A couple years ago, we published an article lamenting the fact that the average PC these days is full of air. We bemoaned the wastefulness of ATX motherboards stuffed with more expansion slots than most will ever need and cases bristling with 5.25″ bays and 3.5″ drive sleds that mostly go unused. At the time, we argued that microATX motherboards and cases could serve as a fine default choice for most builders.
Mechanical hard drives and solid-state drives have gotten even denser since that time, to the point that one can get 500GB of solid-state storage on a PCB only a little larger than a stick of gum, or 6TB of space (or more) in the traditional 3.5″ hard drive. It’s not hard to find a nice Mini-ITX motherboard with essentials like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and high-quality audio baked in these days, either. Considering those developments, a Mini-ITX PC could make a lot of sense for PC builders making a fresh start.
One obstacle to wider adoption of Mini-ITX PCs might be the cases available for these systems, though. We’ve seen a Cambrian explosion of shapes and sizes for Mini-ITX cases over the past few years, from slim HTPCs to shoebox-style cases to cuboid mini-towers and even luggables. These cases often share some annoying downsides. Their cramped interiors, limited cable-routing space, and surprise clearance issues often require a seasoned builder’s touch to work around. Thanks to those land mines, Mini-ITX PCs still carry a touch of the exotic about them.
Unlike other cases’ wild experiments in form, Fractal Design’s Define Nano S is unapologetically a tower. This case isn’t about being as small as possible, nor does it suggest lunchbox-like portability or masquerade as shoe storage. Instead, the Nano S’s unassuming shape suggests familiarity and approachability. It might not be as sporty-looking as Corsair’s Graphite Series 380T or as diminuitive as Cooler Master’s Elite 110, but the Nano S has a refreshing get-in-and-go character about it that’s instantly appealing.
I’d forgive you if you thought I was re-using some pictures from my Define S review at first glance. The Nano S, as its name implies, is the result of Fractal’s engineers firing up their tiny chainsaws and cutting the regular Define S down to Mini-ITX size. The company didn’t just hang up the Stihls and leave it at that, though. The Nano S gets a couple of welcome shots of Define R5 DNA that are lacking in the regular-sized Define S, like swing-away side panels, an adjustable-position rear fan mount, and a noise-reducing front panel.
At the same time, some features of the Nano S are simplified compared to its larger brethren. The ModuVent top panel on this case trades the multi-section design of the Define S and Define R5 for a one-piece panel that leaves the whole top vent of the case exposed when it’s removed. That’s alright if a 240-mm radiator is on the parts list, but installing smaller radiators will leave room for dust to enter the case.
That issue is only possible because Fractal Design still hasn’t stepped up and included a magnetic top dust filter with the Nano S (or any of its other Define cases). Phanteks’ just-released (and similarly-priced) Eclipse P400S case includes removable top-panel covers and individual magnetic dust filters to take their place, so Fractal’s continuing omission of this feature stings more and more as time goes on.
The Nano S’ front-panel I/O is identical to the Define S’s. We get headphone and microphone jacks, a large power button flanked by a smaller reset button, and two USB 3.0 ports.
Pulling off the insulated front panel reveals even more subtle changes from the Define S. The magnetic front dust filter features the same downward-angled vanes as the Define R5’s removable filter. Behind that dust screen is a single Fractal Design Dynamic GP-14 140-mm fan. More ambitious builders can remove the 140-mm fan and install a 240-mm or 280-mm radiator behind the front panel, while those sticking to air cooling can use up to two 120-mm or 140-mm fans in total. Tower-style coolers as tall as 6.3″ (160 mm) can fit inside the Nano S, too.
Flipping the case over gives us a better view of that full-length dust filter, as well as the Nano S’s four rubber feet. Unlike the thick rubber donuts of the Define R5 and Define S, though, the Nano S rests on some thin rubber pads that might not be as good at dampening vibrations from the system inside. We’ll have to see whether that change makes a difference in our testing.
Around back, we get a look at the Nano S’ adjustable rear fan mount with its included Dynamic GP-12 120-mm fan, twin expansion slots, and full-size ATX power supply mount. Clean and simple.
