Cooler Master has big plans for its products of tomorrow. Chief among them is modularity: as the company told us a couple months ago, its future product catalog will contain fewer items with more customization options. That customizability will be achieved through modular parts that can be added, removed, or changed as needed. The company also wants to get in on the “maker movement,” where adventurous modders might use 3D-printed custom parts to mold a product to their unique needs.
Now, the first product based on that philosophy is in our hands. Say hello to the MasterCase 5:
This case’s clean lines and matte black exterior don’t give much of that weighty philosophy away. The black mesh front panel, hexagonal motifs, and subtly sparkly paint are straightforward, perhaps a bit plain. Modders might see the MasterCase as an inviting blank canvas, while the less adventurous will probably enjoy the quiet, purposeful styling. I like what Cooler Master has wrought here, but it shouldn’t be a big deal to add an LED fan or five to the MasterCase for those who find it too subtle.
Two metal handles up top provide sturdy handholds when moving the MasterCase 5, and you’ll appreciate them with a fully loaded system: most of this case is solid metal inside and out, with only a few plastic accents here and there. That explains the MasterCase’s 23-pound heft.
A removable metal panel on the roof of the case eases installation of top-mounted fans and radiators. Two 120-mm or 140-mm spinners can go here—but 240-mm or 280-mm radiators can’t. The fan hole spacing is too wide. Cooler Master also says the MasterCase 5 can’t accept 120-mm or 140-mm radiators here, even though the mounts might tempt one to try. We’ll have to explore this point later on.
The top panel is rounded out with a power button, headphone and microphone jacks, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, and a reset button.
A tug at the bottom of the front panel reveals the front fan mounts. Cooler Master includes one 140-mm intake fan out of the box, and as many as three 120-mm or 140-mm intake fans can be installed here. Installing a fan on the topmost mount will block the 5.25″ bays, though. Radiators as large as 280 mm can be installed behind the front panel, as well. More on that when we open up the MasterCase 5.
The front panel’s coarse metal mesh exterior is backed with a finer mesh on the inside that should do a decent job of stopping dust and hair from making its way inside. Cooler Master has bonded the mesh to the panel, though, which might make it a pain to clean. I prefer Fractal Design’s single-layer dust filters, which can be cleaned by hand on both sides without a hitch.
Around back is an adjustable 120-mm or 140-mm fan mount, which Cooler Master populates with a 140-mm exhaust fan out of the box. Seven expansion card slots belie the MasterCase 5’s mid-tower weight class. The removable power-supply bracket is a nice touch that makes PSU installation easier. We’ll see why when I pull off the side panels. I’m also happy to see the large vented area beside the expansion card slots. Every bit of potential airflow helps.
A pair of broad, metal feet that echo the handles up top support the MasterCase 5. The bottoms of these feet are insulated with thick, rubber pads that should isolate the case from whatever surface it ends up sitting on. Turning the case over also reveals the filtered PSU air intake. Such a filter is par for the course with any modern case, but it’s still good to see Cooler Master including one here.
Here are the MasterCase 5’s specifications in tabular form, for easy comparison with our other case reviews:
|Cooler Master MasterCase 5|
|Dimensions (W x H x D)||9.3″ x 20.2″ x 21.6″ (235 x 512 x 548 mm)|
|Supported motherboards||Mini-ITX, microATX, ATX|
|3.5″ drive bays||2 (expandable with add-on cages)|
|2.5″ drive bays||4 (2 2.5″ or 3.5″ combo bays, 2 dedicated)|
|5.25″ drive bays||2|
|Fan mounts||6 120-mm or 140-mm|
|Included fans||1x Cooler Master 140-mm front fan
1x Cooler Master 140-mm rear fan
|Front panel I/O||2x USB 3.0
|Max. graphics card length||11.7″ (297.2 mm) with 3.5″ cage installed
16.2″ (412 mm) with 3.5″ cages removed
|Max. CPU cooler height||7.5″ (190 mm)|
|Gap behind motherboard||0.75″|
The MasterCase 5 retails for $109.99, which puts it right in contention with many of our other favorite cases. From a build-quality standpoint, the MasterCase is right there with Fractal Design’s similarly-priced Define R5. Cooler Master’s baby lacks the Define R5’s insulated side panels and door, though, as well as its copious room for 3.5″ storage space. Of course, the Define R5 isn’t quite as flexible inside as the MasterCase.
