Fans, Cooling Performance, and Final Thoughts
The M1 supports up to two 120mm fans by mounting either on the side bracket or the case floor. I tried out a pair on the bottom and found that the front I/O cables weren't an issue as they curled up and out of the way. (The included grills would help keep wires from getting into the blades if this configuration was used in a build.)
The dust filters need to be attached inline with the fan screws, and with this design they're going to require extra work to remove for cleaning. The idea is that they would twist off, but with the fans attached securely the screws would have to be loosened first. Not a big deal, and it's nice that they're included.
I didn't do anything with the small rear fan mount, not having any 92mm or 80mm fans around. There are enough options with airflow in other directions that I wasn't concerned with using it here.
Using the 7850K APU and discrete R7 260X GPU, I ran a couple of different benchmarks to see how the case handled thermals.
|Processor||AMD A10-7850K APU|
|Memory||Kingston HyperX Predator 8GB 2666MHz DDR3|
|Graphics Card||XFX AMD Radeon R7 260X|
|Storage||Plextor M5 Pro 128GB SSD|
|Cooling||Corsair H100 AIO Liquid Cooler|
|Power Supply||SilverStone ST45SF-G Modular SFX PSU|
|OS||Windows 7 Professional SP1 64-bit|
I used Prime95 on the max stress torture test for 10 minutes to raise the CPU temps, and then ran Unigine Valley on the "Extreme HD" preset to find the max GPU temps. Readings were made using HWMonitor with an ambient temp of 18 C. The Corsair H100 was set to "Low" fan speed.
These simple tests were run to give an idea of how the enclosure handled thermals, and of course are by no means a comprehensive look. Turns out the M1 performed almost exactly like it wasn’t there. There is so much ventilation - on all sides other than the front - that thermal performance shouldn’t be an issue. The only drawback would be system noise, since there’s nothing really dampening the sound at all. And speaking of noise, I didn’t do any sound readings since this case doesn’t come with any fans. The sounds levels are going to be completely dependent of the components used. Basically, the M1 isn’t going to help you if you don’t choose quiet parts.
The M1 and mini-ITX: Worth it?
The NCASE M1 accomplishes in many ways exactly what the creators envisioned for a "perfect" mini-ITX case. In building up a couple of systems in the M1 the limitations of mini-ITX are showcased, but this is inevitable given its size. There are always going to be tradeoffs when building with miniaturized components and especially in an enclosure this small, though the M1 is capable of holding a very capable system. The real questions about the M1 wouldn't be specific to this case, but really the form-factor. I really didn't find any flaws to the approach NCASE has taken with their design, given the size.
So, is mini-ITX worth it? The argument against it is simple: it’s expensive and limited compared to larger form-factors. Certainly you don’t get as much for your money compared to the mature micro-ATX standard, with motherboards boasting impressive features coming in well south of $100. And with mini-ITX you are limited to single GPU graphics (except for APU crossfire). But the limitation on expansion aside, a full-featured system can still clearly be constructed with this form-factor, as we've seen here. Many mini-ITX boards cram in some impressive features, and they are often generous in the networking department in particular with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth often included (perfect for HTPC applications). So the value proposition isn't terrible, there's just that higher overall cost to consider.
The drawbacks from cost don’t stop at the motherboard, unfortunately, as the smallest cases will often require the purchase of a power supply to fit the enclosure, and these are more expensive than a comparable ATX PSU. Right now far fewer manufacturers have a line of SFF power supplies, and perhaps the higher cost of PSU’s like the SilverStone ST45SF-G at $95 will go down as interest in the tiny form factor increases. Certainly mini-ITX makes sense for an APU build without discrete graphics – but then the higher cost of the components negates the value proposition from the APU. These are early days in the transition to smaller systems, and the market will respond to demand. Those of us (like me) who jump on the bandwagon now will pay a premium for these diminutive parts. For the rest of us, choosing mini-ITX probably depends on the needs of the application, and not just the novelty of size.
The NCASE M1 is a beautifully simple enclosure that accomplishes the goal of creating a fantastic mini-ITX solution. It’s styled with a minimalist approach, and small enough to be unobtrusive just about anywhere. The quality of the case is high, and it certainly feels like a premium part - especially with its ultra-light aluminum construction. If these become widely available the M1 would make a solid recommendation for someone looking to go all-out on a mini-ITX build. I have to make assumptions about price because this is not in the retail channel, but it would probably be safe to assume that it would cost something near the $205 from the last Indiegogo campaign. But would a $200 price tag really hurt a product targeted at a performance build within an already expensive form-factor? It would require a specific customer, to be sure.
It's impossible to answer every question here, and certainly the M1 and mini-ITX in general will draw a mixed reaction among enthusiasts. Cases are a very personal thing, but for what it's intended to do the M1 really doesn't have any drawbacks in my opinion. Given its small size and what it's capable of, it may very well be the new benchmark for mini-ITX cases going forward as NCASE has claimed (if it becomes readily available, of course). It's with the presumption of availability that I would award this case an "Editor's Choice" - and I can think of no better option for a powerful, miniature system. But I'm just one person. We are talking about the highly controversial subject of computer cases, after all!