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.
Like most tempered-glass cases, the Crystal 280X relies on thumb screws and rubber washers to keep its panels in place. The top panel of the case rests on four metal posts that run through rubber grommets captive to the top glass panel, but the left-side panel relies only on its screws for support. This is a bad mounting system for a tempered-glass panel, as anyone removing it for the first time without being aware that it isn’t supported by anything other than screws might drop it to the table or floor.
I’m not sure why Corsair didn’t elect for metal posts on the left-side panel, but it ought to have. As it stands, builders need to be careful to support this panel if they’re removing it while the case is upright or to make sure to remove the panel with the case on its side.
With the left-side panel removed, we can see the Crystal 280X’s completely open main chamber. The 280X can hold Mini-ITX motherboards and microATX boards alike, so Corsair includes two sets of cable-routing grommets to accommodate both types of builds. One potential obstacle here is that using a microATX board will cover up two of those three grommets, limiting cable-routing options. Several more un-grommeted routing holes run along the bottom of the motherboard tray, at least.
The right-side panel is a rather thin metal affair that comes off with a twist of a pair of thumb screws. From this viewpoint, we get a good look at the removable dual-3.5″ and triple-2.5″ drive cages. Our power supply, when it’s installed, will rest on its side underneath the 3.5″ cage. Corsair lays down three nice, thick rubber pads for the PSU to rest on. These pads might minimize vibration transfer for those rare times in modern systems where a PSU fan might need to spin up.
The power-and-storage chamber also plays host to the Lighting Node Pro that controls the pair of pre-installed LL 120 fans. Corsair clearly put quite a bit of effort into cleanly routing the cables through this chamber for the LL 120 RGB fan at the top of the case, but anybody looking to install a radiator at the top or front of the case is going to have to tear out all of that beautiful work to position their hardware in the right place.
With that, we’ve seen about all there is to see about the inside of the 280X RGB. Time to build.
Given the Crystal 280X’s high-end billing, I didn’t want to test it with just any old system. As my intro notes, though, high-end microATX hardware is hard to come by, and most of the motherboards in the TR labs fall into Mini-ITX or plain old ATX form factors. That left us in a bit of a bind when we went to build in this chassis.
We ultimately requisitioned just the high-end microATX motherboard for the Crystal 280X RGB, though: EVGA’s X299 Micro. I pulled our Core i9-7900X off the shelf and stuck it in the socket before filling every DIMM slot on the board with sticks of Corsair DDR4-3200 RAM, too.
I had initially planned to saddle up with Corsair’s own H115i Pro liquid cooler. While the 280X RGB advertises support for 280-mm radiators, using one occupies the entire ceiling of the case and blocks off the sole routing hole for our system’s EPS connector. The rad would also have also prevented me from running fan cables cleanly to our motherboard’s CPU fan header. Those concerns aren’t show-stoppers, but they are annoying speed bumps for clean cable-routing strategies. Using a 280-mm radiator’s fans as pusher exhaust spinners might invite cable inhalation with the number of connectors at the top edge of many motherboards, too. I didn’t try it, but a pull setup would avoid those pains and better show off any RGB LED fans in that role, too.
I also found that with both LL 120 fans on the front panel, the H115i’s fittings could only be oriented toward the rear of the case. That’s not a big deal for that particular cooler and its flexible tubing, but other liquid-cooling hardware might not be so fortunate. Folks looking to max out the 280X’s liquid-cooling capabilities would be well-advised to consider how they’re going to route cables through the main chamber, since they’ll be left with just one available cable grommet at the front edge of the motherboard.
Ultimately, it turned out that no other microATX case in the TR labs could swallow a 280-mm radiator, so I turned to our arsenal of 240-mm hardware. One radiator that definitely didn’t fit was the extra-thick 240-mm affair on my Corsair H105. The fan-and-radiator stack of that cooler ran into the VRM heatsink on our test motherboard, so it struck out. I ultimately set up Aerocool’s standard-thickness P7-L240 with a pair of Corsair’s Editor’s Choice award-winning ML120 RGB fans for maximum RGB.
