How to buy the perfect PC case Credit: Adam Patrick Murray IDGIDG
Business Management

How to buy the perfect PC case

No matter whether you treat your computer as the centerpiece of your home office or just stuff it under your desk, buying the right PC case matters.

At a minimum, you want to pick a PC case that’s the right size for your needs and has room for all your hardware and USB devices. But some PC cases offer much, much more. Spacious innards, lower temperatures, muffled sound, extensive water-cooling support, and fancy-schmancy tempered glass panels or RGB lighting are just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s a guide to buying a PC case that’s perfect for you. This is just the first step in your DIY journey; be sure to check out PCWorld’s guide to building a PC, too.

Editor’s note: Last updated with the information in the PC case news section, and several changes to our recommendations.

PC case news

Pricing for cases have slipped upwards in the wake of the United States’ tariffs on Chinese products. Expect to pay slightly more for a case—about $10 to $25—than you would have a year ago.

NZXT launched the H510 Elite in late July, and as the name implies, it’s a more blinged-out variant of the ultra-popular NZXT H500. Highlight features include a Smart Device v2 controller and front USB-C 3.1 port, but it also mixes two 140mm RGB front fans, more tempered glass, and a little extra maneuvering room into the minimalist design. Watch us poke and prod the case in the video above, then head over to the NZXT website if you want to buy it for $170.

in win 209 In Win

A render of the In Win 309 and its RGB control software.

The In Win 309 mid-tower sports 144 addressable RGB lights on its front panel, which should let you create glowing recreations of your favorite retro gaming images. It also comes stocked with 12 built-in lighting modes for out-of-the-box light shows. Cooling options abound, but finer details don’t: Pricing and availability for this stunning case haven’t been revealed yet.

Tiny PCs need love too, and Cooler Master’s MasterCase H100 ($70 on Amazon) provides plenty of affectionate touches for MITX enthusiasts. It tears down quickly, easily, and completely, as you can witness in the video above, and it bears the signature of Cooler Master’s H-series in the form of a large 200mm RGB front fan. This itty-bitty tower measures 12.28 x 8.5 x 11.85 inches (312 x 216 x 301 mm), with a listed volume of 17.6 liters.

Size matters for PC cases

Before anything else, decide what size case you need. There are three major case sizes: Full tower, mid-tower, and mini-ITX.

Full-tower and mid-tower cases both fit standard ATX motherboards—by far the most common motherboard size out there. Both can also fit smaller micro-ATX motherboards. Exact sizing varies from case to case, but most mid-towers run up to roughly 18 inches high and 8 or so inches wide. Mid-tower PCs are probably the most common form factor and have enough room to fit systems with a closed-loop CPU cooler, a couple of graphics cards, and a lot of storage.

pc case Ben Patterson/IDG

Full-tower PCs are big.

Full-tower cases are massive. They often measure more than 20 inches in height and are longer and deeper than mid-tower cases, which makes them ideal if you’re one of the rare people using a massive Extended-ATX motherboard. (Asus’ X399 motherboards for AMD Threadripper chips are EATX.)

Also consider a full-tower case if you plan on loading up your rig with extensive (or custom) water-cooling, storage galore, or 3- and 4-way graphics card setups. Full-tower cases often support more fans and 5.25-inch drive bays as well. And the extra elbow room sure is nice during building.

Mini-ITX cases are the polar opposite of full-tower PC cases, built for diminutive mini-ITX motherboards. Some of these can be wondrously small and even fit inside home theater cabinets, but the tight quarters can create compatibility issues with some hardware. Don’t expect to use liquid-cooling or a big honking CPU cooler in most mini-ITX cases. Some mini-ITX cases don’t support full-length graphics cards, either; confirm the maximum length before you buy. Finally, there isn’t much room for extra hardware in these space-constrained chassis, so you’ll be limited to fairly basic system configurations. They’re great for schlepping to LAN parties, though!

bitfenix portal Bitfenix

The Bitfenix Portal puts a unique spin on mini-ITX cases with a design derived from Valve’s beloved Portal game.

Sometimes you’ll see “mini-tower” cases, which slot between mini-ITX and mid-tower in size to accommodate micro-ATX motherboards. They’re rarer than the others.

Price considerations for PC cases

Once you’ve decided how big of a PC case you need, the next step is figuring out your budget.

