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NCASE M1: Crowdfunded Enthusiast Mini-ITX Case

Tired of oversized, poorly designed, cheaply-made mini-ITX cases, a group of enthusiasts banded together to design, fund, produce, and sell their ideal SFF enclosure, the NCASE M1. We managed to get hold of a sample and ran it through our demanding test set.

NCASE M1 Crowdfunded Enthusiast Mini-ITX Case

April 9, 2014 by Lawrence Lee

Product
NCASE M1
Mini-ITX Case
Manufacturer
Original Price
US$205

At the end of every case review we usually discuss its strengths, weaknesses, and make suggestions for improvements in future revisions. More often than not our comments and advice go unheeded. It’s frustrating sometimes, seeing product after product land at our door with the same old flaws and annoyances. Some of the better manufacturers take steps to correct such issues but most just continue churning out enclosures of the same mold. Our readers who frequently build systems surely have similar sentiments — we’ve all thought to ourselves at some point, "I could design a better case than this," but nothing ever comes of it. (One exception we know about is the route Mike Chin, SPCR’s founder, took with his ideas, which led to the Antec P180 and its progeny & copycats.)

In 2012, a pioneering group of enthusiasts on [H]ard|Forum decided to actually do it. Unsatisfied with the lack of high performance mini-ITX cases on the market, they designed their perfect SFF case, dubbed the NCASE M1, aided by input from the community and engineers from Lian Li. In early 2013, to get funding for prototypes and testing costs, they started a project on the crowdfunding site, Indiegogo, raising more than double their goal in donations from people across the globe in one month. The units were built by Lian Li, shipped, and tested with various components and configurations before the product was finalized. In August, they started a second round of funding, the actual purchasing phase of the process, requiring a minimum of US$67,500 in order to make a small production run possible. Priced at US$205 each, once again, they exceeded their goal by more than twice over, eventually shipping out more than 600 orders.


The NCASE M1 unboxed.

We managed to acquire one of these units, and we have to say, it’s an absolute beauty. Aesthetics and build quality were two of the main complaints the designers had about currently available mini-ITX cases and the M1 addresses this nicely. Its exterior is pleasantly uniform and minimalist, it has a small footprint, and is decked out with 1.5 mm thick brush aluminum panels. NCASE also felt that many enclosures are larger than necessary with a lot of wasted space; the M1 is extremely efficient in this regard. Though the enclosure is only 12.6 Liters in volume, it supports up to 3 x 3.5 inch drives, a triple-slot graphics card, a reasonably large CPU heatsink, a single/dual radiator watercooling unit, and up to four 120 mm fans. Some of these features come at the expense of the others, e.g. some of the drives and fans share the same mounts, but it’s still an impressive list nevertheless.


Included accessories.

The M1 ships with an ATX power supply frame (ATX units are limited to 140 mm) as the stock frame is for SFX units, a set of four fan grills and filters, brackets to stack 2.5 inch drives in pairs, screws and grommets, and an internal PC speaker.


A closer look at the M1.

The M1 is also offered in black, but the gleam of the silver version really stands out compared to the myriad of black cases out there. Accenting the sleek aluminum body are glittering case feet and a black front panel. The facia is slightly angled at the sides but doesn’t function as a door. The case is heavily ventilated at the top and on the upper portion of both side panels.

Specifications: NCASE M1
(from the
Indiegogo web page
)
Dimensions240 * 160 * 328mm, 12.6L (250 * 160 * 338mm overall)
Motherboard support Mini-ITX, Mini-DTX
Liquid cooling supportSingle 120mm or 240mm slim radiator
PSU SFX, ATX (limited)
Drivesx 6 (5 + 1 using included adapter)
Fans3 x 3.5" mounts:
-1 on case floor
-2 in removable side bracket (cannot be used with dual radiator)

3 x 2.5" mounts:
-1 inside chassis front
-1 behind front panel (in place of optical drive)
-1 on case bottom (in place of 3.5" drive)
-included double-stacking bracket allows 2 x 2.5" drives on one mount (depending on drive thickness)