The MasterCase series will include two other cases: the MasterCase Pro 5 , which comes with an extra 3-drive 3.5″ cage, a mesh-and-plastic top cover, a windowed side panel, an extra 140-mm intake fan, and a turreted top panel designed to allow top-mounted 240-mm and 280-mm radiators to be installed. Cooler Master will also offer an as-yet-mysterious MasterCase 5 Maker exclusively through its website.
Moving up to the fancier MasterCase Pro 5 will cost $139.99, making it one of the more expensive cases to hit the market of late. Along with the MasterCase 5, Cooler Master sent me most of the parts that will make up the Pro model. Let’s talk about those parts and open up the MasterCase 5 now.
Modularlize me, Cap’n
It’s impossible to talk about the MasterCase 5’s guts without discussing what Cooler Master calls “FreeForm,” the company’s umbrella term for the modular features inside and outside the MasterCase 5. In theory, FreeForm means that your case can grow with your system or adapt to your aesthetic whims. Instead of discarding the MasterCase 5 if you need more drive space or want to install a liquid-cooling setup, Cooler Master thinks you should be able to buy more drive cages or the proper top panel to accomodate the new hardware.
I’m certainly a fan of the flexibility that FreeForm parts may offer, but the accessory lineup is a little thin on the ground right now. Cooler Master plans to offer a radiator-friendly top panel and cover at first, as well as extra drive cages and a windowed side panel. The company tells us a number of other accessories are still in the works, including brackets for liquid-cooling reservoirs and pumps, extra radiator and fan mounts, graphics card support brackets, and an entirely transparent side panel.
The bones of the MasterCase 5 need to be good in their own right before one starts leafing through the accessory catalog, though. Let’s see how the MasterCase 5 looks out of the box.
Open up the MasterCase 5, and the FreeForm features are immediately evident. The included dual-3.5″ drive bay can be positioned anywhere on a series of pegboard-like holes toward the front of the case or removed entirely for more room. Should you buy more drive cages, this pegboard area is where they would go. Similarly, the 2.5″ drive sleds on top of the power supply shroud can be moved to mounts behind the motherboard tray, or an additional pair of sleds can be mounted back there for more capacity.
The dual-chamber design of the MasterCase 5 is also on full display here. The power supply sits in its own dedicated space at the bottom of the case. The dual 3.5″ drive cage that ships with the case can also be moved to a mount in the bottom chamber, and there are a pair of slots for this bottom storage mount to prevent drives here from blocking a front-mounted 240-mm or 280-mm radiator. What’s more, the 5.25″ cage in the main chamber can be removed to make way for dual- or optional triple-3.5″ cages. That makes it possible to install a fair bit of 3.5″ storage even with a front radiator in place.
Situations like these begin to show the value of the FreeForm features: in other cases, like Fractal Design’s Define R5, installing a 240-mm or 280-mm front radiator means that all of the case’s 3.5″ storage mounts have to be removed.
Behind the motherboard tray, things look pretty good. The hook-and-loop cable straps are a nice touch, but outside of the deeper, narrow cable channel that these straps cover and the spacious drive cages, there’s only about 0.75″ of space for cable routing. That cable channel behind the pegboard holes is also enclosed on the sides and bottom by structural flanges, so it’s less useful than it might otherwise be.
It seems like the slightly tight accommodations back here are a concession to the fact that the MasterCase 5 can swallow CPU coolers as tall as 7.5″ (190 mm), which may be a record among the cases I’ve tested. It should also be easy to install those coolers: the motherboard tray has a huge cutout for backplates.
The power supply mount uses two long, foam-lined rails that should serve to isolate any PSU fan-related vibrations from the rest of the case. Though one could slide a PSU onto these rails from the bottom chamber, it’s easier to remove the thumbscrew-secured bracket at the rear of the case, mate the PSU with the bracket, and then slide the assembly in again from outside the case.
