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Written by Olin Coles   
Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Future of Computer Enclosures

I was born in the mid-1970s, and can vividly remember the lead-sleds that rolled with a curb weight similar to moving vans. It reminds me of modern-day desktop computer cases, which is why it's difficult to ignore the trends circling the industry of late. For each year that I've have been professionally involved with computer technology (which officially began for me around 1998), the same collective trends have repeated themselves without relent. Originally, giant-sized computer cases painted in beige were once the de facto standard for system builders wanting to construct their own IBM clone personal computer from separate components. The focus of this early trend seemed to revolve around chassis strength or add-in hardware capacity for drives and fans, while fashion was completely overlooked and creature comforts were roundly neglected. I believed this horrible trend would phase itself out around the turn of the century, but when Y2K came and went and there was still significant demand for large full-tower cases I knew something was wrong.

Despite a growth in system building interest, beige was still the only color you'd expect on the palette when choosing a computer case. This was still at an early time when every enclosure was built of steel. By today's standard it seemed hopeless, because the most any hardware enthusiast could expect from high-end computer cases of this era were colorful (usually purple) plastic cages for small 60mm cooling fans; 92mm in some rare cutting-edge occasions. Case strength was still a marketing buzz word used in advertisers to show how much lumpy geek weight could be supported by their chassis. Even though these products were often anchored to the floor due to their excessive weight, a constant spin of marketing hype seemed to hypnotize the masses. This is all slowly bringing me to my point, which is: the more things change in this industry, the more they seem to remain the same. Now more than ten years later, we're still building our PCs with the same heft as an Oldsmobile Toronado.

Sometime around 2002 there would be a change to desktop-style personal computers, and they would eventually evolve away from the bland beige-syndrome condition that plagued the industry for decades. Around this time tier-one OEM's like Dell began shipping desktop systems with a black contoured plastic shell, and aftermarket chassis manufacturers began selling aluminum versions of their own cases. It would take a little while to catch on, but once it did we began to see colored plastic bezels and see-through side-panel windows available on just about everything that could hold a motherboard. With the exception of a few minor tweaks here and there, today's computer cases have remained virtually the same product as a decade ago. Thanks to smartphones and netbooks, the computer industry has changed so much that the landscape now looks very different from those first days I began eating in bytes. Ironically, everything else in the computer industry has become more compact and efficient - except the modern desktop computer enclosure.

There are three major problems with this portion of the market, as I see it. The first is the advertiser-driven premise that computer cases must be rugged and durable enough to survive a harsh post-apocalyptic environment. Special welding techniques and solid 3mm aluminum panels are well above and beyond what any normal consumer would actually require, and yet designs like these (read our NZXT Adamas review) were popular then just like they still are now. Since Benchmark Reviews first launched back in March of 2007, I have personally reviewed many dozens of computer cases. I sometimes think that I've seen it all, but then I browse a company's website to discover they've designed a computer case to look like a snail shell. It's a bizarre world for sure, but what can we leave behind as we evolve away from our ancient computing roots?

Hopefully we'll drop the second major issue with this industry: size. Not all that long ago enthusiasts wanted full-tower computers with ten drive bays, and it took almost twenty years to reduce these demands by almost half and make the mid-tower size popular. The desktop platform of modern-day 2011 isn't much different than how it looked a decade ago, but if small form factor (SFF) can catch on, it could see desktops enjoy an extended stay. The last problem is efficiency, a term that I define as using the internal volume to ergonomically place hardware components. Size and construction could be solved together, by making smaller enclosures that require less material and fewer welds. Designing a better chassis system is where we'll see the most competition, because it involves going 'modular'.

Computer Cases Need One Small Step

Small Form Factor (SFF) cases have become more popular over the past few years, and now they make up a measurable portion of the do-it yourself desktop market segment. There's a small portion of enthusiasts already making the shift towards compact (desktop) computing, albeit very slowly, but the platform requires change in order to become mainstream. If consumers could be trained into buying more efficiently, the industry would follow. This is without question the hardest lesson for people to learn, so I'll cover some obvious points that illustrate how much we cling to illogical fundamentals.

