Your house, according to the legendary advice of George Carlin, is the place where you put your stuff while you go get more stuff. But a PC tower case is not just the box where you put your PC components, while you earn money to buy better ones. (These days, given the cost and tight supply of many cutting-edge CPUs and graphics cards, that may not even be possible.) It matters much more than that.
If you’ve built your own PC in the past, you know that having the right PC case can make or break the whole process. It’s not just a question of fitting the parts inside—it’s easy enough to match up the motherboard size, count the bays, and make sure the chassis has the front-panel ports you want. It’s the small stuff that separates a good PC case from one that makes your build easy—or even makes it sing. That can be intangibles like cable-routing features, or the position of the power supply or the drive bays relative to the other parts. It can be the look; the case defines the identity of your PC.
Also, a PC case may be rated to accept a given motherboard—ATX, MicroATX, and so on—but that’s no indication that you’ll have enough room inside to build a system with ease. Clearances around the edges of the board may be tight, cable cutaways for routing wires behind the board may be scarce or ill-placed, and you may need to sacrifice drive bays to accommodate long video cards. Here’s what to know when assessing PC cases.
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The PC Chassis In 2021: Trends and Changes
In our experience, tower cases tend to alleviate many of the space-related ails when building a PC, and it’s not rocket science why: They’re simply bigger.
Most offer adequate room for cable routing and long video cards, and they should have room for enough drives, given today’s per-drive capacities, to satisfy most needs short of a server’s. If you have the room for one, a tower is an ideal platform for a new PC build or as a case upgrade for an existing system that’s running out of room inside for drives or card expansion.
In the last few years, we’ve seen some clear trends among tower cases, too. Aggressive sci-fi and mecha themes were big for a while, but that has given way to subtler aesthetics: clean designs with neutral themes and an emphasis on the quality of external materials. (That said, you still can find those out-there PC-case designs in places, if you want them.) For a while, it looked like the DIY PC-case market was shifting over entirely to a blinged-up, geeky gamer aesthetic, but the design winds have shifted a bit. Over the last couple of years, we’ve also seen a major move to glass and acrylic side panels, as well as the integration of mood lighting, whether one-color or programmable RGB.
What’s also shifted: the definition of a tower case. “True” towers—with huge banks of drive bays and bodies more than 20 inches tall—are still around, but the lines have blurred between these and larger mid-tower chassis, which tend to lie in the 18-to-20-inch height range. But even these are seeing their own splintering and hazy categorization: Just about all mainstream big cases, for example, have eliminated front-facing 5.25-inch drive bays altogether, assuming that buyers won’t be opting for internal optical drives anymore. These really minimal cases were a subclass of their own a few years ago but are now rapidly becoming the norm, not the exception.
As 5.25-inch bays have vanished, the really large towers have fallen out of favor with many buyers who aren’t doing elaborate modding or liquid cooling. Another reason why: limitations to video-card SLI that emerged in 2016 and keep accelerating. With its 10-series “Pascal” video cards, Nvidia put the official kibosh on multiple-video-card configurations of more than two cards. One of the traditional big reasons high-end PC builders would opt for a large PC case is to host multiple video cards in an Nvidia SLI or AMD CrossFireX array.
With Nvidia’s “Turing” (20 Series) and “Ampere” (30 Series) RTX cards currently the toast of the video-card world (and the cards largely made of unobtanium), SLI has become even less likely an option for the bulk of users. With the 30 Series, only the ultra-expensive GeForce RTX 3090 can be paired up in SLI, and the cost for two of them nowadays could instead get you a modest used car. With today’s decided shift to using just one video card, more moderate-size towers are in the offing.
Of course, you can still build out a PC with more than two older cards in an AMD CrossFireX arrangement (or using legacy Nvidia cards). But AMD is de-emphasizing CrossFireX, too, with its latest-gen (“Navi”-based) video cards. So, giant tower cases with slot positions to take four double-wide video cards are best considered a niche within a niche within a niche.
