Although many users don't think of their case as something that requires much thought, a PC's case is actually the cornerstone of the entire system. Buying the right one requires careful consideration - so what should you look for before parting with your cash?
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The Basics Of PC Cases
For many users, the case in which a PC is built does not seem like a priority. The advantages of one PC case over another are often hard to quantify. It is easy to read reviews of new Core i7 processors, look at the graphs, and determine which processor is the fastest or the best value. But PC cases are compilations of metal and plastic. They can't be benchmarked in any meaningful way except for case temperatures and the amount of hardware they can hold, and those stats will tell you nothing about how easy a case is to live with. But a case is in fact incredibly important, because it determines what you can use your system for. And should you choose the wrong one, any upgrade will require you to transplant your entire computer from one case to another, a time-consuming process.
At the core, a PC case should be large enough to fit all of your hardware with a little room to spare, but not so large that you have massive amounts of unused space. It should be cool enough to keep your PC running smoothly under load, but it shouldn't require numerous powerful, loud fans to be effective. It should be easy to look at, but not so flashy that it detracts from actually using the computer. All of these requirements represent moving targets - that is to say, a case that is just large enough for one person's system may be too cramped for someone else - but they are all important and worth significant attention.
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The size of a PC case fundamentally determines what the PC will be able to do, because it determines what kind of hardware can fit into the computer. In some cases, it is easy to determine what a PC case can fit. The number and size of available fan mounts is almost always advertised by PC case manufacturers, as is the size and number of 3.5" and 5.25" drive bays. These specifications are straight-forward; either a case has enough bays for your drives, or it doesn't.
What is more difficult to determine is the amount of space available for PSUs, motherboards, and video cards. Although you can guarantee that a case will technically accept a motherboard of any size it is advertised to be compatible with, that doesn't mean the fit will be easy. Preferably, you'll want a case large enough that you won't have to put numerous power cables over the motherboard, which clogs the airflow of the system. And while cases will often advertise that they are compatible with a certain video card, there are sometimes hidden traps in these advertisements. For example, the Antec 6580 I use will accept almost any size of video card - but larger cards make at least one of the hard drive bays unusable.
These sort of things are impossible to determine from the sort of stats an online store-front will quote you, so it is important to read up on user reviews before buying. Even better, try and find a nearby brick-and-mortar store where you can actually handle the case and have a in-person look at its size. Remember that online photographs can be deceptive, and that although cases are lumped into categories such as "mid-tower" and "full-tower", those categories are extremely flexible.
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Go With The Flow
Airflow through a case is important for keeping it cool, because air that stays in one place is prone to heat up rapidly. That said, before looking at the cooling abilities of cases you are considering for purchase, you should also consider if the airflow through the case is likely to make a difference. If you're building an HTPC with a low-energy processor, a small motherboard, and a low-end video card, heat isn't much of a worry. As long as you have an exhaust fan you're probably good to go.
But if you are building a more powerful PC, and airflow does matter, then consider where the fans on the case you're considering are located. Preferably, you'll want to have at least one intake and one exhaust. If you're going for a gaming machine or a workstation, then you'll want to look for two intakes and one larger (120mm) exhaust. And if you really want good airflow and cooling, look for a case that keeps the PSU at the bottom and provides and exhaust fan at the top of the case.
Cooling is one aspect of a case that can be measured, so read up on any reviews you can find and take their findings into consideration. Remember that cases with poorer cooling can be made more acceptable with the addition of more fans, but that will make those cases louder. On the other hand, modern PCs, even high-end ones, run relatively cool, so it may be worth buying a slightly warmer case if it does a better job of fitting all of your other requirements, particularly if one of those requierments is a not being too loud.
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Keep It Classy
Finally, you should always consider what the case looks like. There is a huge variety of cases available, from elegant, brushed-aluminum models such as those offered by Lian-LI to flashy, brightly lit cases such as those built by NZXT. Obviously, you should purchase a case that fits the character of the room you're going to place it in and the computer itself. Having a PC case with many lights and a transparent exterior is sure to attract the attention of fellow geeks, while on the other hand a sleek, light, hand-crafted chassis is sure to impressive those with more elegant tastes.
But while the external appearance of a case is largely a matter of taste, there are some practical considerations. Perhaps the most important is that flashy, brightly-lit cases which look quick and powerful attract a lot of attention. This is fine when the PC is sitting in a room, admired by yourself or your friends, but it can become a problem if you're playing a game or watching a movie in a dark room. A case with a LED-backlit transparent window may not be so impressive if you try to curl up with your special someone to watch a romantic movie, only to find that you can hardly pay attention to it because of the bright red and blue lights whirling inside your PC.
Also remember that while options like hinged front doors can provide better looking exteriors to both flashy and elegant PCs, those options can be annoying during day-to-day use. Being forced to open your case's door to listen to music via headphone is a chore that no one will envy, particularly if the case door isn't well secured and has a tendency to swing shut on its own.
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Time To Buy
These tid-bits in mind, the piece of advice which is the most important is to simply do your research. Read what average users who have the case you're thinking of buying in their home have to say about it. Case reviews from websites like ours give you a good idea of the basic features and abilities of a case, but professional reviewers rarely spend more than a few weeks with a case before writing about it. You, on the other hand, will be looking at and using your case for years. An inconveniently located USB port that appears to be a minor annoyance to a reviewer may become a major flaw to someone who is constantly switching our portable hard disks and MP3 players. Good luck with your purchase, and remember the holy trinity of PC cases; Size, Cooling, and Looks.