Back in the day combo drives didn't exist, and having at least two (or more) optical drives was practically a requirement for anyone wanting to work with CD-ROM and DVD-ROM media formats. Now consumers can easily use a single optical drive that reads and writes to CD, DVD, and Blu-ray Disc media (or HD-DVD is you're a sore loser). This makes it pointless for an enclosure to feature more than two 5.25" external drive bays, three if you're one of the very few people who add-in an aftermarket fan-controller. I think that manufacturers have done an excellent job making I/O ports readily available on the front, top, and side of most cases we see produced. Thankfully the 2.5" external drive bay used exclusively for Reagan-era floppy disk drives are finally gone, making that one less bay that we need. Based on recent desktop system sales most users require only one 5.25" bay in their computer to accommodate an optical multi-drive, so there's obviously some fat to be trimmed from modern designs and small form factor enclosures could play a role.

Another hold-out is the hard drive cage, which has historically (if not traditionally) held up to eight 3.5" hard disk drives. This made sense back around the turn of the century, when capacities were on the level of only 8 GB, but we now currently enjoy a world of affordable multi-Terabyte sized drives that can store a lifetime of movies and music. Even solid state drives are offered in 512GB capacities, and will soon be the standard for storage. It's taken manufacturers only a few years to update their drive cage design to include trays for the 2.5" SSD profile, so perhaps they can see fit to reduce the cage down to four drive trays... or less.

There are two other components that could be optimized: the motherboard and power supply unit. Actually, the motherboard would fine if more people actually used the mATX form factor. mATX motherboards can usually fit up to two PCI-E video cards, so CrossFire and SLI would still be possible. it's not like many people are using the PCI bus anymore, since network adapters, sound cards, and even Bluetooth are now all integrated. Power supply units are a little more difficult, because they've enjoyed the ATX standard for decades. Perhaps it's time for Intel to step in and define a new form factor; one that stretches the PSU but lowers it to half it's current height. Alternatively, cases could use a design that turns the PSU sideways and places it atop the CPU. All fo these things combined could produce a smaller system with the exact same performance we already enjoy.

The average desktop computer user only needs one external 5.25" optical drive bay, and an internal 2.5/3.5" storage drive bay. This has been proven time and again with the masses of converted notebook computer users who have left desktops behind. Power users, like those who build their own PCs, often go the extra mile for better performance. Using more than two 5.25" drive bays could happen, but needing more than four storage drives is unlikely. Even with gamers making up the majority of hardware enthusiasts and system builders, not many of them use more than one PCI-E video card. In fact, according to Steam hardly anyone uses more than two graphics cards. Which brings me into my final thoughts: how much longer are we going to foolishly cling to the past when we build or computer systems?

Manufacturers have tried to introduce more efficient computer case designs in the past, but nobody bought into them. If we continue to do what we've always done, then we can expect to get what we've always gotten: mediaocracy. These companies are still in business for the profit of it, and won't do anything without consumer support. I know what the data says, but I don't know what each of you need out of a computer case. I can begin to imagine that none of you will be using your PC chassis to support body weight while you change a light bulb. I also think that full-tower computer cases, while still in demand for a tiny slice of enthusiasts, are about as necessary for home users as Cadillac Escalades are for grocery-getters. I think it's great that we can have all of this extra space, but personally I think we need manufacturers to begin to think outside the box and come up with product designs more in-line with our evolved hardware needs. Mid-tower cases are a different story, and without some major changes to consumer expectations we'll be stuck with them for a long time to come. Mini-mid towers are a start, but SFF is where most people should be. Where we're at is still in 2002, and nobody is thinking outside the box.



# RE: The Future of Computer EnclosuresRobert17 2011-02-21 19:40
Olin, I find your thoughts to be provoking of more thought, in a good way.

Certainly what we?ve all seen over the last several years indicates that your summation regarding smaller form factors is relevant. We?re all capable of buying the ?# Tracy Watch? today. Electronics have shrunk dramatically over the past several years while increasing in capability and functionality. We all recall the suitcase-sized mobile phones of the mid-eighties, the 3 foot platter hard disks of the early seventies, and some of us the vacuum tube televisions and radios prior to transistors. And the future portends that this is really only the beginning of more amazing communication and information devices.

Cloud computing will be much like the distributed computing of the dumb terminal era. Management of resources, primarily financial, will drive companies to decrease rather than increase their spend on IT hardware and software, and to minimize their exposure to risk of all sorts.

