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Fractal Design's Define S2 case reviewed

The times, they are a-changin'

When Fractal Design introduced its Define S chassis a little over three years ago, PCs—and indeed, PC cases—looked a lot different than they do now. Power-supply shrouds were rare, and builders didn't take any issue with a neat bundle of slack cabling zip-tied up in front of their PSUs. Since that time, most every case designer has embraced the shroud at every price point. A visible power supply and cabling these days is kind of like jorts: functional, but unfashionable.

The space demands on the average case have changed, too. With the ever-greater density of hard drives and the increasing accessibility of NAS boxes, builders don't need 10 local 3.5" devices to reach 10 TB of storage in a system. They can just slap one big drive in there or plug in a Gigabit Ethernet cable to reach their disk array. SSDs don't take up as much space as they used to, either. Builders rarely need to choose 2.5" storage when even SATA SSDs can go right on the motherboard, and the majority of NVMe drives need an M.2 slot to work at all.

Some elements of a system build aren't so amenable to miniaturization, of course. Radiators can't escape the laws of thermodynamics, for just one example, so lots of heat still means lots of surface area for those after quiet cooling. Reservoirs usually put a big cylinder or two of liquid on top of their accompanying pumps, too. All that stuff needs space, and the wide-open design philosophy of the original Define S remains valuable for the kinds of builds that just can't go in cases with less-spacious main chambers.

To keep up with the changing demands of case design, Fractal Design has evolved the Define S into something a little different. No longer is this case a budget-friendly alternative to the Define R6. Instead, the Define S2 we're reviewing today takes the premium-feeling skeleton and user-friendly design features of the R6 and wraps them around the same wide-open interior as the original—just with a PSU shroud to hide the naughty bits.

Let's start from the top. A single, full-length metal ModuVent panel crowns the Define S2, a design that debuted on the Define R6. A button at the left rear corner of the case pushes forward a row of catches that pop up the panel, allowing it to be pulled away from the rest of the case.

With this panel off, we get a good look at the Define S2's removable top radiator mount. Unlike other cases that implement this feature, the Define S2 (and R6) ask the builder to remove a few tiny screws from all over this panel to pull it out, rather than simply slide it out from the inside of the case. This design works fine in practice—just keep track of those screws.

The Define S2's top mount can handle as many as three 120-mm or 140-mm fans, or 360-mm or 420-mm radiators for the liquid-cooling set. Using any 140-mm-based radiator on the top panel requires motherboard components not to exceed 1.38" (35 mm) in height, however. At least in the case of 120-mm-based radiators, the top mounting frame has a generous offset from the motherboard tray to prevent interference with tall DIMMs or motherboard heatsinks.

Observant readers will be asking themselves how the top radiator mount is supposed to breathe if the top panel of this case is a solid affair. Surprise: there's a captive mesh filter hiding underneath it.

Of all the changes Fractal Design made in moving from the Define R5 to the Define R6, this one is my least favorite. I found it impossible to pull the panel and cover apart while working with both cases without using some kind of flat-edged tool, and in the case of the Define S2, I still barked my fingers on the edges of this metal panel while I was working to separate them. I haven't bled from working with a case this expensive in a long time, and I don't think it speaks well to Fractal Design's efforts here.

The front I/O panel of the Define S2 includes the company's signature circular power button, a reset button, two USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, the usual headphone and microphone jacks, and a bona fide USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port. The cable for this Type-C port can handle data transfers at speeds up to 10 Gb/s, as well as fast charging for motherboards and devices that support it.

Since the Define S2 doesn't have an optical drive, the front panel doesn't have the reversible door of the Define R6. It's just a pop-off panel, albeit one covered in a real sheet of black anodized aluminum for a classy appearance.

Behind this panel, Fractal hides one of its trademark sheets of noise-deadening foam. This material is meant to diminish any din from inside the case that might escape through the rows of vents running up the sides of the panel.

While you won't find a full-length dust filter attached to the Define S2's front panel as you would in the original Define S, Fractal still filters the case's intake by way of a pair of snap-in mesh covers that run behind the panel's louvers.

Flipping the case over reveals another Fractal trademark: a full-length dust filter that pulls out from the front of the case. Underneath this filter, the Define S2 has a pair of 120-mm or 140-mm fan mounts that can either pull air in or push it out of the bottom chamber, PSU length permitting.

Those same mounts can handle radiators as long as 240 mm or 280 mm, as well, though again, the PSU's length will be the limiting factor.

Around back, the Define S2 shows the first real evidence of its non-removable PSU shroud with a thumbscrew-retained PSU-mounting frame. We also get a look at its seven expansion-card slots, its vertical graphics-card mount (made useful by the optional Flex VRC-25 cable, sold separately) and the dual-purpose, adjustable 120-mm or 140-mm fan mount. Fractal pre-populates this mount with another one of its Dynamic X2 GP-14 140-mm fans. Radiators that fit 120-mm or 140-mm mounts can go here, too. Finally, we can see the aforementioned button that pops out the top panel.

Fractal Design Define S2
Type ATX mid-tower
Dimensions (W x H x D) 9.6" x 23" x 22.7"
(24.3 cm x 58.6 cm x 57.7 cm)
Supported motherboards E-ATX, ATX, microATX, Mini-ITX
3.5" drive mounts 3
2.5" drive mounts 7 (3 shared with 3.5" devices)
5.25" drive bays N/A
Fan mounts Front: 3x 140 mm, 3x 120 mm
Top: 3x 140 mm, 3x 120 mm
Bottom: 2x 140 mm or 120 mm
Rear: 1x 120-mm or 140-mm
Radiator mounts Front: 120-mm rads up to 360 mm, 140-mm rads up to 280 mm
Top: 120-mm rads up to 360 mm, 140-mm up to 420 mm
(mobo and DIMM clearance of 35 mm max with 140-mm top rads)
Rear: 1x 120-mm or 1x 140-mm rad
Included fans Front: 2x Fractal Design Dynamic X2 GP-14 140-mm fans
Rear: 1x Fractal Design Dynamic X2 GP-14 140-mm fan
Front panel I/O 2x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, 1x USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C,
headphone jack, microphone jack
Max graphics card length 17.3" (44 cm) with fans installed, 18.3" (46.5 cm) without
Max CPU cooler height 7.28" (18.5 cm)

The Define S2 will come in four colors, all with tempered-glass side panels. One is the black-and-white-trimmed version we have on the bench today. The second is a "Blackout" version that drops the contrasting white expansion-slot covers and fan hubs. The third is a "Gunmetal" model with a smoky-gray anodized-aluminum panel and paint job, plus black fans and a slightly tinted tempered-glass side panel. The final variant is a white version with white fans, a white-bordered tempered-glass panel, black expansion-slot covers, and a black aluminum front panel. The basic black and white models will come with blue power LEDs, while the Blackout and Gunmetal finishes will have white power LEDs.

No matter what Define S2 model you choose, the case carries a $149.99 suggested price tag. For a case that's resolutely free of RGB LEDs or other gimmicks, that sticker is going to make builders place a premium on construction and ease of use. Let's pop open the Define S2 now and see what's going on inside.