The fun didn’t end with cooler compatibility, of course. Each fan in the system I had planned had two wires to route, and all of those wires had to find their way to either fan splitters or Corsair’s RGB LED fan hub. Once every power, data, and fan cable was hooked up, the power-supply chamber of the 280X RGB turned into quite the rat’s nest. That wasn’t a big deal for airflow in my particular setup, seeing as how the case provides a dedicated vent for the PSU’s fan. Untamable snarls like the one I ultimately ended up with means that adding storage or more RGB LED hardware down the line could be a pain, though. At least the snarl isn’t visible to the outside world.
Light ‘er up
We’d be remiss to fire up the Crystal 280X RGB without showing off its headlining feature: the pair of LL 120 RGB fans inside. Each LL 120 fan has individually-addressable RGB LEDs in both the fan rotor and in a ring around the fan frame itself, and they’re capable of some pretty arresting effects courtesy of Corsair’s iCUE software.
Instead of attempting to describe the range of effects the LL 120s are capable of in text, I’ve shot a short video walking through many of their lighting modes. Sit back and enjoy before you turn the page to our test results.
Our testing methods
Here are the specifications of our test system:
|Processor||Intel Core i9-7900X|
|Motherboard||EVGA X299 Micro|
|Memory||32 GB (4x 8 GB) Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-3200|
|Graphics card||EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 SC2|
|Storage||Corsair Neutron XT 480 GB SSD
WD Blue 2 TB HDD
|Power supply||Corsair RM 850x|
|CPU cooler||Aerocool P7-L240|
|OS||Windows 10 Pro|
Our thanks to Intel, EVGA, Corsair, and Aerocool for outfitting our test systems with some of the finest hardware available. Our thanks as well to Cooler Master for the MasterCase Pro 3 that’ll be serving as the Crystal 280X’s adversary in this review.
Our case testing cycle consists of the following phases:
- 10 minutes of idle time at the Windows desktop
- 10 minutes of the Prime95 Small FFTs CPU torture test
- 10 minutes of the Prime95 Small FFTs CPU torture test and the Unigine Heaven graphics torture test
- 10 minutes of idle time at the Windows desktop
Ambient room temperature during our test run was about 76° F or 24.4° C.
Here are the results of our cooling tests, plotted over time:
And here are the minimum and maximum temperatures for each component during each testing phase:
Well, those are some graphs. With its tempered-glass panels in place, the Crystal 280X lets our Core i9-7900X run all the way up to a sizzling 102–103° C—just short of Skylake-X’s 105° C throttling threshold. Before our chip got to that point, it was apparently saved by the fact that our motherboard began VRM throttling, as shown by the dips in temperature throughout the most intensive portion of our testing phases. We confirmed our board’s VRM was getting too hot using Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility, which throws a warning if VRMs get too toasty.
After that concerning result, I wanted to see what would happen if the apparently-smothering tempered-glass panels weren’t in the way of intake air and exhaust from our test system. Turns out the 280X is actually the best-performing case here when it’s stripped naked. It doesn’t even allow the CPU to enter VRM or thermal throttling, and CPU package temperatures remain on par with the much-more-open-by-default MasterCase Pro 3. Despite its more open panels, the Cooler Master tower places our radiator’s fans further from our motherboard’s VRM heatsink, and that extra distance appears to have made all the difference in sustaining our test system’s performance.
To be clear, our test setup comes with some caveats. For one, using the top-mounted radiator as an exhaust for the entire system might not be ideal with as high-TDP a CPU as we’ve chosen. The alternative of setting up the radiator as an intake involves dumping tons of waste heat back into the rest of the case, though, and that might not be great for graphics performance. Our panels-on and panels-off tests do show that if one does pursue a top-mounted radiator placement, a more open case design with mesh panels instead of tempered glass (a hypothetical Carbide Series Air 280X, say) would be plenty able to feed the top-mounted rad with adequate cooling air to accommodate such a setup.
Second, Prime95 Small FFTs is not typical of even the most intensive everyday CPU workloads, and it’s causing our CPU to dump quite a bit more waste heat than even the most intensive real-world applications in our arsenal can. That said, our worst-case scenario shows that having solid front and top panels with only tens of millimeters or less to spare for both air intake and exhaust is a rough design choice when the 280X is asked to cool a high-octane system.
