Design is a big deal in technology products these days, no matter where you look. “Designed by Apple in California” is a household phrase, thanks to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. Google used a significant portion of its last I/O keynote to philosophize about its new Material Design toolkit. The box of the Dyson vacuum tells the story of its genesis in exacting detail. If a company wants to make its products stand out these days, having a Jony Ive, James Dyson, or Matías Duarte on staff seems to help.
Fractal Design’s Define R5 is the latest in the company’s Define series of enclosures. Although I’m not aware of a celebrity designer on Fractal’s payroll, the company still makes a big deal of its design chops, and the evolutionary progression of the Define series is very Apple-like. Aside from the fact that “design” is right there in the name, Fractal’s website and product literature are rich with discussions of Scandinavian design philosophy. The R5 itself has “Designed in Sweden” stamped into its sheet metal, in case you weren’t getting the message.
To paraphrase a Steve Jobs-ism, however, it’s important to remember that design isn’t just about how something looks, but also how it works. Companies can pay as much lip service as they like to the idea of good design, but the rubber has to hit the road at some point. Let’s see whether Fractal Design’s Scandinavian approach has produced an enclosure that measures up.
The Define R5 seems to follow the same design principles as the Ikea furniture in my home: clean, understated, and perhaps a little plain. If Corsair’s Graphite Series 380T is the Ferrari 458 Italia of cases, the Define R5 is the Volvo 740 wagon. The only real flourishes on the R5 are the contrasting white expansion slot covers and fans, plus four chrome feet. Even the twin USB 3.0 ports are colored black instead of the eye-catching blue most other cases use. Fractal emphasizes quiet as a major goal of the Define series, and that theme extends to the R5’s visual presence.
Those black USB 3.0 ports are up top along with the usual headphone and mic jacks, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, and a large power button flanked by a tiny, sunken reset button. If the non-standard USB 3.0 port coloration might cause confusion, at least it’s hard to reset the R5 by mistake. A combination power and disk activity LED is nestled into the center of the front panel, as well. Fractal uses a blue LED here, though it’s mercifully not the eye-searing kind of blue that’s tainted so much hardware in recent years.
I haven’t built a PC with a front door in a long time (remember Antec’s P180?), but the concept has lived on in the Define series. Not only does the door help to keep the exterior clean-looking, but it’s also the first line of defense in the Define R5’s silencing features. Opening the door reveals a foam-lined interior, similar to the Cooler Master Silencio 652S that Cyril recently reviewed. Fractal Design has lined the side and top panels of the R5 with this foam, too. While the door might look like it’s made of metal, it’s really just thick plastic with a metallic veneer.
Behind the door is an easily removable dust filter, a single Fractal Design Dynamic GP14 140-mm fan, and two 5.25″ bays. The door can be easily swapped to open from either side of the case, although it’s not a tool-free process. The switch for the Define R5’s built-in, three-speed fan controller can also be found here.
Around back, there’s another 140-mm spinner, seven expansion slots, and a mount for the power supply at the bottom of the case. No surprises there.
One other thing that caught my notice out of the box: the Define R5 is dense, likely thanks to all of the sound-deadening foam inside. Despite being a little smaller than my own Corsair Obsidian 450D, the R5 weighs almost 10 pounds more, at 24.7 lbs (11.2 kg) versus the Obsidian’s 15.4 lbs (7 kg). That’s even heavier than the massive XFX Type-01 Series Bravo Edition, which weighs in at 23 lbs (10.4 kg).
Here’s the spec sheet for the Define R5, for easy cross-referencing with our other reviews:
|Fractal Design Define R5|
|Dimensions (W x H x D)||9.1″ x 18.2″ x 20.9″ (232 x 462 x 531 mm)|
|Supported motherboards||Mini-ITX, microATX, ATX|
|3.5″ drive bays||8|
|2.5″ drive bays||10 (8 2.5″ or 3.5″ combo bays, 2 dedicated)|
|5.25″ drive bays||2|
|Included Fans||1x Fractal Design Dynamic GP14 140-mm front intake
1x Fractal Design Dynamic GP14 140-mm rear exhaust
|Front panel I/O||2x USB 3.0
2x USB 2.0
|Max. graphics card length||12.2″ (310 mm) with top 3.5″ cage installed
17.3″ (440 mm) with top 3.5″ cage removed
|Max. CPU cooler height||7″ (180 mm)|
|Gap behind motherboard||1.5″|
The Define R5’s base price is $109.99, placing it squarely in competition with our favorite mid-tower, the Corsair Obsidian 450D. I may sound like a broken record when I compare the cases I test to the 450D, but we really like Corsair’s midrange mid-tower here at TR, and as of yet, we haven’t found another enclosure that matches its solid mix of virtues.
