|Model||Level 10 GT|
If you care the slightest bit about computer cases, odds are you’re aware of Thermaltake’s Level 10. Co-designed with BMW Group DesignworksUSA and shaped like a cross between the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and some sort of sci-fi skyscraper, the Level 10 dazes and amazes. No other computer enclosure looks quite like it.
The problem with the Level 10, as we noted in our review, is that it doesn’t seem to be designed for PC enthusiasts from this planet. The empty case alone is over 2 ft tall, weighs in at nearly 50 lbs, and costs between $700 and $850 depending on where you order. Even if you can handle the stupendous cost, weight, and size, the enclosure seems to place greater emphasis on form than function. While a system built inside the Level 10 will draw oohs and aahs from your friends and neighbors, the process of building and upgrading isn’t as smooth as you’d expect considering the price tag.
Last summer, we concluded that the Level 10 was more showpiece than ultimate enthusiast case. We went so far as to say that folks seeking a genuinely practical top-of-the-line enclosure might be better off with something like Corsair’s Obsidian Series 800D—a sort of monolith in its own respect, but a less extravagant one centered more on function than form.
Today, the Level 10 is still among us, but Thermaltake is also offering a new, rather different version of it dubbed the Level 10 GT. This newcomer apes the Level 10’s looks yet does away with much of what makes the original unique: the fully compartmentalized design, the remarkable price and weight, and the absolutely massive size. The GT may look like a baby Level 10, but it’s largely not; the innards have obviously been reconfigured with more practical operation in mind, and the price has been adjusted to a reasonable level.
At a glance, the Level 10 GT looks like a different animal, too. You can still see traces of the original Level 10 design, but they’ve been subdued, smoothed out, and swallowed up into something a little more rectangular and conventional. Thermaltake has retained the hot-swappable 3.5″ hard-drive bays but has de-compartmentalized them and reduced their number from six to five. The number of 5.25″ bays has grown from three to four, and an external 2.5″ bay has materialized.
At the same time, the front and top sides of the enclosure play host to more connectivity: dual USB 3.0, quad USB 2.0, external Serial ATA, and audio ports. The cooling system has been reconfigured to include three 200-mm fans (at the front, top, and side) and a 140-mm rear exhaust fan—quite an upgrade from the Level 10, whose largest fan measures 140 mm across, and whose hard drives are cooled by a tandem of rather whiny 60-mm fans. The somewhat loud and pedestrian cooling provided by these fans was one of the reasons the Level 10 disappointed us. The Level 10 GT addresses that shortcoming with not just more and larger fans, but also an integrated fan controller that lets you switch between slow and fast rotational speeds at the touch of a button.
The Level 10 GT builds up from the Level 10 in other ways, adding a rectangular window over the CPU area, holes for liquid-cooling pipes at the rear, easily serviceable dust filters, a removable headphone stand, and a cable-locking scheme.
Despite all of these enhancements, Thermaltake says the Level 10 GT tips the scales at about 28 lbs and measures 23″ x 11.1″ x 23.2″. Newegg currently charges $269.99 for the case, putting it in the same neighborhood as high-end offerings from Corsair, Lian Li, and Silverstone—you know, enclosures that enthusiasts actually buy.
On paper, the Level 10 GT looks to have the bells and whistles to compete with the best products in its price range, all the while retaining some of the peacocking abilities of the Level 10. The question is, can the Level 10 GT marry showiness and ease of use?
An open-door policy
The Level 10 GT is unique in many respects, but one of its most striking attributes is no doubt the door that conceals access to the motherboard and power-supply areas.
Getting that door to swing on its hinge is a two-step process. First, one must unlock the side panel with one of the two keys Thermaltake drops in the box. Next, pull up the release latch on the bottom-right edge of the door, which is conveniently marked with an eject icon. (In case you’re wondering, the other lock you see in the picture above—the one located on the front of the case—secures the hard-drive bays.)
Open sesame. Among other things, cracking open the door gives us a glimpse at three of the Level 10 GT’s cooling fans. The top and rear ones are located where you’d expect, while the side intake fan is in a rather odd position, with slats like Venetian window blinds covering it. The orientation of those blinds is controlled by a lever on the outside of the case.
Take a closer look at the picture above, and you’ll notice that the side fan is plugged directly into the panel. A special connector links the fan to the rest of the system via a few pins that make contact when the door is closed. Three of the Level 10 GT’s built-in fans (all except for the rear exhaust) are discreetly connected to the main fan controller and receive power via a single, four-pin Molex plug that also delivers power to the many LEDs that adorn the case. The exhaust fan has a 3-pin connector designed to plug directly into your motherboard.