The noise levels produced by each case with our test system inside were measured 18″ (45.7 cm) from the front, left, right, and top of the case using an iPhone 6S running the Faber Acoustical SoundMeter application. Since the MasterCase Pro 3’s three-pin fans ran at full speed off our motherboard’s headers, we’ve chosen to omit competitive idle noise testing from our results. For reference, though, the noise floor in our test environment measured roughly 27.3 dBA and the loudest idle measurement we obtained from any angle with the Crystal 280X was 33 dBA.
Despite the mostly solid tempered glass exterior of the Crystal 280X versus the mostly open mesh paneling of the MasterCase Pro 3, our noise numbers shake out about the same no matter where we measure. You’d be hard-pressed to pick out either of these cases by sound pressure levels alone. Both cases make our test system known when it’s running all-out, but the noise emitted is hardly at unpleasant levels.
As for the subjective character of its noise emissions, the Crystal 280X is whisper-quiet at idle save for a faint hum from our test system’s hard drive. The LL 120 fans have an excellent noise character that sounds mostly like moving air, even when they’re operating at full speed. At idle, they easily fade into the background. It’s heartening to know that Corsair didn’t sacrifice the aural character of the LL 120s on the way to decking them out with RGB LEDs.
Corsair’s Crystal 280X RGB microATX case isn’t for everybody. At its $160 list price (or even at $110 without the RGB LED fans and hub inside), this is an unabashedly high-end chassis in a market that’s become more and more focused on well-under-$100 options for housing wallet-friendly motherboards and systems from both Intel and AMD.
While the 280X looks quite sharp thanks to its trio of tempered-glass panels, those sheets of glass are no friends of airflow. Our X299 test system likely would have experienced CPU thermal throttling had it not run into VRM thermal throttling in the 280X. No matter how transparent those panels look, they are still solid sheets of material with only thin gaps around them for air to move through.
We demonstrated just how much the largely-solid paneling chokes airflow by testing the case with its front and side panels removed. While that configuration is admittedly synthetic, it drastically improved both CPU and VRM cooling performance. As a result, I’d be eager to see an Air 280X with mesh panels on the front and top. Such a case would seem ready to beat even a chunky microATX tower like Cooler Master’s MasterCase Pro 3 in cooling performance.
Even as it stands, the 280X isn’t the easiest case to build high-end systems in. Despite ostensible room for 280-mm radiators, using one of those radiators will completely block off the 280X’s upper cable pass-throughs, presenting potential cable-routing challenges. Even 240-mm heat exchangers are a tight fit in this case thanks to the minimal space available between motherboards’ VRM heatsinks and any radiator stack mounted on the case’s ceiling. Radiator-and-fan stacks taller than the usual 52 mm or so are asking for trouble. With its maximum air cooler height of 150 mm, the 280X limits builders’ choices for effective air cooling, too.
I have to wonder how much more user-friendly this case would be had Corsair had expanded its critical dimensions—especially that maximum air-cooler height or top-radiator-mount motherboard clearance—by just a few millimeters. As it stands, the 280X’s dimensions hamper both choice and ease of installation for the beefy cooling hardware that ambitious high-end builders will want.
I also have to raise my usual objection to the walled garden that is Corsair RGB LED hardware here. Corsair’s proprietary lighting-control system only takes commands from the solid-but-siloed iCUE software or from some MSI motherboards, and MSI’s RGB LED software is the least-refined of the big three motherboard vendors’ stuff. Folks content to let iCUE run the show with Corsair fans, heatsinks, and light strips as the primary blinkenlights in their systems will be pleased by this case, but those building out from RGB LED-studded motherboards and graphics cards might want to skip the 280X RGB in favor of its plainer sibling.
All those gripes aside, the 280X RGB’s high-quality LL 120 RGB LED fans are capable of some amazing lighting effects, and the case stays whisper-quiet both at idle and under load. The $160 price tag on this case is a good value for the RGB LED-addicted, too, since each of its pair of LL 120 fans would go for $35 alone—and that’s before one adds the required Lighting Node Pro and fan hub.
Ultimately, the Crystal 280X RGB is more about allowing the system inside to be seen than it is about delivering the absolute best cooling performance. Mainstream systems with modest thermal requirements might perform just fine in this case, and they’ll certainly look good surrounded by the RGB LEDs this case begs to show off. Builders will want to exercise caution before filling this enclosure with the high-TDP high-end components that the 280X’s high-end price tag would seem to beckon for, though.