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Fractal Design's Core 500 Mini-ITX case reviewed

Compact yet capacious

Ahh, Mini-ITX cases. It's been a while since I've gotten to build with my small-form-factor test system.  Although I enjoy building inside the latest and greatest ATX mid-towers, it's occasionally nice to see just how much power one can cram into as little space as possible.

Today, I'm looking at Fractal Design's Core 500, a no-nonsense Mini-ITX case that looks ready for compact systems ranging from mild to wild. I'll be putting it through the gauntlet to see whether Fractal can continue the winning streak that it's established with the Define R5 and Define S ATX mid-towers. First, let's take a walk around this case and see what the Core 500 has to offer.

Up front, the Core 500 is covered with faux-brushed-aluminum plastic that's similar to the finish on the front panel of the Define S. The texture is subtle, and unless it's in strong light, the front panel looks as black as the rest of the case. A pop-out panel conceals a single 5.25" bay, and some (mostly cosmetic) grates on a pair of chamfers break up the otherwise squarish exterior.

The power and reset buttons are spread across the top edge of the case along with audio jacks and a pair of USB 3.0 ports. That placement is ideal for desktop use, but it might make inserting thumb drives or other removable media difficult in a TV stand. Still, the stealthy exterior of the Core 500 won't draw attention to itself beneath a TV or next to other home theater gear, and it's plenty small enough to sit atop a desk if needed.

Pull off the Core 500's front panel, and you'll see why I called those front vents cosmetic. For all intents and purposes, the case wall behind the front panel is solid, but that' s fine considering the extensive perforations on the Core 500's sides and top. Aside from the 5.25" bay, Fractal includes a 2.5" drive mount here along with a generous cable-routing hole.

Turning the Core 500 around reveals its single Fractal-branded Silent Series R3 140-mm fan. This fan exhausts air from the case and, in so doing, provides the pressure to pull in cool air, too. Builders can swap this fan for a 120-mm radiator, but a 140-mm heat exchanger won't fit. As with many other Mini-ITX cases, the Core 500 offers two expansion card slots. Strangely, Fractal foregoes thumb screws here for a pair of conventional screws that pass through a guillotine-style plate like the one on Corsair's Graphite Series 380T. The design makes sense, but it's less finger-friendly than I'd expect.

Oddly, the Core 500's power supply doesn't live at the rear of the case. Instead, a pass-through power cable connects to the PSU in its home at the front of the case. The socket for that cable can be seen to the left of the motherboard I/O cutout. From this angle, we can also see the PSU's exhaust vent.

The case rests on four thick rubber feet that should lessen any stray vibrations trying to pass through to the desk or floor beneath. The PSU breathes through a filtered intake on the bottom of the case. Unfortunately, this filter can't be pulled out from the front, so the Core 500 has to be flipped in order to clean off any dust bunnies.

At 9.8" wide by 8" tall by 14.4" long (250 x 213 x 380 mm), the Core 500 isn't the tiniest Mini-ITX case I've ever tested—that honor still goes to Cooler Master's Elite 110. Fractal Design puts the extra volume to good use, though: this case can swallow air coolers up to 6.7" (170 mm) tall and graphics cards up to 12.2" (310 mm) long. That's enough space to build a powerful shoebox system that could rival much larger PCs, so long as a single graphics card is all one needs.

Fractal hasn't skimped on room for storage inside, either. Up to three 3.5" and three 2.5" drives can live together inside the Core 500 at once, which seems like plenty for all but the most data-deluged out there given today's mechanical storage densities.

The Core 500's 9.7-pound (4.4 kg) heft belies the fact that Fractal didn't skimp on the build-quality front, either. The thick steel top cover is reassuringly rigid, and I didn't note a bit of flex in the case's steel frame, either. That solidity is welcome since the Core 500 costs $60 at Newegg right now.

Here are the Core 500's specs in tabular form for convenient cross-referencing with our other case reviews:

  Fractal Design Core 500
Dimensions (W x H x D) 9.8" x 8" x 14.4" (250 x 213 x 380 mm)
Supported motherboards Mini-ITX
3.5" drive bays Up to 3 with combo cage installed
2.5" drive bays 3
5.25" drive bays 1 (with combo cage installed)
Fan mounts 3 120- or 140-mm
Included fans 1x Fractal Design Silent Series R3 140-mm (exhaust)
Front panel I/O 2x USB 3.0
Max. graphics card length 12.2" (310 mm)
Max. CPU cooler height 6.7" (170 mm)
Max. PSU length 6.7" (non-modular), 6.3" (modular)

Now that we've toured its exterior, let's go inside to see Fractal Design's take on what a Mini-ITX case should be.