Monday, September 20, 2010

. . . MPCU: Computer Cases

Modular PC Upgrade Series Part 4
(from the Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column)

A Brief Foreword on this Series

This post is part of a multi-part series on the subject of Modular PC Ownership.

The system of Modular PC Ownership espoused in this series follows a green conservation approach to technology that is intended to reduce your individual carbon footprint, save you money, improve your computing satisfaction, and increase the value in many respects that you receive from your personal computer. Each posting on this blog has been created to support and enhance a related column published in the newspaper.

Today's posting supports the column: A couple of case studies in cool computing, which is the July 6th, 2010 Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column.

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Table of Contents

Part 1: Speaking of MPCU -- Introduction
01: Preface
02: Introduction
03: The Economics of Modular Upgrading
04: Introduction Conclusion

Part 2: Speaking of MPCU - Keyboards
05: Introduction
06: Connectivity Options
07: Keyboards Conclusion

Part 3: Speaking of MPCU - Controllers & Sound
08: Introduction
09: Controllers
10: PC Sound
11: Controllers & Sound Conclusions

Part 4: Speaking of MPCU - Computer Cases
12: Introduction
13: What a Case Should Do
14: How to Begin Building your Foundation

Part 5: Speaking of MPCU - Power Supply Units (PSU's)
15: Introduction
16: Selecting a Power Supply
17: Quality vs. Cost

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Computer Cases

12: Introduction

The computer case is the most visible part of a PC, and is often what determines how a system is thought to place in terms of power or how modern it is. This is odd, considering that what is inside the case and largely hidden from view are the key components that relate to those questions, but it is also understandable; as consumers, how something looks is often as important to us as how something works. Automobiles are the perfect example of this: a Ford Mustang from the 1960's is faster than a modern Japanese sports coupe, but the modern cars simply look faster due to the design of their body and carriage work, and so to the casual observer, they are faster.

Carrying that relationship further, in the world of the modern PC there are two distinct areas of concern with respect to computer cases, the first, which we just touched upon, is utilizing the appearance characteristics to imply different values with respect to performance or value. The second, which is a much more important consideration, is the underlying functionality of the computer case, including aspects such as materials, quality, and function.

Large PC makers employ engineers whose job that it is to design the outward appearance of the computer -- its case -- and who do so with a set of goals already in mind. Usually the criteria that is used to determine the appearance of the computer has nothing to do with performance or function, and everything to do with image. Making the computer look appealing, making it look powerful even if it really is not -- especially if it is not!

The design engineers are fulfilling an important role in the process of creating a new computer model -- a role that is essential for the sales process. Their goal is to make that new model stand out, and instill in the viewer a sense of what the manufacturer is trying to sell to them. That may be confidence, in which case they go for a solid-looking design that suggests reliability and strength, or it may be speed, in which case they make the case look sleek and fast and sexy.

Lately the big-names in mass-produced PC's have come to recognize that the PC gamer represents a very significant piece of the market, so they are superficially copying the design elements that have been created by custom case makers, like windows in the side of the system that allow for a view of the motherboard and internal components, or fancy lights that make the PC stand-out at LAN parties. These are features that are often found in custom case designs, but like other aspects of case function, the big name PC makers have lost sight of -- or never understood -- the purpose of those style elements in the first place.

Speaking plain, when you purchase a brand-name PC, if you are lucky what you end up with is a system that will work to the specifications on the box. For the most part the cases are not designed to the same exacting requirements as those made by custom case manufacturers, they are simply part of the package. That they fail to perform in areas that are critical to system safety, and also fail to provide the controlled environment that is key to longevity for the high-end PC is not the point; those big name makers expect you to replace the entire PC in a year or two anyway, which is why those concerns are not part of the process in creating their products!

So what is it that the custom case makers do that is different? The most obvious difference is in the engineering process that is applied to case design -- specifically the function of the case, which is not simply to house the internal bits of your computer, but to function in specific ways, and provide a specific set of functions that are critical elements in maintaining a cutting-edge system.

You may have the best CPU in the world inside your name-brand PC, but your investment in that often expensive piece of hardware has a limited shelf life by design, and even though you may feel a sense of brand loyalty because it delivers performance that makes you feel good about it, the idea of selling you your next computer is never a distant concern for the company whose brand you identify with, and that fact alone should be a considerable concern to you!

13: What a Case Should Do

Considering that brand-name PC cases are just there to hold the internal bits, and look good doing it, while at the same time projecting the image that the maker desires, you may be wondering what a case should do beyond those?

The most important function of a modern computer case should be managing heat. The process of controlling and removing heat -- what is called Thermal Management -- is the single most important element in the design and engineering of any computer case. Considering this, it is often shocking to realize that for most name-brand PC manufacturers this is the last concern that they have, if they worry about it at all beyond the point of ensuring that there is enough airflow to keep the system from overheating.

Let us be clear here: "enough airflow to keep the system from overheating" is a completely inadequate approach to thermal management in the personal computer!

