How to buy the perfect PC case
- 20 September, 2017 20:00
No matter whether you treat your computer as the centerpiece of your home office or just stuff it under your desk, buying the right PC case matters.
At a minimum, you want to pick a PC case that’s the right size for your needs and has room for all your hardware and USB devices. But some PC cases offer much, much more. Spacious innards, lower temperatures, muffled sound, extensive water-cooling support, and fancy-schmancy tempered glass panels or RGB lighting are just the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s a guide to buying a PC case that’s perfect for you. This is just the first step in your DIY journey; be sure to check out PCWorld’s guide to building a PC, too.
Buy a PC case: Size matters
Before anything else, decide what size case you need. There are three major case sizes: Full tower, mid-tower, and mini-ITX.
Full-tower and mid-tower cases both fit standard ATX motherboards—by far the most common motherboard size out there. Both can also fit smaller micro-ATX motherboards. Exact sizing varies from case to case, but most mid-towers run up to roughly 18 inches high and 8 or so inches wide. Mid-tower PCs are probably the most common form factor and have enough room to fit systems with a closed-loop CPU cooler, a couple of graphics cards, and a lot of storage.
Full-tower cases are massive. They often measure more than 20 inches in height and are longer and deeper than mid-tower cases, which makes them ideal if you’re one of the rare people using a massive Extended-ATX motherboard. (Asus’ X399 motherboards for AMD Threadripper chips are EATX.)
Also consider a full-tower case if you plan on loading up your rig with extensive (or custom) water-cooling, storage galore, or 3- and 4-way graphics card setups. Full-tower cases often support more fans and 5.25-inch drive bays as well. And the extra elbow room sure is nice during building.
Mini-ITX cases are the polar opposite of full-tower PC cases, built for diminutive mini-ITX motherboards. Some of these can be wondrously small and even fit inside home theater cabinets, but the tight quarters can create compatibility issues with some hardware. Don’t expect to use liquid-cooling or a big honking CPU cooler in most mini-ITX cases. Some mini-ITX cases don’t support full-length graphics cards, either; confirm the maximum length before you buy. Finally, there isn’t much room for extra hardware in these space-constrained chassis, so you’ll be limited to fairly basic system configurations. They’re great for schlepping to LAN parties, though!
Sometimes you’ll see “mini-tower” cases, which slot between mini-ITX and mid-tower in size to accommodate micro-ATX motherboards. They’re rarer than the others.
Buy a PC case: Price considerations
Once you’ve decided how big of a PC case you need, the next step is figuring out your budget.
If you’re spending $50 or less, you’re probably going to wind up with a bare-bones, nondescript case with few extra features. These cases will cover the basics but don’t offer much more. Try to pick one that has two fans, one in the front of the case and another in the rear, for maximized air-flow, which helps cooling. You won’t always find the option in this price range, though.
One of the best budget PC cases I’ve built in is Deepcool’s Tesseract ($52 on Amazon). This affordable mid-tower has decent elbow room, the aforementioned duo of case fans, and plenty of drive bays—though it won’t fix extra-long graphics cards like the beastly Asus Strix. That’s solid for the price. We’ll talk about more recommendations toward the end of the article.
Things open up in the $50 to $150-ish price range, which has seen a lot of advancement over the past few years. You’ll find a lot of variance in both design and construction in the midrange. As always, be sure to check measurements to ensure your desired PC case can fit all your hardware, but you’ll also want to keep an eye on extra features. They’re a lot more common in this price range, especially as you move up in cost.
Features purely come down to personal preference or specifics needed for your build. Some cases are built with more fans for higher performance; others focus on silent design. Some, like the Corsair Carbide Clear 400C ($90 on Amazon) we used in PCWorld’s all-purpose Ryzen 5 1600X build, even eliminate 5.25-inch drive bays completely for better airflow. You’ll start to find water-cooling compatibility worked into some cases in this price range, along with better cable management details, tool-less design, and aesthetic niceties like RGB lighting or tempered-glass side panels. We’ll get into feature details shortly, but around $100 is the sweet spot for price-to-performance when it comes to buying a PC case.
Once you extend beyond $150 or so, you should expect a PC case that excels in both performance and acoustics, and one that comes with connectivity options and handy features galore. Some of them are huge; this is where you’ll find most full-tower cases. Build materials tend to be swankier in high-end cases, with aluminum and tempered glass being much more common than in budget and mid-range cases.