But one thing won?t change. Enthusiasts will still enthuse. Maybe their choices for high end hardware will change. Their need for speed won?t. Maybe the form factor will be the size of a Rubik?s Cube. But there will still be some mods available even to those that will set them apart, will allow tweaking, allow ?mach 2 with their hair on fire?. Cheers.
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# The Year of UGLY.Enigma8750 2011-02-28 05:22
2011 will go down in history as a year of recession, World Economic systems in peril and civil unrest as not seen since the mid to late 1960s.

For enthusiasts. 2011 will be known for the hideous computer Cases that were sold that year. The year that the Case Companies Dropped the ball and if there is trend to smaller cases it is because the hideous nature of the Mid towers and the towers of this year.

Like the mid 80's General Motors Automobile styles, the style of great names like Cooler Master, Lian Li, and Antec are all running into a design WALL at Massive speeds. There is no Clear Direction in the path of the designers to follow. There is no Template to use to base your next design on because the past has brought us such beautiful Cases.

Yes. 2011 will be known as the Year of the Ugly Case. The more ugly the better. Only the old standbys like the older Storm Series, or the Lian Li 05, 07 and 08 series, the SilverStone Raven and 07 Series, and the Antec 900 and 1200 were some of the best and nicest cases available and the template is being bent and malformed to some other hideous tune.

Please help. With the bulldozer's release and the 990FX boards that will soon be released the AM3 Plus Architecture in the wings, Sandy Bridges stumbling start, hardware could not be better unless we went to ddr5 Memory on our new boards, but the Cases we are being offered this year are in Dire Need of an Emergency Refit.

Save us from the UGLY that are to come. IF one company will make one Nice Case this year, they will not only be the Gold standard for everyone to follow, but there will be a lot of Money to be made by that company as well. I hope that the Next Generation Scout will be the next big Benchmark for those to follow but I don't have much faith in the new design themes, which are covered with doors and retro styling of some fantasy day that never existed.

The Storm Scout Refit with fatter and longer countanance and not much change in design could be Cooler Master's Pot of Gold at the end of Proverbial Rainbow, but for now. UGLY in its purest form itself is to be the only Benchmark the case companies are trying to follow and if there is an end to the Big Cases it will be because the Case companies used their 9 MM. Design Gun and shot themselves right in the foot with them.

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# InterestingJames 2011-02-22 08:34
I understand where you are coming from and this does make a lot of sense. While planning my latest build I actually considered going SFF. The problem I ran into was that cost to have a SFF that would give me the same flexibility as the tower I went with would cost just as much if not more (at the time). Also, I like to OC my rigs and I was concerned with a SFF ability to dissipate the heat and provide the power needed when OCing. I certainly think that SFF have the potential to get there but they aren't quite ready yet. Another thing they need to do away with if SFF is to make it is 3.5" drive bays all together or just have one and the the other bays should just be 2.5". I don't see the need to have a lot of storage in a PC anymore since it is very cheap to build a dedicated and redundant storage server that all PCs can connect to and do backups, storage, and streaming. The last thing that needs to happen to make SFF really shine is for the price of SDD to drop big time ($2 aper GB is ridiculous) and the capacity to increase to at least 1Tb per 2.5" SSD.

One last thought goes to video cards and sound. I still use a dedicated sound card because, even though on-board sound has come leaps and bounds from where it was, it still doesn't cut it. With the video cards, unless they can make smaller more powerful packages they do a lot more with less power and a lot less heat then I think even mainstream gamers will be disappointed unless the go SLI or XFire.

