You’re in the market for a new PC case.
You’re curious, a little intimidated, and more than a little bit in over your head. There’s so many options, so many buzzwords, so many features and drawbacks. Your head starts to spin. You find yourself quickly losing interest in the whole idea. “I’ll just get whatever is cheapest,” you tell yourself.
Computer cases, while there is a world of them to choose from are quite easy to understand once you break them down into a few metrics; a few options from which to judge them. Of course, it’s very understandable that inexperienced buyers, or veterans returning to the custom PC scene after many-a years away, could be intimidated by today’s market. Back in the olden days, the concept of a “Micro-ATX” system was simply not up for discussion; such a thing just didn’t exist. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find yourself quickly swamped by several manufacturers offering several products across several form factors, all supporting several different types of builds for several different uses.
Confusing, right? Let’s make it a bit easier.
This article is mostly intended for beginners or people who want to refresh/update their knowledge on computer cabinets. If you are familiar with the basics and updated on the market, you can directly jump to our PC case recommendations for each cabinet type:
- Best Full tower PC cases
- Best Mid-tower PC cases
- Best Mini-ITX cases
- Best Micro-ATX cases
- Best Open-Frame cases
But, if you want to dive deeper, let’s continue:
This article serves as a hub for all our other computer case guides, which cover corners of the PC case market. We will get into each different case types and help you pick the right one just further down.
But, first, let’s get you familiar with the most common components and terms you will have to be familiar with when buying a computer case. If your familiar with these terms just jump to the next section here.
PC cabinet components and terms
The illustration above can help you understand where some main components can be located in a computer cabinet. While the display case may not be the most modern case on the market– some features are not illustrated– I chose a case whose interior should be easily-recognizable when shopping for other cases where these features may be prevalent.
What may seem like complex initially, is quite simple to understand, once you know what you’re reading and what the different components are.
Below, you’ll find a list of terms commonly found on case specifications, feature lists and more.
ATX / Micro-ATX / Mini-ITX / E-ATX
ATX / Micro-ATX / Mini-ITX / E-ATX are all motherboard form factor standards. ATX is the most common, followed by Micro-ATX, Mini-ITX, and lastly E-ATX. The size hierarchy is as follows:
Mini-ITX being the smallest, and E-ATX being the biggest. (Note: larger boards do exist, but often not in a consumer-friendly form factor; cases for these boards are rare.) ATX stands for “Advanced Technology eXtended” and refers to a standard for motherboard sizing. The term was coined by Intel in 1995.
SFX Power Supply
An SFX Power Supply is a power supply that meets the SFX form factor spec. These power supplies are much smaller than traditional power supplies. Certain cases are unable to house a traditional ATX power supply, and as such, a smaller one is necessary. When you see this listed as a requirement, know that you will need to purchase a specific power supply in order use the case which specified it.
Power Supply / PSU Shroud
A Power Supply, or more commonly, a PSU shroud, is a piece of plastic, aluminum or other material which aims to conceal the power supply inside of a case, hiding its cable. The result is a cleaner internal look. Some PSU shrouds will also have 2.5” mounts on them, either on the top or on the side, to help show off your solid-state drive, light controller or other 2.5” device. PSU shrouds are a newer trend with cases, and finding one in a case manufactured before 2015 is rare. They’re a relatively-inexpensive addition to cases which can go a long way in improving their overall design.
5.25” Bay / Mount
A 5.25” Bay / Mount is an area in a case, commonly found in older cases, used to mount CD drives and other front-mounted peripherals. Common items are CD players/burners, Blu-ray players, fan controllers and case lighting modules. Newer cases have begun phasing them out as digital media has fallen out of popularity.
2.5” / 3.5” Bay / Mount
A 2.5” or 3.5” Bay / Mount is a bracket or specified slot for mounting storage devices or other peripherals that fit the specified size requirement. Traditionally, 3.5” hard drives or 2.5” solid-state drives. Older cases will often come with an abundant number of 3.5” drives, whereas 2.5” are rare. The opposite is true for most modern cases, where solid-state storage is much more prevalent. A modern PC case typically features 2-4 2.5” drives, and 1-3 3.5” drives, though this is by no means the maximum, as there are outliers.
Tempered Glass / TG
Tempered Glass, often abbreviated to TG, is a newer material for panel windows on cases. Its main objective is to replace acrylic windows, which are prone to scratches by even mild handling or unclean/rough cloths. Tempered glass, while very aesthetically pleasing and premium-feeling, is not very durable. If handled incorrectly, the glass will explode, shattering into thousands of pieces. Mishandling a tempered glass pane is much worse than an acrylic one. Most tempered glass cases will often one or two panels out of TG, and the price increase over a solid panel or acrylic window is usually in the $10-30 range.
Expansion slots are the brackets at the rear of a case. They are to be removed as necessary when installing expansion cards (like graphics cards) on the computer’s motherboard. Most expansion slots are held in by either metal tabs or a screw, the latter of which can usually be removed and put back at any time, unlike the former. Generally, when installing an expansion card, the slot cover is removed and its screw is used to secure the card in the slot. Most cases will have at least two, to support modern graphics cards. The average mid tower will feature 5-8.