Consider that the heat that is created by a PC -- and almost every device and subsystem in a PC from the motherboard to the hard drives generates heat -- also happens to be the element most often responsible for system or component failure, and you should be able to understand why the first concern in the design of a good case should be to manage that element. But why is heat a bad thing? What does it do that shortens the life of your PC?

When a system sits idle, with the power on, it is generating a base level of heat. When it is in use, it generates more heat, and when it is used in a way that stresses its subsystems or demands peak performance -- for example when it is being used to play a modern video game -- its thermal signature can triple!

When the PC is turned off after being given a heat-generating workout, the system and its components rapidly cool to room temperature. Almost all of these bits are out of sight inside the case, and even if you could see them, you would not notice the physical manifestation of the changes that are taking place -- the changes that eventually lead to a failure of one or more of the internal bits of your PC.

For a simple demonstration of this process and the damage that it causes, imagine in your mind a stack of quarters that are connected to each other by solder. When electricity is applied to the stack, it heats up -- and because each of the quarters -- and the solder that binds them together -- are metal, a natural side-effect of that is that as they are heated, they expand slightly. When they are cooled, the metal contracts, but because the quarters are made of different types of metal, pressed into layers, and the solder is also a different type of metal, they do not cool at the same rate, so one part of the stack size does not conform to the others.

Eventually as the stack goes through hot and cold cycles repeatedly, the layers of different metal inside one of the quarters begins to separate. Even though a small gap has appeared, the quarter still functions, passing the electric signal through the stack, but as the process of expansion and contraction continues, eventually that gap grows too large, and the signal can no longer pass through it efficiently, and so that component fails. That is what happens to the subsystems of your computer.

A circuit might separate from the motherboard, or a capacitor or resistor might break its connection -- this can happen on the motherboard, on a hard drive, even on one of your memory sticks. The end result is that that subsystem fails, and its failure is an event that would have been prevented with proper thermal management.

The engineers who create the different bits that make up a PC design the different bits to compensate for this effect, adding in heat sinks and fans to moderate the process of thermal build-up. They try to design the parts so that they heat and cool at uniform rates, and so that they do not over-heat. The cooler that they can keep a part running, the less likely it is that it will fail due to effects from heat. In an ideal world that should be all that is necessary to guarantee that your motherboard continues to function properly for years, but we do not live in that ideal world.

When a motherboard is placed inside of a case that is smaller than what was used to establish the base line of thermal management, or it is placed in a case that has a less than ideal amount of airflow, the likelihood that it will suffer a heat-related failure grows. Considering that most PC makers try to use as little material as they can get away with in making things like the case, it is easy to understand why their cases do not handle thermal management very well.

  • Custom Cases
The custom designed computer case industry was created partly as a result of this problem, and partly to provide the components needed by custom PC builders. The cases created by companies like Coolermaster and Thermaltake are not simply cool looking cases (okay, they are cool looking cases but that is not the point), but are in reality carefully engineered for performance.

You might think it odd to apply a word like performance to something that just sits there, but make no mistake, these cases do have a level of performance that is not only important, but is key to the health and longevity of your PC!

Where a name-brand computer might have a single fan on its power supply, a small fan on the heat sink that is installed on the CPU, and a case fan to suck air in, custom designed cases are created with thermal management as one of the key criteria in their design. It is not unusual to find a custom designed case with six or more fans, all moving the air in a specific pattern.

Some of these fans will be dedicated to ejecting hot air from the case, others to pulling cooler air into it, and still others that are positioned specifically to cool an area of the motherboard or one of the devices in the system. Hard drives can generate a lot of heat, so it is common to include a fan or fans that pull air into the hard drive bay and push it across the drives, to help them to run cooler. This is important, because hard drives are not built to dispose of their own heat!

The heat sink that comes stock on most CPU's is a slab of metal with fins on it that is attached directly to the CPU using a layer of thermal paste to bond them into a single unit. Often a small fan will be attached to the top of the heat sink, and attached to the motherboard, which regulates its speed to help keep the CPU from overheating. Under ideal conditions -- in an air conditioned office for example -- this is enough to address the basic cooling needs of the CPU. But when you are using the computer in a room with poor air conditioning or the computer is placed in a restricted area -- under your desk for example -- this is no longer an adequate solution.

A wide range of after-market heat sink and fan combinations exist, and most serious PC owners and the folks who build high-performance PC's use those. They are large -- often six to eight inches high -- and they will not fit into the inadequate cases that are built for name-brand systems. To use this sort of cooling product, you have to replace your computer case -- but you should be doing that anyway, as keeping the stock case is just not an option when it comes to properly managing heat.

As a result of this, the custom computer case industry was created, and they offer a wide variety of case designs that address specific system types. A gaming system using the most current of the cutting edge hardware available has different thermal management needs than say, a system that is used for CAD/CAM or graphics rendering. Though the design of a case for these systems has similar concerns, the appearance of the cases and their features are distinctly different.

