Like most PC enthusiasts, I like power—and lots of it. It’s especially cool when that power comes in a small package. While chipmakers are cramming more and more power into ever-smaller areas of silicon, though, the typical ATX PC case remains pretty darn big—especially considering most people may never use its copious expandability.
I recently reviewed Gigabyte’s Brix Gaming BXi5-G760, a barebones mini-PC that packs a big punch. The Brix Gaming is expensive when fully loaded, and its tiny fans are quite noisy, but I was still impressed by the amount of computing power per cubic inch it offers. My daily driver PC resides in a Corsair Obsidian 450D mid-tower, and that case looked a little silly next to the diminutive Brix. Like Cyril in that blog post I linked, my experience with the Brix got me thinking about how big my PC really needed to be.
The mini-ITX form factor might be the answer. Mini-ITX cases are big enough to accommodate larger, quieter case fans and graphics cards with dual-slot coolers, but they usually take up much less space than the average tower. They can also be better deals than NUC-style barebones systems.
Today, I’m going to look at Cooler Master’s Elite 110, a mini-ITX case that rings in at only $49.99. While it dwarfs the Brix Gaming, the Elite 110 is still much smaller than my Obsidian 450D. I’m hopeful that it represents a Goldilocks zone for small-form-factor computing. Is it just right? Let’s find out.
The Elite 110 is one of the most compact PC cases I’ve ever used. I daresay that it’s cute, even. It’s only 8.2″ tall by 10.3″ wide by 11.1″ deep, or 208 x 260 x 280 mm.
In the design department, the Elite 110 flies under the radar. Its clean black exterior has only one flourish: a blue LED-backlit power button in the form of the Cooler Master logo. This blue LED is mercifully subdued, unlike many that I’ve come across in various cases and peripherals over recent years. The case is available in one finish, which Cooler Master calls “Midnight Black.” Seems a bit redundant to me, but there you have it.
The outer cover and internals of the Elite 110 are steel, while the front panel is plastic covered with a metal mesh. The case is pretty hefty despite its size, weighing in at 5.9 lbs, or 2.65 kg.
The front panel is vented across its entire surface, which provides plenty of ingress for cooling air. The top and sides of the case are vented, as well. Save for a sheet of foam behind the front panel, the Elite 110 doesn’t have any filters, so I would expect dust to accumulate inside. Keep some canned air handy.
On the left side of the front panel, there are two USB 3.0 ports, headphone and microphone jacks, a red drive activity LED, and a reset button.
At the rear of the case, you’ll find cut-outs for the power supply and the motherboard’s port cluster. The Elite 110 can handle ATX PSUs up to 7.1″ (180 mm) in length, although Cooler Master recommends a standard 5.6″ (142-mm) PSU length to allow room for cable routing. The case also has space for a dual-slot graphics card, as evidenced by the two expansion-slot covers.
Finally, the bottom of the case is dotted with four hard plastic feet.
As a whole, the design of the Elite 110 is what I like to see in a case: simple, understated, and purposeful. The only notable omission is a 5.25″ optical drive bay, but I doubt most people will miss it these days. If you really need an optical drive, you’ll have to grab an external one—or step up to the larger Elite 120 or Elite 130.
I’ve covered most of the Elite 110’s specifications already, but here’s a convenient table for comparison with our other case reviews:
|Cooler Master Elite 110|
|Dimensions (H x W x D)||8.2″ x 10.3″ x 11.1″ (208 x 260 x 280 mm)|
|Weight||5.9 lbs (2.65 kg)|
|3.5″/2.5″ drive mounts||3|
|2.5″ drive mounts||1|
|Fan mounts||1x 120 mm (front) or 1x 140 mm (front), 2x 80 mm (side)|
|Included Fans||1 Cooler Master 120-mm front fan|
|Front panel I/O||2x USB 3.0
|Max. graphics card length||8.3″ (210 mm)|
|Max. CPU cooler height||3″ (76 mm)|
Now that I’ve toured the Elite 110’s exterior and key specs, let’s take a look inside.
Getting inside the Elite 110 is simple. To open it, I simply had to remove four thumb screws at the rear of the case. I then lifted off the outer shell to reveal the interior.
The bottom of the case doubles as the motherboard tray. Note that there are no cutouts for access to the back of the CPU socket. Any fancy coolers with special backplates will need to be affixed to the motherboard before they’re installed.
The left side of the enclosure has mounting points for two 80-mm fans, a pair of 2.5″ mechanical drives or SSDs, and a single 3.5″ hard drive.
