Big Guys: Antec Twelve Hundred and A+ Black Pearl System Cases

Despite similar - and pretty big – size, these two system cases designed in Big Tower form-factor offer us two completely different approaches to organization of their internal space and structure. Read our review for more details.

by Aleksey Meyev
02/16/2009 | 11:11 AM

Big Tower system cases are often used to showcase the manufacturer’s technical muscle by utilizing a lot of original and proprietary features. It is not the sheer size as much as the characteristic aspects of usage that lead to this. Few people are going to use such a huge system case to assemble a home computer, let alone an office system or other type of an electronic typewriter, because the resulting PC will be huge but most of its slots and bays empty. Yes, a larger case is going to be somewhat better than the ordinary Midi Tower form-factor when it comes to cooling, assembly, and upgrade opportunities, but the size and mass may outweigh those advantages. So, a computer assembled in a Big Tower is going to have some specific purpose for which its large size will be a positive rather than negative factor.

 

It is in Big Towers that users usually build high-performance workstations or advanced gaming stations with top-of-the-line CPUs and graphics cards. Why? Because a large case allows to cool such top-end components more effectively. Another popular application for such computers is to be a server, particularly a file-server. Here, such factors count in as the opportunity to install a lot of hard disks and to access them easily (if a disk fails in a RAID array and needs replacement) and to ensure that all those disks are cooled properly. Using a Big Tower computer on a home network or in a small office may be more cost-effective than buying a specialized server designed for a 19-inch rack. Easy access to components, excellent cooling and a lot of free room. These are the traits of large system cases that extreme overclockers, system administrators and hardware tester are absolutely fond of.

Antec Twelve Hundred

We have already tested Antec’s small and medium system cases. Now we are going to take a look at the large Antec Twelve Hundred. The smaller models used to have highly efficient cooling. Let’s see what their bigger cousin can show.

 

The exterior design is purely utilitarian and even the window in the side panel cannot change this impression. The very presence of the window is questionable, actually. This giant of a system case is unlikely to be placed on a desk. And if it is standing on the floor, looking into the window won’t be much fun, although some users may disagree with us.

The I/O connectors can be found on the top panel, indicating again that this system case is meant to stand on the floor or somewhere down there.

The entire front panel is made up of metallic vent grids placed in the twelve 5-inch bays. You can see the serious approach to cooling right away: three 120mm fans are visible through the bottom nine bays. They are obviously installed on HDD racks.

Yet another peculiar cooling-related feature of this series is a large fan protruding above the rear part of the top panel and covered by the same metallic mesh as the front panel. Like in the Nine Hundred, it is a 200mm fan from the exclusive Tricool series that features a 3-step speed adjustment setting.

The 120mm fans installed in this system case are Tricool, too.

The point of the large fan becomes obvious if you compare the numbers in the two tables. Producing about the same amount of noise, it creates a much stronger airflow. The difference is especially conspicuous at low speed where the 200mm fan is more than two times as effective as its 120mm cousins. Interestingly, it is also more economical at that.

Now let’s get back to the front panel now. We’ve got two classic buttons here, Power and Reset. They differ in size and are placed at the two opposite ends of the slanting surface, so you cannot press a wrong button by mistake.

The system case has two USB ports, two audio connectors and an eSATA port. Owners of camcorders with FireWire interface may be disappointed but users of external HDDs with eSATA will like the change. The connectors are placed wide apart from each other so that the connected cables and devices did not get in each other’s way.

The top part of the case being occupied by the fan, the power supply compartment has moved to the bottom. The mainboard is located higher than usual here.

Most system cases have only one 120mm fan at the back, but here we’ve got two of them. You can also see two rubberized openings for the pipes of a liquid cooling system.

There is a fan control unit in the top left corner of the back panel. You can use it to adjust the speed of the two rear 120mm fans as well as of the top-panel 200mm beauty. Highlighting can be turned on/off for the latter. We guess the only problem with this control unit is its simplicity. The tiny switches are handy enough, but the functionality might have been broader.

Antec must have decided that nobody will try to topple this system case down on its side. Therefore, it is equipped with ordinary soft-rubber feet rather than with flip-down supports as in many other products of this form-factor. The feet prevent the case from sliding and suppress vibrations well enough.

