Choosing the right computer case is often the hardest and most subjective part of any system build. An enclosure can speak volumes about the person pressing the keys and bossing around the electrons within. It can tell you whether the operator fancies themselves a gamer, whether they value form over function, or if they simply don’t care. Every now and then, a case comes along that seemingly plays all the right form-versus-function cards. Today, we’ll be looking at just such a creation. The NZXT H2 Classic Silent has been diligently whirring away under my desk for two weeks now, and it’s high time we broke it all down for you, to see what’s what.
If I’m being honest, my brain tends to associate NZXT with funky, plastic-y, teen-gamer boxes that aren’t really my style. Happily, NZXT has toned down raucous design cues with the H2 and created something that will draw more than a few comparisons to the Antec P180, which is more up my alley.
Frankly, I think it looks great.
The H2 is a steel mid-tower case that makes liberal use of plastic parts on the front and top sides. Measuring roughly 20.5″ x 8.5″ x 18.5″, it’s a bit smaller (albeit slightly wider) than the P180, but it’s in the same ballpark. The front door is made of plastic and swings open to reveal two 120-mm fan intakes and three 5.25″ drive bays. The door is permanently hinged on the left and unfortunately cannot be changed to open from the right. On the plus side, though, the door is securely held shut by a pair of strong magnets and is lined top-to-bottom with acoustic foam.
The front fans are particularly interesting, because they’re installed in hot-swappable caddies that can be removed and installed without the need to route wires. I’ve never seen this configuration outside of the server world before, but I must admit it works rather well here. You can remove and replace the fans for cleaning without having to power down the system or fish around inside the case. This mounting scheme serves a secondary purpose, allowing easy access to the hard-drive sleds that hang out directly behind the front fans.
Also on the enclosure’s front, NZXT has included a white hard-drive activity LED in the upper right-hand corner, plus a white, v-shaped power LED in the lower right. The angular cut-out at the bottom serves as an air inlet for the front and bottom fans—and it looks good, to boot. I really like the “P180 with an attitude” styling this case brings to the table.
Up top, you’ll find four USB ports. The blue one is of the USB 3.0 variety, but it can be used as a USB 2.0 port, too. Next to those are the headphone and microphone jacks, in addition to a three-speed, 30W fan controller switch. This controller can run connected fans at 100%, 70%, or 40% speeds depending on the setting. On either side of the ports are the power and reset buttons. Initially, I was worried about the buttons looking so similar—reset buttons I’ve encountered in the past tend to be much smaller and harder to press. However, the H2’s reset button does take significantly more pressure to activate than its counterpart, and I’ve yet to hit it accidentally.
One feature many users will ogle is the hot-swappable SATA dock built into the top of the H2. Removing a plastic cover will grant you access to the connector, which is recessed enough to accommodate both 2.5″ and 3.5″ drives. I think NZXT nailed the design of this feature. Most docks I’ve seen leave the hard drive hanging or partially exposed, whereas the H2 swallows up the entire drive, allowing you to hide it by replacing the dock cover.
Behind the SATA dock sits another plastic cover. Held in place by four magnets, it hides a ventilation grill capable of accepting an optional 140-mm fan. The cover is tasteful, but I found myself removing it and longing for an extra fan during actual use.
Around back, it’s pretty much business as usual. NZXT has outfitted the H2 with a single 120-mm exhaust fan and a pair of rubber-shrouded holes for the liquid-cooling crowd. Out of the box, you’ll find a blue USB 3.0 cable protruding from the top left corner. This cable is wired to the blue USB port on the top I/O panel. The cable can be hidden if desired, but you’ll need to plug into something for that blue front-panel USB port to work. This case also features a bottom-intake dust filter, accessible from the rear, which fits along the underside of the case and prevents dust from being sucked into your power supply—or into the main case compartment, if you install an optional 120-mm intake fan at the bottom.
Under the hood
Children, hide your eyes. It’s time to undress the H2. The first thing you’ll notice removing the side panels is the layer of acoustic foam that has been professionally applied to the inner face. The foam is not incredibly dense, but it is a nice-looking touch that does have a small positive effect on noise pollution.
One of the most common complaints I see these days is that cases manufacturers waste space on extraneous 5.25″ drive bays that could be put to better use housing additional hard drives. NZXT seems to have taken this complaint to heart, because the H2 includes only three external bays (all 5.25″) and eight tool-less internal 3.5″ bays. The drive sleds will accept 2.5″ devices like SSDs, but you’ll have to affix these using something called a “screwdriver”—yeah, I didn’t know what that was either. Despite the complete lack of external 3.5″ bays, there is unfortunately no adapter included to mount such drives in a free 5.25” slot.
