Best PC gaming case 2011: 8 reviewed
24th May 2011 | 09:07
Keep your machine cool with one of these top PC cases
Best PC gaming case: upgrade guide
It's hard not to like overclocking. Take a system, tweak it and it becomes faster! What's not to like?
Some components are happier being pushed than others, and testing the boundaries of overclocking usually involves slowly increasing frequencies and voltages of board and processor until it becomes uncooperative and falls over.
Often, that's because something has got all hot and bothered. If you're putting together a hot system, literally as well as figuratively, dissipating heat is key. Improving your cooling improves your overclocking potential, which means more sugary gaming goodness.
We're all familiar enough with spot cooling. To keep you processor cool, for example, you add a decent chip cooler. However it's awfully easy to get a little obsessed when it comes to spot cooling, and to totally forget where all that heat is going.
Sticking efficient coolers on your chip, memory, motherboard chipset and the rest is good practice, but all it really does is move the heat from the components to inside the case. Now you face the challenge of needing to shift that heat out of your computer and into the big wide world, or it'll all just sit inside like a cosy, yet overclock-spoiling thermal blanket of hot air.
So you simply stick an extra fan on your case right? There's a bit more to it than that. This is where the gaming cases come into play.
These have been designed with the same twisted aims that you have - to build a half-insane custom gaming rig. Do yourself a favour and start by investing in the best PC gaming case for the job first.
When the backroom boys were thrashing out the specifications for the ATX case, they didn't envisage you fitting components that amount to small electric fires inside the case. So we find ourselves in the position where the bog-standard ATX case is woefully inadequate.
A gaming case gives you room to get air moving between components and positions them for optimal flow. Plus, of course, it'll come bedecked with fans. However, new case or not, you can do a lot by simply arranging things properly inside your current case.
So, before you start thinking about lapping the bottom of your heat sink or investing in liquid gallium thermal paste, go back to basics and take a look at the cooling across the whole system. It's all about airflow and a few simple changes here and there can make a real difference with minimal investment.
Why is your PC producing so much heat anyway? Make electrons flow down a wire and the wire gets hot, and there's not a lot that can be done about that until they sort out superconductivity at room temperature. Quite simply: the more watts, the more heat.
Given big graphics cards can easily run at over 200W each, and people seem insistent on fitting two or, in extreme cases, four of the things, you can see how PCs have got all toasty inside.
Thermodynamics starts off fairly gently with specific heat capacities and thermal conductivity, and pretty soon after that its gets hideously complicated. It also involves frequent references to hot bodies, which made us all snigger quite a bit at school (actually it still does).
Every action produces heat as waste energy, which is why perpetual motion machines never work. So, high power components inevitably mean high heat levels, and unless you fancy running a system immersed in mineral oil, air-cooling is your friend.
Air is a pretty good thermal insulator - that's why double-glazing works so well. To keep transferring heat away rapidly, you need to change the air, as witnessed on cold and windy days. Wind chill doesn't actually make it colder (you can't be colder than the air temperature, assuming you are not wet, which is another story), but the wind whips away your insulation and makes it feel colder while you wonder why human evolution has deprived you of fur.
The three big generators of heat are the graphics card, processor and power supply. Graphics cards - proper heavyweight ones that interest serious gamers - are veritable little furnaces. The big boys have vents to the outside on the rear expansion plate and closed covers with input fans inside the case.
This means the internal airflow over the GPU and memory is controlled. Thanks guys! What you need to do is ensure that these fans are fed lots of cool outside air that circulates around them freely.
Here we come to the side fan - a gaming case speciality that sits over the cards and blows directly on them. Opinion is divided here - some designs make a feature of it (witness the big ducted fan of the Cooler Master HAF X), while others eschew any sideways action and run with closed sides.
The problem with side fans is that they interfere with the cross current going from front to back, leading to turbulence and air going every which way. Your best bet is to optimise the main cross flow first, and resort to side cooling if that doesn't prove sufficient.