Thanks for this, I enjoy reading these types of articles that you do from time to time. I think they do get others to sit back and think about it.
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# I like Big CasesChristopher 2011-02-27 23:10
I like the Big Case Look scene. I own a HAF 932 Case and that thing is awesome because it fits everything.
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# RE: The Future of Computer EnclosuresRobert Johnson 2011-02-27 23:19
It's time for consumers to push chassis building companies for more of what they want rather than vice versa. I think chassis building companies should browse more PC related websites to see what modders are doing and how they can better contribute to superior chassis building. This year I will be buying a Corsair 600T White Special edition model because it meets my needs...better cooling, windowed side panel (because modders like to show off their hardware) and excellent color combination (black and white).
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# tech supportjldellxps 2011-02-28 00:13
Its funny how many few people realize that our gov & military have all the tech that we the people won't have until 10yrs from now because we are "civilians" you can't have it all you know.
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# why are u still using a computer?claydough 2011-02-28 02:02
I like to think of Kepler as a "starting" point in graphics power. Where realtime radiosity, acne-less vsm soft shadows and tessellation can allow the creative type to create cg worlds without compromise. Every so often someone will make the point that further cpu, gpu, storage space is no longer needed. And I have to cringe as I am concerned I have ben wasting 45 years for thing are just now getting interesting. In which case (for cases ) I have to wonder what sort of person (naysayer) is doing with a computer? Must not be doing any film, broadcasting editing where storage space will always be an issue. must not be overheating 12 to 24 threads 3d rendering overnight? ( I suppose Icould just mount radiators outside my case... ) I don't even consider myself a computer hardware enthusiast.
I do my work on a computer. and serious computing still require serious hardware.
I am hoping the huge monolith trend continues and that the majority of the lemming that don't even need serious computing don't realize that their phones could probably replace that sapce. (otherwise my costs will go up )

Thank god for the gamers
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# Old CodgerComputer Ed 2011-02-28 04:27
The side window is the same as people buying a corvette and sitting it in the driveway with the ood up, look what I have. It is a pure epeen thing and we all know it.

Antec a while back produced a drop dead sexy case called the P180 Mini. Small size, solid cooling and it can fit any full size card I have ever seen. The only sacrifice is that it will only use micro-ATX boards. However with the new designs that is not much of a sacrifice.

True that gone are the days of any color you want as long as it ia beige to be replaced by any color you want as long as it is black, that is unless cheap is okay with you.

I recall looking at the AMD HAF case and almosy puking becuase the red coloring lacking any real finish and made the case look cheap. The NZXT Phantom, this case might offer more color choice but is so over designed that it looks cheap despite being a solid case.

A agree with the article but need to point out that cases are NOT the only think limiting the move to SSF designs. Powerful video cards with low heat and low profile are needed as is the ability to get a powerful CPU on the ITX formfactor.
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# RE: The Future of Computer Enclosureselsyde√łn 2011-02-28 04:37
I've been thinking about case design for a while. I'd like to see someone do a case with the PSU over the graphics cards, with the intake fan toward the outside (with an easy to access filter of course, keeps the PSU from stealing air); this would reduce height substantially (a boon for under-desk use), provide loads of extra room for big heatsinks (since the case would be wider), and reduce PSU cable lengths. The second thing I'd do is steal an idea from Silvertone and rotate the entire assembly 90 degrees and put it on the left side (like the Ravens and FT02). With a standard ATX motherboard, the size can be smaller than most enthusiast cases (easily 15"h x 10"w x 20"d, its tall for room for cables and deep for optical drives, but it also does not require any room behind it for cables) yet provide for 2 GPUs, cooling, clean top cable exit, 2 5.25 and 5 3.5 bays (maybe more if the 5.25 bays are offset) behind a big fan with an easy to clean filter.
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# a PSU standard for 5.25" bays?Paul A. Mitchell 2011-02-28 09:39
There are already "booster" PSUs for extra video amps
that fit nicely into existing 5.25" drive bays.
This alone will eliminate the space required by
standard ATX power supplies.

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# Case design via thermal parametersmcp20366 2011-02-28 10:30
In the old days when CPU en GPU stayed below 60W, the thermal design of cases was unneeded. Nowadays a single Multi-Core cpu and Hi-End gpu will use up a lot of power and produce a lot of heat. Especially 3D cards get very hot in a short time whilst playing your favourite game.

Although smaller footprints of motherboards are possible nowadays, the case design is severely lacking. A little bit of notebook ingenuity on desktop case-design is very welcome.

In fact my next build will be as small as possible. Cooling the gpu to my believe is the challenge here.

