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Case In Point: Searching For the Perfect Mid-Tower
Date: Dec 02, 2009
Author: Loyd Case
Rightsizing Your PC

Right now, my production PC is humming along under my desk. It’s built into a massive Antec P193 case, which is built like a tank. It’s relatively quiet, especially since I removed the 200mm side fan. As a hardware reviewer, my lab testing seems to revolve around large cases. I’ve got several test systems built into three Coolermaster Cosmos 1000s and a Cosmos 1000S. Moving these systems around takes some care, since it would be easy to throw out a back; dropping one on your foot would be no joy, either.

I also have four other systems that are occasionally used for product testing, but mostly used as game systems. Most Friday nights, four to six people troop into the basement lab and play LAN games. Those systems are not typically bleeding, edge, but they’re still capable PCs. CPUs range from a Core 2 Quad Q9650 to a Core i7 920 and a Core i7 860. Graphics cards include Radeon HD 4890s in two systems and a BFG GeForce 275 GTX OC in one system. So these aren’t low end by any means, even though they’re not quite cutting edge.

As I’ve built these systems in the past year, I’ve moved away from big tower cases to more reasonably sized mid-tower chassis. What follows are my observations and experiences with four mid-tower cases, from three different manufacturers. Note that these are not reviews in the hard sense of the word. Rather, I’m going to discuss my experiences building systems in these cases, and how they fared in our weekly multiplayer gaming sessions.

The four midtower cases running in the lab are:

  • Cooler Master Sileo 500. This is Cooler Master’s stab at building a quiet PC case.

  • CM Scout. “CM Storm” is Cooler Master’s “edgy” brand for gamers and LAN party enthusiasts.

  • NZXT Panzerbox. NZXT’s designs are often interesting and flawed. The Panzerbox is less flawed than most.

  • Antec Two Hundred. Antec’s latest gaming chassis, and it’s built for gamers on a budget.

Let’s consider them one at a time...

Sileo 500 and CM Storm Scout

Sileo 500
The Sileo 500 is a partially aluminum case, built on the same rough design as a number of the Cooler Master Centurion-style cases. In addition to being lighter, the case offers foam padding on the case side, bottom and top panels to muffle the internal noise. The external panels are brushed aluminum, while the chassis skeleton is steel.

Except for the use of brushed aluminum and the oddball power button, there’s little to distinguish this case visually from similar Cooler Master designs, like the Centurion 534. The power button is cleverly disguised as a transparent vertical strip at the bottom of the front bezel, which also serves as the power-on LED. It’s always entertaining to watch someone who’s never used the system hunt for the power button the first time.

The interior of the case is roomy enough to accept full size ATX motherboards and long graphics cards; the BFG 275 GTX OC currently lives inside the case, and it would likely accept the slightly longer Radeon HD 5870.

As for being a quiet case: this is really a standard case with additional eggcrate foam lining the interior. So it’s a little quieter, but if Cooler Master had stuck with steel case panels instead of aluminum, the case might have been even quieter. But this is no “silent” case by any means.

When the Sileo 500 first arrived, it was priced at nearly $100 US, which is too much. But you can now find it for as little as $50, which makes it a relative bargain.

CM Storm Scout
Cooler Master’s latest brand, CM Storm, is meant to appeal to hard core gamers. CM Storm offers two cases, the Scout and the Sniper. The CM Storm Scout is slightly smaller and lower priced than the Sniper; you can typically find it for around $90.

I actually like the look of the case, and the top mounted handles are actually sturdy, useful and don’t cut into your hands. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of transparent side panels, but the interior red light does set things off nicely. The good news is that the interior lighting can actually be disabled from a button on the top angled bezel.

All controls and ports are easily accessible from that top angled bezel. The reset button is small and slightly recessed, so it’s difficult to accidentally press – which is a good thing. The case is set up to route wiring behind the motherboard tray. The interior is painted flat black, which is both good and bad. It’s good, because the case looks good through that side panel. It’s bad, because you really need a good light to work inside the case; there’s no contrast inside the all-black interior.