You’ll also find wild concept cases like the motorized In Win H-Tower, which opens like a flower (video above), or the racing car-esque Cougar Conquer ($350 on Newegg). Be mindful when you’re buying a PC case that doubles as a funky flagship, though. They oftentimes sacrifice functionality for their exotic forms.
Buy a PC case: Aesthetics
Make sure you like the look of the PC case you’re buying! You’re going to be staring at it for years to come, so this is not a superficial consideration. Every online retailer shows PC cases from multiple angles on their store pages, so there's no excuse for buying ugly.
PC cases come in all sorts of colors, materials, and designs. If you don’t want to spend time neatening up your interior cabling, pass on cases with a side window.
Buy a PC case: Features to watch for
Aside from the basic dimensions and price, feature support is the biggest differentiator when you’re buying a PC case. The more you spend on your case, the more goodies you’ll receive. Here’s a quick rundown of many of the features you’ll find in modern PC cases, starting with practical extras before delving into nice-to-haves that, well, are nice to have.
Drive bays and SSD mounting points: As we’ve mentioned a couple of times before, make sure a PC case has enough 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch drive bays to house your storage drives. Some cases include mounting points for SSD on the rear of the motherboard tray, too. And if you need a 5.25-inch bay in the front of your PC to house an optical drive, fan controller, or whatever, confirm your case includes that. A number of cases have been ditching 5.25-inch bays to improve airflow from the front-side fan(s)—most notably several Corsair cases.
Tool-less design: In ye olden days, practically everything in a PC case required a Phillips screwdriver. No more. Tool-less design is nearly universal in mid-range and high-end cases, with thumb screws for internal fastening and twist-on, snap-on, or otherwise tool-free mechanisms in drive bays.
Cable management: Look for a case with cut-outs in the motherboard tray, which allow you to route your cabling through the rear of your case. Out of sight, out of mind. Budget PC cases tend to have simple giant holes punched in the motherboard tray, while mid-range options frequently include rubber grommets in the holes to tidy things up even more. Some cases include tie-off points or even wire covers behind the motherboard tray to keep your cabling clean.
Next page: More PC case features to look for, our favorite PC cases
CPU cooler cut-away: Speaking of the motherboard tray, some nicer PC cases include large cut-outs in the section behind your processor, which let you replace your PC’s CPU or CPU cooler without ripping out your entire motherboard. It’s not a feature you’re likely to need often, but if you do, it’s a godsend.
Front-panel connectivity: If you’ve got a lot of external devices, check out the front-panel connectivity of the PC case. Even cheap cases have a couple of USB-A Type 2.0 ports in the front. Some will include USB-A Type 3, USB-C, and even fan or RGB lighting controllers. You’ll often find front-panel audio jacks as well, though we’d always recommend plugging your headset directly into the audio jack on your motherboard’s rear I/O shield.
Fans and airflow: The more fans you have in your PC, the better your airflow is likely to be. At the very least, you want two fans for optimal airflow—an intake in the front and an outward-blowing fan in the rear. Some budget PC cases include only a single fan, and your PC’s temperatures and performance will suffer for it. Even if they aren’t populated, many cases include additional fan mounts that allow you to upgrade your cooling later. As mentioned before, some cases are ditching 5.25-inch drive bays to remove airflow obstructions for the front fans, though you obviously wouldn’t want a case like that if you needed one of those bays.
Dust filters: Keeping your PC clean is important. A computer clogged with dust and pet hair and tobacco gunk is a computer that runs hot and throttles more often. Dust filters keep most of that debris from ever reaching your fans, much less your precious internal hardware.
Sound-dampening: Soundproof cases keep your rig running quiet, often by using sound-dampening materials inside the panels of your PC. Those materials keep noise in but also tend to impede airflow, so soundproof cases often hit somewhat higher temperatures than standard cases. Nicer soundproof cases like the Fractal Design Define S ($80 on Newegg) manage to stay silent while also optimizing for airflow by including large 140mm fans spinning at low (and hence quiet) speeds.
Water-cooling support: The rise of sealed all-in-one coolers have made liquid-cooling more popular than ever. If you plan to water-cool your PC, pay fine attention to the support provided by your case. You probably won’t be able to use liquid-cooling whatsoever in most mini-ITX cases, and many mid-tower cases only support up to 240mm radiators—and placement of that liquid-cooling radiator may be limited to only the top or bottom of the case, depending on the case’s dimensions.
