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Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced Mini-ITX Case

The Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced supports all the main elements expected in a SFF gaming PC in a fairly compact and extremely affordable $50 package.

Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced Mini-ITX Case

December 6, 2012 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Cooler Master
Elite 120 Advanced
Mini-ITX Case
Manufacturer
Street Price
US$45

Cooler Master is one of the biggest players in the PC case market and has been
for as long as we can remember. Their catalogue is dominated by towers of various
sizes and price ranges from the affordable Elite/Centurion series to the massive
Cosmos.
They’ve dabbled in smaller mini-ITX cases like the fanless TC-100
we examined in 2009 but nothing with mainstream appeal has ever matriculated
until now. The rising popularity of the mini-ITX form factor is difficult to
ignore when the position of the desktop PC as the dominant species among computing
devices is in question.


The box.


The Elite 120 Advanced.

The Elite 120 Advanced is one of the biggest mini-ITX breadbox style cases
we’ve seen, close in size — at first glance — to the 14.6 liter SilverStone
Sugo SG07
reviewed two years ago. At 20 liters, however, the Elite 120
displaces 25% more volume. In comparison, the
classic Shuttle systems which kicked
off the breadbox PC trend a decade ago and SilverStone look-alikes (the SG05/06)
were typically 11~12 liters. These earlier boxes were not really meant to house
hot video cards and could handle hot CPUs only with fairly noisy CPU coolers.
Like the SG07, the Elite 120 Advanced provides enough room for a powerful discrete
graphics card and aims at satisfying gamers seeking a smaller PC without compromising
performance.

The chassis has an unassuming appearance, a long and boxy breadbox sized case
with a matte black finish and ventilation slits riddled along the sides and
top of the case. It stands only about 8 inches tall but that’s enough for a
SFF gaming machine, which clearly was Cooler Master’s intention. The Elite 120
Advanced supports graphics cards up to 34.3 cm long and CPU coolers up to 6.5
cm tall (actually 7.6 cm by our measurements), an ATX power supply, a standard
5.25 inch optical drive, and up to three 3.5 inch hard drives. Cooling is comes
in the form of a 120 mm intake fan and a low profile 80 mm side fan. It’s a
very affordable case, with current street price as low as US$45.


Accessories.

The case ships with a short manual, a PC speaker, a small bag of screws, a
nut-driver to tighten the motherboard standoffs, four fan bolts for a second
120 mm fan, zip-ties, and a pair of drive sleds with two more inside pre-installed
to a pair of 2.5 inch drive trays.

Specifications: Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced
(from the
product web page
)
Model RC-120A-KKN1
Color Black
Material Appearance: Aluminum & Polymer front
Case body: Steel Alloy
Dimension 240 x 207.4 x 401.4mm –
20 liters
9.4 x 8.2 x 15.8 inch
Weight 3.3 kg / 7.3 lb
M/B Type Mini-ITX
5.25" Drive Bay 1
3.5" Drive Bay 3 (internal)
2.5" Drive Bay 4 (internal, converted from two 3.5” bays)
I/O Panel USB 3.0 x 1 (internal), USB 2.0 x 2, Mic x 1,
Audio x 1 (supports AC97 / HD Audio)
Expansion Slots 2
Cooling System Front: 120mm fan x 1, 1200 RPM, 19dBA
Side: 80x15mm fan x 1, 2000 RPM, 20dBA
HDD: 120x25mm fan x 1 (optional)
Power Supply Standard ATX PS2
Maximum Compatibility VGA card length: 343.0 mm
/ 13.5"
CPU cooler height: 65.0 mm / 2.5"
Warranty 2 years

EXTERIOR

The Elite 120 Advanced measures 24.0 x 40.1 x 20.7 cm or 9.4 x 15.8 x 8.2 inches
(W x D x H), with a total volume of 20 liters. Note that the depth measurement
includes the bump at the back (the power supply is installed jutting out by
about an inch); discounting this, the interior volume is only 18.6 L. The chassis
doesn’t feel particularly strong but you’d be hard pressed to find a better
built case with similar dimensions for US$45.


The front bezel consists of brush aluminum panels at the center surrounded by black. The sides are angled inward, making the power and reset buttons and front ports more prominent. The two USB 2.0 connectors on the left side are separated getting around the problem of bulky USB dongles interfering with the adjacent port. Unfortunately there is only one USB 3.0 port on the right side.


