As an old-school PC enthusiast, my ideal system packs an ATX motherboard, discrete graphics and sound cards, and a badass storage array into a mid-tower chassis. If I had only one box to rule them all, that'd be the blueprint. But I don't have to restrict myself to only one system, allowing me to indulge an affinity for small-form-factor rigs that host potent low-power hardware inside enclosures no larger than your average shoebox.
The Mini-ITX form factor dominates the world of roll-your-own midget PCs, and the selection of motherboards has never been better. At one end of the spectrum, you have anemic Atom-based designs with only slightly more horsepower than the average netbook. At the other, you'll find a Sandy Bridge socket riding shotgun with Intel's latest Z68 Express chipset.
There's a bounty of motherboard options between those two extremes, and the same goes for the growing field of Mini-ITX enclosures. Some cater to the LAN party crowd with massive fans and juiced-up PSUs capable of sustaining powerful gaming systems. Others have their hearts set on more modest hardware and are prepared to offer smaller footprints and lower profiles in return. At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, one such enclosure caught our eye: Thermaltake's Element Q.
With support for 5.25" optical drives and full-height graphics cards, the Element Q is surprisingly accommodating for something so small. At just $65 online, it's also remarkably cheap. Could this be the Mini-ITX case to get for inexpensive, low-power builds? We took one for a test drive to find out.
For once, the automotive metaphor isn't born from a lack of fresh ideas. The Element's red piping is straight out of a Golf GTI, suggesting that the case might aspire to host the PC equivalent of a hot hatchback.
Despite making up such a small percentage of the total surface area, the red trim stands out thanks to an otherwise understated black exterior. Gloss is nowhere to be found, leaving only matte surfaces that are easy to keep free of greasy fingerprints. Styling is a matter of taste, of course, but I think the Element Q looks classy enough to sit on a desktop or to blend into a living room.
The Element's low-key face puts its most unique elements out front: external 3.5" and 5.25" drive bays. Although certainly common in the world of desktop enclosures, full-sized external drive bays are rare on Mini-ITX turf. Slim optical drives typically carry a bit of a price premium—especially for Blu-ray models—so the 5.25" bay nicely matches the Element's budget theme.
Just under the external 3.5" bay sits a hinged door that hides headphone and audio jacks, in addition to a pair of USB 2.0 ports. Would it be nice to have gen-three USB connectivity? Sure, but the second-gen ports make sense given the Element's price and the kinds of systems that will realistically take up residence inside its walls. The number of Mini-ITX motherboards with front-panel USB 3.0 connectors is still relatively small.
While I like the fact that the Element can accept 5.25" optical drives, the actual bay is a little larger than it needs to be. I suppose that provides plenty of clearance for 5.25-inchers that don't adhere strictly to the standard, but it leaves a noticeable gap with all the optical drives I have in the Benchmarking Sweatshop. The bay is about two millimeters wider and one millimeter taller than necessary.
Rotating the Element reveals plenty of ventilation holes and a small power supply at the rear. The 200W unit isn't beefy enough to feed a hard-core gaming rig, but it should be ample for low-power desktops and home-theater PCs. If you need further evidence of the PSU's target system, note that it lacks a six-pin PCI Express power connector for discrete graphics cards and is only capable of supplying 15A on the 12V rail.
The underside of the PSU hosts an 80-mm fan that's the only active cooling element in the entire case. Brackets or mounting points for additional fans are nowhere to be found, leaving few options for additional airflow. For a moment, I was excited to discover that the ventilation holes drilled into the side panels are spaced such that they line up perfectly with the mounting holes on an 80-mm fan. However, affixing such a fan inside the case will compromise its hard drive bay or expansion slot, depending on which side of the chassis you choose.
Here's a look at the belly of the case. With plenty of ventilation holes riddling most of the Element's exterior panels, the unblemished floor comes as a bit of a surprise. At least there's an inlet under the front bezel. You'll find plenty of venting in the metal skin that sits behind it, too.
Those rubber feet are optional, by the way. They come separately in the box, so you can leave them off the case entirely or slap them on one side if you want to use the case in a 90-degree rotated orientation.