Cable grommets are cutouts designed to allow cables to pass through from the backside of the case to the inside. They are often covered in a rubber, door-like cover that aids in protecting cabled from sharp edges and angles as they pass through. Cases will often have them on the top of the motherboard tray, on the side, and also below. Not every case will have rubber protectors, and some cases will have more grommets than others.
CPU Cooler Cutout
A CPU Cooler Cutout is a space behind the motherboard, and on the motherboard tray, which is intended to give you access to the CPU cooler mounting brackets and holes on your motherboard. Older cases required you to remove your motherboard entirely when swapping out coolers, but modern cases have implemented cutouts to allow for easier access.
Front ports refer to the ports that are available on the front of the case. They typically consist of USB ports and headphone/microphone jacks. Newer cases will sometimes offer “USB Type-C” front ports. These ports are a newer USB standard designed for newer motherboards. They are currently very rare in cases, but that is hopefully going to change as we progress through the new year.
Vertical GPU Mount
Some cases offer what are called Vertical GPU Mounts. They are mounts designed to allow the graphics card (GPU) to sit vertically, wherein its cooling shroud will be much more visible. Cases will typically offer additional expansion slots, and some even come with or offer as an extra, a ribbon-style PCI cable to plug the card into your motherboard. This mount is purely for aesthetic purposes, and typically only hinders airflow of the GPU.
Radiator / Fan Support
When you see Radiator / Fan support listed on a case’s specifications list, it is referring to the maximum size (typically in millimeters) that the case supports. 120mm and 140mm are the most common sizes for fans, and radiators often match this. A “triple 120mm radiator” would mean that you can mount a radiator length up to 360mm on the bracket. You can also mount fans by themselves if you are not water cooling your computer.
Motherboard standoffs are small, threaded pins that are used to raise the motherboard up and off of the rear case wall. The intent is to avoid contact between the motherboard and the case, as this can risk shorting out the motherboard and potentially causing permanent damage to hardware. Some cases will have the standoffs pre-installed, while others will require you to thread them in by hand, based on what configuration your motherboard needs. (Depending on its size, typically.) Generally, cases will always offer standoffs in some form.
Airflow refers to the air moving from the front of your case to the rear. This is typically achieved by having fans mounted in the front which draw air in, and fans in the rear which exhaust the air. The goal is to bring fresh, cool air into the system and exhaust the newly-heated air out of the computer through the rear of the case, cooling components. Some cases offer poor airflow, as their front panels are too blocked off. Other cases offer phenomenal airflow through their use of large, open panels, large or an abundance of fans, and more. Generally, it is advised to keep positive pressure in your airflow. Positive pressure refers to having equal or more fans drawing fresh air in, and equal or fewer fans exhausting the air. This results in low dust buildup, better cooling performance, and sometimes, even a quieter build.
Generally speaking, cases which have modular components will allow you to remove, swap or interchange them. These can be anything from a PSU shroud to a storage mounting tray/bay, to even entire panels on the case itself. The word is often used in its proper context, but some manufacturers have used it incorrectly, and the definition has been obscured over time.
What PC Case is Right For Me?
Many first-time builders fall into the trap of wondering what form factor they should focus on. Because PC hardware is so heavily varied, having options for tiny builds is just as common as massive builds. While tiny PCs aren’t nearly as common as mid-sized PCs, they’re roughly as common as larger PCs. As such, the field evens itself out where mid-sized cases are usually as common as small and large cases when the markets of the latter two are combined. This causes hardware manufacturers to support a wider variety of form factors than they otherwise might.
Finding miniature high-end GPUs is no longer surprising, in the same way, that finding a massive E-ATX motherboard is no longer a sight to see. Rather, it’s just one of many options available on the market. One downside to this is that it can easily intimidate prospective builders, as it’s hard to tell when to choose what kind of form factor. To make your life easier, we’ll go over when certain case form factors should be favored over others.
The section below will help you pick the best type of case for you, based on your requirements and the type of hardware you’ll be working with. Once you have identified the type of cabinet that fits you best you can further explore that particular case type on our separate guide for it, you will also find all our recommendations there. We have linked to all our other guides below in their respective sections.
When To Build Full Tower
These are some of the largest cases available, offering the most in storage options, water cooling support, hardware support and more.
Full Tower cases, unlike Mid Tower cases, are much larger. Because of this, these cases often support more storage options, more radiator support, larger and or more GPUs, larger motherboards, and are often even easier to build inside of. This all comes at a price, however: space. As it should come as no surprise, Full Tower cases are some of the most massive– though not the largest in existence– cases on the market. They’re bulky, they’re heavy and they make themselves known amongst other items in your setup.
If you need the extra space, additional GPU support, or you plan to water cool your build with a high-end liquid cooler or custom water loop, then a Full Tower is your best friend. That is if you can lend the space appropriate for a case of this size. Otherwise, there isn’t much reason to go for a case of this size.
See our picks for the best Full Tower Cases available.
