Do you need a proper PC case? Not really, no. In fact, you don't strictly need a PC case at all. A fully functional PC will actually hang together perfectly well without one. Would you appreciate one? Ah, now that's more complicated question. I therefore present to you the proverbial good PC case, and a semi-serious dissertation that examines some of the more convincing reasons why you might want one.
Let's start by being absolutely clear. You don't need a fancy PC case. In fact, you don't need a PC case at all. As the image above demonstrates and which I might add was (exclusively!) staged for this very post, a cardboard box and a flat surface is enough.
'Building' this six-core, mega-GPU'ed, fully functional beast up from raw bits to fully booted took me all of about three minutes. Indeed, for much of my benchmarking career, if you can call it that, a mobo sitting atop a box has been as sophisticated as it gets. I can assure you I am not alone in that regard.
It gets worse than that. But if I tell you about balancing coolers on top of CPU sockets and using weights to ensure suitable thermal coupling because I can't be arsed to fiddle with clamps I'm probably at risk of both revealing too much of the sausage factory and also establishing myself as what you might euphemistically call something of an outlier.
The point is that you could go caseless, run some benchmarks and find nothing has changed. As it happens, it's also pretty darn easy to swap out components when they are entirely exposed. Even mobo swaps are snappy when nothing is screwed down. Handy for group tests. The cooling ain't too shabby, either.
As a long-term proposition, on the other hand, the odds of damage escalate pretty dramatically in terms of dust exposure, spills, bumps and other mishaps. But the thing would run fine for a while as the 'rig' above is proving as I type these very words upon it.
Of course, it goes very nearly without saying I am not advocating caseless PCs. You should have a case. This astute and insightful advice I provide entirely for free and I mention the whole caseless thing only to properly frame the case for, well, cases that follows. Absolute necessity isn't in the mix. Question is, however, does it matter which case?
Much of the time, if the key metric is performance or just a PC that works, the answer is no. In extremis, a crap case can cause overheating. But that's actually fairly unusual, especially with components running within factory spec rather than overclocked. You do need to make sure the bits you want to stick inside will fit. Super-long video cards, water cooling rads, batteries of hard drives - all of these and more can throw up ergonomic issues in that regard.
But really, it's things like ease of use, practicality and longevity that underpin the argument for a decent case. On that note, may I introduce the RPS massive to the proverbial good PC case mentioned earlier. In this instance, I've gone for a Fractal Define R5. Cue BBC-style disclaimer - other case models are available from other case manufacturers. Some may well be better and I'd certainly welcome suggestions below, but from my point of view at least, this one isn't too far off the sweet spot of ease, practicality and appearance.
I fancied getting hold of the R5 because Fractal generally gets a pretty good press, I haven't previously had any hands-on time with a Fractal box and this particular model showcases much of what has become good practice in case design without veering into crazy money territory.
Not that it's exactly cheap. Not for roughly £85 in Blighty and $110 Stateside. But what does that buy you? Well, something pretty nicely put together and very thoughtfully arranged. From the neat little baggies for the all-black screws to the damped drive cages, careful cable management and copious cooling options, much of the upside of a case like this is the lack of nastiness during the build process. You can tell whoever designed it knew what they were doing.
Even the manual is crystal clear and user friendly. Fractal, if you weren't aware, is a Swedish company, so perhaps that helps with avoiding too much strangled English. Monolingual as I am, I pass no comment on the accuracy of the alternate translations.
Anyway, like I said, this thing is about attention to detail and ease of use. That starts with stuff like no nasty sharp edges inside or out with which to slice yourself up. Then there are features like the front door that can be hinged on either side and takes all of about 30 seconds to swap. Or the near full-length dust tray that can be accessed from the front.
The drive cages are another nice touch in that the case is engineered to allow for multiple configurations – that goes beyond merely having them fitted or not and extends to multiple locations, which can be handy when you're tackling something like an uber-long video card.
There's plenty of sound deadening material liberally strewn about the case and the cooling options, be that plain old fans or full-on water rads and pumps, are legion.
Put all this together and you have the kind of case that's a very pleasant base for a build and gives the impression of being a safe pair of hands in the long run for your precious components in terms of everything from cooling to component swapping to dust management.
Is it perfect? Obviously not. If I am brutally honest, there has yet to be a PC case that has totally satisfied me for engineering quality. Dont get me wrong, the R5 is nicely finished. But it's still pressed steel and plastic. It pains me to say it, but I've yet to see a PC case that can go toe to toe with Apple's all-alloy PowerMac tower for simple material loveliness.
But that's tangential to our remit today. My ambitions here are pretty modest. Old self-build hands will be familiar with the upsides of a decent box. For everyone else, I just want to provide a little insight into the upsides of the proverbial good PC case. It's not going to make your frame rates leap through the ceiling. And we've really only scratched the surface of what goes into a great case, much less touched on all the different options and form factors.
But the basic point holds. A decent case will provide plenty of tangible long-term goodness and a good 'un will certainly see you through several rounds of system upgrades. In other words, buy right and you'll probably only buy once.
Again, here we're using it as an example to illustrate key principles to look out for rather than claiming the Fractal is the be-all and end-all: many, many other cases press just as many of the right buttons and cut just as few fingers. Please do share your own recommendations below.