Your Ideal PC

The Components--Cases: Different Shapes, Different Sizes

Cases: Different Shapes, Different Sizes
Photograph: Marc Simon
When you choose a case, you're buying a home for your PC. The right one can make working with your system a dream, but picking the wrong one will come back to haunt you. Though you can find a case plus power supply for less than $50, we recommend that you invest a bit more to obtain a case that will last through many upgrades and that you'll enjoy looking at.

Pick the right form factor: Most cases and motherboards use the ATX form factor--a set of design standards that specify things such as the size of the motherboard and the connectors on the power supply. It's critical that your motherboard match the form factor of your case. Be aware of other standards--for example, Shuttle-style cube-shaped systems that come with their own custom motherboard.

What's it made of? Steel cases weigh more than aluminum ones, they cost less, and they muffle the noise from components such as hard drives better than aluminum cases do. On the other hand, aluminum boxes tend to be more stylish, and they are certainly easier to carry around.

It's what's inside that counts: Even the best-looking case will seem ugly if installing your components becomes a pain. Look for helpful features like a removable motherboard tray, tool-less drive carriers, and multiple fan locations for cooling the system.

Does this come with a power supply? Cheaper cases often come with cut-rate power supplies that may not be up to the task of powering a high-end PC. Some expensive cases don't come with a power supply, which lets you choose your own.

Power Picks and Upgrades--Choose the Right Power Supply

Chart: Component -- Wattage required
If you've added a lot of new components to your PC, you may be overtaxing your existing power supply, so look at getting a bigger, better one. Power supplies can cause problems--including random crashes or even component failure--if they are asked to produce more power than they are designed to generate.

Most power supplies are rated according to their maximum output (in watts). Online tools such as PC Power and Cooling's Power Supply Selector can provide a quick ballpark estimate of the wattage you need, based on the components in your system. To calculate your wattage requirements more precisely, use the table at right to tally the power drawn by all your components; then tack on at least 30 percent more for headroom and the upgrades that you'll add over time. For more details, see " Power to Your PC."

Our Picks

  • Power PC: Aspire X-Alien ATXA7AW ($91). This alien-inspired aluminum tower case includes a 420-watt power supply, six lighted case fans, and a window that shows off all of the expensive components.
  • Quiet PC: Antec P160 ($110). This case, specifically designed for quiet computing, uses rubber mountings to help muffle the hard drive. We paired it with a 400-watt fanless power supply from Coolmax (the Coolmax CF-400, $120) that runs silently.
  • Value PC: Antec SLK3700-BQE ($90). This moderately priced case comes with a good power supply and plenty of drive bays; its design is easy to work with, too.
  • Media PC: Shuttle XPC SN41G2V2 ($270). It's pricey, but this compact case includes a motherboard and a power supply.

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