There’s a reason some brands make their way to the top. With arguably the best understanding of understated industrial design, Lian Li has built its name on solid aluminum enclosures machined to near-perfectionno matter the cost. Sure, this puts off the bargain hunters among us, but by holding its products to the highest quality standards, Lian Li has cultivated an image that ensures it will remain among the favorites for enthusiasts’ wish lists.
Recently, Lian Li hasn’t had quite the coverage it did years ago with blockbuster products like the PC-1000 or even the iconic PC-60. But the company has kept busy with some more novel designs, the latest of which has spawned a new series of cases known as the TYR line. Like any good high-end exotic, these TYR-series enclosures aim to push the boundaries for what can be expected from a PC case. The roughly $350 PC-X500 we’re reviewing today is the most interesting model in the TYR line, a “super mid-tower” that holds up to five hard drives and has two 5.25″ bays. Lian Li also offers an even taller, more accommodating, and significantly more expensive (try nearly $800) PC-X2000 that has room for six SATA hot-swap drives, but we figured that might be a little much.
The PC-X500Tall and slender
The TYR series initially caught our attention for its side-mounted drives and monolithic front panel. I’ve seen a lot of cases over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as strong of a ‘how does that work?’ moment as when I first saw the X500. Weighing in at just under 10 kilograms, or about 23 pounds, the X500 variant measures 9″ wide, a shallow 14″ deep, and an intimidating 23″ tall.
There isn’t much to explain at the front of the X500. Outside air is drawn behind the front panel from both sides, and apart from Lian Li’s name at the bottom, only a single chrome strip running right up the center breaks up an expanse of anodized black aluminum.
If you were expecting anything different on the left side, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead of putting drive bays up front, Lian Li gives you the option of mounting them facing left or right. This arrangement allows folks to run their case on either side for easy access, but if you prefer your tower tucked away in a nook where neither side is accessibleI know I did for a whilegetting at the X500’s external drive bays will be problematic. We’ll see in a moment whether the X500’s novel approach to drive bay placement may be worth relocating your case.
Stealthy is a good way to describe the overall look of the X500, and even the port cluster follows this mantra. A small metal dust cover flap conceals the four USB, single Firewire and eSATA, and dual audio jacks when they’re not in use. The power and reset buttons are finished in black, too. This arrangement creates a nice aesthetic, but I’m disappointed to see the USB ports in tightly-packed pairsplug in an average USB thumb drive, and you’ll probably block the adjacent USB port.
Lian Li must intend the X500 to be placed on the ground, considering the port and button placement and height of the case, and that makes some sense given the obvious goal of a uniform front panel. The panel isn’t completely absent of activity, though; power and HDD activity LEDs are tucked away in the upper-right corner. The former is of the absurdly bright blue variety while the latter is a more tolerable amber.
It goes without saying (and yet I’m going to say it anyway) that the aluminum’s finish is of the highest quality. Perhaps too many people complained about abrasions from the scalloped edges Lian Li has had on a number of its recent cases, because the edges of the X500 are decidedly smooth and rolled just enough to be comfortable to hold.
Removing the front bezel is as easy as giving it a slight tug from either side. Taking it off is only necessary when securing one of the external drives or when you need to access the intake filters or fan speed switch.
This little gem is probably my favorite part of the X500, simply because it’s been executed so well. Instead of having to mess with an auxiliary fan controller for the case fans, this single selection switch controls up to four fans at once, giving them enough voltage for 1,500, 1,200, or 1,020 revolutions per minute. It’s a shame the switch is so well hidden, because users might want to toggle between fan speed settings when firing up a game or starting a movie. I would prefer to see the switch located at the top of the case with the rest of the controls, but since the front panel is easy to remove, the switch is still usable.
Rotating its 5.25″ drive bays 90 degrees from normal necessitates a wider stance for the X500, but this layout makes it easier for Lian Li to fit a 120 mm exhaust fan by the motherboard port cluster. An additional 120 mm exhaust fan is centered near the top of the chassis, and you also get four water-cooling tube cut-outs at the rear.
