Date: April 20, 2011
Author(s): Ryan Perry
It’s been a good two-and-a-half years since we’ve taken a look at a Zalman chassis, so with the announcement of the ~$69 Z9 Plus, we were eager to get one in and see how it compared to the current fleet of sub-$100 offerings on the market. With that, let’s see what the Z9 Plus gives us aside from its good looks and focus on efficient airflow.
I’m starting to think that I have an incurable disease. It hasn’t made it into any medical journals just yet, but it’s very real. I call it COD; case obsession disorder. I just cannot get enough of cases. Mini-tower, mid-tower, black, white, standard layout, custom layout… I like them all – provided they are functional and as quiet as possible.
My latest guilty pleasure that I hope will scratch the itch is the Z9 Plus mid-tower case from Zalman. The company has long said that it specializes in quiet computing so if the features are there, this could prove to be a winner.
A quick look at this case and it’s clear that it takes some styling cues from the Zalman name. The front panel has a Z-design towards the bottom that covers part of where the 120mm blue LED intake fan is found. Rather than just covering up part of the fan and impeding air flow, the areas that overlap are vented, as is the area that runs along the bottom.
Those who just cannot let go of old technology will be happy to know that there is also room for a floppy drive between the fan and the three mesh covered 5.25″ drive bays. Installed in the floppy drive bay from the factory is a 5.25″ to 3.5″ converter used to secure the drive.
Zalman has decided to cap off the front panel with a few extra bells and whistles. On the left is a digital read out connected to a thermal probe that can be placed anywhere inside the case to give users an idea of where temperatures stand. Just below that is a two channel, one dial fan controller to keep a couple of fans as quiet as possible or to ramp them up when needed.
To the right is the first set of USB 2.0 ports with another set on the other side of the 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks that support HD audio or AC ’97. Having the USB ports separated like this will allow larger, thicker flash drives to be used at the same time as other USB devices instead of blocking off ports. On the right are the hard drive activity LED and reset button with the power button up above in the center.
Removing the front panel is as easy as pulling out on the bottom and again on the sides near the top. My last few cases had front panels that came off cleanly, leaving all wires, switches and connections on the frame, so when I removed the front of the Z9 Plus, I was a little let down until I looked closer.
In the top right corner are two small clips that can be disconnected so the panel can be completely removed. To make reconnecting fool-proof, Zalman has made the connections different so only the correct wires can be paired up. Each of the 5.25″ drive bay covers features a removable dust filter as you can also see.
With the front panel out of the way, the break away, yet reusable 5.25″ metal drive covers are also visible as is the removable dust filter on intake fan.
Swinging the case counter-clockwise gives us a look at the left panel, which is held on by two black thumb screws. Again, here is an obvious homage to the Zalman name courtesy of another Z pattern. The panel features two small windows in opposite corners and a large diagonal mesh area with another 120mm LED fan in the lower left. A second fan can be added to the upper right area of the left panel for additional cooling but even without one, this open area should allow more than enough fresh air into the case to keep temperatures down.
Around the back from top to bottom is the motherboard I/O opening with a 120mm non-LED fan next to it to exhaust warm air. Just below the fan are two holes with pre-installed rubber grommets for those who wish to setup external water cooling. Moving down the case are 7 break away vented PCI covers, a small mesh opening to the right and the opening for the power supply at the bottom, which is now the norm for gamer and enthusiast cases.
Seeing how the right side panel is solid with no features such as vents to add extra room for hiding cables behind the motherboard tray, I’ll move on to the top. Toward the front is a handy little tray at with the Zalman name at the bottom. This should come in handy for those who may have devices they routinely leave resting on top of the case such as a MP3 player, digital camera or cell phone. Directly behind the tray is the mesh cover that hides the 3rd pre-installed 120mm LED fan and space for another to be supplied by the user.
The bottom of the case features four rectangular rubber feet to lift the case off the ground and prevent slipping. There is also a removable filter for a final 120mm bottom mounted fan and openings for the bottom-mounted power supply to pull in cool air.
Next, a look at the Z9 Plus’ internals!
Popping off the panels gives us a peek at the internals.
On the left side at the front are the five hard drive bays, which are rotated 90 degrees with the 5.25″ drive bays above them.
Along the bottom of the case, as mentioned earlier, are the spots for a 120mm fan and the power supply.
Up above is the motherboard tray, and this is what I like to see in my cases; cable management areas running down the right side, a cut out at the CPU area to make it easier to change out coolers with back plates, and another cut out up at the top left corner for routing the 12V power cable.
The interior is a bit on the small side but not cramped, however it will only be able to accommodate GPUs measuring 29 cm or 11.4 inches in length. This does not take into account GPUs with power connections coming off of the end that directly face the hard drives. Connections in this location will reduce the overall length allowed so those with larger GPUs should do their homework first.
Some might be wondering what the mesh area below the CPU cutout is for. Even though the right side panel was very plain, what’s under it is something that seems to be more and more popular among case manufacturers; mounting points for a 2.5″ hard drive or solid state drive behind the motherboard tray.
The included hardware comes packed in a resealable bag, which is great. I like to keep my hardware fresh!