Here are the Define Nano S’ key specifications in tabular form:
|Fractal Design Define Nano S|
|Dimensions (W x H x D)||8″ x 13″ x 15.7″ (203 x 330 x 400 mm)|
|3.5″ drive mounts||2|
|2.5″ drive mounts||4 (2 dedicated, 2 3.5″/2.5″ combo)|
|5.25″ drive bays||None|
|Fan mounts||2 120-mm or 140-mm front fans
2 120-mm or 140-mm top fans
1 120-mm bottom fan
|Included Fans||1x Fractal Design Dynamic GP14 140-mm front intake
1x Fractal Design Dynamic GP12 120-mm rear exhaust
|Front panel I/O||2x USB 3.0
|Max. graphics card length||12.4″ (315 mm)|
|Max. CPU cooler height||6.3″ (160 mm)|
|Gap behind motherboard||0.5″-1.5″|
At $64.99 for the non-windowed version and $69.99 for the windowed version we’re reviewing today, the Define Nano S is quite reasonably priced for a Mini-ITX tower. Let’s open it up and see how Fractal Design put the Nano S’s larger-than-average dimensions to use.
Come inside, come inside
Given what we’ve seen of the Define Nano S so far, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the interior of this case is a lot like the Define S’s, just smaller.
The “pegboard” area in front of the motherboard tray is meant to offer builders a mounting spot for liquid-cooling hardware like pumps and reservoirs. The pegboard also eliminates airflow obstructions if those components aren’t being used.
A new “cheese plate” in front of the power supply mount is pre-drilled for a variety of common liquid-cooling pumps. This plate can slide forward and backward on its adjustable mount, and it also doubles as an extra 3.5″ drive mount if the single 3.5″ sled behind the pegboard area isn’t enough room for mechanical storage. If the plate isn’t needed, builders can remove it and install a 120-mm fan or radiator in its place.
Like many other Mini-ITX cases, the Nano S is designed for a full-size ATX power supply. That choice could be a problem, since it means only a precious few millimeters stand between the top of the power supply and the graphics card cooler if one is installed. Fractal cautions builders to only use cards whose coolers fit within a dual-slot form factor with this case.
Even with a standard-length ATX power supply, the expansion card slots are so close to the top of the PSU that ventilation could be a problem for shorter coolers. Adapting an SFX PSU to the Nano S might give graphics cards more breathing room, but the cables included with those PSUs are often much shorter than those of their ATX brethren. We’ll have to see how this potential pain point plays out in our tests.
At the top of the case, Fractal includes its usual complement of fan and radiator mounting points under the ModuVent panel. A 240-mm radiator can fit up here, but 280-mm heat exchangers can’t. Fractal cautions that DIMMs taller than 35 mm might cause clearance issues with 240-mm radiators, too. Check the handy, clearly written manual for full clearance information. Those sticking to air cooling can add two 120-mm or 140-mm spinners here, too.
On the back side of the motherboard tray, we get another 3.5″ drive mount and a dual-SSD drive sled. Both of these sleds are held in with thumbscrews, but builders will still have to pull out their screwdrivers to actually affix drives to them. Fractal also includes three hook-and-loop straps in strategic positions to make cable routing easier. Room for cables behind the motherboard tray is precious in this case, though: half an inch at its narrowest point, expanding to an inch and a half behind the 3.5″ drive mounting area. While Mini-ITX systems aren’t often full of cables, this area feels pretty tight in the Nano S, regardless.
As Mini-ITX systems go, building in the Nano S is an entirely straightforward process. I only have some minor issues with the case’s interior layout.
Our MSI A88XI AC motherboard is laid out with most of its ports and power connectors toward the top of the case, so the Nano S’s top two cable-routing grommets get crowded. The 24-pin and eight-pin ATX power cables, the two SATA cables, and the front-panel connectors all have to pass through these grommets, and they have to be angled back tightly to reach their associated ports and pins.
Most new Mini-ITX mobos seem to be laid out with the 24-pin power connector at the right edge of the motherboard these days, so I doubt this issue will rear its head with a more current system. The main grommet near the power supply gets pretty crowded, too, but neither set of grommets felt underprovisioned for the average Mini-ITX PC.