The real downside of this case, though, is that it’s slightly too small. Full size ATX boards barely fit, and if the board has backwards facing SATA ports – something increasingly common – then attaching SATA connectors is a chore. And if you have a board slightly larger than a full-size ATX board, you’re out of luck, as I found out when I discovered that the Asus Rampage II Extreme can’t physically fit inside the case. Also, the main compartment is barely deep enough to accommodate a 10.5-inch graphics card – which means the ever-so-slightly larger Radeon HD 5870 won’t fit.

Still, it’s an easy case to move around, and it’s combination of low key color scheme and interesting lines make this an attractive case, if somewhat pricey. But this case would be so much better if it were two inches deeper and one inch wider.

NZXT Panzerbox and Antec Two Hundred

NZXT Panzerbox
NZXT Panzerbox is a sort of hybrid between small form factor, micro-ATX only cases and a full mid-tower design. NZXT managed to shrink the height a bit by making it wider and mounting the power supply above the expansion slots on the motherboard. This makes working inside the case a bit tricky, and the removable motherboard tray only mitigates this problem somewhat, since you can’t slide the tray out if a full height graphics card is installed.

The case is mostly aluminum, and the fit and finish is solid. The hard drive slots are bifurcated into two different locations, which face different directions, so you’ll need to route power and SATA cables carefully.

Once you get used to the idea of the PSU living above the motherboard, it’s actually fairly easy to work inside, as long as you accept the premise that you’ll need to remove the PSU to change out any expansion cards. There’s a ton of cooling which is, alas, unfiltered, so you’ll need to blow dust out of the case more often than cases with filtered intakes. It’s also a touch on the noisy side. It’s not so much the fans, as the air being pulled through the perforated front bezel.

Still, the Panzerbox has a sort of squat, brutal charm, much like it’s namesake. I like the case better than I probably should, if this were a purely objective review. I’ve recommended this case to several people, all of whom have liked it, and it makes for a great secondary system case, but I probably wouldn’t build my primary system with it. Also, this is not an inexpensive case by any means – expect to pay around $110, which is a lot for a relatively small case, even if it does have a cool name.

Antec Two Hundred
In my mind, the Antec gaming cases have always been a mixed bag. The Nine Nundred, Twelve Hundred and Three Hundred all seemed to require endless numbers of screws. It’s as if the Antec designers have never heard of tool-free designs.

The Two Hundred is their latest effort, and I have to confess to liking this case quite a bit. Part of the reason is its price: fifty bucks. In fact, I found this case at a local white box shop for $39.95. It’s a relatively Spartan design, as you might expect from the price, but has a solidity you don’t often associate with budget cases. The front bezel only offers power, reset, audio and two USB ports.

And it does have one interesting amenity: the exposed 3.5-inch bay isn’t for floppy drives. Instead, it’s a removable SATA bay, and you can just slide in a bare drive to nest with the power and data connectors inside the bay. It’s great for making backups onto a bare drive, then storing it somewhere else.

There’s also plenty of interior space, and this case will definitely accept a Radeon HD 5870 card, but you do have to install any hard drives so that they won’t block long graphics cards. And yes, you’ll need to use a lot of screws (though not so many as the original Antec Nine Hundred, thank the gods.) The case even has washable air filters. Another interesting feature is the cutout on the motherboard tray – which means you can install a CPU cooler requiring a backplate without removing the entire motherboard.

The case won’t win any awards for appearance; the spiderweb motif is a little cheesy looking, but at least it’s black-on-black. It’s also not particularly quiet. What really sets this case apart, though, is the combination of solid feel, good interior space and low cost. What’s not to like?

Final Thoughts
None of these cases are perfect, and they all have their charms and warts. If I were to pick any case to build my own production system with, it would be a toss-up between the Sileo 500 and the Antec Two Hundred. However, none of these cases are complete duds and, depending on your needs and tastes, any of them would be fine for building a decent gaming rig. Just watch out for those long graphics cards.

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