Taking a simple analogy, if the motherboard and CPU combo is the engine of a PC, then the case is very much the chassis. The case determines the type and size of components, and by extension, the power of a build alongside being the most critical and obvious determinant of a PC’s most aesthetic qualities.
Other than being among the most crucial building block of a PC, the case is equally the starting point of every build. For these many reasons, choosing the right PC case can be quite a dispiriting task especially with so many options at our fingertips.
As always, we’re here to provide a guiding hand with insights into what it takes to make an informed decision and to help steer you in the right direction. With our guide, you’ll be well on your way to finding a case that perfectly suits your needs.
Size & Form Factor
As you’ve probably guessed from scouring online retailers and forums, size is of utmost importance when it comes to cases. Although, there are quite a few options, in most cases only four sizes matter. These are, in ascending order of size, Small Form Factor, Mini-Tower, Mid-Tower, and Full-Tower.
What differentiates these isn’t just size, but also motherboard compatibility. Nothing beats a useful chart to explain this.
|Size||Small Form Factor||Mini-Tower||Mid-Tower||Full-Tower|
|Motherboard Form Factor||Mini-ITX||Mini-ITX|
|Motherboard Dimensions||6.7’ in x 6.7 in||6.7 in x 6.7 in|
9.6 in x 9.6 in
|6.7 in x 6.7 in|
9.6 in x 9.6 in
12 in x 9.6 in
|6.7 in x 6.7 in|
9.6 in x 9.6 in
12 in x 9.6 in
12 in x 13 in
As logic dictates, a smaller motherboard means a smaller case, but beyond the consideration of size, a smaller form factor does limit the type and number of components it can comfortably accommodate. You have to cut out something to make space. Once again, nothing says more than a chart, but unfortunately, there’s no established standard for what components each form factor can accommodate. It comes down to specific manufacturers.
Look out for GPU slots, standard PCI-E expansion slots, the number, and size of drive bays (5.25” refers to optical drives like a DVD or Blu-ray drive; 3.5” point towards standard hard disc drives; while the diminutive 2.5” bay houses SSDs), and the number of fans the case can accommodate.
If you plan to run a four GPU SLI setup with 5 HDD and 5 SDDs alongside a water cooling system, then veer towards the EATX/Full-Tower cases, conversely, if you want a compact machine to lug around, then consider Mini-ITX/MicroATX/SFF/Mini-Tower cases.
GPU length and case dimensions are also worth checking. Higher tier GPUs tend to be long pieces of hardware, so much they often don’t fit inside SFF and Mini-Tower cases. Manufacturers list this as GPU clearance. With a radiantly new RTX 2080 sitting on your desk and a case too small to seat it, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having checked it would fit beforehand.
In most cases, you’ll end up using an ATX/Mid-Tower setup and this is by far the most popular as it offers the best of both worlds with a large surface area to work with without having to deal with the at times monstrose size of a Full-Tower that can measure upwards of 22 inches in height.
Note that miniaturization comes at a premium and although smaller form factors should logically be cheaper, this is rarely the case.
To recap; make sure the case fits the motherboard form factor and has space (both in terms of slots/bays) and component clearance.
Modularity and Options
Increasingly, modularity is a desirable feature for cases, or in other words, the ability to move parts around within a case to suit your components: removable cages, fans, trays, covers, mounts and so on. Some manufacturers offer cases that are entirely modular allowing the builder to create a bespoke setup.
Excessive modularity may be overkill for most, but if options are what you are striving for then investigate the many options on the market before committing to the constricting design of standard models.
Most cases ship with a basic set of onboard controls and ports such as a couple of USB 3.0 ports on the front, alongside headphone and microphone jacks. You can, however, go way beyond this with an arsenal of ports as well as convenience options like heat monitoring LCD panels that show the temperature of specific components, fan controllers, volume controls, clocks, lighting controllers and so on.
Soundproofed cases are also increasingly popular especially for high tier setups with a myriad of fans running to keep all the components cool. A whirring cacophony may seem innocuous at first, but will quickly ramp up from frustrating to lunacy-inducing within a few weeks.