If your graphics card doesn't vent to the outside, things are a little more difficult, since getting airflow over the card is impeded by the expansion card slots at the rear and by the card itself vertically. Fans sitting on top of the graphics card can easily circulate much of the same air. Removing expansion slot blanks can create handy extra exhaust vents.
Big gaming rigs have big power supplies. The thing to look for here is the efficiency of the supply, since what you lose in the transformation of voltages is mostly heat.
For example, drawing 400W on an 80 per cent efficiency supply means you've lost 80W in heat, on an 85 per cent supply it drops to 60W and at 90 per cent it's just 40W.
Your power supply draws air from the sides and/or front and vents it out the back. Standard ATX cases put the PSU at the top, next to another hot spot - the processor - and have it drawing air from inside the case. A gaming case moves the power supply to the bottom, well away from the processor, and more often than not there'll be a grille in the case floor to enable it to draw air directly from the outside, giving the PSU a separate airflow. Neat.
Next we have the processor, and here you need to make sure that your CPU cooler is working in cooperation with the rest of the flow. You might scoff, but it can be all too easy to mount the cooler in such a way that the fan isn't blowing in alignment with your main airflow. Gaming cases mount the motherboard at the top of the case, which means your processor is close to the top and back, where it can exhaust freely.
Hard drives can get warm too, although you need to work hard to make this much of a problem. Cases generally run the drive in a stack down the front of the case, behind the front fan. Spacing drives out helps keep them cool, and avoid stacking them all in front of your graphics card.
Fans are generally defined by two things, the size and the rotational speed. Put these two together and you come to how much air it can actually shift, measured in CFM (cubic feet per minute).
There are metric units for airflow, but PC fans largely remain imperial, although the fans sizes have gone metric. And if you think that's anachronistic, bear in mind that time and angles are measured using a system from ancient Babylon based around the number 60.
There are two ways to get more air flowing: increase the diameter of the fan or increase the speed. Fans also have efficiency levels - flow against rotational speed - and it will depend on the design of the blades exactly where the sweet spot is. Spinning faster means more airflow, although as you go faster the gains tails off and it gets noisy.
The range is huge. An 80mm fan designed for quiet running may shift 10-20CFM, while the performance monsters can run up to 80CFM. More typically, an 80mm shifts about 30CFM and a 120mm fan more than twice that. If you've got the space to spare then generally the bigger the fan the better, if only to keep things quieter.
The fan's noise level is measured in decibels - more specifically it's dB Sound Pressure Level (dB on its own isn't a unit, merely a logarithmic scale applied to other measurements). Since it's a logarithmic scale, you have to be careful when comparing numbers - small changes mean a lot.
A 20dB fan is jolly quiet, equal to the background noise in a quiet room. At 30dB it's starting to get intrusive. A typical conversation might be held at 40dB or above, and once you hit 50dB or more it's getting rather noisy - the spin cycle on a washing machine, for example.
To be both powerful and quiet is ideal, but it's generally a compromise. Read the small print on sound level, because some very high-performance fans that have huge CFM figures (200+ CFM on a 120mm fan, for example), are also incredibly noisy at 60dB and over. Nice cooling, but even with headphones they're an annoyance best left for server rooms.
Shifting lots of air about does things to the pressure, and here we come to negative- and positive-pressure cases. A positive-pressure case has a higher air pressure inside than out, because you've got more powerful intake fans than exhausts. A negative air pressure case is the other way around - too beefy an exhaust fan means the intake can't keep up and you get a drop of air pressure inside the case.
Dust is bad inside a PC case, it insulates components and clogs fans, and your PC is a veritable dust magnet. Dust loves a static charge, and your PC's innards are awash with those.
In a case with negative pressure, the air gets sucked in through every little hole around the drives and cards and everywhere else, drawing in dust. Once inside, most of it'll hang around causing trouble.
A case with even a modest positive pressure will take in air mostly through the intake fan, and air inside is blown out through all the myriad holes, helping keep dust at bay. Look for cases with mesh filters over the fans that you can clean, particularly the intake ones. Even the cleanest room has a lot of dust, and your PC acts like a little static vacuum cleaner.
