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Fractal Design's Define C case reviewed

C is for compact

Something a little weird is happening in the world of DIY PCs of late. Look at Z170 motherboards—probably the most popular platform for enthusiast system builds these days—and you'll see an abundance of ATX options alongside just a handful of microATX and mini-ITX boards. Awareness of those small-form-factor boards seems to be higher than it's ever been, but we're still a long way away from those form factors becoming default choices for the average system builder.

Even if motherboard makers are still putting the majority of their time and effort toward ATX boards, other developments around those PCBs are lessening the need for huge cases. CPUs and graphics cards are becoming surprisingly efficient, and that trend means hulking power supplies are no longer necessary in most builds. Copious gaming power can come from graphics cards under seven inches long. Storage devices are becoming denser, so one or two spinning disks can replace a hefty complement of 3.5" drives. All of those changes make full towers and even large mid-towers seem ideal for only the most power- and storage-hungry builds.

In keeping with this new reality, the ATX mid-tower is shrinking. We've already seen what's possible from a compact mid-tower with Corsair's Carbide Series 400C, and Fractal Design is hopping on board that train today with the Define C. Despite its ATX motherboard tray, the Define C's wheelbase is two inches shorter than even the microATX Corsair Obsidian 350D's, and it's only a hair taller than Corsair's compact case. When one can have a space-saving ATX case like this one, it's hard for me to imagine why many builders would want to bother with the limitations of microATX. Might explain the slim pickings for those boards on Newegg right now.

Thanks to its ATX bones, the Define C still offers full seven expansion slots and room for 168-mm-tall CPU coolers, 280-mm or 360-mm front radiators, and 240-mm top radiators. Despite its compact frame, Fractal's latest can still swallow 12.4"-long graphics cards, too. The only things it can't hold are tons of storage devices, optical drives, complex liquid-cooling loops, or super-long power supplies. Builders only get two 3.5" combo sleds and three dedicated 2.5" mounts for storage in the Define C, and that's it. For modern system builds that tend to pair one capacious SSD with one hard drive, though, those specs seem just right.

Every time a Fractal case comes through the TR labs, it's fun to see what new refinements have made their way in. The Define C is the first Fractal case I've used that includes a dust filter for the top ModuVent panel—a welcome development after years of badgering on my part. Fractal's engineers have carried over the best features from the company's other cases, too. The C gets the Define Nano S's noise-dampened front panel, and it also gets the Define R5's full-length bottom dust filter that pulls out from the front of the case. While the Define C's left-side windowed panel isn't dampened, the right-side panel keeps the same thin sheet of noise-dampening material common on other Fractal cases.

Up top, the Define C offers two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone jack, and a mic jack that flank the company's signature big round power button. The C's ModuVent is the same single-panel design that debuted on the Define Nano S instead of the three-panel covers on the Define S and Define R5. While this design is slightly less versatile than those on Fractal's bigger cases, the included dust filter at least means that popping off the panel won't allow dust to make its way in through unoccupied radiator or fan mounts.

The Define C rests on four rubber-padded feet. The full-length bottom dust filter seen here will prevent dust from making its way into the power supply or into the case through the optional 120-mm bottom fan mount.

Behind the padded front panel and a pop-out dust filter, Fractal includes one of its Dynamic X2 GP-12 120-mm fans. As many as two 140-mm or three 120-mm spinners can draw air in through the Define C's front end, though triple-fan or 360-mm radiator setups will require builders to ditch the 3.5" drive cage. We'll examine why when we take apart the case shortly.

Around back, we get a glimpse of the Define C's other included 120-mm fan, its seven white expansion slot covers, and the removable power supply mounting bracket.  Even though the C only has a 120-mm fan mount at its rear, Fractal kept the adjustable mounting system that we've praised in its past cases. That sliding fan could prove handy for builders with top-mounted radiators in mind.

Here are the Define C's specs in convenient tabular form:

  Fractal Design Define C (with window)
Type ATX mid-tower
Dimensions (W x H x D) 8.3" x 17.3" x 15.7"  (210 x 440 x 399 mm)
Supported motherboards Mini-ITX, microATX, ATX
3.5" drive mounts 2
2.5" drive mounts 3
5.25" drive bays None
Fan mounts 3 120-mm or 2 140-mm front fans
2 120-mm or 140-mm top fans
1 120-mm rear fan
1 120-mm bottom fan
Radiator mounts Front radiators up to 280 mm or 360 mm long
(with hard drive cage removed)

Top radiators up to 240 mm or 280 mm long
(motherboard heatsinks cannot exceed 40 mm tall)

One 120-mm rear radiator
(radiator cannot be more than 125 mm wide)
Included fans 1 Fractal Design Dynamic X2 GP-12 120-mm front fan
1 Fractal Design Dynamic X2 GP-12 120-mm rear fan
Front panel I/O 2x USB 3.0
Max. graphics card length 12.4" (315 mm)
Max. CPU cooler height 6.6" (168 mm)
Gap behind motherboard 0.75" - 1.5" (19 mm - 38 mm)

Fractal suggests a $79.99 price tag for the non-windowed Define C and a $84.99 sticker for the windowed version we're reviewing today. Compared to other compact ATX cases, those price tags are quite aggressive—Corsair's 400C goes for an even $100 for similar specifications. Let's see what those dollars get you inside the Define C now.