Thermaltake’s Element Q Mini-ITX enclosure

Manufacturer Thermaltake
Model Element Q
Price (Street) $65
Availability Now

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.

Shoebox GTI

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
Bios revision F2C 2K110617
Platform hub AMD Hudson M1 Intel Z68 Express
Chipset drivers Catalyst 11.7 9.2.0.1025
Memory size 8GB (2 DIMMs) 8GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-24-1T

9-9-9-24-1T
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 15.22.1.64.2361 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.

Component temperatures

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

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.

Power consumption

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.

Conclusions

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.

Comments closed
    • xiaomim
    • 8 years ago
    • IOwnCalculus
    • 8 years ago

    Any chance of getting your hands on a Lian-Li PC-Q25 for a test? I want to throw my next fileserver into one and I might make it pull double-duty as a HTPC as well.

    • FireGryphon
    • 8 years ago

    Excellent writeup, as usual.

    It looks like there’s a bit of room beneath between the mobo and that bottom of the case. Might the power cables be routed underneath it to alleviate some clutter?

    One of this case’s most glaring deficits is that it won’t accommodate 2.5″ drives. Even so it’s a nice case. I’m on the fence about getting a mini-ITX case for my next build, if only because it seems like such a waste to have all that empty space in a box when a well-ventilated but smaller enclosure will do the trick.

    • Ruiner
    • 8 years ago

    Zacate boards don’t come with PCI slots, so no Xonar DG.
    SPDIF out to receiver or pricier Xonar DX.

      • raddude9
      • 8 years ago

      Wrongo…

      Some of ITX Zacate boards do in fact come with PCI, e.g. [url<]http://jetway-computer.industrialpartner.com/products-n/nc85.htm[/url<]

    • Shambles
    • 8 years ago

    Since when is $65 for an ITX case a budget item? I almost never spend that much on a mid-size tower let alone some dinky ITX box. Call me when case companies get serious about SFF builds. Mid-size cases have more materials, more workmanship, more options, more space, better airflow, cable management, looks, and still cost less than things like this.

    • Machupo
    • 8 years ago

    This case is a clone (or the other way around) of the Apexi MI-008 (which is about $20 cheaper). If you want to really rock this case out, it requires a bit of modification to maximize the airflow.

    • LoneWolf15
    • 8 years ago

    The sad thing is that if I want a good Mini-ITX case, I have to pay as much as a boutique mid/full tower.

    Lian Li makes some nice ones, but they’re pricy. Silverstone makes some good ones, also starting around $100.

    It kind of kills the “great budget system for parents/a friend” based on an mITX board.

      • obarthelemy
      • 8 years ago

      if they don’t need an optical drive, the Morex T-3410 (www.logicsupply.com) is around $60 w/picoPSU and power brick. Good for an i3 2100T or Pentium G620T. No expeansion slots either, though, but passive, excpet for the very quiet intel cpu fan.

      • Chrispy_
      • 8 years ago

      Cooler Master Elite 100, PSU included for $60-70, room for an optical drive, and it even has a VESA 100mm mounting bracket thrown in…..

    • Chrispy_
    • 8 years ago

    Unexciting, ‘done-a-hundred-times-before’ stamped steel shoebox with cheap and boring plastic fascia.

    And people wonder why the mac mini sells so well…..

      • obarthelemy
      • 8 years ago

      not everyone goes for style over substance.

        • Anonymous Coward
        • 8 years ago

        Well there was neither style nor substance here…

          • NeelyCam
          • 8 years ago

          This box lets you add way more substance than Mac Mini would ever have

            • Anonymous Coward
            • 8 years ago

            No way. Its just a cheap ugly box, without provision for adequate cooling or expansion, whereas the Mini is well designed and optimized. I’d take a Mini any day. Or a proper tower PC.

            • Chrispy_
            • 8 years ago

            Of course you are right, but that’s not my point. My point was that this is YET ANOTHER bland, cheap, totally unoriginal, formulaic, Shuttle XPC immitation of which there have been hundreds since Shuttle first sold their XPC something like 13 years ago.

            It’s not news, it’s not review-worthy, why does anyone care, and where do you draw the line. Do you want to read reviews of a cheap, Asrock motherboard that has no redeeming features whatsoever. The sort of thing you buy because it’s a mundane commodity item that happened to fit your requirements, budget, and happened to be in stock at the time?

            Next up, SATA cable reviews!
            Don’t get me wrong, the review was fine – but it just feels like a non-review because of a complete innovation drought in the computer case market at the moment.

            • Anonymous Coward
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]It's not news, it's not review-worthy, why does anyone care[/quote<] Someone has to review it before I know its crap! I'm happy TR took a look.

    • dragosmp
    • 8 years ago

    Interesting review, this case has potential. It may not be SG05 level, but few non-enthusiasts are willing to pay 100$ for their case. This 60$ shoebox looks ok for a build and forget type of PC, but the airflow needs improving. At stock it doesn’t seem capable to dissipate more than 30W below 40dB.

