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)|
|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.
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.
Our testing methods
Here are the specifications of my test system:
|Motherboard||MSI A88XI AC|
|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 Nepton 240M|
|OS||Windows 8.1 Pro|
Our thanks to Fractal Design for the Core 500, and to MSI, AMD, Kingston, Zotac, and Cooler Master for their hardware contributions, as well.
I’ve chosen the Corsair Graphite Series 380T as a foil for the Core 500, and it should be a good basis for comparison, since it’s a similar-sized case. Please note, though, that the 380T costs more than twice as much as the Core 500, so they are not exactly direct competitors. Even so, the 380T isn’t perfect. While I could rest the Nepton in the proper position on the 380T’s radiator rails, the plastic pins for that case’s outer shell prevented me from lining up the radiator with its corresponding screw holes. Once again, caveat emptor.
To the greatest extent possible, I used similar cooler locations and fan configurations in both cases. The radiator fans on my Cooler Master Nepton 240M were set up as exhausts, and all stock fans were left in their factory orientations.
Because of the limited number of fan headers on my Mini-ITX motherboard, I used a fan splitter and Zalman’s Fan Mate 2 manual controller to power the Core 500’s included 140-mm fan. For low-speed testing, I used the Fan Mate 2 at its minimum speed before turning it all the way up for our high-speed tests.
I managed the Graphite Series 380T’s fans with that case’s built-in fan controller. As with the Core 500, I performed low-speed tests with that case’s controller on its lowest setting, while high-speed tests were carried out with the controller at its highest setting.
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 minimum and maximum numbers from each testing phase:
As one would expect from a case with a single quiet-oriented fan, the Core 500 tends to get hotter inside than the larger, more open, and more aggressively cooled Graphite Series 380T. That reality is are reflected by the Fractal case’s somewhat higher numbers more or less across the board (some outliers aside—my SSD results look a bit odd, for example). Turning up the included fan helps, but it still can’t make up for the fact that we’re only working with a single spinner.
Even so, none of the temperature numbers the Core 500 delivers are frightening, and a higher-flow aftermarket fan than the 1,000-RPM Silent Series R3 unit that Fractal bundles could reduce temperatures further for a beefy system.
Let’s look now at the Core 500’s noise levels versus the Graphite Series 380T:
At idle, the Core 500 is slightly quieter than the Graphite Series 380T. At low fan speeds, the cases are trading a decibel or two here and there—probably not something the average person will notice unless their PC shares a desk with them. The Fractal case gets only a bit louder with its fan turned to full blast, though, while the Graphite Series 380T becomes pretty loud with its fan controller on high. Because of their vented sides, the Nepton 240M’s pump noise is audible from both cases at idle, and I’d say it’s the most prominent noise from both cases with the fans set to low, for perspective.
Under load, the Core 500 set for low fan speeds gets noisy—the left side, especially. That’s due in part to the graphics card cooler on my GeForce GTX 660 Ti, which is by far the noisiest thing in the system. The closed top of the Corsair case dampens sound levels from that angle, but its open left side is no better at dampening the whine from the graphics card.
Turn the fans up to high, and the Core 500 actually gets a bit quieter. That’s because the graphics card stays a bit cooler under load and doesn’t have to spin its fans as fast. The Graphite Series 380T delivers similar temperature reductions, but its extra fan seems to wipe out any noise advantages gained by cooling the graphics card better.
Subjectively, the Core 500 is pleasant to share a room with. The included Fractal Design Silent Series 140-mm fan is practically inaudible at low speeds, and its sound at high speed is an unobjectionable broad-spectrum whoosh that fades into the background after a few minutes. That’s a good thing, since the graphics card’s harsh-sounding cooler didn’t have to work as hard with the fan at full blast. Builders will want to set their fan controllers or software fan curves accordingly.
The Graphite Series 380T is less polite to my ear, but that’s due in part to the fact that it has an extra fan inside. Even so, Corsair’s included fans aren’t as pleasant-sounding as Fractal Design’s Silent Series fan, and they make more pronounced noise under load.
The Core 500 also does a wonderful job of dampening hard-drive vibration and motor noise. My ears only got the barest hint that the noisy Samsung 750GB drive in the Casewarmer was powered on, and the case never buzzed or hummed while the drive was running. The rubber feet also prevented much of the drive’s vibration from making its way into my desk. With a quieter graphics card inside, I’m confident the Core 500 would be a welcome guest in a living room or other shared spaces.
I’ve enjoyed every Fractal Design case that’s come through TR’s labs, so I had high hopes for the Core 500. Its spec sheet is appealing, to be sure. Plenty of room for air and liquid coolers, a good number of 2.5″ and 3.5″ drive mounts, and enough space for extra-long graphics cards all make this case look like a winner on paper.
In practice, though, my experience wasn’t so rosy. Installing my test system inside the Core 500 was a chore with a big all-in-one liquid cooler—an unusual choice for a case of this size, to be sure, but it still wasn’t smooth sailing. Had I ended up on the wrong side of a few millimeters’ clearance here and there (as one might with different parts), it’s possible that the problems would have been show-stoppers—especially with extra-long graphics cards, big power supplies, or super-sized radiators. As always, Mini-ITX builders need to pick their parts carefully.
Cable management also wasn’t as easy as it is in Fractal’s larger cases. Though Mini-ITX cases don’t often have a lot of extra room to start with, the Core 500 isn’t helped by its overly long front-panel cables. The outer cover requires a lot of finessing to replace properly, and its thumbscrews don’t go in with the silky smoothness I’ve enjoyed on the Define R5 and Define S.
Despite those bumps, the Core 500 is pleasant to be around once a system is inside, and it’s possible that a little more elbow grease to begin with could have solved my radiator-installation issue. Fractal’s included fan is excellent, and the case suppresses unpleasant system noises admirably. I could see a Core 500-based system with a quieter graphics cooler than the one in our Casewarmer serving as a great HTPC enclosure. Also, despite some rough edges, the Core 500 is built like a rock—neither the chassis or top cover exhibit much flex, even with the top rail removed.
On balance, I wouldn’t recommend the Core 500 for everybody. Though the case offers a lot for its $60 price tag, and despite its solid performance and good manners once a system is inside, I’m not blown away by the Core 500’s overall ease-of-use or its cable management options. Still, enthusiasts who want a compact case with room for a 240-mm or 280-mm liquid cooler and an extra-long graphics card don’t have many choices right now. Seasoned builders who don’t mind careful planning and parts selection should give the Core 500 a look.