Date: January 24, 2014
Author(s): Ryan Perry
If you’re building a new PC and are aiming for the mITX form-factor, chances are good that you’ll be placing this PC out in the open, for everyone to see. That being the case (no pun, of course), you no doubt want it to look good, and be reasonably easy to install in. Fortunately, Fractal’s NODE 304 hits the mark on both accounts.
It’s no surprise to our regular readers and other TG staff members that I go coo-coo crazy over cases, even going so far as to change my forum title here at Techgage to “basket chassis”. What really blows my skirt up though, is when a case comes along with a fresh design that looks good while remaining functional. After all, a good-looking case that doesn’t do what’s needed is just a fancy box.
Today we’re looking at the NODE 304 from Fractal Design. It’s not a new case per se, but rather the original NODE, in a new colour. This steel, mini-ITX case, like most other Fractal Design offerings strives to remain simple and clean on the outside, but feature-rich on the inside.
When the NODE 304 was originally released, we weren’t in a position where we could do a review, so we jumped at the chance to rip one open now. Plus, I have a soft spot for white cases. Nonetheless, will the NODE 304 be more than just a fancy box? Read on to find out.
There isn’t much to look at on the front of the NODE 304, other than the Fractal Design logo and a small blue power LED down at the bottom right corner. Those looking for an optical drive bay will be out of luck as this small form factor case doesn’t support one. Around the left side things are much the same with only a large vented area covered with black mesh. This mesh is attached to a plastic frame that serves as an intake area for the video card (GPU), and can be popped out from the inside for cleaning.
Things get interesting on the rear panel with one of Fractal Design’s own 140mm Silent Series R2 fans taking up the majority of the real estate. It’s easy to miss, but just to the right of the fan is the 3-speed, 3-channel fan control switch. At the bottom right is the AC power connector, the motherboard I/O opening in the middle, and two black expansion slot covers to the right. Also visible are the four black thumbscrews that secure the top and sides, which is one solid piece.
More of the black metal mesh is found on the right side, covering another vented area around the power supply. Running from top to bottom along the edge of the front panel are the microphone and headset ports, two USB 3.0/2.0 ports, and the power button.
With the exception of a vented intake area at the front that runs the width of the case, the top panel of the NODE 304 is completely solid.
The belly of the case shows four rubber feet to help absorb any vibrations, and a large removable dust cover sitting over the power supply intake area. It’s hard to see, but along the bottom of the front cover is the white hard drive activity LED.
As mentioned earlier, it’s all or nothing with regards to removing the exterior panels, since it’s all one piece that slides off the back. The front panel however removes with a tug from the bottom to give a better view of the removable dust filter that covers a pair of 92mm Silent Series R2 intake fans.
From the left side we see the three hard drive mounting brackets hanging down over the front-mounted power supply area. All can accept two 2.5″/3.5″ drives with the latter using pre-installed rubber dampeners to absorb vibrations. Just visible below the lower right corner of the rear exhaust fan is the power cable that connects internally to the power supply, and hanging down closer to the left corner are the 2-pin fan and 4-pin Molex power connectors for the included fan controller.
Here’s a closer look at one of the drive brackets. Each is secured by a standard screw at the front and two thumbscrews that thread into the center support. Depending on the system components being used, the number of brackets could be limited, but we’ll get to that during the installation.
From the back is a better look at the intake fans and the power supply area. The power supply is secured to the bracket on the side, all the while sitting on rubber risers to absorb vibrations.
Included with the NODE 304 is the installation guide, the usual assortment of screws including longer screws to feed through the rubber dampeners to secure 3.5″ drives, and a handful of zip ties.
Silence with few limitations is the name of the game with the NODE 304. With the vibration dampening features, low noise fans, and the included fan controller, we’ll see just how quiet this case can be when we install a modified version of our test system.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), space is limited while working inside the NODE 304, but this is to be expected since it is a small form factor case. What should be noted is that all components installed cleanly with no issues. The case is very rigid, and the build quality is incredible.
That’s not to say that users won’t run into a few quirks here and there. One thing to keep in mind is when using a longer GPU as we did, it’s possible to create a clearance problem with the connections on a modular power supply. As shown in the shot below, the GPU slightly overlaps the left-most port, but thankfully it wasn’t required for our test system.
As mentioned earlier, the number of hard drive brackets will depend on the size of the GPU being used. Longer cards will take up the space used by the left-most drive bracket meaning the maximum number of drives that can be installed is reduced to 4. This is clearly noted on Fractal Design’s website and in the installation guide, so be sure to do your homework.
