PC Case Options

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2212, 2004-03-19, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 24-25) and their website.

If you are in the market for a new PC, and feel comfortable working with PC components (or you have an obliging friend who is a hardware whiz), then you might choose to build your new system from scratch, rather than buying it preassembled. There are several advantages to this approach, including the flexibility of using best-of-breed components (assuming they all interoperate), as well as the satisfaction of knowing that, should something go wrong with your new system, you will have greater knowledge and confidence for diagnosing the problem and fixing it yourself.

However, you probably will not save any money, unlike years ago, prior to razor-thin profit margins at PC sellers. In fact, even people who prefer building their own PCs will usually admit that their total cost exceeds that of ordering a prebuilt system, to say nothing of the extra time required for assembly. But for many PC users, the advantages of building their own systems make it all worthwhile.

If you have decided to go this route, then you probably have already chosen one of the latest CPU chips, a compatible motherboard, a top-of-the-line video card loaded with RAM, and a new hard drive, with so much capacity that it could never run out of free space. This new drive may be replacing or supplementing your older hard drive, which of course has now run out of free space.

But what will house all of these individual components? Surely not the old, heavy, scratched up, and downright ugly case of your former system. Besides, that dusty and dinged-up crate will be needed when you sell or donate your old system. You need a brand-new PC case, ideally one well-suited to all of your current and future system needs.

Size Does Matter

Like most things in life, PC cases come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors. In terms of size, you will want to select a case that is large enough to contain your chosen motherboard, hard drives, optical drives, video and audio cards (unless you are using the motherboard's built-in capabilities), and diskette drive. That last one is gradually becoming optional, as multi-megabyte files become the norm. Make sure that your chosen PC case supports your motherboard's form factor, which will probably be ATX, but could also be Micro ATX, Extended ATX, Standard ATX, or SSI EEB.

There are several different standard sizes for non-notebook PC cases: full tower, tower, mid tower, and mini tower — listed here in order of decreasing size. Unfortunately, there is no universal agreement as to the criteria for these four categories. But most PC cases seen on the market are considered towers or mid towers — while full towers are typically used for corporate servers, and mini towers are typically seen in the cheaper PCs targeted to unsophisticated consumers.

What is most critical, in choosing case size, is to get a case with enough drive bays and expansion slots. Aside from any internal drive bay occupied by a diskette drive, you will need at least one 3.5-inch internal drive bay for each hard drive that you choose to include in your system. Empty bays left between hard drives are a plus, in that they allow greater airflow and heat dissipation. External drive bays have a removable panel, so that the tray-end of each drive is exposed to the outside. These drive bays are needed for your optical disk drives, such as CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD.

These days, the number of expansion slots is rarely an issue. With more system functions being built right into the motherboard — such as Ethernet, modem/fax, USB, and audio — there is increasingly less use of expansion cards, and thus expansion slots. Most cases nowadays come with seven expansion slots, which should be sufficient.

Metal Shop

In terms of the actual material of the case, for the longest time the only option was steel. But aluminum cases are now available, and becoming increasingly popular, because of that metal's superior ability to dissipate heat, which is an enemy of all electronic components. However, there is debate as to whether the aluminum actually makes a noticeable difference to the internal temperatures of systems. Every published and nonbiased test that I have seen, suggests that aluminum cases run no cooler than steel, all other things being equal.

For computer cases with few or no empty bays, the use of aluminum could be inadequate anyway, even if the metal did dissipate heat better. For instance, my new aluminum case has three fans to remove heat partly generated by the crowded hard drives and optical drives. But they were apparently not enough, because the CPU temperature was exceeding 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and the overall system temperature was averaging 127 degrees. This was enough to produce random errors when reading DVDs.

Reconfiguring the PCs innards did not help to resolve the problem. But simply removing the top of the case dropped the temperatures to 113 and 105, respectively. Most hardware techies will argue that open cases, like mine, should run hotter because the fans supposedly cannot direct the air as efficiently as with a closed case. But one cannot argue with the numbers, and the DVD problems immediately disappeared.

Aluminum does have the advantage of being lighter than steel, which will definitely be appreciated when you are lugging your PC to the next LAN party. Another advantage is that aluminum simply looks better. But, on the downside, it tends to be more costly and less sturdy than steel, and easier to scratch.

Decisions, Decisions

When it comes time to pull out the plastic and order your dream PC case, you have two major alternatives: mail order or local shop. The Internet has countless hardware resellers that offer PC cases from a multitude of manufacturers. For example, TigerDirect offers over 100 different cases, in steel, aluminum, and see-through plastic. Cheap Drives has access to over 400 cases.

A disadvantage to mail-order, is that a small picture on a Web page will give you little idea as to how well constructed the case is, whether the cut metal frames inside the case have sharp edges and corners, how accessible all of the screws and bays are, and whether the case will be roomy enough for all of your components, cables, power cords, and missing screwdrivers. In addition, shipping costs for cases tend to be fairly high.

Purchasing from a local computer shop gives you an opportunity to check the quality of the case, examine its interior, and get a sense as to whether it will work for your computer needs. The sales staff can answer your questions, and provide more knowledgeable recommendations than you will typically receive from sales representatives at mail order companies. Oftentimes the sales staff at your local computer store will have firsthand experience with the case you are considering purchasing, or will know someone who has.

Regardless of what choices you make, just be sure to verify that the temperatures inside your new system are not so high as to be damaging to your components. The memory you save may be your own!

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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