Computer Case

Hi guys :slight_smile: I’m planning on starting a new project. Contrarily to a lot of projects on the board, I’m just starting - I hope to share a lot of the progress as I go along.

So, I’m a full-time employed mechanical design engineer and I want to start a project to hone some of my design skills. Both from an industrial design stand-point. But also some heat transfer/fluid dynamics as well as mechanical design.

A few months back in a thread, one board member mentioned a computer case as an interesting intersection for me. The idea has been bouncing in my mind ever since. Now, I recently had to build my own PC to replace my laptop. I really struggled to find a decent case which makes me feel like there’s room for improvement in that market.

Here’s a quick brief I made for myself.

What I’m seeing is that there’s a resurgence in the interest for desktop machines. Or at least in building them.

My gross explanation for it is that ultrabooks and tablets are becoming increasingly good at replacing traditional laptops for a lot of light productivity applications. Say a student can now use a Microsoft Surface as their only device. A lot of people have relegated their home desktop or laptop as the “tax machine” and do most of their browsing and tasks on a tablet. On the flip side, I’m seeing a need for the desktop machines. The popularity of PC gaming is on the rise, creative/technical professionals have higher needs - video editing in 4k, heavier retouching and storage for photographers, higher quality expectation of output from architects/designers… If a tablet could do most of your busy work and handle your on-the-go computing, you might as well get two devices. A desktop for the desk and grunt work and a tablet for kicking back and being on the go. Rather than a full-size laptop that doesn’t really do well in either situations.

However, the offering I’m seeing for case in the PC market isn’t up there. A lot of it very gaming oriented and looks like cars from Fast and Furious. Or the more quiet offerings are quite boring and still mostly built from bent sheet metal. It’s rattly, tends to look cheap and doesn’t feel like the amazing thing that is a modern computer. The buying experience could also use some work. There’s a lot to take in for the inexperienced to make sure everything is going to work together.

So to kind of wrap up this first post, I’ll take up Steve Jobs comparing tablets to cars and desktops to trucks. -What do trucks look like in a “post pc” world?

Hey Louis,

I am curious to see your computer case design.
FYI, when I built my gaming rig a couple of years back I went straight for the ‘Cooler Master HAF X Nvidia Edition’ which fits pretty well in your ‘Transformers’ category.

Good luck,

Let’s pretend a month didn’t just go by. Here’s a little update with more direction on the project.

Next up, some inspiration. Both in terms of well executed cases and some broader mood board type of thing.

Great project and I love that you are using the discussion forum as a kind of captain’s log as you go (that seemed better than say diary :slight_smile: )

Excited to see where you are going to take this!

Interesting challenge. Years ago it was cool to showcase you tower and the technology inside it. Now I think it would be better if it blended in with your furniture. It’s easy to design for the ultra modern home but face it, most people will probably have traditional furniture so it makes it a bit challenging.
Reminds me of these two products. Home theaters trying to move away from looking like your traditional home theater set up:

Unity HT all-in-one home theater system:

and the IKEA one

Good luck, seems like a cool project.

Designing a case to work with the range of components that can work with the ATX/ITX standards is always a challenge in the homebuilt market. The reason some of the more popular small form factor cases aren’t quite as small, is that the uber smalll attempts usually are nightmares to assemble. They require small power supply’s with specifically designed cable looms, video cards that are extra low profile, CPU coolers that are ultra small, and even then putting everything together and creating a package that isn’t a nightmare for thermal performance is challenging. That’s why dorks like me buy the biggest case they can find so that it’s easy to assemble (without slicing your knuckles apart), easy to service (something WILL eventually break), and the room for airflow allows you to run large, low RPM fans which minimize the high pitch whine that you get from small, high RPM fans.

It’s certainly tricky because in order to optimize, you need to decide what tradeoffs will be made. For example - if you limit the power supply size you can save a lot of space. Or if you require use of a special CPU cooler or small video card.

The dedicated PC builders have a better job attacking this because they can source proprietary PSU’s, motherboards, and better integrate things. The “Steam Machine” phenomenon is a good one, by being able to leverage an external power supply and mobile GPU, they were able to combine some of the desktop features and mobile features into one very small design. Not that I would buy one, but it does an interesting job of being a nicely designed ultra small form factor.