The Define R5 I’m reviewing today has two optional features: a windowed side panel and a titanium-colored front panel. The base R5 comes in black or white finishes and lacks the windowed panel. Adding a windowed panel to the black or white R5 is a $10 extra, while the titanium-finished version is $119.99, windowed or not.
Now that we’ve seen the exterior of the Define R5, let’s see what Fractal’s design chops have wrought inside.
Getting inside the Define R5 is a little different than with other cases I’ve tested. The left side panel is secured with both thumbscrews and a push-to-release latch, while the right side panel sticks with a pair of thumbscrews. For both side panels, Fractal Design has fixed the one thing that I hate about the Obsidian 450D (and many other enclosures). Instead of the usual tongue-and-slot system that has to be positioned just so before sliding home properly, the Define R5’s side panels only need to clip in at the front of the case before they can be secured. Bravo, Fractal.
The Define R5’s motherboard tray is pretty conventional by modern standards, with the requisite set of rubber grommets ringing its border. Interestingly, the motherboard tray is recessed a little bit, which helps to explain the R5’s ability to swallow 180-mm-tall CPU coolers. The motherboard tray also features an enormous cutout to facilitate the installation of CPU cooler backplates.
There’s plenty of space for cable routing behind the motherboard tray, plus some thoughtful touches. Fractal includes three Velcro straps in the R5, which are used to route the front-panel cables by default. The Define R5 also has plentiful slots for zip ties in this area, if the Velcro straps aren’t enough. The three fan headers and SATA power connector for the built-in fan controller reside here, as well, along with two 2.5″ drive trays.
The metal drive trays at the front of the R5 can accept up to eight 2.5″ or 3.5″ drives. These trays feel sturdy, and they slide in and out easily. Still, the R5’s drive mounting scheme is my biggest complaint about the case. Mounting a drive to a tray requires four rubber grommets and screws, unlike the simpler snap-on plastic drive trays in almost every other modern case. What’s more, this mounting system means that owners will have to worry about keeping the Define R5’s included hardware organized and stored somewhere. Good luck.
The Define R5 makes up for its somewhat fiddly drive mounting system with its incredible modularity. Every drive cage in the case is removable.
While the drive cages are ostensibly tool-free, the thumbscrews used to secure them are super-tight out of the box, so a screwdriver is a must here, too. With all of the drive cages removed, the R5 can accept radiators up to 360 mm in length behind the front fan mounts, as well as extra fans or radiators at the bottom of the case. The Define R5’s instruction manual suggests that the bottom drive cage can be moved to the middle of the case, which is nice if you need both front radiator support and room for 3.5″ drives. For a full accounting of the various drive cage configurations that are possible with this case, check out the Define R5’s manual.
Another nifty modular feature is the trio of “ModuVent” covers at the top of the case. These foam-backed plastic panels can pop out if you want to mount fans or a radiator to the R5’s ceiling, or they can be left in place for maximum silencing power.
The panels are a neat idea, but I wish Fractal had made their retaining clips more finger-friendly. As it stands, these clips are tiny and difficult to manipulate. It also would have been really slick if Fractal had included a matching magnetic filter for each ModuVent panel, since the top vent is unfiltered when these panels are removed. Corsair includes a magnetic top filter for the Obsidian 450D in the box, so such an add-in wouldn’t be unprecedented.
The omission of a top filter is also strange considering Fractal includes a full-length filter at the bottom of the case. While some builders might put a fan or radiator down here, I think top-mounted fans or radiators are a far more common choice. For those who do wish to add bottom-mounted cooling, removing the drive cages makes room for a pair of 120- or 140-mm fans—or a radiator up to 240 mm in length. Installing fans or radiators here will limit the length of the PSU you can install, however.
