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Fractal Design Node 304 Case Review Featured

We have been planning a Mini-ITX concept build here for about 6 months and there was a little internal debate around the components because we wanted this build to pack some power that would rival our Stryker build. The whole idea was that we wanted as smaller footprint as we could get but it had to be able to cope with a high end graphics card, an overclockable Ivy Bridge CPU and at the same time, be quiet and cool - yeah right...

The generous team at Fractal Design provided us with a Node 304 Mini-ITX case for the project - so this is a review sample but from a retail batch. We have used Fractal Design cases before and been impressed with the build quality and acoustics. Our Define R3 and Define R4 builds are good and consistent examples of our prior experience with Fractal Design gear - and the Node 304 continues this trend.

The Node 304 is a small form factor case with a very unassuming front panel. On first inspection, we thought it looked like a HTPC or piece of home theatre equipment - maybe a NAS at a stretch but not really a high end gaming demon. How wrong we were. News just in: It's also now available in WHITE!

The gallery below is the professional photos from Fractal Design

And our umm.. "less professional" shots can be found below (iPhone 4 used to help with scale):

Technical specifications

  • Mini ITX, DTX motherboard compatibility
  • 2 expansion slots
  • 6 –  supports either 3.5" or 2.5" HDD / SSD
  • ATX  PSUs, up to 160mm in length (To  fit in combination with a long graphics card, PSUs with modular connectors on  the back typically need to be shorter than 160 mm)
  • Graphics  cards, up to 310mm in length, when 2 HDD brackets are removed (Graphics  cards longer than 170 mm will conflict with PSUs longer than 160mm)
  • Tower  CPU coolers, up to 165 mm tall
  • Case dimensions (W x H x D): 250  x 210 x 374 mm
  • Case volume: 19,5  Liters
  • Net weight: 4,9  kg
  • Colors available: Black and White

Cooling / ventilation

  • 2 - Front mounted 92mm Silent Series  R2 hydraulic bearing fans, 1300 RPM speed (compatible with 80mm fans) –  included
  • 1 - Rear mounted 140mm Silent  Series R2 hydraulic bearing fan, 1000 RPM speed (compatible with 120mm fans) –  included
  • Removable air filters for front  fans and PSU
  • Fan filter for graphics card
  • 1 -  fan controller for all 3 fans included

Front interface

  • 2 - USB 3.0 (Internal 3.0 to  2.0 adapter included)
  • 1  - 3.5mm audio in (microphone)
  • 1  - 3.5mm audio out (headphone)
  • Power button with LED
  • HDD  LED

Retail package content

  • Node 304 computer case
  • User manual
  • Accessory box

Additional Information

  • EAN/GTIN-13: 7350041080978
  • UPC: 817301010979
  • Product code: FD-CA-NODE-304-BL

 


Construction / Quality 

As with the R3 and F4 cases, the Node 304 is solid but at the same time it's lighter than we had expected. Once loaded up with a standard PSU, mini-ITX motherboard, cooler, hard drive and graphics card, the final build is relatively light compared to something like the Stryker or R3 builds we have done in the past. Weight wise, this is a great option for a LAN rig.

The whole top and sides of the case is a single piece of steel which makes for easy access and cleaning whilst providing nice rounded edges from the outside, eliminating ugly panel joins. We did notice the absence of a reset switch but don't consider it a big deal.

The powder coat and general finish on our unit was good and we appreciated the struts of the case internally being 3 sided or hollow for cable routing. The front panel is nicely finished off in black brushed aluminium with the USB 3.0, audio ports and power button neatly tucked around on the right hand side. The design is compact and minimalist and although the finish does attract fingerprints like most black cases, they wipe off very easily. The feet are rubber and very low profile, so the case sits about 5mm off the desk.

Once you remove the top of the case and take out the drive brackets, you can start to appreciate the need to plan your build before you start construction. The left hand drive bracket will need to stay out if you plan to use a longer discrete graphics card.

The rear of the case has a large grill for the included 140mm fan but you can also use a 120mm fan here if required. This would be handy for some of the closed loop water coolers like the Corsair, Antec and Thermaltake options. There is a 3 stage fan controller at the rear of the case above the PCIE slot. The power plug on the back passes through to the PSU which is housed internally - this means that you can't switch the power off to the PC at the power supply with the case closed unless you simply unplug it. The power cable pass through is not a big deal and Fractal Design aren't the only company to take this approach.

