Digging into the Core
I was excited to get into the Core 500, but its top cover proved a tad stubborn. The thumbscrews securing the cover to the case aren't as silky-smooth as they are on Fractal Design's other cases. After a bit of effort to remove those screws and a little more elbow grease to pop off the cover, I was in. I do appreciate the built-in washers on the thumbscrews to prevent them from marring the case's exterior, though.
Putting that top cover back on isn't the easiest task, either. At times, the front or rear of the cover wouldn't seat properly on the case itself, and the unseated part would bulge out when I tried to push the cover back into position. Cue a weird dance where I had to hold both the front and back halves of the cover in place and gradually push the cover home. Even with everything properly aligned, I sometimes had to apply quite a bit of force to get the cover fully back into place.
Fractal includes magnetic dust filters underneath the top cover for the graphics card and the top vents of the case. The power supply vent on the case's side lacks a filter, but that's probably because the exhaust fan of the PSU will blow toward this vent in regular use. These magnetic filters are great to have on any case, and I'm happy to see them in the Core 500.
Looking from the top down, the most prominent feature of the interior is the pair rails across the top. These rails serve double duty as the mounting point for the case's 3.5"/5.25" combo cage and as a mount for 120-mm or 140-mm fans or a 240-mm or 280-mm radiator. Builders should note that top-mounted radiator stacks can't be any thicker than 100 mm, and using a 280-mm heat exchanger will require the removal of the combo drive cage.
That combo cage holds a 3.5" drive on its lower shelf with a 5.25" drive or fan controller above. It's curious that Fractal doesn't provide a mount for another 2.5" drive here—the bottom of the cage lacks the necessary screw holes, even though there's plenty of room for them.
Looking in from the side (with the top rail removed), we can see the permanent power supply mounting frame, plus the 3.5" side of the storage mounting rail. Two more 3.5" drives can be installed on the side of this rail (though that drops to one if the rear 120-mm radiator mount is used). Those drive mounts are dampened with soft rubber grommets. The power supply rests on four vibration-dampening rubber pads, as well.
Flipping the case around, we can see the 2.5" side of the storage mounting rail. Two more 2.5" drives can sit behind their spinning-platter counterparts here. Fractal thoughtfully cuts holes into the top of these rails so that builders can access the mounting screws for these drives with a screwdriver.
With that, we've seen all there is to see in the Core 500. This simple design still includes a few of Fractal Design's trademark builder-friendly touches. Now, let's put those features to the test and see how easy it is to build a system inside this case.
Given my positive impressions of the Core 500 after opening it up and taking it apart, I was expecting the build process to be smooth sailing. Unfortunately, that wasn't so. Bear in mind, however, that building a Mini-ITX system is rarely as straightforward as it is in an ATX mid-tower, and I've never used a Mini-ITX case that's truly easy to work with.
To be fair, the first hurdle I encountered wasn't the Core 500's fault. I had initially planned to use Cooler Master's Hyper D92 cooler in the Core 500, since the case can accept taller tower-style coolers than most Mini-ITX boxes. Indeed, the Hyper D92 does fit well inside. As it happened, though, orienting the Hyper D92 for front-to-back airflow proved impossible with my MSI A88XI AC motherboard. The necessary screw holes on the cooler's mounting bracket sit right on top of some power delivery components on the motherboard, and I didn't want to chance impaling one with the cooler's screws. Even if I had been able to install the Hyper D92 this way, its cooling tower collided with the back of my graphics card. Oops.
My ideal configuration foiled, I thought about orienting the cooler for cross-case airflow, but that didn't work out either. Orienting the intake side of the cooler toward the graphics card vent on the left side of the case meant that the CPU cooler would pull in hot air from the graphics card, which would then be exhausted toward the hard drives. Since the right side of the Core 500 isn't nearly as well-vented as the left, it seemed that I would end up toasting my storage devices.
Similarly, turning the cooler around to pull in air from the storage side of the case meant that its intake fan would be more obstructed than I would like by the solid storage mounting panel and the unvented right side panel. On top of that, the cooler's hot exhaust would blow directly on the back of my graphics card. Doh.