A large part of the side window is covered by the already familiar metallic mesh. A sheet of transparent plastic is behind it. It is from the same plastic that the fastening for a 120mm fan (Antec seems to neglect all other fan sizes) is made. The user is supposed to install an intake fan for cooling the graphics card or expansion cards: the opening is covered by a mesh filter. The latter can be easily taken off and cleaned if necessary.

We’ve finally reached the interior. There is nothing extraordinary here, though. The right part of the case is occupied by a solid rack for hard and optical drives. The mainboard is fastened on hex-head poles with screws. The PSU does not have an individual compartment (as opposed, for example, to the Antec P182). The chassis is high quality as is typical of the company’s produce. Everything is thick steel and rigid. Every edge is neatly finished.

If you take off the other side panel and take a look at the case from the other side, you can see that the Twelve Hundred provides some room for hiding various cables between the mainboard’s mounting plate and the side panel. You just put the cables through the holes into this space and leave the interior of the system case free for better airflows. There are a few preattached ties here and a few protrusions for attaching more. A few such ties are shipped with the case.

 

There is even a special slit on the top left. You can hide a 12V CPU cable (it is usually located in this corner on most mainboards) and fan cables into it. In other system cases, you often have to stretch such cables over the mainboard.

The cooling of the top part of the case is very serious with two exhaust fans at the back panel and one exhaust fan at the top. There is no chance that hot air might linger inside.

Antec takes a conservative approach to fastening expansion and graphics cards. You have to use screws. Take note that the expansion-slot brackets and the part of the chassis near them are all perforated for ventilation.

The PSU is accommodated without much sophistication. It just rests on four rubber pads, being fastened to the back panel of the case with four screws. So, you have protection against vibrations and can turn the PSU upside down if your model has a horizontal fan. There is nothing else we might wish, really.

5-inch devices are fastened in their bays with screws.

The HDD cages are almost the same as in the Nine Hundred. Each can take in three HDDs that are secured at the sides with long screws. The cages themselves are attached to the system case with four thumbscrews. It means you have to either leave the cage unfastened or remove both side panels in order to take the cage out. This is not handy.

On the interior of the top cage there is a plastic casing for an additional 120mm fan. Unfortunately, it prevents installing HDDs into the cage. But if the other two cages are enough for your purposes, you can use this opportunity to add one more cooling fan.

In the front part of the cage there is a small plastic handle. You can pull it up as in the photo above.

Pull it and you take out a fan filter. The Nine Hundred doesn’t have this, so the bigger model offers small but pleasant advantages over the other models from the same series.

The second difference of the Twelve Hundred’s cages is the small, almost invisible, handle sticking out of the metallic mesh at the front. You can use it to adjust the speed of the fans. With the Nine Hundred, you have to open the case up and get to the toggle on the interior of the cage for that.

If you’ve got a card-reader, you can install it into a 5-inch bay by means of the included rails.

The second and third bays counting from the top are covered with additional brackets besides the meshed faceplates. This helps maintain the consistency of design of the front panel and protect the case from dust.

 

It was easy to assemble a computer in this system case. There is a lot of room inside and we didn’t find any pitfalls.

We’d like to note it once again that the interior of the system case looks very neat because the cables can be hidden behind the mainboard’s mounting plate. But don’t forget that your power supply has to have long enough cables for such assembly.

 

And finally, here are a couple of photos of the working computer. The highlighting is very pretty, creating an illusion of three beams of blue lights inside each HDD cage.

The only downside is that the highlighting is rather bright. You can turn it off easily for the top fan, but there is no standard way of doing the same for the 120mm fans.

Antec A+ Black Pearl

The A+ Black Pearl is also shipped under the Tagan brand. The close relation of the two brands can be easily discovered: the website with the description of the A+ Black Pearl also lists Tagan power supplies (don’t be surprised at the address: you are redirected to that site after you type www.aplus-case.de in your browser). And there is exactly the same model with the same name and even with a characteristic logo at the Tagan website. Anyway, we are interested in the system case regardless of how you call it.

 

This black aluminum thing is huge even in comparison with other products of its class. It is 60 centimeters tall and over half a meter long. As opposed to the Antec Twelve Hundred, it does not look like a functional worker. It is rather a stylish dandy in black suit. It has a conventionally smooth front panel that transforms seamlessly into the top and bottom. 5-inch bays and an acryl insert with small display are the only protrusions in this smooth surface.

