Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/4913/bitfenix-merc-alpha-how-much-can-39-can
BitFenix Merc Alpha: Just How Much Can $39 Buy?by Dustin Sklavos on October 5, 2011 12:00 AM EST
Introducing the BitFenix Merc Alpha
While we've had a chance to check out a few cases in the $200+ club and the majority of the enclosures we've tested have floated around the $99 price range, we haven't really put the screws (so to speak) to a truly budget case. That changes today, when we tackle the least expensive case we've yet tested: the BitFenix Merc Alpha. At just $39 it would be reasonable not to expect much, but as you'll see this case can hang with enclosures at twice the cost or better.
BitFenix has generously provided us considerable lead time to check out the Merc Alpha ahead of other sites, and the time was well spent. The Merc Alpha is one of a pair of twin models under the "Merc" brand; the Merc Beta has the same shell and costs the same amount, but loses the top vents. Given our generally positive experience with the Shinobi (another budget contender), I was looking forward to sitting down with the Merc Alpha and I wasn't disappointed by it.
|BitFenix Merc Alpha Specifications|
|Motherboard Form Factor||ATX, Micro ATX, Mini ITX|
|Drive Bays||External||3x 5.25", 1x 3.5"|
|Internal||6x 3.5", 1x 2.5"|
|Cooling||Front||2x 120mm fan mount|
|Rear||1x 120mm exhaust fan (3-pin header)|
|Top||2x 120mm fan mounts|
|Side||2x 120mm fan mounts|
|Bottom||1x 120mm fan mount|
|Front I/O Port||-|
|Top I/O Port||4x USB 2.0, headphone and mic jacks|
|Power Supply Size||ATX|
|Clearance||12.5" without hard drive/10" with hard drive (Expansion Cards), 170mm (CPU HSF), 300mm without bottom fan/160mm with bottom fan (PSU)|
|Weight||10.8 lbs. (4.9 kg)|
|Dimensions||17.3" x 7.5" x 19.3" (439mm x 190mm x 490mm)|
As you can see the bones with the BitFenix Merc Alpha are pretty bare, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how much functionality BitFenix was able to pack into it. The Merc Alpha has plenty of room for adding fans and improving cooling much like its older sibling, the Shinobi, and indeed the internal design of the Merc feels in many ways like a Shinobi that's lost some weight and some zazz.
In and Around the BitFenix Merc Alpha
The important thing to remember (and the thing I'm likely to continue beating you about the shoulders with) is that the BitFenix Merc Alpha is just $39, and so expectations should be adjusted accordingly. People expecting four fans, an aluminum fascia, and support for four GTX 580s should obviously be looking elsewhere, but for those of us willing to accept an inexpensive (read: not necessarily "cheap") plastic and steel enclosure that's not too hard on the eyes, there's a lot to like here.
The front fascia, drive bay shields, and I/O at the top of the enclosure (just where I like to see it) are all a black plastic that may have saved BitFenix some dough but certainly doesn't feel particularly cheap, while the rest of the enclosure is made of steel. I found the steel feels a bit thinner than usual, but that's to be expected with a case at this price, and it's not so thin as to really compromise the durability of the Merc Alpha. The case is light, but it's also fairly small for a mid tower.
When you check out the back of the Merc Alpha, you'll see that two ventilated expansion slot covers are included while the rest have to be punched out of the case; this is still two more than you usually get in this price bracket. Note that these slots aren't recessed, which unfortunately does lead to one of my biggest pet peeves: the additional metal bracket often required to cover up the back of the enclosure. This invariably requires extra work and I'm not sure how much was really saved by going this route. It does keep the size of the Merc Alpha down, but only a little bit. You'll see the back also supports orienting the power supply normally or inverting it.
BitFenix uses thumbscrews to affix the left side panel to the chassis, and instead of sliding off, the panel is hinged; lift it vertically to remove it. Unfortunately the right side panel is held in place by standard phillips head screws, so this isn't going to be a tool-less assembly. The lack of thumbscrews here is actually odd bordering on anomalous; you'll see later that BitFenix employs thumbscrews at great lengths with this design.
Internally things are pretty basic; hard drive orientation isn't my favorite (I prefer a rotated drive cage), but BitFenix makes good use of the space opened up on the other side of the enclosure. Everything mounts with thumbscrews included with the Merc Alpha (special thumbscrews are included for optical drives and their smaller screw holes.) You'll notice that there's a single copper stud in the middle of the motherboard tray, and that there are raised areas surrounding it: unless you're installing a Micro-ATX or Mini-ITX board, the Merc Alpha doesn't require the addition of any mounts. Directly behind the motherboard tray there's virtually no space, but there's still cable management. In the Merc Alpha, BitFenix has designated the space behind the drive cages for tucking cables.