The R5’s PSU emplacement is similar to that of other cases I’ve tested recently, which is a good thing. The power supply rests on four wide, rubber feet to prevent vibration from traveling into other parts of the R5’s frame.
With the 5.25″ bays removed, one can mount three 120- or 140-mm fans, or radiators up to 420 mm in length, at the top of the R5. Some radiator sizes are subject to a 55-mm height limit here, however, so be sure to check the manual for compatibility.
The side panels of the R5 are both lined with the same dense foam that we saw behind the front door. Non-windowed R5s have another ModuVent cover on the side panel, and that cover can be removed to make way for another 120- or 140-mm spinner. The windowed R5 gives up that fan mount for its transparency, however.
Overall, the Define R5’s interior is spacious and well-designed at first glance. Next, I’m going to install my Casewarmer system, along with some air and water coolers.
As I was expecting from its bevy of user-friendly features, the Define R5 is a pleasure to build a system in.
One thing that was immediately evident was the R5’s build quality. My Corsair Obsidian 450D and the XFX Type-01 Bravo each required varying degrees of elbow grease to get the expansion card screw holes lined up with the back panel. The Define wasn’t perfect in this regard, but it required only minimal muscling to achieve the same effect. The same was true of my motherboard, which needed only a tiny bit of force to line up with the alignment pin in the center of the mobo tray. I don’t like applying undue force to delicate electronics, so this surprise was a welcome one.
The Define R5’s cable routing features are some of the best I’ve used, too. The included Velcro straps are long enough to accommodate thick cables like the 24-pin ATX power connector without issue, and the recessed motherboard tray creates a natural 1.5″-deep cable channel around its perimeter. There’s also generous room for SATA power and data cables behind the drive cages—much more than in my Obsidian 450D or the Cooler Master Silencio 652S. The spacious cable area means that the side panel slides back on effortlessly, and the panel doesn’t bow out at all, even with the added thickness of the noise-deadening foam. Once more, bravo.
My only wish is that the cable grommets at the top of the case were a bit bigger. My PSU’s EPS plug barely fit through them.
As I noted in my dissection of the Define R5’s interior, I’m not a big fan of this case’s drive mounting system. The Define’s metal sleds require four grommets and screws per 3.5″ drive, which feels archaic nowadays. That said, the rubber grommets are soft and thick, so maybe the extra effort will pay off with lower noise and vibration levels. We’ll check that in a minute.
To test the R5’s radiator compatibility, I installed Cooler Master’s Nepton 240M closed-loop cooler at the top of the case. After I removed two of the modular top panels, installing the 240M was a snap. The radiator mount is offset significantly from the motherboard, so there was plenty of room to connect the Nepton’s fans to the twin CPU headers on my Asus Crossblade Ranger mobo. Builders willing to push their luck probably have enough room to mount push-pull fans on slim radiators like the Nepton 240M’s, though doing so would obstruct the rear fan considerably. With the single layer of fans, however, I avoided blocking the rear fan by sliding it down on the R5’s adjustable rear fan mount.
Now that the Casewarmer is at home in the Define R5, it’s time to put this case to the test. Read on for our thermal and noise testing results.
Our testing methods
For this review, I’ll be testing both the Define R5 and the Corsair Obsidian 450D, each with liquid and air coolers. My test system is set up as follows:
|Motherboard||Asus Crossblade Ranger|
|Memory||8GB AMD Entertainment Edition DDR3-1600|
|Graphics card||Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 Ti AMP! Edition|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 120GB SSD
Samsung Spinpoint F1 750GB HDD
|Power supply||Cooler Master V550|
|CPU cooler||Cooler Master Hyper D92 (air), Cooler Master Nepton 240M (liquid)|
|OS||Windows 8.1 Pro|
A big thanks to AMD, Asus, Zotac, Kingston, Cooler Master, and Fractal Design for providing hardware to make this review possible.
I used the following applications in my testing:
Each case was subjected to 10 minutes of idling at the Windows desktop, 10 minutes running the Prime95 Small FFTs CPU torture test, 10 minutes running Prime95 and the Unigine Heaven GPU benchmark, and 10 more minutes of idle time at the Windows desktop.