The motherboard tray is riddled with holes intended to assist with cable management and heatsink installation. These holes work well for the most part, but the protective rubber grommets are so soft that they refuse to stay in place as you pass cables through them. This fact was a constant source of frustration during the build process, evoking some language I wouldn’t use within earshot of my mother.
The other side of the case leaves approximately an inch of clearance between the motherboard tray and the side panel to hide cables. Use of a modular power supply will make life much easier back here. In the box, two small baggies of zip ties are included to assist with cable management. The biggest issue with this cable crawl space is the old-school, sliding side panel. Since the inside face is covered in acoustic foam, the available empty space you have to work with when hiding cables is reduced. Replacing the panel without tearing the foam can be tricky if you have large bundles of cables tucked away.
For a case featuring innovative hot-swappable front intake fans, I was hoping for a little more attention to tool-less detail throughout the rest of the build process. 3.5″ hard drives and optical drives can be popped in without reaching for the toolbox, but situating and affixing everything else will require some elbow grease.
The 3.5″ sleds are a bit tricky and confusing at first. Merely slotting the hard drive into the pins of the caddy will result in a drive that does not fit back in the case. You must push these pins in with your fingers (or a screwdriver, in my case) until they are flush with the rest of the tray. Once the pins are properly in place, prying them out will require a screwdriver or lever of some sort. The pins have rubber shock mounts that sit between the caddy and the drive to help reduce noise and vibration, which is a nice touch. That said, a little extra engineering effort to make the pins easier to attach and remove would be a good starting point for future revisions of this case.
Installing the power supply is a cinch. It’s a not tool-less process, but the case provides the PSU a raised, rubberized platform that reduces vibration noise. A cable-management hole, conveniently located near the rear of the PSU, assists in concealing its ugly appendages.
NZXT touts the H2 as supporting E-ATX, ATX, microATX, and Mini-ITX motherboard form factors. While motherboards as wide as 12″ can be installed, doing so will involve sacrificing some cable management holes—and possibly hard-drive trays, depending on the board. For this build, we’ll be using a standard ATX motherboard.
This is the first case I’ve used with the now-ubiquitous heatsink mounting cut-out in the motherboard tray, and I can see why that feature has gotten so popular. Not having to remove every component just to install a new heatsink bracket saves an enormous amount of time and stress when dealing with behemoth aftermarket coolers.
To install an optical drive, simply remove the front bay cover and align the drive’s screw holes with the two pins of the tool-less latch. Push the pins into the holes, slide the locking switch over, and you’re in business. Optionally, screws can be added to eliminate any wiggle you may experience when pressing the eject button.
The component side of the enclosure felt quite spacious to work in despite the mid-tower form factor. Around the other side, however, things got very claustrophobic as I struggled to find crevices in which to cram the stupidly long and non-modular cables of a power supply designed for full-tower enclosures. Several rounds of rearranging were required so the side panel would slide back on. Regardless of what Sir Mix-a-lot might tell you, this was a classic case of too much junk in the trunk.
Our testing methods
You’ve seen enough of the components already to be clued in to the fact that I’m using slightly different parts than those found in Cyril’s case reviews. The table below spells out the specifics of the test bed being used.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition (140W)|
|Processor cooler||Thermaltake Frio (single fan in a pull configuration)|
|Memory size||4GB (4 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3 at 1333MHz|
with default Windows drivers
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 6870 1GB GDDR5
with Catalyst 11.5 drivers
|Hard drive||Seagate NL35.2 500GB 7,200 RPM|
|Optical drive||Asus DRW-1814|
|Power supply||OCZ GameXStream 700W|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit|
In an attempt to promote some consistency across reviews, the parts for this system were chosen because they use roughly the same amount of power as Cyril’s at full load. Using a Kill-a-watt P3 power meter, I measured the following peak power utilization numbers at the wall.
|CPU load only||302W|
|GPU load only||280W|
|CPU & GPU loads||394W|
Due to the similar energy usage, you can compare these test results to Cyril’s with the requisite salt shaker in hand. To make things slightly scientific, however, I will be maintaining a separate data set going forward, representing only the cases I’ve tested using these parts in the same environmental conditions. The components used may not be the newest kids on the block, but they do have approximately the same power and thermal characteristics as today’s high-end hardware.