Those minor complaints aside, if you can build an ATX system in a mid-tower case, I’d argue you can build a Mini-ITX PC inside the Define Nano S. Given the careful assembly-order requirements and clearance headaches I’ve had with other Mini-ITX cases, the refreshing simplicity of the Nano S is a relief.
Our testing methods
Here’s the configuration of our test system:
|Motherboard||MSI A88XI AC|
|Memory||8GB AMD Entertainment Edition DDR3-1600|
|Graphics card||Asus Strix Radeon R9 Fury|
|Storage||OCZ Vector 180 480GB
Samsung Spinpoint F1 750GB HDD
|Power supply||Cooler Master V550|
|CPU cooler||AMD Wraith|
|Fan controller||NZXT Grid+ V2|
|OS||Windows 10 Pro|
Our thanks to MSI, Asus, AMD, Cooler Master, and OCZ for contributing parts to our test system, and to Fractal Design and Corsair for providing the cases that we’re testing in this review.
As a foil for the Define Nano S in this review, we’ve tapped Corsair’s Graphite Series 380T Mini-ITX enclosure. This case is significantly more expensive than the Nano S, but its maximum graphics card length and CPU cooler compatibility are fairly similar to that of the Fractal case. We’ve also seen this enclosure drop below $100 fairly often over the past couple months, so sales could bring its price more in line with the Nano S’s from time to time.
To put a little extra pressure on our test cases, we’ve swapped out the GeForce GTX 660 Ti we’ve used in past tests for Asus’ much beefier Strix Radeon R9 Fury. Fair warning, though: this card only just fits into the Corsair case, and only then with a bit of shaving-off of non-essential plastic pins inside. Don’t try this at home.
I’m also trying out a little gadget NZXT gave us at CES: its Grid+ V2 fan controller. This $30 device has six individually controllable three-pin fan ports. By hooking up the Grid+ V2 to an open USB 2.0 header on the motherboard, one can set custom performance curves for every fan attached to the controller using NZXT’s CAM software. Builders can also skip the fine-tuning and rely on NZXT’s pre-baked “Performance” and “Silent” fan curves.
Most importantly, we can tell the Grid+ V2 to tie fan speeds to the temperature of the CPU or graphics card. Not even the best motherboard fan control options reliably provide access to that feature. The Grid+ V2 also adds far more fan ports to a system than usually come standard on a mini-ITX motherboard. The companion CAM software is pretty useful, too. It provides AIDA64-like system monitoring capabilities, and it can use cloud storage to aggregate statistics about multiple PCs in a household for easy access later.
For this review, we connected the Grid+ V2 to the Nano S’s intake and exhaust fans, set it to key off GPU temperatures, and used the default “Performance” fan curve. The Graphite Series 380T was similarly configured.
Here are the results of our temperature torture testing, plotted over time:
And here are some minimum and maximum numbers from each testing phase:
Going by maximum and minimum numbers, the Graphite Series 380T is the superior case for motherboard and storage cooling, whille the Fractal case wins out in the arguably more important CPU and graphics card categories. The Define Nano S is significantly better at cooling our test system’s CPU, for whatever reason. We were surprised that the more open Corsair case wasn’t able to keep the R9 Fury cooler, too.
Looking at temperature trends, the Corsair case cools down the CPU and motherboard faster than the Nano S. The Fractal case is able to cool off the graphics card faster, though, so the overall verdict here is a bit of a wash.
To see if we could get the Nano S to lose its cool, we even threw Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 980 Ti G1 Gaming card inside for some informal testing. CPU load temperatures didn’t get any hotter than with the R9 Fury in this configuration, and the GTX 980 Ti itself actually stayed cooler at about 75° C. Going by those numbers, it seems like the Nano S is more than up to the task of cooling any single graphics card a builder is likely to install.
Here are each case’s noise levels, measured at idle and under load:
These numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. While Corsair’s case does let out more of the Strix R9 Fury’s noise under load, that card has the best-sounding graphics card cooler I’ve ever heard at speed by far. I wasn’t let down by hearing a lot of its pleasant, broad-spectrum noise character from the 380T under load, even if 50 dBA from the left side of the case is a lot of noise in absolute terms.
