ATX PC Cases and Case Fans

The ATX PC cases and case fans used in desktop PCs

ATX desktop PC case with transparent side

ATX desktop PC case with transparent side

CONTENTS

  1. ATX PC cases (with their power supply) are as important to a PC’s stability and performance as the RAM memory, motherboard and processor
  2. The ATX motherboard and case form factors
  3. ATX PC cases: Cable management
  4. Front-mounted case ports
  5. PC case fans
  6. Case modding

ATX PC cases (with their power supply) are as important to a PC’s stability and performance as the RAM memory, motherboard and processor

The ATX case along with its power supply unit (PSU) are crucial components whose importance is often overlooked. This is a serious oversight, because the case (with its power supply) is as important to a PC’s stability and performance as its RAM memory, motherboard and processor.

The case should be well designed so that it is quiet (has no whining fans) and keeps the internal hardware adequately cooled. The case should also provide easy access to its components so that it is easy to work on. The ATX and micro-ATX standards of motherboards and cases has been dominant for decades in spite of a few standards, BTX and DTX, that looked promising but which fell by the wayside.

The Mini-ITX (Information Technology eXtended) is a low-power motherboard and case form factor. They are commonly used in small form factor (SFF) computer systems such as home-theater PCs that have to be quiet. Mini-ITX motherboards can often be used in ATX, micro-ATX and other ATX-variant cases because the mounting holes and the locations of the ports panel and single expansion slot are the same.

ATX – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ATX

micro-ATX – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MicroATX

Mini-ITX – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mini-ITX

A power supply unit (PSU) often comes with an inexpensive PC case, but most PC cases come without a power supply, especially expensive cases, requiring the power supply to be purchased separately. In most cases, the power supply that comes with a case is under-powered and/or of poor quality should be replaced due to the fact that if the power supply fails, it can take the other components to component heaven with it and may even be the cause of a fire.

The PC Power Supplies – PSUs section of this website provides information on them.

You should always make sure that a power supply that is provided with a case or a new PC desktop is a quality unit capable of delivering its stated maximum power output (400W, 500W, 600W, etc.). Cheap PSUs might say that they are capable of delivering 500W of power but that might not be the case or might be the case but that they won’t be able to do so for any long length of time without packing in.

To find out the make/model of power supply requires opening the case and reading what is written on it, because that information is very seldom provided in the machine’s specification list. You can then use the make/model as the search query to conduct a web search. I would advise doing that as soon as you receive a new desktop PC regardless of its cost, just in case a cheap power supply is installed. In any case, it is quite possible that an expensive PC might have originally have had a quality unit that was replaced by staff working at the store with a cheap unit.

Cases come in several different sizes and types – mini-tower, midi-tower, full tower and desktop (the case lies horizontally on the desk instead of vertically like a tower case). Since most users don’t require anything more than a midi-tower case, it is the type most commonly used in the construction of a personal computer.

Most of the current PC cases have some tool-free features, such as clips that retain adapter cards, thumbscrews for the side panels, and tool-free drive bays that have plastic rails that clip to the side of the hard disk drive(s) and CD/DVD drive(s).

The ATX motherboard and case form factors

The description of a motherboard that indicates its type is called its form factor. If you want to read technical information on the different form factors, visit http://www.formfactors.org.

AT cases and motherboards have been superseded by the ATX standard, which, was expected to be superseded by the BTX standard. However, that succession has not happened and the ATX form factor is still king.

The main form-factor motherboards in use are ATX and micro-ATX, which are fitted into mini-tower (aka micro-ATX), midi-tower and full-tower ATX cases. Both full ATX and micro-ATX motherboards are powered by ATX power supply units (PSUs). Micro-ATX motherboards are smaller than full-sized ATX motherboards and so cannot provide as many adapter-card or RAM-memory slots. They can be installed in any ATX case, but are usually installed in mini-tower ATX cases. A full-sized ATX motherboard is too large to be installed in a mini-tower (micro-ATX) case.

Here is a recent review of a midi-tower case:

Corsair Carbide 200R review –

http://www.expertreviews.co.uk/pcs/pc-cases/52486/corsair-carbide-200r-review

Note that Antec, Cooler Master, and SilverStone manufacture cases and power supply units.

Visit http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/t/cases/ for reviews and news about PC cases. The above-mentioned case and PSU manufacturers are featured regularly.

ATX PC cases: Cable management

Cable management is an important factor because cables can restrict the airflow inside the case. Cases that are well designed provide holes that are used to route cables behind the tray that the motherboard is installed on and away from the fans. When you look inside the case of a brand-name PC, you will see that the cables are tied together and routed in order to provide as much unrestricted space inside the case as possible. If you are building a PC, you should do likewise.

Many cases now provide tool-free access by using thumbscrews that can be removed by hand instead of by using a screwdriver and provide removable drive bays.