Decent case cooling is all about balancing input and output and tracing the airflow path, making sure cool input air is directed over the hot spots and vented out again. Before you just start adding fans, it's worth making sure the ones you have are in the right place and are given room to work as unobstructed as possible.
Go for cross flow. Adding fans all over the shop blowing inwards can end up keeping hot air trapped inside because all the fans are working against each other. Having all the fans blowing out leads to air being sucked into the case where you possibly don't want it coming from, and it'll fill with dust.
In both cases, you've lost control of the air paths. Should you go for a positive or negative pressure system? Your call. A negative pressure system offers slightly better cooling, since air is being sucked into case from all holes all the time, keeping things moving in hard-to-get places, but it will get dirty.
Nearly all gaming cases go for positive pressure, often with considerably more input fans than output. So we'll go with that, and mesh filters please.
Top, front, side and bottom
A standard ATX case has a front input and a rear exhaust, with possibly one or two 80mm fans. Gaming cases can add a top exhaust, side input, bottom input and more, plus grilles here there and everywhere, with and without extra fans of up to 230mm.
Essentially, we have two approaches: fan-based excess and the the somewhat more sober control of airflow. Not surprisingly, cases hailing from companies also involved in flogging cooling fans tend to be covered in the things.
The Antec DF-85 has seven, while its LanBoy Air has five, and barely a solid panel on it. Cooler Master's HAF X has a more modest four, although they're all big ones. Meanwhile the Corsair 700D carries just three 140mm fans and the BitFenix Colossus Venom makes do with just two meaty ones.
Some people have experimented by running systems with various numbers of fans, and the results reveal that more is indeed not always better. One good strong flow across a board is as good, or better, then air blowing all over the shop. Having lots of fans buzzing away is reassuring and looks the business, but it's in danger of being all blow and not much cooling.
As the BitFenix case shows, mounting large input and output fans at opposite corners to a case with proper room inside and a clear airflow between the two will produce enough cooling for a decent gaming system (which means overclocking).
Right, you've looked inside your case and worked out the airflow, starting with the main front to back flow and making sure that all the fans are working in co-operation, and you've moved components about to give maximum room around each one. What else can you do?
Firstly, you can tidy the cables away. A dense, unruly tangle of wires will deflect air all over the shop, so use the cable tidies the case came with and pack them away. Gaming cases mount motherboards so you can route cables underneath them, well away from the hot bits.
Now, leave the case's side panels on. What's the point of paying attention to the airflow and then leaving off the sides so your fans' flow is dissipated to the outside, rather than being routed over your hot spots first?
Also, don't stick your system right against a wall or in the corner under the desk, either. You need to give it room to breathe. Watch the dust, too. If you suffer a thermal shutdown on a system that's been up and running for a while, check all the fans and spreaders. It really is amazing how much of the stuff can be sucked into a fan over a year.
Your best bet, though, is to start with a solid performing and properly designed case to begin with - a specialist PC gaming case, in fact. Which brings us neatly to the following choice contenders…
Best PC gaming cases: 8 reviewed
Antec Dark Fleet 85
£100 - Full Tower
The DF-85 is the top banana of Antec's premier Dark Fleet range of gaming cases. It's gone for the full killer-cyborg-from-the-future look for this hefty tower chassis, opting for an aggressive rather than stylish aesthetic.
Like almost all cases for gaming rigs, the DF-85 is black inside and out, although this doesn't stretch to the screws, which are regular and shiny. The interior follows the classic template too, featuring a motherboard with power supply below it, and a vertical stack of drives down the front.
The front of the case has three potential openings, called Fleet-Release doors for no good reason. It took us a minute or two to see how to open these, expecting some neat switch or button. What we eventually discovered was nothing so accomplished: they're opened simply by flexing the plastic on one side, which isn't the most sturdy of arrangements.
Antec LANboy Air
£110 - Full Tower
Of all the cases in this group, the LanBoy Air stands out as having a go at doing something different. It's full of holes. Or, to clarify, virtually every panel is a grill.
