Chances are you haven’t heard the name BitFenix before. That’s actually quite likely, since the Taiwanese start-up came into existence in April and only announced its first enclosure, the Colossus, in August. The company’s second computer case was made official in late September, and it’s what we’ll be looking at today.
How have we come to know such a fresh face in the enthusiast hardware industry? Well, it turns out that the BitFenix team includes some of the folks we used to know from Abit. This is where I’d insert a pun about a phoenix rising from the ashes of the defunct motherboard maker—you know, if I wanted to be cheesy.
The point is, these folks aren’t new to the industry, so they ought to know what makes a good PC enclosure. We actually caught a sneak peek at the Survivor at Computex this summer, and we came away with a positive impression, thanks in part to the case’s unique rubberized finish. It’s a little hard to describe, but the top and front bezel feel very smooth and warm to the touch, like a nice suede jacket or the leather seats in a luxury sedan.
The Survivor should start hitting e-tail listings later this month, but we got a chance to review a pre-production sample ahead of the retail release. The final product should look very much the same, although as you’ll see, the sample had a few rough edges that BitFenix chalks up to its pre-production status.
Is BitFenix’s second foray into the world of computer cases a success, and should it be on your Christmas shopping list? Read on to find out.
Unless you’re one of those folks enamored with case windows and garish fluorescent lights, it’s hard to deny that the Survivor looks slick and tasteful. The black, rubber-coated front and top surfaces look as smooth and soft as they feel, and all of the ugly bits and pieces—buttons and connectors, namely—are safely tucked away under a retractable trap door at the top. Meanwhile, the curves at the front and back provide a little bit of unique visual flair. Hey, not all cases have to be rectangular.
This isn’t a very large enclosure, by the way. It measures about 9″ x 20″ x 20″, making the Survivor quite a bit more compact than some of the behemoths we’ve reviewed in the past, like Corsair’s Obsidian Series 800D and Thermaltake’s Level 10. Still, there should be plenty of room for components inside: BitFenix has provided space for seven hard drives, three external 5.25″ drives (plus one internal 5.25″, for some reason), and full-sized ATX motherboards and power supplies. All of the gear that finds its way inside will be kept cool by a pair of built-in 200-mm fans, one at the front and one at the top.
Considering BitFenix also provides a generous helping of external connectivity, including two USB 3.0 ports and external Serial ATA, as well as its S2 cable locking device, the case’s $109 price tag looks pretty tame. BitFenix has also announced a lower-spec derivative, the Survivor Core, which will cost only $89 and drop the USB 3.0 ports, LED fans, and S2 contraption. That doesn’t sound like a bad deal, either.
Around back, the case sports a couple of ports for liquid cooling and clear signs of a bottom-mounted power supply, both good things to have on any enclosure. No rear fan comes installed by default, although as you can see above, there are mounting holes for 120-mm and 80-mm units. The pre-installed 200-mm fans at the front and top should do a fine job of dissipating heat on their own, though.
That all sounds pretty good on paper. Does the Survivor prove as enticing once you crack it open?
Curves and panels
The process of cracking open the Survivor is more involved than you might think. BitFenix keeps the side panels steady with thumbscrews, yet removing those thumbscrews alone doesn’t actually do anything. To free even one of the side panels, you’ll need to fetch a screwdriver and remove the two rounded plastic pieces at the top…
Each piece is held in place by two Philips screws recessed deep in those oval-shaped holes you see in the photos above. That’s a far cry from the completely tool-less handle mechanism we saw on the Corsair Graphite Series 600T. To BitFenix’s credit, the Survivor is quite a bit cheaper. Still, forcing the user to unscrew plastic guards strikes me as an unfortunate example of form over function, and I’m left wondering why BitFenix couldn’t have just used thumbscrews to keep those things in place.