The case appears be well ventilated with numerous slits cut into the sides and the top for the power supply fan.


To make a little more room on the interior, the power supply is designed to mount to a frame that leaves it sticking out at the back by about 2.7 cm. This feature doesn’t make the case look bigger but the overall footprint remains the same as it requires some clearance behind it for the power cable.


The case has a front 120 mm intake fan but we doubt its effectiveness as its intake source is a small slit at the bottom. The other noticeable characteristic of the case bottom is the littering of cable tie-down points.


The case cover is secured with three thumbscrews at the back and comes out with relative ease thanks to the presence of a pair of small handholds. The cover is only about 0.8 mm thick which is as good as can be expected for a case in this price range.


The power supply vent has a thin mesh filter accessible on the inside but it’s held on with metal tabs that have to be manually bent upward.

INTERIOR

The interior of the Elite 120 Advanced is altogether quite solid. The drive cage isn’t removable, riveted in place making it extremely rigid. The support beams located at the top edges are reasonably thick and there’s even a thin cross bar at the back of the 5.25 inch bay for extra support.


The layout is nothing revolutionary. The motherboard lies on its side with the power supply sitting above it, while the drives are relegated to the front of the case. It has accommodations for a full-sized 5.25 inch optical drive and three 3.5 inch drives (two of which can be converted into dual 2.5 inch bays).


A second 120 mm fan be attached in front of the drive cage though it’s a flawed cooling strategy without a cool intake source. The cables for the front connectors are split into two separate bundles but cable management isn’t an issue. Cables can be secured to the top beams and at the bottom of the case.


Multiple cable tie down points are provided surrounding the motherboard tray.


The front panel is removed easily, allowing access to the 120 mm intake fan. As characterized by its twisted blades, it belongs to Cooler Master’s Blade Master series.


A second smaller fan is attached to a metal frame on the right side of the case, positioned as an intake fan blowing toward the CPU area. It’s a nice addition but the fan is only a 80 x 15 mm model. The fan holder is attached with four screws, two at the back and two underneath.

ASSEMBLY

Assembly proceeded without any difficulties. Aside from attaching the power supply to a frame and inserting it through the back, the procedure is similar to putting together a typical tower. Our only piece of advice is to hook up the motherboard headers and power connectors before installing the power supply as it hangs over most of the board.


Drives are mounted using drive sleds which secure to each side of the drive. Two 2 x 2.5 inch drive frames are included as well using the same system.


The most effective compatible heatsink we had on hand that wouldn’t interfere with our motherboard’s PCI Express slot was the Noctua NH-L9i (37 mm tall). We measured 39 mm of clearance above it, making the maximum height 76 mm, though it’s best to leave some room underneath the power supply.


Fully assembled.


There’s plenty of room for a discrete graphics card, about 33.5 cm before hitting the front cable connectors. The gap between our dual slot ASUS HD 6850 and the side panel was about 9 mm.


Installing a 17 cm long optical drive and a 15 cm long power supply left us with a comfortable 4 cm of space between the ends of their respective connectors. It would have been a much tighter fit if the power supply hadn’t been moved back.


A standard thickness 120 mm fan on the right side would have been preferable but there simply isn’t enough room. As you can see in the image above, there is little space between the 15 mm thick fan and the side, and keep in mind the fan is tucked slightly underneath the power supply as well.


The front LEDs are a mild shade of blue that doesn’t distract.

TESTING

System Configuration:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

System temperatures and noise levels were recorded with SpeedFan and GPU-Z
at idle and on load using Prime95 (small FFT setting) and FurMark, an OpenGL
benchmarking and stability testing utility.

Baseline Noise

The Elite 120 Advanced has a standard 120 mm fan behind the hard drive cage and a thin 80 mm fan on the right side next to the CPU area. Both fans are 3-pin models with 4-pin molex adapters included. The larger fan is very quiet, producing only 20 dBA@1m at full speed while the smaller model is much louder, producing 28 dBA@1m, despite being on the far side of our standard microphone position. The quality of the noise is also disparate; the 80 mm fan droned and buzzed noticeably, generating tonal peaks through a wide frequency range while the 120 mm fan had a very smooth, broadband profile.