It can be tempting to buy a case with a PSU already fitted to save a few dollars, but the reality is that manufacturers often cut corners and offer subpar products. Additionally, being able to choose the right wattage for your build will save you trouble in the long run. There’s no point in adding extra costs to your build by having to replace the PSU within a few months after you realize it’s underpowered.
PSU positioning is also important. Bottom mounted PSUs are the best bet if safety is a concern as they endow the PC with a weightier lower half securing it firmly on a desk or other elevated surface. Rear mounted, on the other hand, provide more connectivity options given its location near the motherboard and components.
A well-ventilated PC is a happy PC — factor in how you plan to cool your machine when considering a case. We recommend eyeing up how many front fans, top fan mounts, and radiator brackets a specific case has. Opt for a more significant form factor case if you are going down the road of water cooling.
We also highly recommend paying a bit more for a set of dust filters, especially on the front and top of the case. These little mesh lifesavers can be the difference between dust-incrusted components that overheat increasing the likelihood of long term damage and a well-cooled machine able to withstand the tribulations of everyday use.
Build Quality & Price
Price is linked to all the other features in our guide. The temptation is to skimp on the case in favor of a better GPU or CPU, understandably so. But the reality is that an expensive case pays dividends especially when it comes to cooling and small details such as the quality of the metal casing.
Barebones budget cases often have jagged edges that on the surface level are a reasonable compromise, yet when it comes to putting the machine together can lead to cuts and nicks on fingers and hands.
Equally, pricier models have more functional features such as better cable management options and onboard controls. They also look better and are less prone to deterioration over time.
Looks & Style: The Art of Aesthetics
As PC building becomes as much as an aesthetic pursuit as a shell for components, the looks of a case are increasingly important. Personal preference and taste play a huge part here. If you’re banking on showing off your machine, then the case is by far the most important visual component to consider.
We are veritably spoilt for choice with cases that are straight up works of design art with beautifully contoured edges, see-through panels, handles, blocky outcrops, etc. Of course, a better-looking case comes at a price.
Choices also extend to features like lighting, RGB strips, see-through front panels (and even back panels) with tempered glass; the options are dizzying, and beyond sticking to a defined budget, the world is your oyster when it comes to style.
Added Benefits: Installation & Expansion
Trawling sites for the right components and case is often a rewarding experience wrought with anticipation, but when it comes down to it, you’ll need to put the machine together so consider cases that offer a helping hand in doing so with various features.
Removable Motherboard Trays
You may have seen these in tutorial videos, and we can’t recommend these enough. They allow you to install the CPU, RAM, and cooler without having to battle with the case and save considerable amounts of build time.
Not all of us are endowed with the gift of dexterity and contorting our fingers, and an arsenal of tools around the sharp corners of a PC case isn’t for everyone. If you happen to fall into this category, keep an eye out for cases with tool-less features.
As the name suggests, these case include parts that fit together without screws, basically negating the need for a screwdriver in favor of all manner of brackets, thumb screws, fasteners, levers, buttons, and other twist-on/snap-on mechanisms.
In most cases, the notoriously temperamental drive bays are the main focus of tool-less design, but the trend is to integrate it into other facets of the case from PCI-E expansion card mounts on the rear tray to magnetized side panels.
Good cable management offers three benefits: better airflow, accessibility, and aesthetic value. Look out for motherboard trays and more importantly cable hole numbers and placement as well as rubber grommets for a cleaner look. Cable management is challenging at the best of times so scope out cases that make it that much easier to handle.
Additionally, if you are building a particularly busy PC component-wise, ensure the space between the motherboard tray and back panel is wide enough to accommodate all the cabling and whether a case ships with cable shrouds, brackets, mounting points, and straps to help cable management.
Expansion & Upgrading
PC’s are expensive and having sunk your savings into a top of the range machine it’s well worth taking precautions to future proof it. Extra drive bays, an additional PCI-E slot, or space for a beefier PSU are all worth considering.
Small features such as a CPU cutout on the motherboard tray are great and can save you having to remove all the components and motherboard to unclip/unscrew a cooler to upgrade.