to wick away heat. In Win is so confident of the H-Frame’s ability to cool its components that the chassis doesn’t ship with any fans at all. If you decide that you do want some wind power, however, there are two 120mm fan mounts in the H-Frame, one on the front of the chassis and one in the rear.
Despite all of the metal--and we do mean all, for there is not a trace of anything but metal on this thing--the H-Frame is surprisingly light. However, it also seems rather small for such a high-end product; for example, our (large) CPU cooler didn’t clear the side panels, and made slight contact, which would bend the panels out over time. We also had a rough time getting our PSU mounted. There was nowhere to route the 8-pin PSU connector that our MSI motherboard requires either, other than through the interior of the case and across all the components, which is a minor but somewhat odd oversight. More room behind the motherboard try would be appreciated.
For that matter, as you can see in the photos, there are a lot of cables inside; the H-Frame comes loaded with its own, including for SATA power and data cables, so unless you have a modular PSU, you’re going to be stuck with a mess of cabling that you can’t do much with other than zip tie them together in something resembling order. That said, the reason that the SATA cables are included is because all three HDD trays have SATA mounts, so you can just slip a drive into the tray and pop it back, and it will be connected. (In Win calls them “EZ Swap Modules”, but we just call them convenient.)
Despite the H-Frame having three 3.5-inch HDD trays (including one with a 2.5-inch converter bracket) and a dedicated 2.5-inch tray, there’s only one 5.25-inch drive tray. There are also 7 expansion slot locations, which is adequate.
|In Win H-Frame (continued)|
|At the end of the day, though, the case is mostly very easy to work on; there’s a decent amount of space inside for your hands and fingers, and the large openings between the metal plates make it easy to see what you’re doing.
The exterior design of the H-Frame is so flashy that it’s easy to overlook the ports and buttons built into the case, which include a pair of USB 3.0 ports, headphone and mic jacks, and reset and power buttons on the front, with a lone USB 2.0 port on top. The 5.25-inch drive slot is cleverly hidden on the front of the case; by making the bay slant at an angle to the ground, you actually can’t really see it unless you’re looking at it from below. Another nice feature is that the rubber feet on the bottom of the H-Frame absorb vibrations and keep the unit firmly in place on a desk.
If there was any concern that In Win focused on the bold design, brushed metal finish, and striking color scheme at the expense of build quality, let’s put that to bed right now: The H-Frame is as well built as any case we’ve seen. The whole chassis is rock solid, from the sturdy panels that comprise the case’s skeleton to the drive trays to the posts and screws holding things together, the H-Frame was just put together right.
|Lian-Li is not interested in building a case with any plastic parts--not side panels, not drive trays, nothing--and for such a giant-sized, all-metal case, the Lian-Li PC-X2000FN is surprisingly light. It also exudes a stealthy sexiness, with an all-black look and a beautiful brushed-metal finish. A finish that, unfortunately, picks up and shows off fingerprints and smudges far too easily.
The front of the chassis is one long, smooth, uninterrupted piece that curves gracefully at the top and bottom; there’s nothing else on the front except for the Lian Li logo in silver. Up top, that smooth line continues, punctuated only by the (metal) power and reset buttons and a flap that opens to reveal four USB 3.0 ports, an eSATA port, and mic/headphone jacks.
The two side panels are nearly identical; both are clean, with no clear panes through which to gaze upon the system’s components, and they both have a small line of ventilation cutouts running from top to bottom. One side is home to two ODD bays, and the other offers access to the rear of those drives so you can fiddle with data and power cabling without actually removing the panel.
Like almost every chassis, the rear is the business end where everything connects. There’s the PSU, motherboard I/O panel, two exhaust fans (one 120mm and one 140mm), ten expansion slot locations, a grill for more air exhaust, and a lone knob that serves as the built-in fan controller.