  • Filling a Need
In the process of building two computers -- a General Use system, and a high-end gaming system -- we developed different basic requirements for our case needs.

For the General Use system we needed to control heat, but we also wanted features that would add to the usability of the system. Backing up data is a concern, and the use of extra hard drives has become one of the preferred methods for doing this. The case that we chose from Coolermaster includes a SATA mounting slot on the top, covered by a plastic door, that permits the user to slide a hard drive into the top of the case and have the system recognize and use it.

To perform a back up, all that the user needs to do is take the hard drive out of their desk drawer, slide it into the slot on top of the case, and power on the system. Once it is booted, they simply copy the files that they want to back up to the temporarily installed hard drive, and then shut down the system and remover the drive, closing the cover of the mounting slot. For the average user this is a twenty-minute chore once a week, and this built-in capability makes restoring data just as easy!

For the gaming system we had other concerns that needed to be addressed -- among the most important was expandability. We needed to be able to add four to eight hard drives, plus optical drives and a fan monitoring and control screen, and still provide proper cooling to the case. For that we went with a gaming case from Thermaltake.

Each of these cases are well documented and easy to install to, each is readily available online or through the makers, and each provides a solid foundation from which to begin the process of Modular PC ownership!

14: How to Begin Building your Foundation

Regardless of whether you are building a PC from scratch or are just beginning your journey into Modular Ownership, your first decision is going to be what case you use. Ideally this will be the last computer case you ever need to buy for your PC, because the modular nature of their design means that it will accommodate new hardware -- including motherboards and CPU's that have not been invented yet!

The case that you choose should meet all of the requirements that you have for your PC, from expansion slots to the number of external bays for your devices. After you sit down and decide what you need by making a list of what you plan to have now, and perhaps have down the road, you will have a better idea of what you need. Then you can spend some time looking at the case technology currently being offered by reliable custom case manufacturers.

To start with, take a look at the current lines from Thermaltake and Coolermaster, two of the biggest names in the industry. Both of these companies design and engineer cases that address all of the important points, starting with thermal management all the way to expansion, and they both tend to build into their cases small conveniences that have created a loyal following. Coolermaster's SATA dock is a good example, and the built-in light and fan controls on some of Thermaltake's cases are another.

If you are building a system or are converting a system that you own for gaming, adding a little bling to the project is not a bad idea. Windows that allow you to view the internal components are not there simply to allow you to add neon lights to the inside of the case and highlight the fact that you have three video cards in your system, or fire-engine red cables -- they actually serve a practical purpose. They allow you to visually verify that all of your internal fans are functioning properly, and that all of the wires are connected where they should be. They also look good, too, and provide you the opportunity to customize your case with details like cut glass with your initials or personal emblem, and artistic metal fan slot covers -- two ideas that are popular among the LAN gaming set.

Decorating and customizing a case are valid parts of the process, but the underlying foundation that you are building when you go this route is one of taking control over your computing tech. It allows you to hand pick the components that you use, control the quality of your PC, and the cost.

  • Getting your feet wet
The case and power supply are your starting point when you are converting an existing name-brand PC to a Modular PC. Once you decide on the case and PSU, spend some time familiarizing yourself with how the different components are installed in the system -- read the manual for the case, and then go on to YouTube and watch some of the hundreds of videos on the service that illustrate exactly how the components are installed.

You do not need a tech to do this for you -- with a little study you can safely and properly do this yourself. Just make sure that you have the right tools, and enough time to do it properly. Moving your motherboard into the new case, then the expansion cards, and finally the devices is only the first step. Once you have everything transferred and properly functional, you have in effect completed the foundation.

You can use your system now, and take your time to begin improving it as your budget allows. A new heat sink and fan for your CPU is the best first step in the process, and there are plenty of styles available so that you should be able to find one that both appeals to your tastes and budget, and also provides the cooling level that you need. With that in place, a heat sink and fan set for the motherboard chipset, or cooling fins for your RAM might be the next place to look -- all of this is possible because you now have the foundation -- a properly engineered case.

A year or two down the road when you need to upgrade your motherboard and CPU it is simply a matter of swapping them into your case, rather than spending thousands on replacing your computer. The benefit of this approach is not just in savings, it is being able to hand-pick the brand and type of motherboard and CPU, and in not having to deal with getting rid of your old computer. The control that this method of ownership provides is paired with the satisfaction of learning more about your PC, knowing how it works, and what each type of tech does -- in many ways it becomes an adventure itself.

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CM Boots-Faubert is a freelance writer, author, and columnist. He writes the Digital Grind Column for the Cape Cod Times, and the Game On: Cape Cod Gaming Blog at the paper. He writes extensively on video games and gaming, both as a freelance journalist and as a walkthrough writer, reviewer, and previewer. His books include the soon to be published title Games Journalism 101, that discusses how to establish a career writing on video games, and his title in the Hand's On Series, Hand's On: Home Networking which is a complete guide targeted at the average PC user on how to design and build a home computer Ethernet network.