Note that the fan and drive mounts overlap, so you’ll have to choose between cooling and storage. Cooler Master also warns that you can install either a graphics card with a dual-slot cooler or a pair of 80-mm fans, but not both.
The rail at the top of the case has mounting points for two more 2.5″ or 3.5″ drives. The Elite 110 has no proper drive bays to speak of, toolless or otherwise. There simply isn’t room.
Cooler Master provides rubber grommets for 2.5″ drives that slide into keyhole-like slots, but these slots are only present on the side bay. If you want to install drives on the top rail, they have to be hard-mounted with screws. I find this decision curious, since 3.5″ mechanical drives would benefit the most from the grommets’ vibration-dampening properties.
Four plastic expanding posts secure the front panel of the case to the frame. Removing this panel reveals the included 120-mm intake fan, whose vent doubles as a radiator mount. To install a 120-mm radiator, the Elite 110’s manual directs that the intake fan be fastened to the outside wall, with the radiator mounted to the inside wall. According to Cooler Master, the vent can also accommodate a 140-mm fan, but you then lose the ability to install a radiator.
Here’s the separated front panel along with its tentacular bundle of wiring. There’s not much else to it. In keeping with its $50 price, the Elite 110 is a pretty barebones case on the inside.
Now that it’s fully disassembled, the Elite 110 is ready to accommodate a system. Next, I’m going to install my version of TR’s Casewarmer and fire it up.
Building the Casewarmer
When planning my build for the Elite 110, I ran into one big head-scratcher: how is anybody supposed to cool a high-performance CPU in this case? Cooler Master warns that CPU coolers taller than three inches won’t fit. Given this restriction, a survey of Newegg for low-profile CPU coolers didn’t produce many contenders. Even Noctua’s low-profile NH-C14, which Cyril fit into Corsair’s Obsidian 250D, is too tall for this case.
Thankfully, the Elite 110 supports 120-mm closed-loop liquid coolers, and there are many of those available. Cooler Master sent me one of its own: the Seidon 120V. Based on my experience with the Seidon, I think a liquid cooler of some kind is the best solution for this type of case. Not only does the Seidon fit well, but it costs only $50—and as I’ll soon demonstrate, it’s a great performer. The ability to install a tower-style cooler in the Elite 110 would have been nice, but this is just one of the tradeoffs required when working in such a small space.
Before I could install the Seidon and the AMD A10-7850K APU it would be cooling, though, I needed a motherboard. MSI helpfully sent me one of its A88XI AC mini-ITX boards to serve as the foundation of the Casewarmer. The A88XI AC is, as its name suggests, a Socket FM2+ board based on AMD’s A88X platform controller hub. It’s equipped with nearly all of the features I would want in a mini-ITX motherboard, including integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi (along with a pair of beefy antennae), four SATA 6Gbps ports, and support for up to 32GB of DDR3 RAM, which is unusual in mini-ITX motherboards. Many are limited to 16GB.
Those are the highlights; MSI has a complete rundown of the A88XI AC on its site here. One downside is that the A88XI AC only appears to support overclocking with 65W processors. With the 95W A10-7850K that I’m using in the Casewarmer, the MSI EFI locked out all of its CPU overclocking features. The A88XI AC also has some quirks with fan control that I’ll discuss later.
As I noted earlier, there’s no cutout in the back of the Elite 110’s motherboard tray, so I had to install the Seidon 120V before I could secure the motherboard to the case.
Installing the motherboard was easy, but things got a little trickier from there. Because of the semi-rigid nature of the liquid cooler’s tubing, I had to be careful to avoid extreme angles that would stress the fittings at the pump and radiator. I experimented with a couple of orientations of the water block and radiator before settling on one that worked. I found that the Seidon 120V works best with the water block outlets facing the rear of the case and the hoses routed under the power supply. The radiator seems to experience the least stress when its fittings are positioned next to the expansion card bay. The fittings at the water block can swivel, which also helps.
You can’t see it in my pictures of the system, but the Seidon 120V’s pump will light up with a blue LED when everything is connected and working properly. The pump needs to be hooked up to the CPU fan header for power, while the system fan can be connected to any onboard fan header. Since the MSI A88XI AC motherboard I’m using in the Casewarmer only has one such header, I connected the system fan there.
