Our testing methods
Here's the configuration of our test system:
|Motherboard||MSI A88XI AC|
|Memory||8GB AMD Entertainment Edition DDR3-1600|
|Graphics card||Asus Strix Radeon R9 Fury|
|Storage||OCZ Vector 180 480GB
Samsung Spinpoint F1 750GB HDD
|Power supply||Cooler Master V550|
|CPU cooler||AMD Wraith|
|Fan controller||NZXT Grid+ V2|
|OS||Windows 10 Pro|
Our thanks to MSI, Asus, AMD, Cooler Master, and OCZ for contributing parts to our test system, and to Fractal Design and Corsair for providing the cases that we're testing in this review.
As a foil for the Define Nano S in this review, we've tapped Corsair's Graphite Series 380T Mini-ITX enclosure. This case is significantly more expensive than the Nano S, but its maximum graphics card length and CPU cooler compatibility are fairly similar to that of the Fractal case. We've also seen this enclosure drop below $100 fairly often over the past couple months, so sales could bring its price more in line with the Nano S's from time to time.
To put a little extra pressure on our test cases, we've swapped out the GeForce GTX 660 Ti we've used in past tests for Asus' much beefier Strix Radeon R9 Fury. Fair warning, though: this card only just fits into the Corsair case, and only then with a bit of shaving-off of non-essential plastic pins inside. Don't try this at home.
I'm also trying out a little gadget NZXT gave us at CES: its Grid+ V2 fan controller. This $30 device has six individually controllable three-pin fan ports. By hooking up the Grid+ V2 to an open USB 2.0 header on the motherboard, one can set custom performance curves for every fan attached to the controller using NZXT's CAM software. Builders can also skip the fine-tuning and rely on NZXT's pre-baked "Performance" and "Silent" fan curves.
Most importantly, we can tell the Grid+ V2 to tie fan speeds to the temperature of the CPU or graphics card. Not even the best motherboard fan control options reliably provide access to that feature. The Grid+ V2 also adds far more fan ports to a system than usually come standard on a mini-ITX motherboard. The companion CAM software is pretty useful, too. It provides AIDA64-like system monitoring capabilities, and it can use cloud storage to aggregate statistics about multiple PCs in a household for easy access later.
For this review, we connected the Grid+ V2 to the Nano S's intake and exhaust fans, set it to key off GPU temperatures, and used the default "Performance" fan curve. The Graphite Series 380T was similarly configured.
Here are the results of our temperature torture testing, plotted over time:
And here are some minimum and maximum numbers from each testing phase:
Going by maximum and minimum numbers, the Graphite Series 380T is the superior case for motherboard and storage cooling, whille the Fractal case wins out in the arguably more important CPU and graphics card categories. The Define Nano S is significantly better at cooling our test system's CPU, for whatever reason. We were surprised that the more open Corsair case wasn't able to keep the R9 Fury cooler, too.
Looking at temperature trends, the Corsair case cools down the CPU and motherboard faster than the Nano S. The Fractal case is able to cool off the graphics card faster, though, so the overall verdict here is a bit of a wash.
To see if we could get the Nano S to lose its cool, we even threw Gigabyte's GeForce GTX 980 Ti G1 Gaming card inside for some informal testing. CPU load temperatures didn't get any hotter than with the R9 Fury in this configuration, and the GTX 980 Ti itself actually stayed cooler at about 75° C. Going by those numbers, it seems like the Nano S is more than up to the task of cooling any single graphics card a builder is likely to install.
Here are each case's noise levels, measured at idle and under load:
These numbers don't tell the whole story, though. While Corsair's case does let out more of the Strix R9 Fury's noise under load, that card has the best-sounding graphics card cooler I've ever heard at speed by far. I wasn't let down by hearing a lot of its pleasant, broad-spectrum noise character from the 380T under load, even if 50 dBA from the left side of the case is a lot of noise in absolute terms.
That fact makes the Define Nano S's four-dBA difference in noise levels from the left-side panel that much sweeter, though. Fractal's case is completely unobjectionable to have up on one's desk with the Radeon R9 Fury inside, even without headphones, speakers, or another external sound source going at the same time. Choose the right parts, and the Nano S could be an awesome companion in shared living spaces like living rooms or dorm rooms. None of that is to say the Graphite Series 380T is unpleasant to have around, but the Define Nano S is just that little bit quieter and smoother overall.
I'm quite familiar with Fractal Design's Dynamic Series fans now, since they come with every other Define case the company sells. These slow-spinning fans favor quiet operation over raw CFMs. They're practically inaudible from any significant distance at idle speeds, and they produce only a faint whoosh when running all-out. I continue to have no complaints about their performance in the Define Nano S.
Like many other cases I've tested, though, the Define Nano S does suffer from hard-drive-related buzzing from some of its panels. The top ModuVent seems especially vulnerable to sympathetic vibration from the 7200-RPM Samsung hard drive I use in my test system. Tapping this panel a few times tends to settle the beehive, but I'd rather not deal with the problem in the first place. It's worth noting that Samsung hard drive is almost eight years old now—more modern drives might not produce the same issue.