Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cases and PSUs: Basics and Recommendations

Choosing a case and PSU for your new PC build is often something of an afterthought. It's easy to make the mistake of focusing in hard on your sweet, sweet CPU and GPU purchases, buying the best performing components you can afford, then sticking them in whatever case you can buy with what's left of your budget, along with the cheapest PSU you could find that would (supposedly) power your build.

The reality is that Cases and PSUs are, in a way, the most important part of any PC build. A case with poor cooling performance might result in long term (or, in extreme cases, even short-term) damage to your components. The harder it is to build in your case, the more likely you are to accidentally damage the case, your components, or yourself (the cheaper the case, the sharper the edges) trying to force things. And if the case was hard to build in, it won't be easy to upgrade components in, or clean. Keep in mind that a great case is an investment. Unlike a processor or graphics card, which can go from cream of the crop to just 2nd (or 3rd) best in the time it takes to get it shipped to your door, your case can be around for a long time, and be home to many upgrades and new builds, as long as you buy a solid model that gives you room to grow. It's worth the extra expense. A PSU is even more significant. A quality, enthusiast grade PSU is a solid, efficient, purpose built piece of electronics, and if you keep things reasonable, it will serve you well through upgrades, and even new builds. A quality PSU can do all you ask of it and more, and while you shouldn't go crazy, you'd be surprised by what a nice Seasonic or Corsair or Antec (etc.) can do for you. Of course, if you choose poorly, you could turn your multi-hundred dollar PC build into a paperweight fashioned of smoldering silicon trapped within sheet metal.

Below you'll find information and guidelines on Case and PSU choice, as well as some recommendations (prices current as of February 20, 2012) on what might be a good buy for your budget.


When looking at cases, I recommend looking for the following features as a baseline:

1. Cable Management - At this point, reasonable cable management features are so common in cases at all budget levels that there really isn't any reason to buy a case without them. Sometimes the case will have a large void on the right side of the motherboard tray (many older Cooler Master cases like the CM Storm Sniper use this method), others will have cutouts (sometimes with rubber grommets) to bring cables back through. Ideally the case will feature a cutout for your 8 pin CPU power cable as well, but some cheaper cases with cable management don't have them. If you're lucky and careful, you might be able to thread your 8 pin under your motherboard and through the CPU backplate cutout to mimic the effect. Regardless of the style or number/location of cutouts offered, the basic idea is always the same, moving cables behind the motherboard tray as much as possible and bringing them out right where they need to be. Cable management doesn't just make your case innards look pretty, it helps your case stay cool.

2. Bottom-mounted PSU w/ Vent - Once again, this feature is very common on quality cases of all budget levels, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding something you like. Basically this feature improves case layout by placing your PSU at the bottom of the case, where it can intake cool air from under the case and exhaust it. It largely removes your PSU from the thermal equation. It's nice if the vent is filtered.

3. Good Thermal Options - At the very least your case should have mounts for a front intake fan, and a rear exhaust fan. These should be at least 120mm fan mounts. Ideally you'll have options side intake and top exhaust fans as well (2 fan mounts for each location is fairly standard in a good enthusiast level case). If you have multiple front intake fans (or a single larger, say, 200mm fan) the side intake is less important. Filtered intakes are a plus.

4. General Good Design - I always look for a few additional good design decisions in a case. A good case should feature at least some tool-less/screwless options for hardware mounting. Understandably, tool-less mechanisms are less numerous the lower the price of the case, but the best budget options still often feature thumbscrews, and/or a single tool-less mount on the 5.25 bays. The HDD cages should be oriented to place the "back" of the drive, where your SATA and Power connectors are, toward the side of the case with the motherboard tray, to facilitate cable routing. Keep an eye out for a nice sized CPU backplate cutout, it'll make attaching an aftermarket cooler immeasurably easier. Finally, most cases worth your time will have at least 2 front panel USB 2.0 ports to go with the HD audio hookups.

Naturally, these baselines can't cover everything, depending on your budget or intended usage (HTPC cases are usually pretty short on cable routing possibilities, for example) you might find that some of those features aren't necessary to you. But, for a standard tower for the computer enthusiast and/or gamer, that's the stuff you want.

