Computer cases have undergone quite a metamorphosis over the past decade or so. The dull, buttoned-down beige boxes of the 1990s are all but a distant memory, having slowly given way to smooth, futuristic lines, two-tone color schemes, and piano-black finishes. These days, even a $499 Dell looks almost good enough to prop up on a deskwithout making everyone in the room want to start filing TPS reports.
As pre-built PCs have grown more aesthetically pleasing, a whole industry has developed to cater to folks who’d rather build their own PCs. Firms like Thermaltake have become famous for making enclosures that both look cool and have the right internals for the DIY crowd. This enthusiast friendliness can mean drive rails, thumb screws, and not too many sharp edges. It can also mean clear windows, LEDs out the wazoo, and liquid-cooling support, if you happen to be one of the more hard-core hobbyists out there.
Where does Thermaltake’s Level 10 fit into all this? With a $700 price tag at Amazon, a weight of almost 50 lbs, and an aluminum frame co-designed by BMW Group DesignworksUSA, the Level 10 sounds like the big daddy of enthusiast enclosuresthe climax of a decade of evolution toward better aesthetic design and greater DIY-friendliness. It certainly looks the part, too.
Photos and brochures make the Level 10 look like something one might excavate out of a lunar crater in a sci-fi story. However, images alone don’t do justice to the sheer size of this monolith. The Level 10 Gaming Station, as Thermaltake calls it, measures an imposing 2.2 feet tall, a little over a foot in width, and two feet in depth (67 x 32 x 61 cm). If this enclosure’s unique design didn’t prohibit its placement under a desk, its size does. The thing is simply too tall.
When we first heard about the Level 10 in early 2009, we said it looked like a school lunch tray. That turned out to be an uncannily unflattering description for a product that went on to win awards from the Industrial Designers Society of America and Japan’s Industrial Design Promotion Organization. There’s some truth to the comparison, though. Much like a lunch tray that keeps the cole slaw cold and the curly fries hot, the Level 10 isolates ingredientsthe motherboard, power supply, and storage devicesin individual compartments, making heat dissipation more surgical and targeted. Sort of like bombing runs over a Taliban stronghold… where everyone is having curly fries for lunch. Or something.
Thermaltake says this compartmentalized design also makes sense for tinkerers, because components are all exposed and relatively easy to access. Compartment covers for the motherboard, PSU, and optical drive compartments swivel out on hinges, while the hard-drive containers can be swapped in and out when the system is running.
Provided you can still afford PC components after purchasing the Level 10, you’ll find space inside for six 3.5″ hard drives, three 5.25″ drives, one power supply, one ATX motherboard with up to eight expansion slots, one CPU cooler up to 6.3″ in height, and pretty much any graphics card on the market right now. Front-panel connectors include external Serial ATA, four USB 2.0, and audio in and out. Thermaltake also provides cooling in the form of one 140-mm fan at the front of the mobo compartment, one 120-mm fan at the back, and two 60-mm fans assigned to the removable 3.5″ bays. The official spec sheet says each of the four fans produces less than 20 dB of noise, which should be pretty close to inaudible. We’ll put those ratings to the test soon enough.
First, though, let’s have a closer look at the behemoth and try to build a working system with it.
Admiring the monolith
What’s striking about the Level 10 is how tasteful it manages to look despite the unique and downright strange design. That translucent red strip along the top and front edges lights up, for instance, but not in a way that screams “Check out my totally bitchin’ LAN party rig, bros!” And the dark, brushed aluminum looks stealthy in a cool way, like Samuel L. Jackson wearing a black trench coat.
Seriously, though. When was the last time you saw a case with glowing red lights that didn’t look like it belonged in a teenager’s bedroom?
The Level 10 looks just as sleek and imposing from the side, where you can see the individual compartments laid out a little bit like the inside of a sports car engine. We would expect no less from the BMW industrial designers who co-created the thing.
Peek around the other side, and you’ll find more brushed aluminum, this time laid out as a flat surface with two thumb screws and two locks. Thermaltake gives you a pair of keys in the box. You’ll need one of those keys to unlock the various compartments and access the components inside. The lock on the right controls the PSU and motherboard compartments, as well as the side panel on which it lies. The lock at the bottom left takes care of the optical drive compartment and the removable hard-drive bays.