Stock Fan Noise Level
Fan
SPL @1m
12V
9V
7V
5V
Front
20 dBA
15~16 dBA
12~13 dBA
<11 dBA
Side
28~29 dBA
23~24 dBA
17 dBA
12~13 dBA
Measuring mic positioned 1m at diagonal angle left/front
of case.

Given the differences in noise outputs, we highly recommend controlling the fan separately or controlling the side fan only as the front fan is fairly quiet at full speed.

Test Results: Intel HD 3000 IGP

System Measurements
System State
Idle
CPU + GPU Load
CPU Fan
6V
9V
9V
9V
12V
Front Fan
Off
9V
12V
9V
9V
Side Fan
Off
7V
7V
9V
7V
CPU Temp
38°C
88°C
88°C
86°C
87°C
PCH Temp
34°C
59°C
59°C
59°C
59°C
HD Temp
37°C
33°C
34°C
35°C
34°C
System Power (AC)
34W
153W
153W
152W
152W
SPL@1m
17~18 dBA
24~25 dBA
25 dBA
27 dBA
28~29 dBA
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

Sitting idle, the test system was easy to cool with the CPU, PCH and hard drive temperature staying under 40°C with the CPU fan running at only 6V and both system fans inactive. The noise produced was completely innocuous and measured a low 17~18 dBA@1m. Load testing was wrought with problems. We tried to do without the noisy side fan but even with both the CPU and front fan at full speed, the CPU exceeded 92°C, causing it to throttle down intermittently. After testing various fan speed combinations, we settled on the CPU and front fan at 9V and the side fan at 7V.

Even in this fan speed configuration, the CPU temperature was very high but there was little we could do while maintaining a reasonable noise level. Increasing the front fan or CPU fan speed further did almost nothing. Increasing the side fan speed helped the CPU cool down but only by 2°C and this reduction was accompanied by a 2~3 dB bump in noise level.

Our best performance:noise fan speed configuration was not too bad, resulting in a fairly smooth sounding system. The tonality of the side fan, which was terribly annoying in our baseline testing, was more or less covered up by the other components in our system. Still, a noise level of 24~25 dBA@1m for a system running only on integrated graphics is quite poor. While the case certainly has airflow problems, it’s clear that the Noctua NH-L9i needs a lot of help to deal with the heat output of a Core i5-2500K.

Test Results: ASUS Radeon HD 6850

System Measurements
System State
Idle
CPU + GPU Load
CPU Fan
9V
9V
12V
12V
9V
Front Fan
9V
12V
9V
9V
9V
Side Fan
7V
7V
7V
9V
12V
CPU Temp
40°C
FAIL
FAIL
89°C
91°C
PCH Temp
37°C
68°C
66°C
65°C
68°C
HD Temp
34°C
45°C
46°C
47°C
46°C
GPU Temp
40°C
90°C
90°C
90°C
90°C
GPU Fan*
1620 RPM
2710 RPM
2710 RPM
2700 RPM
2710 RPM
System Power (AC)
63W
N/A
N/A
281W
281W
SPL@1m
24~25 dBA
25 dBA
31 dBA
32 dBA
33~34 dBA
*GPU fan speed set manually to achieve a GPU temperature of ~90°C
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

To our surprise, adding an HD 6850 to our test system had no measurable effect on the noise level when idle. The 6850’s minimum fan speed was completely drowned out by the rest of the system. On load, a GPU fan speed of ~2700 RPM was required to keep the temperature at a steady 90°C, regardless of how we manipulated the rest of the fans in the system. Fan speed increases were necessary however, as the presence of a moderately powerful discrete graphics card created more challenging thermal conditions for the CPU.

The fan speeds used on our IGP test system, resulted in CPU throttling. Pushing the front fan to 12V was completely ineffective, while raising the CPU fan to maximum speed slowed the throttling frequency but it didn’t eliminate it completely. A boost to both CPU and side fan speed was required to get the system fully stable. In the end, the lowest SPL we managed to coax out of the system was 32 dBA@1m. The PCH and hard drive temperature were also substantially higher than on our IGP test system.

The HD 6850 fan gave the system a rougher acoustic profile but we wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as unpleasant. The noise extra noise was distributed over a wide frequency and wasn’t particularly tonal except for a spike at about 370 Hz on load. The load noise of 32 dBA@1m was quite high however; we use a system configuration with a similar power draw for testing microATX towers and a typical result is ~25 dBA@1m. This is the type of price you pay for going with a much smaller chassis.

