Do you religiously follow the Econobox section of our periodic system guides? If so, we’ve been testing an enclosure that might pique your interest. Fractal Design has taken a stab at creating a high-airflow chassis with limited frills and price point that falls within spitting distance of the Econobox’s budget. Say hello to the Core 3000, which is selling for only $65 right now.
Despite being classified as a mid-tower chassis, the Core 3000 is one of the smallest such cases we’ve bumped heads with to date. Even so, our test subject can accept full-sized ATX motherboards in addition to high-end graphics cards up to 16 inches long. Let’s see if this steel box has the mettle to go toe-to-toe with its pricier competitors.
When we first laid hands on the Core 3000, it had seen better days. Somewhere on its way to our labs, the chassis was impacted hard enough to twist the frame, dislodge the hard drive bays, warp the side panels, and bend in the metal behind the rear thumb screws. Interestingly, the shipping carton showed no visible signs of damage, so the blame finger remains in motion, without a definitive target. At least one Newegg review mentions receiving the Core 3000 in a similar state, so the issue doesn’t appear to be isolated to our sample.
After assessing the situation and rooting through the tool box for a suitable pair of pliers, a repair attempt was made. The end result of our metal-shop flashback looked good enough to proceed without requiring a replacement unit.
The Core 3000’s exterior bears a strong resemblance to the Antec Three Hundred, but Fractal has varied the design enough to create a distinctive look all its own. The case is all black and features a mesh face framed in an angular plastic bezel. Behind the mesh sits a thin layer of porous foam to filter out any stray dust particles caught in the eddies of the intake fan.
“Understated” is the best way to describe the case’s outward appearance. The Core 3000 blends in neutrally with the environment, evoking neither lust nor repulsion. It seemingly looks up at you requesting nothing more than some internal components and an outlet with which to power them. Flashy chrome accents are nowhere to be found, and the only LEDs are for the utilitarian power and hard-drive activity indicators. The HDD indicator has an old-school red glow, which deviates from the blue and white LEDs common among modern cases. As a sucker for electronic nostalgia, I must admit that I rather enjoy the bright red throwback.
More of the Core
The top of the case hosts two fan mounts, each capable of holding 120-mm or 140-mm spinners. The mount toward the rear is fitted with a 1,000-RPM, 140-mm exhaust fan; you’ll have to come up with your own fan for the second mount.
From this vantage point, we get our first look at the front port cluster. A standard complement of ports and buttons is provided, including 3.5-mm headphone and microphone jacks and four USB 2.0 ports. Front-panel USB 3.0 connectivity is rare among cases at this end of the price spectrum.
Like most of Fractal’s enclosures, the Core 3000 has only two external 5.25″ drive bays. An adapter that transforms one of them into a 3.5″ bay is included. South of the bays, the blank stare of the expansive mesh front panel conceals two more fan mounts: one empty mount drilled for 120-mm air-pushers, and the other occupied by a 140-mm, 1,000-RPM fan.
Another mount can be found on the left panel, which can accommodate 120- or 140-mm fans. The right panel is free from mounts and ventilation holes. Both side pieces are affixed to the chassis using two thumbscrews apiece.
Similar to other cases sporting bottom PSU mounts, the Core 3000 has a removable dust filter for the ventilation holes directly beneath the power supply. While dust filters may be something we take for granted in high-end enclosures, it’s nice to see them appear in cheaper cases. Not all of the Core’s intake vents are filtered, though. The 120-mm fan mount that sits next to the PSU emplacement in the bottom panel isn’t covered by the filter for the PSU fan.
Moving around back, we catch a glimpse of aesthetic excess. The white fan blades and expansion slot covers contrast starkly with the darkness found throughout the rest of the enclosure. I’ve always dug Fractal’s white-on-black design cues, and it’s nice to see the iconic look maintained in the company’s lower-end cases. From the back, the Core 3000 looks more expensive than it actually is.