Honestly the Merc Alpha is pretty basic as far as modern ATX designs go, but it does feel modern at least and includes some niceties that I seldom see even in much more expensive cases.
Assembling the BitFenix Merc Alpha
BitFenix kindly includes directions in easy-to-read English for assembling a system in the Merc Alpha, but you'll find this is a pretty bog standard ATX case and so assembly is likewise very straightforward. Where they differ is a series of small but welcome touches that do make things at least a little more painless.
First and foremost, mounting a motherboard has historically been easy enough, but BitFenix goes one step more by including a copper stud that holds the board in place while you screw it in. On top of that, as I mentioned on the previous page, the motherboard tray doesn't require you to screw in motherboard mounts for ATX or Mini-ITX boards; screw holes are cut out and raised in the tray itself, and I found the board went in as smoothly as ever. Snapping the I/O shield in proved a little difficult, but honestly whether or not that's been tough has seemed less dependent on the enclosure itself than it has on the time of day and karma.
Installing the drives (which you should do next) is fairly easy. For the optical drive, just pop out the bay shield and slide it in, then use the special thumbscrews included. Hard drives are a little trickier but not by much; in that instance, you'll slide them into drive cage with a bit of force so they "snap" into place, then just secure them with thumbscrews. The Merc Alpha does support a single 2.5" drive but it's not immediately evident and the instructions don't point it out (hence why the photos in this review show our test SSD in a 3.5" mount): it's actually screwed into the floor of the case, at the very bottom of the drive cage.
Unfortunately, while installing the power supply was easy, too, expansion cards are a royal pain. You'll need to remove one center screw to remove the backplate for the expansion slots, and then snapping out the slot covers is an exercise is frustration. Some of them were perforated well enough in the review unit to come out without undue effort, but one of them was nightmarishly difficult to remove. While there are the standard screws for mounting expansion cards, the backplate that covers the opening never felt particularly sturdy and I could see it eventually just snapping off.
Cabling was surprisingly simple, though. There are holes in the motherboard tray for you to basically fold cables in behind the drive cage, and this system actually worked out remarkably well. My cabling job isn't the cleanest in the world (when is it ever?), but you can see the Merc Alpha at least has some measure of cable management, much appreciated in a $39 chassis.
For testing ATX cases, we use the following standardized testbed in stock and overclocked configurations to get a feel for how well the case handles heat and noise.
|Full ATX Test Configuration|
Intel Core i7-875K
(95W TDP, tested at stock speed and overclocked to 3.8GHz @ 1.38V)
|Motherboard||ASUS P7P55D-E Pro|
|Graphics Card||Zotac NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 (244W TDP)|
|Memory||2x2GB Crucial Ballistix Smart Tracer DDR3-1600|
Kingston SSDNow V+ 100 64GB SSD
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB SATA 6Gbps
Samsung 5.25" BD-ROM/DVDRW Drive
|CPU Cooler||Zalman CNPS9900 MAX with Cooler Master ThermalFusion 400|
|Power Supply||SilverStone Strider Gold 750W 80 Plus Gold|
A refresher on how we test:
Acoustic testing is standardized on a foot from the front of the case, using the Extech SL10 with an ambient noise floor of ~32dB. For reference, that's what my silent apartment measures with nothing running, testing acoustics in the dead of night (usually between 1am and 3am). A lot of us sit about a foot away from our computers, so this should be a fairly accurate representation of the kind of noise the case generates, and it's close enough to get noise levels that should register above ambient.
Thermal testing is run with the computer having idled at the desktop for fifteen minutes, and again with the computer running both Furmark (where applicable) and Prime95 (less one thread when a GPU is being used) for fifteen minutes. I've found that leaving one thread open in Prime95 allows the processor to heat up enough while making sure Furmark isn't CPU-limited. We're using the thermal diodes included with the hardware to keep everything standardized, and ambient testing temperature is always between 71F and 74F. Processor temperatures reported are the average of the CPU cores.
For more details on how we arrived at this testbed, you can check out our introductory passage in the review for the IN-WIN BUC.
Last but not least, we'd also like to thank the vendors who made our testbed possible:
We have some thanks in order before we press on:
- Thank you to Crucial for providing us with the Ballistix Smart Tracer memory we used to add memory thermals to our testing.