As I noted earlier, the bottom chamber of the case also houses a mount for the dual-3.5″ drive cage included with the MasterCase 5, which can be removed for more space. A pair of rubber grommets in the roof of the chamber permit power cables to pass through to the motherboard area.
Overall, despite the well-thought-out design, I’m a tad let down by the MasterCase 5’s build quality and overall QA thoroughness. Though the frame and panels are quite solid, the devil is in the details. Some of the case’s thumbscrews took some careful aligning to thread in properly, and the 5.25″ cage required some muscling to line up with its holes when I went to reinstall it, as well. One of the two pre-production MasterCase 5s that I looked at while writing this review had an SSD sled whose captive thumbscrew was barely long enough to thread into its associated hole, making it easy to dislodge. The second and presumably final case didn’t have that issue, though.
One mistake that was present in both of the MasterCase 5 samples that Cooler Master sent me was a misprinted manual. The instructions suggest that the coarsely threaded PSU screws should be used to install the motherboard, while the finely threaded motherboard screws are described as PSU screws. The first case I looked at had nine of the coarse screws, too: the same number needed to mount the motherboard. Six finely threaded mobo screws were included, which matches the manual’s count for PSU screws. This confusion caused problems during my build, as we’ll soon see.
The second case I received included the proper number of both types of screw but an uncorrected instruction manual. I’m assured that the second case I looked at was the same as what a retail buyer would receive, and it would be harder to mess up motherboard mounting with the “retail” case if a builder counted out screws beforehand. Still, an impatient owner might use the wrong screw type and cross-thread a standoff. I brought all of these issues to Cooler Master’s attention, and I hope the company will correct the instruction manual in the future.
One of the virtues of the FreeForm system is that buyers can get the MasterCase 5 to start out, and then upgrade the case to MasterCase Pro 5 specs down the line. The Pro add-on parts include a turreted top panel for top-mounted radiators and an accompanying mesh shroud, a neat windowed side panel that’s smoked at the bottom to conceal any PSU cable mess, and an extra triple-3.5″ drive cage. All of the parts feel solid, and they’re all of a piece with the rest of the MasterCase. Have a look:
The problem for MasterCase 5 buyers is that getting all of those parts separately, direct from Cooler Master, will quickly eclipse the cost of the MasterCase Pro 5 at retail. Here’s a brief accounting of what each add-on part will cost:
|Top-panel radiator mount with mesh cover||$16.99|
|Side window kit||$24.99|
|Three-drive 3.5″ cage||$14.99|
|Two-drive 3.5″ cage||$12.99|
|2.5″ SSD sled||$4.99|
Given the prices of these extras, one gets way more than $30 of value from moving up to the MasterCase Pro 5. Anybody who thinks they’ll make use of the extra storage space and top panel should just get the Pro 5 and be done with it. Though $140 is a lot to pay for a case these days, the Pro features and the heavy-duty construction of the basic MasterCase make that price a little easier to justify.
Now that we’ve seen what the MasterCase 5 has to offer, let’s examine what it’s like to build a system inside.
Putting the pieces together
Building an air-cooled system inside the MasterCase is easy enough: the interior of the case is open and well-thought-out. I didn’t have any trouble routing cables or installing any of my Casewarmer system’s components. Despite my concerns about the amount of room for cables behind the motherboard, I was able to get the power cables, front-panel wiring, and storage routed back there just fine, and the side panel went back on without issue.
There was one hitch, though: going by the instruction book, which tells the owner to use the coarse PSU screws for motherboard mounting instead of the finer-threaded screws meant for that purpose. It’s deceptively possible to thread the coarser screws into the standoffs with some force, but they immediately become cross-threaded in the soft brass.
Thankfully, I only mangled one standoff this way, and it wasn’t too bad to get the screw (and by extension, the motherboard) back out with some careful use of needle-nose pliers. Still, this is a head-smacking issue that should have been caught way before the parts hit the box, and it’s one I was able to replicate with those same screws and other included standoffs. As noted earlier, I brought this issue to Cooler Master’s attention, and the second case the company sent me to evaluate had the proper number of motherboard screws, if not a corrected instruction book.