When I spoke to the BitFenix folks about the issue, I was told that the firm experimented with making the curved plastic parts entirely screw-less. However, that design was apparently too flimsy, leading the pieces to “sort of wobble around and sometimes fall off when moving the case around.” I suppose folks who need to rummage around inside their PCs most of the time can just keep the pieces in the box—they don’t really serve a purpose other than looking pretty.
With that left side panel off, we finally get a peek inside the Survivor. That’s an enthusiast-friendly layout if I’ve ever seen one: side-mounted 3.5″ drive bays, bottom-mounted PSU area with a removable dust filter, hole in the motherboard tray for easy installation of bolt-through heatsinks, and cable routing holes aplenty.
To leave room for extra-long graphics cards, BitFenix makes one of the two 3.5″ hard drive cages removable. And as you might have guessed from the image, the trays have the same tool-less, snap-on design we saw on the Corsair 600T. Just pull out the tray, position your hard drive inside, and bend the sides until the little metal nubs snap into the drive’s screw holes. The trays support 2.5″ solid-state drives, too, but you’ll have to fasten those into place with screws.
Removing the other panel reveals the Survivor’s less exciting right side, which is used mainly for cable routing, providing access to the motherboard back plate, and accessing screw holes on the other side of an optical drive. (The 5.25″ drive mounting mechanism involves thumbscrews.) One thing to note here is that the included cables make up a pretty thick bundle, so they don’t leave a whole lot of room for any power and data cables you might want to have snaking through the routing holes. We’ll see what effect that has on a full system build in a moment, but right now, we have more exploring to do.
Getting a handle on things
The top part of the BitFenix Survivor is arguably more interesting than the front, because it plays host to not just the front I/O and buttons (neatly tucked away under a sliding cover), but also the handle. Yes, the Survivor has a slide-out handle designed to make the case easier to carry around—to, say, a LAN party.
Getting the handle out is surprisingly simple: just push on the surface between the two air vents at the top until you hear a click and the front part of the handle pops out. Unfold it, and you’re ready to go.
The handle has a small enough footprint that BitFenix can still squeeze a big 200-mm fan at the top of the case. Sure, the vent could be bigger if the handle weren’t present, but between a handle with a fan and no handle at all, I’d pick the handle with the fan any day of the week. Carrying computer cases tends to be a royal pain.
Another 200-mm fan emblazoned with the BitFenix logo sits at the front, safely tucked away under the bezel. Sharp-eyed readers might notice LEDs around both fans. Indeed, they glow red, as does the BitFenix logo at the top of the case. In a rather nice touch, however, one of the buttons at the top (next to the USB ports) lets users toggle all of those LEDs on and off. You can think of it as a stealth button, which should be rather helpful if you ever need to sleep next to your PC—you know, without having nightmares about Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer dragging you into Mordor.
Another nice touch: the S2 cable locking system, which serves to prevent theft of expensive gaming peripherals at LAN parties or in college dorm rooms. BitFenix provides more details on its website, but in a nutshell, the S2 contraption opens to receive up to four cables and can be fastened to the case’s side-panel with an ordinary padlock. You’ll have to supply the lock yourself, though.
Considering the relatively hard-to-remove side panels, I think a system assembled inside the Survivor ought to deter many petty thieves or pranksters from taking off with components or peripherals. The carrying handle would make such a build easy to lug to a LAN party or back and forth from your dorm, too. I’m starting to get a feel for whom BitFenix might have had in mind when designing this thing.
Fit and finish
I noted at the beginning of this review that we received a pre-production sample that was still rough around the edges. While we hope BitFenix gets these issues sorted out by the time the case hits stores, we’d be doing a disservice to our readers if we didn’t point out some of the problems we encountered.
Let’s start at the front. One of the screw threads for the front dust filter was broken, and it looks like someone at the factory attempted to hold it in place with hot glue. The glue didn’t work, and I couldn’t get the filter anchored. As a result, it rubbed against the front fan throughout our testing.
Further disappointment lurked behind the case’s front bezel. One of the wires attached to the power button had come loose, making the system impossible to boot up without assistance from a paperclip.