After you've taken a look at what's available and eliminated those cases that just don't make the cut, buy within your budget, and keep aesthetics under consideration. You'll be less inclined to take care of something you can barely stand to look at. There are a number of unique touches and additions that can increase the value of the case for your particular build, so be thorough and make sure you've found something you can live with. If you're having trouble figuring out where to start, check the list below for some good starting points at various budget levels. PM me if you think your case is rad and I don't have it on the list!

NOTE: This list ignores shipping costs.
  • $40: NZXT Source 210
  • $60: CM HAF 912
  • $80: CM 690 II Advanced (Owned by: Alecthar)
  • $100: Corsair 400R
  • $100: Fractal Design Arc Midi
  • $130: NZXT Phantom
  • $140: Corsair 500R
  • $160: CM HAF 932 Advanced (Full Tower)
  • $160/$170: Corsair 600T/Corsair 600T SE (Owned by: Alecthar, Hardtarget, Squall, MagicPrime, finalflight89 and many others...)
  • $180: CM HAF X (Full Tower)
  • More money: Generally speaking, for an air-cooled build you won't need to spend more than $200 to get a top of the line case with way more than enough room and features for what you want to do. Some more esoteric cases (like the Silverstone inverted motherboard mount cases) or virtually anything of full-tower size from Lian Li might run you more, but that's up to you. Cases suitable for hardcore water cooling are often an exception and some of the older ones that are still beloved are difficult to find, so you can definitely end up spending more there. That's a class in itself though, one that I'm not as comfortable addressing.

Power Supplies

Buying a power supply is a crucial decision, and it doesn't respond well to the kind of "pop it in our test rig and benchmark it" style of reviewing that most PC component review sites tend to favor. In many cases, a power supply that runs a test rig just fine can be less efficient than advertised, unable to pull its rated peak wattage, and have out of specification electrical ripple and noise that can damage your components. Fewer sites than you'd think actually test power supplies correctly, below are 3 of my favorites:

Hardware Secrets

All of these sites are very transparent about their methodology, which is good because I've found that legitimate power supply reviews are very important in determing the correct supply to buy. For example, reviews might help you find out that while some Antec PSU lines are very solid (True Power New, original Earthwatts below 650W), others are mediocre to terrible (new Earthwatts, original Earthwatts from 650W and up, Basiq). This hodgepodge of awesome, acceptable, and awful product lines occurs largely because most major PSU vendors sell PSU lines that are rebadged (and sometimes modified) power supplies from other companies (Seasonic, CWT, and many others). So, while one line might benefit by being based on a solid Seasonic platform, another might be crippled by being based on a (literally) explosive Huntkey PSU. Because you don't have time to deconstruct a boatload of power supplies, your best option is to let good, reputable reviewers do the legwork for you.

So, you have some good resources that will let you know what to look for, but when you find it, you find that it has 2 12V rails, and your good buddy told you that quality PSUs should only have a single 12V rail. Or, it's modular, and that same buddy told you all about how that's bad and not as good as hardwired cables.

Your buddy is an idiot.

Apologies for my bluntness, but there are numerous myths/semi-myths that you hear all the time about PSUs that can really interfere with the buying process. Let's take a look at some “conventional wisdom” that is simply incorrect:
  • Modular cabling increases resistance/is another point of failure/is at increased risk for corrosion: The first and second points are technically true, but in the first case, the added resistance is entirely negligible, it's roughly equivalent to a few additional inches of cabling. Modular cables are, in theory, at slightly increased risk for failure, but the risk is very slim in a quality supply, and if you use PSU cable extensions (for example) you're essentially assuming the same risk, just slightly further down the cable. The third claim is just untrue. Modular cabling, either in fully or partially modular supplies, is really helpful in maintaining a clean build. It's a nice feature to have that usually comes at a price premium. Don't spend loads of additional money on it, but it is worth a reasonable amount of cash to have on a quality supply.
  • Single Rail/Multi Rail designs are superior to Multi Rail/Single Rail designs: The objections here are slightly different. Single rail designs get boosted by many because of issues multi-rail supplies had 4-5 years ago with load balancing. Since then, design has improved and those problems are a thing of the past (at least in quality supplies). Multi-rail supplies are “superior” because Single-Rail supplies above a certain wattage (around 600W) have OCP (over current protection) that is set so high out of necessity (because all of the current on the 12V rail is on a single rail) that it's likely that, in the event of a short circuit that the SCP (Short Circuit Protection) doesn't catch, you'll sustain serious to catastrophic component damage before the OCP kicks in. Now, it's really unlikely that such a short circuit would occur, so really Multi-Rail vs. Single-Rail is a non-issue, but if you really want the absolute safest supply and you need more than 600ish Watts, go with a quality Multi-Rail unit.
  • Headroom! More Headroom!: Okay, so often I'm the first person to buy more than I need, but a quality PSU is a well-designed, precision engineered, ass-kicking beast with as many safety precautions built in as the manufacturer can fit onto a PCB.  Buy enough PSU to run your PC at full bore and no more.  You'll hardly ever use that much PSU, and you'll be burning money in electricity bills if you buy a PSU where your normal usage doesn't fall roughly in the area where the PSU is most efficient.

