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Pulling a 360
Degrees have always been kind of cool. Microsoft knew this when calling their new console the Xbox 360. The term brings up vague images of skate-boards pulling tricks and cars doing doughnuts, both of which aren't bad images to have associated with your product.
The Cooler Master 360 is a bit more sincere, however, as in its case there is some amount of truth to the marketing. The idea is simple - the Cooler Master 360 is a case built to be placed either straight up in a tower format or flat in a desktop format - or anything in between, I suppose. This, combined with its relatively small size, makes it an attractive candidate for a budget HTPC build. So is the Cooler Master 360 capable of bringing satisfaction on a budget, or should you save your pennies for something a bit more expensive?
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Aesthetics and Build QualityRating
First impressions of the Cooler Master 360 don't really exist. It has a very basic appearance in both tower and desktop modes and its grainy black plastics and metals don't make much of an impact. This is not as a damning as one might think, however, as the primary purpose of an HTPC is to blend into the home theater to create seamless entertainment. Besides the big Cooler Master badge on the front - which can rotate so it is always right side up - there is little to indicate it is a PC case at all. However, the Cooler Master 360's complete lack of sex appeal will undoubtedly disappoint those who want their home theater to be as pleasing to the eye when the HDTV is off as when it is on.
The build quality, however, is quite poor, and this is something which matters for an HTPC. The home theater tends to get more foot traffic than the office, and it would be nice to know an HTPC can could take the occasional bump or jolt. The Cooler Master 360's brittle plastics don't inspire much confidence, and the metals used seem no stronger than those used to make soda cans. While most PC cases feel like they could take the occasional bump, even if the hardware inside could not, the Cooler Master 360 feels cheap. Of course, it is cheap. But a good cheap PC case makes you feel like you're getting more than you paid for. With the Cooler Master 360 it's always obvious that you're flying economy class.
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Features and LayoutRating
The basic layout of the Cooler Master 360 is a bit odd. The big change compared to most cases is that the power supply is mounted at the front of the case rather than the back. An extension cord inside the case connects the power supply at the front to the power socket which, as in most cases, is located at the rear of the case. This location frees up room in the motherboard tray allowing for the installation of full ATX motherboards, which is impressive for a case of this size. However, the front location of the power supply location means that most power supplies won't allow for installation of graphics cards larger than about 9 inches. The case also has only a single 3.5" internal hard drive bay. I find this to be extremely disappointing for HTPC builds as any HTPC which is not paired with a home server will need to have a lot of free hard drive space.
As with many of Cooler Master's low-end cases, the 360 is so full of holes it appears someone has taken a shotgun to it. There are two fan mounts, two large square areas of ventilation holes, and additional holes on both the front and the rear of the case. While this may seem like a good idea at first, as it will help cooling, the truth is that most PCs which will fit into this case will not need significant cooling. By going overkill on ventilation, Cooler Master is simply adding more places where sound can escape. Fortunately, both the top and side fan mounts offer support for 120mm fans. This makes it quieter than many other small cases, which often only provide 80mm fan mounts.
There isn't much to report in the way of features. The front of the case has two USB ports, audio jacks, and a firewire port. It has tool free drive bays, but most of today's cases do, and the mounting arrangement used by the Cooler Master 360 isn't particularly graceful. There is no removable motherboard tray and no cable management, but for the price this lack of features doesn't feel out of place.
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At first, the Cooler Master 360's bland styling and flexible format seems promising for use in a cheap HTPC build. At closer examination, however, the 360 falls down in many areas. The largest problem is the layout. What Cooler Master was trying to accomplish is unclear. Sure, pushing the PSU to the front allows for installation of ATX motherboards. But it also means that larger video cards are out of the question and cuts down the space for a 3.5" hard drive to just one bay. This is not a winning trade-off, particularly considering that today's mATX motherboards are every bit as capable as their larger cousins. The only real win for the Cooler Master 360 is the use of 120mm fans, which does help with noise.
That victory, however, is not enough, despite the price of only $40 dollars. The Cooler Master 360's worst enemy is the Cooler Master 341. The Cooler Master 341 isn't built to be put on its side, but it is smaller, better looking, and offers more usable space. With their prices hovering within 5 dollars of each other, its hard to see why anyone would rather buy the 360 as either a HTPC or even a regular desktop.