*Updated* Cases 101

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Master of Turning Things Off and Back On Again
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Cases 101

Revision History
1.00 - Original - August 2006 (found HERE)
1.02 - October 2012

Credit to Praetor for the original shell of this 101 guide.

NOTE: If you have any questions on which case to choose, case questions, etc. simply start a thread in the "Computer Cases, Power Supplies, and Cooling" section.
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Master of Turning Things Off and Back On Again
Staff member
Section 01 - All them Fancy Terms
ATX, mATX, BTX etc
  • ATX An abbreviation for advanced technology extended, this form factor was designed to address the various problems of the AT (advanced technology) specification used in the 80s (involving motherboard layout and the motherboards connectivity to the power supply). ATX (rather, it's more recent incarnations and revisions) is the de-facto standard specification for motherboards, power supplies and system cases.
  • mATX Virtually identical to the ATX in almost every respect, the mATX specification is designed for those who want to minimize the size of computers for whatever reason. The mATX specification provides for the bare essentials for running a computer and for the most part, the most observable difference is that mATX boards lack a few of the expansion slots present in their larger cousins
  • mini-ITX. Unlike the ATX and BTX (below), mini-ITX is a non-Intel initiative (introduced by Via as a followup to the unsuccessful ITX specification which had an identical intention). The main selling point for mini-ITX is it's extremely small size and low thermal output (because the compatible Via processors were extremely low-thermal-output chips).
  • BTX. An abbreviation for balanced technology extended this was an Intel-initiative which was met without very much enthusiasm and was seen by many as an attempt by Intel to detract attention from the excessive thermal output of their later Pentium4 processors.
More colloquially, the form factor of a case can simply refer to it's size (because for the most part, almost everybody buys ATX compliant cases as BTX was, for all intents and purposes, a flop). In this light, cases are divided into a few categories:
  • Desktop PCs of the olden generation used to be like this and can be described as cases that lie down flat. [Example]
  • Full tower These are the big cases packing the most room for mounting additional equipment like waterpumps and resivoirs and such. If you want a case with a lot of interior room, the full tower is what you're looking for. Sometimes slightly smaller cases are classified as full-towers but in fact they belong to a unofficial class of cases known as SOHO (Small Office Home Office). For the most part, SOHO/Full-tower cases are synonomous [Example]
  • Media Center. Generally taller than cases with the Desktop profile and designed to be more sleek and to better blend into the home theater environment, these cases are very well suited for housing a home-threater computer. [Example]
  • Midtower. This is probably the most popular case size - not too big, not too small. [Example]
  • Mini-Tower If you want a very basic case to fit onto the corner of a desk or behind some books and dont want the added expense of a shuttle-style box, this is the the minimalist type of case specifically for your needs. [Example]
  • HTPC/Shuttle Now these cases are designed for the minimalist at heart. With barely enough room for everything, you can hide this case almost anywhere. Do pay attention to the cooling requirements if you choose to pursue this option however.[Example]
  • BTX BTX cases are very much like ATX ones except the layout is "upside down" (i.e., video card fans would face up instead of down) and generally, in relation to the ATX way of doing things, everything seems a bit "off". Normally one large fan is used in the front to blow over a large CPU heatsink and progress through the case. A rear fan may or may not be used here. It was used mostly by Dell and Gateway for some time, but is not seen much in modern computing today.[Example]

Internal vs External Bays
As the name suggests, these are expansion bays that allow you to add things like CD-ROM drives, hard drive, fan controllers etc. Intuitively, the internal vs external descriptor indicates whether or not the drive bay is accessible from the external environment or not (ie: CD-ROM drives go in an external bays, while hard drives are normally reserved for internal bays. Furthermore, drive bays come in two varieties, 3.5" and 5.25" which define the width of the bays respectively.

Expansion Slots
Directly related to the specification conformity of the case, this parameter defines how many PCI/AGP/PCI-Express or what have you slots the case supports. Generally speaking, the bigger (rather, the taller) the case, more the expansion slots will be supported. A small case like this only provides four such slots however a larger case like this one provides seven.

