CES 2013: Cases and Cooling in the New Yearby Dustin Sklavos on January 14, 2013 3:01 AM EST
I'm pleased to report that this year's visit to CES bore promising fruit for the new year of desktop PC cases along with cooling and even desktop machines in general. While the way notebooks and tablets will shake out over the next couple of years is at least somewhat difficult to pin down, the chassis and PC cooling industries produced very clear trends.
Much as when Jarred and I lauded the notebook industry for largely dispensing with glossy plastic (a practice HP has backslid on horribly with their G series and Pavilion notebooks), gaudy and ostentatious "gamer" cases are on the way out in favor of more staid and streamlined designs. Excepting Cougar's questionable Challenger case reviewed last year, most of the disconnect seems to stem from Taiwanese manufacturers and designers having a hard time trying to pin down western markets. That problem was largely absent from Rosewill, Thermaltake, and CoolerMaster's lines this year, though Enermax seems to be lagging behind.
When I visited with Enermax, they were showing off a few cases, but a consistent problem nagged them: two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0. I asked why they were doing this, and they said dual USB 3.0 ports actually drove the cost up a couple of dollars. This is pretty reminiscent of the same attitude that's burying the non-Apple notebook industry (especially in the face of tablets), a misunderstanding that while western consumers are tight, they're not that tight.
Thankfully most of the rest of the case industry seems to have caught up with the step of progress. Thermaltake, once one of the biggest offenders, showed off their surprisingly elegant "Urban" series of silent enclosures destined to compete with NZXT's H2. Meanwhile, NZXT's new Phantom 630 is still on the ostentatious side, but only just so.
The biggest news for cases is that case design as a whole has progressed. Space behind the motherboard tray, and specifically channels for cabling, are pretty much standard now. What I was happy to see is USB 3.0 proliferating down to the sub-$70 market, using internal headers, and fan controllers everywhere. 140mm fan mounts are also becoming increasingly common, and the majority of manufacturers are trying to produce cases that can support 240mm radiators like Corsair's H100i.
Speaking of closed loop cooling, this is pretty much the big year for that technology to really take off. While NZXT and Corsair are still working off of designs that involve copper waterblocks and aluminum fins in the radiators, CoolerMaster's Eisberg line and Swiftech's new 240mm cooler all use copper fins in the radiators in addition to having beefier waterblocks and pumps. NZXT remains the only purveyor (extending from Asetek) of 140mm-derived radiators for the time being, but I don't expect that to last. Meanwhile, Zalman's liquid cooler doesn't use a conventional radiator at all, instead opting for a custom design reminiscent of their CPU heatsink designs. There were plenty of air coolers on display, too, but it's clear this is the direction things are going.
Finally, a brief word about boutiques. The last two years have suggested the boutiques and system integrators are beginning to seriously diverge, diversifying from each other primarily through offering custom chassis and notebook modifications. This year it was made plain by iBuyPower's aggressive retail push with their wholly custom Revolt and DigitalStorm's revised Bolt and Aventum II.
Every year someone proclaims the death of the desktop, and every year physics tells them what to go do with themselves. Powerful desktops and enthusiast machines are definitely getting smaller physically and more niche as a market, but desktops continue to offer the best longevity and bang for the buck of any personal computing platform. The PC gaming industry in particular has been tremendously revitalized, and while NVIDIA's GRID suggests a future of cloud gaming, it's still a ways off. In the meantime, 2013 should remain fairly bright for enthusiasts and do-it-yourself'ers.