 

The design of this case is not standard, though. You can see this as soon as you take a look at its left panel. It is not black but has a huge window at the top, covered with a mesh. So, the mainboard is fastened to the opposite side and the interior layout is turned upside down. That is, the mainboard’s expansion slots are at the very top. The CPU is lower, and the power supply is at the bottom. This is an interesting component layout, but we don’t think it has any fundamental differences from the ordinary one.

There is a 120mm fan at the back: it is placed next to the CPU.

There are two vent grids for two 120mm fans in the top panel but no fans. You have to install them with your own hands.

At the back of the top panel there are two holes for the pipes of a liquid cooling system (if you need to take them out to an external radiator). The holes are covered with caps that are fastened with screws. There is no rubberized edging and the pipes may eventually cut on the edge. The position of the holes is questionable. The pipes will spoil the appearance of the system case unless you are going to put the radiator right on the computer. And if the radiator stands next to the system case, the pipes have to stretch quite a long way.

In the front part of the top panel there are I/O connectors covered by a neat flip-back panel. We’ve got two USB ports, two audio connectors and a FireWire port here. The connectors are too close to each other. You won’t be able to plug in even two not very wide flash drives simultaneously.

We’ve forgotten about the front panel and buttons, though. The Power and Reset buttons are designed in an ordinary way and located at the side of the acryl panel. They differ in size but the Reset button is not protected against an accidental press.

Now let’s take a look at the small 2-line display in the center. Running a little ahead, we can tell you that this display allows monitoring the temperature of an external sensor and the speed of fans connected to a special controller.

Besides the display, there is a shining logo and two small buttons on the acryl panel. The buttons can be used to adjust the speed of fans connected to the controller. Frankly speaking, this adjustment is implemented in a rather limited way. The buttons are small and unhandy and their functions are somewhat illogical: the left button steps up the speed of the fans while the right button steps the speed down. Most people would expect the opposite.

The bottom panel is perforated for ventilation.

The feet resemble those of the Zalman Z-Machine GT1000. These are soft supports with shiny rims. The feet match the appearance of the case but ordinary black columns wouldn’t be much worse (and it is not often that we see a system case with feet, anyway).

Now it’s time to remove the side panel and have a look inside. By the way, the panel is fastened in an unusual way. There is a long bar going along the top of the case. Its protrusions fit into the grooves in the panel and hold the latter in place. In order to take the side panel off, you must unfasten the spring-loaded thumbscrew on the back panel of the case and move the bar backwards. The panel is released and can be pulled up easily.

The interior of the case is divided into two large isolated compartments. The top compartment accommodates a mainboard and 5-inch devices. The bottom compartment is where hard disks and, behind a partition with holes, the power supply reside. The quality of manufacture is expectedly high but we don’t like the numerous holes in the mainboard’s mounting plate. One of the reasons for that is that the system case supports not only ATX and micro-ATX boards but also elongated E-ATX boards which are usually found in servers. There are no labels or marks of any sort near the holes, so even an experienced system integrator may get confused as to what holes to screw the mounting poles into.

Talking about server mainboards, a plate shown in the photo can be found among the accessories to this system case. It is meant for mounting the cooling system on Intel’s Nocona processors. This may serve as an indication of the date the system case was developed – the Nocona platform was introduced over 3 years ago.

Now let’s check everything out. There is a solid plate separating the case into two individual compartments. There are only two holes in it, the edges of the holes carefully wrapped in plastic. One hole leads to the PSU and is meant for power cables whereas the other hole is for the front part of the case, i.e. for the HDDs.

The implementation of the two-compartment concept might have been better. If the holes were bigger and had a moving cover, you could use a few SCSI cables (if you’ve got such HDDs still) or block the hole almost fully (if you use thin SATA cables).

The next thing worth mentioning is the special aluminum casing near the 120mm fan that is meant to drive the airflow from the CPU directly to the fan.

The position of the casing is adjusted with a thumbscrew within a special slit. It allows fixing the casing either parallel to the mainboard or at an angle to it. The casing is fastened with two screws and you will probably have to remove it. Installing a mainboard is much more difficult otherwise. It is easy to take the casing off but putting it back is not. It is hard to insert the bottom screw as you have to do that almost blindly. Is this casing effective? Perhaps it is going to be helpful for a passive cooler or a weak fan, but we don’t think it will be of any use for a full-featured cooler, especially if the latter is driving the air along the mainboard rather than across it.

The expansion slots are fastened with thumbscrews, too.