It's built around a solid metal framework, which in this case is a fetching blue, although yellow is available too. On to this frame are screwed the panels, plastic surrounds and sheet metal grids.
The LanBoy Air is billed as being fully modular. Not quite. When you look more closely, what we have is a case that follows the standard layout, more or less, only with a lot more holes in it. Much of it unscrews well enough, but you can't screw it back together in a completely different shape or anything.
Bitfenix Colossus Venom
£130 - Full Tower
The Colossus from BitFenix has drawn much praise in its time, and now we have this new Venom edition to consider. The blurb speaks of a "vicious lighting style" and "sinister and menacing looks", but is it a fierce performer?
Well, it's certainly no shrinking violet, being an imposing tower that stands a little under two feet. It's also reassuringly heavy and black. Set into the case's side and front are translucent strips, behind which lurk green and red LEDs.
The 'Venom' tag turns out to mean the option to switch between the two colours. The case also has a rubberised finish (which marks easily) and presents wonderfully clean lines with the full-height front door shut.
It's pretty much the opposite approach to the LanBoy Air, where everything is put on show. Constructed of heavy-gauge metal, the Colossus has an air of real solidity, which is fitting since it certainly weighs enough.
Cooler Master HAF X
£115 - Full Tower
Cooler Master is a big name in both fans and gaming cases and the popular HAF (High Air Flow) range has been something of a hit with gamers since 2008. Now we have a new leader, the HAF X.
Like the rest of the range, the tower chassis sports an real no-nonsense look. And its very black, including the screws. It's pretty solid stuff too, although not quite in the same league as the Colossus Venom or Corsair 700D.
Inside, you'll find room enough for quad graphics card set-ups and up to nine expansion cards, which shows who the company think will need a case like this.
Corsair Obsidian 700D
£165 - Full Tower
Corsair turns out some proper top-notch kit, and the Obsidian series of cases a case in point; we are nearing the top of the market here. The 700D is one step down from the range-topping 800D, it only lacks the easy-swap drive bays and windowed side panel.
The 700D started to impress as soon we pulled it's not inconsiderable weight (15.8Kg!) from the box by the heavy gauge extruded aluminium feet. The front panel is similarly made from heavy aluminium.
This is a big tower, at over 60cm high, and is roomy enough to take E-ATX boards. It's also very black, every screw is black. It forms an almost perfect rectangle, and looks for all the world like those mysterious monoliths from 2001. Its a different stylistic approach to the brash, bling of most gaming chassis. It even feels nice, although watch those finger marks.
Sharkoon Scorpio 2000
£68 - Midi Tower
The delightfully named Sharkoon makes a fair range of chassis, and has described the Scorpio 2000 as a "functional ATX tower with a black interior and bottom lying down power supply". We apologise now for pointing out that humorous translation, but sometimes we simply can't help ourselves.
The Scorpio 2000 is a middle-ranking gaming case. It has all the right features for that particular market, but it is a little smaller than the cases that we've seen so far in the test, rolling in as a midi offering.
When you pick it up the lightness shows that it's not made of the quality stuff you'll find elsewhere in this gathering as well.
Thermaltake V6 BlacX ED
£54 - Midi Tower
Thermaltake make lots of cooling kit, this V6 sits towards the bottom of offerings. It's a midi tower and comes in regulation black with a pleasing glossy finish down the sides. It's a tad plain in this company, where most gaming cases are all 'shouty', although it does boast a small side window so you can gaze upon your processor in awe.
The interior space is pretty tight, leaving no room for routing cables and air under the motherboard, or fitting PC water-cooling kit. It'll take a graphics card up to 11-inches long (280mm if you've gone French).
The bottom mounted PSU has an outside grill to draw in air. There's a mesh to catch dust too, but unlike most similar designs this cannot be removed from outside the case, and looks next to impossible to get at once you've got all your hardware installed.