A 5.25″-to-3.5″ adapter was placed in the top bay, too, but it wouldn’t slide forward even with its screws unfastened. The only way to remove the bay was to slide it back into the case, which proved impossible with a motherboard and power cables in the way. The optical drive had to go in the middle bay. (Note that I’m talking about external bays here; BitFenix provides an internal 5.25″ bay at the very top.)
The motherboard stand-offs were also uncooperative, with some simply refusing to make their way into the motherboard tray without assistance from a wrench. When I pulled the motherboard out after completing testing, I noticed that one of the standoffs had become stuck to its sister screw and dangled off the motherboard, refusing to let go. Again, a wrench was required—or would have been, if I hadn’t put it back in my toolbox. A set of pliers I had lying around did the trick.
For some reason, lighting up the Survivor’s LEDs with the toggle switch involves first plugging three connectors into an unlabeled set of pins behind the motherboard tray. You won’t figure that one out until you dig up the manual. Why couldn’t all of this have come pre-wired? I don’t know, but the fact that there’s a manual page for this step in the setup process suggests it transcends poor pre-production quality control.
Finally, the pièce de résistance: the side panels are incredibly frustrating to put back into place once removed. I can’t illustrate this particular flaw with a picture, but I can describe it: imagine the ghost of PC enclosures past is doing everything it can to keep you from sliding that panel into place, every single time. Not only do you need to line the thing up perfectly on the vertical axis, but it also needs to be inserted at the right level horizontally to avoid riding over those rounded rubber corners at the front. In my experience, even with everything lined up properly, the panels would occasionally bend and leave some of the top or bottom hooks protruding above their matching grooves, forcing me to start all over again. That’s not a lot of fun, and it didn’t get any easier with practice.
Nagging little problems aside, I managed to mount our case warmer guts inside the Survivor, booting the system up using my trusty paperclip. The end result looked a little bit messier than what we’re used to seeing from pricier, more sophisticated cases, although there was still plenty of airflow to go around.
I was able to route the hard-drive power and data cables, as well as the motherboard’s 24-pin power connector, behind the motherboard tray so as not to impede airflow. The CPU and graphics power connectors had to be routed the old-fashioned way, and the back of the mobo tray didn’t have enough room to accommodate the rest of the power cables dangling from our PSU, so those had to be bunched together next to the bottom hard-drive cage.
Incidentally, I was surprised to find out how tight a fit our GeForce GTX 280 is in this enclosure. There was just enough room for it to slide vertically into the top PCIe x16 slot, but there wasn’t a whole lot of clearance left between it and the top hard-drive cage. As we saw a couple of pages back, though, that top cage can be removed to allow room for longer graphics cards. (For reference, the GTX 280 is about 10.5″ long.)
Here’s a shot of the other side of the enclosure. That’s not very messy, at least compared to what we pulled off with Corsair’s 600T, but the right panel was a tight fit nevertheless. I don’t think additional cables or connectors would fit easily.
On the upside, the Survivor does a good job of providing access to the underside of the CPU socket. Installing a new bolt-through heatsink shouldn’t be too much trouble—nor should it require the removal of the motherboard from the chassis. That really ought to be a standard feature in enthusiast enclosures these days.
Our testing methods
On the next page, you’ll see temperature and noise levels for both the BitFenix Survivor and Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T—the last case we tested with this case-warmer build in the same environment. Now, I should point out that ambient temperatures were 1-2°C lower when we tested the Survivor. That shouldn’t have a profound effect on load temperatures or noise levels, but it’s worth pointing out. Also, we used an older optical drive with an IDE ribbon cable this time around. (The ribbon cable was tucked well out of the path of airflow.)