The fan controller is a great tool to have, although in this case it offers very basic functionality: You can simply crank the fans high or turn them down low. All the fans have to run at the same speed, too. By “all” the fans, we mean “all five of the fans that come stock” with the PC-X2000FN; in addition to the two aforementioned fans, there are three more 140mm fans mounted on the front of the case. There’s a small gap between the fan mounts and the front of the case, which is just enough room to suck cool air in through the mesh on the two side panels to cool the system. It’s a subtle design, but it’s very effective and looks much nicer than a mesh front panel.
The case fans all have optional MOLEX connectors, but you can pop them off if you’d rather connect your fans directly to the motherboard. You may want to do so, actually, because if you utilize the MOLEX connectors, you'll have to route them through the main body of the chassis, as they won't reach if you route them behind the motherboard tray.
|Lian-Li PC-X2000FN (continued)|
|The interior of the case, which has bountiful space by dint of the height and depth of the chassis, is built so that each area is compartmentalized for more heat control/ For example, the PSU area is in its own little box, and that’s just the beginning of the multitude of details that Lian-Li built into this case.
To wit, the PSU mount comes off so you can securely fasten the device before sliding the whole unit back in. There’s a vertical “HDD rack” to which you can mount your drives or use to help secure your graphics cards, but you can also remove it if you’d rather not use it. The ODD drive cage, 2.5-inch drive cage, and air filters are all removable. There are ample routing options, and there’s more than enough clearance behind the motherboard tray for copious cableage.
Lian Li also saw fit to include plenty of silica gel and rubber rings for most of the screw mounts to cut down on vibrations, which is a nice touch. (Pro tip: Use them. Without them, we found that this case made a lot of unnecessary noise, and tracking down where each vibrating whine was emanating was not fun.)
We found it a bit of a pain to install optical drives, though, since you have to first remove a couple of screws to get the drive cage cover off, slot the drive in, secure it with thumbscrews, and put the cover back on. Of course, once you get it done, it’s rather cool-looking, and very secure.
It can be a little time-consuming to put together a system in the Lian Li PC-X2000FN, but it’s not at all hard to work inside the chassis. Further, once you have everything mounted and screwed into place, you can rest easy that everything is very secure.
|SilverStone Fortress FT02|
|Aptly named, the SilverStone Fortress FT02 actually does resemble some kind of stronghold when you step back and look at it; the chassis is long, boxy, and entirely silver, and other than the mesh grill on top, one on the rear, and the huge clear pane in the side panel, there are no openings to indicate any penetrable weakness--even the topside ports are hidden by a little door.
The Fortress FT02 is built this way for a reason, actually, and that reason is to keep sound from escaping. The two large side panels are lined with sound-dampening foam that help keep any fan noise to a minimum.
The finish has a sparkle to it that you’re more accustomed to seeing on a car paint job than a computer case, which is impressive because parts of the case are metal while others are plastic, and you really can’t tell them apart without touching them. The look is finished off by subtle curves at the bottom of the front and rear panels as well as at the top of the sides.
The front of the case is host to five 5.25-inch drive bay covers, a SilverStone logo, and nothing else. The rear has a metal mesh grill that is covered by another removable and washable pane of mesh, and it also sports a carrying handle at the top.
There are power and reset buttons (with LEDs) on the top of the case, as well as two USB 3.0 ports and headphone and mic jacks. You’d think the top of the chassis, with its large mesh grill, would lift off to reveal a few fan mounts, but you’d be wrong. Those fans are actually mounted on the bottom of the Fortress FT02--three large 180mm fans, to be exact--and they’re the primary intake fans. There’s an inch or so of clearance between the case’s “foot” and the bottom of the chassis, which is where the fans pull in air.
