Fractal Design’s Define R3 mid-tower chassis
When we reviewed the NZXT H2 back in June, the comment box was flooded with remarks about its doppelganger, the Fractal Design Define R3. Well, comment, and ye shall receive, for today we have a refreshed version of the Define R3 on the test bench.
While not the newest face in the enclosure world, Fractal Design’s genesis is only traceable back to 2007. At least in dog years, that makes the company old enough to pick up its own bar tab. The Define R3 case was announced one year ago this month as a successor to the Define R2. Now there’s a new revision that remains aesthetically unaltered but adds SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports to the mix.
Defining the R3
First impressions of the Define R3 reveal a mid-tower case that clearly respects the often bungled nuances of clean styling, quality materials, and precise workmanship. When removing the case from its shipping box, the heft and rigidity of the chassis instantly lets you know that this isn’t some half-baked econobox. A stolen glance at the undressed R3 reveals a visually striking black interior set off by brilliant white drive trays, fan blades, and expansion slot covers. Even though the case lacks a window, its designers took great care to ensure that the insides look every bit as attractive as the exterior.
Like the NZXT H2, the sides and top of the Define R3 are lined with acoustic dampening material. Unlike the H2, Fractal uses for a denser (and heavier) foam that is more resistant to tearing and about half as thick. The foam is one contributor to the case’s healthy 27.5-lb (12.5-kg) weight.
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that despite the acoustic appliqué, there are still ventilation holes in the side and top panels. Fractal grants customers the ability to supplement airflow by removing several square foam cut-outs from behind the ventilation holes and installing 120- or 140-mm fans in their place. This feature has actually been trademarked and is proudly advertised as “ModuVent” in Fractal’s product literature. Questionable marketing jargon aside, ModuVent is a pleasant departure from the all-or-nothing path that other manufactures tend to traverse.
A large plastic door covers the case’s entire front face and swings open to reveal a foam-lined backside, two 5.25″ external drive bays, and two easy access doors for getting at the front fans and dust filters. The door itself is quite slim, measuring about half an inch thick including the acoustic foam. It is partially inset in the front panel and held in place with a magnetic latch. A groove on the right-hand side gives prying fingers an easy access point to apply opening leverage. Unfortunately, the hinges are permanently attached on the left and cannot be flipped around to the other side of the case.
Defining the R3 — continued
The front I/O ports are located up top, making them easily accessible when the Define is placed on the floor. At the ready are your standard 3.5-mm headphone and microphone connections, two USB 3.0 ports, and an external SATA port. Rather than tying the SuperSpeed ports to a USB cable that must be routed out the back of the case and into the motherboard’s rear cluster, the ports are linked to one of those newfangled internal USB 3.0 connector blocks. This setup is fantastic if your board has a compatible header, but only the latest models do. The connector block isn’t compatible with internal headers for USB 2.0 ports, either. Folks with older motherboards will want to consider the original, USB 2.0 version of the Define R3 or plan on adding a SuperSpeed expansion card with an internal header.
Between the audio and USB ports sits a large power button surrounded by a ring-shaped LED power indicator light. The underlying LED also illuminates a narrow strip that just cuts into the top of the door. The lighting arrangement looks fantastic but is missing a hard drive activity indicator. Fractal could have left the ring around the power button as the power indicator and turned the vertical stripe into a hard drive activity signal. Some of us like to know when our computer is “thinking.” With SSDs becoming a standard fixture in modern systems, however, the exclusion of an activity LED is understandable—if regrettable.
During daily use, I found the location of the power button to be somewhat problematic. It is very prominent and easy to depress, which can result in unwanted reboots while unplugging USB or audio devices. If this becomes an ongoing issue, the behavior of the power button can be easily altered in the Windows control panel.
The back of the case is pretty standard fare. There are seven expansion slots, a 120-mm exhaust fan, a quartet of water cooling pass-through holes with rubber grommets, and an ATX power supply mount at the bottom.
Underneath the case, the PSU air inlet features a removable dust filter that also covers the ventilation holes for the bottom fan mount, which can accommodate a 120- or 140-mm spinner. The case’s feet have a chrome-look finish that’s reminiscent of home theater components. The feet have cushioning to prevent vibration and scratches, but the foam did mark up the white backdrop that I used for our photo shoot. I typically prefer to see rubber soles on a case’s shoes, since foam will flatten and disintegrate over time.
