Mini-ITX motherboards have come a long way since the early days of soldered-on processors and PCI expansion cards. Current offerings have standard desktop sockets, PCI Express x16 slots, and peripheral ports up the wazoo. They can accommodate some of the fastest processors and GPUs available today.
It’s still difficult to find truly enthusiast-grade Mini-ITX enclosures, however. Most cases designed to accommodate the form factor have caveats, including limited support for larger coolers, graphics cards, and PSUs. Also, their cramped internals leave little room for mechanical drive arrays and can make the building process a royal pain.
There is one rather striking deviation from the norm: BitFenix’s Prodigy. This Mini-ITX box has little trouble accommodating full-sized desktop parts, and it has more drive bays than most mid-towers. Builder-friendly amenities abound, making assembly incredibly easy. I recently built a couple of systems inside the Prodigy for a special project you’ll read about soon, and I gained some insight into the case along the way.
The first thing you need to know is that the Prodigy isn’t all that small. At 9.8″ x 15.9″ x 13.7″ (or 250 x 404 x 359 mm), it’s more than double the size of the Silverstone SG07 pictured above on the left. The SG07 is already pretty beefy for a Mini-ITX chassis, so the Prodigy is positively monstrous. I’ve seen microATX enclosures that are smaller.
Of course, there are no rules that dictate how small a Mini-ITX chassis should be. ATX cases come in a range of sizes from modest mid-towers to gargantuan monoliths, so perhaps we should expect similar variety among Mini-ITX designs. It’s also worth noting that the Prodigy’s footprint isn’t much bigger than the SG07’s; the main difference between these enclosures is their height.
The Prodigy puts a new twist on a nostalgic design; it looks like the goth love child of the Power Mac G3 and G5. Despite the obvious influences, though, the Prodigy doesn’t feel like a copycat—not unless you’re one of those people who believes Apple has a monopoly on specific shapes.
The Prodigy’s exterior is as much about function as it is about form. Mini-ITX systems are ideal for LAN gaming rigs, and the handles on the top make it easy to carry the system. Matching handles at the bottom suspend the case 1.75″ (44 mm) off the floor, ensuring ample airflow for the bottom-mounted PSU bay. All four handles are made of flexible composite plastic, so they provide a hint of cushioning if you should drop the case inadvertently. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. While the handles spring back to their original shape after being deformed, your system’s internal components may not recover so gracefully.
Plastic parts can feel a little cheap, but the Prodigy’s handles have a soft-touch coating that’s really quite nice. The smooth, matte finish won’t pick up fingerprints, either. Unfortunately, the color isn’t a perfect match for the black metal side and front panels, especially under bright lighting. Replicating the same hue across different materials isn’t easy, and you can see similarly subtle mismatches in the white, red, and orange versions of the Prodigy. Kudos to BitFenix for making those other options available, though. The Prodigy looks particularly cute in color.
From the rear, we can see the Prodigy’s liberal use of thumbscrews. These screws anchor the side panels, PSU bracket, and expansion cards, and BitFenix throws in a few more for the single optical bay. Sadly, the thumbscrews pre-installed on the Prodigy cases we received were too tight to unscrew by hand. Having to use a screwdriver kind of nullified the intended convenience, at least for the initial setup.
The left side panel is riddled with ventilation holes. The Prodigy was designed to house potent hardware, and it’s well-equipped to keep even high-end parts cool. This thing has room for up to five fans, and it comes with two 120-mm spinners in the box. One of those fans is configured as a rear exhaust, while the other serves as an intake behind the front bezel. The stock fans have three-pin connectors and are reasonably quiet, but they’re nothing special.
Although the rear bracket comes loaded with a 120-mm fan, it also supports 140-mm units. There’s some flexibility with the front intake, as well. You can add a second 120-mm fan, or you can replace the existing one with something larger. The front intake has mounting holes for 140, 180, 200, and 230-mm fans.
On the black version of the Prodigy, the front fan mounts sit behind a mesh panel that covers the face of the chassis. This configuration should provide more airflow than on the white and colored variants of the case. (Those have solid front bezels with slim vents around their edges.)
Prying off the front mesh to clean it requires removing the side panel, which is a fairly involved process. Thankfully, taking out the other dust filters is simpler. The filter for the PSU intake slides out of the bottom of the case with ease, and the one covering the top fans pops off with little effort.
Up top, we find two more 120-mm fan emplacements. There’s enough room for a 240-mm liquid cooling radiator, but installing one will cost you the optical bay. A double-wide radiator can also be attached to the front panel. That configuration requires removing both of the Prodigy’s drive cages, which might seem like a horrible idea. Amazingly, though, the Prodigy still has five 2.5″ drive mounts even with the cages removed. To get a better sense of how that’s possible, we need to take a look inside the case…
Peering inside the Prodigy
The Prodigy’s generous proportions aren’t just for show. They’re responsible for the chassis’ roomy internals, and BitFenix has made the most of the available space. Opening the side panels reveals an internal layout reminiscent of contemporary mid-towers.
There are some differences, though. Instead of laying the motherboard along one of the side panels, the Prodigy positions it parallel to the floor. That layout leaves enough vertical clearance for common tower-style air coolers. Heatsinks as tall as 6.9″ (175 mm) are supported. Of course, adding a fan to the top-panel mount directly above the motherboard will reduce that clearance somewhat.
Most Mini-ITX cases have very limited cooler support, so the Prodigy’s tall main compartment really stands out. The airy design also makes inserting the motherboard a breeze. You can slide in the board easily from either side, regardless of whether the memory and cooler are installed already. With access on both sides, getting the motherboard into the chassis and lined up with the rear I/O shield is a trivial task.