It includes an 8-pin 12V extension cable, metal and plastic capped thumb screws, extra motherboard standoffs, rubber washers and screws to mount the hard drives and absorb any vibration created by them, small zip ties and various screws along with the user manual.
So far the case looks great but how will the install go? I may have a case addiction but I’m not a push over if it doesn’t function well – this is where I get picky.
This being my first experience with a Zalman case, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have used its CPU coolers in the past and reviewed an external hard drive enclosure, but have heard good things about its cases. Along the way, though, I ran into two problems that will make or break this case.
The first was that the frame didn’t seem quite square. When installing the motherboard I was able to line it up with the standoffs but it didn’t quite line up to the rear I/O shield. It wasn’t off by much but it’s enough to cause some concern. As I worked my way down the case and installed the GPU and NIC card I found that they did not line up properly either.
In order to secure the GPU in place I had to push it towards the PCI slot opening and hold it there while I secured it in place. The same had to be done with the NIC card but to a greater extent since it was further down the case in the bottom PCI-E slot. Both components did install but there is a fair bit of force being placed on the first PCI-E slot since it locks the GPU in place and the NIC card almost feels like it’s close to not making proper contact.
The second issue was when installing a solid-state drive behind the motherboard tray, the four tabs where the screws are threaded through were too tight. I was able to bend them out by hand to allow the drive to fit. The fact that I could bend them by hand coupled with the issue with the expansion cards makes me think that this case may be prone to warping. The shipping box was in near perfect condition and the Styrofoam end caps used to keep it safe during transit were in tact as well.
Aside from that, everything went in lickity-split. All of the front panel cables were long enough to reach the connections on the motherboard, even the poorly placed audio header at the very back of the board. Kudos to the Zalman design team on the hard drive mounting system too. It is one of the most solid tool-less systems I have ever used. Screws are pushed through rubber washers and are secured into the side of the drive. The drive then slides in on the drive bay rails where plastic clips keep them firmly in place.
There is a little over half an inch of room between the motherboard tray and the right side panel. The test system is far from robust but I did end up having a little trouble putting the right side panel back on once all components were installed.
Sadly, the CoolIT Vantage used in my earlier review of the SilverStone FT03 met with an untimely demise, so stock cooling is being used to test temperatures. Due to the fact that the stock Intel heatsink is grossly underpowered, even running LinX through the use of OCCT to test full load temperatures proved to be too dangerous as they went into the 90s. Due to this, only stock idle CPU temperatures are available.
I was able to test the temperatures on the GPU however. A 20 minute run of OCCT’s built in GPU test was performed at stock clocks and again while overclocked. The final clocks were 1020MHz on the core and 1200MHz for the memory with a +0.025V increase using Sapphire Technology’s TriXX overclocking utility. Stability testing was done prior to ensure the GPU test completes the full run with AIDA64 Extreme Engineer monitoring and recording all temperatures.
The components used in the build are:
Techgage Hard Drive Test System
Intel Core i3-530 – Dual-Core (2.93GHz)
GIGABYTE GA-H55M-USB3 – H55-based
G.Skill ECO 2x2GB DDR3-1600
Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Toxic
Mushkin Callisto Deluxe 60GB SSD
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
SilverStone Strider Gold 750W
Bigfoot Killer NIC
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Even with the hardware breakdown limiting what tests could be run I am happy to say that CPU temperatures stayed at 33°C while idle. This is on par with the Lian Li PC-50WB that these components were pulled from. For GPU temperatures, stock idle and stock load temperatures were 44°C and 86°C respectively. When overclocked, GPU temperatures reached 45°C at idle and 91°C under full load. Again, this is dead on with the Lian Li.
Our case testing system is still in the works but once those components are finalized, a database of stock and overclocked CPU and GPU temperatures will be built for comparison purposes to ensure future cases deliver on cooling, so stay tuned for that.
Coming in at just under $70 CAN/USD, the Z9 Plus does many things right for a mid-tower case in this price-range. It’s roomy enough to work in without feeling cramped; the hard dive mounting system is incredibly solid and the the temperature readout and fan controller on the front panel are nice touches.
There are enough free drive bays and areas for additional fans to allow for future expandability as well. There were also no rough edges meaning my hands came out in tact after completing the build. For those who want to take cooling to the next level, external water cooling is also possible.
The huge selling point in my opinion is the fact that the Z9 Plus is nearly silent. In fact, I can hear the GPU fan at idle over the case fans. In my opinion, the case isn’t too hard on the eyes either since it features the same black paint job inside and out and the Z-design on the front has grown on me.
The build quality worries me though seeing how some components did not line up properly and the fact that I could bend the 2.5″ drive mounting points by hand without any real effort.
There are also a couple of things that are missing on the case or simply do not make sense to me. There is no fan filter on the power supply and the PCI slot covers are not reusable. These are both features that I have seen on cases available at a lower price-point. Seeing how most enthusiasts keep track of their temperatures through software, maybe the front panel temperature readout could have been dropped in favor of these.
The Z9 Plus is a good case, don’t get me wrong. I simply cannot get past the build quality at this point but for the average user, it should provide most of what is needed to build a good performing yet quiet system.
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