If you’re spending $50 or less, you’re probably going to wind up with a bare-bones, nondescript case with few extra features. Try to pick one that has two fans, one in the front of the case and another in the rear, for maximized air-flow, which helps cooling. You won’t always find the option in this price range, though.

One of the best budget PC cases I’ve built in is Deepcool’s Tesseract ($50 on Newegg). This affordable mid-tower has decent elbow room, the aforementioned duo of case fans, and plenty of drive bays—though it won’t fit extra-long graphics cards like the beastly Asus ROG Strix. That’s solid for the price. We’ll talk about more recommendations toward the end of the article.

Things open up in the $50 to $150-ish price range, which has seen a lot of advancement over the past few years. You’ll find a lot of variance in both design and construction in the midrange. As always, be sure to check measurements to ensure your desired PC case can fit all your hardware, and you’ll also want to keep an eye on extra features. They’re a lot more common in this price range, especially as you move up in cost.

amd ryzen 1800x build 7 Brad Chacos

The lack of 5.25-inch drive bays let you cram a lot of powerful hardware inside the Corsair Carbide 400C.

Features purely come down to personal preference or specifics needed for your build. Some cases are built with more fans for higher performance; others focus on silent design. Some—most notably much of Corsair’s case lineup—even eliminate 5.25-inch drive bays completely for better airflow. You’ll start to find water-cooling compatibility worked into some cases in this price range, along with better cable management details, tool-less design, and aesthetic niceties like RGB lighting or tempered-glass side panels. We’ll get into feature details shortly, but around $100 is the sweet spot for price-to-performance when it comes to buying a PC case.

Once you extend beyond $150 or so, you should expect a PC case that excels in both performance and acoustics, and one that comes with connectivity options and handy features galore. Some of them are huge; this is where you’ll find most full-tower cases. Build materials tend to be swankier in high-end cases, with aluminum and tempered glass being much more common than in budget and mid-range cases.

You’ll also find wild concept cases like the motorized In Win H-Tower, which opens like a flower (video above), or the racing car-esque Cougar Conquer ($350 on Newegg). Be mindful when you’re buying a PC case that doubles as a funky flagship, though. They oftentimes sacrifice functionality for their exotic forms.

PC case aesthetics 

Make sure you like the look of the PC case you’re buying! You’re going to be staring at it for years to come, so this is not a superficial consideration. Every online retailer shows PC cases from multiple angles on their store pages, so there’s no excuse for buying ugly.

PC cases come in all sorts of colors, materials, and designs. If you don’t want to spend time neatening up your interior cabling, pass on cases with a side window.

ryzen 3 1200 gaming pc 97 Brad Chacos/IDG

This case has a side window but I took off its whole side panel for this picture.

Buy a PC case: Features to watch for

Aside from the basic dimensions and price, feature support is the biggest differentiator when you’re buying a PC case. The more you spend on your case, the more goodies you’ll receive. Here’s a quick rundown of many of the features you’ll find in modern PC cases, starting with practical extras before delving into nice-to-haves.

Drive bays and SSD mounting points: As we’ve mentioned a couple of times before, make sure a PC case has enough 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch drive bays to house your storage drives. Some cases include mounting points for SSD on the rear of the motherboard tray, too. And if you need a 5.25-inch bay in the front of your PC to house an optical drive, fan controller, or whatever, confirm your case includes that. A number of cases have been ditching 5.25-inch bays to improve airflow from the front-side fan(s)—most notably several Corsair cases.

hard drive toolless Marco Chiappetta/IDG

Some cases come with tool-less brackets that make mounting hard drives really easy.

Tool-less design: In ye olden days, practically everything in a PC case required a Phillips screwdriver. No more. Tool-less design is nearly universal in mid-range and high-end cases, with thumb screws for internal fastening and twist-on, snap-on, or otherwise tool-free mechanisms in drive bays.

Cable management: Look for a case with cut-outs in the motherboard tray, which allow you to route your cabling through the rear of your case. Out of sight, out of mind. Budget PC cases tend to have simple giant holes punched in the motherboard tray, while mid-range options frequently include rubber grommets in the holes to tidy things up even more. Some cases include tie-off points or even wire covers behind the motherboard tray to keep your cabling clean.

