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Modularlize me, Cap'n
It's impossible to talk about the MasterCase 5's guts without discussing what Cooler Master calls "FreeForm," the company's umbrella term for the modular features inside and outside the MasterCase 5. In theory, FreeForm means that your case can grow with your system or adapt to your aesthetic whims. Instead of discarding the MasterCase 5 if you need more drive space or want to install a liquid-cooling setup, Cooler Master thinks you should be able to buy more drive cages or the proper top panel to accomodate the new hardware.

I'm certainly a fan of the flexibility that FreeForm parts may offer, but the accessory lineup is a little thin on the ground right now. Cooler Master plans to offer a radiator-friendly top panel and cover at first, as well as extra drive cages and a windowed side panel. The company tells us a number of other accessories are still in the works, including brackets for liquid-cooling reservoirs and pumps, extra radiator and fan mounts, graphics card support brackets, and an entirely transparent side panel.

The bones of the MasterCase 5 need to be good in their own right before one starts leafing through the accessory catalog, though. Let's see how the MasterCase 5 looks out of the box.

Open up the MasterCase 5, and the FreeForm features are immediately evident. The included dual-3.5" drive bay can be positioned anywhere on a series of pegboard-like holes toward the front of the case or removed entirely for more room. Should you buy more drive cages, this pegboard area is where they would go. Similarly, the 2.5" drive sleds on top of the power supply shroud can be moved to mounts behind the motherboard tray, or an additional pair of sleds can be mounted back there for more capacity.

The dual-chamber design of the MasterCase 5 is also on full display here. The power supply sits in its own dedicated space at the bottom of the case. The dual 3.5" drive cage that ships with the case can also be moved to a mount in the bottom chamber, and there are a pair of slots for this bottom storage mount to prevent drives here from blocking a front-mounted 240-mm or 280-mm radiator. What's more, the 5.25" cage in the main chamber can be removed to make way for dual- or optional triple-3.5" cages. That makes it possible to install a fair bit of 3.5" storage even with a front radiator in place.

Situations like these begin to show the value of the FreeForm features: in other cases, like Fractal Design's Define R5, installing a 240-mm or 280-mm front radiator means that all of the case's 3.5" storage mounts have to be removed.

Behind the motherboard tray, things look pretty good. The hook-and-loop cable straps are a nice touch, but outside of the deeper, narrow cable channel that these straps cover and the spacious drive cages, there's only about 0.75" of space for cable routing. That cable channel behind the pegboard holes is also enclosed on the sides and bottom by structural flanges, so it's less useful than it might otherwise be.

It seems like the slightly tight accommodations back here are a concession to the fact that the MasterCase 5 can swallow CPU coolers as tall as 7.5" (190 mm), which may be a record among the cases I've tested. It should also be easy to install those coolers: the motherboard tray has a huge cutout for backplates.

The power supply mount uses two long, foam-lined rails that should serve to isolate any PSU fan-related vibrations from the rest of the case. Though one could slide a PSU onto these rails from the bottom chamber, it's easier to remove the thumbscrew-secured bracket at the rear of the case, mate the PSU with the bracket, and then slide the assembly in again from outside the case.

As I noted earlier, the bottom chamber of the case also houses a mount for the dual-3.5" drive cage included with the MasterCase 5, which can be removed for more space. A pair of rubber grommets in the roof of the chamber permit power cables to pass through to the motherboard area.

Overall, despite the well-thought-out design, I'm a tad let down by the MasterCase 5's build quality and overall QA thoroughness. Though the frame and panels are quite solid, the devil is in the details. Some of the case's thumbscrews took some careful aligning to thread in properly, and the 5.25" cage required some muscling to line up with its holes when I went to reinstall it, as well. One of the two pre-production MasterCase 5s that I looked at while writing this review had an SSD sled whose captive thumbscrew was barely long enough to thread into its associated hole, making it easy to dislodge. The second and presumably final case didn't have that issue, though.

One mistake that was present in both of the MasterCase 5 samples that Cooler Master sent me was a misprinted manual. The instructions suggest that the coarsely threaded PSU screws should be used to install the motherboard, while the finely threaded motherboard screws are described as PSU screws. The first case I looked at had nine of the coarse screws, too: the same number needed to mount the motherboard. Six finely threaded mobo screws were included, which matches the manual's count for PSU screws. This confusion caused problems during my build, as we'll soon see.

The second case I received included the proper number of both types of screw but an uncorrected instruction manual. I'm assured that the second case I looked at was the same as what a retail buyer would receive, and it would be harder to mess up motherboard mounting with the "retail" case if a builder counted out screws beforehand. Still, an impatient owner might use the wrong screw type and cross-thread a standoff. I brought all of these issues to Cooler Master's attention, and I hope the company will correct the instruction manual in the future. 

Going Pro
One of the virtues of the FreeForm system is that buyers can get the MasterCase 5 to start out, and then upgrade the case to MasterCase Pro 5 specs down the line. The Pro add-on parts include a turreted top panel for top-mounted radiators and an accompanying mesh shroud, a neat windowed side panel that's smoked at the bottom to conceal any PSU cable mess, and an extra triple-3.5" drive cage. All of the parts feel solid, and they're all of a piece with the rest of the MasterCase. Have a look:

The problem for MasterCase 5 buyers is that getting all of those parts separately, direct from Cooler Master, will quickly eclipse the cost of the MasterCase Pro 5 at retail. Here's a brief accounting of what each add-on part will cost:

  Price
Top-panel radiator mount with mesh cover $16.99
Side window kit $24.99
Three-drive 3.5" cage $14.99
Two-drive 3.5" cage $12.99
2.5" SSD sled $4.99

Given the prices of these extras, one gets way more than $30 of value from moving up to the MasterCase Pro 5. Anybody who thinks they'll make use of the extra storage space and top panel should just get the Pro 5 and be done with it. Though $140 is a lot to pay for a case these days, the Pro features and the heavy-duty construction of the basic MasterCase make that price a little easier to justify.

Now that we've seen what the MasterCase 5 has to offer, let's examine what it's like to build a system inside.