There’s enough room to stash cables in various locations, and fully-modular power supply users might have an easier time than we did. Not using a large GPU, or no GPU at all would help as well since it frees up that entire area where the metal loops on the bottom of the case and be used with zip ties to keep things neat and tidy. Regardless, here is our modified, albeit messy test system.
All of our testing is performed in a near steady 20°C ambient environment with readings taken before and after with a standard room thermometer. AIDA64 Extreme Engineer is used for monitoring and recording all system temperatures throughout the testing process.
Windows is allowed to sit idle for 10 minutes after startup to ensure all services are loaded before recording the idle CPU and GPU temperatures. CPU load temperatures are generated by performing a 20 minute run of OCCT LINPACK using 90% of the available memory, while GPU load temperatures are generated by OCCT’s built in test, also for 20 minutes.
Unlike our normal test system, the CPU remained at stock frequencies. The final clocks for the GPU are 760MHz on the core and 1000MHz QDR (4000MHz relative) for the memory with the voltage increased to 1.087V using MSI’s Afterburner overclocking utility. As always, testing was done prior to testing in order to ensure full system stability.
|Techgage Chassis Testing System|
|Processor||AMD E-350N – Dual-Core (1.60GHz)|
|Motherboard||GIGABYTE E350N-USB3 mITX|
|Memory||Corsair Dominator 2x2GB DDR3-1600|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 470|
|Storage||Kingston SSDNow 80GB SSD|
|Power Supply||Antec TP-750 Blue|
|Chassis||Fractal Design NODE 304|
|Et cetera||Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit|
|Graphics Card (OC)||37||91|
Let’s start with a little explanation of the results, since the format differs from our usual stock versus overclocked format.
The E350 CPU wasn’t overclocked because it’s just not built for it, and we don’t expect many people to overclock it in the first place. Plus, any real world performance gains would be negligible, as would be the heat output due to the super low thermal design power (TDP) of 18 watts.
With that said, we saw things stay cool at stock frequencies while idle and under full load. The CPU readings may look high, but this is because it’s the internal core temperature (tj. max). Normally temperatures are read using a diode in the CPU socket and are much lower, but could be less accurate. This motherboard seems to be lacking that particular sensor, so we went with the tj. max, which is listed as 100 degrees Celsius by Core Temp. We used Core Temp to verify the readings by AIDA64, but no matter how the temperature is read, there’s still lots of room to breathe thanks to the robust cooling setup of the NODE 304.
We did decide to overclock the GPU though, and the temperatures we saw were nothing short of fantastic considering the fan was only spinning at only 80%. Normally the fan spins up into the 90s to keep the temperature at 91 degrees and in some instances the tests fail due to excess heat, but thanks to the venting on the left side of the NODE 304, our test GPU pulled cool air in directly from the outside meaning the fan didn’t have to spin as fast in order to keep temperatures down, in turn meaning less overall system noise.
As mentioned in the testing methodology, we always run case fans on high in order to get the best possible numbers. We also like to run them on the lowest setting if possible, in order to see a noise versus performance comparison. The system is very quiet with the fans running at full tilt, but while running nearly silent, the rush of air from the GPU fan is all that could be heard when left idle. Under load, we saw the CPU sitting at 74 degrees, and the GPU remained at 91 degrees.
Like always, whether a user finds a case appealing to the eye is based on their own preference, but for me, I love the look of the NODE 304 white. Even the original black version is still fantastic to look at. The exterior is clean and streamlined, and one would look right at home in the livingroom as a home theater PC.
The small footprint of the NODE 304 makes it a bit tougher to work in though. I found myself removing some components in order to make a few of the connections, but this is pretty much standard fare for cases like this. Planning out the installation beforehand will make things easier. Users with gigantic mitts like myself might find the installation goes a little slower than normal, but at no time did I feel frustrated by the small interior.
Cable management could be a problem however, depending on the power supply being used. Our test supply has the usual complements of hardwired power leads, so things were a bit cluttered when combined with the large GPU. Users running a system with more components might need to get creative with how the cables are routed in order to ensure maximum airflow. Our build severely restricted airflow from the left fan, but thankfully temperatures didn’t suffer much, if at all.
If cost is an issue, the NODE 304 series including the white version is available at major online retailers for a penny shy of $90 US. When comparing this to the features, performance, ultra-quiet cooling capabilities, and perfect build quality along with a flawless paint job, I’d say it’ll be hard to beat this case when building a home theater PC or a LAN box to take on the road.
This was my first time building a mini-ITX-based system, and I’m happy to say that thanks to the NODE 304, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not hard to see why this case walks away with an Editor’s Choice award, so be sure to keep this case on the short list if a small form factor build is in the future.
Fractal Design NODE 304
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