To accommodate the PSU ventilation grill, the back feet are much smaller than the front ones. This seemingly innocuous detail creates an unforeseen side effect for those placing their case on carpeted surfaces: the rear feet sink down into loose carpet a bit more than the ones up front, reducing airflow to the power supply. Placing a slice of corrugated cardboard or a book between the carpeting and the case is a quick-and-dirty way to defeat this issue. One could also move the case up onto a desk. At 8.1″ x 17.4″ x 20.5″ (207 x 442 x 521 mm), the Define wouldn’t look too imposing standing next to a decent-sized monitor.
Under the hood
I said it once before, but it’s worth mentioning again. The inside of the Define R3 is just plain pretty. The two-tone theme, with its white drive trays, fan blades, and slot covers accenting a black powder-coated interior, provides a visual wow factor not found among the case’s competitors.
Inside, you’ll find eight 3.5″ drive trays, which should give hard drive pack-rats a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Rubber mounts are included on all of the trays to reduce vibration noise. Holes are also provided in each tray to accommodate a 2.5″ SSD or mechanical hard drive, which is a welcome future-proofing feature. You don’t get vibration damping for the 2.5″ mounts, but solid-state drives don’t need it.
Those who can’t be bothered to pick up a screwdriver will be disappointed to learn that the R3 has few tool-free amenities. All drives must be affixed to their sleds using old-fashioned screws, as must any devices mounted in the 5.25″ bays. Even the thumbscrews that are sprinkled throughout the case will require a helping hand to loosen up initially.
Two 5.25″ bays are available for optical drives, card readers, (flush) fan controllers, or retractable cup holders. An adapter and faceplate are included to facilitate mounting a single 3.5″ external device, as well. The frugal external bay count may be a deal-breaker for some enthusiasts, but for most usage scenarios, two slots should prove sufficient.
Other niceties found inside the Define R3 include a foam-coated power supply mount and a generously proportioned cutout in the motherboard tray for mounting aftermarket CPU coolers. Five rubber-trimmed cable management holes are also present in the motherboard tray; happily, the rubber is rigid enough to prevent the grommets from dislodging as cables are routed through them.
Despite shipping with only two fans, the Define has immense airflow potential. From the factory, you get one 120-mm fan up front and another around back. The case can accommodate up to five additional fans, including one more 120-mm unit in the front, two 120- or 140-mm spinners up top, one 120- or 140-mm fan at the bottom, and another one in the side panel. Fractal also includes a simple rheostat fan controller that’s mounted in an expansion slot and is capable of managing the speed up to three fans with a single knob.
Building a system inside the Define was an almost entirely pleasant experience. The R3 can accommodate ATX, microATX, or Mini ITX motherboards alongside graphics cards up to 11.5″ (290 mm) in length. High-end cards like the Radeon HD 6970 and GeForce GTX 580 will slot in without issue. However, the non-removable hard drive cage inhibits the use of longer dual-GPU designs like the Radeon HD 6990. Incidentally, removable drive cages are featured in Mini and XL versions of the Define, which offer more than 15 inches of graphics card clearance.
Speaking of clearances, the PSU bay can handle power supplies up to 6.7″ (170 mm) long without conflicting with the bottom fan mount. Longer PSUs will fit, but you won’t be able to add a bottom-mounted fan alongside them.
It really is the little things that seem to make or break the building experience. Are there any sharp edges lurking inside, thirsty for blood? Do the motherboard standoff holes line up precisely and have smooth, sturdy threads? Has powder coating gummed up the screw holes throughout the case? Happily, the R3 is stellar on all counts. The steel frame’s rolled edges make it difficult to mutilate one’s hands, and the standoff points and screw holes are exact and resistant to cross-threading. The sense of cheapness I experienced inside the BitFenix Shinobi case we reviewed recently was simply non-existent when working with the Define R3.
Unfortunately, the Define does fall a little short when it comes to cable management. There is very little room behind the motherboard tray to tuck cables away, and the acoustic material, while thin, reduces that available space even more. The resulting gap between the tray and right side panel is only wide enough to accommodate the thickness of a 24-pin motherboard power connector. With little room to spare, I was unable to hide all of our test system’s excess cabling behind the motherboard tray—a first among the cases I’ve reviewed. Owners of modular power supplies will probably be able to maneuver their excess cabling into position behind the motherboard tray, but the monstrous tentacles of our OCZ unit proved to be more than the R3 could handle. I had to stuff them behind the hard drive bays, which is less than ideal.
Cable management is further hampered by the fact that there are no cut-outs along the top of the motherboard tray to allow the auxiliary 12V power cable to be routed cleanly. Tie-downs for cabling are in short supply, as well, and the meager supply of six puny cable ties included in the case’s accessory kit is an apt metaphor for the overall cable management experience. Few management considerations are built into the design, and where they do exist, they come up short compared to other cases in this class.
