Monday, May 19, 2014

[Rant] Which mini-ITX case should I get? Elite 130 or Node 304 or Obsidian 250D?

Mini-ITX vs ATX

That my dear friends, is the million dollar question.
I’ve got three candidates running for the trophy. The Cooler Master Elite 130, the Fractal Design Node 304 and the Corsair Obsidian 250D. The first two are almost same size but the Corsair case is about 50% larger in terms of the “external volume”. One might ask, why I am even considering it then.
In my opinion, “small” is the new “sexy”. But with small, you get a lot of issues.
  • You don’t have enough room to work – assembly would be a nightmare.
  • You will have a very limited set of supported hardware devices.
  • The cooling performance inside the case will be very poor as you won't be able to mount as much case fans as a larger case.
Both the Elite 130 and the Node 304 support all in one water coolers with a 120mm radiator. It seems that the Node 304 can house a 140mm one as well (which would result in better cooling to noise ratio) but the radiator is almost touching the back of the video card so very few people would want to take that risk. But the 250D supports a 240mm radiator (specifically the H100i) for improved cooling. Sure you cannot fit every 240mm radiators due to thickness limitations but this is good enough for most enthusiasts.

Basically the only reason not to get the Elite 130 is cooling performance. It doesn't have any exhaust fans so push the hot air out of the case. It only has one intake fan from the front and that will have to be replaced with the radiator and fans that would bring air into the case - but this air won't be cool as they will have to be passed through the radiator. You will have to flip the orientation of the PSU to suck the hot air inside the case and throw it out the back. But this will increase the temperature inside the PSU and I don't really like that idea. But to keep the video card cool, you might have no other choice. The video card will be getting cool air from the side vents and as I don't have a video card with a stock blower style cooler, the card will dump hot air back into the case rather than exhaust it out of the back. Note to self: if you are making a small PC, going with a video card with a blower style cooler is critical.

The Node 304 doesn't have this problem. It brings cool air from the front 92mm fans and exhausts it out of the back. This back exhaust fan has to be replaced with the radiator, if we go with a water cooler. But CPU cooling performance will be lower than that of the Elite 130 because the radiator will be cooled with the hot air inside the case rather than with cool air from the outside. But on the other hand, you can mount a thicker radiator inside the Node 304 with dual fans - which you cannot do with the Elite 130 - so they probably will have the same cooling performance after all. The problem with the Node 304 has is with the PSU length. The PSU that I recently bought is 160mm and if you want to install a long video card inside this case, you have to keep the PSU length to a maximum of 160mm. So no problem right? The problem is with the modular cables. They stick outside the back. But I've seen photos of some one using the same PSU in a Node 304 build so it can fit. But it will be a tight fit. And I am worried that it might become a problem with certain video cards - such as the ones having a back plate. No, the one I currently own doesn't have a back-plate but that doesn't mean that would not change in the future. My video card upgrade is long due. But I am waiting for the Maxwell because that would give me a huge performance boost over my current video card. Besides, they are so power efficient - if the GTX 750 Ti is any clue to that - hence would fit in a SFF case perfectly.
I digress. Apologies. I love talking about video cards.
The Node 304 has another issue. The front USB ports are not in the front of the case but on the right side panel (when viewed from the front), and that is the side that would go up against the wall. That would block the access to the front USB ports and that sucks. I wonder why they couldn't just have them on the front and cover them with a, well, a plastic cover.

Since starting writing this post, I've become to understand that the HX650 Gold will not fit in this case with a long graphics card. People who had been saying that the HX650 fits, were talking about the older 80Plus Bronze model which was 150mm long. So basically, the Node 304 is out, unless I want to sell this recently bought PSU for a smaller one. 

On the other hand, the Corsair Obsidian 250D tries to become a no-compromise design. But in fact, it doesn't as it has to compromise the space for that. You can fit a full sized ATX PSU in there, an all-in-one water cooler with a 240mm radiator and a long graphics card. Perfect, right? But it is a fat bastard. I would like to have a thinner, taller case instead as it would have a smaller footprint on the desk. Yes, I am planning to place the case on top of the desk instead of underneath it. The carpeted floor is so dusty and the case would fill up with dust in no time if placed on the floor. That is something I cannot afford to happen in a SFF build, as the stock cooling performance is already crippled. 
Maybe I should ask this question in the forums. People will be able to find any other problems that I have overlooked with these cases. But before I do that, I should decide on the hardware that goes into the mini-ITX rig. That's for another post. (I will link it up here once it goes online.)
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