Interesting to see how you proceed. I’ve been building PC’s for over 20 years so if you have any technical questions I’m happy to answer.

Alright, so I’ve been thinking about this project for a while. I’ve been trying to follow the custom PC market through some blogs and youtube channels. I even built my own small ITX desktop. - More on that later.

So here are some cases that I came across that to me represent something significant.

For me, the Mac Pro G4 Cube is a very significant. As a computer that came out in 2000, in my eyes it’s the first computer of its kind. Or at least the first well executed one. It’s a sturdy little cube of a computer that’s passively cooled and hits a nice spot of being a serious looking machine yet, especially for its time has something a bit carefree and funny about it. I guess I can’t really talk about the cube without talking about the current Mac Pro. It’s just an evolution of the same design. It’s quite smart the way all the hot components are hooked up to a very large center heat sink that also acts as a structural piece. The whole thing can be efficiently cooled with a single large fan.

From an architecture standpoint, they are very dense computer. And contrarily to popular belief that a large computer should run cooler, it’s much easier to change the air in a small volume. The tricky bit is making sure there’s no hot spots. Also, contrarily to most other computers that have a wobbly center frame that becomes slightly stiffer with outer paneling. These two have a sturdy centralized base with a single cover piece. Also, these two computers are heavily dependent on using custom parts to match the mechanical design.

Mind you, I don’t want to make an Apple product. It seems like the CE market is just finally getting over it’s huge boner for Apple styling. I want to make something that can stand on it’s own. I really don’t want to go down this road DUNE CASE: Mini-ITX PC Case w/ Superior Thermal Dynamics by Alexander Gomez — Kickstarter . To me this is such a compromised case just to get the cylindrical shape. Mind you it’s interesting to see that they did get 55k backing in just a few days.


So now for the ‘build your own’ PCs. The EVGA is interesting because it keeps a fairly traditional tower design but can be much smaller by bundling the case with a custom slim server type power supply (PSU). One thing to realize is that the PSU is one of the issues with small PCs. Traditional PSUs are very bulky. And just in the last years have the small alternatives likes SFX size have become recommendable.

The A4 is a community effort and is part of a larger trend of using PCI extension cables to put the graphics card elsewhere than directly on the mother board. These configurations can be very flat like Silverstone’s RVZ series or extremely dense like the A4.

I put the Prodigy M because it’s a very popular case. And it seems to me like the popularity of that case is mostly due to aesthetics. It’s a unique looking machine (kind of looks like an old Mac Pro). It’s also one of the largest ITX cases yet that hasn’t stopped sales. If anything, the large size makes it well known as a fairly easy case to build in.

TL;DR Possibility of bundling some components. PCI extension for different configurations. And there seems to be an interest in cases that don’t look like boomboxes from the 00’s even if there are sacrifices to get there.

Have you seen the Alienware Graphics Amplifier?

What if instead of a little case it’s a few modular cases? Just an alternative way of thinking about it.

Thanks Michael! I really look forward to hear your thoughts on it. I’d rather keep a kind of captain log :laughing: I think it’ll keep me honest. Maybe force me a bit to properly research and ideate rather than tunnel-vision on a solution. Also, I’d really like to get the community comments as I go a long than only get critiqued on a completed project.

Yeah integration is quite neat. I’ve seen quite a few desks with computers integrated in them. Mind you it’s not really the direction I want to go in. Part of the appeal of a small machine is the portability.

The more I dwell on the problem, the more I want to target a happy medium. Trying to make the smallest machine has to end up with a compromise in compatibility and build ease.

One route that does seem interesting to me is bundling. You could then create a few parts like the PSU or CPU cooler very specific to the case.

Yeah, it’s really neat to see these companies coming out with external GPUs and they might become quite common in the next few years. Especially with the gaming crowd. Laptops CPUs seem to be powerful enough for most modern gaming titles but you need a really big machine to fit a GPU capable of running them. With that said, I know Intel is making a big push towards integrating better GPUs and the GPU vendors seems to be pushing for lower wattage with their coming generations.

Coming back to this PC case project, I’m not sure for a modular PC. The only true candidate I can think of is someone who’d have a laptop for who an external GPU would be small enough to carry but a full machine wouldn’t - yet that person would want to own full desktop for their office. There might be some uses for having removable/shareable storage but those are already readily available.