A heat-smart interior
Like most of its siblings, the X500’s side panels are held in place by a latch anchored with a thumbscrew. This nice little arrangement ensures you won’t lose the screw.
Although it theoretically impedes heat dissipation, Lian Li lines the X500’s case panels with acoustic absorption foam to help reduce system noise levels.
This image nicely illustrates Lian Li’s internal approach with the X500. All of the drive bays are located at the top of the case in a separate partition that also includes the power supply. Only the motherboard and expansion cards remain in the area below, with the twin 120 mm intake fans and single 120 mm exhaust creating a net positive pressure as long as the PSU fan moves less air than the lower case fan exhausts.
Pressure drives airflow to the upper reaches of the case, right past the hard drives, where it’s helped along by the negative pressure created by the single 120 mm exhaust fan in this top thermal zone. Overall, the arrangement makes a lot of sense. Most power supply units ramp up their fan speeds under load, directing more airflow through the lower portion of the casethe only zone containing components likely to require additional cooling.
A single opening in the motherboard tray to allow cables to pass from the upper area of the case to the lower reaches of the motherboard. Up top, things look mostly the same, where the hard drive cages can be secured from either side.
Assembling a PC in the X500 is a little different from a normal build simply because cables must be carefully routed based on your drive facing preference. There are multiple routes available for standard cables like the motherboard’s main ATX connector, providing plenty of flexibility for those looking for a clean build. With the power supply in a central location, you can get by with shorter PSU cables, too.
I started our system assembly with the hard drive cages, which were certainly easy enough to work with. Enough specialized thumbscrews are provided to install four internal 3.5″ drives (plus a fifth in the floppy bay if you want). The thumbscrews slide through thick, rubber grommets, ensuring a measure of vibration (and, by extension, acoustic) isolation for each hard drive. The extra-large venting holes that pepper the cages should also help keep drives cool.
Our test system’s motherboard was easy to mount, and once it was in place, we slipped in the PSU. Lian Li provides a simple, four-hole mounting bracket that attaches to the case and PSU separately, allowing you to orient it facing up or down. This flexibility ensures the PSU’s active intake draws air from the desired zone.
A modular power supply is a must-have for the X500, since there really isn’t any extra space to stuff unused cables unless you’re willing to part with the lower hard drive cage. It would also be very difficult to fit any power supply longer than 6.5 inches into the X500 without sacrificing the same cage. Prospective X500 buyers will have to choose their PSUs wisely.
When installing an optical drive, one only needs to secure four custom screws into the drive so that it can slide into place along grooves in the bay. To anchor drives at the right depth, a standard screw is inserted through slots in the front panel and into the drive.
Housing drives at the top of the case puts them about as far as possible from most motherboard storage ports. Lian Li includes an extra-long SATA cable with the case, and I needed it to reach the hard drive in our test system. There’s only one of these lengthy cables included, though, so you’ll need to procure extras if you want to run multiple drives. Getting a ribbon cable all the way up to the optical drive proved challenging, but not impossible. However, if you intend to run a second IDE optical drive as a slave, you’ll need a ribbon cable with both end connectors very close together. The need for longer cables made me wish the X500 came with more innovative routing features, such as those we saw with Thermaltake’s Spedo. Lian Li does include velcro straps, which still helped a lot.
The only serious problem with X500’s slender figure appeared when I was putting in our test system’s GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card. There was enough clearance for the auxiliary power connector that plugs into the back of the nine-inch-long card, but cabling was dangerously close to the bottom intake fan, which is thankfully equipped with a grill. If you’re running a graphics card longer than 10 inches, especially one with power leads connected to the right edge of the card as in the picture above, you may be forced to remove the lower 120 mm intake fan.