You’ve already seen our test components, but here’s an exhaustive list with all of the nitty-gritty details. We used Thermaltake’s 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|
|Memory timings||5-5-5-18 2T|
|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||Lite-On LTD-163D DVD reader|
|Power supply||BFG Tech 800W Power Supply|
|OS||Windows 7 Home Premium x86|
These parts 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 components wouldn’t change the picture very much, since we’d only be up to 130W for a Core i7-980X and 244W for a GeForce GTX 580. 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 individual component temperatures inside a fully built Survivor rig. For our first test, 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 a few minutes for temperatures to stabilize again. We looped that benchmark with stereoscopic 3D and tessellation disabled, “high” shaders, 16X anisotropic filtering, and 4X antialiasing in a 1920×1080 window. Frame rates were a little choppy, so we expect our GeForce GTX 280 broke a sweat.
After our GPU load, we waited for temperatures to drop, then looped the Heaven benchmark and a Prime95 torture test simultaneously. Once temperatures peaked, we took the following readings:
Those numbers aren’t bad at all. For the most part, the Survivor appears competitive with the 600T when the Corsair case’s built-in fan controller is at its lowest setting. But is the Survivor as quiet?
To find out, we probed noise levels using an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level Meter while we were running our temperature tests.
(The missing readings simply mean detected noise was below our meter’s threshold of 40 dB.)
I think the answer to the question above is a pretty clear “yes.” The Survivor was actually quieter from the side under load, and noise levels from the front were competitive even with the dust filter rubbing up against the fan. Playing it by ear, the case produced a discreet hum that was easy to filter out. I’d say the Survivor’s 200-mm fans and lack of excessive venting both help there, cooling internal components quietly and effectively but largely muffling the noise they make. Props to BitFenix for some solid design on that front.
After all that poking and prodding inside the Survivor, I’m left with a bit of a mixed impression. On the one hand, BitFenix has succeeded in cramming in an impressive number of nice little features and additions, including the dual USB 3.0 ports, the S2 cable-locking scheme, the easy-to-use hard-drive trays, and the “stealth” button that disables LEDs. This case looks good, too, and I’m very much partial to that rubber coating on the front and top bezels. BitFenix has many of the right ingredients here, for sure.
On the other hand, our pre-production Survivor sample didn’t exhibit the level of polish and ease of use we’d like to see from an enthusiast case.
There were unfortunate design choices, like those rounded plastic bits that make removing the side panels needlessly difficult. Because of the size of the panels and the rounded bits at the front, putting the panels back on after you’re done is an even greater ordeal. This case was clearly designed with the idea of routing cables behind the motherboard tray. Yet the routing holes are rather small, and there isn’t quite enough room behind the tray to tuck away unneeded power connectors. I still don’t understand why users are supposed to go in and connect LEDs manually to unlabeled pins, either—can’t all that stuff be hard-wired?
We also ran into a number of finish issues attributable to our sample’s pre-production status: the uncooperative standoffs, the hot-glued front filter, and the inoperable power button.
If BitFenix can get the finish problems ironed out, the Survivor could be a solid, affordable choice for folks who don’t dig around their PCs a whole lot but still want enthusiast-friendly features present once they pry off those side panels. As I noted earlier, there’s also something to be said for the way the Survivor (with its bundled S2 device) can prevent petty thieves from running off with your graphics card or clicky gaming keyboard.
However, I wouldn’t recommend the Survivor to die-hard enthusiasts unless BitFenix comes up with a second revision that’s easier to open and close. Easy-to-remove side panels are a key requirement for such users, and the Survivor model we tested simply failed to deliver in that respect. The limited cable-routing functionality also makes things awkward if you have a high-wattage PSU with lots of connectors, as we did.
One thing’s for sure: BitFenix is a player to watch. If this Taiwanese start-up can crank out more products that are as tasteful-looking and feature-packed as this one, but with greater polish and overall ease of use, those could be candidates for recommendation in the TR System Guide.
Update – 2/8: We’ve taken a second look at the Survivor, this time with a production-ready sample that doesn’t exhibit many of the problems discovered in the pre-release case. Check our Survivor review update for our new conclusion.