With air-cooling out of the question, I turned to my trusty Cooler Master Nepton 240M all-in-one liquid cooler. I figured it would be no big deal to install this baby in the Core 500, thanks to the case's removable top rail and modular drive cage. Once again, I got more trouble than I bargained for. Since the Core 500's top cover sits snugly against the rails, the large heads on Cooler Master's included thumbscrews prevent the cover from going back on cleanly. The Nepton comes with low-profile screws for just this kind of eventuality, so no big deal there. I changed the radiator stack from rail-fans-radiator to rail-radiator-fans, and I was on my way—at least, to the next speed bump.
With the included 140-mm fan installed the rear of the case, it wasn't possible to put the radiator-rail assembly back inside. The tail ends of the rails nestle beneath the strip of metal at the rear of the case, while the forward ends sits on top of another strip at the front of the case. However, part of the radiator gets caught on a protrusion from the front metal strip as you attempt to slide in the whole assembly.
I don't see why this W-shaped metal strip isn't cut out in the middle to form a U-shaped area. The rails don't screw into this middle section, and only a few more millimeters of clearance would have sufficed. The Nepton 240M doesn't use an unusually long or weirdly-shaped radiator, so the fact that it catches on this area is frustrating.
Eventually, I settled on a method that worked—barely. I took out the graphics card, the 140-mm fan, the radiator-and-rails assembly, and the removable drive cage. That left the motherboard alone in the case with the Nepton 240M clamped down (another note: you'll want to install any cooler brackets outside of the case, since the Core 500 has no cutouts for backplate insertion). I wired up every fan header, case header, and power cable at this point, since any access to the motherboard is cut off with the radiator and graphics card inside.
The first part to go back in was the radiator assembly. Since I now had room to work, I was able to set the front of the assembly on its mounting point first before raising the rear to where it needed to go. One obstacle down. I was concerned by the angle of the hose at the Nepton's fittings, but the radiator didn't seem to be harmed by the tight routing.
Next, I reinstalled the 140-mm fan by sliding it in sideways and at an angle under the radiator. Doing so took a few tries, since the fan tended to get caught on the motherboard's I/O port block. Motherboards with taller port blocks could have made this procedure impossible. Eventually, I found a combination of angles that worked and got the fan screwed back onto the case's rear wall. Finally, I reinstalled the graphics card and plugged in its power cables.
Strangely, when pulling the system out for use in another testbed, I discovered by chance that pushing harder on the rail when I inserted the radiator solved my clearance problems, even though that technique hadn't worked the first time around. Maybe removing and reinstalling the fan opened up a bit more clearance that I didn't have before—or perhaps I just needed to push harder. Either way, my first-build experience with the Core 500 wasn't as smooth as I had hoped it would be. Future builds in this case will be quite a bit smoother if I'm able to snap in the radiator without resorting to heroic measures.
That said, I'm not entirely happy with other aspects of the Core 500. Despite its size advantage over Cooler Master's Elite 110, this case offers only a few zip-tie loops for cable management, so I ended up with a nasty-looking tangle of wires at the front of the case. That's with the included combo drive cage removed, too—I imagine there would be even less room for cables with it in place. This problem isn't helped by the extremely long built-in cables for the front-panel buttons, audio jacks, and ports—those cables seem like they belong in a much larger case, and their extra length only worsens the clutter.
Builders who want to use every inch of space for the Core 500's graphics card area also need to be mindful of the fact that only a couple of inches stand between the back of the graphics card and the front of a standard-size ATX power supply—even a semi-modular one. Longer or non-modular PSUs will likely exacerbate this problem—in fact, I would say a semi-modular unit is mandatory for this case. A powerful SFX PSU might also be ideal for those thinking about a fire-breathing build.
I foresee issues with installing four storage devices on the Core 500's side rail, too. The ends of the drives point toward each other here, so right-angled cables might be needed to prevent collisions on the 3.5" side of the mounting area.
Overall, putting my test system inside the Core 500 was a bit of a chore the first time around. However, after I found that pushing a little harder on the top rail made it snap into place without all that other effort, I expect the next time I build inside this case will go a lot easier. It's also worth noting that a 240-mm radiator is an unusual CPU cooling choice for a Mini-ITX build. Those who don't plan on overclocking can probably get by with Intel's stock cooler or a smaller tower unit.
Now that I have the Casewarmer inside the Core 500, let's see whether all that effort was worth it.