It might be worth thinking of expanding the case to a full product line up if the it makes sense in the style. Starting with a full desktop, then creating a smaller version that doesn’t support a graphics card, an external graphics card enclosure and finally a storage solution. That way it would be possible to mix and match a setup… Though that seems quite out of my scope at the moment.

I guess I need to mention my experience of building my own small ITX computer. My first computer since the family computer I had built with my father in 1997.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been following this market for a while so I was already well geeked out in the subject. I figured out the hardware that made sense for my use. I intend on doing some CAD, simulation/rendering, odd photo/video project and some light gaming from time to time. I figured I’d go with a very cheap enclosure as I plan on running my computer in a prototype case quite soon :smiley:

I used the website PC part picker to decide on the parts, find deal and ensure compatibility. It’s truly a great resource. Ensuring parts would fit was extremely simple for me as I purposely chose small parts so they would fit into what ever case I decide to build.

This is the case I ended up with. It’s fairly small, though quite a boring box. I had the thing running in an afternoon. And most of that time was spent tracking a memory stick that hadn’t clipped in properly. Contrarily to most stories I read online that small PCs were very hard to build and even not recommended to first time builders everything went quite smoothly. Of course being a mechanical engineer that’s been tinkering with electronics for a while doesn’t really put me in the novice section.

I did run into an issue with my power supply. Even though it was touted as being very quite for a small PSU, it even has a silent mode if the PC isn’t under load, my unit was extremely loud. Loud enough to hear the fan ticking from the next room while the computer was idle. I ended up exchanging the power supply but the replacement was just as loud. So reading online, it seems like most small form factor PSU have issues with noise. Early standards were too small (SFX) and had tiny whinny fans. More recent slightly larger standards (SFX-L like I have) still have some kinks to iron out.

I ended up fashioning my own solution.

I strapped a fan right on the PSU so it states in it’s silent operation due to the continuous air flow. Typically, the fan in a power supply is used as an exhaust though I use mine as an intake and just blow air directly onto my CPU cooler.

It actually made my whole computer much quiter. And actually got me wondering if it would be possible to replace virtually all the fans in a PC with a simple fan right after the power supply. Use a single fan the draw fresh air through the PSU, the directly down onto a heatsink to cool the CPU and finally have the air cool most of the motherboard before naturally exiting the case. This could be a very efficient design versus having a fan for the PSU, one for the CPU and finally one or several just for air flow in the case.

So what I gathered from this little adventure is that.

  1. Small power supplies are very hit and miss and possible a barrier to small form factors.
  2. Well integrating with a part selection tool like PCpartpicker is a must and should get promoted by the manufacturers.
  3. Manufacturers should provide well produced instructional video. The few companies I’ve found that do it seem to be well appreciated for it.

Next up, inspiration then I can finally start sketching. Dragging my feet did allow me to figure out a lot of stuff though!

I wasn’t implying to make it a desk with an integrated computer. I was thinking more styling the case so that it blends in more with home furniture…move away from the sheet metal box or transformers case.
Modularity I was thinking would be a nice way to break away from the traditional box shape. Just throwing out some ideas.

It’ll be interesting to see what your research shows and your first concepts.

Hey Louis, great project! I was thinking it would be cool if other Core77 members could help you more directly. Maybe you can setup a project on and share the project link here on this board so everyone can see your progress and give visual feedback. I’d love to help out myself and give you some sketching tips! Here’s an example of such a collaboration: Sketchdrive
Cheers! Martijn

An important thing to consider with airflow is if you are drawing from an area that is hot, you are going to be blowing hot air onto your already hot CPU. Power supplies by their nature run hot, especially when they are smaller and working harder (just pick up your laptop power supply after an hour of rendering). Because of this you’ll be blowing hot air onto the CPU which has an effect more like a hair dryer.

Ideally you want the flow to be reversed - use the fans to extract the hot air from the case which pulls the heat away and will draw air through wherever your intakes are designed. In most cases, the front of the PC case is the intake because the only thing up there are drives which do not get nearly as hot or take up as much space. In cases like the Mac Pro, the vents are on the bottom so that the cool air can be drawn up and out the top since heat rises.

What you might be able to consider is using something like a closed loop liquid cooler (google Corsair H50) that was integrated into your case. If you considered the radiator as part of the design, you could design around it to make it more integrated.

