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The editorial team here at Tom’s Hardware has supported new PC builders since 1997 with tips, tricks, and sage advice. Our most complete builder’s guide was published back in 2006. Today’s updates add the best of what’s new to what’s tried-and-true.
Even though the computer industry's primary constant is change, there are several "constant constants" to aid builders in component selection. Tom's Hardware Guide has been a primary resource, covering the latest technologies for over thirteen years. Our community members have answered individual hardware questions for nearly as long, both sources working to prevent common mistakes that might ruin a well-intentioned PC project.
Before you start picking parts, a builder should clearly understand the machine's intended function. General purpose systems that deal with tasks like 2D games, Internet browsing, and document creation will obviously have modest hardware requirements. In contrast, high-end 3D gaming systems require better graphics, better cooling, and a larger power supply. Special applications, like 3D model creation and home theater PC use, should also be considered. These tasks require specialized hardware.
Best Case Scenario
When it comes to cases, size is often proportional to capability. For example, it’s often difficult to stick two dual-slot graphics cards into a case that only had two slots, even if clever marketing departments might try to get you to believe otherwise. In resistance to tricky marketing, let's take a look at a few case sizes and see where they best fit.
|Traditional ATX Form Factor Case Sizes|
|Typical Attributes||Full Tower||Mid Tower||Mini Tower||SFF Cube||Desktop|
|Height||21-24 inches||17-19 inches||12-14 inches||7-9 inches||3-7 inches|
|Width||6-8 inches||6-8 inches||6-8 inches||8-9 inches||14-17 inches|
|3.5" internal bays||6-12||2-6||1-2||1-2||2-4|
|Power supply||PS/2 or larger||PS/2||PS/2 or SFX||SFX or TFX||Various|
Remember that these are typical attributes, and not all cases are typical. For example most current full-sized “gaming” cases fall between the mid-tower and full-tower dimensions listed above.
Full Towers traditionally are tall enough to hold two power supplies, though most early examples had a second hard drive rack where one might expect to find the top power supply. While these have space for up to twice as many drives, the average user (and even most power users) simply won't use the space. A better excuse for the home user to select such a large case is that the upper bays are easier to reach when the unit is positioned on the floor. Cooler Master’s HAF 932 is a good example of a full tower in gaming motif.
ATX Mid-Towers are usually capable of holding full-sized motherboards, full-sized power supplies, several optical drives, such as DVD burners, and multiple hard drives. Well-designed units are well-suited for gaming and video enthusiasts, simply because they support a greater number of expansion cards and hard drives than smaller units. A comparison of current products to our 2006 Gaming Case Showdown would show that good ideas stand the test of time.
Micro ATX Mini-Towers are nearly as versatile as mid-towers in most applications, including office use, where they present a less imposing profile. Mini-Towers typically support 1-2 optical drives and 1-2 hard drives, and microATX supports a maximum of four expansion slots. All of these limitations are acceptable for most users. A recent focus on portable gaming machines has even brought SLI and CrossFire to this somewhat-compact format.
Small Form Factor (originally known as Shuttle Form Factor) cubes typically support a maximum of two expansion cards and only the smallest power supplies. Relying mostly on onboard devices, these space-saving enclosures are best suited to traditional office roles, though several have been designed for home theater use by mimicking the appearance of miniature hi-fi audio systems.
A variation based on SFF aesthetics is the MicroATX cube. Often chosen for portable game machines, the small dimensions again mean restrictions on any attempt at an ultimate performance build. There are still microATX slot limitations, overclocking is compromised by an inability to fit oversized CPU coolers, high-capacity power supplies are a tight squeeze even when they do fit, and extended-length power units are usually out of the question.
Formerly used to raise small CRT monitors up to eye level on flat desks, horizontal Desktop cases are now best suited to home theater systems. These come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and motherboard form factors to match most home theater rack components. Watch out for custom-sized power supplies that may not be upgradeable, horizontal card slots that might require a motherboard with slots to match specific riser types and locations, and half-height slots that severely restrict card selection.
Further selection criteria can be found in a variety of online case selection articles. Once you've got an idea of what size you need, Tom's Hardware Guide Case Reviews can point out the good and bad concerning specific models.