ProsNear-perfect layout for a high-end ITX system; impressive cooling capability; amazing quality for the price
ConsMust follow precise steps to assemble a system, and the manual gets them wrong!
Here at The Tech Buyer's Guru, we really like reviewing cases, and we're particular fans of the ITX genre; in fact, we have a whole buyer's guide dedicated to ITX systems, along with nearly half a dozen step-by-step ITX assembly guides. All of that means we have a pretty good handle on the ITX market, as well as what features can make or break an ITX case design. So we were intrigued when Fractal Design released the Core 500; it looked to have just the right combination of features.
The very first thing to know about the Core 500 is that it's quite inexpensive, with an MSRP of just $60. That puts it right in the middle of some tough "shoebox" competition from the likes of Cooler Master (with its Elite 130) and SilverStone (with its SG13 and SG08). And while it's slightly larger than all three of those competitors, for most users, the Core 500 is a far better case overall, for reasons we'll detail in this review.
Description and Features
The Core 500 measures 9.8" wide, 8.4" tall, and 15.0" deep (or 250mm x 213mm x 380mm). Its basic design isn't all that different from many cases that have come before it. A few drive bays in the front, accompanied by a hollowed-out interior for the rest of the components. But it's the specific layout Fractal Design chose that makes it so special. While most cases in this category feature a front-mounted intake fan, which requires that the power supply be stuffed above the CPU, Fractal Design took a bold step in the right direction by skipping the front intake fan all together. A recipe for overheating, right? Well, you might think so, but the Core 500 is actually a much better performer due to its wide-open interior, aided by a fully-vented top panel and a big 140mm exhaust fan. No other case features quite this layout, and it really is ideal.
And while the Core 500 is quite moderately priced, Fractal Design didn't make it feel cheap. A smooth matte black paint job, clean interior edges, and a well-organized assortment of parts makes it clear that this case belongs to the Fractal Design family. We also liked its well-written manual, although as we'll discuss on the next page, we think Fractal Design actually gets the assembly steps out of order, leading to an impossible build scenario, a rare mis-step given the fantastic attention to detail elsewhere.
The Core 500 can fit plenty of gear, though as always the devil's in the details. Fractal Design lists the following possibilites: three 3.5" hard drive positions, three 2.5" drive positions, one 5.25" external bay, and room for coolers up to 170mm tall and ATX power supplies 170mm long. OK, that's fine. But then come the warnings, right off the spec sheet: motherboards with SATA ports that are angled 90 degrees may conflict with installation in the case, your 170mm ATX PSUs must be non modular (while modular units must be under 160mm), and graphics cards longer than 170 mm will not fit with PSUs that exceed 170 mm. Oh golly, that's complicated, isn't it? Well, we applaud Fractal Design for being up front about all of this, because frankly, most of its competitors' offerings suffer from similar limitations, but no mention is made of these issues on their spec sheets. So in this review, we'll share some of our own thoughts about the gear you should actually use if you want a good experience building with the Core 500.
To put the case to the test, we loaded it up with the following components:
- CPU: Intel Core i5-6600K
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170N-Gaming 5
- Memory: Corsair Vengeance LPX 2x8GB DDR4-3000
- Video Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 980 SC 4GB
- Solid-State Drive: Samsung 850 Evo 500GB
- Optical Drive: Samsung SH-224FB
- Case: Fractal Design Core 500
- Power Supply: EVGA Supernova 650 GS
- CPU Cooler: Arctic Freezer i32
- Operating System: Windows 10 OEM Disc
The good news: everything we used fit (just barely), and we'll make special note of EVGA's excellent Supernova GS series of power supplies. These units are just 150mm long, feature fully-modular cables, and offer Gold-rated output of up to 650W. If you're building up a system in the Core 500, do yourself a favor and just get the Supernova 550GS or 650GS. Seriously. Want to jam a 160mm- or 170mm-long unit in this case because Fractal Design said you could? Good luck with that! You already know that modular 170mm units will mean you can't run a decent video card, while 160mm units will create a huge hassle when it comes to cable management. Oh, and non-modular units? That's a recipe for extreme frustration in a case this size. They're easier to design around because they have cable outputs at just one end of the box, but they're a terrible choice for any ITX system, and ITX case manufacturers should stop using them as a crutch. Fractal Design isn't the first manufacturer to offer this convulted advice, but we sure hope it's the last.
OK, off our high hourse. Now we'll jump ahead a bit, showing you a photo of the rear of the case shown above, which illustrates what our system looked like once completed. But it also serves to highlight the placement of the big 140mm exhaust fan. It draws heat away not just from the CPU, but from the rear of the video card as well, which is critical if you're using a model with an open-air cooler (something that most video cards use nowadays). You can also see in this photo that the case has some room towards the top of the motherboard above the power plug. That's critical for fitting large tower-style coolers, which typically could hit the side of an ITX case. Fractal Design advertises that the Core 500 can fit 170mm-tall coolers, which is true, but more important, it can do so without the side of the cooler sitting outside of the case! That's what so many other ITX cases get wrong when trying to incorporate big air coolers: it's not just about the height!
So let's go ahead and step inside the box to see what it's like to build up a system with the Fractal Design Core 500!