Selecting a chassis for your system is an often underrated part of the building experience, but if you’re here, chances are you’re looking for more than just a big steel box to house all your shiny new hardware. While a few years ago that would’ve been the plan, these days you have a lot more options, and the chassis you choose for your build can actually help define the components you’re going to use instead of the other way around.
Many builders underestimate the importance of a good enclosure; a quality case is something that can last you for a long time, can make building and servicing the machine a lot easier, and can even have an impact on your system’s performance. If a system is deprived of air or prone to dust build up (thus becoming deprived of air), heat can cause your processor or graphics card to throttle. A case with good airflow and smart dust filter application can improve part longevity and potentially increase performance headroom while being easier to maintain.
The Carbide 300R is a solid entry level ATX enclosure.
When selecting a case, it helps to understand what your goals are. For a standard ATX build, the common wisdom is: price, performance, silence…pick two. If you’re concerned about getting something more affordable, you’ll need to decide whether you want a system that has headroom for overclocking and/or high performance graphics hardware and thus generates more noise as a result of the increased need for cooling capacity, or you can run your CPU at stock or with a mild overclock and use a more mainstream graphics card and run a quieter case. After a certain price point (typically around $150-$160) it becomes reasonable to expect a case to be both quiet and very thermally efficient.
To illustrate this point, on the silent side we have the Carbide 330R and the larger, roomier Obsidian 550D. Both cases have solid thermal performance, but you’ll want to choose your components carefully to take advantage of their noise dampening characteristics. Silent cases don’t make loud components quiet, but they can easily muffle the noise from more modest hardware. Meanwhile, if you want to emphasize thermal performance, the Carbide 400R, 500R, and especially the Air 540 will be more your speed. Finally, if you’re willing to spend up, the Obsidian 750D is capable of producing excellent thermal performance with minimal noise.
The Obsidian 350D's Micro-ATX form factor is still more than enough for all but the most demanding builds.
The other consideration is what form factor you want to work with. If you’re fine with garden variety ATX, my recommendations above apply, but if you’re looking to color a little bit outside the lines, there are other options. Mini-ITX is a form factor that’s increasing in popularity, but it restricts you to only a single expansion slot, ruling out any multi-GPU systems, and it can be harder to build in. Micro-ATX is actually probably acceptable for most users these days; a case like the Corsair Obsidian 350D is large enough to be easy to use and can support dual graphics cards with proper spacing, but is going to be smaller than most cases. If you want a more modestly sized build but aren’t willing to sacrifice functionality, Micro-ATX and the 350D are going to be the way to go. On the flipside, if you’re of the “go big or go home” mentality, something like the 900D has a certain appeal for users who want the biggest, baddest case they can find.
The Vengeance C70 has a military-style flair to go with its powerful air cooling performance.
Of course, none of this really takes style into account. Part of the fun of building a machine can be picking out an enclosure that reflects your tastes, something that’s distinctive. A Corsair Link lighting kit with a windowed case can add some custom bling to your build, but cases like the Carbide Air 540 and Vengeance C70 stand out in their own ways and might spark your imagination. Even though I’m pitching at freshman grade builds and watercooling is more a varsity level hobby, it can be fun to take a case like the 750D or 900D and really trick it out with a custom cooling loop, and there are good guides available out there if you know where to look. Finally, if you're looking for a silent enclosure, the Obsidian 550D and Carbide 330R both come with sound dampening material on the sides. This material won't make a loud component quiet, but it will make a quiet component virtually inaudible. Alternatively, you can look for a case that comes with a built in fan controller that will give you a broader range of performance; silence when you want it, airflow when you need it.
The Graphite 600T can be a little pricey, but it's a sturdy chassis loaded to the gills with features that make assembly and servicing it a breeze, and it looks great to boot.
Ultimately, the case tends to be one of two places users will cut corners on their budget (the other being the power supply), but you can actually lose system performance this way if you’re not careful. As with every other component in your build, a good case is an investment. Spending up on a case that includes dust filters will make the computer much easier to maintain; grommets and mounting holes in the motherboard tray allow for better cable management which in turn makes the interior look nicer but also substantially improves airflow. Conveniences like toolless drive sleds and optical drive clamps can not only make the initial assembly much easier, they can make servicing or upgrading the computer later on a breeze.
The case is something you’re going to have to listen to, look at, and work with for the life of the computer, so don’t be afraid to stretch your build budget to get the one that’s right for you. It's tempting to want to cut costs on the enclosure and possibly divert that budget elsewhere, but doing so runs the risk of missing out on a lot of the important benefits a good case (especially a good Corsair case) can bring to the table. Suddenly you're dealing with a case that's harder to build in, harder to use, maybe less attractive, more accident or damage prone...any number of long term issues. Every aspect of a new build is an investment, case included, and I've learned through a lot of unpleasant experiences that sometimes it's just better to buy top shelf, buy what you really want from the get go, than go for something that'll "do for the time being" and wind up spending a lot more in the long term.