We've tested five best-selling cases for under £100 for noise, cooling performance and build quality: here are the 5 best PC cases we've tried.
PC cases come in all shapes, sizes and prices, from small and lightweight budget models costing less than £20 to mirrored-glass covered monsters for £1,000. But for your average home PC, there are many options available for under £100. We’ve grabbed five of the best-sellers to see how they compare.
We’ll be testing each for its design, build quality, ease of use, features, expandability options, customisation, and water-cooling options, air-cooling performance and noise levels, so you can get the most complete picture possible about what you're buying.
Before we embark on the testing, however, here are some things you should consider when you’re next out shopping for a PC case.
In order to make building PCs a viable endeavour, the PC market uses a number of set standards for component size, shape and case design to ensure that everything fits together properly. These are called form factors, and the typical home PC options are ATX, micro-ATX, mini-ITX and E-ATX.
ATX is the classic PC size, with a motherboard that’s up to 305 x 244mm in size and includes around five expansion slots. These also use your classic large power supply and a case that’s around 50 x 50 x 20cm. If you’re simply after the best bang for buck then a standard ATX system is the best option.
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If size is a concern then micro-ATX may better suit your needs. It cuts down the motherboard size to 244mm square, and the expansion slots to two or three. Otherwise, it’s identical to ATX, so cases tend to be only slightly smaller.
If you're really after a compact system then mini-ITX is the way to go. Motherboards have only one expansion slot – so if you install a graphics card then you can’t install anything else; but they're tiny – up to 170mm square.
Cases for mini-ITX motherboards are often then only able to accommodate a smaller PSU, such as the SFU standard, so be sure to double-check when buying.
Meanwhile E-ATX, or extended-ATX, is a longer version of ATX and is reserved mainly for only the fanciest of systems. The motherboards can be up to 305 x 330mm, with the cases being correspondingly larger.
Didn’t we just cover case size? Well, yes, largely we did, but within the confines of the form-factor standards there are also a number of different case styles and sizes that still fall into that category.
So, for instance, there are so-called full-tower and midi-tower types. These are your classic upright PC cases, with midi being smaller and offering a more basic set of features. Full towers are larger – sometimes able to fit E-ATX motherboards – and with extra cooling options such as multiple water-cooling radiator mountings.
The other classic is the desktop-style case, which essentially flips the ATX tower over on its side. These are the old-school cases you used to have on desks with the monitor sat atop.
Corsair's 750D, 540D and 250D are full tower, cube and mini-ITX cases respectively
Then are also cube-style cases that, instead of having the power supply and hard drives arranged around the edges of the motherboard in one large space, these components can be found on top of or behind the motherboard. This allows the height and depth of the case to be reduced but the width to expand – thus the cube name.
Various smaller sizes – micro-ATX and mini-ITX – are available in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but tend to be grouped together on shopping sites.
Finally, there are the more specialist types such as HTPCs (home-theatre PCs), which are very low-profile cases designed to be fit inside TV cabinets alongside Blu-ray players and games consoles.
The relentless demand of consumers means that you'll be hard-pushed to find a truly badly made case these days, so long as you stick with a known brand name.
You can spend £25 and get a case that's vaguely stylish, properly painted throughout, devoid of the dangerous sharp edges that used to plague cheap cases of yesteryear, and with decent enough build quality that allows for it to be taken apart and put back together again without falling to pieces.
However, there are compromises to be made if you go down the cheap route. The metal used is often thin and easier to dent and warp. What styling there is usually comes in the form of a fairly poor-quality plastic front cover. Screw mounts are formed from pressed and drilled sheet metal rather than solid separate pieces. You'll find that most of it is riveted in place rather than screwed in, which limits customisation.
So while it sometimes may not be all that obvious from pictures where your money is going if you buy a premium case, in our reviews we’ve made sure to point out where compromises have been made.
When it comes to features, there's such a vast possible list that's it's almost impossible to cover everything in a review. Moreover, it depends where your priorities lie. If you still use DVDs and have lots of hard drives, then you'll need a case that supports 5.25in and 3.5in drive bays. Alternatively, you may only have one tiny M.2 SSD for storage, but require masses of space for fancy water-cooling.
As such, we can end up with situations where a £20 case technically has more features than a £200 case, but they're simply different types of features.
Therefore, when it comes to features, we’ll be trying to point out just where you're missing out, and what else you might be getting instead. Also, there are a whole host of extras to look out for: features such as built-in lighting, fan controllers, removable sections that allow you to customise the layout, clever mounting systems, cooling options and much more.
The Corsair 400C's hinged-window is a rare feature
One of the most important considerations for those building their own PC – and particularly for regular tinkerers – is that it should be easy to access all the components to remove, install or relocate them.
Similarly, it's also beneficial if certain parts of the case can be removed if not needed. For instance, if you don't use any 3.5in hard drives then it's useful to be able to just remove the whole mounting bay and free up that space.
Also crucial in this regard is how easy it is to route cables from one place to another. Many cases have numerous holes in the motherboard tray, and ample space behind it so that cables can easily be threaded through without getting in the way.
While much of this cable management and general tidy-system building is aesthetic, it does serve a practical purpose. A tidily built system with good cable management is easier to subsequently work on. Plus, getting cables and other unneeded parts out of the way opens up the interior of the case to allow for better airflow. With better airflow comes cooler, longer-lasting components and less noise.
One of the key features of any PC case is that it provides adequate airflow to keep the components inside cool. Most cases will come with one or two fans and most will have mounts for several more.
Some cases also include a dedicated fan controller for manually adjusting the speed of the fans, while others rely on the fan controllers that most motherboards come with (in many instances, these are entirely acceptable).
We test the effectiveness of the default fan arrangement, connecting up the fans either to the case’s fan controller or to the motherboard’s fan headers. We then test for the temperature of the CPU and GPU with the PC in idle and when under load (Prime95 on the CPU and Unigine Heaven on the GPU, running for 15 minutes or until temperatures are stable).
Also crucial is how much noise is made keeping everything cool. Either the case fans themselves can be noisy or the lack of adequate cooling can cause the CPU and GPU fans to spin ever faster as they try to dissipate heat. By holding a decibel meter 30cm from the front and side of the case while idling and when under load, we can determine the level of noise for each case; ambient noise is around 36dB.
Our test system consists of an Intel Core i7-6600K cooled by a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo, a Sapphire Vapor-X R9 290 graphics card – it vents almost no air out the case itself, so makes for a stern test for our cases, an Asus Z170-A motherboard, a Samsung 950 Pro M.2 SSD and a Corsair RM750i power supply.
The Corsair H100i is a hefty all-in-one CPU cooler that only some cases can accommodate
As well as conventional air-cooling, many cases can accommodate a plethora of water-cooling options, from simply having enough space above the CPU to mount a single-fan all-in-one CPU cooler, to having several areas where you can fit large, triple-fan radiators and reservoirs.
In general, the presence of these radiator mounts is specified in the specs of the case. However, we also tested the general ease of installation of such a system in our review cases by fitting a Corsair H100i all-in-one CPU cooler, which uses a two-fan radiator, in each.