We did not like the way that optical drive are supposed to be installed into this system case. The main problem is with the decorative faceplates in the two top 5-inch bays. Installing an optical drive goes like this: you push the third faceplate from above out of the panel, unfasten the two top faceplates (they are secured with screws as opposed to the others), move them down without taking them out of the case, insert your optical drive from the front, fasten the drive with screws, lift and secure the two top faceplates with screws, and finally insert the third faceplate back into its place. All this takes much longer than the standard procedure of installing an optical drive into other system cases.

The bays, save for the two topmost ones, are equipped with a quick fastening system with flexible plastic locks. On the reverse side of each lock there is a prong that fixes the device in its place. On the opposite side of the bay, the device is held by an elastic pad. If this system looks insecure to you, you can also use ordinary screws.

It is unclear why this system could not be extended to the two top bays. The aluminum faceplates look better than plastic but installing or replacing a drive is a real torture.

Owners of floppy drives are not forgotten. You can install your device using the guide in the bottom 5-inch bay.

If you’ve got a card-reader, you can easily remove the faceplate from the guide.

The power supply is installed on a U-shaped base and is fastened to the back panel. By the way, you can replace the bottom part of the back panel for a part that is compatible with server PSUs with hot swap feature. The version for standard PSUs is not perfect, though. It provides a seat for two 80mm fans above the PSU (they should improve the cooling of the HDD cages) but you cannot turn the PSU upside down. As a result, a PSU with a 120mm or 140mm fan will have to take the air from the narrow space under the U-shaped base.

There is a second preinstalled 120mm fan in front of the HDD cages. It is fastened on a special aluminum frame. Above it you can see a fan controller with connectors for four devices. This controller feeds data to the front-panel display and interacts with the two speed adjustment buttons. The four attached fans are adjusted all together. It is good that the manufacturer has provided a couple of extension cords. If you install fans on the top panel, their cables will hardly reach to that corner through the entire interior.

Talking about the front-panel fan, you can unfasten the thumbscrews and remove the fan to see a fine dust filter.

This system case offers two cages, each for four HDDs (and you can buy cages for the 5-inch bays, too). The cages are not very rigid, though. They are fastened at the bottom panel while the top panel is not fixed at all.

It is easy to install a cage: just move it along the guides so that the heads of the protruding screws fitted into the appropriate grooves. After that you only have to fix the cage with a spring-loaded thumbscrew.

HDDs are installed into the cages using rubber vibration-absorbing pads.

The HDD with those pads attached goes into the cage until a stop. After that, the front pair of the pads is lowered into the special cutout. The fastening is secure and vibration-free. It would be perfect if the cages were more rigid.

If the case is going to be transported somewhere, the installed HDDs should additionally be fastened with screws in the center of the side panels.

 

The main problem we encountered when we were assembling our test configuration in this case was the above-mentioned procedure for installing an optical drive. Besides, you should have long SATA cables. The standard 50cm ones may not be long enough to stretch diagonally through the entire case (don’t forget the separating partition) from the bottom HDDs to the mainboard’s connectors. And one more thing: you should take the wires from the top-panel connectors out beforehand, prior to installing the optical drive, unless you want to check out your fingers for flexibility.

The cables have to be laid out inside the case as usual, but they don’t take much of its interior space. The bunch of cables over the HDDs is a nuisance, but not a big one.

Test Methods

The assembled system case is tested at a constant ambient temperature of 23°C maintained by an air conditioner. As we assume that most users prefer low-noise system cases, we set the speed of the CPU and system fans (those connected to the mainboard’s 3-pin connector) into Silent mode (the quietest mode on ASUS mainboards). We do not change the default configuration of airflows determined by system case design.

The following components are installed into the system case:

System cases without a preinstalled power supply are tested with an Enermax MODU82+ EMD625AWT (625W).

The CPU temperature is read with ASUS PC Probe included with the mainboard. The temperature of the HDDs is measured with HDD Thermometer. The graphics card’s temperature is reported by its control panel. There are the following test modes:

Every temperature is read after the system has worked for half an hour in the current test mode. The noise level is evaluated subjectively. The next table shows the brief specs of the tested system cases:

Test Results

First let’s take a look at the results of each system case individually and see how the cooling of HDDs depends on their position.

Antec Twelve Hundred @ min fan speed

The HDDs are numbered from top to bottom. HDD1 is located separately, in the center of the cage which is second from bottom. The other three HDDs occupy the bottom cage.

