Date: August 3, 2011
Author(s): Greg King
With the chassis market dominated by a small group of major companies, it’s easy to get excited when we receive a model from a company that’s not that well known – at least on these shores. In this particular case (no pun, of course), that company is Fractal Design, and its the silence-focused Define R3 mid-tower on deck today.
A lot of what we do here at Techgage is deeply rooted in the interactions we have with others in the industry. Many times, we line up a meeting via phone or if lucky, in person, at any one of the trade shows we cover. More often than not, we have a gameplan when going into anything that we do. We wake up and know what needs worked on or who we are going to meet with that day. But, more often than not we know what to expect going into any meeting or discussion about a new product. The genesis of this review is not such a scenario.
Going into CES last January, I hadn’t heard much about Fractal Designs. If it hadn’t been for a few visits to a couple of European tech sites, the company’s name would have in no way crossed my mind. However, in an opportune moment while waiting for Rob’s plane to land at the Las Vegas airport, I ran into Elizabeth Castiglioni, Channel Marketing Manager of Fractal Design North America Inc. At the time, I had no idea who she was and whether or not she was there for CES, but given the numbers that CES brings into the city ever year, I played the odds and started up a conversation in the same way anyone does in an airport. I asked her if she could watch my gear while I stepped away for a minute.
With small talk out of the way, we did the obligatory business card exchange and went about our way for the first couple of days at CES. However, after a few emails, I was in their suite, looking at their lineup of PC towers that were about to be released in North America for the first time.
Based in Sweden, Fractal Design has been a player in Europe and elsewhere in the world for some time, but only recently became available to us in North America. When meeting with the company at CES, the folks there shared with us their pricing structure. Aggressive to say the least, the mid-tower Define R3 that we are reviewing today can be found online for just about $100 US, and the flagship chassis, the Define XL, starts at around $150.
For those of a more budget-minded position, the Core series fits nicely into the sub-$100 market. With these prices, the Fractal team has positioned themselves amongst hearty competition. The $80 to $150 price range is ripe with many quality players and all of them bring something worthwhile to the table. Also littering the reasonably-priced market is a good amount of sub-par manufacturers who I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. That said, I’m interested to see where the Define R3 fits and how it fares when put through the stresses of consistent daily use.
The Define R3 is an all black mid-tower designed with a focus on an appealing exterior and near-silent operation. My first impression when getting up close and personal with the case was that Fractal Design might have cribbed part of the design sheet from the Antec P182. With a front door that runs the entire height of the case, the only source of cool air comes from slits arranged around the perimeter of the door.
The front of the Define R3 is plastic, thicker than I am used to, and glossy. As mentioned earlier, the door runs the entire front of the case and has a depression on the right hand side to aid in opening the door. When opening, it slides out from the right to the left, exposing the two optical drive bays and a pair of vent covers that can be opened with a push of their front.
When open, the front door is lined with a type of foam, used to dampen the acoustics of the fans and optical drives. Running the entire length of the door, it should be more than adequate in quieting the noise trying to escape outward through the front of the case. When closed, the door is held shut with the help of magnets. They aren’t strong enough to necessitate a firm pull when trying to open but are weak enough that getting into your case from the front isn’t difficult. In my opinion, a fair balance between too strong and too weak.
When the fan panels are opened with a push on their right-hand side, they swing outward from right to left. Once open, we see dust filters that sit between the fans and the outside world. Fractal Design hasn’t made cleaning them very easy, as each filter is held in place with four screws. This is personally fine with me but it could be a turn off for many – having to remove eight screws every time they want to rinse them out. It should be said however that in my experience with the Define R3, all I needed to do was use the narrow attachment to my Dyson and it was simple enough to suck any debris caught by the filter away. So while inconvenient, most people won’t need to remove the filters unless doing a major cleanup of their system.
Either throwing the water cooling community a bone or simply allowing the Define R3 to be more versatile for those looking for more airflow, the top of the case has a pair of 120mm fan grills, perfectly spaced to allow the use of a dual radiator if one so chooses. While we will get into it more later, the vents are sealed shut with a pair of foam squares. This not only prevents dust from entering into the case from above, but it also helps dampen sound. Each square is held in place by four screws that would normally be used to secure a fan.
