The Gamers Guide to Computer Cases
PC configuration is like a construction made out of LEGO bricks. You build your configuration from different components, and they all have to fit together. You can’t place an AMD CPU on a motherboard with an Intel CPU socket or fit DDR4 memory into DDR3 slots. And this also works in the case of computer cases. Different sizes, different expansion slots, and different extra features mean that picking a right case isn’t easy as you might think. But you shouldn’t be worried because we will explain in detail everything there is to know about computer cases, making the quest for the perfect case a walk in the park.
Picking the right size
There are many different case sizes, and all of them have their own advantages and downsides. Smaller ones take less space and are great for those who like to have as much free space in their room/house as possible. Also, mini cases are popular for tiny but powerful multimedia PC builds that can replace consoles for those who want to game on a huge TV but at the same time want maximum video quality.
Bigger cases are great in when you have a powerful configuration with overclocked CPU and GPU, a setup which needs lots of coolers and excellent airflow, or one which utilizes a liquid cooling solution. Also, if you want to have a huge case make sure to have enough room under your computer desk.
There are four main sizes when it comes to computer cases (mini, micro, mid, and full), and we will talk about each one of those. The main difference between different sized cases is the number of PCI expansion slots on the back, which motherboard form factors can fit inside, as well as the number of expansion slots inside and in front of the case. Let’s start with the biggest ones.
Back in the day, when processors spent 120 watts of power or more and graphics cards were huge, hot, and thick as they get, having a huge tower case was a common thing among gamers. Simply, a huge case provided enough room for every component, it had plenty of space for fans and air circulation, and it could house two DVD/CD drives along with a couple of external hard drive racks. Not to mention that tower cases provided the largest number of expansion slots placed on the back of the case, enough to place two or more video cars running in an SLI/Crossfire setup (again, not many more run those since modern flagship cards can run most games in 4K resolution with 60fps) and to still have have room to spare for an audio card, a network card, a TV card, and a couple of more cards that no one uses today.
While they aren’t as popular as they were ten years ago, they are still favorite picks for enthusiast gamers and people who want powerful workstations. They can house full-sized motherboards and usually have 7 or more PCI expansion slots, enough for plenty of cards. They also provide lots of internal hard drive cages (up to 12) in case you need more than two storage drives (maybe you want to build a server?) and will enable you to install lots of external hard drive racks. If you have enough room below the desk and want to install lots of fans and to have excellent air circulation, to potentially install a liquid cooling solution, and if you don’t want to worry about having enough expansion slots and hard drive cages, pick a full tower.
They come in two sizes – full towers are pretty big and can house lots of different components, while super towers are even bigger and can house anything you want, and then some. Bear in mind that super towers are also very expensive.
This size is the most popular and most widely used computer case size. Mid-tower cases can house full-sized motherboards but come with a smaller number of PCI expansion slots on the back – up to 7, which is more than enough for most users. They also provide less hard drive cages and come with up to five front-placed drive racks. In times when one hard drive along with one SSD is a perfect storage combo, and when no one uses DVD or Blu Ray drives, mid-tower cases make for an ideal pick for almost every user.
These cases are visibly smaller than full-tower ones and won’t take as much room under your desk. They also can host a solid number of additional fans and will provide more than decent air circulation, even for a system with overclocked CPU and GPU. If you want a case that can fit all components, has lots of expansion slots (for those who don’t want a server or a Bitcoin mining machine), an excellent air circulation, and that doesn’t take half a room pick a mid-tower case.
These can house a micro-ATX motherboard and if you plan on having a micro-ATX mainboard as the basis for your next setup, do consider getting one of those. Their main advantage is that they take even less space than mid-towers, and another advantage is the fact most of them are more affordable than most mid-towers or larger cases. They will fit almost anywhere and are perfect for those who don’t have lots of free space in the room where their PC is placed.
On the other side, mATX towers usually don’t come with lots of slots for additional coolers, but since you probably don’t plan to overclock and to place the most expensive components inside a case, temperatures should stay low enough. mATX cases also come with lesser PCI expansion slots on the back (up to 4), but even 4 PCI slots is enough for like eighty percent of users. Of course, you won’t find lots of hard drive cages, but there will be more than two.
Micro-ATX towers are great for setups that aren’t too expensive and use Micro-ATX sized motherboards. They have enough expansion slots for most users and are very affordable. Great for those who want a nice and small case that won’t cost a fortune, a case that will fit into their budget and that can house micro-ATX main board. Just remember that if you decide to buy a full-sized motherboard in the future, you won’t be able to fit it into a mATX case.
Mini-ITX towers are used in two scenarios. They are used either for office workstations that run on cheap components enough for some Office work and browsing, or for super powerful (compared to their size) micro PC configurations capable of standing on your desk and taking a minimum space and at the same time running most games in full details at high resolutions. Mini-ITX cases are also very popular with people who want a console-like experience but at the same time want the highest video quality.
They are super small, smaller than micro-ATX tower cases because, you know, mini motherboards are smaller than micro ones (yup, no logic there but what can you do). They can house mini-ITX motherboards, which come with special SO-DIMM slots for RAM (much smaller than usual slots found on bigger motherboards), only one PCIe slot for graphics card, and usually with built-in Wi-Fi receiver).
