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Fractal Design's Define S case reviewed

Imported from the future

Fractal Design's Define R5 is my favorite case in TR's labs right now. It's quiet, it cools well, and it's a breeze to work in. It's also one of the rare cases we've deemed worthy of our Editor's Choice award. At $110 and up, however, it's positioned toward the high end of the mid-tower case market, and some buyers might not need all of the bells and whistles, or storage space, that the R5 offers.

Fractal Design appears to agree with this view. The Define S, the latest addition to the Define series, is a somewhat stripped-down—and more affordable—version of the R5. Fractal has taken a scalpel to some of that case's extras to get the price down, but it's kept a lot of what made the R5 so good—and it's given the Define S a couple of new tricks inside.

Looking at the Define R5 and Define S side-by-side, one could be forgiven for having a hard time telling the two apart. The visual differences are subtle. The S's front panel is a stealthy black plastic with a simulated brushed-metal finish. It feels decent, if a bit cheaper than the R5's foam-lined door. The window on the Define S extends for the whole length of the side panel, all the better for showing off the system inside. Fractal removed the noise-dampening foam from this panel, likely due to the increased window area, but the right side panel is still dampened.

Behind the front panel, there's a full-height magnetic dust filter for the three adjustable 120-mm or 140-mm fan mounts. Radiators as large as 360 mm can be mounted here, as well. Fractal has expunged all traces of 5.25" bays from the Define S, and I'm 100% OK with that. Buyers who still need an optical drive will have to resort to an external unit, though.

Up top, Fractal carries over its excellent ModuVent system. These three foam-backed plastic panels can pop off as needed to reveal mounts for radiators or fans. When left in place, they serve to dampen system noise. Three 120-mm or 140-mm fans can be installed underneath the top panel with the ModuVents removed, as well as a radiator up to 420 mm long.

The I/O cluster features a big, round power button flanked by a reset button, headphone and mic jacks, and a pair of USB 3.0 ports.

Moving around back, the subtle differences continue. The Define S's rear wall isn't perforated at all save for the fan grille, and it loses the R5's adjustable rear fan mount. That's a bit of a shame. One of the little delights of the Define R5 came when I was able to reposition its rear fan to avoid interference from a top-mounted radiator.

The bottom of the case holds a dust filter for the power supply and the bottom fan mount. This filter pulls out from behind the case, which is rather inconvenient. The Define R5's filter pulls out from the front, and it's much easier to work with.  Four thick rubber feet isolate the case from floors or desktops.

Here's a table of specs for the Define S, for easy cross-referencing with our other case reviews:

  Fractal Design Define S
Dimensions (W x H x D) 9.2" x 17.8" x 20.5"  (233 x 451 x 520 mm)
Supported motherboards Mini-ITX, microATX, ATX
3.5" drive mounts 3
2.5" drive mounts 5 (3 2.5" or 3.5" combo sleds, 2 dedicated)
Fan mounts 8 (windowed), 9 (non-windowed)
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
Max. graphics card length 16.7" (425 mm)
Max. CPU cooler height 7" (180 mm)
Gap behind motherboard 0.8"-1.6" (20.3 mm-40.6 mm)

The Define S is down five 3.5" drive mounts versus the R5, though the S's three 3.5" and two 2.5" mounting sleds should be more than enough storage room for the average system builder these days. Those who need more storage will have to step up to the Define R5 or look elsewhere, though. The Define S also loses the R5's three-header manual fan controller, but that's another perk I doubt most will miss.

The net result of Fractal's scalpel-wielding is a lower price point. The windowed Define S that I'm looking at today will run you $85 on Newegg right now, down from the $90 list price, while the non-windowed version is $10 less.

When the R5 and the S are both selling at full price, there's a $30-$40 gulf between them, but since the R5 is also on discount right now, the difference is closer to $15-$25. That small of a step up muddies the Define S's value proposition, though discounts do come and go. If you're stuck between the two cases, it might be worth keeping an eye on the prices.

Now, let's pull off those side panels and take a look at Fractal's vision for the future of PC cases.