In the meantime, I was able to find some other compatible screws and standoffs in my big bag o’ hardware and forge ahead.
My liquid-cooling installation experience was also a bit frustrating. For one, the base MasterCase 5’s top panel isn’t radiator-friendly, and that’s hard to swallow from a modern case. 240-mm or 280-mm radiators can’t be mounted up top due to the panel’s hole spacing, and even though one can affix a radiator to the 120-mm fan mounts, trying to hack it this way risks clearance issues with the motherboard or memory. My Nepton 120XL double-wide cooler just barely fit up top with one of its fans installed, and installing both of its push-pull spinners caused it to run into the motherboard.
To be fair, the MasterCase 5 can accept 120-mm or 140-mm radiators on the rear fan mount, and those who need more space for radiators can purchase the dedicated top panel and accompanying mesh cover. Admittedly, those parts are a high-quality kit, but no other case I’ve tested recently has required add-on parts to make top-mounted radiators work.
Those extra parts are supposed to be part of the FreeForm system, sure, but asking builders to buy more parts to bring the MasterCase 5 on par with competing cases could be a hard sell. If a builder wants to add a top-mounted radiator to Fractal Design’s Define S or R5, for example, they only have to pop off a couple of plastic covers, and voila—they’re set. Corsair’s Obsidian 450D already has a perfectly good top radiator mount, too. Cooler Master’s own excellent Silencio 652S has a radiator mount up top, as well.
Then again, all of those products are built with more plastic than the MasterCase 5 and don’t promise the same degree of modular flexibility. They’re not really the same class of enclosure.
One could just buy the ritzier MasterCase Pro 5 to avoid this issue. All told, whether the modular features and metal construction of the MasterCase are enough of an ace in the hole to justify the extra cost is something buyers are going to have to work out for themselves.
That said, the front fan mounts in the MasterCase 5 can accept a 240-mm radiator just fine, and that may be an optimal place for it anyway.
Builders with 3.5″ storage will have to decide whether they can live without the 5.25″ bays. That’s a tradeoff I’m usually quite happy to make. To demonstrate the flexibility of the MasterCase 5, I installed the extra dual-3.5″ drive cage that Cooler Master sent me in the bottom chamber, and I also installed the included dual-3.5″ cage above the radiator. One could also install the optional triple-3.5″ drive cage above a 240-mm radiator, for a total of five 3.5″ drives.
This is one area where the MasterCase has a big leg up on the competition. To use a front-mounted radiator in the Define R5, for example, all of the 3.5″ drive cages have to be removed first, and there’s no other place in that case to install 3.5″ drives. The FreeForm system neatly solves this issue.
Since the front-mounted radiator exhausts the CPU’s heat into the case, I moved the 140-mm front fan to the top panel for some extra exhaust airflow. With all that done, I was ready to put the MasterCase 5 through our testing gauntlet.
Our testing methods
Here are the specifications of my test system:
|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|
Our thanks to Cooler Master for the MasterCase 5, and to Asus, AMD, Kingston, Zotac, and Cooler Master for their hardware contributions, as well.
The MasterCase 5’s opponent today is Fractal Design’s Define S. I’ll be using identical coolers and radiator mounting locations in the Fractal Design case. Since I’m testing the Define S with a front-mounted radiator for the first time, I moved its stock 140-mm front fan to the top panel above the CPU to help exhaust the hot CPU exhaust blowing into the case, as with the MasterCase 5.
I used the following applications in my tests:
Our case test cycle consists of the following phases:
- 10 minutes 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
- 10 minutes of cooldown time at the Windows desktop
Here are the results of my cooling tests, plotted over time:
And here are some minimum and maximum temperatures from each testing phase:
Overall, the MasterCase 5 and Define S are pretty closely matched in cooling performance. There is one number that has me scratching my head, though: the CPU gets about six to seven degrees hotter under CPU load and full load in the MasterCase 5 versus the Define S. Those numbers don’t entirely make sense, given that neither my testing environment nor my system configuration changed between the cases. Still, the idle and cooldown numbers track the Define S’s pretty closely, so perhaps it’s not a fluke.