If you want a beefy 360mm radiator, you’ll often need to step up to a full tower case, though unusually large mid-towers like the Phanteks Enthoo Evolv Tempered Glass ($190 on Amazon) can sometimes squeeze them in as well. Some pricier cases also have large swatches of interior space dedicated to liquid-cooling reservoirs for custom loops.
Tempered-glass panels: Many newer PC cases include panels consisting entirely of tempered glass, presenting an unfettered look at your PC’s inner hardware. It’s gorgeous, but brittle—handle with care! You’ll start to find tempered-glass options around the $100 range.
Integrated lighting: Customizable RGB lighting is 2017’s biggest craze in computer hardware, and that includes PC cases. You either love RGB or you hate RGB. Either way, it’s easy to find cases that meet your aesthetic tastes.
Our favorite PC cases
We don’t do many formal PC case reviews at PCWorld, but we’re constantly building PCs in all sorts of rigs. Here are some of our favorites in each price point.
Budget PC cases ($50 or less)
Cooler Master Elite 130: Like all budget PC cases, the Cooler Master Elite 130 ($50 on Amazon) isn’t fancy. But this tiny mini-ITX case is a common sight at LAN parties thanks to its affordable price and easy-to-carry design. It’s also compatible with 120mm CPU liquid-coolers and graphics cards up to 13.5 inches long.
Deepcool Tesseract: The aforementioned Deepcool Tesseract ($52 on Amazon) is a decent-sized mid-tower with two fans, sturdy-enough design, and all sorts of drive bays. It’ll fit any graphics card you throw at it except for monsters like the Asus Strix GTX 1080 ($570 on Amazon).
Mid-range PC cases ($50 to $150)
Corsair Carbide 270R: The no-frills Corsair Carbide 270R ($70 on Amazon) succeeds in getting out of your way. It’s dead-simple to work with, includes cable management options you won’t often find in budget cases, and the performance you get for the price is solid. Some notable extra touches include a power supply shroud to hide unsightly cables, and the ability to fit a 360mm liquid-cooling radiator in the front, a 240mm radiator up top, and a 120mm radiator in the rear.
Fractal Design Define C: The Fractal Design Define C ($90 on Newegg) supports the same extensive liquid-cooling support, as like Corsair’s Carbide series it dumps traditional 5.25-inch bays in the front to improve cooling. (It also ditches all but two 3.5-inch drive bays, which may give some folks pause.) This case upholds Fractal’s reputation for well-built, easy-to-use hardware—and it’s built for silence, with sound-dampening material inside and noise-blocking vent covers. Just don’t try to use a massively long graphics card in the tiny Define C.
Corsair Carbide Clear 400C: I’ve used the Corsair Carbide Clear 400C ($100 on Amazon) in several builds thanks to its clean design. The case has an incredibly small footprint for a mid-tower, but removable hard drive cages and the lack of 5.25-inch bays inside give the Corsair 400C a ton of elbow room inside. Heck, I even managed to cram the water-cooled Radeon Fury X and a Ryzen 7 1800X ($429 on Amazon) with a gigantic 240mm EKWB liquid-cooler inside this thing. The PSU shroud and latch-opened side panel are just icing on the cake.
NZXT S340 Elite: The NZXT S340 Elite ($95 on Amazon) shows off everything with its massive tempered glass side panel, but helps you keep things clean inside thanks to abundant hardware space and cable management features. Other niceties include an all-steel construction, and HDMI and USB 3.0 ports on the front panel for easy usage with VR headsets.
High-end PC cases
Corsair Crystal 570X RGB: PCWorld’s Full Nerd podcast named the Corsair 570X ($180 on Corsair.com) the best PC case of 2016, and it’s easy to see why. Rather than having a simple see-through panel, almost every edge of this beautiful beast—the top, front, and side panels—consist of tempered glass. That sleek look is augmented by a trio of front-side fans with customizable RGB lighting that can be tweaked using a controller on the top of the case. Tool-less design and a roomy interior make building inside the Corsair 570X just as dreamy as staring at it.
Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ATX Tempered Glass: The home of my own personal rig, the Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ATX Tempered Glass ($190 on Amazon) is a luxurious case built from aluminum and tempered glass, highlighted by customizable RGB accents on the front panel. The clean exterior hides hard drive cages and power supply alike, and the comparably massive Enthoo Evolv has ample room even for multiple graphics card setups. Cooling’s a priority, with an offset radiator bracket, reservoir mounting locations, and even a PWM fan hub. You’ll need it: The solid front panel of the case doesn’t help air flow easily into the case, though the trio of included front-side fans still manage to keep things cool.