Vertically mounted slim slot-load optical drive

Front ports2 x USB 3.0, microphone and headphone jacks
Power buttonred/blue power/drive activity LED
MaterialAluminum
CPU cooler limit -Top-down coolers are recommended.
-Height restriction: 130mm
-Cooler cannot extend past the top of the board by more than 10mm. For many larger coolers, this limits motherboard choice to those with centrally-located sockets.
-Large coolers that extend past the front of the board will prevent the 3.5" HDD cage from being used.
Watercooling limit-Sealed liquid coolers or integrated pump/block and radiator/res recommended.
-Single 120mm or 240mm radiators only.
-Thinner radiators only (under 40mm).
-Fans in push/pull are not recommended due to space constraints.
GPU limit-Rear exhaust cards recommended.
-Max length: 12.5" (slots 1 & 2), 11" (slot 3)
-Max width for cards up to 11.5" in the first or second slot: 5.5" (4.7" at the PCIe power connectors)
-Max width For cards up to 12.5" or cards in the third slot: 4.4"
Power supply limit-SFX up to 130mm, modular or non-modular.
-ATX support via included bracket is limited to 140mm non-modular PSUs with cards longer than 200mm. ATX PSUs are not recommended due to limited room for long cables. Caution: the AC inlet orientation on some ATX power supplies may prevent the angle plug from fitting, please check carefully.

PHYSICAL DETAILS

According to our measurements, the NCASE M1 has dimensions of 25.1 x 33.3 x 16.0 cm or 9.9 x 13.1 x
6.3 inches (H x D x W), with a total volume of 12.6 Liters. It’s the smallest mini-ITX case we’ve tested that can accept a full-length graphics card. If you placed the M1 on its side, its layout is similar to that of the Node 304 with the power supply at the front of the case and drive placements hanging over it, though the airflow dynamic is completely different.


Despite having three expansion slots, the enclosure is quite short (25.1 cm including the case feet) due to the placement of the power supply at the front of the case. The AC plug at the back is connected to the PSU using an internal extension cable. The other notable feature at the rear is a 92 mm fan placement with a slot rather than a traditional honeycomb style vent.


An additional pair of 120 mm fan positions reside at the bottom. A 2.5/3.5 inch drive can be mounted in the placement closer to the rear.


The panels are secured without any screws, equipped instead with standoffs that are gripped by slots located around the frame of the chassis. This is a nice change from previous SFF Lian Li enclosures which used tiny but conspicuous screws running along the rim of the side panels.


In addition to the side panels, the top and front of case come off as well, though strangely the top cover requries the removal of a single screw. Behind the front bezel is a vertical slim 5.25 inch bay for a slot-loading optical drive or alternatively a 2.5 inch SSD or hard drive. The space underneath is left open to accommodate a long graphics card.


On the left side of the case is a thin, dual fan/radiator frame secured on each side by two screws. A removable dual 3.5 inch drive bracket occupies the fan position toward the front.


On the opposite side, the motherboard tray, with a comically large cutout at the back, is located at the rear with a sizable empty space at the front.


The view from the top. Out of the box, the drive bracket is positioned horizontally but it can rotated if the drive or cabling gets in the way of the CPU cooler. An SFX power supply frame is also installed by default but an ATX bracket is supplied as well, though it only supports ATX units 140 mm or shorter.

ASSEMBLY

Assembling a system in a small mini-ITX is often a frustrating experience but this is one area where the M1’s nontraditional design gives it an advantage. The removable top cover in particular makes it infinitely easier to access the connectors running along the top of the motherboard. However, there is no clear strategy for tidying up all the excess cabling as there simply isn’t any room for such features.


The M1 doesn’t ship with any fans so we used a pair of Scythe Slip Stream 120 mm fans (1200 RPM "M" model). Each 120 mm fan comes with a filter and grill but screwing them on is a pain, especially the filter as it sits between the fan and panel.


3.5 inch hard drive installation is facilitated by bolts and rubber grommets which attach to the side of the drive if you mount it to the fan frame. They are secured to the bottom of the drive if you use the floor placement.


As the floor position blocks off a vital intake vent for our graphics card, we placed our 3.5 inch test hard drive on the side instead. The frame is not well secured, amplifying the drive’s vibrations. Placing some blocks of thick packing foam to brace the drive greatly alleviated this issue.


One fan was placed at the bottom to blow directly into our HD 6850 graphics card while a second was placed next to the hard drive which we tested both as an intake and exhaust fan.


NCASE recommends using a top-down cooler and a fanless Noctua NH-C14 would be a perfect choice as it exactly 105 mm tall, the same as the official CPU heatsink clearance height. Unfortunately it interferes with the expansion slot due to our motherboard’s CPU socket placement next to the PCI-E slot so a Scythe Samurai ZZ was used instead.

The M1 lacks cable management features; we stuffed much of the wiring into the area between power supply and hard drive.


Finding a 140 mm long or shorter ATX power supply was also difficult so we opted to use the SilverStone ST45SF-G, an 80 Plus Gold modular SFX model with a total output of 450W.


The M1 has a pleasant blue power LED on the power button and a red hard drive LED which changes the overall color to purple when it’s active.

