by Aleksey Meyev
06/19/2008 | 09:32 PM
Buying a ready-made PC the user bases his choice on the computing capacity of the CPU and graphics card, the amount of system and disk memory and extra features, but is usually limited to a few basic models of the system case. When the user has the PC assembled according to his particular preferences, there are wider opportunities for choosing the system case, yet few people take them. Most users don’t pay much attention to the choice of the system case. This approach may be just fine for someone, yet I am often surprised to see balanced high-performance configurations assembled in noisy inexpensive cases that often have cooling-related problems.
But when you are assembling your system with your own hands, you care about the system case you use. People who often upgrade their PCs (gamers, for example) and people who use top-of-the-line components that must be cooled normally are also meticulous about this matter. It is for these user categories that this article is written for.
This roundup covers six completely different system cases from Antec. Founded in 1986, this company is a renowned manufacturer of system cases, power supplies and coolers. Antec’s products belong to the midrange and higher price category and may seem expensive. Let’s see what is offered for that money, though.
I’ll start out with the largest and perhaps the most advanced model in this review. It is called Antec P182.
This system case is splendid, yet stern-looking. The glossy paint of the side panels is especially impressive as these panels are matte in most system cases. Of course, this surface gets easily soiled and scratched, but it is indeed beautiful when clean.
The vent hole of the front fan fits into the design perfectly. It is implemented as a grid surrounding the front panel.
There is a lock in the bottom right of the front panel. It locks the door with the buttons and external bays – a very useful feature if you’ve got a small child who has a passion for every button he’s seeing. A standard selection of connectors is located nearby: a FireWire port, two USB ports, and two audio connectors.
Behind the front door you can see Power and Reset buttons together with a blue Power indicator.
The side panels of the case are not just a sheet of metal but a three-layered sandwich made up from aluminum, plastic and aluminum again. This makes the system case more expensive, but suppresses the noise much better than purely aluminum cases do. When you tap on the P182 with your finger, you hear a dull sound because the panel doesn’t resonate in response.
The front door is a three-layered sandwich like the side and top panels and should be as good at suppressing noise, but it has a flimsy fastening mechanism and low rigidity. It can be accidentally damaged or even torn off.
The pair of small doors flips open on your pressing them lightly, providing you access to the filters. You can see no fans, though. The bottom fan is installed behind the HDD cage while the top fan is missing in the default configuration. Anyway, the filters are easy to clean because it takes mere seconds to take them off and put back again.
The side panels lack any vent holes, so I can proceed right to the back panel. The manufacturer has provided two outputs for the pipes for your external liquid cooling system if you’ve got one. Next you can note the somewhat nonstandard layout of this system case. The power supply is at the bottom while the mainboard (and, accordingly, the back-panel connectors and expansion card brackets) has moved up. The 120mm back-panel fan is placed higher, too.
At the very top of the panel there is a block of two three-position switches.
These switches control the speed of the system fans. The P182 employs exclusive TriCool fans capable of working in three operation modes. The preinstalled 120mm fans support the following modes:
This solution is going to be handy for most users as it allows to quickly adjust the cooling of the system case depending on the conditions. You can increase the speed when there is hot weather and reduce it under low loads to have a quieter PC. People who use hardware fan management tools designed for a 5-inch bay or utilize the mainboard’s tools may be disappointed because the fans are powered from a standard 4-pin Molex connector.
So this system case has two switches. One controls the nearby back-panel fan.
And the other controls the fan on the top panel! This stands to reason. If the PSU has moved down, why can’t we use the free space for yet another exhaust 120mm fan? There is enough of room for it and enough of hot air from the CPU to exhaust.
The fan seat has a grid but there is also another fine-mesh grid from above to prevent small objects (such as paper-clips) from getting into the fan blades. It also prevents you from blocking the airflow by putting papers, books or something like that on the top of your system case.
Now let’s have a look at the interior design.
My first impression about the chassis is that it’s up to the exterior design and price of the system case. It is good thick steel without rough edges. Every edge is rolled in neatly.
Antec’s engineers not only moved the PSU down but also divided the interior space into two practically independent (in terms of airflows) compartments. The bottom compartment contains one HDD cage and the PSU, with a 120mm TriCool fan in between. The fan is blowing the air from the cage to the PSU for exhaust. The rest of the components belong to the top compartment. With the interior space separated like that, the air takes simpler routes and loses less speed in the unavoidable turbulences. The components are cooled better as the result.
Of course, there must be some communication between the two compartments just because it is necessary to route the power and interface cables of the HDDs from bottom to top. A good solution was found: there are two holes in the metallic partition that can be partially or fully closed by means of two sliding plates. Nearly every variant of holes is possible and this design solution might be called perfect if it were not for a couple of flaws. The plates are rather too stiff while the locking of them with two thumbscrews from one side is not very handy. It is also not clear why the first hole is wider than the plate that is supposed to cover it.
Running a little ahead, I should note that you can indeed virtually isolate the two compartments from each other. There are but tiny gaps left as you can see in the photo above.
It is logical to begin assembling the system by installing the PSU. The system case comes without one. Some people may find it a bother to choose and buy a PSU, but others may like the opportunity of installing the specific PSU model they want. I used an Antec NeoHE 650 Blue during the tests.