The rear exhaust fan is a 120-mm unit that spins at 1,200 RPM. If you’ve been counting, that’s a total of seven mounts and three included fans—impressive. Fractal also includes grommet-lined holes for water-cooling tubing or other cabling. The seven expansion slots should be good for everything short of quad-double-wide SLI or CrossFire setups.
Under the hood
Removing the side panels is like unwrapping a gift. Similar to the Define R3 we tested a while back, the Core’s internals look simply fantastic. Everything is painted black, with the exception of contrasting white fan blades, slot covers, and drive sleds.
There are six sleds in total, and each one has rubber grommets to dampen hard-drive vibrations. Holes have been drilled into each sled to accommodate 2.5″ SSDs or mechanical drives, too. If you’re worried about the tool-less sleds popping out of place, they can be secured to the cage using thumb screws.
The sleds are exactly the same as the ones found in the Define R3. Unlike the R3, however, the Core 3000 has an extra trick up its sleeve. The drive cage holding the top three sleds can be removed, improving airflow from the front intake and allowing the installation of graphics cards up to 16″ long. With the cage in place, the Core will only accept graphics cards up to 10.6″ in length.
The motherboard tray is just large enough to accept full-sized ATX motherboards, as well as those that conform to the microATX and Mini-ITX form factors. A cutout in the tray behind the CPU region provides easy access to a cooler’s retention plate. Also present are several cable management cutouts intended to help keep things nice and tidy on the inside.
Unfortunately, Fractal doesn’t provide anywhere near enough room behind the motherboard tray to cram excess cabling. At best, the distance between the tray and the side panel measures just half an inch. The cable management pain caused by this minuscule gap is further exacerbated by the protruding lip of the hard drive cage, which makes it difficult to stuff cabling behind the drive sleds. The motherboard tray also lacks cutouts along the top for routing the auxiliary 12V power connector to the motherboard.
As an added bonus, the Core comes with a three-fan speed controller that consumes one of the rear expansion slots. This accessory enables builders to exercise more control over their systems’ cooling and acoustic properties, but the included three-pin case fans can also be plugged into motherboard headers or other fan-control units. I found that the fan controller added more clutter and cable management headaches to the build process, so I’d rather plug the case fans directly into the motherboard. That said, few motherboards have good speed control for their fan headers, and some don’t have enough of ’em to feed the Core 3000’s trio of spinners. Bundling a fan controller with such an inexpensive case is a nice touch. So is sheathing the cables coming off each of the internal fans. The cabling associated with the fan controller doesn’t get the same treatment, though.
All built up
Assembling a system inside the Core 3000 is a straightforward affair as long as you know how to use a Phillips screwdriver. The overall fit is a little tight, though.
Despite accepting full-sized ATX motherboards, the case does not appear to have been designed with edge-mounted Serial ATA ports in mind. Getting our test system’s two SATA cables secured to the motherboard was a nerve-wracking ordeal, and more than once I was certain the ports were going to break free from the board. An extra centimeter of clearance would have been desirable, seeing as most full-sized motherboards use edge mounted ports these days.
The story is similar behind the motherboard tray. There is so little space between the tray and the side panel that I was forced to adopt a “mash down and pray” approach to getting the panel back on. Adding clearance behind the motherboard tray could have created an excellent pocket for excess cables without compromising the overall size of the chassis.