Powering the Casewarmer is a Cooler Master V550 PSU, which Cooler Master provided along with the case and cooler. Like the V750 that Cyril looked at recently, the V550 is a semi-modular unit with 80 Plus Gold certification. Right in line with Cooler Master’s suggested 5.6″ PSU length for this case, the V550 is—you guessed it—exactly 5.6″ long. If you want your own V550, it’ll run you about $90, assuming no rebates are in effect.
To install the PSU, the user manual suggests unscrewing the black metal frame you see at the back of the case, affixing it to your PSU of choice, and then sliding the assembly in from the back before securing it to the case again. Because I’m a rebel who doesn’t read manuals, I had no trouble sliding the PSU into place from above without removing this bracket. The official method would probably work better for longer PSUs, though.
Next, I installed the graphics card. The Elite 110 can accommodate cards up to 8.3″ (210 mm) in length, which rules out a lot of current offerings. The Zotac GeForce GTX 660 Ti I used is only 7.5″ long, but similar cards based on the current generation of Nvidia and AMD GPUs are uncommon. For Nvidia fans, MSI offers a shortened GTX 760, while AMD fans can get a minified R9 270X. The new Geforce GTX 750 Ti should also fit without issue. The Elite 110’s length limitation is unfortunate, but them’s the breaks.
Last up was the storage installation. As I noted earlier, the Elite 110 accommodates drives on two rails: one on the side by the expansion slots, and a removable one at the top.
I wound up installing my 2.5″ SSD above the PSU fan, since the side bay’s grommets would have been wasted on a drive with no moving parts. Also, cable management was less awkward at the top, requiring less of a stretch from the motherboard’s SATA ports. This arrangement partially obstructed the PSU’s air intake, but 2.5″ drives are so small that having one directly above the PSU doesn’t seem to impinge airflow a whole lot. I’d rather trade that little bit of restriction for better cable management.
I used the 3.5″ drive mounting point on the top rail above the GPU. It allows any heat produced by the drive to rise through the top vent, and it obstructs the PSU fan the least. I also tried mounting a 3.5″ drive on the side of the case just to see if it would fit with the GTX 660 Ti in place. While the drive didn’t block the fans of the GPU cooler or collide with its cooling shroud, it was still a tight fit. The drive almost touched the cooler shroud. Beefier GPU coolers might block this 3.5″ mounting point.
Once all of the big components are situated, things are snug inside, but not cramped.
Cable management isn’t the Elite 110’s strong suit, but I had to keep reminding myself that this is only a $50 case. I found that the best places to route cables are the areas in front of the GPU and around the radiator. My final cable routing scheme wasn’t the prettiest in the world, but critically, it doesn’t block the radiator. The Cooler Master V550 power supply’s semi-modular cabling helped to keep excess cabling to a minimum, as well. I probably wouldn’t recommend using a non-modular PSU inside the Elite 110.
Now that the Casewarmer is nestled into its new home, let’s see how cool the Elite 110 keeps it—and how loud the system gets in the process.
Our testing methods
Here are the specifications for the Casewarmer:
|Memory||8GB AMD DDR3-1600 (2x 4GB DIMMs)|
|Graphics card||Zotac GeForce GTX 660 Ti AMP! Edition|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 120GB SSD|
|Power supply||Cooler Master V550|
|CPU cooler||Cooler Master Seidon 120V closed-loop liquid cooler|
|OS||Windows 8.1 Pro|
A big thanks to Cooler Master, Gigabyte, MSI, Zotac, AMD, and Kingston for contributing hardware to make this review possible.
I relied on three software tools to test the Elite 110:
- AIDA64 Engineer for data logging
- Prime95 for CPU torture testing
- Unigine Heaven 4.0 for GPU torture testing
Each test cycle included the following phases:
- 10 minutes of idle time at the Windows 8.1 desktop
- 10 minutes running the Unigine Heaven benchmark
- 10 minutes running both the Unigine Heaven benchmark and the Prime95 CPU torture test
- 10 minutes of idle time at the Windows 8.1 desktop
The tests and methods we employ are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, join us on our forums to discuss them with us.
Here are my test results, plotted over time:
As you can see, the Seidon 120V and Elite 110 combo kept the A10-7850K plenty cool. These CPU temperatures are in line with what we’ve seen from larger cases with tower-style air coolers. The Zotac GeForce GTX 660 Ti AMP! Edition didn’t get too hot, either, relatively speaking. The motherboard got pretty warm, but I never had any stability issues that would imply the temperatures were problematic.
Let’s now take a look at some minimum and maximum numbers:
Since the PSU was drawing in air through the top vent, its fan may not have been doing much to evacuate heat from the area around the CPU socket. That seemed like it might have been a partial cause of the high motherboard temperatures you see above. I ran an informal test with the PSU inverted, though, and I didn’t see any changes in motherboard temperatures over time.