If you’re so inclined, you can even remove the door by lifting it off its hinges—and there’s nothing to unplug before you do. Putting it back together is surprisingly quick, as well.
Peeking deeper inside, we see a motherboard tray with a generous cut-out under the CPU area. That cut-out lets you fasten and unfasten aftermarket heatsinks that bolt through the motherboard without having to take the whole system apart. You’ll also have access to numerous cable-routing holes, several of which are cozily padded with rubber grommets.
Lifting the Level 10 GT’s right panel reveals the rather tidy out-of-the-box cable arrangement, not to mention the somewhat unusual way the hot-swap bays are connected. Thermaltake takes care of distributing power, asking you to plug in only a single Serial ATA power connector for the entire array of drive bays. Data cables must be connected to the bays individually, and you’ll need to route the associated cabling to the motherboard. Once everything is hooked up, you can slide drives in and out of the hot-swap bays while the system is still running… assuming you’ve set your storage controller to AHCI or RAID mode and aren’t trying to unplug your system drive, that is.
We’ll talk more about storage installation in a minute. For now, let’s take a closer look at some more of the Level 10 GT’s peculiarities.
A closer look
Thermaltake positions most of the important ports and buttons along the right edge of the system, saving a few ports for the top panel.
The edge plays host to the power and reset buttons, the hard-drive activity LED, four USB 2.0 ports, and a pair of audio jacks for headphone output and microphone input. At the top lie the lone eSATA port, a couple of USB 3.0 ports, two buttons that control the fan speed, and a final button for the fan LEDs.
Depressing the LED button cycles the fan lighting through different colors and, if you’re patient enough to click the right number of times, disables the LEDs altogether. If your PC resides in a dorm room or a studio apartment, you’ll no doubt appreciate that last option.
We mentioned serviceable fan filters earlier. Here they are. The original Level 10 had filters, too, but they were little more than sheets of material positioned atop cooling vents. The GT’s filters have plastic frames and can be slid out of their slots with confidence.
Here, we see one of the enclosure’s most unique attributes: a removable headphone hanger. If you flip back a page or two, you’ll see that the mounting point for this hanger is rather inconspicuous and covered by a rubber strip. Take off that rubber strip and pop the hanger in, and you can rest your totally sweet gaming cans on the side of the Level 10 GT to impress all your buddies. Or so I imagine.
Don’t want those headphones stolen by some jealous knave? Good news. Thermaltake has implemented a cable-locking scheme similar in concept to the one we saw on BitFenix’s Survivor enclosure. The execution is a little simpler here, though. As you can see above, a small bracket sticks out of the back of the case. The bracket is secured by a thumbscrew on the inside of the rear panel, a location that is safely protected by the side-panel lock when the case is buttoned up.
Any cable threaded through the bracket should be able to slide around with some freedom. However, the opening is too small to allow full-sized connectors—including the 3.5-mm jacks found on most headphones and speakers—to pass through. This simple design makes it easy to effectively anchor any peripherals connected to your system. The Level 10 GT is a little big to haul over to a LAN party, but if you do, you need not fear returning from the restroom to an empty mousepad or a missing set of headphones.
Now that we have a pretty good grasp of the Level 10 GT and its features, let’s stuff it with some components and get a feel for how easy it is to use.
Thanks to a roomy upside-down layout and pre-mounted ATX motherboard standoffs, installing the mobo, power supply, and graphics card shouldn’t throw you for a loop. There’s no separator between the power-supply and motherboard areas, so stuffing cables through the routing holes should be easy. You can always forgo tidiness and leave cables hanging out in the main compartment. Doing so might impede airflow, though.
The right side of the case is where all your cables and wires should reside. As you can see, the result might be messy, but at least it doesn’t interfere with cooling. Thankfully, the Level 10 GT has enough space between the motherboard tray and the right panel to accommodate a few layers of somewhat carelessly arranged cables. If you want to be extra tidy here, Thermaltake provides some cable ties in the accessory box included with the case.
Look closely, and you’ll see two USB 3.0 cables dangling free and unconnected. Such cables seem to be the standard way that case makers offer SuperSpeed support these days. You’re supposed to poke the cables out of the enclosure and into the motherboard’s rear ports. Since our case-warmer build is growing somewhat long in the tooth and doesn’t have built-in USB 3.0, we left the cables disconnected. We could’ve hooked them up to some USB 2.0 ports if we really wanted additional front-panel (or, in this case, top-panel) USB connectivity, though.