Since today we can buy a beastly graphics card in mini versions (you can get a GTX 1080 that can fit into a mini case without problems), mini-ITX setups are getting more and more popular. Bear in mind that some mini cases can fit full-sized graphics cards. CPU and video cards use less power than before, making them cooler than before thus removing the need for superb airflow and lots of fans inside the case. Their size is perfect for those who want a powerful PC rig that can fit below the TV, taking even less space than the Xbox One or the PS4.
Sure, they come with just a couple of PCI expansion slots on the back, but if you plan on making a tiny build you probably just want one slot on the back, for the graphics card. They also can fit just one or two laptop-sized hard drives or SSDs (some come with up to three M.2 SSD slots), but if you’re out to build a compact system, one big SSD is usually the only choice for storage.
So, there you have it. We covered the four main computer case sizes and made it easy to pick the one you want. But, that’s just one part of the tale. Different cases come with different features, so let’s talk about them next.
Different cases come with various features, and some are more important to have than others. For instance, if you’re building a rig with lots of additional fans, and without much free space, you probably need an excellent cable management system. Also, it is good to have removable drive cages, in case you need extra space, or tool-free drive cages and bays so you can install storage units quickly and easily. Also, some cases come with room for the power supply on top while others can fit a power supply on the bottom. Let’s check out which features to look for when searching for a perfect case.
PCI expansion slots
As we already said, PCI expansion slots are placed on the back of the case, and they vary in numbers depending on the size of the case. While you can’t get additional slots on small cases, you can pick between removable slot covers and those that, once removed, cannot be put back.
Removable slot covers can be found in more expensive models; they can be removed and put back on the case. They are better because you can cover the slot in case you don’t need it anymore so that dust and small particles don’t find a way into the case. Cheaper cases have one time removable PCI slot covers that are punched out, without an option to put them back on later.
Quality cable management solution is very important when going for a mid-tower or microATX-tower case. When you have a huge case you have lots of room for cables, but when you are struggling to fit all the components inside the case, and especially if you’re planning on getting a couple of additional fans, you want a nice cable management system.
Now, most cases provide cutouts placed on the motherboard tray making things nice and tidy and allowing for more breathing room and better airflow. Now, some cases have lots of cutouts, others provide less space for cable clutter, but when looking for your next case make sure that the one you want has at least some form of cable management.
The case should have enough space behind the motherboard tray for all cables, and some cases come with helpful ties that can quick and easy be used to group different cables and to tie them down behind the tray.
Also, if you plan on being able to change the CPU, or a CPU cooler without having to take out the motherboard (and who wants that?) look for a model with CPU cutout on the side panel. The bigger the cutout, the better, because it will be compatible with more CPU backplates.
Tool-free drive bays and removable hard drive cages
Drive bays that don’t require a screwdriver for storage device and external drive installation can be found in many cases. In fact, most modern cases come with the feature. Now, while the installation of storage devices and external drives is much easier, they won’t be as secure as if you used screws and a screwdriver for installation. This can be problematic if you plan on carrying your configuration around, but in all other scenarios, tool-free drive bays are a much better choice. Also, it is worth noting that, even if you have a tool-free bays, most cases come with screw holes so you have a choice between both options in one package.
Removable hard drive cages can be great for those who like to have inside of the case nice and tidy. Just remove surplus cages, and you will have more free space inside the case, along with better-looking insides if you own a transparent case.
Cases with transparent side panel
If you like cases with transparent side panel, then you should know that even if your favorite doesn’t feature a transparent panel, there’s a way to make one. The Internet is filled with DIY tutorials that show how to cut the panel and install a transparent cover.
Power supply placement
PSUs can be placed either on the top of the case or the bottom. There are also cases with space for PSU set at the front, but they are rare to find. We recommend getting one that places PSU on the bottom because air is cooler there, so your power supply stays cooler and more stable.
If you plan on placing additional fans inside the case, make sure to check out how many fans can fit inside the case you want to get as well as which fan sizes are supported. Generally speaking, bigger fans are better because they are quieter than small ones and provide better airflow.
Water cooling support
Some cases come with support for liquid cooling systems, while some don’t. And if you get one without water cooling support you will have one hell of a time trying to install one because they usually need lots of space along with special holes and slots for the parts to fit inside the case without making a mess.
If you plan on getting a liquid cooling system, make sure to buy a case supporting it. These cases are generally more expensive, but they usually come with other nice features like quality cable management, lots of space, and modular parts.
Okay, we covered different case sizes as well as the most important features a case can offer, or don’t. By now you probably know what you want, but the most important part of getting a new computer case is its design. You will look at it each day, every day, so if you hate its looks, it is better to find one that doesn’t provide all the stuff you desire but has the looks than to be stuck with an ugly case. On the other side, if you plan on just tucking it below the desk, and not really looking at it than it is better to find one with lots of features than a pretty one.
One last thing. When it comes to building materials, steel is the most popular one. But steel cases can be cumbersome (especially if going for a full-tower one) and even those that combine steel with plastic are pretty heavy for their size. On the other hand, we have aluminum, a material way lighter than steel but also noticeably more expensive. If you want your case to be light and you have the money, it is always better to pick an aluminum one, but remember, it will cost you.