Let's hope case-builders are ready for a change too...
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# RE: The Future of Computer EnclosuresDannyB 2011-02-28 11:45
Hmmm, I see I am not the only one thinking of excess case size. Well 5 1/4" drives are no good. USB thumbdrives can store that info/data etc., just need a USB 3.0 slot. All hard drives should go to a 2.5" form factor, Alot more thought and integration for the MATX form factor needs to be implemented. A MATX board could be the salvation for us all if the manufactures would make them more feature rich etc.. The power supply can be reduced to 1" thick and about the size of the MATX MB, and installed just beneth the MB. All the add -In cards could be half height low profile types. The cases should be no wider than 120mm fans.
So a case about 10" x 10" x 5" could work with current tech, that would be so sweet, it could support up to 4 2.5" drives and 4 120 mm fans...
Now we need to send our request of to the case and system component designers and evaluate what they come up with....Nice thought anyway, I am with all of you on the size thing...Right now I run a CM 690 II NVida case which is nice but still kinda large...
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# in the future there will be no cases?claydough 2011-02-28 13:59
Case windows don't allow for enuff epeenery.
Letting it all hang out allows for easy swaping and tweaking as well.
Will be just commiting to a bench strategy.

noticed some bench designs are starting to include enclosures.
Was mulling over creating a form fitting motherboard enclosure allowing openings for my chrome water blocks.

For such a strategy I like the direction ASUS is taking with the new sabertooth p67 where the full coverage thermal solution doubles for a form fitting enclosure. ( motherboard as case? )

A bench is inviting, easy to work with, may be very portable, allows for fast tweaking as inspiration dictates and may be beautiful to look at.

Cases on the other hand have been some of the most knuckle bruising irritating experiences ever.
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# What about ITX?medbor 2011-02-28 15:55
Itx is the best MB standard ever implemented, support Sandy Bridge/AM3, and cases could be made very, very small, and they even fit a high end GPU.
And also slim ODDs from laptops take up way less space than standard 5.25" ones and thus should be cheaper (which they are not some how)
You could really make a small computer if you tried, but still as powerful as any modern computer out there (almost)
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# U1 Server styleBill 2011-02-28 16:39
A case might follow the design of a U1 server but be made to look more homely - like my BluRay player.
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# But what about the savings?Manish Sharma 2011-02-28 17:47
I've now reused my beige ATX case from 1998 for three rebuilds, thus saving on the cost of a case, while keeping up to date on the CPU/processor & motherboard combination. The innards, such as DVD drives and modem and studio sound card have simply been transplanted into the new build while the older motherboard and processors have been sold of in the second hand market to those interested in building less powerful computers for next to nothing. This is environmentally sound. Imagine thousands of enthusiast cases being dumped each year! This is why I still have an ATX case (two actually) rather than a mini-ITX box. Besides, there is a lot more working room inside them when you want to do partial upgrades.
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# Console Form Factors??Gordon 2011-02-28 18:13
First I would like to state that I am an enthusiast and hope that there will ALWAYS AND FOREVER be a market for full ATX cases.

Aside from that though, I feel that the OP is getting at the fact that everything is going smaller. Its a bit of a trend these days. TV went from tube to LCD and Plasma to LED getting ever thinner and taking up less living room real estate. DVD players have also become slimmer saving even more space. Again even video game consoles have done this. I cant recal what came first but examples include Super Nintendo, PS2, PS3, XBOX 360, even the PSP for hecks sake :-D. Anyways, that is the pattern and modernizing the PC has been taking a little longer than one would expect. I personally beleive that this is the reason that people are beginning to say adios to there PC's and purchase competitivley performing laptops.

So I agree, lets see some effort on the part of the case designers to accomidate this change. The enthusiast and business class users will surely never see the end of full sized ATX but the average user is becoming the couch potato/media enthusiast. More media center PC's are sold than gaming grade or heavy design/editing grade PC's anyways. The majority computer users dont play Crysis, use Adobe Creative Suites, design with CAD/MAYA/MAX, nor do they use servers in MDF's. Naturally the average home user wants to conserve space.

I suggest creating PC's with the same general form factors as consoles. This would allow external power supply, one to 2 disc drives, plenty of HDD space, and a fairly discreet form factor while still playing any game on average settings. Buy one of those packaged with a wireless keyboard and mouse and people all over will be buying them and hooking there PC to there HDTV and stowing the peripherals under the coffee table.
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# Full Tower? Feh.Master Zoen 2011-02-28 21:20
I've been building computers since the day I first took one apart nearly 20 years ago. I'm only just turned 30! In all that time, I've used desktop cases, Small towers, Mid-Tower cases. Mid-Tower cases have always been my favorite, and they are in my opinion quite large. I've never built a system with a full-tower case. Heck, I've never even SEEN a full-tower in person.
Nowadays, with 3 200mm fans, who needs more than a mid-tower?