The installation is not a problem at all. You unfasten four screws, releasing the frame and put it on the power supply (note that there are strips of damping material on the frame to reduce vibrations). Then you install the whole thing in place. There is a large cutout in the support under the PSU. You don’t have to turn your PSU with a horizontal 120mm fan upside down but leave it in its default position: there is a path for the air in either case. For the PSU these positions are perfectly equal because its electronics does not care about the orientation in space.
By the way, the HDD power cables in the bottom cage can be put through the small slits near the fan rather than up and down again. The unused cables and some of the cables that go to the mainboard and the top-cage drives can be laid behind the mainboard’s mounting plate and fixed there. There is a small gap between the mounting plate and the side panel of the case for that purpose.
It’s simple with 5-inch devices. You just attach the rails and insert the device into the bay from the front panel. You don’t have to remove the front panel itself. The brackets have to be torn off, though.
The manufacturer’s care about the user can be seen in the cages. They have handy rings for taking them out of their seats and plastic guides that prevent the cages from jamming.
Four HDDs are installed vertically and fastened with screws via soft damping pads in the bottom cage. For the top cage you should use additional rails. The HDD is fastened to the rails (via damping pads again) and goes into its place. It is convenient but the top cage accommodates only two HDDs. On the other hand, these HDDs are cooled perfectly, especially if you install an additional fan in front of the cage.
By the way, these soft and rather thick pads made it necessary to use nonstandard screws which are long and have a broad head. It will be a problem to find such screws if you lose the ones included with the system case.
If you decide to use the bottom cage only, you can install an additional 120mm fan on the top one using the included wire hooks. You have to remove the rails to do that, which means you can’t install both the fan and your HDDs at the same time. On the other hand, few people will have six HDDs and a graphics card that needs additional cooling in one system.
A nice trifle, there is a small box attached to the side of the top cage. It is handy for storing screws or something.
Installing the mainboard and graphics card is easy. These components are fastened with screws.
The assembly and the laying-out of cables provoke no problems but I could not make the interior neat. I wish the case were a couple centimeters longer so that the back of the graphics card were not so close to the top cage.
It’s nice that the manufacturer provides a number of cable straps with the case. Running a little ahead, this attention to trifles seems to have become a typical trait of Antec products. A sufficient number of straps are included with every model and there are always one or two spare screws of every type.
One more thing you should take into account when selecting your components: the PSU must have long enough cables to reach from the bottom of the case to the 5-inch bays and the mainboard’s 12V connector.
The Sonata Plus 550 is simpler than the P182 and competes with ordinary middle-tower cases even though being more expensive than most of them. Antec positions the Sonata Plus 550 as a quiet yet rather advanced “ordinary” case. Included with it is an Antec NeoHE 550 power supply.
Compared with many similar products of this class, the Sonata Plus 550 is distinguishable for the glossy coating of its side and top panels. It also features a third color: besides traditional gray and black, the Sonata has an unusual bronze in its color scheme. This is the color of the thin bezel around the 5-inch bays and of the vent holes in the side panels. I don’t think this color makes the system case very beautiful, yet it is surely distinguishing.
In the right part of the front panel there are Power and Reset buttons with a column of connectors: one FireWire, two USB and two audio connectors. Interestingly, the USB ports are positioned vertically. It means you can plug in two thick flash drives simultaneously, which is usually impossible, but cannot plug in two wide drives. I guess the latter possibility is more important, though.
As opposed to the P182, this system case has a standard component layout. The back panel is classic. A 120mm TriCool fan with speed regulation is responsible for exhausting hot air. There are no outputs for the pipes of a liquid cooling system although they might be made in the vent grid near the expansion slots.
The side panels do not have three layers now, but feature an additional sound insulation layer which can be seen in the photo above. The spring-loaded thumbscrews on the left panel remain in place when you remove the latter. You can take the panel off without fearing to lose the screws.
The feet are somewhat odd. They are made from the same soft material that is used in the P182 to reduce the vibration of the HDDs (the P182 has the same feet, too). The case stands firmly on them without transmitting vibrations to the surface beneath. That’s good if you want to place your PC on your desk.
The chassis is simpler than in the P182 but that’s not a problem at all. It is a thick metallic thing without vibration-prone spots. All the edges are neatly finished and rolled in.
You can see odd plastic things where HDD screws are usually located.
These plastic caps have duplicates on the other side and are connected to them with pairs of parallel flat rubber bands about 1 centimeter wide.
Let’s try to figure out how you are supposed to install HDDs in this system case.
First of all, you open the door by releasing three latches in the left part of the case. Yes, the front panel is actually a door. You can see now 5-inch bays with brackets you have to tear off. The bottom 5-inch bay has rails for a floppy drive or card-reader. At the bottom there is another door with an air filter. It is closed by means of two thumbscrews.
It’s simple with the optical drives: you take a pair of guides from the bottom of the case, attach it to the drive and insert it into the appropriate bay. By the way, there are two sets of guides – the second set is hidden at the bottom of the HDD cage.
The card-reader’s rails are quite ordinary.
Now you can open the second door to access the HDD cage. I recommend you to remove the external door altogether for the sake of convenience. It is easy – you only have to pull it up. Frankly speaking, I don’t understand why the doors open into different directions. It is inconvenient especially as each door opens by about 90 degrees at most. When the PC is assembled, it is easy to access the HDDs from here, but why does the external door have locks that are not accessible without opening the side panel?