Thanks for the input Cyberdemon :slight_smile:

It may be very unintuitive but I think there might be some merit to using the PSU as an intake in a case where a single large fan would be used to replace an intake fan, CPU cooling fan and PSU cooler fan. I don’t think the direction of the flow matters much.

While the PSU does dissipate some heat it actually is low when compared to the computer as a whole. A full desktop with a high end 100W CPU and mid range 150W GPU wouldn’t go much above 300W when considering other ancillary devices. Considering that it’s quite common to have 90% PSU efficiency, we expect a pretty low 30 W being dissipated at the PSU. If a 140mm fan is running at a pretty high rate, the temperature will barely rise. From some quick napkin math, I’m getting a difference of at most a couple of degrees.

It would just be to find which direction is most practical - that would really come down to the specific case the system would be designed for. However, by drawing air in through the PSU, the actual intake of air could be filtered. On the other hand, by having a negative pressure system or exhausting at the PSU, it would be hard to filter the air intake as it could be coming from basically anywhere in the case. If we’re sticking to the fact that it’s the only fan other than GPU in the case. Also, the downdraft through the CPU cooler could be used to cool the motherboard.

The more I’m looking at this problem, the issue with cooling a computer seems to be with ensuring that air is well exchanged through the case. Making sure that air doesn’t recirculate in the case. We can see this in conventional case designs where a tower cooler’s fan is very close the the computer’s exhaust. Also, in a lot of OEM workstations, ducts will be used to force certain airflow paths. I would imagine this would actually make smaller cases cooler than larger ones if the flow path is efficient.

For liquid cooling. I may have mentally dismissed too early them mostly due to the fairly large overall volume and noise. But I really should give them a second look. They do allow for a very low height clearance above the motherboard while keeping a pretty easy installation.

I need to get moving on this as we’re basically speculating on hypothetical situations at this point. Some of these choices will probably be very clear based on other factors that come into play in an overall design.

Great project! I am glad you are sharing this. I hope it will result in a real product.

Creative professionals are an excellent market to focus on since there are a lot of different requirements and there is a great need for new products to fulfill these.

For me, these would be the priorities in order of importance:

  • CPU and GPU performance
  • Solid State Drive 500Gb upwards
  • Portability
  • Display size
  • Aesthetics
  • Quietness and minimal active cooling requirement

As for the design:

  • The box shape based on miniITX form factor sounds good. I once did a project creating a custom aluminum case for this board with the brief to make it fit home appliances better as well as modular and modifiable - it worked well. No need for exotic shapes, it just is practical to have it fit on the desk with minimal product footprint and be able to put things on top. Styling to match furniture/interior design is a great idea - how about deep pastels combined with wood. And indirect LED lighting for the status indicators.

  • Modularity seems like a good idea, to have more capacity and performance through additional plug-in units at home while keeping it portable. I definitely see a new product niche here with a tablet transforming into a laptop with the addition of a core box, then with additional modules at home to make it even more powerful. Would a rollable display or one that folds in half be feasible? I wouldn’t even mind a small crease in the screen if it would allow me to occassionally work on a large screen. I also wouldn’t mind taking it along if it comes in a tailored backpack. I used to take the bike to and from work, and wanted to keep my laptop running but it would not get cooled properly. It would be a benefit to for example have air flow into the backpack and cool the product so you can keep the system running. And be able to plug it in to the electric bike or car to charge it.

I look forward to seeing the progress!

I finally got around to completing a a mood board and an initial idea board.

For the inspirational aspects, I found that portable speakers share a lot of things with the type of case I want to create. They try to cram as much as possible in a small shape (though it’s hard to get around volume requirements for speakers). They need to be easy to carry, have a solid construction to last and feel good. I’m not quite sure what design movement the examples I’ve put up would fall into. They are very clean objects yet have a bit of a playfulness to them. They fit both in a home or an office. They’re not ostentatious yet are more than boring flat boxes. The Bang and Olufsen Beolit 15 (cooler looking box with a leather strap) stands out to me.

The other products I’ve added are more about the interaction and details of the case. It’s not a priority for now but I’d like the interface to have a good tactile feel. I’m also thinking of using colour as a means to add some playfulness to the product. Maybe colour coding visual cues on the outside with the inside.