ATX has been around a long time and will be around for a few decades more at least. Capacitors, phase-power designs, and heat piping take up a fair bit of space. If we could get some motherboards made that don't produce any heat when the run, and chips that work flawlessly without airflow to cool them, then we could certainly drop the ATX standard. Sadly, I think that will only occur with Optronics, and I won't live long enough to see them.

I'm a gamer. I started playing with Atari when I was 4 or 5. In my personal system I have 5 2TB hard drives, I use 2 XFX 6850 videocards with dual fan heatsinks in crossfire, I have 8 gb of ram, and a Thermalright Venomous X-RT cooler on my Phenom II X4 965, all inside a CoolerMaster CM Storm Sniper Black Edition mid-tower case powered by Corsair's TX850 PSU. My system runs whisper quiet and stays cool even when I'm torturing it with FURMARK and Prime95 or [email protected]

Building a computer, is about meeting both needs and wants. My system has more power than I usually need, but I know it will run games that come out 5 years from now with no problems, and that's exactly what I wanted when I built it. My baby is perfect for me!

What's perfect for you?
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# Hardware Junkieferalshad0w 2011-03-01 23:23
Before I built my rig using the antec 300 I was looking at building a SSF, but I ultimately had to decide against it based on a few things:

1) SMALL ENOUGH: if I wanted to go small, I don't want just a LITTLE smaller. I want a LOT smaller. This limited my options quite a bit and presented a few obstacles.

2)FITTING MY GEAR: I am a gamer and an enthusiast. I enjoy playing my games on 1920x1200 and the graphics card I needed (gtx 285) is pretty large and combined with my desired phenom II x4 I needed space for these two requirements of my system. Again this presented the next obstacle.

3)Power: it was difficulty finding a small but powerful enough power supply. And even if I didnt find an adequate power supply, I ran into my next obstacle.

4) COOLING: Most micro cases simply dont have adequate cooling, or rely on a mirad of noisy small fans (80mm). Furthermore, I would be hard pressed to find a CPU heatsink up to the challenge without it running full bore constantly.

Closest Solution: AT THE TIME, the best solution was the Silverstone SG05, but the power supply wasnt right for the gtx 285... So I ended up going bigger for the antec 300 for airflow and dust filtration...

Now there is the Silverstone SG07, which is pretty amazing I gotta say.. but is it worth the current $207? I dont think so. That is a lot of cash to drop for no expandbility.
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# But first, the motherboardRss 2011-03-03 13:07
Computer cases are - besides the other components - primarily built around the motherboard. ATX is insanely old and doesn't permit hardly any flexibility in designing a case around it. Where's BTX? I wanted to design a new cooling system to so you could overclock your CPU to "Formula One speeds", but there just isn't enough space above the CPU on ATX boards to do it can keep everything inside the case.

The lack of creativity in mainstream case manufacturers is extremely sad. But so is the fact that motherboard manufacturers can come up with something useful aside from micro-ATX. No surprise there. Change in this world only comes about when enough people demand it or when circumstances force you into it.
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# RE: But first, the motherboardelsydeon 2011-03-03 13:57
ATX does not limit space above the CPU. There is no limit to the height or width of the case.
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# ATX limit's space?Master Zoen 2011-03-04 05:12
The size of a motherboard does not limit space inside a case, the case itself is the limiting factor. It's like your saying the ceiling fan in a 6'x6' room with a 8' ceiling will prevent you from putting in a full size snooker table when there just wouldn't be enough room to use the table the first place. I've seen Mini-towers that could have fit ATX boards in them, but then there would be no room for the hard drives or the PSU.

Cases with 140mm-200mm top exhaust and front intake fans are a fair bit wider than the old cases that used 80mm fans. This increased width guarantees room "above" the CPU no matter which way you care to measure.
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# Cooling fans?Master Zoen 2011-03-04 05:20
The smaller the case, the less space inside of it. This obviously limits the volume of the case, but it doesn't necessarily limit cooling.

Liquid cooling can be used in very small cases because you don't need to rely on internal air flow. Yes, this does increase the cost, but if you really want something small, you can mount radiators to the OUTSIDE of the case or even create a separate radiator "grill" with a pump and tank attached. My buddy did this, and even decorated it with lights and custom fan covers.
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