reviewbitfenixs shinobi window mid tower enclosure

BitFenix’s Shinobi Window mid-tower enclosure

As much as we love high-end enclosures, we also understand that many of our readers are interested in humbler and more economical ways to house their PCs. Today, we’re taking a break from the bevy of enthusiast-oriented cases to scrutinize a product from BitFenix aimed at the mainstream crowd. Ringing up at $70 without a power supply, the Shinobi Window sits near the upper limits of budget territory and tugs on the capes of popular mainstays like the Antec Three Hundred, Cooler Master Centurion, and Lian Li PC-K58W. We’ve put BitFenix’s latest under the microscope to see if it can hold its own at this popular price point.

BitFenix is a relative newcomer to the PC enclosure market, founded only a year ago by former employees of Cooler Master and Abit. Those folks proved that they know a thing or two about style when, last year, they launched the Survivor, a futuristic and curvy design. With the Shinobi, they’ve taken a subtler approach. While this enclosure is still targeted at the mainstream gaming crowd, the only real “gamer” embellishment to be found on the outside is a tinted side-panel window—and even that is optional. Our review sample happened to be the Shinobi Window model, but a window-less standard version is also available at a lower $60 asking price.

While I’m not a fan of side-panel windows in general, I don’t really understand the point of the window on this particular case. The window plastic is tinted in an attempt to stand out from the crowd, but unless you have a CCFL or some other significant light source inside the case, the tinting blocks your view of the internal components. That kind of defeats the point. The sorta-see-through plastic does have ventilation holes and mounting points for a 120-mm fan, however. Users of the standard Shinobi must make do without the added airflow potential.

Both versions of the Shinobi use a mid-tower design that sits 46 cm tall, 49 cm deep, and 20.5 cm wide. That translates to about 18.1″ x 19.3″ x 8.1″ for us Amurakins. At this size, the Shinobi will feel at home above or below deck. The front ports are situated up top, hinting that the floor might be this case’s best location.

One of the main selling points for this case is the soft-touch rubber coating (imaginatively trademarked as “SofTouch”) that you’ll find on the front and top panels. If you’ve ever handled a ThinkPad with the soft-touch lid or a smartphone with a rubberized back, BitFenix’s case will feel familiar. The coating looks great, feels great, and resists fingerprints with aplomb. There are a couple minor drawbacks, though.

For some reason, both the power button and its surrounding cavity are coated in the SoftTouch material. The contact between rough surfaces causes some friction, which occasionally results in the power button getting stuck in the down position, requiring a light tap or two to pop it back up. BitFenix may have been trying to help the button blend in with the rest of the case, but that’s really not necessary, especially when doing so compromises the operation of the button itself.

The second issue I have is that soft-touch coatings do not take well to scratches. I’ve owned many ThinkPads over the years, and the first thing to wear on them is the soft-touch coating on the edges and corners of the lid. The Shinobi’s surfaces are free of scuffs so far, but be aware that damage to this type of coating might be a little more exaggerated than on your standard plastic case. This may be a trivial consideration if you plan on leaving the case in one spot its whole life. Aesthetic-minded folks who frequent LAN parties or move their systems frequently might not be so forgiving.

The designers opted to keep the Shinobi’s front face relatively simple and clean. There are three 5.25″ drive bays up top, a chrome BitFenix logo in the middle, and a couple mesh accent and ventilation strips that run up the face and over the top panel. I quite like the logo, which gives the case a bit of Romulan Empire vibe. BitFenix also includes a 5.25-to-3.5″ bay adapter to house that 1.44MB floppy drive you refuse to throw out.

Up top, you’ll find a pretty typical array of ports, buttons, and lights. There are four USB 2.0 ports accompanied by a microphone jack, headphone jack, power button, reset button, and LEDs for hard drive activity and power status. The LEDs are noteworthy if only because the hard drive indicator is red, while the power LED is blue. I like the different colors, but some people may prefer to have it all one way or the other.

Behind the ports, you’ll see a mesh area capable of covering two optional 140-mm fans. Partitions beneath the mesh separate the two fan mounts and would seemingly prevent the installation of larger water-cooling radiators. With a few tweaks here and there, the Shinobi probably could have been made to support at least a dual 120-mm radiator.

When I first unboxed the case, one of the mesh strips that runs the length of the top panel was not seated properly and bounced up and down about a quarter of an inch if you pushed on it with your finger. In trying to correct the issue, I discovered that the top panel is removable by pulling up on the small gap at the rear of the case. Removing the roof allows you to access to the mounting holes for the top fans, and if you’re suddenly feeling the urge to demonstrate your mad Dremel skills, you could probably modify the top of the case to accommodate a water-cooling radiator fairly easily.