To get the fullest possible picture of each case’s cooling performance, I tested the Define R5 using both its built-in fan controller and the Asus Q-fan motherboard fan control system. Since the Obsidian 450D doesn’t have a built-in fan controller, I tested it using the Q-fan system only. When I used the Q-fan system, I profiled each case’s fans using Asus’ fan tuner, and I used the Standard built-in fan profile for my tests.
Due to operator error, I don’t have data for hard drive temperatures in the Define R5 while using the built-in fan controller with the Cooler Master Nepton 240M installed. Based on the other data I’ve collected, however, I don’t expect that the temps would be much different in this configuration. My apologies for the error.
The testing methods we employ are publicly available and reproducible. If you have any questions about our methods, you can discuss them with us on our forums.
The ambient temperature during my tests was 22°C (72°F).
Do you like data? Lots and lots of it? Well, good. I have a mountain of cooling test results for you.
First, here are component temperatures, plotted over time, inside the Define R5 and the Obsidian 450D with Asus’ Crossblade Ranger motherboard handling fan-control duties:
And here are the minimum and maximum temperatures from each testing phase:
I was hoping my tests would reveal a clear winner here, but they didn’t, really. The Define R5 delivers lower temperatures than the Obsidian 450D for some components, while the Obsidian keeps other parts cooler. Considering the Define R5 is down a fan against the Obsidian 450D, that’s impressive.
There is one notable disparity on the storage cooling front, though. The Define’s foam-covered side panels seem to insulate the SSD mounts on the back of the motherboard tray. While the R5’S SSD temperatures aren’t bad, the uninsulated Obsidian 450D keeps our SSD a fair bit cooler with the drive in a similar location. I doubt the R5’s higher temps are anything to worry about, but they are worth pointing out.
For those without motherboard fan control, I’ve also taken a look at how the Define R5 performs with its built-in fan controller running the show. Here are the results of those tests:
And here are the minimum and maximum temperatures for each testing phase:
With a tower-style air cooler, setting the Define R5’s fan controller on low doesn’t push peak temperatures much higher than when the motherboard is handling fan control duties. SSD temps are the only real exception, and again, they’re probably nothing to worry about.
Swap in the Nepton 240M liquid cooler, and peak CPU temperatures are a fair bit higher with the R5’s fan controller on its low setting. That’s in spite of the fact that the Nepton is set up as an intake. If you plan on using a similar cooler configuration with the Define R5, you may want to turn up the fan controller when you expect heavy system loads.
Now that we’ve seen how the Define R5 cools the Casewarmer, let’s take a look at how noisy it gets while doing so.
Before we discuss how loud the Define R5 gets, a couple words about my noise testing methods. I make no secret of the fact that I use an iPhone app to measure the noise levels of the hardware I test, and we’ve always warned against placing too much weight on the data collected this way. Nevertheless, some of our readers have expressed concerns about the accuracy of my results.
Since we take these concerns seriously, and in the interest of doing the best I could with the tools at hand, I sought out some scientifically rigorous studies about the accuracy of iPhone decibel meter apps.
According to this study by researchers at the University of Florida, the accuracy of these apps varies widely, with most over-reporting noise levels, and at least one under-reporting. That said, the most accurate of the apps the UF researchers tried—SoundMeter by Faber Acoustical—tracked the study’s $3825 control meter within 5 dBA across the range of frequencies tested. That’s good enough that I could justify picking up SoundMeter for $20.
While a smartphone app still isn’t as good as having a calibrated meter on hand, I can at least tell you how much of a fudge factor is inherent to my results now. Otherwise, if you’d like us to have that same Brüel & Kjær Type 2250 meter for use in future tests, our top 10 subscribers list could use a shake-up.
Let’s move on to the R5’s noise performance. Here are minimum and maximum sound levels during various system states, measured 6″ from each side of the case:
Here, we have a more clear-cut victor. With the motherboard in control of its fans, the Define R5 is anywhere from two to four dBA quieter than the 450D for the most part, both at idle and under load. This is a small but noticeable difference.