There are two ways of fastening HDDs in the cage. One is simple: you attach rails to the drive using soft damping pads and long screws. Then you insert it into the cage.
The second way is original. It uses the mentioned caps connected with rubber bands. The HDD is inserted between two pairs of bands. To fix it in place you have to remove the caps corresponding to these bands and turn them clockwise (or counterclockwise as Antec is not specific on the point). When the bands get tight, you return the caps back into the case.
Antec proposes this fastening method to minimize vibrations but I wouldn’t recommend it to you. The damping pads on the rails are quite enough while being much more reliable. If you use the rubber bands, the HDD may just slip out them because of vibrations or misalignment. And you have to open the other side panel to use this fastening mechanism, which is inconvenient.
The mainboard and expansion cards are installed easily using a screwdriver. There are no screw-less fastenings here. Well, I am not against innovations that make the user’s life easier but it is already quite easy to insert poles and screws and have as secure a fastening as could possibly be.
I want to thank the manufacturer for the handy cable straps and wish the case were a couple of centimeters longer. My Radeon HD 3870 fitted in but its power connector nearly hit against the HDDs, provoking some problems.
The Nine Hundred is positioned by the manufacturer as a system case for hardcore gamers. In this article it is an opponent to the P182. It is a very big system case for a full-size mainboard, a lot of hard disks and, perhaps, a liquid cooling system. It is not the biggest, though. Antec’s line-up includes the Twelve Hundred model.
The front panel is occupied by meshed brackets for the 5-inch bays (nine in total as the model name implies). You can see two 120mm fans through them. It is all very utilitarian, without any decorations. The P182 looks far more stylish in comparison. Interestingly, the front panel is free from any buttons. All of the buttons are located on the top panel. Like the above-discussed models, the Nine Hundred employs TriCool fans with speed regulation. There is a translucent window in the center of the side panel. The side surface is also covered with a metallic mesh nearby. It’s not quite clear where the manufacturer suggests the system case is placed. If on a desk, it won’t be easy to reach the buttons and ports on the top panel. If on the floor, under the desk, why the window?
Interestingly, there is a translucent plastic panel underneath the mesh. It keeps almost all the air from getting through the mesh. It is only in the center, between the two juts for fan fasteners, that there is a gap left for the air to pass through. Well, if you don’t want to install an additional fan, you can remove the plastic panel altogether.
It is the top panel that is the most impressive in this system case. The back half of it is all occupied by a huge 200mm fan. Being almost the same width as the system case, the fan must have an enormous air-pumping capacity. This is a very important thing for gamers because it is in gaming systems that you find the best and the hottest graphics cards and CPUs. The back of the top panel being occupied by the fan, the PSU resides at the bottom while the mainboard has moved up a little. The P182 has the same internal layout but the Nine Hundred doesn’t have a separate compartment for the PSU as the former has.
The 200mm fan belongs to the TriCool series and features three-level speed regulation with the following parameters:
This giant’s impeller creates a stronger airflow at 400rpm than a 120mm fan does at 2000rpm. The level of noise being equal, the 200mm fan at 400rpm is pumping through 2.5 times as much air as a 120mm fan at 1200rpm.
The buttons and additional connectors populate the slanted front part of the top panel: Power and Reset buttons, a FireWire port, two USB ports, and two audio connectors.
There is a depression between these components and the fan. You can use it for various small PC-related things such as flash drives.
A nice trifle: there is a special rubber pad at the bottom of the mentioned depression to protect the plastic of the top panel from scratches.
Notwithstanding the 200mm giant in the top panel, there is an additional 120mm fan on the back panel. If you’ve got a liquid cooling system with an external radiator, you can use the two outputs for pipes.
The feet are made from ordinary rubber now.
The chassis seems to be simple but as high quality as in the previous models. The only interesting thing here is the front part of the chassis with the tall rack.
The three top bays are meant for optical drives only. The six bottom ones can accommodate either 5-inch devices or one or two cages for HDDs.
Optical and other devices are fastened in the 5-inch bays in the most classic way: with screws, without rails or anything.
You don’t have to tear the brackets off: they are fastened with screws to the front part of the rack.
Each cage is fastened to the rack by means of four thumbscrews on each side of the case which is not convenient as you have to remove both side panels to take the cage out (by the way, you take it out from the front of the case). You have to delve into the system case when dealing with the cages anyway because there is a fan in the front part of each cage and the fan’s power connector goes into the interior of the system case.
Three HDDs can be installed in each cage and there are large enough gaps between them. They should be cooled properly.
The HDDs are secured with two long screws on each side of the cage. Don’t lose the screws – it won’t be easy to find a replacement for them.
If you want to limit yourself to three (or fewer) HDDs, you can install them all into the bottom cage. Then you can attach a plastic carcass for the installation of an additional 120mm fan to the top of the top cage. This fan will be driving the air along the graphics card, cooling the latter. This opportunity may be useful for systems with two graphics cards.
The developer didn’t forget about floppy drives and card-readers. You can install them using plastic rails and a special bracket for a 5-inch bay. It is good that the bracket is meshed like the others and won’t become a conspicuous element of the front panel.
