BitFenix Merc Alpha: Just How Much Can $39 Buy?by Dustin Sklavos on October 5, 2011 12:00 AM EST
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.