Sliding in a key and rotating it a quarter turn produces a loud, metallic clunk, betraying the thickness and heft of the Level 10’s all-aluminum innards. With both locks open, the Level 10’s compartments swing open, beckoning expensive hardwareas much of it as they can hold:
We didn’t have a Core i7-980X Extreme and a pair of GeForce GTX 480s on hand just to fill the Level 10. We did, however, throw in some formerly high-end components to get a feel for working inside the caseand to test thermals and noise levels.
Getting our hands dirty
Turnings heads and dropping jaws are good qualities for any computer chassis. From a practical standpoint, though, a case really needs to let you build a system inside of it with as little grief as possible. That requirement holds especially true for high-end enthusiast enclosures, which one would assume see their innards swapped out on a regular basis. Let’s see how the Level 10 fares in that respect.
Thermaltake supplies all of the bits and pieces you need in a little black box emblazoned with the Level 10 logo. The box contains those two keys we talked about, in addition to screws and standoffs (all inside little plastic baggies), cable ties, a belt clip, a manual, and the world’s least glamorous system speaker, which is just a little plastic cylinder with a hole on top and a connector poking out of it.
The box also contains a soft cloth bearing the Level 10 logo. You might not be able to tell from our photos, but keeping the Level 10’s sleek brushed aluminum surfaces pristine takes a lot of work. Any contact with a finger, a fingernail, or even another part of the case will leave a mark. After working in this case for a while, you’ll have to wipe off dozens of bright scrapes and blemishes. Those gashes are all purely superficial and in no way permanent, but they’re certainly an annoying side-effect of the type of coating Thermaltake used.
Pop open the motherboard compartment, and this is what you’ll see. At this point, you’d normally want to lay the enclosure flat on its side to strap in the motherboard. Not so fast. The Level 10 makes that an exercise in futility, since its protruding base prohibits horizontal placement. (The weight doesn’t help, either.) Instead, you’re expected to detach the motherboard tray by undoing two pairs of thumb screws, then mount the mobo and expansion cards on your nearest desk or table.
The motherboard tray plays host to the Level 10’s low-speed 120- and 140-mm fans, both of which have pleasantly long, sheathed wires with three-pin connectors. Those connectors can plug directly into the motherboard, or they can connect to the power supply thanks to the three-to-four-pin adapters Thermaltake graciously provides. (Those adapters have black sheathing, too, in case you’re wondering.)
We should point out two details about the motherboard tray. First, it has two ample holes next to the motherboard area for cable routing, plus one gap behind the CPU socket, which should help with the installation of aftermarket coolers. Second, while Thermaltake’s documentation only talks of ATX motherboards, the tray has labeled screw holes for Extended ATX. Only problem is, installing an EATX mobo would apparently involve removing the intake fan and blocking access to the cable routing holes. I’m not sure how you’d get cables to the motherboard compartment in that configuration, but the result probably wouldn’t be befitting of the Level 10’s style.
Once the motherboard’s installed, you’ll want to put in the power supply. Doing so involves opening the PSU compartment, unscrewing the container cage, fastening the power supply to that, and putting everything back together. The detachable cage has plenty of room for even unusually long PSUs, although with non-modular designs, you’ll want to tuck unused cables away tightly so the compartment door can close. And that’s not always easy.
Then comes time to route all the cables, which is also a little trickier than it sounds. See the rogue cord snaking off to the right, far from the obvious routing holes? That’s the CPU’s 12V power cable, which was simply too short to direct any other way. Thankfully, a small gap exists in that area between the back panel and motherboard tray. (Cable extensions do exist, of course, and they’re cheap enough for someone who can afford a $700 case.)
Hooking up storage is more straightforward. The first two hard drive bays have connectors with soldered-in power and data cables, so you can hook up everything before actually mounting in your hard drive. Speaking of which…
Those six protuberances at the front of the case are removable hard-drive sleds, which slide out like so:
The sleds accommodate 3.5″ hard driveswith two screws on each side:
Thermaltake provides mounting holes at the bottom of the sleds for 2.5″ drives, too, so using a solid-state drive needn’t involve a secondary sled or duct tape. SSDs are becoming a fact of life in enthusiast rigs, and it’s nice to see chassis makers acknowledging the trend.