If you’ve got a very long graphics card, you can fasten the included plastic piece to the front rack and use it as a support for the back of the card. That’s a nice trifle, but not quite properly designed. The piece is only one, so it cannot be used for configurations with two graphics cards. And the graphics card must be a specific size for you to use this thing. My card proved to be insufficiently long, for example.
The mainboard and expansion cards are secured with screws. You should first install the PSU, though. If you’ve got a PSU with a 120mm fan, you should position it with the fan facing upward. Note that the PSU must have long cables – they have to reach through the entire case almost.
I wish the case were a couple of centimeters longer for more comfort. There is just too little room for cables between the back part of long expansion cards and the HDDs. It is hard to lay the cables there normally.
I would like to show you a photo of the operating system case. Its fans are highlighted and look very beautiful.
The Three Hundred is yet another model in the gamers-oriented series the Nine Hundred belongs to. The Three Hundred is simpler and considerably cheaper, though. Let’s see what has been sacrificed with the purpose of lowering the price.
The front panel looks almost the same as the senior model’s. It is a mesh. There are now three brackets in the 5.25-inch bays while the entire bottom is covered with a dual mesh: a coarse metal mesh on the outside and a fine synthetic one on the inside. By the way, the latter is fastened within a plastic frame that is secured by locks and can be easily removed – it is going to be easy to clean this mesh. Overall, it is all very practical again, without any creative extravaganza. It is all purely utilitarian and I can’t see anything particularly beautiful here.
All the buttons and connectors are grouped in the top part of the front panel: this system case is obviously meant to stand on the floor. The selection is standard enough: Power and Reset buttons (the latter is sunken deep to prevent your pressing it accidentally), two sound ports in the center and two USB connectors on the left. The USB ports are placed far from each other so that the connected devices didn’t interfere.
The side window is now missing. Instead, there is a 120mm fan seat covered with a punched-out mesh.
The side panels are fastened simply with screws. These are thumbscrews, so you won’t have to look for a screwdriver to open the case.
Like in every system case from Antec’s gaming series, there is an exhaust fan at the back of the top panel. This fan is removing the hot air from the hottest components, the CPU and graphics card. This time, however, it is a 140mm fan covered with a punched-out grid from above, rather than a 200mm monster. Easy to guess, the power supply has moved to the bottom of this case, too. As for the fan, it is yet another TriCool series model with three-level speed regulation.
The big diameter helps this fan create a stronger airflow at somewhat lower rotation speeds than 120mm models do.
There is a 120mm fan at the back panel but the outputs for liquid cooling systems with an external radiator are now missing due to the positioning of the model and its lowered price. Otherwise, the back panel is quite ordinary.
Like with the Nine Hundred, the feet are made from soft rubber. Their traction is strong. It is hard to move the standing system case. The feet also suppress vibrations from the working PC.
The chassis has been simplified somewhat. Its right rack now has the classic design with three 5.25-inch bays at the top and six 3.5-inch bays at the bottom. Take note that the 3.5-inch bays are all internal; none of them opens to the front panel. There are no rails to install 3.5-inch devices into 5.25-inch bays. So if you need a card-reader or a floppy drive (yes, it is a prehistoric device but some people need it still), you have to use external USB-interfaced models. I guess the manufacturer should have provided rails for 5.25-inch bays, though.
The mainboard and expansion cards are fastened in the standard way: poles and screws. There are no mechanisms for screw-less fastening. Although not very quick, this is a simple and reliable method.
The quality and thickness of the chassis are all right. Everything is solid and robust. You can’t bend anything with your finger as with cheap system cases. It’s nice that the lower price of this model hasn’t affected this aspect. After all, the chassis is the foundation every other component is attached to.
The PSU fastening mechanism is simple: four supports from below and one plate from above, four classic screws at the back panel. It is good the PSU can be installed upside down, i.e. with the horizontal fan facing up.
Take note of the additional strut in the left part of the photo: it adds rigidity to the chassis so that it didn’t bend lengthwise.
The HDDs and optical drives are also fastened with screws, without any rails, cages or anything. There is one peculiarity only. Every HDD is fastened with thumbscrews, so you can do without a screwdriver. On the downside, you have to remove both side panels in order to do anything with the HDDs.
The back part of the 3.5-inch rack is designed as a depression in the case. You can tuck unnecessary cables in here. There are two handy straps for cables available.
Unfortunately, the system case comes without fans on the front panel although there are two seats for 120mm fans there. It is easy to access them: there are locks on one side of the plastic front panel only. The other side is held with brackets, so you don’t have to remove the back cap. The doors the fans are installed into are closed with thumbscrews. It is easy to install HDDs from here, especially if the mainboard is already in the case. Alas, there are no rails and you have to remove the back panel of the rack to install your HDDs.
It is easy to assemble your PC in this system case. The sequence of actions is absolutely standard. One thing should be noted, though. As the photo above shows, the case is not very long and a long optical drive will hang over the mainboard. My 19-inch drive blocks the mounting hole for the mainboard, so I had to fasten the latter first and then install the optical drive.