- Thank you to Zalman for providing us with the CNPS9900 MAX heatsink and fan unit we used.
- Thank you to Kingston for providing us with the SSDNow V+ 100 SSD.
- Thank you to CyberPower for providing us with the Western Digital Caviar Black hard drive, Intel Core i7-875K processor, ASUS P7P55D-E Pro motherboard, and Samsung BD-ROM/DVD+/-RW drive.
- And thank you to SilverStone for providing us with the power supply.
Noise and Thermal Testing, Stock
Honestly I'm not expecting miracles from the BitFenix Merc Alpha. It has one whole fan, a 120mm exhaust fan, and then ventilation in the side and top panels. That said, there's nothing about the internal layout that strays too far off the beaten path, so hopefully the fairly sensible design pays off.
That one exhaust fan is doing the best it can and by and large, the Merc Alpha's middle-of-the-pack thermals really aren't bad at all. Ambient temperatures look to be a bit high, but at least the Merc Alpha can hang.
Noise is in the same category. Surprisingly that single 120mm fan responds well to the fan control of our test motherboard, and is remarkably quiet on its own. Individuals looking for a quiet enclosure on the cheap might actually be well served by the Merc Alpha's slightly more closed off twin, the Merc Beta.
Noise and Thermal Testing, Overclocked
At first glance, the BitFenix Merc Alpha isn't really an overclocker's case, but try to remember where the roots of overclocking lie: maximizing the value of your dollar. It used to be you bought a cheap chip and then made it perform like its more expensive cousins. Likewise, someone looking to build a monster on a dime might want be interested in seeing how the Merc Alpha handles the increased thermal load of our overclocked testing suite.
Eh, it could be a little more graceful. Part of the problem is that there just don't seem to be enough fans really circulating air for the Merc Alpha to perform better. Adding quiet intakes to the front and to the side panel might make a big difference. That said, it's not completely cooking our test hardware either, keeping temperatures livable across the board.
Idle noise continues to be a strong suit of the Merc Alpha and its included 120mm fan, while load noise isn't the worst we've seen. BitFenix's enclosure continues to be a fairly balanced design that doesn't skew hard towards thermal performance or acoustics.
Conclusion: Great for the Money
BitFenix's Merc Alpha is first and foremost an extreme budget case. While I've personally often considered cases at the $99 mark to be "budget" because I'm spoiled rotten and used to big and fancy stuff, $39 is really about as low as anyone should want to go. Thankfully, no one at BitFenix is sacrificing quality to get there.
The Merc Alpha (and likely the Merc Beta) is pretty much packed with smart decisions. BitFenix had to cut a few corners to hit that price tag, but they cut the right ones and smoothed out the rest. Aesthetically the Merc is still a remarkably attractive case that skillfully avoids looking too generic (as many enclosures in this market often do) without being ostentatious in the process. Their engineers have also made it nearly as tool-less as possible without actually including tool-less mechanisms that might inflate its cost, and they've done it simply and smartly by including a mess of thumbscrews. Sometimes the simplest solution really is the best one.
Internally the Merc Alpha is also well organized, with allowances made for managing cables despite the relatively cramped quarters within. There's no space behind the motherboard tray proper, but there's a healthy amount of it behind the drive cages that goes a long way towards making the enclosure easier to assemble a system in as well as easy to service. I also wish more enclosure designers would take the time BitFenix's engineers did to make installing a motherboard as easy as it is here: standoffs are basically built into the tray itself, and the single copper stud makes lining up the board worlds easier.
Honestly, the nuisances are relatively minor. Popping out the expansion bay covers was something of a chore, and the lack of thumbscrews on the right panel is unusual given their inclusion nearly everywhere else (though you could just as easily replace the standard screws with included thumbscrews). I also wish they'd at least highlighted the 2.5" drive mount in the instructions, as it's incredibly easy to miss. And when you install a video card you do run the risk of blocking one or two 3.5" drive bays, but again...at this price I have a hard time really complaining about it.
Bottom line is this: if you're on a severe budget and looking to maximize the amount of value you get for your dollar on every component you buy, you should probably be shortlisting the Merc Alpha. It has plenty of room to grow with your build, as well as solid enough thermal and acoustic performance to get the job done. If you have the money, I'd still recommend spending up to either BitFenix's Shinobi or even a Fractal Design Arc Midi, but if you need to cut corners and save some bank, you could do a heck of a lot worse than the Merc Alpha.