On the top front corner of the Define R3 we find the power and I/O ports. From left to right we have headset and microphone ports, the power button, a pair of USB 2.0 ports and one eSATA connector. Sitting in front of the power button is an activity LED that glows blue when in use. Many will groan about the omission of USB 3.0 but given the number of USB 2.0 devices still in use, it seems smart that Fractal Design chose to leave 3.0 for future models.
While many cases include a window of some sort on the left hand side of its cases, Fractal Design chose to keep with the quiet design and instead, opted to allow the user decide how they want to use the case. Like the top, the side has a 120mm fan vent pre-cut into the side. Keeping it sealed however, another foam patch is used. Easily removed, it’s only there to keep dust out while not in use.
The back of the Define R3 shows us that the case has a PSU-on-bottom design. One nice touch is the white covers for the PCI slots. With slots for airflow, they look good against the all black case. To the right, as well as the top, there is a pair of holes for water kits. Both of which are sealed with rubber grommets.
At the bottom of the Define R3 there is another dust filter that can be used to filter the air going into your power supply. Easily removed, you can blow the dust out and slide it back in with minimal effort.
Taking a closer look at the matting used to dampen the noise put out by your hardware, we see that the inside wall of the left side panel is covered with it. We can also see that foam used to cover up the fan vent. It should be mentioned that this covering adds a fair amount of weight to the case and that the right side panel also has the same covering.
It’s time to check out the inside!
The inside of the Define R3 is completely black with the exception of the hard drive trays, PCI slot covers and the included rear 120mm fan. While not removable, the motherboard tray has an opening behind the CPU area to allow changing of your cooler without having to remove the motherboard. For those manufacturers STILL not using this design element, you are falling behind. I will personally never purchase a case that lacks this feature as it’s a no-brainer and makes life on everyone easier.
Surrounding the CPU area of the motherboard tray are six holes that can be used for cable management. Each are sealed with the same rubber grommets that we saw on the water holes on the back of the case and each are sized for average use. The holes near a motherboard typical power connector are wide, while the holes near the bottom are smaller.
Capable of holding up to eight hard drives, the trays are designed in the same theme as the rest of the Define R3. Near silent operation.
At the top of the case we can see the pair of foam covers used to seal up the dual 120mm fan openings. They are approximately ¼ of an inch thick and should be able to prevent most sound from escaping the chassis.
Along with the removable filter that we saw underneath the power supply area, there is another filter for those that want to add yet another fan to the case. Able to either pull cool air from the bottom of the case or expel it outward, you can install another 120mm fan, bringing the Define R3 up to seven possible fans if one would be compelled to populate all available areas.
As mentioned earlier, the hard drive trays are white and contrast well with the all black interior of the Fractal Design case. Capable of holding either 3.5″ standard hard drives or 2.5″ SSD drives, the trays slide in and out of the case by simply pushing the tabs inward. By attaching your drives to the trays using the provided screws and rubber bases, the possibility of a loud hard drive due to vibrations in the trays are eliminated completely.
By moving the rubber bases inward, you can use them to mount a 2.5″ laptop or SSD hard drive.
Let’s get on with installing some hardware into the Define R3, and test out its cooling performance.
Installation of my test hardware was an enjoyable experience, and the only problems faced were those that I face with any case. The Define R3 proved to be more than ample to work in and for a mid-tower, offered plenty of room for my quickly aging GeForce GTX 260.
With either of trays for hard drives, I was able to space the drives I have out with enough room for additional airflow from the front mounted 120mm fan. It should be mentioned that in the picture I have an additional 120mm fan installed, but this picture was taken some time after testing completed and all temperatures recorded were with the Define R3 in its stock configuration.
Faced with the typical rat’s nest of cables being thrown up out the back of the power supply, I tried to make the most of the situation but still had trouble with the excess cables. With the Define R3 being a mid-tower, it lacks a lot of the nooks and crannies of a full-sized chassis. With that said, I tried to route things as best I could, I honestly did, but it was all for naught given the number of cables left over after everything was connected. However, the power cable and all other necessary cables were easily routed behind the hard drives and fed into their appropriate positions.