Since hard drives are individually enclosed in the Level 10, cooling doesn’t happen solely via the intake fan, like it does on most enclosures. Thermaltake has instead positioned 60-mm fans above the first two 3.5″ bays, providing some measure of active cooling.
Dedicated storage cooling might sound like a neat idea in theory, and one might be misled into thinking small fans would be quiet. The unfortunate reality is that small fans must rotate quicker to push the same volume of air as bigger ones with larger blades. We’ve encountered a great many 60-mm fans over the years, and even low-speed models like these can be incongruously loud compared to 80-, 92-, or 120-mm designs. Making matters potentially worse, the fan above the Level 10’s top hard-drive bay has no dust filter.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though; we’ll move on to noise testing in a minute. First, let’s add an optical drive to our Level 10.
Surprisingly, Thermaltake doesn’t provide rails to simplify optical drive installation. The process is by no means difficult, though. The optical drive cage you see above has inner lips that hold drives in place, so all you need to do is slide your drive in, line up the screw holes, and fasten it in place.
The most frustrating part? Getting that compartment cover back on. The cover only opens as far as in the image above, so getting a drive in the bay can’t be done without lifting the cover off its hinges. And getting that cover back on involves lining up its two hinge pins with two hinge barrels on the case. That chore wouldn’t be so difficult if the barrels weren’t recessed in deep grooves on the case surface, out of sight. Unless you get lucky, don’t be surprised if you spend several minutes fighting to get the hinges lined upall the while leaving bright scrapes around the grooves.
Incidentally, you’ll want a nice, long Serial ATA cable to route from the top optical drive bay to the motherboard. The one that came with our motherboard was almost too short.
And voila. In a nice touch of sophistication, the Level 10 conceals the top optical drive behind a swinging cover with a single gray button on it. You can adjust the cover’s button mechanism to line up with the optical drive’s eject button. If everything goes well, pressing the button causes the cover to swing down vertically while the tray pokes out of the shadows, sort of like those old blue-and-white PowerMacs.
Press the power button, and the Level 10 comes to life with the momentary startup roar of the graphics card and the hum of background cooling fans. The red LEDs should snap on, too, provided you’ve connected them to the power supply as instructed in the manual.
The back of the fully assembled Level 10 system is a little less glamorous. You can’t fault Thermaltake for not providing easy access to all the ports and connectors like a regular enclosure would, of course. It’s just a shame the power supply sits at the top. The Level 10 is clearly meant to be propped up on a desk or table somewhere, and the height of the case restricts the AC cord’s range.
Our testing methods
We’re dealing with a new test environment, a new set of components, and a slightly amended suite of testing tools compared to our last enclosure review, so unfortunately, we weren’t able to compare the Level 10 to other products. That said, probing noise levels and various temperatures still gives us very useful informationlike whether the Level 10 can cool high-end, power-hungry components quietly, and whether the compartmentalized design does any good.
You’ve already seen our test components on the preceding pages, but here’s an exhaustive list with all of the nitty-gritty details. We used Thermaltake’s own V1 cooler on our CPU.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition|
|Memory size||2GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Dominator DDR2-1142 at 800MHz|
|Audio||Realtek ALC889A with default Windows drivers|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 280 with GeForce 257.21 drivers|
|Hard drive||Western Digital RE3 1TB|
|Optical drive||Samsung SH-W163A DVD burner|
|Power supply||BFG Tech 800W Power Supply|
|OS||Windows 7 Home Premium x86|
These components are admittedly getting long in the tooth, but keep in mind that the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition has a 125W thermal envelope, and that Nvidia rates the GeForce GTX 280 for top power draw of 236W. Using current top-of-the-line parts wouldn’t change the picture very much, since we’d only be up to 130W for a Core i7-980X and 250W for a GeForce GTX 480. Also, since we’ll be looking at just thermals and noise levels, performance doesn’t matter one bit.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
Most of the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Let’s take a look at component temperatures inside a fully built Level 10 system. First, we booted up the machine and allowed temperatures to stabilize before taking readings using Speedfan and GPU-Z:
Then, we loaded up the Unigine Heaven benchmark and waited about 15 minutes for temperatures to stabilize again. (If you must know, we disabled stereoscopic 3D and tessellation, and we ran with “high” shaders, 16X anisotropic filtering, and 4X antialiasing in a 1920×1080 window. Frame rates got a little choppy, so we expect our GeForce GTX 280 more than broke a sweat.)