When To Build Mid Tower
These are your most common case type. They offer moderate storage options, good water cooling support, and often support for both ATX and Micro-ATX motherboards. ATX motherboards are by far the most common on the market– though Micro-ATX isn’t too far behind. Because of this, Mid Towers are some of the most abundant, offering the largest variety of case designs and options for manufacturers. Most manufacturers will highlight their design trends, new features and other quirks in their Mid Tower lineup because the form factor is easy to design for.
Additionally, Mid Tower cases typically also support Micro-ATX motherboards as well. This means that, if you can handle the footprint of a somewhat-larger case, you’ll be able to use either a normal ATX or a Micro-ATX motherboard. Mid Tower cases have moderate radiator support, typically good cooling, good GPU support, and are usually the most feature-rich. If you don’t mind the size, a Mid Tower is never a wrong way to go.
See our picks for the best Mid Tower Cases available.
When To Build Mini-ITX
These are the smaller, more niche type of case. The cases are often manufactured specifically for this hardware spec. They can be small, compact and powerful.
Mini-ITX cases and motherboards are designed to save space. While not every Mini-ITX case attempts to be as small as technology allows, they are definitely on the smaller side of things. As with everything, there are pros and cons to the hardware of this nature. One immediate plus is the smaller footprint. For those with a smaller desk or limited available space for a computer, Mini-ITX cases and builds can be an absolute lifesaver. For those looking to integrate a computer into their living room, these types of builds can go a lot further than a Mid or Full Tower, in regards to how well the computer blends in, and how well it complements the rest of your setup. However, Mini-ITX builds often run hot, unless supplied with ample cooling. This is less so for larger Mini-ITX cases, however, which are also available.
Regardless, the smaller form factor will require aftermarket cooling or lower-end hardware, if you wish to keep temperatures moderate. This is especially true for Mini-ITX cases which aim to use as little space as possible. If you’re looking to build a computer which fits nicely in a living room setup, or you’re in very limited space, then go Mini-ITX. If you have the space available for a larger case and you won’t mind the footprint, then a larger case is suggested. Of course, this is all subjective, so do not take this word as law.
See our picks for the best Mini-ITX Cases available.
When To Build Micro-ATX
Typically, Micro-ATX motherboards can be mounted in Mid Tower cases. However, some manufacturers have cases specifically for Micro-ATX hardware. Our list includes some of the best options for the latter.
Micro-ATX, unlike Mini-ITX, is a more standardized form factor. It is the miniature brother of ATX, and many cases support Micro-ATX motherboards. (Some cases will support Mini-ITX as well, but this is not as common.) One nice thing about Micro-ATX is that many case manufacturers will support it in their Mid Tower case lineups, while also offering Micro-ATX versions of their cases. This gives you more options to choose from. Whether you want a cheaper build in a normal case, or you wish to go all in on a smaller build with high-end components, Micro-ATX is very versatile and will more than likely support both of these build paths. Unlike Mini-ITX, it’s very easy to recommend Micro-ATX to both new, and veteran builders. The boards aren’t as uncommon, there are more cases on the market that support it, and the motherboards are usually very cheap.
When choosing a case for a Micro-ATX build, consider whether or not you’ll want or need the additional size of a Mid Tower over a Micro-ATX case. If the smaller footprint will help or will be absolutely necessary, then that is what you’ll want to go with. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with building a Micro-ATX-based computer inside of a Mid Tower case. In fact, it’s quite common. Remember though that if you do this, expect a reduced number of fan headers and RAM support on your motherboard compared to a regular ATX build. Micro-ATX cases usually make note of this and will offer additional fan splitters to help alleviate the fan issues of Micro-ATX boards.
See our picks for the best Micro-ATX Cases available.
When To Build Open-Frame
While a very niche product, those looking to show off their build in the subjectively best way possible will likely flock to these cases. Minimal side panels, lots of acrylic or glass, and very little between you and your hardware.
Open-Frame cases are niche, hard to recommend, but boy do they look good when done right. Unlike the other cases on our list, these are the hardest to recommend to builders both new and old. They are designed more to be showpieces than functional pieces of hardware. That isn’t to say that they are poorly designed or that they don’t function properly, but that they typically prefer form over function. Open-Frame cases are the best you can get when it comes to air cooling, as it should come as no surprise. If you’re simply slapping a build together, however, then these are not the case type for you. Open-Frame cases are meant to showcase hardware.
From a completely open design to many having vertical GPU mounts, and nearly every Open-Frame case supporting high-end custom water cooling hardware, it’s clear that these cases are meant to make a statement more than to offer a comfortable, easy and functional building platform for custom PC builders. If you’re ready to commit the time and effort to making a gorgeous build, complement it with an Open-Frame case. Otherwise, we recommend steering clear.
See our picks for the best Open-Frame Cases available.
I hope you enjoyed our guide and lists for the best cases of 2018. Of course, with this being a brand new year, we have a whole slew of cases on the horizon from many fantastic manufacturers. We have picked out the best of the best and have added them to our lists. No matter what you’re in the market for, you’re sure to find something that suits your needs and makes you happy. Plus, you’ll be able to shop with confidence after taking a quick stroll through our introduction and glossary!