While computer cases aren’t components that play a direct role in the kind of performance your PC will be able to achieve, they are still very important to your overall system.
PC cases house and protect all of your components and they also play a big role in influencing airflow in your system to keep it running cool (at least, the good cases do.)
But, there are so many case options out there. And, they all come in different sizes and with different designs and with a huge variety of feature sets. So, despite the fact that a computer case is one of the more exciting components to choose, there is a lot to consider when trying to pick the right one for your needs.
In this post, we’ll go over four different factors (some with a lot of sub-topics) to consider when choosing a case for your PC build. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you’ll have a better idea of what to look for in a case so that you can be better able to find the best PC case for you and your new system.
Case Compatibility, Clearance, and Form-Factor
Technically, this section could just simply be titled “Case Compatibility,” because, when talking about case compatibility, both clearance issues and form-factor are really just two subsets of case compatibility.
But, for the sake of organizing this post, I’ll break case compatibility down into those two sections:
Form-Factors and Common Case Sizes
There are really four common case sizes:
- Full Tower (Large)
- Mid Tower (Medium)
- Micro-ATX (Small)
- Mini-ITX (Smaller)
Technically, there are no standards for case size—at least, in terms of the dimensions of a case. All cases, however, support one or more of the various computer motherboard form-factors.
The most common motherboard form-factors are:
- Extended ATX
- Standard ATX
You can check out our more extensive guide on the differences between micro-ATX, mini-ITX, and standard ATX motherboards here.
The bigger the case is, the more likely it is to be able to hold a variety of motherboard form factors. For instance, some full tower cases out there can hold any of the four common motherboard form-factors.
Of course, putting a mini-ITX motherboard in a full tower case is going to look silly. But, in terms of compatibility, it is possible to do so.
On the other hand, smaller form-factor cases are limited by their size and, therefore, cannot accommodate the larger motherboard form-factors. For instance, you cannot put a standard ATX motherboard inside of a mini-ITX case.
But, again, this is really the only standard that binds the different cases in a common case size together. What I mean by this is that, while all mid towers share the ability to hold standard ATX motherboards, not all mid tower cases have the same dimensions and feature sets. And, the same goes for the rest of the common case sizes.
So, really, the main thing to consider when it comes to motherboard form-factor when you go to buy your case, is that you ensure that the motherboard you have chosen (or are planning on choosing) will fit inside of the case you are considering purchasing.
Of course, this can easily be accomplished by checking the case’s spec sheet and seeing which motherboard form-factors it can accommodate.
Clearance & Other Compatibility Issues
While the motherboard form-factors that a case supports are one type of compatibility issue that you will need to consider before choosing a case, you will also want to make sure that all of the other components you choose will fit inside of your case.
The most common clearance and compatibility issues to watch for when shopping for a PC case are:
- Graphics card length
- Air CPU cooler height
- Liquid cooling radiator size
Let’s dive into each of these three issues below…
Graphics Card Length
While this is becoming rarer as A) graphics cards, on average, are getting shorter, and B) mid tower and smaller cases are starting to be built to accommodate longer graphics cards.
However, it is still an issue that persists. So, before you finalize your part list, you need to check the spec sheet of both your case and graphics card to check how long your card is and how much clearance for a graphics card your case has. If your case can accommodate graphics card lengths that exceed your graphics card, then you are good to go.
If not, you will want to look for a shorter alternative. And, if you’re looking to get a small form-factor case, you’ll likely want to consider going with some of the “mini” graphics cards that are available (both Zotac and Gigabyte have mini versions available on even their higher-end cards.)
Air CPU Cooler Tower Height
Just like some graphics cards are longer than others, some air CPU coolers have taller heatsinks that other coolers. And, not every case is deep enough to accommodate the tallest air coolers.
To ensure that the CPU cooler you have chosen will fit inside your case, again, just check the spec sheet of both the case and air CPU cooler you are considering. Your case’s spec sheet should specify how tall of a CPU cooler it can accommodate, and the CPU cooler you are considering will list its height.
Liquid Cooling Radiator Size
Liquid cooling systems (whether AIOs or custom loops) utilize liquid to transfer heat from your processor to a radiator. The radiator has fans installed on it, which dissipates some of the heat from the radiator.
However, there is no standard radiator size. In fact, radiators come in a variety of sizes.
And, just like how not every case can accommodate every CPU cooler and graphics card, not every case can accommodate every radiator size.
So, before you choose a liquid cooling setup (AIO or custom loop) to pair with your case, it’s important that you check your case’s spec sheet to ensure that the radiator that comes with your liquid cooler will fit inside of your case.
Another important thing to note is the difference between AIO coolers and custom liquid cooling setups. Custom liquid cooling setups require extra space for reservoirs and therefore, a case that supports larger radiators isn’t necessarily a case that will work for custom loops. Although, the two do typically go hand-in-hand.
A Computer Case’s Role in Cooling and Air Flow
While the biggest draw of PC cases is typically their aesthetics, cases do play a significant role in the cooling process of your computer. Keeping your components cool is obviously an important part of building and maintaining a computer. The cooler your components run, the longer they will typically last, and the fewer problems you will run into.
Computer cases contribute to (or hinder) the cooling process by the air flow they provide (or fail to provide). Your PC case will also determine what kind of CPU cooler you can get. (See the section above on clearance and compatibility.)
If you want to choose a case with high air flow and good cooling capability consider the following:
1. The case should have the ability to accommodate multiple fans at various locations in the case (front, back, top, side, etc.)