Comparison vs. SilverStone Sugo SG07:


Our SilverStone SG07 test system layout (2010).

Of the cases we’ve examined in the past, the Sugo SG07 comes closest to the Elite 120 Advanced in size. It was tested using components with a similar total power draw, though the parts are dated by today’s standards, a low power Core 2 Quad processor and an HD 4870. The SG07 was also equipped with only a single massive down-blowing intake fan and the components included a larger CPU cooler, the Scythe Samurai ZZ — the power supply being positioned at the front of the case freed up plenty of room above the CPU socket.

System Measurements vs. SilverStone Sugo SG07
(Core 2 Q8200S + Scythe Samurai ZZ + Radeon HD 4870)
Case
CM Elite 120 Advanced
SilverStone Sugo SG07
System State
Idle
Load
Idle
Load
CPU Temp
40°C
89°C
34°C
37°C
GPU Temp
40°C
90°C
74°C
84°C
GPU Fan
1620 RPM
2700 RPM*
960 RPM
2080 RPM
System Power (AC)
63W
281W
115W
270W
SPL@1m
24~25 dBA
32 dBA
21~22 dBA
35 dBA
*GPU fan speed set manually to achieve a GPU temperature of ~90°C
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

On load, both cases had difficulty keeping their respective GPUs cool without producing an inordinate level of noise, but the difference in CPU cooling was staggering. The less demanding processor deserves some credit for the difference but the much taller heatsink and superior airflow obviously had a lot to do with it. Working with roughly the same dimensions, the SG07’s unique layout makes all the difference, though it does limit drive support (the SG07 can house only a slim 5.25 inch optical drive and single 3.5 inch or dual 2.5 inch hard/solid-state drives).

AUDIO RECORDINGS

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality, digital recording
system inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to
LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve listened long and hard to ensure there is no
audible degradation from the original WAV files to these MP3s. They represent
a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review.

Each recording starts with ambient noise, then 10 second segments of product
at various states. For the most realistic results,
set the volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then
don’t change the volume setting again while comparing all the sound files.

FINAL THOUGHTS

It’s apparent that Cooler Master designed the Elite 120 Advanced to be as affordable and compact as possible while offering enough space for housing a fairly powerful mini-ITX system. While it is a rather small case, it’s overly large for a basic Atom or Fusion based media PC, considering the power requirements these types of machines require. A full-sized ATX power supply, reasonable CPU heatsink clearance, and support for long graphics cards are all requirements for a LAN gaming box. The Elite 120 Advanced offers all this, plus accommodations for cable management which is something always overlooked in budget mini-ITX cases. The build quality is solid also when you consider its US$45 street price — for value, it’s pretty much unbeatable.

If you’re not constrained by cost, the SilverStone Sugo SG07 has similar dimensions but a much smarter design. You do lose support for extra hard drives and a full-sized optical drive as well as power supply choice (a 600W unit is included with the case) but it might be worth it for the superior cooling — the Elite 120 Advanced is completely outclassed in this regard. The Elite’s 120 mm intake fan is handicapped by the tiny slit at the bottom of the front bezel that passes for an intake vent, and the side fan is undersized and has lousy acoustics. They would’ve done well to shift the motherboard tray position toward the left side of the case or simply make the whole chassis a little wider so a proper 120 mm fan could be placed there instead. As it stands, the stock fan combination doesn’t even come close to matching the prowess of the SG07’s strategically placed single 180 mm ceiling fan.

The poor airflow scheme was at least partially blame for our inability to keep our Core i5-2500K CPU from throttling while attempting to achieve a reasonable noise level. The other culprit was the petite cooler we utilized, the Noctua NH-L9i, which was selected due to compatibility concerns. The Elite 120 Advanced would have probably performed much better with a superior heatsink; a good sized CPU cooler is critical for a quiet SFF gaming machine. The underlying issue is that most so-called "low profile" heatsinks extend over the PCI-E slot on the majority of mini-ITX boards for LGA1155, the most popular platform for these types of systems. To avoid this problem, we advise selecting a motherboard with ample clearance between the CPU socket and PCI-E slot such as the ASUS P8Z77-I series, EVGA 111-IB-E692-KR, and Foxconn H67S and H61S.

Our thanks to Cooler Master for the Elite 120 Advanced case sample.

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