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Popping the trunk
Before opening the Element Q, be sure to grab a screwdriver. Tool-free amenities are in short supply.

I can understand there being no budget for clever, finger-operated clips and brackets that hold everything in place. Securing the metal skin with simple thumbscrews shouldn't be too expensive, though. Thermaltake actually uses four screws on the exterior, making the process of removing the cover all the more tedious.

With the outer shell stripped away, the naked Element Q looks rather similar to Shuttle's early XPC designs. At first glance, nothing else really stands out. The scaffolding has a decidedly old-school feel, and all the exposed edges have been neatly rolled to prevent bloodshed. It's only when you start dropping components into the case that its finer—or not so fine—attributes come into focus.

Let's start with cooler clearance because, well, there isn't much of it. You'd struggle to slide a 22-nm transistor between the bottom of the PSU and the extremely low-profile stock cooler that comes with Intel's Core i3-2100 CPU. The cooler's tallest point sits exactly 2" (51 mm) above the motherboard, and that's the upper limit of what the Element can handle.

Although the Intel cooler is tiny by desktop standards, even shorter heatsinks can be found on a lot of Mini-ITX boards with embedded processors based on Atom and Brazos silicon. The cooler on the Zacate-based Gigabyte motherboard that helped put the Element through its paces measures just 1.2" (30 mm) tall, leaving a healthier gap under the PSU.

From this perspective, we also get a good look at why you don't want to mount hard drives in the external 3.5" bay. Drives installed in that bay will hang out over the motherboard, lowering the ceiling on where a lot of Mini-ITX motherboards place their DIMM slots.

Hard drives are better off in the internal bay, which relies on a pair of plastic rails that must be screwed into place twice—first to the drive and again to the chassis. The rails will only work with 3.5" desktop drives, leaving duct tape as the only option for 2.5" mobile drives and SSDs.

Once the rails are attached, the drive can be slid into place along the case's right-hand edge. Two screws anchor everything up top, and I didn't notice any undue vibration noise emanating from the assembly with a 5,400-RPM Caviar Green installed. Still, it's pretty obvious this setup will restrict the amount of air that can flow through the ventilation holes in the right-hand side of the case.

From the other side, the Element looks even more crowded. For reasons that will become clear when we look at the performance results, we didn't bother with a discrete graphics card. However, as long as they don't feature double-wide coolers, single-slot expansion cards up to 11.75" (298 mm) in length can be shoehorned into the case.

Adding a discrete graphics card will wall off the other side of the socket, further restricting airflow to the CPU. Any air that manages to sneak into the system will have to contend with another impediment: excess cabling.

Thermaltake supplies the PSU, so I'm not sure why it didn't order up something with shorter cables. The motherboard power leads measure over 14" (355 mm) long, and the peripheral cables are even longer, resulting in a healthy bundle of excess wiring that must be tucked somewhere inside the system. You don't need nearly that much reach inside a case this small. To keep things nice and tidy, you're going to need a small handful of zip ties. Alas, Thermaltake only provides one with the case.