So with all that said, here's a few manufacturer recommendations/warnings to keep in mind as you buy your PSU:

The Good

Corsair – Corsair has made something of a name for itself in the PSU sector, and they do make some of the better PSUs available today (their AX series, mostly). Many of their older lines are still favorites among enthusiasts, though other companies have come out with competing/superior lines. Still, those are completely solid supplies, even if they aren't the best performers anymore. With the exception of the current “Builder Series” (PSUs labeled CX430, CX500, CX600, which are labeled at higher wattages than they probably should be), and the new Gamer Series (which are solid, but probably overpriced, and mostly exist to be sold at brick and mortar outlets like Best Buy) I would recommend a Corsair supply without hesitation.

Seasonic – Seasonic makes some of the best PSUs in the world, including most of the best PSUs in the world from vendors like Corsair and Antec. You see, Seasonic is both an OEM vendor, and a Retail vendor. Most of their retail supplies are clustered around lower wattages, usually under 650W, but they make high quality, efficient supplies.

NZXT - These guys have recently stepped up to the plate with some seriously nice supplies. They have some more "budget-friendly" PSUs OEM'd by Seasonic, and their Hale90 series of PSUs is OEM'd by Superflower, and is a great platform.

Antec – Despite my continued dislike of Antec's Basiq series of PSUs, I've come to the conclusion that Antec is doing much more right than wrong in the PSU market these days. The True Power New line (which appears to be EOLed) is great, as are the True Power Quattro units. The Antec Neo Eco units are really solid Seasonic-based units that are absolutely perfect for budget-conscious builders. The Antec High Current Gamer supplies are, at least at most wattages, built on the Seasonic S12II Bronze platform, so they're also a great budget-friendly choice. Antec also makes one of the best 1200W supplies available, the 1200W High Current Pro. The Earthwatts line is an adequate budget-friendly line of PSUs. I wouldn't use their higher wattage units in a higher-end build, but their low-wattage units are reliable, even if their performance won't wow you.

The Mediocre

Thermaltake – Thermaltake pretty much averages out to mediocre. Their Toughpower and Toughpower XT lines are both solid, if generally overpriced. Their other lines, though, like their TR2 supplies, are generally terrible, with a few thoroughly mediocre units in the mix.

Rosewill - Rosewill has some truly horrid crud, but also has some solid units, and some great units. In particular, their Gold-certified Lightning units are OEM'd by Superflower using their fantastic "Golden Green" platform, and are really solid values with some high voltage options for those who need them.

The Bad

Cooler Master – It's surprising, in a way, that a company that makes some really great cases also makes some exceptionally terrible PSUs. Out of all the power supplies that Cooler Master has in their lineup, only the Silent Pro M is really worth your time, and even those supplies aren't particularly good values. Aside from the 4 supplies in that line, avoid like the plague.

Ultra Products – Ultra has had a fairly tarnished reputation for a while, and has made some steps toward redemption recently, but between their fairly frivolous lawsuit regarding modular PSUs, and some recent incidences of them falsely claiming SLI certification, it's really hard to label them as anything other than a cruddy company.

Generics – God help me, don't use the power supply that came with your case.

As for specific purchasing recommendations...well it's hard to say. PSU choice is heavily dependent on what particular wattage, feature set, and connector demands you have. Buy a good supply from a good company, and be prepared to spend at least 50 to 60 bucks, even if you're looking at something in the 500W range. It sucks to spend money, but this is one of those instances where you will pay significantly more later if you try to save 20 bucks now.

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