To be fair, the Obsidian 450D does have an extra 140-mm fan spinning away in its front panel, but the Corsair case also lacks the Define R5’s foam-insulated front door and top panels. As a result, more noise can escape from the Obsidian 450D, period, no matter what cooling method you choose. Thanks to all of the foam, the Define R5 seems to do a better job of muffling the worst sounds from inside the case, especially hard drive noise. The R5’s foam-insulated front door is a much better noise barrier than 450D’s open mesh panel, as evidenced by the three to six dBA gap in noise levels measured at the front of each case.
If you care about system noise, using the Define’s built-in fan controller isn’t a set-and-forget process. At the controller’s lowest setting, the R5 is quiet at idle, but the decreased airflow means that the components inside get hotter under load—and those components spin their smaller, noisier fans faster to compensate. With the fan controller on high, load noise levels are about the same, but the larger, more pleasant-sounding Fractal Design fans are doing more of the work. As a result, the noise character of the system as a whole is better. Accordingly, it pays to switch the fan controller between its high and low settings as needed. Motherboard fan control remains the best option, but it’s nice that the fan controller is there for those who need it.
Users looking to install a liquid cooler or two in the Define R5 will find that tradeoffs are in order. Removing the ModuVent panels up top allows more noise to escape from the R5, as demonstrated by the slightly higher top-of-case noise numbers at idle. Despite the lower noise numbers under load, the radiator-equipped Define R5 also seems to let more GPU whine escape from its top vent while stressed. Installing the radiator behind the front fan mounts might be a better option for keeping noise levels down, although that depends on whether you keep your PC on top of your desk or under it. For those in the former group, installing the radiator up top may still be a better option.
The Define mostly does a good job of keeping drives quiet. The Samsung Spinpoint F1 HDD that I keep around for Casewarmer duties is both noisy and vibration-prone, yet the Define’s rubber disk grommets and foam-lined interior allowed only the faintest hint of drive hum to exit the case. The drive mounting system wasn’t a perfect silencer, though: rarely, an annoying hum would take root somewhere within the Define R5. A push or tap on the case usually killed this vibration, but I wasn’t expecting this kind of annoyance from a case with silent DNA. To be fair, both the Obsidian 450D and XFX Type-01 Bravo suffer from the same sympathetic vibration problem, so the Define R5 isn’t alone in its occasional buzziness.
As for the effectiveness of the foam-lined side panels, the results are somewhat mixed. The GeForce GTX 660 Ti in the Casewarmer has small, whiny fans. The Define didn’t dampen their song completely, but it did cut down on the whine enough to make them only mildly distracting. The uninsulated 450D didn’t do anything to mitigate the GPU whine. The Define also dampened the sound of the Casewarmer’s Cooler Master Hyper D92 quite well. I noticed barely any change in system noise during the CPU load phase of my tests.
Overall, the R5 is the quietest case I’ve tested, but it’s not going to make an otherwise noisy system quiet on its own. Silent-PC enthusiasts will still need to choose parts carefully to minimize overall system noise.
When I was younger, I eagerly awaited Car and Driver’s sport sedan comparison test issue, to see whether any competitor had accomplished the rare feat of dethroning BMW’s seemingly unbeatable 3-series. As mid-towers go, Corsair’s Obsidian 450D is a lot like the 3-series: it’s such a good all-rounder that it’s very difficult to best. Based on my testing of the Define R5, however, I believe that Fractal Design’s latest is good enough to steal the 450D’s crown.
That’s not to say that the Define R5 is perfect. I wish Fractal had made the removable ModuVent panels at the top of the case a little more finger-friendly. The company could have included some corresponding magnetic filters for these top vents, too. I also wish Fractal had made the R5’s drive trays tool-free, and I was let down a little by the case’s occasional hard-drive-related buzziness.
In almost every other regard, though, living with the Define R5 is a pleasure. Building a system inside of it is practically effortless. Fractal has clearly thought about every inch of the case, from the easy-to-use side panels and spacious radiator mounts to the generous cable-routing area behind the motherboard tray. The modular insides can be easily adapted to suit different builds, and the R5 is a quiet runner, too. For such a competent case, one would expect a BMW-esque price, but the Define R5 is a great value at only $109.99-$119.99.
Perhaps most importantly (to mangle another Steve Jobs-ism), the best-designed products should delight their owners. More often than not, I was delighted by the Define R5. That rare quality, along with the R5’s many virtues and sensible price, make this case an easy pick for our coveted Editor’s Choice award.