Acoustics and cooling performance
Our test system is built around an AMD 790FX-powered Asus M3A32 MVP Deluxe motherboard with a Phenom X4 9350e processor running at 2GHz. Rather than using AMD’s stock processor cooler, we’ve opted for a popular tower heatsink from Kingwinthe Revolution RVT 9225 HDT, which has a 92 mm fan rated for 28 dBa @ 2,800 RPM. XFX’s GeForce 8800 GTS 512 graphics takes care of pixel-pushing, and we’ve thrown a couple of 1GB sticks of Corsair CM2X1024 DDR2 memory alongside a single hard drive and a DVD burner.
In working with the Asus board’s BIOS, I found that its ‘Optimal’ processor fan speed setting worked well with the Kingwin cooler. With the X500, we also have the luxury of selecting different voltages for all four case fans. We’ve tested the case with its low, medium, and high fan speed settings to see how they compare.
To give the X500 some competition, we’ve included results from our reviews of Gigabyte’s 3D Mars and Thermaltake’s Spedo enclosures. For the Spedo, which has multiple fan and cooling zone configurations, we included results with the case’s top two thermal dividers removed and its side fan disconnectedthe quietest configuration for this case, and our favorite.
Even at its medium fan speed setting, the X500 gives the very quiet 3D Mars a run for its money. Once set to low, the X500 is just barely audible, easily the quietest of the lot. Heck, even with its fans running at full blast, the Lian Li isn’t loud enough to be bothersome for most people. In fact, it’s neck and neck with the Spedo, whose noise levels are hardly unacceptable.
Low noise levels aren’t particularly meaningful if system components are running too hot, so we let the test system idle for a while and probed temperatures with a combination of SpeedFan, GPU-Z, AMD’s Overdrive Utility, and the motherboard’s own PC Probe software.
The Lian Li’s component temperatures look good at idleI can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with results like this from a nearly silent system. Even with an extra fan on the Spedo dedicated to keeping the back of the CPU area cool, the X500’s motherboard temperature is two degrees cooler at its lowest fan speed setting. The Thermaltake’s extra airflow does yield slightly lower CPU temperatures, though.
Next, we start to turn up the heat with a graphics stress test fueled by the rthdribl HDR lighting demo.
This looks like another victory for the X500, whose graphics card temperatures are lower than those of the Spedo and 3D Mars, even with the lowest fan speed setting. Again, while the Spedo manages lower CPU temperatures, the Lian Li still keeps the processor at acceptable levels.
Last, but not least, we fired up a combined CPU and GPU load, adding a multi-core Prime95 stress test to our rthdribl graphics card workout.
I’d call this a clean sweep for anyone who appreciates a quiet machine. Sure, the 11-degree gap in processor core temperatures between the X500 and Spedo is wide, but it shrinks to just six degrees if you turn up the Lian Li’s fan speed to match the Thermaltake’s noise levels. 42° Celsius is still a healthy temperature for a modern quad-core processor operating at full utilization. Meanwhile, the X500 boasts lower graphics card and motherboard temperatures than the Spedo and 3D Mars even when its fans are running at the lowest speed.
The X500 oozes quality craftsmanship and offers both low noise levels and exceptional cooling performance. Were it not for the side-mounted drive bays, Lian Li would have a case that everyone could at least lust after. However, due to its unique drive bay configuration, the X500 will probably only appeal to people who like their cases on the ground with unencumbered access to the side panel. You’ll want some room between you and the case, too, since it’s easy to bump the optical drive eject button with the brush of your leg.
In the spirit of trying something new, I put the X500 behind my 20″ Dell monitor, just to see if that might work out. In spite of how sweet this setup looks in person, it isn’t terribly convenient to have to reach up to get to the port cluster, optical drive, and power button. So much for that idea.
If you’re a fan of putting your computer on the floor and dig the X500’s all-aluminum monolithic styling, I can’t think of many nicer cases to house a system. There are plenty of cheaper ones, though, because the X500 carries a hefty $350 price tag. At least you get what you pay for, not only in terms of fit, finish, and overall performance, but also that unmistakable Lian Li mystique. Bargain hunters should obviously look elsewhere. However, for those who crave quirky exotics, the X500 is a solid and striking enclosure.