My only other quibble with the build experience is something I’ve encountered with numerous cases—not just Fractal’s. I am talking about the lip created by the enclosure’s frame, which directly covers the expansion-slot screws on the Core 3000. This overlap makes it impossible to get a straight shot at the screws using a standard screwdriver, and the angle of attack promotes cross-threading that can ultimately strip the associated screw holes. Removing the part of the frame blocking the screws should rectify what has become a widespread nuisance in the PC enclosure world. Are you listening, industry? Excellent, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
|Dimensions||7.9″ x 16.9″ x 18.9″ (200 x 430 x 480 mm)|
|Weight||15.7 lbs (7.1 kg)|
|Supported form factors||Mini-ITX, micro ATX, ATX|
|3.5″ drive bays||6|
|2.5″ drive bays||6 (Shared with 3.5″ bays)|
|5.25″ drive bays||2|
|Fan mounts||3 x 120 mm
4 x 120/140 mm
|Included fans||2 x 140 mm
1 x 120 mm
|Max graphics card length||10.6″ (270 mm)
16.5″ (420 mm) with upper HDD bay removed
|Max CPU cooler height||6.3″ (160 mm)|
|Max PSU length||6.3″ (160 mm)
9.8″ (250 mm) without bottom fan installed
|Gap behind motherboard||0.375-0.5″ (10-13 mm)|
The table above summarizes the rest of the Core 3000’s particulars. Fractal claims the case can only accept CPU coolers up to 6.3″ tall, but we had no problem squeezing in our Thermaltake Frio tower, which rises nearly 6.5″ off the CPU socket.
Our testing methods
Obsessive readers may 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 testbed.
|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|
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 across reviews, the parts for this system were chosen because they use roughly the same amount of power as Cyril’s at full load. Using a Kill-a-watt P3 power meter, I measured the following peak power utilization numbers at the wall.
|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’m 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 have approximately the same power and thermal characteristics as today’s high-end hardware.
Below is a list of the relevant software pieces used in this review.
Some further notes on our test methods:
- Noise levels were measured using an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level Meter placed six inches from the side, front, and top of each case. Ambient noise levels were below the 40-dB threshold of the Extech meter.
- Each case was tested with its stock cooling fans. All side panels and doors were secured in place, and dust filters were installed in their factory positions. The ambient room temperature was measured at 22°C during testing. AMD’s Cool ‘n Quiet dynamic speed throttling technology was enabled, and the CPU fan was set to run at a constant speed of 2,100 RPM. This fan speed was settled upon after much trial and error, and it represents the best balance between cooling performance and noise.
- Idle temperature readings were taken with the system sitting at the Windows desktop with 0-1% CPU utilization. After setting this idle baseline, we moved onto a GPU load consisting of the Unigine Heaven benchmark running 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 for the duration of the stress test. Then, we applied a full system load by adding a four-way instance of Prime95 using the “in-place FFTs (Max heat/power consumption)” setting. Temperatures were allowed to stabilize before taking readings at each load level.
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.
Similar to the BitFenix Shinobi and Corsair Carbide 400R we’ve reviewed previously, the Core 3000 is tailored for airflow rather than silence. With three fans and a liberal use of mesh throughout, one might expect the Core to offer strong cooling performance but to sound a bit raucous. Unlike the other acoustically unfettered cases, though, the Core 3000 tosses a fan speed controller into the mix. Let’s see where this development leads.
The Core’s three system fans were all connected to the included fan speed controller, and testing was performed at both low and high speed settings. We’ve included results for the NZXT H2, BitFenix Shinobi, Fractal Design Define R3, and Corsair Carbide 400R for reference. Because the Core 3000, H2, and Define R3 feature factory fan controllers, they were tested at both high and low fan speed settings.
With the exception of hard-drive temperatures, the Core 3000 puts up numbers that as good or better than all the other cases we’ve tested to date. Particularly interesting are the CPU temperatures, which are significantly lower (at the high fan speed) than the next closest competitor, the Carbide 400R.
I suspect the Core 3000 keeps the CPU so cool because of the case’s relatively compact nature. The 140-mm top fan and the 120-mm fan at the rear are both very close to the CPU heatsink, allowing hot air to be exhausted quickly.
So we know that the Core 3000 is a pretty cool customer, but are lower temperatures worthwhile if she sounds like a 747 on takeoff? To quantify the racket, we measured the noise emitted from each case.