TESTING

System Configuration:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

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

Baseline Noise

As the M1 doesn’t ship with any fans, we armed it with two Scythe Slip Stream 1200 RPM 120 mm fans, initially equipped as intakes, one on the bottom of the case and one on the side.

Stock Fan Measurements
Voltage
Avg. Speed
SPL @1m
12V
1200 RPM
28 dBA
9V
1050 RPM
24~25 dBA
7V
900 RPM
19 dBA
5V
720 RPM
15 dBA
Measuring mic positioned 1m at diagonal angle left/front
of case.

The Scythe fans have excellent acoustics and undervolt well, giving us a nice range of noise levels to work with. Typically our test configuration generates between 20 and 30 dBA@1m, making these fans an almost ideal match.

The Slip Stream series is one of our favorites due to their smooth sound and strong performance in our fan tests. In the M1, they produced a pleasant broadband profile with a distinct lack of tonality.

TEST RESULTS

System Measurements: CPU and Side Fan Configured for Intake
System State
Idle
CPU + GPU Load
System Fan Speeds
5V / 720 RPM
7V / 900 RPM
9V / 1050 RPM
GPU Fan Speed*
1700 RPM
2410 RPM
CPU Temp
31°C
64°C
62°C
60°C
PCH Temp
31°C
53°C
52°C
HD Temp
37°C
45°C
49°C
52°C
GPU Temp
38°C
90°C
GPU VRM Temp
46°C
92°C
88°C
84°C
System Power
59W
261W
260W
SPL@1m
(right side)
25 dBA
(24 dBA)
30~31 dBA
(29 dBA)
31 dBA
(29~30 dBA)
*set as low as possible to maintain a GPU temperature of ~90°C on load.
CPU fan speed: 1800 RPM
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

Our first test configuration has the CPU and side fan both acting as intake fans and the CPU fan spinning at 1800 RPM (9V), fast enough to maintain a decent CPU temperature but slow enough to not make a meaningful contribution to the system’s overall noise level. Sitting idle with the system fans at 5V / 720 RPM, the internals were quite comfortable with the CPU and PCH just above 30°C and the hard drive and GPU under 40°C. The machine’s SPL was a reasonable 25 dBA@1m in this state, with the main noise source being the the VGA fan.

On full load, a GPU fan speed of 2410 RPM was required to keep the GPU at 90°C, pushing the noise level to over 30 dBA@1m. Speeding up the system fans had no effect on the GPU core temperature, though the video card’s VRM benefited from the extra airflow. The CPU also cooled down by an additional 2°C at 7V, and again at 9V. Strangely, the hard drive actually got warmer as the fan speeds were ramped up. We can only surmise that the drive’s temperature sensor is located near the video card in our test system and the cooler air being brought in from the side fan trapped the hot air rising off the graphics card, preventing it from exiting the system. This would also explain why increasing the system fan speed didn’t improve GPU cooling.

Our mic is always positioned one meter away from the front/left of the enclosure at a 45° angle which puts the M1 at a noise disadvantage as its main fan positions are on that side. Measurements from the right side were 1~2 dB lower.

Initially the system had an issue with hard drive vibration but as we discussed earlier, this was more or less solved with the addition of some foam blocks. You can see this in the frequency analysis as the 120 Hz spike corresponding to our test drive’s 7200 RPM motor stayed below 5 dB. Some tonal properties were introduced by the video card’s small fan which hums along at a low frequency, but the machine sounded fairly good, at least when idle. The GPU fan’s acoustics became harsher as its speed increased.

System Measurements: CPU and Side Fan Configured for Exhaust
System State
Idle
CPU + GPU Load
System Fan Speeds
5V / 720 RPM
7V / 900 RPM
9V / 1050 RPM
GPU Fan Speed*
1700 RPM
1900 RPM
CPU Temp
32°C
81°C
78°C
72°C
PCH Temp
31°C
54°C
50°C
47°C
HD Temp
35°C
49°C
50°C
49°C
GPU Temp
37°C
90°C
GPU VRM Temp
46°C
93°C
90°C
System Power
60W
270W
267W
266W
SPL@1m
(right side)
25 dBA
(24 dBA)
28 dBA
(26~27 dBA)
29 dBA
(27~28 dBA)
30 dBA
(28~29 dBA)
*set as low as possible to maintain a GPU temperature of ~90°C on load.
CPU fan speed: 1800 RPM
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

Flipping the CPU and side fans to act as exhausts generated some interesting results. First of all, the CPU cooler was not nearly as proficient with this airflow dynamic — at system fan voltages of 5V and 7V, the temperature was over 15°C higher than the intake configuration on load. On the bright side, the GPU cooled down significantly, allowing us to turn down the fan speed by 500 RPM which ultimately led to a noise reduction at every system fan voltage we tested. This confirms our suspicions about the side fan preventing the heat from the GPU from exhausting properly. This is likely why NCASE recommends a video card with an exhaust-style cooler. The hard drive temperature was also more stable in this configuration, reaching an equilibrium.