Drive Cages
All cases will have internal/external 5.25" and 3.5" bays however their implementations may be different.
  • Hard-mounted front-back. This is the type of drive cage found on a case like the Thermaltake Soprano and looks like this. In this case, any hard drives you install (in the bottom section) will be oriented in a front-back manner. Furthermore, the drive cage is built as a part of the chassis itself and is not removable.
  • Removable front-back. Very similar to the hard-mounted versions, this type of drive caging is common with fancier cases and allows you to remove sections (some or all) if you are not using them or you need the space for other components (such as a water pump). A case like the Aspire X-Navigator uses this system.
  • Perpendicular Cages. Similar to the hard-mounted front-back system, perpendicular cages just have the drives turned 90º. This is beneficial as it allows for very easy swapping of drives as well as access to the connectors, jumpers etc. A case like the Antec Sonata II use this this

Case Material
The three mainstream materials cases are made from are acryllic, steel and aluminum with specialty cases being made from other materials like wood, foam etc.
  • Steel. Steel is the standard case material; cases from all price brackets and all applications. All other things being the same, the quality of a steel case is dependent on its thickness: the thicker the steel the stronger (and more expensive), the case. I highly recommend steel cases over aluminum for durability. If you regularly remove the side panel, you're less likely to bend or break something.
  • Aluminum. Often praised for it's heat absorbing ability and its lightness is a material found in more premium cases (as aluminum is more expensive). Again it's strength depends on it's thickness. Normally the cheaper the case, the poorer the quality.
  • Acryllic. The appeal here is purely aesthetic - with an acrylic case, you can see everything in your computer and you aren't limited to just a window here and there. The downside to this material is it's expense as well as being prone to scratches. Cable management is also not very good, but that depends on the case itself.

With each new generation of hardware this becomes more of an issue: the cooling effectiveness of a case is determined by several factors
  1. The number and size of the fans available. A larger, performance-oriented case is more likely to have more bays for fans (and the bays are more likely to be larger).
  2. A larger case will have a larger amount of air inside it. Having a bigger case (and subsequently, more internal volume) means that is more air to heat up (and as such, the case is slower to heat up). A larger case also provides room for mounting additional cooling equipment
  3. Older (mid 1990s) cases got their fresh air by indirectly sucking it in through the front-bottom of the case. Modern cases have air directly flowing in through the front of the case and also have a plethora of intakes and exhausts
  4. All other things being the same, an aluminum case will be cooler than a steel/acrylic one (this is addressed more in the VFAQ)

Motherboard Tray
Really an over-hyped novelty that some of the more premium cases had. With a case that has a motherboard try, you can remove the tray, mount the motherboard easily outside of the case and then mount the tray back in the case (usually with two thumbscrews). This is a horribly overrated feature as it only "benefits" people who have small heatsinks and remove their motherboards a lot. Still, a novelty is a novelty and all things being equal, I suppose having a tray-option isn't bad.

A novelty with casebuilding that's developed over the last few years, a tooless case is one the computer can be mounted into the case without (or with very minimal use of) tools. Some cases implement cheap plastic clips to hold drives in place, or can use durable metal brackets. Rule of thumb: The more you spend on a case, generally the better the quality will be.

Rounded Edges
Cases of the 1990s were characterized by having sharp steel edges that, if you werent careful, could slice open your hand. cases with rounded edges have these edges dulled down significantly -- it's not impossible to slice yourself open however it is much more difficult.

SECC Steel
SECC is an abbreviation for Steel, Electrically Chromate Coated which essentially translates to "stainless steel".
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Master of Turning Things Off and Back On Again
Staff member
Section 02 - Ok so how do I pick a good case?
Step 01 - Pick your formfactor
There are some generalized considerations here
  • The most common case form factor is probably the mid-tower. Many mid-tower cases are just short of being considered a full tower case, and are generally all that is necessary. Full tower cases are only necessary if you really need a lot of expansion space or want lots of room for a liquid cooling setup.
  • The smaller the case, the more difficult it is to cool. This is an important consideration if you intend to build a computer using high performance (and thus, generally with high thermal outputs) components.
  • If you are looking to build a quiet computer, try and select a larger case as you can. By having a larger case, you reduce the amount of airflow required to maintain a given temperature which increases your options when it comes to fans and such (i.e., a large case may only require a net of 20cfm of airflow while a smaller case may require 30cfm). Furthermore, a larger case allows you to place heated devices like hard drives and such further apart (and allows for room to mount potentially bulky noise suppression devices)
  • If you are looking to build a high performance rig, again, look to the larger cases for the same reasons but also because, with a larger case comes more room to mount equipment that is more prevalent in high performance rigs such as additional front bay controllers, water/vapor coolers, large heatsinks etc etc.
  • With both performance-oriented and noise-oriented cases (or cases in general), larger cases generally come with larger fan mountings; karger fans in turn have a superior CFM/db rating as well.