That fact makes the Define Nano S’s four-dBA difference in noise levels from the left-side panel that much sweeter, though. Fractal’s case is completely unobjectionable to have up on one’s desk with the Radeon R9 Fury inside, even without headphones, speakers, or another external sound source going at the same time. Choose the right parts, and the Nano S could be an awesome companion in shared living spaces like living rooms or dorm rooms. None of that is to say the Graphite Series 380T is unpleasant to have around, but the Define Nano S is just that little bit quieter and smoother overall.
I’m quite familiar with Fractal Design’s Dynamic Series fans now, since they come with every other Define case the company sells. These slow-spinning fans favor quiet operation over raw CFMs. They’re practically inaudible from any significant distance at idle speeds, and they produce only a faint whoosh when running all-out. I continue to have no complaints about their performance in the Define Nano S.
Like many other cases I’ve tested, though, the Define Nano S does suffer from hard-drive-related buzzing from some of its panels. The top ModuVent seems especially vulnerable to sympathetic vibration from the 7200-RPM Samsung hard drive I use in my test system. Tapping this panel a few times tends to settle the beehive, but I’d rather not deal with the problem in the first place. It’s worth noting that Samsung hard drive is almost eight years old now—more modern drives might not produce the same issue.
At first glance, many builders might dismiss the Define Nano S out of hand because of its size. The common argument against bigger Mini-ITX cases like the Nano S is that one can build a microATX system with more expansion slots in nearly the same space for nearly the same price.
While that may be true, I think there’s still a case to be made for larger Mini-ITX towers like the Nano S. For systems where one graphics card, one or two SSDs, and one or two hard drives will cut it—a description that probably covers 90% of new gaming PCs these days—even a microATX tower like Corsair’s Obsidian 350D is going to be full of wasted space. Other builders might want some of the space savings of Mini-ITX without the quirks and challenges of shoebox-style cases like Fractal’s own Core 500. No matter how you slice it, I think the Nano S has plenty of appeal.
The Define Nano S isn’t perfect. For one, I’m not a fan of the one-piece ModuVent panel up top. The multi-segmented panels on Fractal’s other cases give builders more choices about how much of their system’s top vent they want to expose to the elements. Fractal still doesn’t include top dust filters with its Define cases, either. That decision is becoming harder and harder to overlook. From time to time, the Nano S also gets a bit of sympathetic hard drive motor buzz going in its ModuVent panel. That buzz ruins the case’s otherwise excellent noise character. Very few cases are immune to that problem, though, so the Nano S’s performance here is just average.
Those minor complaints aside, this Define shines. Even with a huge, relatively power-hungry graphics card inside, the Nano S is up to the task of keeping cool while staying plenty quiet, even against the more open Corsair Graphite Series 380T. Heck, we even threw a GeForce GTX 980 Ti in this thing, and it held up to the task of cooling that card just fine. For those who want to build a liquid-cooled Mini-ITX PC, the Define S offers plenty of room and mounting provisions for that hardware, too.
Admittedly, most builders aren’t going to put a Radeon R9 Fury (or a GeForce GTX 980 Ti) inside a case like this. That’s especially true now that the Mini-ITX-sized R9 Nano can deliver plenty of performance for less money than most Furies. Even so, it’s nice to know that the Nano S can handle a top-end graphics card without a sweat.
Most importantly, if you can build inside a regular ATX mid-tower, you can build a system in the Define Nano S. Where my shoebox-style Mini-ITX builds have often required multiple hours of trial and error, putting a PC inside the Define Nano S is a completely straightforward process. In fact, this is the first Mini-ITX case I would feel comfortable recommending to a first-time system builder. That’s a feeling no other Mini-ITX case in my labs has engendered.
At $64.99 for the non-windowed version and $69.99 for the windowed version we tested, the Define Nano S is priced right in the sweet spot for Mini-ITX cases these days. Given its combination of performance, value, quiet manners, and user-friendliness, it’s easy to call this case a TR Editor’s Choice.