When normally building a PC, one would pick the components first and then find a case which properly fits them. This approach is typically fine, as there usually aren’t major size constraints on a desktop PC. But the HTPC is a different beast. While the desktop PC is king of its territory, the HTPC needs to play nice with the restrictions of the home theater in which it is being placed.
This means the case is suddenly the most important component. Building an HTPC only to find it doesn’t fit inside your home theater is massively disappointing. This buyer’s guide will help you choose a case that fits, provides the features you want, and won’t break the bank.
Size is one of the most important factors when choosing an HTPC case. Home theaters often have limited space, and this means that an HTPC case must be sized correctly to fit the home theater.
The obvious first step is to measure the height, width, and depth of area into which the HTPC case will be placed. Make sure to leave at least 1 inch of space on each side. This is important because cases need space to breath. Placing a case too tightly into a space will cut off airflow and cause havoc with internal tempertures.
The measurments you end up with may be very tight, which means case selecton will be limited. If the amount of available space is not limited – perhap you’re putting the case on the floor or in a very large home theater cabinent – then you’ll need to consider how large you want to go.
Large cases are, uh, large. A regular tower case isn’t exactly subtle. Larger cases also tend to be heavier and more expensive than smaller cases. On the other hand, larger cases tend to offer more features and provide quieter, more effective cooling. You’ll need to decide if a smaller visual footprint or smaller sonic footprint is more important to you.
The format of a case can be just as important as size. There are, in technical terms, several different formats you might be interested in.
The largest is a full ATX tower or, in rare cases, desktop. Full ATX towers are the largest form of case you might consider for an HTPC. There is quite a range in size, but they’re usually between 18 and 30 inches tall, 18 and 30 inches deep, and 8 to 12 inches wide. In other words, they’re quite large, so they won’t fit in most home theater furniture. They can usually be made very quiet, however, particulary products like the Antec Sonata which are made with noise in mind.
One step smaller comes the Micro ATX (mATX) enclosures, which are the most common HTPC cases. MATX enclosures can vary quite a bit in size and in shape. The three main types of mATX cases are towers, cubes, and HTPC. Towers are just like normal towers, but smaller, so they don’t fit that well into home theater cabinents but can be easily placed beside them. Cube cases, such as the Silverstone Sugo SG02, are usually small and squat, and are a good fit for a space which is narrow and tall. Then there are HTPC cases, like the Antec Fusion Remote, which are usually of the same dimensions as a reciever or large game console laid flat. They fit very well into many home theater cabinents, but often are limited to only half-height expansion slots and are generally cramped.
The final type of HTPC case is the mini-ITX case. Mini-ITX cases are the smallest available. Some cases even come with external mounts which allow the case to be mounted to a wall, underneath a desk or home theater cabinent, or in some other location. Mini-ITX cases are obviously the least obstrusive, but a lot of sacrafices are required for a PC of this size. There are few motherboards available, and although some as the Zotec GF9300 offer a lot of features, case sizes will limit what kinds of processors and video cards can be used. Many Mini-ITX cases are only large enough to support stock heatsinks (if that) and only have support for half-height video cards. Hard drive and external drive space is also extremely limited.
Most people don’t think of noise when picking an HTPC case, but considering noise is extremely important. Noise can be a major distraction from in a home theater – just ask anyone who has used a Xbox 360 as a media player.
The golden rule of noise in an HTPC is that larger cases tend to be quieter than smaller cases. This rule refers to two general truths. One is that larger fans are quieter than smaller ones. This doesn’t seem like common sense, but the reasoning behind it is that the noise of a fan is mostly due to the vibartion. A fan that is larger needs to spin less quickly to drive air through – thus, it makes less noise. Of course, larger fans are usually found in larger cases, where 120mm fans are common. Smaller cases often use 80mm fans, which make more noise. This is why large cases often are quieter than small cases.
The other general truth about smaller cases is that they compensate for their more cramped interiors by providing more holes than a cheese grater. The holes act as vents, but they also allow noise to escape.
This is not to say that all small cases are noisy, because some are better than others, but in most cases a very small case will have many vents through which sound can escape.
Depending on the construction of the case, and even where the case is located, noise levels can be reduced drastically with a little help from you. Cases with less places for noise to escape will be quieter, so some HTPC builders will actually block off unneeded ventilation. Also, the stock fans shipped with cases are often budget models. Replacing the stock fans with better aftermarket fans can help reduce noise.
Best HTPC Enclosure Quick Picks
Full Tower Case:Antec Sonata Series
The goal of Antec’s Sonata series is to provide quiet computing at a low price. This makes them a good choice for a full tower HTPC. There is plenty of room for video cards and TV tuners, and the case includes sound insulating materials. The Sonata series cases can be found at most retailers for betwen $100 and $130 and they usually include a quality Antec power supply.
mATX Cube Case: Silverstone Sugo SG02
Silverstone’s SG02 cube case is one of the better low-price cube cases available. It has an attractive exterior and a layout that offers a surprising amount of space for expansion cards. On the downside it is rather noisy, but for $70 dollars it is a very good small case.
mATX HTPC Case: Antec Fusion Remote
Antec actually makes many different HTPC style cases, and almost all of them are very good. The Antec Fusion Remote gets the recommedation, however, because it has it all at a low price. It is set up out of the box for use with a remote, making it easy to integrate into a home theater. The only problem is that common with these cases – it has limited internal space.
Mini-ITX Case: Silverstone SUGO SG06
Much like the Silverstone SG02, the Silverstone SG06 is a cube case. The SG06 is much smaller, however, and will only fit mini-ITX boards. Unlike the SG02, the SG06 has a 120mm fan mount. This makes it surprisingly quiet for a case of this size. It also comes with a nice 300 watt power supply.