For those of you with a power supply that isn’t modular, installing a fan at the bottom of the Define R3 might prove impossible. You could put one in place and get a fan guard if you like but with so little room to work with, you just might not get much air flow .
I purchased this GIGABYTE motherboard, so I suppose it’s my own fault, but I cringe every time I build a system with this hardware because of the auxiliary power port at the top left of the board. Thanks for nothing, barely-short cable. It should be mentioned however that the appropriate holes were at the bottom of the motherboard tray but with the cable being just a bit short, I was forced to hang it across the front of the graphics card.
The components user for testing:
Techgage Test System
Intel Core i7-920 – Quad-Core (2.66GHz)
GIGABYTE GA-EX58-UD4P – X58-based
Crucial Ballistix 2x6GB DDR3
XFX GTX 260 Black Edition
Western Digital 1TB Black x 2 (RAID 0)
Fractal Design Define R3
Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro Rev 2
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
With Ryan handling the majority of our case reviews, I won’t be able to compare the Define R3 to those reviewed by him. That being said, with the majority of our most recent chassis reviews focusing on performance-minded cases, it might make sense to omit this one from direct comparisons. However, I do feel that the Define R3 could find itself at home with performance-minded users. Regardless, the team at Fractal Design has clearly geared the Define R3 towards those looking for subdued yet refined aesthetics and be that as it may, we are testing this one on its own.
For testing, the ambient temperature was kept at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit. As in Ryan’s reviews, AIDA64 Extreme Engineer is used for monitoring and recording all system temperatures throughout the entire testing process.
Testing is run on a vanilla install of Windows 7 64-bit. An idle temperature is taken of both the CPU and GPU before stress testing begins. To load up the CPU IntelBurnTest was used and ran for 20 minutes. For the GPU, we ran OCCT’s built-in test for 20 minutes as well.
Tests were run at stock clocks and no overclocking was attempted. Having got this i7-920 close to 4GHz, I know the headroom is there but for the purposes of this test, we opted for stock clocks on both the CPU and GPU. It should be mentioned that the GPU is already substantially overclocked direct from XFX.
With nothing to compare it to, the numbers mean little. However, I would like you to take one thing away from this; temperatures never once reached anything near critical temperatures. On the contrary, the Define R3 is more than capable of keeping your hardware at a level well below what most consider acceptable. While I’m not completely surprised, I am happy to see that even with the acoustic material lining the sides and front of the chassis, temperatures were kept in check. A lot of that speaks to the quality of the Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro Rev 2 but it, like any other cooler, needs cooler air to effectively work. The Define R3 is more than capable of providing that.
I walk away with two things from my time with the Fractal Design Define R3. The first is that it’s a very well designed chassis. All edges on the interior of the case had grommets around them and even when digging around in the hard drive bays, I never once found a sharp edge. In fact almost all edges are rounded off for additional safety, as well as adding a bit of rigidity to the overall composition of the Define R3.
Coming in at $100, the price might indicate that the Define R3 is cheap. I have to disagree strongly. It’s engineered to afford the user as many conveniences as possible while keeping the price at an affordable level. Speaking of design, the Define R3 is practically silent. With all the hardware installed and the side panel securely in place, there were few times I could hear anything from the machine. The acoustic dampening on all sides helps in this and the front door foam eliminates sound from the front. On all accounts, the Define R3 attacks sounds while keeping internal temperatures at a reasonable level.
Those looking for a performance case with a window of which to show off their machine should look elsewhere. For the rest of the chassis market, if you don’t need a full sized tower, the Define R3 should be on your list of cases to look at. My long standing favorite has been the Hiper Osiris for some time. I still use that case and can still appreciate the build quality. Sadly though, Hiper is no longer in business, but the case remains.
From build quality to small details that aid in the installation and upkeep of your machine, the Define R3 provides it all. You do get a bit more plastic than many would like but for the money, it’s to be expected. The front assembly and the legs are plastic but in the six months that I have had it in my possession, there aren’t any visible scratches on the front, so I can speak directly to the durability of the machine.
Looking past the price, I believe that the Define R3 can stand on its own amongst other cases from better known companies here in the US. With its water friendly design and near silent operation, the Define R3 is a winner no matter how you look at it.
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