I’ve also been looking into materials. I want to get away from bent steel. It’s hard to produce something that will feel solid and stand out. As the case will be quite small, I think it opens up the possibility to have a large part of the chassis be injection molded plastic. For paneling, if some is required, I’d like to go with anodized or powder coated aluminium. As the panels are typically thicker to start with, the individual components are much stiffer which should remove a lot of the play and rattle that’s found in steel paneling.

I haven’t had a change to put it in the mood board but I just recently thought of using fabric as a carrying loop. It would be pretty cool if it was a retractable loop. Remember vacuums with retractable cords, those were the coolest thing! The idea came from nylon tow straps on race cars or remove before flight tags on airplanes. I guess it would resemble the tags on Roku devices (which I guess took the hint from Levi’s) but it would be functional. I really like the opposition of flexible fabric on a hard shell.

Alright, enough talking, now let’s get to the sketching. I narrowed down my initial ideas down to this one board. So I looked into how the components would be layed out for the best use of space and best potential for cooling. Then, I looked at how the end-user would get to build their machine. Finally I made these possible uses of those configurations as a first draft that follow the aesthetics and materials I’ve mentioned previously.

  • Left Most this case would be quite flat. The components would screw into a large plastic main component. Then an aluminium panel would slide over top to close everything off. To get the flat layout, a PCI expansion cable would be required (possibly expensive) to get the GPU flat next to the motherboard. This also means the I/O would be on the side of the case which would be very visible. Cooling is a bit of an unknown. Air would be drawn through the aluminium panel and through both the CPU and GPU coolers. I’m wondering if an accessory fan would be required to properly evacuate the warm air so it doesn’t recirculate in the heatsinks. On the plus side, it would be a simple case to fabricate, barring the large plastic component. It would be easy for the end user to build into as everything is flat.
  • Top Center This one looks a bit like a a milk carton. My sketch is a bit out of proportion, hopefully it could be made a bit smaller. The components would be arranged as in a standard tower case or possibly in a flat arrangement as above. I’m not sure how usable those top handles would be. This concept could be modified by removing the handles from the panels and have a panel with a nylon strap attached to it and the other one just acting as a grill. The components would get attached to a central plastic loop which would make it quite easy to assemble as you could access to sides.
  • Center and bottom Very similar ideas. A cube that’s broken into halves. One bottom plastic part which holds the components and a panel that slides over top that has a handle. While certainly functional, this is more inline with existing products and may not stand out as much
  • Right Most This one is very inspired by the G4 cube. the body is built onto a central frame and the paneling slides over it. The air flow would go from bottom to top

So I’m thinking my next step is to wrap up a roster of potential configurations and start investigating them more seriously. I really want to figure out the pros and cons by looking at the compatibility with components, ease of assembly and thermal implications.
The idea of a fabric loop would change a lot of these initial concepts and makes a lot of sense the more I think of it. A lot of volume is used up by handles in these sketches which wouldn’t be required with a fabric loop.

As always, comments and feedback is welcome! As much about the project on my sketching. I haven’t been sketching for long and haven’t had formal training. For one, I know I really need to loosen up. Something this early in a project shouldn’t be taking even half as long as this did :laughing:

Alright, so I’ve been trying to settle on a layout for the components for a while now. The faster I figure this out, the faster I can move forward. I’m feeling a bit of paralysis by indecision…

The biggest factors are build ease, component compatibility, expansion possibility and size.

For the size, I’ve been coming to the realization that overall volume doesn’t tell all the story. The footprint has a big impact on the desk space it needs. Also, if one of the dimensions is very large, it becomes very hard to transport and feels “big”. So in terms of feel, the best seems to be somewhere between a cube a tall tower.

While at first I was thinking that limiting component selection to create the smallest case was the way to go. The more that becomes a pre-built system and the more that system is perceived as hard to build in. Looking at online forums, even in small form factor builds, too many limitations give certain cases an unfriendly reputations. These cases don’t allow you to bring over existing hardware, may have some incompatibility and may not allow you to use future components.

To test out different configurations. I made rough foam core models of the core components of the PC. After seeing the overall envelope that would be required for different configurations, I’ve settled on a side-by-side configuration that seems to be very well regarded on the Ncase M1.