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)|
|Memory size||4GB (4 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3 at 1333MHz|
|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.
|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 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 Define’s system fans were regulated by the included fan controller, with thermal and acoustic tests performed at both minimum and maximum settings. The CPU fan was run at a constant speed of 2,100 RPM for the duration of testing. This fan speed was settled upon after much trial and error, and it represents the best balance between cooling performance and noise characteristics.
Thermal testing was conducted using only the stock cooling fans supplied with all cases, including the Define R3. All of the Define’s side panels and doors were securely in place, and the ModuVent acoustic coverings were unaltered from their factory positioning. The ambient room temperature was measured at 22°C during testing. Results for the NZXT H2 and BitFenix Shinobi Window are included in the graphs for reference. The H2 featured an integrated fan controller, so it was also tested at both high and low settings.
The first step in testing was to determine the baseline acoustic and thermal properties of the Define R3 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.
With the idle baseline set, we went about our business of torturing the transistors in the system’s GPU. This was accomplished by running the Unigine Heaven benchmark in a continuous loop until system temperatures peaked. The Heaven benchmark was run 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 the stress test.
The system was allowed to catch its breath for a bit and return to baseline temperatures before the next round of questioning began. This time, the GPU was asked to take the stand alongside the CPU accomplice. The Unigine Heaven benchmark was thrown at the GPU again, while the CPU was grilled by four instances of Prime95 using the “in-place FFTs (Max heat/power consumption)” setting. Mercifully, our defendants did not plead the fifth. They presented the court with the following information to be admitted as evidence in this case.
The Define R3 was cool and collected under pressure, churning out temperatures that were consistently on par with or below those of the NZXT H2. In some instances, the Define even traded blows with the better-ventilated BitFenix Shinobi. The fact that all the Define’s optional ventilation holes remained covered by acoustic foam makes these results are all the more impressive.
Historically, the trade-off for superior air cooling tends to be higher noise levels. Sound levels were measured using an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level Meter placed six inches from the side, front, and top of the case. Ambient noise levels were below the 40-dB threshold of the Extech meter.
While the acoustic insulation lining most of the R3 gives the case an added feeling of quality and solidity, the sound dampening properties of the insulating material leave something to be desired. This isn’t entirely the insulation’s fault, as the Fractal fans appear to be designed more for efficient airflow than absolute silence. The H2’s fans sound a little quieter to my ears, and with thicker acoustic foam, the H2 manages to outperform the Define R3 in all our noise testing.
To me, the acoustic material in the R3 seems more like a finishing touch than a means to a silent end. It does have some redeeming qualities, though. The thinner foam blunts higher-pitched noises like hard drive whine, which makes the system’s overall acoustic footprint less obtrusive.
Despite its modest cable management capabilities, the Define R3 has been one of the best enclosures I’ve ever worked with. The R3’s strength lies in the underlying simplicity of its design. Rather than expending energy on extra features like funky design cues, hot-swappable drive docks, and tool-less gadgets, Fractal Design appears to have focused its attention on refining proven methods and making a high-quality product above all else. This is the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) principle in living black and white.
The USB 3.0-equipped Define R3 we looked at today may not be available in North America until November. However, the case is otherwise identical to the USB 2.0 version that’s selling at Newegg for $110. A USB 3.0 upgrade kit for that model is due out in a couple of weeks and will cost just $10, according to Fractal Design. The kit is identical to the SuperSpeed hardware in the case we reviewed, so you’ll be able to build your own facsimile for about $120. At that price, the combo is easy to recommend.
That said, there are a couple caveats buyers need to consider. If a ship-shape interior is a must, be sure to plan your build around a decent modular power supply, and make sure your creative juices are flowing when it comes time to route the auxiliary 12V motherboard power connector. The lack of cutouts along the top of the motherboard tray for this important connector is perhaps my biggest quibble with the case’s design.
Also, be aware that the USB 3.0 connector for the front ports is not backward-compatible with the USB 2.0 headers found on most motherboards. This is true for both the upgrade kit and the native USB 3.0 version of the case. Most new motherboards feature the necessary internal header, so this shouldn’t be an issue in the long term. Fractal Design could’ve offered front-panel USB 2.0 ports in addition to the 3.0 ones, though.
If you’re in the market for a rock-solid case with elegant looks, the Define R3 warrants an extremely close look. It’s not silent, but it’s quiet and can accommodate all but the largest dual-GPU graphics cards on the market. The Define’s cooling performance with the stock fans is very good, and there are plenty of mounting points if you want to add more.
The fact that Fractal Design can produce a case of this caliber while being a relative newcomer to the enclosure industry is an encouraging signal of things to come. We look forward to seeing what Fractal comes up with next.