When you’re picking parts for your new computer, it’s easy to forget how important choosing a PC case is. Sure, a case isn’t going to improve your FPS, nor will it make your renders run faster. But the right case will make for an effortless build, look great, and have all the expansion that you need.
Knowing how to choose a PC case is an integral part of building your own rig. There’s a lot of info to wade through, but you don’t have to go through it blind. This post outlines some of the critical things you should consider, alongside some recommendations to help you on your way.
Case Size And Motherboard Support
The first thing to think about when choosing a computer case is what size of case you want. Cases come in various shapes and sizes, but there are four sizes you’ll typically see on the market. These are, from largest to smallest:
- Full tower
- Mid tower
The larger the case, the larger the motherboard it supports. A bigger case also offers more space inside for parts such as graphics cards, storage, and even water cooling loops. Generally, case and motherboard sizes go hand-in-hand. If you want a large motherboard, you’ll have to get a case that will fit it.
Full tower cases will accommodate all sorts of motherboards, including massive extended ATX (EATX) motherboards like the 12.2-inch wide ASUS ROG Zenith II Extreme Alpha. They also have the most space for graphics cards and storage, with ample room for a complete custom water-cooling loop. Certain companies, like Thermaltake, make even larger cases they call “super towers.”
Mid tower cases, as the name suggests, are smaller and designed around standard ATX motherboards. Compared to a full tower, you’ll be giving up some drive mounting space and possibly even GPU clearance. That generally isn’t a big deal, though, unless you’re the type that needs 10 hard drives and enough room for liquid cooling radiators and reservoirs.
A mid tower is generally a safe choice for a case that’ll fit most mainstream setups. You can head over to our mid tower vs. full tower comparison article for a more in-depth look at the differences between the two case sizes.
On the smaller side, the Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX cases are built around accommodating their namesake motherboard sizes. They’ll also be the most restrictive cases, sometimes requiring you to opt for specialized CPU coolers or mini GPUs designed to fit in compact cases.
You’ll spend a bit more time picking parts for these cases, but if you want a portable PC, they’re definitely your best choice.
While you may like the idea of a small form factor (SFF) build, you have to make sure that the case will fit the parts you’ve earmarked for your rig. Compatibility is even more important if you’re reusing old parts, so it’s worth bearing in mind.
Graphics Card Size
We’ve discussed motherboard sizes earlier, but that’s not the only part that needs to fit your case. Your graphics card’s compatibility is also an important consideration. Full and mid tower cases shouldn’t pose any problems, but you almost certainly won’t be installing a 15.2-inch long card like EVGA’s RTX 3090 FTW3 Ultra Gaming in a Micro-ATX (or smaller) case.
CPU Cooler Height and Radiator Size
Your case size can limit the maximum height of your CPU tower cooler. Some CPU coolers might be too tall for compact Micro-ATX or Mini-ITX cases. The Noctua NH-D15 is excellent, but at 6.5 inches tall, it’s definitely too much metal for building in a slim case.
If you prefer an AIO, make sure to choose one with a suitable radiator. There’s no point trying to pair a 360 mm AIO like the NZXT Kraken X73 with a small case that’ll only fit a 120 mm AIO.
This isn’t an insurmountable problem, as manufacturers make CPU tower coolers and AIOs designed for compact builds. Check your clearances before you order all your parts to not end up with a CPU cooler that’s too big for your case.
This isn’t necessarily a compatibility issue, but it’s still crucial to be aware of. Ensure your case has enough bays and mounting locations to accommodate your storage needs. If you need a lot of storage, a mid or full tower case is probably the best option. If you’re OK with a couple of SSDs and maybe an M.2 drive, then you’ll be happy with almost anything.
If you still have optical drives, you should make sure your case has a 5.25-inch drive bay. Many modern cases no longer come with 5.25-inch drive bays installed. Some of these prioritize airflow and fans, while others have tempered glass panels that simply won’t work with optical drives. The Lian Li O-11 Dynamic does both:
There’s more to a computer case’s cooling abilities than being able to fit your CPU cooler. You’ll also have to consider a few other factors depending on which side you’re on in the air cooling vs. liquid cooling debate.
Airflow vs. Silence
If you’re building an air-cooled rig, a critical choice is whether you want to prioritize airflow or silence.
Silence-focused cases will have padding and restrictive front intakes, sometimes with panels. These features will lead to higher temperatures. The plus side is that they’ll also stop sound from leaking out of your system, making for a much quieter PC.
Inversely, airflow-focused PC cases will have features like fully-open mesh front panels that let the fans suck in as much air as possible. This is great for temperatures, but the open front panel means there’s nothing to dampen the sound of your PC’s fans and other moving components like hard drives.
Here are some temperature measurements from GamersNexus’ test of the Fractal Design Define 7, a silence-focused case:
Compare the numbers of the Fractal case with an airflow case like the Phanteks P400A. With the same Noctua fans, the CPU in the Phanteks is 12 degrees Celsius cooler than in the Define 7. 62.5 degrees is still a safe temperature, so you won’t be frying your CPU or anything. But performance might suffer slightly.
AMD’s Ryzen CPUs, especially the new Zen 3 parts, are pretty temperature-sensitive, as this test shows. If you want to eke out as much performance from your CPU as possible, an airflow case would be a better choice.
The Define 7’s strength lies in how quiet it is, though. The Define 7 runs at 34.6 dBA with its stock fans. The same system in the Phanteks measures 38.6 dBA. You’ll definitely notice the difference in noise levels between the two cases.
At the end of the day, it’s your choice. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution in the choice between temperatures and noise. It depends entirely on how much you value silence over temperatures and vice versa.