The front panel easily comes off to reveal the two front mounted 92mm fans and dust filter. We really liked the I/O ports and power switch tucked around the right hand side. The power LED is not too bright and the hard drive activity LED is smaller and housed underneath the front of the case. We couldn't easily find it until we powered the machine up for the first time - it really is that subtle.

Interior

This is a mini-ITX case so we always new it was going to be tight to work in and tricky in terms of cable routing. As with any case we review, we did a full build inside it and tested the unit for thermals and noise.

There were a few things that we noticed straight away, the internal space for the PSU means that you can install a PSU up to 160mm long but there are a couple of caveats. If you plan to use a discrete graphics card, then you want to make sure that your power supply is going to fit with its cables. In our build, we chose a Corsair CX-600M because it is 140mm long, has modular cables and the cables are flat (easier to hide). 600W is plenty these days so we could power an i5-3570K paired with a GTX580 and overclock the CPU - all with a quality 140mm unit. We needed to flip the PSU over and have its intake facing down in the case so that the power cables were exiting the PSU closer to the front of the case, in the void at behind the 285mm Gigabyte GTX580 graphics card. We really liked the way Fractal Design implemented the internal PSU on the Node 304. Fractal Design also have a really nifty cutout in the bottom strut to allow you to secure the PSU in place without having your screwdriver on an angle - this is the attention to detail that we like to see from hardware designers.

Cable management was a challenge because there isn't a motherboard tray to hide anything under, nor is there a lot of room to store the excess behind the front panel although there is a little bit of space to play with there. The fan cables seemed to fit well in the case roof supports and you can route flat cables around the fans due to the slight gaps available. I don't think the build process is any more difficult than  other cases of similar dimensions and it's the trade off you make when choosing one of the smallest form factors that will accommodate a high end gaming graphics card.

There are number of points around case for cable management/anchoring zip ties and we used almost all of them along the left hand side. At the end of the build, we were able to have a slightly messy or "busy" front left corner in terms of cabling. The rest of the case was pretty neat in the end and the airflow wasn't really obstructed.

In our Stryker, R3 and R4 builds, the actual build process was quite forgiving and we had more than enough room to maneuver components around. In our Antec small form factor build, we had more difficulty because of the cramped case. When you make the jump to something as small as the Node 304, it should go without saying that the build process can be unforgiving. We are not saying that this case is difficult to work with, just that if you buy it - plan your build carefully, use the shortest modular power supply that you can get away with and don't rush it.

Dust filtering

The dust filters are all easy to get to with the PSU intake filter being the most difficult because you have to lift the PC. The top/side cover comes off with a couple of thumb screws at the rear. The front panel simply pulls off to provide access to the front filter. Fractal Design couln't have made it much easier here as it's almost tool-less.


Test Setup

We used the following components in our Node 304 gaming demon.

  • Intel i5 3570K (overclocked to 4.2 @ ~1.1v)
  • Corsair Vengeance Low Profile Ram 2x4GB (Blue)
  • ASUS P8Z77-i Deluxe Mini-ITX motherboard
  • Corsair CX-600M semi modular PSU
  • Noctua NH-L12 (see review)
  • SanDisk Extreme 120GB SSD
  • Samsung F3 1TB 7200rpm mechanical HDD
  • Gigabyte GeForce GTX580 stock cooled graphics card
  • "a lot" of black zip-ties for cable management

In retrospect, we could have used a tower CPU cooler instead to make better use of the case's natural airflow from front to back. In the future, we intend to test two of Noctua's new tower coolers in the Node 304 so stay tuned.

Test Results

We tested the Node 304 in the following different configurations:

  1. With the roof and sides off and case fans on low (Open case)
  2. Fully assembled and the fan controller set to "Low"
  3. Fully assembled and the fan controller set to  "High"
Scenario CPU Settings Case Setup Recorded Temp Delta Temp Noise
Idle

Stock (no OC)

Open Case

30.25

8.7

Quiet

Load

Stock (no OC)

Open Case

55.25

33.7

Quiet

Idle

Stock (no OC)

Closed Case Low Fans

30.25

8.7

Quiet

Load

Stock (no OC)

Closed Case Low Fans

60

38.4

Quiet

Idle

Stock (no OC)