Next page: More PC case features to look for, our favorite PC cases

CPU cooler cut-away: Speaking of the motherboard tray, some nicer PC cases include large cut-outs in the section behind your processor, which let you replace your PC’s CPU or CPU cooler without ripping out your entire motherboard. It’s not a feature you’re likely to need often, but if you do, it’s a godsend.

Front-panel connectivity: If you’ve got a lot of external devices, check out the front-panel connectivity of the PC case. Even cheap cases have a couple of USB-A Type 2.0 ports in the front. Some will include USB-A Type 3, USB-C, and even fan or RGB lighting controllers. You’ll often find front-panel audio jacks as well, though we’d always recommend plugging your headset directly into the audio jack on your motherboard’s rear I/O shield.

dsc01355 Brad Chacos

High-end cases (like this Phanteks Enthoo Elite) offer much more advanced front-panel connectivity.

Fans and airflow: The more fans you have in your PC, the better your airflow is likely to be. At the very least, you want two fans for optimal airflow—an intake in the front and an outward-blowing fan in the rear. Some budget PC cases include only a single fan, and your PC’s temperatures and performance will suffer for it. Even if they aren’t populated, many cases include additional fan mounts that allow you to upgrade your cooling later. As mentioned before, some cases are ditching 5.25-inch drive bays to remove airflow obstructions for the front fans, though you obviously wouldn’t want a case like that if you needed one of those bays.

Also pay attention to what’s in front of those fans. Tempered glass and stoic metal front panels are all the rage these days, but those pretty designs can hinder airflow if they’re not designed properly. The Silverstone RL06 ($85 on Newegg) skips those obstructions, placing protective mesh in front of not one but three 120mm intake fans for superb airflow and thus, lower system temperatures than its rivals.

Dust filters: Keeping your PC clean is important. A computer clogged with dust and pet hair and tobacco gunk is a computer that runs hot and throttles more often. Dust filters keep most of that debris from ever reaching your fans, much less your precious internal hardware. But be sure to configure your fans for positive air pressure to keep dust from being sucked in through the unoccupied vents in your chassis.

Sound-dampening: Soundproof cases keep your rig running quiet, often by using sound-dampening materials inside the panels of your PC. Those materials keep noise in but also tend to impede airflow, so soundproof cases often hit somewhat higher temperatures than standard cases. Some nicer soundproof cases manage to stay silent while also optimizing for airflow by including large 140mm fans spinning at low (and hence quiet) speeds.

Water-cooling support: The rise of sealed all-in-one coolers have made liquid-cooling more popular than ever. If you plan to water-cool your PC, pay fine attention to the support provided by your case. You probably won’t be able to use liquid-cooling whatsoever in most mini-ITX cases, and many mid-tower cases only support up to 240mm radiators—and placement of that liquid-cooling radiator may be limited to only the top or bottom of the case, depending on the case’s dimensions.

If you want a beefy 360mm radiator, you’ll often need to step up to a full tower case, though unusually large mid-towers like the Phanteks Enthoo Evolv X ($200 on Amazon) can sometimes squeeze them in as well. Some pricier cases also have large swatches of interior space dedicated to liquid-cooling reservoirs for custom loops.

Tempered-glass panels: Many newer PC cases include panels consisting entirely of tempered glass, presenting an unfettered look at your PC’s inner hardware, albeit at the cost of air flow. It’s gorgeous, but brittle—handle with care! You’ll start to find tempered-glass options around the $70 range, though they’re more common around $100.

PAX Hardware - Razer IDG / Hayden Dingman

Let there be light. Or not. It’s up to you!

Integrated lighting: Customizable RGB lighting is 2018’s biggest craze in computer hardware, and that includes PC cases. You either love RGB or you hate RGB. Either way, it’s easy to find cases that meet your aesthetic tastes. You can even watch us build an RGB PC—that was fun!

Our favorite PC cases

We don’t do many formal PC case reviews at PCWorld, but we’re constantly building PCs in all sorts of rigs. Here are some of our favorites in each price point. (Note that the U.S. tariffs on Chinese products have resulted in price increases of about $10 to $25 per case.)