Liquid Cooling Support
If you’re planning a custom water-cooling loop, you’ll want to make sure your case is designed for it. Things like an open (or modular) internal layout, good radiator support, and solid mounting options for your reservoirs are all things to look out for.
Full towers are ideal, but many mid tower cases these days are designed with custom water-cooling loops in mind. Fractal Design’s Define 7 is a perfect example. It’s a mid tower with enough room for a water cooling loop, reservoir, and 420 mm radiator. You probably won’t need much more than that.
A decent mid tower should be enough for a single loop, where your CPU and GPU are cooled by the same liquid and radiator. If you want to run separate loops for your CPU and GPU, like in the Corsair 1000D rig we posted above, you’ll likely have to go for a full tower case.
Cooling performance and component compatibility are all well and good, but there’s also the matter of aesthetics. This is the most subjective aspect of choosing a computer case, so there’s really no right or wrong here. Still, you should be aware of a few significant aesthetic features when trying to understand how to choose a PC case.
Tempered glass has become such a common feature of PC cases that it’s almost become harder to find one without a glass panel. The central appeal of tempered glass panels is being able to see your build while it’s running in all its RGB glory.
Tempered glass panels are heavier and can be a bit more delicate than standard aluminum panels. Glass can shatter, but aluminum won’t. Whether the aesthetic payoff is worth the risk of it breaking is entirely up to you.
Built-In RGB Lighting
Some cases will come with built-in RGB controllers and LED strips, meaning you can get your lighting fix out of the box. NZXT’s H510i is a good example. It comes with two addressable RGB strips and two NZXT Aer RGB fans, all of which can be controlled via the included Smart Device V2.
You don’t have to get a case with built-in RGB from the factory since it’s easy to add RGB strips after the fact. However, if you know you want RGB, why not see if you can find something that’ll fit your needs from the get-go?
We’ve included cable management in the aesthetics section since it doesn’t affect temperatures that much:
However, neat cable management does wonders for the aesthetics of your PC. If you want a tempered glass side panel, we’d also suggest making sure your case of choice has solid cable management features to reduce cable eyesore.
Look for features such as cutouts in the motherboard tray to route cables through (preferably with rubber grommets for a neater touch) and ample points for attaching velcro or cable ties. Space between the motherboard tray and the side panel is desirable too. It gives you a place to store excess cable out of sight.
Another helpful feature is a PSU shroud. This basically hides your PSU behind a thin sheet of metal, obscuring most of your power cables for a neater look. If you’re not using a modular PSU, it’s also a great place to hide unused SATA or PCIe power cables.
So, What PC Case Should I Get?
Recommending cases is a bit harder than other parts. A lot hinges on your own tastes and preferences. So don’t take our recommendations here as final. Instead, treat these as starting points. Now that you know how to choose a PC case, these suggestions should set you on the right path to finding the perfect case with ease.
NZXT’s H210i case gets a lot of love, and it’s not hard to see why. The built-in RGB lighting and included RGB fans are a perfect starting point for a colorful build. On top of that, the build quality is top-notch, and component support is above-average for an ITX case. The downside is that it’s larger than other ITX cases.
Want something compact and easy on the wallet? Thermaltake’s Core V1 is what you’re looking for. Trading the more traditional tower form factor for a cube shape means it has more room inside than you might expect. It has enough space for GPUs up to 11 inches long, opening up the possibility of installing an Nvidia RTX 3070 or AMD Radeon 6800XT.
Phanteks’ Evolv mATX is a solid option if you’re looking for an mATX with high component compatibility and support for water cooling. With support for 12.5-inch long GPUs and 7.5-inch tall CPU coolers, you won’t have any issues with parts in this case. Solid radiator support and water cooling pump mounts round out a great high-performance mATX case.
If you want RGB and tempered glass in the mATX form factor, Corsair’s Crystal 280X RGB might be up your alley. The included Corsair LL120 fans are some of the best RGB fans right now, and the three tempered glass panels show off your build better than any other similarly-sized case.
Mid Tower Cases
We really like Fractal Design’s cases, and the Define 7 is the latest case in their well-respected Define series. Yes, it has some thermal issues, but if you want a silent ATX case with support for water cooling or a large handful of drives, the Define 7 is a great choice. Fractal’s build quality is excellent, too, and their cases are a pleasure to build in.
The complete opposite of the Define 7, Phanteks’ Eclipse P400A is an airflow case designed to keep your components running as cool as possible. It offers excellent value, especially when you consider the three included intake fans. You could spend more on a higher-end airflow case, but the extra money won’t get you lower temperatures.
Full Tower Cases
German company be quiet!’s Dark Base Pro 900 is one of the most modular full tower cases available right now. The motherboard tray and HDD slots are all movable, offering maximum flexibility for your build. Like all of be quiet!’s products, the Dark Base Pro 900 offers top-of-the-line build quality and a design targeted at silence-focused customers.
If you want a sleek yet flashy full tower case, look no further than Cooler Master’s Cosmos C700M. With its curved tempered glass side panel and addressable RGB lighting, it’s a beauty. It has substance, too, supporting three different internal layouts so you can get the most out of your rig.
Depending on your needs, deciding how to choose a PC case can be as easy as getting the cheapest mid tower on Amazon. But it can also end up being a complicated dance juggling all manner of specifications, needs, desires, and preferences. It’s a surprisingly challenging choice. While we can’t solve everything for you, the info in this guide should get you on the right track to choosing a computer case.
Don’t rush into buying a case. Check whether the rest of your computer parts will fit. Think about how much storage you have now and how many drives you may need in the future. Consider how much bling matters to you. And don’t forget to choose a case you like the look of. If you’re going to be looking at it every time you sit down at your desk, it’d better be pleasing to the eye, after all.
All the best with your search!