There are a few assembly-related peculiarities. The low position of the PSU means that its cables should be long. The standard 12V and 24V connectors have to reach a long way to the mainboard’s top where the appropriate plugs usually reside. And I wish the case were a couple of centimeters longer because the power connector of long graphics cards, placed near the back edge of the PCB, is going to press against the HDD opposite it (and my graphics card is not the longest available). Take note how clean and neat the interior of the case looks because most of the excess cables are hidden in the niche at the back of the HDD rack.
As opposed to the previous cases, the Antec NSK3480 is meant for microATX or smaller mainboards. If you don’t have any special requirements to your PC, why not assemble it in a small system case? A modern PC seldom has expansion cards other than the graphics card and some people even use an integrated graphics core. A modern mainboard already incorporates all the interfaces you need, from audio to HDMI. If you have such a system, you don’t need a large and heavy system case.
The front panel resembles the one of the Sonata Plus 550 but with fewer 5-inch bays and without the bronze bezel. The vent holes in the side panel are yet another difference. Moreover, there are vent holes between the protruding silvery part of the front panel and the black part behind it.
Power and Reset buttons and a column of additional ports are placed on the right of the front panel. The ports include one FireWire, two USB and two audio connectors.
The back panel is perfectly standard. It’s good the manufacturer has managed to fit a 120mm exhaust fan in there, which is a rare thing for a microATX system case. The fan belongs to the TriCool series and features speed regulation.
The case stands on black rubber feet.
To access the internals of the case you have to remove the top panel first. Then you should pull the side panels up.
The chassis is as simple as possible. The edges are all finished and rolled in where necessary. The case is again divided into two compartments. The top one contains both 5-inch bays and the PSU. The rest of the components are in the bottom compartment, separated by a metallic plate that has a slit for the interface cables. The power cables are supposed to go to the bottom compartment through the hole in the side metallic plate – its size is regulated by changing the position of the plastic cap.
This design solution makes sense for a compact system case because some of hot components, including the PSU, are separated from the mainboard. Additionally, the airflows are simplified to avoid turbulences.
You can install two 92mm fans on the front panel. Their seats occupy almost the entire internal side of the front panel in such a compact case.
A plastic diffuser is installed on the vent holes in the side panel. It delivers the air closer to the CPU fan. This thing is not very efficient, though. It can only be good for small coolers, similar to the boxed ones. You should remove the diffuser when you install a large cooler.
It is fastened with four screws. You can install an 80mm fan instead of it.
There are two HDD seats in this system case: in the center of the bottom panel, and on the top side of the metallic plate that separates the compartments (instead of a 5-inch device).
The HDDs are installed on special trays. And you attach them to the trays using soft damping pads on long screws: Antec prevents vibrations even in compact system cases.
If you limit yourself to one HDD at the bottom of the case and want to install two devices into the 5-inch bays or install a card-reader into the appropriate bay, you have to remove the front panel. Unfortunately, you have to tear the brackets off while the front vent holes have no protection against dust.
The devices in the 5-inch bays are fastened with screws – there is too little room in there for rails or anything. You also use screws for fastening the mainboard and expansion cards. Antec remains conservative on this matter, using time-tested solutions only.
It is always less convenient to assemble a PC in a compact system case. Here the task is even more difficult because the interior is divided into two compartments. I would recommend you the following sequence of steps (for a system with two HDDs):
There are two problems you can’t avoid, both related to the HDDs. The bottom HDD is getting in your way when you are installing the mainboard, and it is very difficult to remove or install it with the mainboard already in place – it is hard to access the farther screws. The HDD also blocks the bottom PCI slot while a microATX system has very few expansion slots to start with. As for the top HDD, it occupies one of the two available 5-inch bays and provokes problems when you try to connect the cables. You’ll have to remove the optical drive above in order to access this HDD when the system is assembled. Moreover, if you want to install the bottom HDD and an advanced graphics card with a dual-slot cooler, you’d better choose a mainboard where the PCI Express x16 slot goes first rather than second as in the photos above: this will leave a gap between the HDD and the graphics card, providing enough air to the latter.
Take note of the small distance between the back panel of the optical drive and the PSU. And I use a shortened (170mm) drive. If you have a longer model, it is going to be difficult to connect the power plug into a 180mm one and there won’t be enough room for the cables. A 190mm drive won’t fit in altogether.
The Antec EarthWatts EA-380 power supply this system case comes with was the biggest problem, though. Judging by its short cables, the PSU was specifically trimmed to fit the system case, but the developer overdid it a little. I just could not reach the mainboard with the 24-pin connector. The cable would be too short even if the connector were in the mainboard’s top corner. Theoretically, this cable might go through the bottom rather than side slit but the slit is too narrow. The connector’s key prevented it from going through. And I didn’t want to cut the key off. As a result, I solved the problem by means of a 10cm extension cord, yet I was really disappointed.
The Antec NSK1380 is a super-compact system case, close to barebone systems with its dimensions, but fully compatible with microATX mainboards. It means it offers wider assembly and upgrade opportunities.
It is a short and low cube. It is hard to believe at first that it can accommodate a microATX mainboard. This case is going to be appreciated by people who like compact systems. It is easy to find a place on your desk for this one.
The exterior design is demure and laconic, the three silvery buttons being the only eye-catching elements on the black front panel. These are Power, Reset and Eject buttons. The latter opens up the optical drive located in the single 5-inch bay behind a flip-down cover.
