Fractal Design Array Mini ITX NAS Case

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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 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

The most noteworthy aspect of this unusual case is its poorly designed hard drive cage, which is supposed to be its main selling point. On most small cases, the top cover comes off, the hard drive cage/tray is lowered in and lazily screwed in from the top with relative ease. For the Array, you must tilt one end in first, maneuver the entire cage inside, line up the mounting holes on the side and then hold it still with up to six drives attached to it. With your other hand, you have to try to fit in tiny shallow threaded screws from the outside — this can be an excruciating chore. In addition, with our test configuration, the cage interfered with the Big Shuriken CPU cooler, one of the lowest profile heatsinks, so we had to remove the front fan first to get the cage into position. Putting the fan back in proved troublesome as we could not properly screw the fan in at the bottom without access to the case floor. Adding, removing, and/or replacing drives ate up a considerable amount of time. Since many users will start with one or two drives, and then add more drives as the drives get filled, the inconvenience of the HDD cage design is a serious issue.

Then there are the design's noise issues. Fractal's fans ship with fan isolators to keep vibrations down, but the Array's stock fan is screwed into a big metal plate, which is a no-no for acoustics, and the fan doesn't have any direct source of ventilation either. (Editor's Note: Although Fractal says the latest version is improved in this regard.) The case's aluminum construction gives it an attractive look and makes it very light, but it doesn't make that much sense for enclosure designed almost purely for storage. We would have preferred a case built out of heavy duty steel that wouldn't vibrate as much with multiple hard drives inside.

There's a bit of a question about where this case is meant to be situated in actual use. Its cube-like form suggests a desktop or deep shelf, but if it held six 3.5" HDDs as intended, the resulting noise would definitely be too loud for any noise-sensitive user. Perhaps a more conventional mini-tower style box would make more sense. There's no need for NAS to be atop a desk or even close to the user, and a mini-tower is actually easier to position — on the floor beside a desk, an audio-video stand or perhaps on a shallow shelf inside a small closet.

The core concept of a mini-ITX case with multiple hard drives cooled by a big slow speed fan is sound — the demand for this type of NAS box is surely there in this day of massive media file collections. There is no denying that the Array delivers good thermal performance given the overall noise level. Further to their credit, Fractal employed a reasonably quiet 80 PLUS power supply and stock fan, but little attention has been paid to the internals and how the system is assembled. Perhaps we were expecting too much given the positive experience with the much more user-friendly Define R2 tower.

The Fractal Design Array is not yet available in North America, but it is currently selling for approximately £128 in the UK and €150 in Europe, which after conversion is close to US$200. It's an extravagant price given the quantity of materials involved and the absence of extra features and niceties. However, as far as we can tell, it is the smallest mini-ITX case that can hold six drives, so in that sense it is unique. (Editor's Note: There are very few mini-ITX based NAS boxes for the home/DIY market.) If you consider it to be the only case it in its class, then its monetary value suddenly becomes less tangible.

Fractal Design Array
PROS

* Looks great
* Well cooled
* Supports 6 drives
* Quiet stock fan
* PSU quiet enough, efficient
CONS

* Poorly designed hard drive cage
* Poorly designed fan holder
* Prone to vibration
* Front USB would be handy
* Expensive

Our thanks to Fractal Design for the Array sample.

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