I gotta admit: as a guy who started his tech-reviewing career reviewing computer cases, I'm a bit spoiled these days. I've used several of the best enclosures on the market from several manufacturers, and I heartily recommend spending as much on a good case as possible.
Not everybody wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a PC chassis, though. For some people, the case is just a metal box with some holes in it and a couple of spinny things inside that move air through those holes. The cheaper that box is, the better. Go too cheap, though, and you might end up with a flimsy, noisy hovel of a case that's hard to build in.
Playing that sort of reverse-blackjack with pricing and value is a tough game to win for the frugal PC builder, but Cooler Master and Zalman have both introduced products in the past few months that might be budget-friendly winners: Zalman with its Z9 Neo, and Cooler Master with its MasterBox 5. We've got both of these cases in the lab now, so we figured we'd pit them against one another in a budget-box double feature.
Zalman's Z9 Neo rings in at a $70 suggested price. Despite its relatively low price tag, it comes with a sharp-looking white exterior, a large side-panel window, and a whopping five 120-mm fans inside. (Zalman also offers a black version of this case for $10 more.)
A fan grille on top of the Z9 Neo hides two 120-mm fans that light up with blue LEDs. The Neo also offers two USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports on its top panel, more than many cases can boast. Blue LED accents ring those USB ports, leaving no doubt about the places where users can plug in peripheral devices or flash drives. For some reason, however, these blue LED rings light up even while the system inside is off. Some might find this behavior annoying if they have to have the Z9 Neo share their sleeping space.
Around front, the Z9 Neo comes with a noise-dampening front door, an uncommon feature even on cases that cost much more. A dust filter cleans up the air coming in through the two 120-mm intake fans, although one has to pull off the entire front panel to remove and clean this filter. That panel is bound to the case with its USB and front-panel wiring, so builders will need to be careful when removing the dust filter for cleaning.
Turning over the Z9 Neo reveals a quartet of rubber feet and a pull-out dust filter for the power supply's fan. Nothing special here, but nothing to complain about, either. Zalman's feet do keep the Neo a fair distance off the floor, which might be important to those with high-pile carpeting.
Around back, we get a glimpse at the Neo's single 120-mm exhaust fan, and its seven expansion slots. No surprises here, either. Now that we've seen the Z9 Neo's exterior, let's tour the MasterBox 5.
Cooler Master is keeping busy these days by revamping its sprawling product lineup with a more unified design language and modular features. The company is bringing those improvements to the budget builder with its MasterBox 5. This case is available in the white finish you see above and a black version with a mesh front panel. Both cases sell for about $70 on Newegg right now.
The MasterBox may not be quite as decked-out as the Z9 Neo, but it still comes with a pair of 120-mm fans, a windowed side panel, and a sharp-looking smoked-plastic front panel. The MasterBox also boasts a wide-open interior that evokes Fractal Design's Define S, one of our favorite budget cases.
Unlike the Z9 Neo, the MasterBox 5 has a solid top panel that reduces the number of potential spots where builders might install a radiator. That's not a huge issue for these budget cases in general, though. We think it's unlikely that budget builders will be putting $100 closed-loop CPU coolers in these babies. The MasterBox's front I/O panel offers a pair of USB 3.0 ports, a mic jack, and a headphone jack. While the Z9 Neo has more ports, we imagine the MasterBox's complement will be just fine for most builders, as well.
There's no dust filter behind the MasterBox 5's easy-to-remove front panel, but Cooler Master does include one 120-mm intake fan. We'd have preferred this fan be installed on the upper mount at the front of the case, since we think that moving air over the graphics card in a system is much more important than keeping 3.5" storage devices cool these days. Builders can choose the most appropriate fan position for their own preferences, at least. A 240- or 280-mm radiator up to 50 mm thick can slip in behind these front fan mounts, as well. That setup is handy, since it means the entire radiator stack doesn't have to consume precious space inside the main chamber.
The MasterBox 5 is supported by a pair of sturdy plastic feet, each of which rest on a pair of small rubber pads for noise and vibration reduction. The Cooler Master case has a pull-out dust filter for the power-supply fan, as well. Once again, nothing special here, but we're glad to see features like these becoming standard in even the more affordable cases out there.
Around back, the MasterBox hides a 120-mm exhaust fan and seven expansion slots. In a neat touch, Cooler Master includes a vertically-oriented expansion slot next to the main seven so that builders can put brackets for stuff like extra USB ports at the rear of the case without blocking a slot on the motherboard.
Here are all the essential specs of the Z9 Neo and the MasterBox 5 in convenient tabular form:
|Zalman Z9 Neo||Cooler Master
|Type||ATX mid-tower||ATX mid-tower|
(W x H x D)
|8" x 19.3" x 19"
(203.2 x 490.2 x 482.6 mm)
| 8.7" x 18.7" x 19.7"
(220 x 475 x 500 mm)
|ATX, microATX, Mini-ITX||ATX, microATX, Mini-ITX|
|3.5" drive mounts||2 2.5"/3.5" combo sleds||2 2.5"/3.5" combo sleds|
|2.5" drive mounts||2 dedicated
2 2.5"/3.5" combo sleds
2 2.5"/3.5"/5.25" combo cages
2 2.5"/3.5" combo sleds
|5.25" drive bays||2 2.5"/3.5"/5.25" combo cages||N/A|
|Fan mounts||2 120-mm or 140-mm front fans
3 120-mm or 2 140-mm bottom fans
1 140-mm rear fan
|2 120-mm or 140-mm front fans
1 120-mm rear fan
|Radiator mounts||2 120-mm top mounts
2 120-mm front mounts
1 240-mm top mount
1 240-mm front mount
|2 120-mm or 140-mm front mounts
1 240-mm or 280-mm front mount
1 120-mm rear mount
|Included fans||2 120-mm Zalman front fans
2 120-mm Zalman top fans
1 120-mm Zalman rear fan
|1 Cooler Master 120-mm front fan
1 Cooler Master 120-mm rear fan
|Front panel I/O||2 USB 3.0 ports
2 USB 2.0 ports
|2 USB 3.0 ports
|16.5" (420 mm)||16.2" (410 mm)|
|Max. CPU cooler height||160 mm (measured)||167 mm|
|Gap behind motherboard||0.7" (17 mm)||0.9" (23 mm)|
Without further ado, let's get inside these cases and see what they have to offer the system builder on a budget.