Closed Case High Fans

30.25

8.7

Audible

Load

Stock (no OC)

Closed Case High Fans

56

34.4

Audible

Idle

OC @ 4.2 / 1.1v

Open Case

30

8.6

Quiet

Load

OC @ 4.2 / 1.1v

Open Case

65.5

43.9

Quiet

Idle

OC @ 4.2 / 1.1v

Closed Low Fans

33

10.9

Quiet

Load

OC @ 4.2 / 1.1v

Closed Low Fans

78.5

56.4

Quiet

Idle

OC @ 4.2 / 1.1v

Closed High Fans

33

10.9

Audible

Load

OC @ 4.2 / 1.1v

Closed High Fans

69.25

47.2

Audible

 

We found that the Reference GTX580 graphics card temperatures were consistently the same in all tests - this is most likely due to the large mesh panel that runs along the graphics card slot on the left hand side, providing filtered fresh air to the graphics card cooler.

The CPU temperatures, on the other hand,  were varied depending on the case configuration which was to be expected. The best temperatures were achieved with the roof and sides off, followed by the case fully assembled with the fans on high. Our "worst" load temperatures were less than 5 degrees higher than having an open case but the Node 304 was practically silent with the fan controller set to low speed. This is a fantastic result as far as we are concerned. The CPU cooler was barely audible, the actual case fans couldn't be picked out of the ambient noise - if anything, the stock NVIDIA cooler on the GTX580 was the loudest part of the build in the closed configuration with the fans on low.

We did not experience any buzzing, whistling, vibration, or other noise when using this case over the period of almost a month. With the PC sitting on the desk next to me, if there was an any unwanted noise or vibration I would have heard it. The fans were inaudible at low speed, borderline audible at medium speed and noticable at high speed (we assume 12v) via the integrated fan controller. For the difference we noted in temperatures, we'll take the low fan speed with a 5 degree temperature penalty any day of the week.


Conclusion

Over all, I couldn't find anything bad to say about the Node 304. My only criticism was going to be that there wasn't a white version but Fractal Design has just announced that the Node 304 is now available in white. In our opinion, the key to getting the most out of this product is good cable management, leading to efficient airflow. The airflow in our test build was relatively unobstructed and if we had used an after market cooled graphics card like a Gigabyte Windforce or ASUS Direct CUII type card, the end result would have been very stealthy indeed.

There have been some trade offs in the design to get the small footprint on your desk or entertainment unit - but Fractal Design didn't take any short cuts as far as we could tell. The internal space is a little cramped to work in when building your PC using the Node 304, but as you can see from our test build, if you are careful about component selection and neat with your cables, you can make it look pretty open and achieve great airflow. Whilst you can't hide the cables under the motherboard tray or stash them behind the power supply, there is space at the end of where the discrete graphics card would go to cable tie anchors and neatly secure excess cable there.

We used a GTX580 graphics card so it stands to reason that most modern "performance" dual slot graphics cards will fit in the Node 304 - just watch the length of your power supply as we found 140mm to be the sweet spot. The left side mesh section allows the graphics card to source its own fresh air and the stock fans that come with the case work well to keep fresh air flowing through the main body of the case - even on low speed. The integrated fan controller is a nice touch at the price point.

We used a USB DVD Drive as this case doesn't have an optical bay - you would need to go to the Node 605 for this capability or look to another brand. This may be a problem for some people but I don't use internal optical drives in any of my builds so it wasn't considered an issue.

At $125 online, the Node 304 is not an expensive case and we were pleased to see that Fractal Design priced it aggressively rather than taking the easy option of compromising on their build quality. The Node 304 really is a great mini-ITX case at a good price. It should be at the top of your list if you are looking to build a small, quiet gaming rig. HTPC or small home server builders should also keep the Node 304 in mind due to its versatility and form factor.

The only advice we would give is to plan your build carefully and take your time - we had a lot of fun building with the Node 304 and the end result was very rewarding.

PROS

CONS

Quality build construction

I was going to say that it doesn't come in white but now it does

Integrated fan controller No optical drive bay might bother some people
Quality grills and dust covers
Great use of space available inside the case  
Internal hollow struts assist cable routing  
The roof and sides come off really easily in one piece  
Very well priced at $125  

 

EditorsChoice  Silence Award

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last modified onMonday, 23 December 2013 00:40

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