From the start, I had a bit of trouble getting good fan profiles set up for the Elite 110. The MSI A88XI AC motherboard in my test system lacks good fan control software, whether in the EFI or the available Windows utility. The MSI EFI doesn’t allow the system fan to be set to less than 50% of its rated speed, which is a baffling limitation. MSI’s Windows-based Control Center fan utility shares this problem, but by dumb luck, I discovered that running the Fan Tune profiling utility will create a fan curve that runs the system fan well below 50% of its rated speed.
I used this profile for my noise tests, which cut idle noise levels by almost 10 dB. Getting the profile to work all of the time, however, was seriously annoying: every time I restarted Windows, I had to load the Control Center software manually, switch the system fan control to Smart mode, and reload the saved profile from the Fan Tune utility. This routine was a huge pain. Geoff had a glowing impression of the fan control software included with MSI’s Z97 Gaming 7 motherboard, so I have no idea why things are so rough on the A88XI AC.
Since I didn’t have one of TR’s lab-grade decibel meters, I relied on the iOS app dB meter – lux decibel measurement tool to get a rough idea of how loud the Elite 110 gets under idle and load conditions. For reference, the noise floor in my office was around 30 dB, according to the app. I took each measurement about 6″ from the case.
At idle, the sound pressure at the front of the Elite 110 was around 34-35 dB at the front, top, and on the left side. The right side was a little louder, at 39 dB. Under load, the front and the sides of the case went up to 47-50 dB, while the top was the quietest, at 45 dB.
Just as important as raw sound pressure level data is the character of the noise that the Elite 110 produces. The worst offender in my testing was the GPU cooler, which produced a high-pitched whine under load. Second-worst was the included 120-mm fan, which emitted a hum with a distinctive pitch under load. Better fans produce more of a full-spectrum “whoosh” noise, which is easier to ignore. Finally, if I was at the right angle, I could discern the Seidon 120V’s pump noise, which is a steady, low ticking sound.
In all, the Elite 110 is louder than the average tower case, at least under load. That’s not surprising given its cramped confines and lack of vibration-dampening fan mounts or other noise-reducing amenities. Subjectively, my own Corsair Obsidian 450D build stays much quieter when stressed, partially because of its two 140-mm front fans and beefier GPU cooler. When compared to a mini-PC like the Brix Gaming, however, the Elite 110 fares much better. You’ll recall that the Brix Gaming produces 56-60 dBA under load, and its tiny fans are much whinier than the larger 120-mm spinners in the Elite 110 and the V550 PSU.
Given the low cost of entry for the Elite 110 and the Seidon 120V combo, it wouldn’t be a big deal to add a quieter 120-mm fan to one’s shopping cart if noise is a major concern. There’s no way to mitigate the Seidon’s pump noise, but given how well the cooler performs, I could live with the mild ticking. Liquid coolers frequently have a higher noise floor than their air cooling counterparts due to their pumps, anyway.
At the beginning of this review, I wondered whether the Elite 110 represents a Goldilocks zone of small-form-factor PCs. Is it just right?
At only $49.99, the Elite 110 offers a lot of value for the money. Despite its low price, the case doesn’t feel cheap. I like the understated design and the compact footprint. The Elite 110 is small and light enough to make a great dorm or LAN box. Yes, the interior feels a little snug once there’s a system inside, but the assembly process isn’t a pain. This case doesn’t struggle to keep its cool, either, delivering good temperature numbers even with a 95W processor inside. The Seidon 120V liquid cooler deserves at least part of the credit for this good showing.
The Elite 110 isn’t without its flaws. If you’re sticking with the included 120-mm fan, you’ll definitely want to select a motherboard with good fan controls, since the bundled spinner doesn’t sound the greatest at higher speeds. Potential owners will also have to be careful with the 8.27″ (210-mm) length limit for graphics cards. This restriction dampens the appeal of the Elite 110 for the hard-core enthusiast, though shortened versions of mid-range cards like the GTX 760 and R9 270X aren’t bad options.
All told, I’d still be comfortable building a mid-range system in the Elite 110. The case can get a little noisy with a system running at full tilt, but that problem could be mitigated somewhat by careful selection of quieter components, especially on the graphics front. For $20 or so over the asking price, a quieter intake fan could take it from good to great. As it sits, I’m happy to bestow the Elite 110 with TR’s Recommended award.