It’s also worth pointing out that both the SSD and hard drive get considerably hotter in the MasterCase when positioned directly above the Nepton 240M in my load tests. That’s almost certainly due to heat rising from the radiator, which is something to be aware of despite the MasterCase’s flexibility in storage mounting. Those concerned about storage temperatures may want to use the MasterCase’s provisions for mounting storage in the lower chamber.
Here are the MasterCase 5’s noise levels at idle and load, along with the Define S’s:
Subjectively, the MasterCase 5 sounds about like I’ve come to expect from open-top cases with no sound dampening: transparent to the character of the components inside. That’s not to say the MasterCase is loud, especially not with a liquid cooler inside, but it won’t help to cut the noise of any noisy components, either. As one might expect, hard-drive motor noise is especially evident from the MasterCase 5.
While the MasterCase 5 is slightly louder at idle with an air cooler installed than the Define S, it redeems itself under load. Despite the noticeably higher CPU temperatures with the Hyper D92 installed, the case manages to be a couple dBA quieter than Fractal’s offering. Perhaps the MasterCase 5’s fans trade cooling power for silence. They’re nearly as quiet as Fractal Design’s fans to my ear. The one area where the Fractal case really excels is its noise emission up top, thanks to its solid, foam-lined ModuVent panels.
Cooler Master’s case continues to perform well with the company’s own Nepton 240M liquid cooler installed. With the Define S’ ModuVent top panels removed, there’s more ways for noise to escape, so the MasterCase hangs right with it, both at idle and under load. We’re still not quite reaching Define R5 levels of quiet here, but the MasterCase 5 is stalking that case in raw noise figures despite its lack of dampening features and more open design. Cooler Master deserves praise for that fact.
Overall, I’m pleased with the MasterCase 5’s noise signature, though I am curious how it would perform with silence-oriented, insulated top and side panels. Perhaps that’s a set of modular parts that Cooler Master can look into when it considers future FreeForm accessories.
The MasterCase 5 is a big, hefty case with some equally big ideas behind it—and they mostly work. The FreeForm system is more flexible than competing modular setups from Fractal Design, for example, especially for 3.5″ storage. I found the family of add-on parts that builders can buy for their MasterCases to be well-built and well-integrated with the rest of the case. If Cooler Master continues to expand the FreeForm ecosystem for the MasterCase, the company could have a real hit on its hands.
I wasn’t a fan of the MasterCase 5’s incorrect instructions and parts provisions, though. No builder should be led astray by the documentation that comes with their case. I would also like to see provisions for top-mounted radiators in the base MasterCase 5. That’s table stakes for today’s cases.
Even so, the MasterCase 5 has a lot to like. It’s quiet, hanging right with Fractal Design’s Define S even without any dedicated noise-deadening features, and it’s a snap to build a clean-looking system inside. The sturdy, all-metal construction and subtle styling are points in the MasterCase 5’s favor, too. I also appreciate the real flexibility that the FreeForm system offers.
All told, though, between the MasterCase 5 and the MasterCase Pro 5, I find myself in a weird position when I try to call a winner here. At $110, the MasterCase 5 seems a tad expensive for what it offers: despite the FreeForm system’s promise and the heavy-duty build quality, that money only gets you two 3.5″ drive bays and a top panel that can’t accept radiators.
As a result, the MasterCase 5 looks less appealing in certain respects than similarly priced cases like the Obsidian 450D, Fractal’s Define offerings, and Cooler Master’s own Silencio 652S, even though the MasterCase packs more metal and modularity.
On the other hand, the MasterCase Pro 5 comes fully stocked with five 3.5″ bays, plus a radiator-friendly top panel, a fancy mesh top cover, a spiffy windowed side panel, and an extra 140-mm intake fan for $140—and the $30 premium is less than you’ll pay for all of the Pro parts separately. Between those extra features and the base MasterCase’s solid performance and build quality, I’m happy to call the MasterCase Pro 5 TR Recommended.