They blow air across all the components and exhaust at the top of the case, because, well, heat rises. This design works even better because the whole motherboard sits at a 90-degree angle from where you’d normally expect it to be. Thus, the I/O ports, expansion slots, built-in fan controls (switches between high and low for the three large fans), and PSU input are all accessible from the top instead of the rear of the Fortress FT02. There’s also another 120mm exhaust up top to aid in expelling hot air from inside the chassis.
|SilverStone Fortress FT02 (continued)|
|The result of the rotated motherboard design is that clean look we mentioned before, because with the top panel snapped into place, you can’t see any of those ports or cables. One knock against this design, however, is that you have to remove that whole panel to do anything with the I/O ports or fan controls. Further, you have to thread all your cables--power, USB, Internet, display, everything--through the handle opening at the top, which can be a bit of a pain as certain cables won’t be able to reach that far.
|Test System and Thermal Test|
|Test System: Our test system consisted of an MSI Z77 MPOWER Big Bang motherboard with an Intel Core i7-3770K (3.5GHz) processor, 2x4GB Kingston HyperX DDR3-1600 (@1333) RAM, a ZOTAC GeForce GTX 260, WD 150GB Raptor HDD, 850W NZXT HALE90 PSU, and Windows Home Premium x64.
We used an infrared thermometer to record CPU, motherboard, graphics card, and hard drive temperatures (in Celsius) after booting the system and letting it idle for 15 minutes. We checked temperatures again after running Prime 95 for 15 minutes, thus achieving both idle and load readings. The ambient temperature was maintained as consistently as possible. Where applicable, such as with motherboard temperatures, we took readings from multiple spots and averaged the results.
When a case came equipped with an integrated fan controller, we ran tests with the fans running both at full bore and at their minimum speed as allowed by the controller.
We used stock fans to test the cases in conjunction with a large dual-fan CPU cooler.
We have some interesting angles to look at with these three cases. The In Win H-Frame boldly dares to run sans fans (thereby relying solely on passive cooling and whatever the CPU cooler can accomplish), while the Silverstone and Lian-Li cases come packing loads of them. Additionally, the Lian-Li chassis has a traditional cooling system while the Silverstone utilizes a “heat rises” approach where the motherboard is rotated 90 degrees so that the ports face up to the sky.
Perhaps this was always going to be obvious, but the H-Frame fared the poorest at idle. Although the hard drive remained at roughly the same temperature as the rest of the systems, everything else was a step or two warmer than the competition.
At idle, the Lian-Li and Silverstone cases showed an interesting difference. The Lian-Li’s motherboard and hard drive temperatures were just a bit cooler than the Silverstone's, but the latter's CPU and graphics card temps were slightly better.
Under load, though, you can see that the Lian Li case closed the CPU and graphics card temperature gap between it and the Silverstone chassis. In fact, although the Silverstone mostly kept the CPU the coolest in each test, its motherboard, GPU, and HDD temperatures slide a bit out of kilter; under a full load, it couldn't keep pace with the Lian-Li case.
The In Win case didn't post especially impressive numbers, but it did manage to keep things pretty consistent whether at idle or under load. In fact, the GPU and HDD were actually slightly cooler under load, presumably because when the CPU fans kicked up a notch to chill the warming motherboard components, they gave the GPU and HDD extra airflow that wasn't particularly needed.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: We loved the creative and fetching designs of each of these cases, and all three featured rock-solid construction and engineering that make it enjoyable to build a system inside them. As far as cooling goes, although the Silverstone Fortress FT02 looked strong at idle, it lost its edge under load and fell behind the Lian-Li PC-X2000FN. The Lian-Li’s PC-X2000FN cooling prowess came at the expense of fan noise though, at least compared to the impressively quiet Silverstone fans.
Of course, the In Win H-Frame was much quieter by dint of not having any fans at all, save for the ones on the CPU cooler, but it could have done better on the cooling side with that one exhaust fan running; it's odd that In Win didn't include it in the case's stock configuration.
Silverstone Fortress FT02
At the end of the day, though, we have to give the crown to the Lian-Li PC-X2000FN ($449.99-$499). If you prefer a more subdued yet powerful and dashing look in a case, the Lian-Li is a study in near perfection.
In addition to posting the best overall cooling performance of the group, the company packed it full of creative, thoughtful elements, such as a variety of options for installing drives, segregated component compartments, and terrific accessories such as rubber mounts for fans and drives alike. The Lian-Li PC-X2000FN is as solid and classy a case as there is.