Unsurprisingly, the Core 3000 is one of the loudest cases we have tested. On the whole, however, it’s slightly quieter than our reigning loudmouth, the Carbide 400R. The fan speed controller is good for shaving off a decibel here and there, but it didn’t dramatically alter the Core’s noise profile during our testing.
Having reviewed quite a few cases, we’ve noticed that charting the decibel readings from our sound level meter doesn’t always tell the whole story. Those measurements are great for illustrating the overall noise output, but they don’t identify whether that noise is a high-pitched whine, a low rumble, or something in between. With that in mind, we’ve been developing a new test that will hopefully paint a better picture of a case’s acoustic characteristics.
This new test captures audio recordings of our assembled test system in a silent room. We then run a spectrum analysis on audio file produced and plot the case’s sound signature across a range of frequencies from 30Hz to 15,000Hz—the limits of our microphone. We used an Audio Technica ATR-2500 USB mic placed approximately 1.5″ from the side and front of the case. Mono audio was recorded at CD quality with 16 bits of resolution at 44.1kHz. The spectrum data was plotted and exported using Audacity’s Plot Spectrum feature with a Blackman-Harris window, a linear frequency, and a size of 4096. We’ve cut off our charts after 4,000Hz to highlight the most relevant portion of each case’s acoustic profile. At higher frequencies, the lines really start to converge, indicating less difference between our subjects.
This is a new method for us, so we haven’t been able to test all of the cases in our stable. The Core 3000 will have to make do with the Carbide 400R as its only competition. Both cases were tested with their fans plugged directly into the motherboard.
When analyzing the graphs above, it’s important to note that sound pressure levels and frequencies both influence our perception of loudness. To the human ear, high-pressure sounds at lower frequencies can appear to be just as loud as low-pressure sounds occurring at higher frequencies, a concept described by the equal-loudness contour. The case noise we recorded is a constant hum, which is similar to the steady tone associated with equal-loudness contour curves. Spikes along the curve represent variations in the sound produced, and the Core 3000 looks fairly similar to the Carbide 400R.
These cases sound similar to the naked ear both at idle and under load, so they’re probably not the best subjects for our first stab at this kind of testing. It’s interesting to see the separation between idle and load values starting at about 1500 Hz, though. This change in pitch is likely due to the graphics card cooler spinning up under load.
Despite the unfortunate initial state of our Core 3000, its cooling prowess and ability to house high-end components in a modestly sized space have left a positive impression. From a cooling perspective, this case is a rock star. It comes with three large fans and provides space for four extra ones on top of that, plus a fan controller. These fans allowed the Core 3000 to achieve lower temperatures than the pricier Corsair Carbide 400R for most of our system’s components—all while generating less noise.
Other highlights include plenty of front-panel USB 2.0 ports, stylish white accent pieces, dust filters on most intake grills, and, for me, the red hard-drive activity indicator. The Core 3000’s understated styling may be a turn off for those who feel the need to be the center of attention, but others will surely find the muted design appealing.
Once you start building inside the Core 3000, some flaws do become apparent. The interior space is cramped, attaching edge-mounted SATA cables is frightening, and there’s little room to hide excess cabling. If Fractal Design expanded the width of the motherboard tray and the size of the gap behind it, this would very nearly be the perfect budget case.
With a $65 street price, the Core 3000 at least has the budget angle covered. But is this a good enough case to dethrone our current Econobox champion? Tough call. Our current favorite, the Antec One Hundred, costs $15 less yet features more external drive bays and internal expansion slots. Despite being slightly smaller, the Core 3000 has a better hard-drive mounting system, more fans and associated mounts, its own fan speed controller, and support for longer graphics cards. You tend to get what you pay for in the world of budget cases, and the Core 3000 definitely gives you more. Whether that’s enough for the Econobox will have to wait until the next guide is published, but in the meantime, it’s hard to argue with the Core 3000’s value proposition.