Popping hard drives into the Level 10 GT is rather straightforward: unlock the storage bays with one of the keys, and then simultaneously pull out the desired drive tray while pushing the corresponding button on the front of the case. The trays themselves feature rubber-grommetted screw holes for both 3.5″ and 2.5″ drives, allowing you to load up on SSDs. Regardless of which size drive you use, all the SATA connectors will align with the data and power plugs inside the hot-swap bay.
Last, but not least, you might want to chuck in an optical drive for old times’ sake. That task is easily accomplished: slide in the drive and pull the corresponding tab on the right side of the 5.25″ bay. A couple of little nubs will go into the drive’s screw holes to keep it steady. You’ll need to take care of the power and data connections the old-fashioned way, though.
Here’s our working case-warmer build ticking away inside the Level 10 GT:
Note the LED fans. CPU cooler excepted, those fans can be toggled between blue, green, red, and “mixed color” modes using the button on the top of the case. As we noted earlier, the LEDs can also be switched off. The case doesn’t look half bad with all of the lights on and some guts behind the window, though.
Our testing methods
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 V1 cooler on our CPU:
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X4 975 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|
A number of these parts have already been supplanted by newer, faster components, but their energy consumption is what matters here—and they don’t sip power. Using a Watts Up meter, I recorded power utilization at 385W with our CPU and GPU loads running simultaneously. That’s not all that surprising, since we’re talking about a 125W processor and a graphics card with 236W peak power consumption. Keep in mind that today’s fastest components are designed to fit within similar thermal envelopes.
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.
Here are individual component temperatures inside a fully built Level 10 GT system. We ran our tests once with all fans running at their lowest speed and a second time with everything cranked up. The motherboard was entrusted with controlling the speed of the CPU fan and the case’s rear exhaust.
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 logging temperatures with our GPU load, we waited for things to cool down before looping the Heaven benchmark and a Prime95 torture test simultaneously. Once temperatures peaked, we took the following readings:
The low fan setting lets our CPU’s temperature climb from 47°C to a scorching 72°C during Prime95’s maximum-heat torture test. Turning up the fan speed shaves off a good 7°C. Obviously, CPU temperatures will largely hinge on your choice of cooler. With a 125W chip like the Phenom II X4 975, something reasonably beefy is in order even if you plan to use the world’s most well-ventilated case.
Cranking up the Level 10 GT’s fan speeds also helps reduce motherboard and hard-drive temperatures, although not by huge margins. Meanwhile, the graphics card seems largely unfazed by how much air is circling inside the case.
Do noise levels change dramatically when you switch between fan speeds? While we were running our temperature tests, we probed noise levels using an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level Meter to find out.
When idling with the low fan speed, the system was quiet enough to stay below our meter’s 40 dB threshold. Cranking up the fan speed had a noticeable effect on noise levels.
The difference between the two fan settings wasn’t as apparent under load. Most of the noise seemed to be generated by the CPU and GPU fans, which are more audible from the side of the case than from the front or top.
Since Thermaltake had a hand from the folks at BMW when designing this case, perhaps a car analogy is appropriate here.
In many ways, I think the Level 10 GT is akin to a muscle car. It’s big, showy, and loud—visually, that is—and tremendous fun to tinker with. You can still take it to the track, but it doesn’t forgo comforts like cup holders and a sunroof—that headphone stand and the windowed side panel. Just as importantly, buying one won’t involve mortgaging your house. The original Level 10 is more comparable to a top-of-the-line Ferrari: gorgeous to look at and great on the track, but not terribly practical for day-to-day driving.
Is the Level 10 GT worthy of a recommendation? Yes and no. $270 is still a decent chunk of change to spend on a computer case. The Level 10 GT should definitely be on your short list if you have that kind of money to spend, but there are a number of more affordable choices that come close to matching the GT’s feature set. (Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T comes to mind.) Our Level 10 GT’s build quality falls a little short of flawless, too: it has a slightly warped right side panel, and the plastic border around the top USB 3.0 and eSATA ports isn’t glued down all the way. Those are minor kinks in an otherwise great enclosure, though.
Ultimately, I’ve got to give Thermaltake kudos for taking many of the good ideas introduced in the Level 10 and putting them to use in an enclosure that’s much, much easier to turn into a fully assembled PC. The result doesn’t look quite as classy or as unique, but it’ll still turn heads—and it won’t do so at the expense of usability.