    It’s a good idea using a 2100 non-T for testing, there’s no point in getting a cheap case with an expensive processor. The test results simply point out that for a 65W CPU some tinkering is needed in order to have a silent PC.

    • Anonymous Coward
    • 8 years ago

    I was very interested to read the view, since I am a big fan of classic-sized Shuttle cases. Looks like Shuttle wins this contest pretty easily, however! Also I think you where [b<]far[/b<] too kind when discussing the appearance of the case. Hey TR, you wanna do a favor for small-case computing fans? Review some of the "T" and "S" Core i3/5/7 CPUs and find out if they are any good. They have 35W, 45W or 65W thermal limits with lower initial clock speeds and big turbo boosts, which may or may not be useful given the tiny thermal envelopes. The models are i5-2390T, i5-2500T, i5-2400S, i5-2500S, i7-2600S, at least two of which have 1.0ghz of turbo. Throw in a i3-2120 and a popular mid-range quad i5, and see what happens! [url<]http://www.tranquilpcshop.co.uk/[/url<] makes a totally passive mini-itx case, but discrete graphics are more or less impossible. I also saw two companies the US something similar but I stupidly lost the links and don't know how to find them again.

      • stuart4
      • 8 years ago
        • Anonymous Coward
        • 8 years ago

        Awesome. Maybe I’m ignorant, but I had no idea they existed until I was searching in vain for someplace selling the i7-2600S and I stumbled on them. I think TR should cover them or some similar product, its a real loss for techies that these things go unnoticed.

        A bit expensive, and I’m not happy about the integrated Intel GPU. Maybe a i5-2405S would work OK, but I want a machine that I can play some games on. Right now I have a Shuttle with a C2D 1.8ghz to 2.8ghz (depending on the settings) and a R-5670. Works well except its rather noisy.

    • Jambe
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]Thermaltake actually uses four screws on the exterior, making the process of removing the cover all the more tedious.[/quote<] Look what we have become! /fun-poking Nice review; more ITX/mATX reviews would be appreciated! I'm not sure about the red trim, but it could be far worse.

    • swampfox
    • 8 years ago

    Appreciate these mini-ITX reviews. Very interesting. Thanks!

    • d0g_p00p
    • 8 years ago

    I’m more interested in the Pearl Izumi shoes than the case. Nice review though, always like TR case reviews.

      • Dissonance
      • 8 years ago

      In that case… the soles are nice and flexy for walking, and the lugs are tall enough that my Crank Bros cleats don’t click-clack on the ground. But the flex impedes power transfer, so if I’m just riding, I’ll wear my Sidis instead.

    • Duck
    • 8 years ago

    Thought you would be interested…

    This case has other versions by other brands. Thermaltake is not the ODM. The A+ Cupid 3 for example, or the Apex MI-008.

    The PSU should be taken out. It would be too loud. You only need a pico PSU and a power adaptor. Higher efficiency and fanless 🙂

    A 120mm fan will fit perfectly right next to the motherboard in that little gap. It will require cutting of metal though. But some people will be able to do that.

      • flip-mode
      • 8 years ago

      Yeah, this case is screaming for a power brick-type PSU.

      • esterhasz
      • 8 years ago

      Yes, they should really just design it for a picoPSU and directly ship it that way. A 120mm header would be a must, too. Even at very low noise levels you get decent airflow and there would be so much more flexibility concerning components…

        • Chrispy_
        • 8 years ago

        They should just design it, period.
        The word “design” implies that someone qualified as a designer did some thinking.

      • obarthelemy
      • 8 years ago

      I tried replacing the PSU with a Be Quiet SFX Power – 300W. No better.

      • NeelyCam
      • 8 years ago

      Yes. The case I used for my silent SB build looks very similar – that was an Asus case. The only major difference I can see is that the Asus one didn’t have a side slot for a hard drive.

      I took out the PSU (replacing it with a picoPSU), leaving room for a big passive CPU heatsink. My memory didn’t have heatsink fins, so I could fit a HDD in the “external” 3.5″ slot (which in my case was internal). SSD got velcro’d to the side panel.

    • flip-mode
    • 8 years ago

    Thanks for the review Mr. Gasior. I’ve seen that case on the shelf in Micro Center and it seemed to exude an air of cheapness, so much so that my eye lingered not. While cheapness can be acceptable in many circumstances, the clearance issues inside this case are frightening to me. I think I would rather pay the extra $40 for the Silverstone SG05 and not only get more room but probably much higher quality too.

      • NeelyCam
      • 8 years ago

      If you replace the PSU with picoPSU, you’ll have a ton of space.

      • Chrispy_
      • 8 years ago

      [url<]https://techreport.com/gallery/img.x?sz=gallery_full&id=52238[/url<] I draw your attention to the high-quality panel fit between the steel cover and the top face of the plastic facia. I would have been able to design this better within the first 90 minutes of my seminar on injection moulding as an engineering student.

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