There isn’t much going on around the back of the Shinobi. You’ll find seven expansion slots that continue the black motif, along with some thumb screws and a 120-mm exhaust fan. BitFenix takes cooling pretty seriously in this case. In the windowed version, there are seven mounting points for 120-mm spinners: two up front, two on top (which also support 140-mm fans), one in the back, one on the bottom, and one mounted to the window. The standard version of the Shinobi offers largely the same cooling potential as its windowed counterpart, lacking only the window mount. If liquid cooling is more your style, there are also two rubber-wrapped holes on the rear panel to accommodate the associated plumbing.

Under the hood
Remove the side panels, and the first thing you’ll notice is the black paint job on the internals. Not all budget cases match interior colors with the exterior, making the Shinobi look particularly clean and professional. A couple of other things stand out: the bottom-mounted PSU bracket and an ample number of internal 3.5″ drive bays (eight in total) that should satisfy all but the most hardcore hard-drive hoarders.

The 3.5″ bays are of the tool-less variety. They don’t have mounting holes for 2.5″ hard drives or SSDs, though. The Shinobi can accommodate a single 2.5″ drive if you fasten it to the included 5.25-to-3.5″ bay adapter, but then you’ll lose your floppy drive.

My condolences.

Installing optical drives in the 5.25″ bays doesn’t require tools, either. The mounting hardware isn’t very elegant, but it gets the job done.

The motherboard tray has a modern layout with the obligatory cut-outs for cable management and the CPU heatsink retention plate. The cable routing holes don’t have protective rubber grommets like those in higher-end enclosures, but the steel is rolled over and blunted to protect cables from damage. There are also punched-out tabs all over the backside of the tray that allow cables to be easily zip-tied into place. It’s nice to see cable management becoming more than just an afterthought in mainstream enclosure. During the build, I had no trouble tucking cables away behind the motherboard tray. Less cable clutter inside the case means better airflow and a nicer view through the window (if you can peer through the tint).

Like the NZXT H2 we reviewed a couple of weeks ago, the Shinobi only offers about an inch of clearance between the motherboard tray and side panel. The narrow gap can make hiding large wads of wiring a bit tricky, and that’s without acoustic foam on the side panels. If you want to add a layer of sound-dampening material, you’ll have to be careful not to snag or tear it on cabling squeezed behind the mobo tray.

Let’s build
BitFenix claims the case will support motherboards of the Mini-ITX, microATX, and ATX persuasions. Inside, you have almost exactly 12 inches of space until you run into the upper drive cages. Shoehorning an Extended ATX board into the Shinobi is out of the question without some modification.

The hard drive and optical drive were simple enough to install. When mounting the optical drive, you remove the tool-free lock by pushing on it. Then, line up the holes for the drive, and pop the locking pins into place. Installing a hard drive is a little more cumbersome but still fairly straightforward. There are two locking mechanisms per drive: one on either side of the drive cage. Knobs associated with each mechanism are turned counter-clockwise and then pulled away from the chassis, which can require a little wiggling. After that, you slide the hard drive into its slot and ensure that the holes on the case and drive align before replacing the locking mechanism. Once the pins are pushed into place, a simple clockwise twist locks the drive in place.

I must confess that the hard drive mounts felt a bit cheap. The locking caps sometimes twist off entirely, and drives that have been installed properly still exhibit a lot of play. Without a more secure locking mechanism, I’m leery of transporting a system built in the case for fear of drives shaking loose. Prospective buyers who picture themselves moving the Shinobi frequently would be better off ditching the tool-free drive mounts and using old-fashioned screws to secure their hard drives.

Subjectively, the case’s internals feel open and easy to work in. The Shinobi can accommodate graphics cards up to 12.5″ long if there are no hard drives situated directly behind the card. The Radeon HD 6870 used in our test build has a modest 9.5″ circuit board length, which proved easy to accommodate. You can squeeze in massive graphics cards like the 12″ Radeon HD 6990 if you’re so inclined.

Our testing methods
Astute readers will note that the components used in this build differ slightly from those that Cyril uses in his case reviews. The table below shows the specifics of the hardware we’ll be using for our test bed.

Processor AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition (140W)
Processor cooler Thermaltake Frio (single fan in a pull configuration)
Motherboard MSI 790FX-GD70
Chipset AMD 790FX
Memory size 4GB (4 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair XMS3 at 1333MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-24-2T
Audio Realtek ALC889
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, the chosen parts for this system use roughly the same amount of power as Cyril’s at full load. Using a Kill-a-watt P3 meter, I measured the following peak power utilization numbers (at the wall) to use as a reference.