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the case you choose has to come with a bunch of fans pre-installed. Most cases only come with a few fans pre-installed (cheaper cases typically come with only one or two pre-installed).
But, budget permitting, you should try and choose a case that has the option to add multiple fans. And, it’s always a good idea to get a case that can accommodate fans on the front and back (or top) of the case so that you can intake air from the front, and then exhaust it out the back (or top).
2. The panels (front, side, and top) on a case also play a large role in air flow.
Cases that have grilled panels or grilled openings on their panels are ideal because the grill-design allows more air to flow into (and out of) the case.
On the flip side, cases that have solid front, top, side, and back panels restrict the air coming in and exiting the case because there is less of an opening for air to get into (or exit) the case.
So, when possible, try and choose a case that has grill panels, as that will increase the air flow in your case, which will, in turn, keep your components cooler.
3. Also, again, as we mentioned above, certain cases will not be able to accommodate certain CPU coolers and liquid cooling radiators.
And, while that doesn’t necessarily mean that those cases aren’t good options in terms of air flow and cooling, it does mean that they will have some limits on the types of coolers you can install in them. So, if you like the idea of getting an AIO cooler with an enormous 360mm radiator on it, but you really like a specific case that can only hold a 240mm radiator in it, you’re going to have to sacrifice one or the other.
3. Case Build Quality
Build quality is another important feature. Cheaper cases are built with lower-quality materials and, as a result, tend to show more dings and scratches, are less sturdy, have thinner panels, and will wear down more quickly.
On the other hand, higher-end cases typically have a much more solid frame and are thus more sturdy.
Of course, for some budget-oriented builders, there is no way around going with a cheaper case option. And, that’s completely fine. But just know that while a cheaper case may look cool and have some nice features, there likely had to have been some corners cut somewhere, and it is probably that they were cut on the materials and build quality of the case.
4. Case Aesthetics (& Cable Mangement)
This is just my opinion, but I sincerely believe that if there weren’t so many cool computer cases to choose from, a lot fewer people would build their own computers. It might seem like a silly opinion—especially since cases have no direct impact on your system’s performance—but just imagine that the only case you could get was one of those basic-looking cases that cheap pre-built computers come in.
It kind of takes the fun out of building a computer a bit, right?
In any case, case aesthetics are important because most people want their case to look cool.
So, in this section, I’ll go over four different aspects of case aesthetics that you should consider before choosing a case:
In my opinion, there are three different types of people who will build computers.
- People who are incredibly particular about their cable management.
- People who do a decent job at cable management, but aren’t going to take it to the extreme.
- People who just don’t care about cable management.
For the first two types of people, choosing a case that is designed with cable management in mind is the way to go. If building a clean looking system is one of your goals, then doing your due diligence on cable management is a must. You can color coordinate all of your components, get a case with a see-through side panel, and fill your system with a bunch of RGB lights… but if you don’t clean up your cabling, your build isn’t going to look good.
While cable management is a bit of an art and people who excel at cable management can probably make the cabling look good in any case, having a case that has plenty of cable management options is going to go a long way towards helping you hide your cables in an efficient manner.
This is even more true for first-time builders who are likely going to be more focused on getting their computer assembled properly than they are on ensuring their cables are clean and hidden. The extra cable management features that some cases come with will make the process easier for first-time builders so they don’t have to worry about it as much.
Some cable management features to look for on prospective cases are:
- Plenty of holes and hooks/loops all over the case
- Rubber grommets around the holes to conceal the gaps
- Cases that have some depth behind the motherboard to accommodate large groupings of cables
- PSU shrouds are nice because they make cable managing with non-modular PSUs much easier. (And, they look really clean.)
See-Through Side Panels
If you want to build a nice-looking system, a case with a see-through side panel will help you show off the inside of your PC. And, if you take your time and do a good job managing your cables you can earn some serious credit among your non-techie friends for how cool your computer looks.
It’s important to note that not all side panels are made equal. Tempered glass side panels are your best bet. If you can avoid an acrylic see-through side panel, definitely do so. Acrylic is really easy to scratch. I’ve even left scratches on acrylic side panels just by using a cloth to try and wipe off the dust.
I’m a big fan of the PSU shroud movement. In my opinion, PSU shrouds are a godsend for A) those of us who don’t have elite-level cable management skills, and B) those of us who are working with a tight budget and have to go with a non-modular power supply.
With a case that doesn’t have a PSU shroud, and with a non-modular power supply, you could do every other aspect of cable management perfectly, but if you don’t have anywhere to hide the mess of molex and SATA power cables that are left over, your going to have a huge eyesore to look at inside of your case. With a PSU shroud, that mess is hidden by default.
Even if you do have a semi-modular or modular power supply, though, a PSU shroud helps provide a clean look that keeps the focus on your main components.
With RGB lighting being so popular, it’s no wonder that there are an ever-increasing amount of cases that feature RGB lights in some capacity. Of course, RGB fans and RGB led strips can be purchased separately and added to a case that doesn’t come with them. But, if the case already includes them, that’s less RGB lighting you have to pay for after the fact.
Just make sure that if you want a specific color scheme that the case does come with RGB lights and not just a specific color led light.
Which Case is Right for You?
There are literally hundreds of case options to choose between. The right case for your will come down to, first, how much you have to spend, and, second, the other components you have (or have chosen) for your build and whether or not they are compatible with the case you are considering, and, third, your personal preferences on some of the factors discussed above.
Ultimately, though, if you have read through this post, you’ll have a much better idea of what to look for when choosing a PC case that suits your needs.