Best budget PC cases

Silverstone Sugo SG13: Like all budget PC cases, the Silverstone Sugo SG13 ($60 on Amazon) isn’t fancy. But this tiny mini-ITX case is perfect for LAN parties (and cramped desks) thanks to its affordable price and easy-to-carry design. Silverstone provides plenty of ventilation for improved airflow—a crucial feature in such a tiny PC—and despite its small size, the Sugo SG13 can accommodate a full-sized power supply, a 140mm closed-loop CPU liquid-cooler, and graphics cards up to 10.5-inches in length. We used it in our build of a mini-ITX Ryzen gaming PC with a discrete GPU.

silverstone sugo sg13 Silverstone

Deepcool Tesseract: The aforementioned Deepcool Tesseract ($50 on Newegg) is a decent-sized mid-tower with two fans, sturdy-enough design, and all sorts of drive bays. It’ll fit any graphics card you throw at it except for monsters like the Asus ROG Strix GTX 2080 Ti ($1,300 on Amazon).

Best mid-range PC cases

h500i black red primary NZXT

NZXT H500i: The NZXT H500i ($100 on Amazon) looks gorgeous with its clean all-steel construction and half-height tempered glass panel. It helps you keep things clean inside, too, thanks to abundant hardware space and cable management features. Other niceties include an integrated RGB lights, a vertical GPU mount, and a Smart Device that taps into NZXT’s CAM software to control your LEDs and optimize your fan speeds.

If you aren’t interested in the Smart Hub or native lighting, NZXT also sells the dumbed-down but otherwise identical H500 for $75. Both are highly recommended

Corsair Carbide 270R: The no-frills Corsair Carbide 270R ($70 on Amazon) succeeds in getting out of your way. It’s dead-simple to work with, includes cable management options you won’t often find in budget cases, and the performance you get for the price is solid. Some notable extra touches include a power supply shroud to hide unsightly cables, and the ability to fit a 360mm liquid-cooling radiator in the front, a 240mm radiator up top, and a 120mm radiator in the rear.

corsair carbide 270r Corsair

The Corsair Carbide 270R.

Fractal Design Meshify C: The Fractal Design Meshify C ($85 on Amazon), our Full Nerd podcast’s best case of 2017, is basically the superb Fractal Design Define C with extensive mesh paneling to improve airflow. And like Corsair’s Carbide series, it dumps traditional 5.25-inch bays in the front, both to improve airflow and to offer more extensive liquid-cooling options. (It also ditches all but two 3.5-inch drive bays, which may give some folks pause.) This case upholds Fractal’s reputation for well-built, easy-to-use hardware. Just don’t try to use a massively long graphics card in the teeny-tiny Define C.

Best high-end PC cases

Be Quiet! Silent Base 601: Not everybody wants tempered glass panels, RGB lighting, and borderline obnoxious levels of bling. If that’s you, consider the Be Quiet! Silent Base 601 ($139 on Newegg). Its earned high praise from Gamers Nexus and Tom’s Hardware for its easy building nature, solid feature list, and silent design—though the focus on minimizing acoustics results in slightly higher operating temperatures than cases that optimize around airflow.

corsair 570x Corsair

The Corsair 570X

Corsair Crystal 570X RGB: PCWorld’s Full Nerd podcast named the Corsair 570X ($150 on Amazon) the best PC case of 2016, and it’s easy to see why. Rather than having a simple see-through panel, almost every edge of this beautiful beast—the top, front, and side panels—consist of tempered glass. That sleek look is augmented by a trio of front-side fans with customizable RGB lighting that can be tweaked using a controller on the top of the case. Tool-less design and a roomy interior make building inside the Corsair 570X just as dreamy as staring at it.

phanteks evolv x Phanteks

Phanteks Enthoo Evolv X Tempered Glass: The Phanteks Enthoo Evolv X ($200 on Amazon) is a luxurious case built from aluminum and tempered glass, highlighted by customizable RGB accents on the front panel and PSU shroud. The clean exterior hides hard drive cages and power supply alike, and the comparably massive Enthoo Evolv X has ample room even for multiple graphics card setups and vertically mounted GPUs. Cooling’s a priority, with an offset radiator bracket, reservoir mounting locations, and even a PWM fan hub.

You’ll need it: The solid front panel of the case doesn’t help air flow easily into the case. If achieving the coolest possible temperatures is a priority for you, look for a case with more mesh included.

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