So, there is not much we can say about cooling. It is just perfect. The HDDs, mainboard, CPU, graphics card all feel comfortable. This is even better than an open testbed because an open testbed will never have such a strong airflow around all the components (unless you install a powerful fan to blow at it).

The amount of noise depends on what components you use. With our configuration, the hard disk drives were the main source of noise, being only separated from the user by the mesh and the fans. They are not very noisy at ordinary work, but when they are moving their heads actively (like in IOMeter’s Access Time test), you can hear them well. You don’t need an HDD activity indicator even. The fans, including the gigantic “propeller” on the top panel, are almost silent and only produce a soft hiss of the passing air.

When the speed is increased to medium, the fans begin to hum audibly. At high speed, they are about as loud as our 10,000rpm HDDs.

We also tested the case at the highest settings of all the system fans.

Antec Twelve Hundred @ max fan speed

So, what do we gain by increasing the fan speed to the maximum? Nearly every temperature is 2-3°C lower now, so the cooling efficiency is improved. However, this will only be really useful for users who have very, very hot (i.e. extremely overclocked) CPUs and graphics cards. The minimum fan settings are quite enough for other configurations.

The HDD results are especially impressive. They are as hot as the ambient air in ordinary mode. It is only under load that they become 2°C hotter. The temperature of the hottest of them (these are the outermost disks in the cages as they get somewhat less air) is below 30°C even at the minimum fan speed, which is an excellent result.

Antec A+ Black Pearl WCR Edition @ 1000RPM

The HDDs are numbered from top to bottom. They are all placed in the cage which is closer to the fan.

The HDDs are not cool in the A+ case. The temperature of all the HDDs is over 40°C even under zero load. When loaded, the HDDs are as hot as 51°C which is too much. Besides, the HDDs take a long time to cool down afterwards. The second-from-above HDD is somewhat cooler than the others as it is located opposite the fan. It looks like the fan is too weak while the bays and cages have high aerodynamic resistance. Of course, you can try replacing the fan, yet we cannot recommend this case for multi-disk configurations anyway.

Otherwise, the results are nothing but average.

As for the noise factor, the computer was not loud at the minimum speed of the fans (the display reported 1000rpm). The case is somewhat quieter than the Twelve Hundred under high HDD load and about as loud as it in the other situations.

Perhaps the temperatures will lower if we set the fans at the maximum speed of 1500rpm?

Antec A+ Black Pearl WCR Edition @ 1500RPM

Well, the HDDs are more comfortable now, but not cooler than 40°C. There is not enough airflow around the HDD cage.

The case is noisier in this mode. It is somewhat quieter than the Twelve Hundred at maximum speed, though.

Now let’s compare the two products.

The Twelve Hundred is the winner in idle mode. It does not really need the higher speed of the fans. Its advantage over the opponent in terms of HDD temperature is impressive. It is also good at cooling the mainboard.

Under high HDD load the difference between the two products is obvious. The Twelve Hundred is excellent even at the minimum speed of the fans while its opponent barely copes with the HDDs even at maximum speed. Take note of the small difference between the temperatures of the best and worst HDDs in the Twelve Hundred.

The Twelve Hundred is also better under high CPU load.

When it comes to gaming, the A+ copes almost as well as its opponent (unless you disregard the temperature of the HDDs). Take note of the high difference between the temperatures of the mainboard in the A+ at different fan speeds. The fan seems to be only capable of pumping the hot air off the CPU at low speed (we can recall the special casing here) but at a higher speed it can effectively drive the air through the entire system case. We guess that the A+ really calls for two additional fans for its top panel. It is only then that it will really make a good workstation.

Conclusion

The Twelve Hundred is indeed the acme of the series. And it is not meant for gaming configurations only. It will easily accommodate a workstation or a SOHO file-server for storing large amounts of data. It does not provoke a storm of emotions with its exterior, but everything is reliable, practical and problem-free, and the cooling of components is exceptionally good. The only downside is noise, but it is the noise from the hard disk drives rather than from the fans.

The A+ Black Pearl leaves different impressions. It is a big, rather pretty system case that supports E-ATX mainboards, offers wide component installation opportunities and has an integrated fan speed controller. On the other hand, it has a number of minor drawbacks in design and bad engineering solutions like the fastening of the optical drive faceplates. It is the poor cooling of HDDs that is the main problem with this system case. We don’t recommend you to install too many hard disks into it. You should even be careful with one or two HDDs.