This configuration allows for a good balance of the aforementionned criteria. It may not be the smallest but it should be quite easy to build in and work well with a wide variety of components.

SFX and SFX-L power supplies should be compatible. ATX may be possible with an extra short card. Full length graphics cards should also be compatible. Lastly, CPU cooler choices are quite decent as there is quite a bit of space from the motherboard out. Both 120 and 240mm radiator coolers should be compatible.

The cool thing about a setup like this is that using smaller components allows for other components to be put in. Say you use a short GPU, then you can put an additional SSD. If you sacrifice the 3.5" drive bay, you can put in a double radiator.

As for the architecture of the case, I still really like the idea of a mix of aluminium and large plastic parts. I think this could make for a distinctive look as well as a rigid product.

One way to use the mix of material would be a sturdy plastic base, internal plastic columns that would act as T-slots where the PC components could be attached. An aluminium sleeve could provide covering and structure to the internal and have a sturdy plastic part on top to close everything up.

Next step, more directed ideation now that I’ve settled on component layout.

I was really hoping to have a clear idea of where I was heading by this time but it seems like I’m in the one step forwards, two step back phase.

So for the past month, I’ve been trying to refine a form and just this week I came to realize a critical flaw in the way I was approaching the use of the case.

I really want something that gets away from the feeling a panel tower PC case to a refined consumer product. The tower case usually is usually tall and deep and is set with the smallest face pointing towards the user. The cables will then be coming out of the furthest end and will be out of sight. The “face” of the device that gets the most attention is the narrowest one. While trying to get away from that aesthetic, I’ve been looking at the case from it’s side, as it has a more interesting ratio and also makes it break away from its expected form. I also neglected to think of the cable routing. Most of my design both have the prominent face be the widest one and would have cables sticking out their side. :laughing:

A cover for the IO panel would be possible to solve that issue and would tidy up the ugliest part of the device on top of protecting it during transport. I’ll need to look if there’s an elegant way to do, I’m mostly worried about the volume required to to so as most cables come straight out rather than at 90 deg. It needs to be a fun interaction with the device rather than a chore every time you want to plug something in - which should happen a lot on a case meant to be moved around.

Out of what I have so far, I think the top right is one of the few designs I have that would be workable. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board for now…

I want to look into replacing meshed metal pieces with really nice perforated fabric and snap buttons. Anyone know of a supplier for machined aluminium snap buttons? :unamused:

In other news, it looks like a few manufacturers have announced some cases that go in a similar direction.

Cryorig Taku. Meant to be a monitor stand.

Streacom DB4 passively cooled PC. Cables come out the bottom.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Alright, I’m back :laughing:

It’s been a while and I’ll admit I’m getting a bit fed up with the project dragging on. On the flip side, I did learn a lot of things. Taking my time on this project has allowed me to really explore solutions and directions very far away from my initial thoughts. I tend to clench onto my first ideas so it’s really nice to have a project where I’m letting things simmer and digging deeper to actually finding better solutions.

I also realized I wasn’t using my time properly. I know that my sketching skills are lacking so I was putting way too much effort in the sketch quality rather than moving the whole project forward. I’m now at peace with showing lack luster sketches online and keeping the sketching practice separate.

So back on the case. The issue I was mentioning last time was with the location of the IO port and keeping the cables tidy. My initial solution at the time was just to adapt the direction I was already taking. However, after putting things back into perspective, I’ve came up with a new and quite different direction that still follows my initial brief.

The concept revolves around a bent tubing frame with a plastic shell that slides on top. I flipped the computer entirely. The cables and IO would now be at the bottom of the case. Automatically hiding the clutter. The bent frame can act as a pivot when tilting the computer to access the IO. It can also be used as a handle when moving the computer around.

The large plastic shell has a bit of an Eames chair feel to it which I like as it makes it feel like a more home product than strictly cold electronics.

I also threw together a quick draft 3D model together to get a feel for proportions. There’s obviously still a lot to work required there.

This is where I stand. I’m not sure what to do at this point. I have two very different directions that seem to have merit but I need to pick one. :confused: I’m leaning towards this latest concept at the moment because it has a distinguishing look and feel and would have the potential to be very cost effective.

You guys have also been quiet for the last little while :wink: . I’d really like to hear you out at this point more than any other on your thoughts about the directions I’m looking at and the project in general.

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