Additional connectors are placed below: two USB ports and two audio connectors. Considering the lack of a 3.5-inch bay, it would be good to have an integrated card-reader on the front panel (many barebone systems have one) but the developer didn’t implement it for some reason.
The ventilation is simple: there are two rows of vent holes going along the bottom edge of the side panels and vertical slits between the center and the sides of the front panel.
The back panel has an odd look. The mainboard lies on the bottom of the case, so its connectors are at the bottom, too. In fact, this is Desktop rather than Tower orientation. Most of the back panel is occupied by a 120mm fan – a very large fan for such a small case. Its speed cannot be adjusted manually. Being integrated into the power supply, the fan adjusts its speed depending on the current temperature.
There is a vent hole at the back of the top panel. It is covered with a metallic mesh.
The side panels are two-layered to reduce noise.
The NSK1380 has simpler feet than the above-discussed models – just four small rubber discs. Now I remove the front panel by pushing it backward and the side panels by pulling them forward and have a look inside.
I also take the cage for optical and hard drives out. You just have to pull its back part up – the cage easily turns on two metallic juts and slips out.
There is a rubber damper between the cage and the panel. The developer follows his vibration-reducing policy consistently.
The case is surprisingly roomy inside. The internal side of the front panel left me perplexed. There is a slit in the chassis a card-reader might fit into but the front panel doesn’t allow that as it has no opening there. There is also no opportunity to install a system fan although there is enough room for it here (running a little ahead, I did try to install a 80mm fan between the front panel and the mainboard but found it to have but a small effect on the temperature of the components).
An Antec AR-350 power supply is located at the back. The PSU is very compact and has a nonstandard L-shaped form-factor. It means you won’t be able to replace it with some other model if it fails.
The mainboard is fastened in a peculiar way. You put it down on poles and move on to the protruding hooks, fixing it in place. The two rear poles are threaded – the mainboard is secured with screws on them.
Of course, you begin the assembly by installing the mainboard with memory sticks, CPU and cooler. Unfortunately, this system case is too small to accommodate my Zalman ZNPS9500 AT cooler and I had to take another cooler for it. No cooler with a 120mm fan could fit in, but the main problem was the height rather than the width or length of the cooler. The maximum height is 65mm because the PSU is right above the processor, limiting the cooler’s height. So I eventually chose a Floston FCI7751S-4P. The Scythe Shuriken SCSK-1000 would be the best choice but I didn’t have it when testing this system case.
I’d like to recommend one modification for owners of the NSK1380 as well as for Antec developers. The impeller of the CPU cooler’s fan is rotating right below the grid in the PSU case, producing a low but irritating noise. You can avoid it by sticking a plastic bar to the PSU that would separate the airflows of the PSU and the CPU cooler as shown in the photo above (by the way, it already shows the mentioned Scythe Shuriken installed).
Next you install your expansion cards. I had no problems even with such a long graphics card as my HIS ATI HD 3870. I had no problems installing it but did have some with powering it up. The PSU installed in this system case doesn’t provide a 6-pin graphics card connector. This might have been expected as few people would want to install such advanced graphics cards into such a small system case. I solved the problem by means of an adapter.
Included with the case is a small blower that occupies one expansion slot. You may want to install it into the first slot, the closest to the CPU. The blower will then help removing the hot air away from the CPU, which is a problem in such a small system case. So if you are going to use an advanced graphics card, it is desirable that the PCI Express x16 slot is the second, not the first, slot on the mainboard. Otherwise, you won’t be able to install both the blower and the graphics card normally. Fortunately, there are quite a lot of such mainboards available in shops.
The fastening of the brackets is not handy. You have to remove the locking plate on the external side of the back panel by undoing two screws on the plate as well as four screws on the brackets since they go through the holes in the plate.
Now it’s time to deal with the drives. The optical drive goes first into the cage. It is followed by HDDs, one of which is placed flat under the optical drive while two more are positioned upright on the sides.
The resulting arrangement looks funny, yet very easy to deal with. By the way, the horizontal HDD is fastened with screws and rubber spacers while the upright-standing ones, with ordinary screws.
The system case can theoretically accommodate three HDDs but one of them competes with the graphics card for the same room. I decided to install two HDDs and an advanced full-size graphics card to have a rather high-performance configuration as the result. If you are not into gaming, you can use the mainboard’s integrated graphics core but install three HDDs.
The next step of the assembly process must be the most difficult one. You begin by connecting all the power and interface cables to the mainboard. Then you should put the cage with the drives into the case at an angle. You don’t put it down but leave it slanted. Then you connect power to the optical and hard disk drives. You’ll need all your dexterity for this because there is very little space for your fingers while the power cables are very short (and they must be short because it wouldn’t be possible to lay long cables neatly in such a small case).
A minute of fumbling with the cables and the system is ready! The components are packed densely. There is only free room near the front panel. The rest of the interior is occupied.
The purpose of the vent holes in the top panel becomes clear now. The CPU cooler is just opposite that spot.
The assembly process is handy overall, making allowances for the dimensions of the case. The open case is easily accessed from any side while all the drives are placed into one detachable cage.
