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Week in Tech: The Case for a New PC

Case files

Today, gentlefolk of RPS, I intend to make a case for a new PC. Case for a new PC, geddit? Sigh. Anyway, the other day I was aboard the good ship PC Format Magazine, still steering a firm and true course through the marketing-infested waters of PC hardware and gaming and like all worthy vessels, er, unapologetically made of wood. Or maybe it's pressed peanut sweepings these days. Whatever, I happened upon none other than the latest revision of BitFenix Prodigy, the Prodigy M, a PC case I've always liked the look of but never had the chance to poke around. Turns out it's a very nice little item indeed. There's been plenty of talk about Steam Boxes and ultra small-form-factor rigs round these parts, but less on the arguably more practical topic of cases in general and what makes for the best compromise in terms of form factors. So, let's talk.

What I'm not going to do is review some cases. That would be duller than a console-port press launch and if you want to read a 63-page review of a PC case, that dubious desire is already well catered for. Instead, let's chuck a few ideas around and hopefully light the touch paper for a discussion below. Between you and we, the force should be strong in terms of collective real-world experience with cases.

Size matters
Keeping the feeble pun theme alive, the biggest issue for me is size. Niche variations aside, there are three basic options that derive from motherboard form factors. Full ATX, microATX and mini-ITX. The first is just your vanilla tower PC, the second a sort of tweener that fits more neatly on a desk but isn't trying to be uber teeny. The latter is all about crushing your PC down to Lilliputian proportions.

From a purely technological perspective, mini-ITX is the sexiest. That's probably why I liked the Intel NUC despite it not actually being hugely plausible as an all-round PC. The sense of high-density tech is tangible and seductive.

A powerful PC in my clammy palm. But far too pricey, too inflexible and ultimately no gaming rig

But for me, there are simply too many compromises with going that small. Sure, you can have a mini-ITX rig with proper discrete graphics and all that noise. But you're often painting yourself into a very tight corner regards spec and expansion. And to what end?

In the context of microATX systems, to no terribly compelling end as far as I can see. Certainly, nothing beyond a little less desktop space consumed.

I do actually like the idea of having my desktop PC actually on my desktop. It's probably pure fancy, but it feels like it will stay cleaner and take less abuse up top than on the floor at boot-bothering level. And there are plenty of microATX cases that are small enough for reasonable desktop deployment.

Aerocool Dead Silence Cube: Looks like an interesting microATX option

They also feel about right in terms of the balance between practicality and component density. Full ATX rigs are big, clunky and mostly air, mini-ITX gives you too few options, microATX is the Goldilocks rig.

Bigging up the BitFenix
And what of the BitFenix Prodigy M? Well, its physical bearing doesn't quite pay out on the promise of its mini PowerMac G5 looks in PR pictures. It's clad in plastic and painted pressed steel, not Appley anodised alloy, after all. This particular example appears to have been studiously colour-matched with a '90s 286 corporate PC, which doesn't help much, either.

The worst possible colour for the BitFenix Prodigy M. Possibly

But it's not half bad, even so. It's plastered in neat little touches, like the re-routing of the kettle socket on the power supply to allow for reorientation of same, multiple mounting points for SSDs and an easy-access pop-open grille up top.

Generally, it gives the impression of being designed by people who want the same things we do from a PC case. PC Format's Dep Ed Dave James has had a closer look at the Prodigy M and given it the thumbs up, (full review for those interested in the next issue of PC Format). He reckons it's nice to work with when doing a rig build and has good airflow for cooling.

Full-sized graphics stick and 240mm rad inside. Nice

Inevitably, you'll have to make a few compromises compared to full ATX. If you want to fit a 240mm water cooling rad, you can kiss goodbye to the optical drive. Ditto if you want to run dual graphics cards. That said, you can have a 120mm water cooler and an optical drive or dual graphics, so there are still options.

Oh, and those PowerMac-aping hoops are a bit, well, spongey, which means you'll probably want to remove the bottom pair to aid stability, only to find the exposed chassis bottom could do with some rubber feet. But it's not a deal breaker.

Neat touches include the SSD / 2.5-inch drive mounts

Nor is the BitFenix the only option, which is where you guys come in. What weird and wonderful cases are you running? Let's spread the wisdom around.

Jobs would have disembowelled an entire subdivision for this

In the meantime, it'll be interesting to see how the PC case market develops over the next year or so. I've always been a little disappointed by the quality of the available options. Frankly, a rather adolescent undercurrent has usually infused the design ethos for most cases over the years. That or simply cheapo shonkiness.

I suppose ye olde Shuttle PCs were are fairly grown up, but they also always felt expensive for what they were. But now we have Valve pimping the Steam Box thing and Nvidia putting some cash into the smaller form factor market with its Art-of-Gaming initiative, maybe we'll see a little innovation and some more cases worthy of desktop pride.

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