System idle 146W
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 represent approximately the same power and thermal characteristics associated with 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 used in this review.

The numbers
Because there is no fan speed controller built into this case, the system fans were regulated by the motherboard, while the CPU fan was run at a constant speed of 2100 RPM for the duration of testing. This fan speed was settled upon after much trial and error, as it represented the best balance between cooling performance and noise characteristics.

Thermal testing was conducted in the Shinobi using only the stock cooling fans with all side panels and covers securely in place as they would be during real-world usage. The ambient room temperature was measured at 22°C during testing. We’re using NZXT’s H2 chassis as a comparative reference for our Shinobi results. The H2 was run with its fans spinning at both their high and low settings.

Our first task was to gather some baseline temperature readings for the Shinobi Window enclosure. The fully built system was allowed to sit idle with CPU utilization at a consistent 0-1% until temperatures stabilized. 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 focused on stressing the GPU by firing up the Unigine Heaven benchmark and letting it run continuously until temperatures peaked. The benchmark was looped in full-screen mode at 1920×1080 with stereoscopic 3D and tessellation disabled, “high” shaders, 16X anisotropic filtering, and 4X antialiasing. GPU-Z reported GPU utilization of 98% or more during this stress test.

Being the kind and gentle folk that we are, we decided to give the GPU a quick break to compose itself before running the final torture test. After temperatures returned to their idle base values, we fired up the Heaven benchmark alongside a four-way instance of Prime95 using the “in-place FFTs (Max heat/power consumption)” setting. With phone in hand and 0118 999 881 999 119 725…3 on speed dial, we unleashed all the computer’s digital fury and waited for temperatures to peak again before jotting down our findings.

The Shinobi performs pretty well using just the two included fans. Despite having one fewer 120-mm fan than the H2, the BitFenix case generally runs cooler, likely thanks to the extra ventilation provided by the mesh strips and open grill up top. The CPU seems to be the biggest benefactor of this extensive ventilation. The Shinobi’s graphics card temperatures aren’t much lower than those of the H2, however. I expected slightly better results on that front, especially in light of the ventilation slits in the side panel.

Sound level measurements were taken 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 40-dB threshold of the Extech meter.

The Shinobi certainly isn’t the silent type. Typically 3-4 dB louder than the NZXT H2, the BitFenix mid-tower made a noticeably louder hum during daily operation. With the case tucked under my desk, the noise is entirely bearable; I don’t even notice it unless things get really quiet in the room. However, when run on top of the desk, there’s little sitting between your ears and the whirring fans within the enclosure.

There is a lot to like about the BitFenix Shinobi Window case. It looks great, has excellent cooling and cable management features, and doesn’t break the bank. The SofTouch finish will tolerate fingerprints and minor daily grime better than glossy alternatives, and so far, it appears to be pretty durable. Be aware that the edges and corners are likely to wear over time—but then all cases eventually show some signs of wear and tear.

I’m really digging the current trend of clean-cut, functional cases that seems to be proliferating right now. The Shinobi is an easy case to recommend for those reasons, but it’s clear that a few corners have been cut to hit a mainstream price point.

I gave the NZXT H2 (which costs $30-40 more than the Shinobi) a bit of a hard time because its hard-drive caddies are too hard to install without using tools. After working in the Shinobi, I found myself wishing for those drive sleds back. Not only do they hold drives securely, but they also offer an easy option for mounting 2.5″ SSDs, which BitFenix seems to have neglected. The Shinobi could really use a couple of internal 2.5″ drive mounts, perhaps in place of the bottom 120-mm fan mount.

The window is going to be a love-it-or-leave-it proposition for most. I’d rather have the clean looks of the window-less model and put the $10 saving toward a couple of slabs of acoustic foam for the side panels. For those who enjoy peering inside their cases, the Shinobi’s tinted window may be a strong selling point. The added ventilation provided by the window is also great if you’re running a toasty graphics card, but it will give dust an all-access pass to the guts of your computer.

At the end of the day, the BitFenix Shinobi is a solid value—whether you’re looking at the $70 windowed version or the $60 plain model (Canadians can get the windowed model for $65 at NCIX). This enclosure offers cable management options aplenty, holds its own in the cooling department, and isn’t too loud when tucked under a desk. With a stealth black finish and powder coated interior, the Shinobi is definitely dressed to impress. If your case budget is set in this price range, I would definitely recommend adding the Shinobi to your short list of options.

David Morgan

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