PCs in the Light & Glass Age
PC enthusiasts have a lot to chear about this year, if the products on display at CES 2017 were any indication. We've already covered AMD's new Ryzen CPU and Vega GPU, as well as Intel's latest Kaby Lake-based CPUs and NUC PCs. In short, while AMD's looking to finally match Intel with its eight-core Ryzen CPUs, and Kaby Lake is offering a few minor enhancements, we won't actually be seeing any leaps in performance this year. The same goes for GPUs, where AMD is likely to simply match Nvidia's Geforce 1080, released in May of 2016. Luckily, for do-it-yourself PC builders, there's much more to PCs than CPUs and GPUs. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that CPUs and GPUs are probably the least interesting aspect of PC building. You basically pick your budget and desired performance level, and your decision is made. It's everything else about PCs that makes life interesting!
So we'll start with the component that most defines PCs: the humble case. But as we're about to make clear, there's nothing humble about modern PC cases. In fact, some are downright outlandish, and a lot of PC builders are embracing the newfound creativity in the case market. We're going to start with Thermaltake, which is clearly leading the way, in more ways than one.
One look at Thermaltake's newest entry in the P-series of display cases will make clear where PCs are going, no pun intended. This is quite literally a glass display case, similar to ones you might use to show off a collection of signed baseballs or antique silver. But instead of collectibles, you're showing off the innards of a high-powered gaming PC. And Thermaltake happens to market the best looking fans in the PC industry, with its patented Riing line, which isn't just RGB, it's multi-colored RGB. Other RBG fans, likes those from Corsair, only allow one color to display at a time, but Thermaltake's Riing system allows you to display a rainbow of colors from a single fan at a single moment. This, folks, is pretty darn awesome, because while most RGB effects catch the eye with flashing lights, Riing catches the eye with something that you can actually live with all day long - no blinking required. Another great feature of Riing, and the one that makes it patented, is that the light is in fact emitted out of a ring, rather than out of individual LED bulbs. Frankly, it's just miles ahead of the competition. And even if you don't go for a full glass case, Thermaltake's line of View cases, including the brand-new View 31 RGB shown at left, allows the fans to shine through glass panels in an otherwise standard ATX case layout. We think this more subtle set up is particularly attractive, and we're looking into reviewing one of these cases in the near future (update: the kind folks at Thermaltake are going to be sampling us one of these as soon as they're available, slated for mid-February!).
We're not quite as sold on the inclusion of Riing lights in Thermaltake's Toughpower PSUs, as most modern cases other than Thermaltake's use a PSU shroud, and even cases like the View 31 will slightly obscure the PSU lighting. Furthermore, we typically recommend PSUs based on performance, and that means a minimum of Gold-rated efficiency, a zero-fan RPM mode, full modularity, and excellent voltage regulation. Overall, Thermaltake's performance is a step below its like-priced competition from EVGA's G2 line, and way behind the brand-new EVGA G3 line. That's saying nothing of EVGA's top-rated Platinum line of PSUs. Admittedly, though, the Toughpower line is certainly "good enough", so if you need an RGB PSU to complete your setup, feel free to go with one of Thermaltake's.
We also paid a visit to our friends at SilverStone, who have long been in the business of thinking out of the box when it comes to PC cases. They showed off a number of prototypes, including an update to the Primera PM01 that we liked so much in our hands-on review. Surprise, surprise, SilverStone is going the RGB route here, but due to the patent on the Riing design, it decided to try a different approach to RGB illumination: fan grills. This allows you to use your favorite fan to ensure optimal performance, while still having your case shine like a lighthouse. The best of both worlds? We'll let our readers decide whether they like the look.
But that's not all SilverStone did to improve upon the PM01. As we noted in our review, and as we communicated to SilverStone at the time, the top "hood scoop" of the case was attractive, but only nominally functional, because neither fans nor radiators could be mounted in it. Lo and behold, SilverStone listens to its critics, and has completely re-tooled the case, as shown below. It now allows fans or radiators to be mounted up top, providing far more options in terms of component compatibility. Previously, it was actually impossible to mount 280mm coolers on the roof of the PM01, but now doing so is as simple as removing the hood and bolting your radiator in. Kudos to SilverStone for putting in the effort to make a good case truly great.
In addition to RGB lighting, we're seeing every major manufacturer release cases with tempered glass side panels. Both of the Thermaltake cases pictured above have them, as does the new SilverStone PM01. And as we reported on from PAX West 2016, Corsair has also recently released its own Crystal line of cases, which all feature multiple glass panels (the Crystal 570X actually has four of them!). Surprisingly, Corsair didn't have any new cases on display at CES, but that's probably because the Crystal line has taken just a bit longer to get out of the gate than the company probably anticipated. We hope Corsair can get up to speed, because there are plenty of other companies eager to eat its lunch. In-Win, one of the first companies to experiment with glass-paneled cases, showed off an updated version of its popular 303 case, the cheapest glass-paneled case on the market. The new version simply adds USB Type-C, so we expect it to remain the best-priced glass option out there. But Phanteks is also eager to bring glass to a lower price point, and its new Enthoo Pro M Tempered Glass will come in around $100, or just above the 303 in price, but with much better airflow (a feature that In-Win has never shown much interest in). Similarly, Cooler Master is adding tempered glass to many of its new MasterCase models, although they tend to be priced a bit higher than we'd like. Of all of these options, we were most impressed with Thermaltake, as it's the only company that has figured out how to integrate the glass into a sliding panel that operates just like a standard side panel, rather than a separate piece of glass that must be bolted onto the side of the case with four screws.
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