GPU core and board temps went up, not so surprisingly, but our reading for the motherboard only climbed by a couple of degrees. Also, despite being in a completely separate compartment, our hard drive got a teensy bit hotter. Perhaps that’s because it had to do some work loading up the Heaven demo.
We then stopped our GPU test, waited for temperatures to drop and stabilize again, then ran the Heaven benchmark and a Prime95 torture test simultaneously. Once temperatures peaked, we took the following readings:
Well, how about that? Temps were all-around lower here than during our GPU-only test. Fan speeds weren’t any higher, either. Strange. Our hard drive, meanwhile, stayed stoically at 38°C even after the rest of the system cooled down.
While we were running our temperature tests, we also probed noise levels using an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level Meter.
These numbers tell us that fan speeds stayed mostly constant even under load, but not much else.
Was our Level 10 system loud from a subjective point of view? A computer is only as loud as its components, of course. I tinkered around with the fans a fair bit, reducing speeds and, when I could, momentarily stopping the fans by pushing a finger down on their axes. The CPU, 140-mm, and 120-mm fans were barely audible, and the loudest component in our motherboard compartment was undoubtedly the GeForce GTX 280. But even that card didn’t make too much noise, all things considered, especially since its fan speed barely increased under load.
The 3.5″ storage compartments were another story. My suspicion was confirmed: those two 60-mm fans above the first two drive bays are loud. I tried disconnecting them, which made the system noticeably quieterso much so that the Extech decibel meter picked up no readings six inches from the top or front, and only 43 dB at six inches from the side. (The meter’s threshold is 40 dB.) Switching off the 60-mm fans did raise the temperature of our hard drive to 42°C, about a four-degree increase. Personally, though, I would take a slightly hotter hard drive over a louder PC any day of the week.
When the UPS man brought us the Level 10’s gigantic box on a little cart, we were expecting Thermaltake’s vision of the ultimate enthusiast case. Those 50 pounds of aluminum and that $700 price tag seemed like things only a die-hard enthusiast would be willing to swallow. The product we unpacked was something a little different.
Despite its removable motherboard tray and neat cable routing system, the Level 10 doesn’t seem to have been designed for user serviceability first and foremost. Our impression after getting well acquainted with the Level 10 is that the case favors form a little more than function. It’s an awesome and visually impressive piece of engineering, for sure, but not really one we’d want to house our own PCs. We like being able to lay a case flat on its side, swap optical drives without having to fiddle with an uncooperative compartment door for five minutes, and move our PCs around without hurting our backs.
I’m biased toward quiet components, as well, and the Level 10 disappoints from that angle. Those 60-mm fans in the drive bays simply ruin the Level 10’s noise profile, and even when they’re switched off, hard drive seek noises seem more audible than they should be. My ultimate enthusiast case would have some manner of noise-dampening panels, too. And more easily serviceable dust filters.
To be fair to Thermaltake, the Level 10 did a fine job of keeping our power-hungry components cool, and there’s nothing quite like it on the market right now. The closest alternative might be Corsair’s Obsidian 800D, but that product is all business and lacks the Level 10’s visual flair and originality.
In conclusion, we think the Level 10 probably isn’t for your typical hardcore enthusiast. Rather, a well-off gamer who wants a cool-looking system that won’t be upgraded too often might find this chassis interesting. Perhaps the Level 10 could also be the centerpiece of a fancy office or a computer shop that caters to hobbyists. Heck, some folks might even want a pre-built system built inside this thingprovided the shipping costs don’t dissuade them. If they’re buying into a $700 case, probably not.
More than anything, though, we think the Level 10 is a halo product designed to promote the Thermaltake brand. If it were a car, it would probably a Ferrari Enzo. For folks who want something more practical with a less exorbitant price tag, there are plenty of alternativesincluding many other Thermaltake cases.