Most of the tests and methods employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have any questions about our methods, hit up our forums to talk with us about them. Below is a list of the relevant software pieces for testing.
The following charts show temperatures and noise levels measured inside our fully built H2 system using only the stock cooling fans, with all factory covers and doors securely shut and in place. Ambient room temperature was measured at 22°C during testing. The tests were first run with the case fans at their slowest setting, and then a second test was run with the fans going at full tilt. The CPU fan was not regulated by the motherboard but spun at a constant speed of 2100 RPM for the duration of testing. This speed was settled upon after much trial and error, because it represented the best balance between cooling performance and noise characteristics.
Our first thermal test of the H2 involved booting up the machine and allowing it to sit idle until all temperatures had stabilized and CPU utilization remained at a consistent 0-1%. For all tests, AMD’s Cool-n-Quiet dynamic speed throttling technology was enabled. Temperature readings were taken using Speedfan and GPU-Z:
Next, we fired up the Unigine Heaven benchmark, letting it run continuously until temperatures plateaued. The benchmark was looped with stereoscopic 3D and tessellation disabled, “high” shaders, 16X anisotropic filtering, 4X anti-aliasing, in full-screen mode at 1920×1080. Frame rates from the HD 6870 were generally smooth, consistently over 30FPS with GPU-Z reporting constant usage of 98% or more during the stress test.
After giving the GPU a breather and allowing all system temps to return to nominal idle values, we fired up the Heaven benchmark and a Prime95 torture test simultaneously. We used the same Heaven settings stated above and ran four instances of Prime95 using the “in-place FFTs (Max heat/power consumption)” setting. With fire extinguisher in hand, we waited for the temperatures to peak before recording the following readings:
As you can see, fan speed settings have a noticeable impact on temperatures. Out of curiosity, I ran the load tests a second time with the fans on high, the front door open, and the top fan grill cover removed. This resulted in a drop of 5-6°C for load CPU temps. If you’re going to be overclocking or running a very power-hungry processor, I would strongly recommend leaving the fan cover off—or better yet, installing an optional 140-mm fan if you plan to run your system flat out.
If you’ll recall, NZXT boldly includes the modifier “Silent” in the case’s name. At this point, our mission shifted from jotting down temperatures to seeing if the H2 could live up to its name despite the rowdy internal components. Noise tests were conducted using an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level Meter placed 6″ from the side, front, and top of the case. Ambient noise levels were below the 40dB threshold of the Extech meter.
With the system is sitting idle, we recorded a 2dB difference between the high and low fan settings. That tells us the case fans may not be the loudest components of the overall build. In this instance, I noticed quite a bit of noise emanating from the power supply’s fan.
Despite not being truly silent, the case performed admirably in this test. The included fans struck a great balance between airflow and noise levels, even on the highest setting.
The NZXT H2 has piqued the interest of many computer enthusiasts for its combination of clean looks, accommodating internals, and attention to noise levels. While the “Silent” part of its title might be something of a misnomer, the case does offer good value for money. At $99.99, I feel the asking price is spot-on for what you get in return: a quality case with decent cable management capabilities, plenty of drive bays, and some flourishes like rubber grommets and anti-vibration pads throughout.
Most of the criticisms I can offer are pretty minor. Things like powder-coated thumb screws that can’t be removed by hand are annoying, but not deal breakers. The front of the case has an interesting brushed/mirrored black finish, which looks great when clean but collects more fingerprints than the NYPD. Also, the rubber inserts for the cable management holes really need to be made of a sturdier material or mounted better.
If you’re looking to build a whisper-quiet PC that doesn’t break the bank, this case is an excellent starting point. This isn’t the most silent enclosure around, but provided you keep your CPU’s TDP under 95W, shop around for a graphics card with a muted cooler, and pay special attention to your choice of power supply, you should easily end up with a system only the strictest librarian would complain about.
To wrap things up, the NZXT H2 Classic Silent case can reasonably cope with the demands of high end parts, despite its desire for peace and quiet. Beyond that, it gives you ample opportunities to crank the cooling up to 11, with easily replaceable front fans, water-cooling readiness, and places for two additional air-movers. Easily accessibly dust filters and a sweet, built-in SATA hard drive dock round out the high points of this case, making it a solid value for your case-buying dollar.