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.
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.
Our testing methods
With a 200W PSU and extremely limited clearance for CPU coolers, we’ve stuck with relatively low-power hardware to test the Element Q’s capabilities. The case was run in two configurations: one with a Brazos-based board sporting an AMD E-350 APU, and another combining Intel’s Z68 Express chipset with a Core i3-2100. Both configs used their respective platforms’ integrated graphics processors.
|Processor||AMD E-350 1.6GHz||Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte GA-E350N-USB3||Zotac Z68-ITX|
|Platform hub||AMD Hudson M1||Intel Z68 Express|
|Chipset drivers||Catalyst 11.7||184.108.40.2065|
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6310 with Catalyst 11.7 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 2000 with 220.127.116.11.2361 drivers|
|Hard drive||Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64|
We’d like to thank Corsair, Gigabyte, Zotac, Thermaltake, and Western Digital for helping to outfit our test rigs with some of the finest hardware available.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 60Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
First, we’ll look at how cool the Element Q keeps our system components. To obtain an idle baseline, the systems were left to sit at the Windows desktop until temperatures stabilized.
Well, that’s a surprise. The E-350 rig ran warmer than one with a much more powerful CPU. There’s an easy explanation: the tiny fan sitting atop the E-350’s heatsink generates much less airflow around the motherboard than the Core i3-2100’s stock cooler. Also, the E-350’s fan runs at a constant speed, while the i3-2100’s is governed by temperature-based fan-control logic.
You didn’t expect the Core i3-2100 to run cooler under load than the E-350, did you? With multiple instances of Prime95 taxing their cores, both CPUs exhibited much higher temperatures. I’d classify the E-350 as tolerably toasty here, but I wouldn’t want my CPU pushing past 80°C on a regular basis.
Loading up the CPU doesn’t appear to have much impact on hard drive temperatures. However, the motherboard temperature on the Core i3-2100 config was lower under load than at idle. As one might expect, the CPU cooler kicked into high gear, generating a lot more airflow with the CPU pegged.
In a final act of punishment, we fired up the rthdribl HDR lighting demo alongside our Prime95 CPU load. Interestingly, the AMD chip ran hotter with both its CPU and graphics cores fully engaged, while the Intel one cooled down a little. I suspect we’re seeing throttling in action here.
Noise levels were measured with a TES-52 digital sound level meter placed 6″ from the case at idle and under our combined CPU and GPU load.
The results at idle might seem counter-intuitive, but the system emitted a high-pitched whine with the E-350 onboard. There was no hiss under load, and not even a hint of one with the Core i3-2100 config.
With our torture test resumed, the Intel cooler’s higher fan speed led to noise levels that easily eclipsed the sounds emanating from the AMD APU-based mobo. The Element’s single PSU fan really isn’t a big contributor to overall system noise levels. By the same token, however, the case’s limited airflow makes the CPU fan work a lot harder than it might need to in a roomier enclosure.
Thermaltake says the Element’s PSU is only about 77% efficient, so I was curious to see how it fared against the power supply that usually lives on my test bench: PC Power & Cooling’s latest Silencer 760W. We’re big fans of the original Silencer, and the new model is thus far performing quite well in our labs.
The Element’s PSU fares better than I expected given the competition—the Silencer carries 80 Plus Silver certification. However, it’s important to note that our test systems are barely scratching the surface of the 760W PSU’s total capacity.
Although the Element Q’s GTI styling cue hints at hot-hatch roots, the reality points more toward a diesel-powered grocery getter. The case’s extremely limited airflow and cooler clearance conspire to make it a hostile environment for a Core i3-2100, and that’s without a discrete graphics card installed. I’d be hesitant to populate the case with anything more powerful than a Zacate-based Brazos board, relegating the Element to basic desktops and home-theater PCs.
In that realm, the Element Q looks like a worthy candidate. The case’s styling is tasteful enough for the living room, and its compact 5.1″ x 8.7″ x 13″ (130 x 220 x 330 mm) frame should be easy to tuck away in any environment. Despite the Element’s short stature, you can still cram in a 5.25″ optical drive and a 3.5″ card reader.
Full-sized drive bays are one of the Element’s most notable features, especially when compared to our favorite Mini-ITX enclosure: Silverstone’s SG05. To be fair, the SG05 has much better cooling, a beefier PSU, and the ability to comfortably host pint-sized gaming rigs. With prices starting at $105 online, though, the SG05 also costs a whopping $40 more than the Element Q. That’s a pretty big margin when you’re talking about a budget desktop or HTPC.
If you’re in the market for a cheap small-form-factor system based around an Atom or Brazos platform, the Element Q is definitely worth a look. I could see filling one with a Zacate-based motherboard, a cheap Blu-ray drive, Asus’ awesomely cheap Xonar DG sound card, and a low-RPM hard drive to form a potent little box for the living room. If only my couch had red piping to match.