Tsunami Gaming Manager
£21 - Midi Tower
This new contender from Tsunami is a modest midi ATX case and in this company its a lightweight, literally, as you soon learn when you try picking the thing up - it's made from very thin sheet metal. The front panel is the only part that shouts 'design', and only then in a muffled way as if a metaphorical hand has been slapped over the designer's mouth.
There are a some curves, a moderately funky power button, and a natty matt black finish. There are three lurid colour options for the glossy part of the plastic front panel, aside from the black version shown here.
The insides follow the traditional layout, that is to say traditional for normal PC chassis, but not for the requirements ofa gaming chassis. The power supply unit sits on the top, rather than following the accepted pattern of sloping off to the bottom of the case to keep the heat away from the processor.
To support this there is a very small fold of metal. Yes, you've four screws, but these are in the rather thin rear panel.
And the best PC gaming case is… CoolerMaster HAF X
The first thing we learned from our case selection is that if you do want a proper gaming case, then you will have to spend proper money.
The Tsunami Gaming Manager is charming in its cheapness, but fails to impress in any other way. At all. In fact it's kidding nobody by proclaiming itself as a gaming case because it isn't. The insides are hopelessly cramped and it makes no sense at all here.
So that's out, which leaves us with two contenders for best budget case, the Thermaltake V6 BlacX and the Sharkoon Scorpio 2000. On paper both look good, they both appear suitably 'bad' and both cost about the same.
However, the V6 BlacX manages to fall down when it comes to the details. It's a little too fragile for comfort and unless you fit an extra front fan it relies on the pull of the top and rear fans alone. But its biggest problem is that it's just too small, a fairly fundamental failing in a gaming case. You need room to let air get about and to fit everything comfortably.
The Scorpio is just that bit bigger, enabling a raised motherboard and room for water-cooling. It's not the toughest of cases, but it's been designed with that much more thought. Easily the best budget case.
Now to the big boys. And the first to go is the LanBoy Air. Yes it does look striking, and it you like to look at your hardware it's ideal. We are unconvinced about the slightly ham-fisted approach to cooling, basically stick on lots of fans and cover it with holes and hope for the best.
It bills itself as modular, but it's not particularly flexible. It's a case you either 'get' or don't. We didn't.
Next to go is the Antec Dark Fleet 85. It's a proper gaming case with all the features and there are no real bugbears - if sheer fan numbers count, it's a surefire winner, with what we strongly suspect are more fans than it really needs.
It's not bad value either, but the look of most gaming cases is a bit adolescent: all aggressive slashes and lines, industrial grills and LEDs and one too many fans. They might look fine in the average gaming den, surrounded by foam figurines of obscure Manga characters, but if your box is sitting in a carefully decorated room in a postmodern minimalist style, its going to look out of place.
The Corsair is stylish enough to carry it off in the best of surroundings. The Corsair is also the best-built of the cases. The fans of many fans might want more oomph, but what we have is fully thought through, with clear airflow paths and divided internal sections.
But we must be ruthless, we are looking for kick-ass gaming cases and the Corsair sacrifices some of that in order to look good while doing it.
The BitFenix Colossus is also a bit of a looker, but in a different way: closed for action with the LEDs on it's proper space-alien stuff. The cooling is by two huge fans with a simple front to back path, and should be plenty. However it lacks easy-swap drives and we suspect the front panel wiring arrangement will get tedious. It's capable, but the looks have compromised the design and efficiency a little.
It's a close run thing, but it is just piped to the post. The Cooler Master HAF X is our gaming case of choice. It's got all the bells and whistles you could want, plus some extra ones. It's the only one to go overboard around the graphics cards, with a shroud and a hefty support, both with optional fans.
It comes fitted with four big fans and looks like it was designed by people with one-track minds: to make a case capable of taking the most powerful gaming system known to man. The build quality is superb and, although it can hardly be called cheap.
Our only gripe is that in being so purposeful, it lacks any grace. So there we are, we would take the HAF X home to meet our precious hardware, but we would occasionally think of the Corsair with fondness as the one that got away.
First published in PC Format Issue 252
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