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Corsair's Crystal Series 280X RGB microATX case reviewed

A gem in the rough

PC builders tend to be binary folk. Intel or AMD, Radeon or GeForce, so on and so forth. Third options are unusual in PC building. Even so, the microATX form factor has long offered a middle way between tiny Mini-ITX boards and the usually wasted expanse of ATX boards and their seven expansion slots. With the potential for a sufficient four expansion slots and a 20%-smaller-area motherboard tray, microATX boards should have proven attractive default options as motherboards and chipsets integrate more and more features that were previously the domain of expansion cards. We even argued as much way back when.

The problem is that PC builders are still as binary as ever. Folks who want to go really small and not just kinda small can easily get there with today's highly integrated Mini-ITX boards, while those pushing their hardware to the limits are still going to want room for big air coolers or lots of liquid-cooling hardware for CPUs and graphics cards alike. That means ATX motherboards and ATX mid-towers continue to offer the widest range of choices for most, and they've stubbornly remained the default form factor for enthusiast systems.

These days, it seems microATX has mostly shifted to serving the budget and low-mid-range system builder. A survey of Newegg shows there are at least 43 microATX motherboards available in Intel's 300-series chipset family, yet just six of them use the highest-end Z370 chipset. Another five use the nearly-equivalent-but-locked H370 chipset. The remaining 32 are spread across the mid-tier B360 and low-end H310 chipsets in similar proportions. If you're a high-end builder, there are about as many Mini-ITX Z370 boards as there are microATX choices—not a fun fact for those who believe the middle form factor ought to be the default pick.

For high-end AMD builders, microATX is even more the domain of budget systems. Of the 30 Socket AM4 motherboards available on Newegg right now, 16 of them use the unlocked B350 chipset. The rest use the locked A320 chipset. Zero of those boards use the high-end X470 or X370 platforms. In a world where multiple graphics cards are an endangered species, this may not be the biggest deal, but it remains telling.

With the way the winds are blowing for microATX, then it would seem to be hard for high-end case makers to justify making expensive midi-chassis with high-end features. If we use the power of the 'egg to ferret out high-end microATX cases, the market would appear to bear that out. Just six microATX chassis sell for more than $100 after we eliminate color choices from the count, and most sell for under $75.

Given all those factors, the Corsair Crystal Series 280X and Crystal Series 280X RGB launching today smell a bit like unicorns. The Crystal Series 280X lists for $110, while the RGB edition adds a pair of Corsair's LL 120 fans and a Lighting Node Pro controller to the package for an extra $50.

In exchange, Corsair does a lot to justify these cases' price tags on first blush. The Crystal 280X uses a dual-chamber design to separate the motherboard and graphics card from the power supply and storage. In theory, this arrangement ensures that the hottest components get the most direct cooling airflow possible. Three glass panels around the main chamber of the 280X reveal the presumably unusual and high-end selection of parts inside, and they also just look good.

Flipping the case around to the rear gives us our first look at what's to come in the power-and-storage chamber. The full-length vent on the bottom half of this panel gives the power-supply fan and an optional 120-mm or 140-mm fan room to breathe. From this angle, we can also see the loading hatch for the 3.5" dual-drive cage inside.

The top-panel I/O block for the 280X offers two USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports, a power button, a reset button, and the requisite headphone and microphone jacks.

Taking a look at the bottom of the 280X reveals its third magnetic dust filter. This filter covers mounts for a pair of 120-mm or 140-mm fans, although Corsair say those mounts are only for use when this case houses a Mini-ITX PC. Unofficially, 120-mm fans will mount just fine on these points in microATX builds so long as the builder is OK with losing use of the fourth expansion slot on their motherboards. This vent should also serve as another source of airflow for the graphics-card cooler that will presumably sit above.

The tempered-glass front panel is integrated with its pop-off plastic surround, so it's easy to begin stripping down the case to see inside. Our particular Crystal 280X is the RGB model, so Corsair pre-installs a single LL 120 fan in the front panel behind a magnetic dust filter. Two 120-mm or 140-mm fans can be installed on this panel, as can a 240-mm radiator. 280-mm heat exchangers are persona non grata here, though.

Up top, the 280X has a multi-layer fascia that starts with another tempered-glass panel. This sheet of glass sits above a rather thin plastic cover that both holds the top dust filter for the main chamber in place and serves as the cladding for the storage-and-power chamber. Removing both the tempered glass and this cover reveals the second pre-installed LL 120 fan. Corsair configures this spinner as an exhaust by default. As many as two 120-mm or 140-mm fans can go on the ceiling of the 280X, as can 240-mm or 280-mm radiators.

That about wraps up what we can see from the outside with the Crystal 280X RGB. Let's get inside and see how the case stands ready to handle a system.