Picking the right tower PC case for your build or upgrade is a complex interplay of the parts you have, the parts you may install someday, and the space you have available to stash the chassis itself. Here’s a brief rundown of the things to look for before we get deep into our favorites. (Also, for a primer on PC-case lingo, check out Buying a PC Case: 20 Terms You Need to Know.)
Motherboard Compatibility: ATX and More
Most towers, by definition, will support ATX-form-factor mainboards. If you’re looking to install a smaller MicroATX or Mini-ITX motherboard, a tower may not be the right choice. (That is, unless you know you need a tower’s wealth of drive bays, and you have the means to connect a heap of drives via that smaller board’s Serial ATA ports or a controller card.)
Larger tower cases may support additional form factors that are bigger than ATX, such as XL-ATX or Extended ATX (EATX). These are mostly seen in server-grade boards and one-off consumer enthusiast models. Motherboards, especially, for AMD’s and Intel’s high-end desktop (HEDT) classes of processors, the Ryzen Threadripper and the Core X-Series, tend to come in these oversize form factors due to extra RAM slots and the bigger actual CPU dies they host.
Support for these form factors are an indication that the case will be big; if you don’t need that kind of size, steer for an ATX-max case.
CPU Cooler, Graphics Card, and PSU Clearance
First, CPU coolers: If you’re using liquid cooling in your PC, this won’t be an issue, but if you’re using an elaborate air-cooler that has a tall heat sink and fan assembly on top (performance coolers from companies like Noctua are what we’re talking about), you’ll want to measure the height of the cooler involved. Case makers typically list the maximum cooler clearance on the case’s spec sheet—check it if you’re air-cooling. (More on liquid-cooling in a moment.)
As for video cards, this is a simple length measurement. Depending on the case design, the longest video cards—typically high-end ones measuring more than 10 inches front to back—may bump up against the drive bays or other case structure in front. If you’re using a monster video card, keep an eye on this spec.
That said, starting a few years back, we saw the emergence of some highly able “short board” versions of Nvidia’s Pascal (10 Series), Turing (20 Series), and now Ampere (30 Series) cards. (Check in with card makers like Zotac, MSI, and Gigabyte; they tend to offer the occasional short design.) AMD’s card partners, to a lesser extent, have followed suit. That means you can put a powerful but compact card into a relatively trim chassis with less regard for length issues.
The power supply unit (PSU) is the last element to consider. Almost all tower cases will make use of an ATX form-factor power supply, as opposed to the compact SFX and SFX-L form factor used in some compact cases. The main spec to pay attention to is the power supply’s physical length. Some cases mandate a maximum length that can fit without interference; this is less common in towers than in more compact cases, but it is still worth paying attention to before you buy.
Also worth looking into, but hard to discern from simple spec sheets: the reach of the eight-pin or four-pin CPU power cable. In a few really big tower cases, it’s difficult or impossible to stretch this cable to the max to reach a far-flung CPU power port on the mainboard. An extender may be required. This is where reviews of cases, detailing their nuances and quirks, come in.
Drive Bays and Front-Panel Ports
The drive-bay equation is pretty straightforward: You need as many 2.5-inch, 3.5-inch, or 5.25-inch bays for SSDs, hard drives, or optical drives as you have drives, plus an allowance for future ones you might install. Many tower cases these days have dedicated bays for 2.5-inch drives (primarily for solid-state drives) and 3.5-inch drives; in most, the 3.5-inch bays also support smaller 2.5-inch drives via differently positioned screw mounts.
Note that, as we mentioned above, most cases, even big ones, are doing away with 5.25-inch bays altogether, under the assumption that optical drives are now passé. If you need an internal DVD or Blu-ray drive in your build, be aware of that as you shop.