Home Theater PC (HTPC) cases, which usually lie horizontally as opposed to vertically, can usually accommodate standard ATX components, so it isn’t usually necessary to buy specially-sized motherboards or half-height adapter (video, sound, etc.) cards.

ATX desktop PC case with its side panel removed

ATX desktop PC case with its side panel removed. Click on the image to see its full size

The ports panel is where the ports that are built into an ATX motherboard come through to the back of the case

In the image above of an ATX case, with the motherboard, memory modules, hard disk drive, graphics card and wireless network card installed, you can see the power supply unit (PSU) in the top left corner, above the motherboard, the ports panel of which can be seen from the inside view. An internal fan can be fitted just under the power supply unit over the outlet there for such a fan.

The ports panel is where the ports that are built into an ATX motherboard come through to the back of the case.

The image below shows the back of the same ATX case. The ports panel (covered by an I/O plate) shows where the ports on the motherboard are coming through its cutouts under the power supply unit. The blue port is an analog VGA port for the graphics chip integrated on the motherboard to which a monitor with a VGA connector is connected by a cable.

The back of an ATX desktop PC case showing its adapter slots and ports panel

The back of an ATX desktop PC case showing its adapter slots and ports panel. Click on the image to see its full size

This is a standard midi-tower ATX case. PCI and PCI Express adapter cards will be fitted into their slots on the motherboard so that their face plates and ports appear through the four horizontally-aligned openings that are under the motherboard’s ports panel. You should be able to see that a sound card’s face plate with its five round plug holes and below it a wireless network adapter card with its two antennas, both of which are installed in PCI slots on the motherboard (as can be seen in the image of the opened case above).

The image below shows the ports panel of a motherboard manufactured by Asus.

An annotated ports panel of an ATX (Asus-F1A75-V-Pro) motherboard

An annotated ports panel of an ATX (Asus-F1A75-V-Pro) motherboard. Click the image to see its full size

The image below shows a close-up view of the ports panel’s I/O plate (far right) that is provided with a PC case, and with most new motherboards. The one that comes with the case usually has to be replaced by the one that comes with the motherboard because the one that comes with the case doesn’t match the ports on the motherboard.

The I/O plate or ports panel (far right) fitted into the back of a case to accommodate the ports on a motherboard

The I/O plate or ports panel (far right) fitted into the back of a case to accommodate the ports on a motherboard

In this example, there are no removable metal covers over the I/O (Input/Output) plate’s cut-outs, because the ports panel came with a motherboard, the ports of which fit into all of the cut-outs. The ports are, from top to bottom and left to right, three sound ports for the inbuilt sound capability, a FireWire port, four USB ports, a legacy parallel port, two legacy serial ports, and PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports.

The I/O ports plate that is provided with a case will probably have removable metal covers, because outlets for more ports, such as a video port where the motherboard has an inbuilt video capacity, will be provided. If you fit a motherboard that doesn’t use any of the extra port outlets, they will remain covered, and therefore won’t affect the cooling of the case by leaving holes.

You should therefore always make sure that you will be getting the I/O plate for the ports panel when purchasing a second-hand motherboard, because the one already fitted into your case might not be able to accommodate the replacement motherboard properly.

When installing a new motherboard, you would remove the existing I/O ports plate in the case, and replace it with the one that came with the new motherboard.

The image below is of a ports panel that comes with a motherboard. The two openings on the far left are for PS/2 keyboard and mouse connections, and the three openings on the far right are for the sound connections, with the LAN networking and USB ports beside them. The three large ports are a legacy parallel port for a printer (top) and under it two legacy serial ports used for mice, joysticks, etc., none which are much in use nowadays.

The ports panel that fits in the back of the PC case, through which the ports on the motherboard appear

The ports panel that fits in the back of the PC case, through which the ports on the motherboard appear

Front-mounted case ports

Most current PC cases provide USB (USB 2.0 and USB 3.0) and audio ports from the front of the case that are usually concealed behind a panel. An eSata port (for an external SATA hard disk drive or CD/DVD writer) and FireWire ports provided at the front of the case were more common at one time but are now rarely provided. USB 3.0 support is now provided by most motherboards, on the main ports panel that appears at the back of the case when the motherboard is installed and from cabled headers on the motherboard that lead to brackets installed like adapter cards at the back of the case.

In order to be used, the motherboard must provide the cabled headers that the front-mounted ports use and the cables must be connected to the motherboard. The motherboard’s user manual, which is can be downloaded from its manufacturer’s site, should provide you with the information on where the headers are located on the motherboard. For example, the case might provide two USB 2.0 ports from the front of the case. If you built the PC and you want to use them, the cables for those USB ports will have to be connected to their connectors on the motherboard.

If the headers are provided by the motherboard for the front-mounted ports and one or more of them don’t work, check the motherboard manual for a jumper setting that enables them.