Step 02 - Pick Your Material
There are three generic "camps" to choose from here each with it's up and its downs
  1. Steel
    • Pros: Middle of the road price, as steel is the "plain" or default choice of material. Also, for equal thickness, steel is the strongest case material choice; having a big heavy steel case is useful for those wanting to build file-servers both for providing nice solid mounts for the hard drives but also having a big strong heavy frame to dampen vibration (and thus reduce operational noise).
    • Cons Heavy! You don't want to transport it a lot, as you'd get real sick of carrying it back and fourth.
  2. Aluminum
    • Pros: Generally found on fancier and cheaper cases, aluminum is very light for a given thickness and compared to steel, is more thermally conductive. Being a lighter material than steel, aluminum is a great choice for case modders as it is significantly easier to cut through (for a given thickness).
    • Cons: While aluminum is a notably better choice for a budget case over steel, it's thermal usefulness in cases is often outrageously overly lauded. This article should put to rest any such notions. Also, with very thin aluminum cases, you'll have strength and rigidity issues. One must take care when removing side panels as they could bend easily. Lastly, being a lighter material, it has less ability to dampen vibrations.
  3. Acrylic
    • Pros: It's clear! While some people are content with having a simple window or two on their case, this is the next step -- having your entire case virtually see-through.
    • Cons: Being a softer material than steel and aluminum, acrylic scratches more easily (and being a look-at-me material, the scratches are more aesthetically damaging). Also, gotta be careful with alcohol around this material as it will case the material to bubble.
While there are other materials to choose from they are generally within the realm of enthusiast oriented cases and if you're reading a Cases 101 and looking for "how to pick a case", you should probably stick to the more standard options.

Another Note: Just because a case is made of, say, steel, does not mean it will be a stronger case than one that is made from aluminum. It's important to pick a heavy enough gauge of steel to house all your components! Otherwise you end up with cases that you can deform with your bare hands. Generally 0.8mm steel is sufficient with the higher end cases packing 1.0mm and 1.2mm steel. For aluminum cases, you'll want again 0.8mm as a minimum and the ideal point at 1.0mm.

Step 03 - Minor Details
Here is where you'll want to consider some (or all or none) of the following)
  • Do you plan to mod the case? If so, you may want to pick an aluminum case as aluminum is generally an easier material to cut through. Acrylic isn't a bad option either.
  • Do you plan to make your case brightly lit? In that case, at the least, consider a case-window or even an acrylic one. Do remember an acrylic case will show all light given off in every direction all the time. Side panels can be covered and also reduce overall light expenditure from the case.
  • Are you looking to make a nice solid, performance oriented box? Steel's your choice here with aluminum being an excellent alternative if you need the occasional mobility.
  • Do you plan to make use of fancy cooling devices whether they be high-end heatsinks or water-cooling? A SOHO or Full-server case will be definitely ideal as there is plenty of room to mount various extra devices in the case.
  • Do you have special requirements like the need to mount a dozen drives? Or for it to be allow for redundant PSUs? Or be dead silent?
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Master of Turning Things Off and Back On Again
Staff member
Section 03 - I'm Lazy! What case should I pick?

There are a TON of cases available on the market today. Some come with power supplies, some come without. Others have side panels, others don't. The list of features goes on and on. I would recommend shopping around on sites like Newegg and see what catches your eye and what features the case has that you want/need.

I personally recommend just getting a case without a power supply, as they are usually cheap, unreliable, and untrustworthy. You're best off picking a separate PSU.

Some of the top case manufacturers are:

Lian Li


Cooler Master




In Win





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