At idle, the acoustic character of the system was more or less the same as the intake configuration, but on load, the reduction in GPU fan speed gave us a smoother sounding machine.

Case Comparison
Case
BitFenix Phenom MITX
NCASE M1
Lian Li PC-V354
SilverStone Sugo SG09
CPU
Core i5-2500K
Core i5-750
CPU Cooler
NH-U12P, Nexus 120 at 12V
Samurai ZZ at 9V
NH-C12P, Nexus 120 at 9V
Hard Drive
Barracuda XT 2TB
EcoGreen F3 2TB
System Fan Speeds
1050 RPM
900 RPM
9V
5V/9V
GPU Fan
4120 RPM
2410 RPM
1740 RPM
1680 RPM
CPU Temp
73°C
62°C
59°C
68°C
PCH Temp
59°C
52°C
HD Temp
41°C
49°C
25°C
24°C
GPU Temp*
90°C
90°C
88°C
89°C
GPU VRM Temp
93°C
88°C
75°C
85°C
SPL@1m
(right side)
34 dBA
30~31 dBA
(29 dBA)
26 dBA
24 dBA
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

Using the M1’s best cooling configuration as a comparison point, it can boast strong CPU cooling than similarly configured cases, despite using a smaller, less capable heatsink. However, both the hard drive and GPU cooling left a lot to be desired. The hard drive ran quite hot, and the GPU fan speed necessary to maintain our 90°C GPU temperature standard was relatively high, resulting in a fairly noise system.

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 5~10 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

Any trained eye can see that the NCASE M1 is a passion project even without knowing its origin story. It’s absolutely gorgeous and surprisingly compact considering the components it supports. The well-conceived design is so detailed that everything fits with very little room leftover. The vertical slot-loading 5.25 inch drive in particular was ingenious as it hides the increasingly unpopular optical drive option without using up much space. It’s also clear that usability was a key factor. Every panel pops-out easily, giving users unfettered access to every corner of the chassis during assembly, while the alternate drive/fan placements allow for some nice flexibility.

And of course we have to give big props to everyone involved with NCASE. We applaud the gumption and determination involved in designing, funding, producing, and distributing their own case. Projects like this wouldn’t be possible without crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo, but bringing an idea like this to life still requires considerable effort. Creating a dream case that addresses issues you have with traditional design and making it reality is difficult. Criticizing cases is much easier — we’ll stick to that for the mean time.

The designers seemed to have built everything around their vision of ideal CPU cooling, that is a liquid cooler with single or dual radiators, or a large top-down cooler like the Noctua NH-C14 with a fan on the M1’s side panel acting as its intake. This latter option isn’t ideal as sucking cool air in from the outside cuts off circulation in the bottom portion of the case, where the graphics card resides. Flipping the side fan to exhaust can alleviate this problem but this in turn, reduces the efficacy of the CPU heatsink. NCASE recommends using a graphics card with an exhaust cooler and we have no doubt this works better but the majority of cards and aftermarket GPU coolers have a top-down airflow system. Typically, cooling a GPU is more difficult than a CPU, and thus deserves greater consideration. We’re not a big fan of the many self-contain water cooling units on the market but for this particular case they have more merit.

Our remaining complaints are relatively minor. The fan/drive frame is quite thin and not braced very well, which caused some hard drive vibration issues. We were able to rectify this with a simple modification but the bracket really should be thicker and better braced, perhaps screwed to the top of the chassis in addition to the sides. Furthermore, some kind of fan control would be appreciated considering most mini-ITX boards only have two fan headers and the case supports up to five. The filters included for the fans are a pain to install as they have to be held between the fan and the panel and screwed together in one go.

If you’re interested in the NCASE M1, unfortunately, there are simply none to be had currently, at least through official sources. The original production run was fully-funded and contributors got their M1’s for US$205 a pop, which was somewhat expensive, even when factoring in the small manufacturing scale. That said, some units have been resold for a profit as there simply aren’t any cases quite like it on the market right now. If you’re unwilling to pay a premium through back channels, bide your time as NCASE is working on a slightly tweaked second revision of the M1 with pre-orders tentatively scheduled for late April or early May. If it’s anything like the first version, you may want to order it immediately, even if you’re on the fence, if you wish to avoid the possible regret of missing out.

Our thanks to NCASE
for the M1 case sample.


The NCASE M1 is Recommended by SPCR

* * *

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* * *

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