Front-facing ports, on the other hand, don’t vary too much among recent tower cases. The usual mix is a pair of USB 3.0 ports, possibly a pair of USB 2.0 ports, and headphone and mic jacks. Make sure your motherboard has the proper mixture of headers for the ports on the chassis. That’s usually not a problem, though some really old motherboards may not have the 20-pin connector for USB 3.0 front-panel ports. A few cases may have four USB 3.0 ports and thus require two USB 3.0 headers to connect them all; many boards have just one such header. You may need an adapter to hook up the second set to a USB 2.0 header—be warned. (It will run at slower USB 2.0 speeds.)
One hit-or-miss feature in the newest motherboards and PC cases is support for front-panel USB 3.1 Type-C ports. Chassis and motherboard makers have agreed on a header connector for USB Type-C, and the header connections are showing up on most, but not all, late-model motherboards. Some chassis will have a single USB Type-C port that interfaces with these Type-C headers, but we’d expect a transition period of adapters to bridge things for a while between these ports on chassis and your motherboard. Neither case makers nor motherboard vendors tend to bundle these, and not all new boards even here in 2021 have a Type-C header, which is quite different from the 20-pin USB 3.0 connector.
This is a tough area to assess outside the context of a review and actually building a PC into the case in question. It comprises two key areas: cutaways in the motherboard tray for running cables behind the case’s tray, and clearance behind the (usually) right-side panel. The latter is often ignored, but it’s important. Running thick cables such as the 24-pin main power-supply cable behind the right panel can be tricky if there’s not enough room back there and it needs to criss-cross other cables.
As a result, you’ll want to pay close attention to our test build experiences to see how cable jockeying shakes out with a given case. Some cases will come with nicely pre-routed case cables or Velcro restraints to control cable excess, or have well-placed niches in which to stash extra-length or unused cables. A few, such as the Razer Tomahawk ATX, even have interior covers behind the motherboard tray to collect and cover up messy cables, allowing a clean view into both sides of the case through side-panel glass.
Liquid Cooling and Air Cooling
If you mean to install liquid cooling for your processor or graphics, you’ll want to examine the specifications for the size of radiator (or radiators) you can install. There are two aspects here: the radiator’s thickness, and the overall radiator length, measured in millimeters.
The thickness spec is to ensure that the radiator, its fans, and other hardware do not interfere with components on the mainboard because of overhang. The length is usually expressed as a multiple of the standard-size fans you install (which are, in most cases, 120mm or 140mm). So, you’ll typically see specs for mounting a 120mm-, 240mm-, or 360mm-long radiator unit. Match up what the case can accept with what you plan to install. Huge 360mm radiators are one of the main reasons old-school, really big towers still exist.
As for air-cooling, how many fans are included in the case and how many you can install are two different things entirely. In most tower chassis, you will get at least a couple of pre-installed fans; additional ones are cheap, so we wouldn’t make the fan count a deal breaker. (If you’re doing liquid cooling, you may need to remove some of the installed fans, anyway, to make room for the radiator hardware you need to mount.) That said, be mindful of the sizes of fans that are included and supported; replacements for nonstandard sizes like the 200mm whoppers used in some of the largest or widest towers are harder to come by than the more standard 120mm and 140mm.
And then there’s fan filters. Anyone who has dismantled a tower PC that’s been in service for some years knows about the dust, the dust, the eternal dust: caked on the case’s fan filters, rolling around inside the case in dust bunnies, and clotted on the fan blades. Better that it be caught in a cleanable filter: Look for removable filters over the intake fans (usually, the fans on the front) and over the power-supply intake (not the exhaust), which will be on case bottom or top.
So, Which PC Case Should I Buy?
Once you choose your case, check out our roundups of the top graphics cards overall, the best graphics cards for 4K gaming, and our top-rated M.2 solid state drives. These are the most likely parts you’ll be shopping for next. We’ve outlined our latest-favorite PC cases below, with an eye to ease of build and attractiveness.
(Or, if you prefer to skip the build process altogether, take a look at our top-performing prebuilt desktop PCs or gaming PCs.)