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Fractal Design's Define Nano S case reviewed

Mini-ITX gets friendlier
— 3:24 PM on February 26, 2016

A couple years ago, we published an article lamenting the fact that the average PC these days is full of air. We bemoaned the wastefulness of ATX motherboards stuffed with more expansion slots than most will ever need and cases bristling with 5.25" bays and 3.5" drive sleds that mostly go unused. At the time, we argued that microATX motherboards and cases could serve as a fine default choice for most builders.

Mechanical hard drives and solid-state drives have gotten even denser since that time, to the point that one can get 500GB of solid-state storage on a PCB only a little larger than a stick of gum, or 6TB of space (or more) in the traditional 3.5" hard drive. It's not hard to find a nice Mini-ITX motherboard with essentials like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and high-quality audio baked in these days, either. Considering those developments, a Mini-ITX PC could make a lot of sense for PC builders making a fresh start.

One obstacle to wider adoption of Mini-ITX PCs might be the cases available for these systems, though. We've seen a Cambrian explosion of shapes and sizes for Mini-ITX cases over the past few years, from slim HTPCs to shoebox-style cases to cuboid mini-towers and even luggables. These cases often share some annoying downsides. Their cramped interiors, limited cable-routing space, and surprise clearance issues often require a seasoned builder's touch to work around. Thanks to those land mines, Mini-ITX PCs still carry a touch of the exotic about them.

Unlike other cases' wild experiments in form, Fractal Design's Define Nano S is unapologetically a tower. This case isn't about being as small as possible, nor does it suggest lunchbox-like portability or masquerade as shoe storage. Instead, the Nano S's unassuming shape suggests familiarity and approachability. It might not be as sporty-looking as Corsair's Graphite Series 380T or as diminuitive as Cooler Master's Elite 110, but the Nano S has a refreshing get-in-and-go character about it that's instantly appealing.

I'd forgive you if you thought I was re-using some pictures from my Define S review at first glance. The Nano S, as its name implies, is the result of Fractal's engineers firing up their tiny chainsaws and cutting the regular Define S down to Mini-ITX size. The company didn't just hang up the Stihls and leave it at that, though. The Nano S gets a couple of welcome shots of Define R5 DNA that are lacking in the regular-sized Define S, like swing-away side panels, an adjustable-position rear fan mount, and a noise-reducing front panel.

At the same time, some features of the Nano S are simplified compared to its larger brethren. The ModuVent top panel on this case trades the multi-section design of the Define S and Define R5 for a one-piece panel that leaves the whole top vent of the case exposed when it's removed. That's alright if a 240-mm radiator is on the parts list, but installing smaller radiators will leave room for dust to enter the case.

That issue is only possible because Fractal Design still hasn't stepped up and included a magnetic top dust filter with the Nano S (or any of its other Define cases). Phanteks' just-released (and similarly-priced) Eclipse P400S case includes removable top-panel covers and individual magnetic dust filters to take their place, so Fractal's continuing omission of this feature stings more and more as time goes on.

The Nano S' front-panel I/O is identical to the Define S's. We get headphone and microphone jacks, a large power button flanked by a smaller reset button, and two USB 3.0 ports.

Pulling off the insulated front panel reveals even more subtle changes from the Define S. The magnetic front dust filter features the same downward-angled vanes as the Define R5's removable filter. Behind that dust screen is a single Fractal Design Dynamic GP-14 140-mm fan. More ambitious builders can remove the 140-mm fan and install a 240-mm or 280-mm radiator behind the front panel, while those sticking to air cooling can use up to two 120-mm or 140-mm fans in total. Tower-style coolers as tall as 6.3" (160 mm) can fit inside the Nano S, too.

Flipping the case over gives us a better view of that full-length dust filter, as well as the Nano S's four rubber feet. Unlike the thick rubber donuts of the Define R5 and Define S, though, the Nano S rests on some thin rubber pads that might not be as good at dampening vibrations from the system inside. We'll have to see whether that change makes a difference in our testing.

Around back, we get a look at the Nano S' adjustable rear fan mount with its included Dynamic GP-12 120-mm fan, twin expansion slots, and full-size ATX power supply mount. Clean and simple.

Here are the Define Nano S' key specifications in tabular form:

  Fractal Design Define Nano S
Dimensions (W x H x D) 8" x 13" x 15.7"  (203 x 330 x 400 mm)
Supported motherboards Mini-ITX
3.5" drive mounts 2
2.5" drive mounts 4 (2 dedicated, 2 3.5"/2.5" combo)
5.25" drive bays None
Fan mounts 2 120-mm or 140-mm front fans
2 120-mm or 140-mm top fans
1 120-mm bottom fan
Included Fans 1x Fractal Design Dynamic GP14 140-mm front intake
1x Fractal Design Dynamic GP12 120-mm rear exhaust
Front panel I/O 2x USB 3.0
Max. graphics card length 12.4" (315 mm)
Max. CPU cooler height 6.3" (160 mm)
Gap behind motherboard 0.5"-1.5"

At $64.99 for the non-windowed version and $69.99 for the windowed version we're reviewing today, the Define Nano S is quite reasonably priced for a Mini-ITX tower. Let's open it up and see how Fractal Design put the Nano S's larger-than-average dimensions to use.