Before getting to the tests proper, I would like to show you the following table that lists the basic specs of the system cases:
The tests are performed with a closed and assembled system case at a constant ambient temperature that is maintained by a conditioner. Most users are likely to prefer quieter PCs, so I set the CPU cooler in the Silence mode (the quietest of the three modes offered by modern mainboards from ASUS). The system fans worked in the Low mode. I did not modify the configuration of airflows except that I removed the funnels from the back panels.
The following configuration was assembled in the tested system cases:
The ASUS P5G-MX does not support a 1333MHz FSB, so the E6850 processor was clocked at 266x9=2400MHz on it instead of its default 3GHz. The CPU dissipates quite a lot of heat even in this mode for a good test of system cases like the NSK3480 and NSK1380. Top-end CPUs are unlikely to be installed into such compact cases. Moreover, it is reasonable to consider the Core 2 Duo E8xxx series, with very low heat dissipation, for the NSK1380.
Some cases were shipped without the PSUs, so for Antec P182 and Nine Hundred system cases we used Antec NeoPower 650 Blue power supply and Antec Three Hundred – Xigmatek NRP-MC651.
I want to note that I had no power-related problems with my configuration even when I used the 350W NSK1380. This issue is covered in more detail in our review of Antec power supplies.
The CPU temperature was read with the ASUS PC Probe program supplied with the mainboard. The HDD temperature was reported by HDD Thermometer. The graphics card’s temperature was read with its driver.
There were the following test modes:
Each temperature was read after half an hour of operation in each test mode, i.e. when the temperatures had stabilized.
The level of noise is evaluated subjectively.
Let’s first check out the results for each system case and see how the cooling of the HDDs depends on their positions.
The HDDs are numbered by their positions: the HDD1 and HDD2 are in the top cage, the others in the bottom cage. Obviously, the top cage calls for an additional fan because the HDDs are considerably hotter in it. The temperature is not dangerous, but high indeed.
As for the noise factor, the case is all right. You can only hear the fans working at minimum speed if you put your ear right next to the case. The sound of the HDDs’ heads could be heard during the IOMeter test yet it was much muffled. And you should note that the Raptor series drives are targeted at workstations and entry-level servers and do not work quietly. When the fan speed was set at 1600rpm, you could hear the fans. At maximum speed they produced an audible hum.
The HDDs are numbered from top to bottom again. There is a smaller difference between them and it is the higher HDDs that are cooled better now. They are closer to the back-panel fan whereas the bottom HDDs are farther from the fan and in a nook where the airflows can barely reach.
The noise is somewhat higher than with the P182. I could hear the HDDs more distinctly than in the previous case.
The HDDs are numbered from top to bottom. The system case is superb in terms of cooling. It is going to be a good choice for an advanced gaming configuration.
There is more noise, however. The fans are all right. They are very quiet while the 200mm fan at 400rpm is completely silent. The problem is that the HDDs are only separated from the outer world by the metallic mesh in the brackets and the cages, so their sound reaches the user in full. If the HDDs are not accessed, the case is but slightly worse than the Sonata Plus 550 in terms of noisiness.
The HDDs are numbered from top to bottom. The components are somewhat hotter than in the Nine Hundred, but there are fewer system fans. To remind you, the Three Hundred comes with the top fan and the back-panel 120mm fan preinstalled. It doesn’t have a fan on the front panel. Despite that, the case cools the HDDs and mainboard better than the above-discussed P182 and Sonata do. The Nine Hundred and Three Hundred also keep the graphics card’s temperature lower as the hot air coming from the CPU is efficiently removed from the reverse side of the graphics card. People who have top-end graphics cards or cards with passive coolers are going to appreciate this. The temperature of the HDDs in the Three Hundred can be as low as in the Nine Hundred if you install fans on the front panel (a fan is especially desirable in the bottom corner).
The case is about as noisy as the Nine Hundred. The fans are almost silent in the quiet mode, hum audibly at medium speed, and become irritating at high speed. The main problem is the sound of the HDDs that are only separated from the user with a mesh.
The HDD1 is on the bottom of the case, the HDD2 is in the top compartment under the optical drive. Cramped in the limited room with weak airflows, the HDD1 is somewhat hotter. The HDD2 feels better as it is surrounded with air that is refreshing by the PSU fan. Yes, it would be good to install a system fan in the bottom seat on the front panel. A short graphics card is better for it, too. Otherwise, the system case coped quite well with cooling my rather advanced test configuration.
The level of noise is about as high as that of the Sonata Plus 550, perhaps a bit higher. I guess it is acceptable for such a small system case.
The HDD1 is placed flat under the optical drive. The HDD2 is vertically to the side of the latter. The difference in the temperatures can be easily explained. The HDD1 has more space around it which is important for such a dense component placement as in this system case.
The case coped with cooling the HDDs, though. The problem was about the CPU cooler I could fit into it. When the CPU load was high, the cooler would instantly reach its maximum speed of 2500rpm yet could not keep the temperature low. The CPU was steadily getting hotter and hotter until began to skip clock cycles at 80°C.
I thought about the issue for a while. I didn’t have a Scythe Shuriken then but had a few different coolers similar to the Floston. I first tried a cooler named Tornado: it had the same fan as the Floston but a taller heatsink. The temperature lowered by a few degrees. Interestingly, the Floston had a copper core while the Tornado’s heatsink was all aluminum. It means that it is the heatsink surface area rather than the material that is most important for modern CPUs that have a heat-spreading cap.
