PC cases are constantly evolving alongside other components. 5.25-inch drive bays were once a necessity for optical drives, but now are more or less gone. Following that collapse, the desire for glass (and RGB) everywhere came and is now going away as the thermal demand of high-end components went up and people began to take the need for airflow seriously. And now, because airflow is so important, too many cases are starting to look the same, which is frustrating.
Enter Fractal Design, a case manufacturer that often finds itself on our Best PC Cases, and its latest (and hopefully trend-setting) North case. The North is an ATX mid-tower chassis that features wood slats on the front panel (backed by mesh) and the option for a mesh or tempered-glass side panel. Fractal Design’s new case retails for $130 and comes in Charcoal Black or Chalk White.
While the case is easy on the eyes and the design feels fresh in a landscape dominated by black glass boxes, the North needs to perform to earn a recommendation in these days of thermally aggressive components like the RTX 4090 and 13900K. We'll put it through our testing later to see how it does but spoiler: Unless silence is your primary concern, there's a lot to love about this striking chassis.
|Motherboard Support||Mini-ITX, Micro-ATX, ATX|
|Dimensions (HxWxD)||18.6 x 8.4 x 17.8-inches|
|Max GPU Length||14-inches|
|CPU Cooler Height||6.6-inches without fan bracket|
|5.7-inches with fan bracket|
|Internal Bays||4x 2.5 or 2x 3.5-inch|
|Front I/O||2x USB 3.0 Type-A, 1x microphone and 1x headphone jack.|
|Other||Mesh side panel|
|Front Fans||2x 140mm|
Features of the Fractal Design North
Fractal's North is a mid-tower ATX case that disguises itself as a pretty piece of furniture. Obviously, the most appealing feature of this case is its wood front panel. Now, I never took woodshop in high school, but this feels and looks like bamboo. I love it – the North is just as pretty as it is unique.
Case companies often take an existing design and mostly (or sometimes only) change the front panel. This isn’t the case (no pun intended) with the North, which is available in either white or black and with a mesh or tempered glass side panel.
The top of the North features a removable panel with a leather tab and the back for easier removal. The side panels are removed via two thumb screws, which is a bit disappointing for a case of this price, and it’s almost ironic when you consider the otherwise excellent aesthetics of this chassis.
While we still like tempered glass, the mesh panel felt more at home here, as it’s almost an atypical choice for side panels over the last few years.
Another reason we chose the mesh side panel: That model comes with a side fan bracket for better cooling. The side fan bracket fits a maximum of 280mm in a radiator or fan configuration, which is generous.
And it can be mounted in three different locations (bottom, middle, or top) to best suit the needs of your build. Behind the wood are two pre-installed Fractal Design Aspect 140mm fans, which can be replaced with fans or radiators up to 360mm. The top panel can house the same amount of fans or radiators. And, finally, the rear fan mount can fit a 120mm spinner, although the case only comes with the two fans up front.
The IO on the top of the North is decent, but nothing too special. You get two USB 3.0 Type-A, one USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C and separate audio and headphone jacks. There's also a nice spun-metal power button here, etched with Fractal's stylized "F" logo.
The Fractal Design North measures up at 18.5 x 8.5 x 17.5 inches (HWD), so I wouldn’t try to fit an E-ATX board in here. However, this case can fit GPUs up to 13.98 inches (355mm), and our Gigabyte RTX 3070 Ti Gaming OC fits perfectly. The maximum CPU cooler height varies, depending on whether you install the fan bracket on the side. Without the bracket, the North supports coolers up to 6.7 inches (170mm), but 5.7 inches (145mm) with the bracket and fans installed.
Behind the motherboard tray, you’ll find the usual cable tie points, a dual 2.5-inch drive bracket and two 3.5 or 2.5-inch drive trays. The drive trays actually live under the PSU shroud, eacg can fit a 2.5-inch drive and a 3.5-inch drive at the same tiem, and can also be mounted upside down to make room for chunkier PSU cables – a well-thought-out feature by Fractal. Ultimately, the Fractal Design North can support four 2.5 and two 3.5-inch drives simultaneously, which is very respectable in 2022. If you need more than that you'll generally have to look to a bigger case. A PWM fan hub is also included, mounted behind the motherboard tray by default. It can be moved to a position above the rear fan mount, but we expect most will find its default location more convenient–and better for aesthetics as well, should you opt for the glass side panel.
Acoustic Results for the Fractal Design North
Our acoustic tests consist of three scenarios: We run the CPU at full load, the CPU and GPU at full load, and an optimized mode. The CPU full load test runs the CPU and case fans at their maximum speed. For the CPU and GPU full load acoustic test, we also stress the Gigabyte RTX 3070 Ti Gaming OC and set the fans at 75% speed, because in gaming the fans never run at 100 percent and are far too loud when they do.
For the optimized mode, we run the GPU fan speed at 30% and run the CPU and included case fans at the lowest speed that they will spin.
Fractal Design's cases generally aren't all that quiet, and that's true here as well. During our full-speed test, we got an average of 53 decibels, which is, bluntly, quite loud. However, this can be combated by a simple fan curve adjustment, and Fractal’s Aspect fans pull enough air at lower speeds that, unless something goes wrong or you're overclocking everything to the bleeding edge, you should never hear that much noise coming from this case. Even though the case is loud, let’s not forget that the side panel is mesh. So it's likely the tempered glass version of the North is at least a little quieter.
Thermal Results for the Fractal Design North
For the thermal tests, all case and CPU fan speeds are set to 100%. The Core i7-12700K is set at a fixed 4.7GHz clock at 1.3v on all performance cores to ensure consistent power consumption across test scenarios. Letting the GPU run at 75% fan speed enables it to maintain its power target while sticking to one set reasonable fan speed, so that the temperature is the only variable.
Cases with mesh side panels are a bit controversial. You might assume the mesh improves thermals, but there's also evidence (at least in some cases) that air coming in from the side can be detrimental to the front-to-back airflow path. The only other case we've tested recently with a mesh side panel was the Azza Aero 480, and that did not perform very well. Fractal's North, though, performed exceptionally well in our testing – especially with CPU thermals.
It's unclear whether the improved temps with the Fractal are down to finer mesh in the front, the roughly 4-inch section at the front side that isn't perforated (possibly helping guide airflow), some combination of both, or just better fans on the Fractal. But there's no arguing with these pleasing numbers.
2022 has been a big year for Fractal Design; the Swedish case company started off with the Torrent Compact, which was an impressive start. In the summer, we saw the Pop Silent, which was refreshing, as the case market has become saturated with mesh and RGB. Then we tested the ITX Ridge, which stood out for its console-sized frame and build quality. Finally, just as the temperatures turned frigid and the year was winding down, the company fittingly launched the North. Despite its price of $130, it stands out in a case market that’s become boring by delivering great airflow and stand-out looks.
There's no denying the North is a niche case, with its wood slats on the front panel, but many more traditional and aggressive-looking cases available (both in the wider market and within Fractal's own product stack), builders should respect Fractal for launching a case this visually different – I certainly do. As long as the performance is decent, there's nothing wrong with more traditional basic black PC case boxes or aggressive RGB-and-glass gamer chassis. But it's great to have attractive and well-performing alternatives like the North, that blend into a living room in a living room instead of standing out like an alien artifact.
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