PC case fans

120mm PC case fan

120mm PC case fan

If you buy a brand-name PC it will come with one or more case fans that should be adequate to keep the interior of the case cool enough so that the processor’s cooling system (heat-sink-and-fan or water-cooled) can function optimally. Most high-end cases provide two case fans, an intake fan at the front of the case, which draws air in, and an exhaust fan at the rear of the case, which expels the hot air.

If you are building a desktop PC, the case you choose will have at least one case fan, usually at the back of the case, but you can install more if the case has additional mountings. If you do, you must make sure that the fans compliment each other (don’t fight against each other). If one side of the case is transparent, you can test the airflow by blowing some smoke into the front of the case to see how the air is being expelled.

Making a choice of fan is not as easy as it might appear to be. Desktop PC cases usually come with the mountings for two sizes of fan – 80mm and 120mm fans, so you have to find out which mountings are available before you make a purchase if you are adding extra fans. 120mm fans are usually more silent than 80mm fans. 120mm cases are the most common type in use, but 140mm, 180mm and even 200mm case fans are available.

Some cases come with the holes for the pipes used by a liquid-cooling unit, but they are not common. If you want to install liquid cooling, you should buy a case that is designed for that type of cooling otherwise you will have to adapt the case yourself.

Note that liquid-cooling systems are usually large, taking up plenty of space. Consequently you have to buy a case with sufficient space to install one. Such cases have been scarce since liquid-cooling devices first became available, no doubt because not many people use them. As might have been expected, since not many of them are sold, the cases capable of housing a liquid-cooling system are not cheap. The following article deals with the type of case that is required, ranging in price from £150 to a staggering £323:

Four ATX Cases For High-Capacity Water Cooling, Reviewed [March 2012]

There was no better article on this site on several cases designed for water-cooling systems by Sept. 2015.

http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/switch-810-cosmos-ii-strike-x-hurrican-2000,review-32399.html

That said, compact, relatively inexpensive liquid-cooled cases have come on to the market that also provide 2.5-inch bays for SSD drives, such as the one in the image below.

Corsair CC-9011029-WW Obsidian Series 350D liquid-colled micro-ATX case

Corsair CC-9011029-WW Obsidian Series 350D Windowed Micro-ATX Performance Case – Black – Liquid-Cooled. Click on the image to see its full size

 

“The [Corsair] Obsidian Series 350D Micro ATX PC case is designed for building compact high-performance systems with Micro ATX and Mini ITX motherboards. The compact size is ideal if space is limited, but there’s plenty of room inside for liquid-CPU cooling, dual hard drives, dual SSDs [in 2.5-inch bays, so no caddies/enclosures are required], and dual [two] full-length [PCI Express x16] graphics cards.”

All Obsidian cases provide tool-free access and drive installation. They has five fan mounting points plus room for two 240mm radiators.

Look at the several images and read the purchaser reviews of this case here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Corsair-CC-9011029-WW-Obsidian-Micro-ATX-Performance/…

If you purchased the case separately, it should have come with a user manual that will probably also be available as a download from its manufacturer’s website if you can identify its make/model. It will tell you the sizes of the available mountings. Alternatively, you can open the case and measure the fan mountings. Some cases are difficult to open, you may need to remove the front cover instead of a side panel screwed at the back of the case, etc., so you should consult the manual if you can’t determine how to open a particular case.

Where possible, you should use 120mm fans, because they move more air while spinning slower and therefore usually make less noise than 80mmm fans.

Most online and retail PC stores sell case fans. It is always a good idea to find and read the available reviews on the web of any kind of computer-related purchase before you part with your money. You can make use of a search engine to find reviews by using the product’s name plus the word review. Here is a page reviewing 120mm fans:

SPCR’s Fan Round-Up #2: 120mm Fans –

http://www.silentpcreview.com/article695-page1.html

Some cases have been designed for maximum noise reduction. They usually have sound-reducing foam on each of the side panels, which increases insulation resulting in poorer cooling that might have to be countered by installing one or more additional fans. The best cases provide sound dampening that can be replaced or have the capacity to be countered with extra fans if necessary.


ATX PC case modding

Case modding is a term used to describe adding all kinds of fancy add-ons and gizmos to a computer case. You can add fancy coolers, fans, fan controllers, neon lights, etc., and you can buy fancy cases that have features such as see-through areas so that you can see inside the case to make sure that fans are working. The following forum has a case-modding section.

bit-tech.net Forums – http://forums.bit-tech.net/

UK-specific sites that offer offer case-modding equipment are:

http://www.overclock.co.uk/dept/Case-Modding_4.html

http://www.kustompcs.co.uk/acatalog/Case_Bits.html

US-specific sites are: http://www.xoxide.com/ and http://www.newegg.com/

Others can be found by entering a web-search query such as case modding or case modding forums.

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