Next I turned to more respectable manufacturers and took a GlacialTech Igloo 5057 PWM PP. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit into the NSK1380 by a couple millimeters. Then I took the fan from the GlacialTech cooler (a rated speed of 3600rpm) and installed it on the heatsink of the mentioned Tornado (2500rpm) hoping to keep the CPU temperature below 70°C.
I was surprised to see the cooler do much better with the new fan. The CPU temperature had been over 75°C at 2500rpm but now it was 69°C at 1928rpm after half an hour of the Prime95 test. It is with this handmade cooler that I performed the tests.
Why did I tell you all that if there exists the Scythe Shuriken, developed specifically for compact system cases? Well, I just wanted to illustrate the fact that brand-name coolers, although obviously similar to no-name ones, prove to be better in practical applications. You don’t pay for the brand only, you pay for quality!
From the noise aspect, the CPU cooler and the blower produced most noise in the NSK1380. The blower doesn’t have a tachometer or a speed regulator. You can only make it quieter by connecting to 7V power. On the whole, I made three modifications (replaced the CPU cooler with the Scythe Shuriken, switched the blower to 7V power, and stuck a plastic bar to the PSU as written above) that transformed the NSK1380 into a quiet system case. It was quite comfortable even in a living room at night. Of course, it is all more difficult with small system cases because compact coolers are not popular and you have to pick up your CPU from economical series, but that’s the tradeoff of the compactness. But I want to note again that I assembled a really advanced gaming system in the NSK1380, with a superb CPU and a very fast graphics card.
Generally speaking, the main cooling-related problem of the NSK1380 is that the airflows are different. The fans of the components drive the air in different directions. The scheme that Intel suggested in its BTX standard might work here: the CPU at the front edge of the mainboard, its fan driving the air along the latter. Alas, BTX mainboard are so rare that the NSK1380 would become yet another barebone kit if it were designed in BTX form-factor.
Now let’s compare the system cases. To remind you, the CPU works at a lower clock rate in the NSK3480 and NSK1380. A weaker CPU cooler is employed in the NSK1380. The temperature of the hottest HDD is shown in the diagram.
The Nine Hundred is the leader in Idle mode. Then comes it younger brother, Three Hundred, far ahead the rest of the gang. However, it evidently lacks at least one fan for air intake right opposite to the hard disk drives. The NSK3480 should be noted, too, for excellent CPU cooling. The reduced CPU clock rate leads to a lower temperature, which indicates good cooling. Once again, the HDDs in the top cage of the P182 are not cooled well.
The Nine Hundred is on top, again. Well, this system case is nearly an open testbed considering the number and size of its system fans. As for the Three Hundred, even without the fans at the HDDs they get better cooling than in cases with traditional internal structure thanks to the airflow created by two fans in the upper corner and meshed front panel. The P182 and NSK3480 have problems cooling some of the HDDs.
The Zalman CNPS9500 AT will cool the CPU all right if it is given enough air. Every system case passes the test normally except that the CPU is hot in the NSK1380 just as expected – I wrote about that above.
This is the most important test which is close to real-life conditions. After all, games are the most demanding application for today’s PCs. Other applications require weaker hardware components with lower heat dissipation. The coolers of modern graphics cards exhaust the hot air right out of the system case, so the case ventilation should just not heat the card up too much. Every system case copes with this job. The NSK3480 is somewhat worse than the others because the graphics card and the HDD are too close to each other in it. As I noted above, for such a configuration you should use a mainboard on which the PCI Express x16 slot is the first rather than second one. I would like to mention once again that Nine Hundred and Three Hundred cases demonstrated remarkable cooling: both of them showed 6°C better mainboard temperature than their rivals in the today’s test session. Even Three Hundred coped better than the others with HDD cooling, and Nine Hundred equipped with two fans for air intake demonstrated 8ºC better HDD temperature than its younger brother and 11°C better temperature than the remaining cases.
Talking about Antec’s system cases in general, they are all a pleasure to deal with. The developer does not forget about the need to reduce vibrations and noise while the quality of manufacture is very high.
The P182 is the most questionable model, I guess. It features an excellent design, superb sound insulation, and a number of nice trifles. But on the other hand, its front door is flimsy and there is a lack of one fan on the front panel. These drawbacks seem to be small but they affect the impression from such an expensive product.
The Nine Hundred is meant for hot configurations. It won’t provide you silence or special conveniences but its 200mm fan is a weighty argument when it comes to pure cooling.
The Three Hundred is yet another system case for those who need very good cooling but it is simpler than the Nine Hundred. If you need good cooling rather than HDD cages and modular design, this system case is going to be appealing to you with its price, quality and cooling efficiency. But don’t forget to add a fan to the front panel!
The Sonata 550 Plus is just a good workhorse. It allows you to assemble a quiet and easy-to-use PC. Some people may find it a bit too expensive, but I guess it is worth the price.
The NSK3480 is a good compact case for undemanding users. The case can accommodate an advanced configuration but you won’t want to get inside it often. If you install two HDDs into it, you should install an additional fan as well. And check out the length of the PSU cable with the 24-pin mainboard connector!
The tiny NSK1380 is not much different from the NSK3480 but you have to choose your CPU and cooler properly. There are few system cases of such a small size that can offer you the capabilities of this one.