Bolting down the motherboard can a little more difficult, however, because you’ll need a screwdriver shorter than about 6″ (152 mm) to avoid butting up against the top of the case. And since the motherboard posts don’t line up with the opening in the top panel, you can’t thread a longer screwdriver through the case’s ceiling. This is an admittedly minor annoyance, especially considering the hoops one has to jump through to install the motherboard in some Mini-ITX chassis. Still, screwdriver length isn’t a concern with most other cases.
BitFenix stacks two drive cages behind the front bezel. The top cage can be removed without tools, while the bottom one requires a screwdriver to extract. Ditching the bottom cage is only necessary if you want to run a radiator in the front panel. I’m guessing few users will do that, especially since there’s room for a similar radiator up top.
I expect more folks will be inclined to remove the Prodigy’s top cage to make room for longer graphics cards. With the cage in place, the maximum graphics card length is a relatively stubby 7.1″ (180 mm). Pulling out the cage provides enough clearance for cards as long as 13.1″ (335 mm), which means even the ultra-high-end GeForce Titan and Radeon HD 7990 will fit. That said, cards with triple-slot coolers aren’t supported, since there are only two expansion slot openings at the back.
The systems I’ve been building inside the Prodigy use integrated graphics, but out of curiosity, I popped a GeForce GTX 680 into one of them. Installing the card took all of a few seconds. The hardest part of the process? Loosening the thumbscrews holding the expansion slot covers in place. My only concern was that, since the vents in the left side panel weren’t filtered, the GPU cooler was free to suck dust into the case.
The main drive cage slides out on tool-free rails and houses three sleds ready for 3.5″ or 2.5″ drives. Desktop drives are held in place by metal pins backed by rubber dampers, but you’ll need to screw in notebook drives and SSDs manually. If you’re worried about the sleds sliding around, each one can be screwed to the cage, as well.
Two more sleds populate the lower cage, which is screwed to the floor of the chassis. The sleds slide out to the left in the default configuration, but the entire dual-cage assembly is reversible.
The Prodigy has five additional 2.5″ drive mounts outside of the cages. One of those mounts lies between the lower cage and the bottom panel, while two line the wall of the PSU area, and another two are situated on the inside of the right side panel. The only thing missing is an external drive dock. Then again, I can’t think of any Mini-ITX cases—or even microATX ones—with built-in docks, so it’s hard to fault BitFenix for that omission.
Pictured above is the right panel, which houses the SSD bays, the external USB and audio ports, the power and reset buttons, and the power and HDD lights. Some folks may prefer those ports on the left side, so it’s a good thing the panels can be swapped. However, that maneuver requires detaching the SSD cage and transplanting it onto the other panel (or removing it entirely). Swapping the panels also means losing the venting holes next to the graphics card.
Unlike older Mini-ITX cases, the Prodigy includes a pair of USB 3.0 ports. These are tied to one of those newfangled internal headers, and BitFenix provides an adapter for internal USB 2.0 connectors. That said, you’re on your own if you need to route USB connectivity from the rear-panel ports.
As I fine-tune the systems living in our twin Prodigy enclosures, I grow to appreciate the openness and flexibility of the case’s loft-like floor plan. There is one room that feels claustrophobic, though. The PSU bay is tight, with barely enough clearance for the Rosewill Fortress 550W units packed into our rigs. We had to route cables carefully just to get that PSU into the chassis. Admittedly, we’re exceeding the maximum size by a smidgen. Our units are 6.4″ (163 mm) long; the official FAQ recommends using PSUs no longer than 5.9″ (150 mm), and it identifies the maximum length as 6.3″ (160 mm). You’re better off sticking with shorter ATX units to avoid the hassle.
Happily, thanks to the Prodigy’s width, there’s plenty of room for excess cabling on either side of the PSU. The motherboard tray and second internal wall are perforated with routing holes, making it easy to lace a relatively clean layout with only the zip-ties included in the box. I also like that the power supply sits on fat rubber bumpers to dampen vibration. The reversible back plate is a nice touch, too, especially given the filtered grill in the bottom panel.
The Prodigy isn’t for everyone. Indeed, the fact that BitFenix has dared to build such a large Mini-ITX case seems to irk some folks. Let the haters hate, though. For some applications, bigger is simply better. The Prodigy’s generous size allows it to do things other Mini-ITX enclosures can’t, like stack five 3.5″ mechanical hard drives alongside five SSDs in a storage-centric config. You can also drop in a massive water cooler and uber-high-end graphics card and be the envy of the next LAN party. Were it not for my discrete sound card, I could swap mobos and squeeze my current desktop into the thing without any fuss.
With an affordable $90 asking price, the Prodigy is even suitable for budget systems. You’ll pay about twice as much for a fancier Silverstone Mini-ITX case like the SG07, which admittedly includes a 600W PSU. The SG07 is smaller, too, but it’s but not nearly as easy to work inside—or as flexible.
Of course, Mini-ITX has some inherent flexibility issues: you’re limited to a single PCIe expansion slot, and graphics cards usually have dibs on that. Folks who need additional slots may be better served by a microATX motherboard and a matching enclosure. After all, Corsair’s enthusiast-friendly Obsidian 350D microATX case is only 16% larger than the Prodigy by volume, and Silverstone’s SG10 is actually smaller than the BitFenix case—though, like the 350D, it’s a little more expensive.
Regardless of your affinity for Mini-ITX, it’s hard not to praise what BitFenix has accomplished. The Prodigy is small enough to be unobtrusive, attractive enough to put on display, open enough to be easy to work in, accommodating enough to house a range of systems, and affordable enough for all. This is still a niche product, but apart from a few minor niggles, BitFenix appears to have nailed it.