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Fractal Design Node 304 Mini-ITX Case

Fractal Design Node 304 Mini-ITX Case

December 10, 2013 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Fractal Design Node 304

Mini-ITX Case
Manufacturer
Street Price
US$90

Though the mini-ITX form factor has been around for over a decade and become
significantly more popular over the past few years, there is no defined case
specification like ATX for manufacturers to work from. While 8 out of 10 ATX
towers have near identical layouts, with mini-ITX, all bets are off. There is
no convention for how big a mini-ITX case should be — some are so compact
they can be mounted behind a monitor, some are long and slim mimicking home
theater equipment, while others are big enough to be mistaken for microATX models.
The overall dimensions, features, layout, and component support ultimately comes
down to how the system is going to be used. One thing we've noticed is that
the strict physical limitations create more potential points of failure as the
versatility increases. The more things you try to add, the more likely design
elements will interfere with one another.

At first glance, the Fractal Design Node 304 doesn't have the demeanor of an
overly ambitious case. It's a fairly plain looking, compact box that shares
a minimalist aesthetic and glossy finish with other Fractal models, particularly
the Fractal Design Array Mini ITX
NAS Case
we reviewed in 2010. Our sample is the white version (it also
comes in black) which in our opinion has a more attractive appearance and is
more resilient to smudges and fingerprints. The body is made of steel while
the rounded front bezel is composed of plastic with a thin aluminum face. Interestingly,
the Node 304's footprint is identical to that of the recently reviewed BitFenix
Phenom Mini-ITX
, but at 21 cm tall, the Fractal case is shorter by a
significant 12 cm.



The Node 304 box.



The Node 304 (white).

 

Despite the size disparity, the Node 304 and the Phenom Mini-ITX cases share
many similarities. They're both designed with small servers in mind, accommodating
up to six 3.5 inch hard drives, but they also attempt to offer more than simply
high capacity storage. There's room for an ATX power supply, a good-sized tower
CPU cooler, and a long graphics card. However, the Node 304 uses an interior
design that veers farther from standard tower style cases than the Phenom to
pack all these features into a smaller form. Instead of 2 x 120 mm fans (with
the option for one more), the Fractal case is equipped with a pair of 92 mm
and a lone 140 mm fan, and a fan controller is included. The Node 304 promises
better airflow than the Phenom with air vents on both sides as well as on the
top and bottom of the front panel.



Accessories.

The accessories that ship with the Node 304 are scant. A very brief manual is included that doesn't actually have any assembly instructions, just a single diagram of how all the pieces go together in multiple languages. The case also comes with the necessary screws and standoffs, and a few plastic zip-ties for bundling up cables.

Specifications: Fractal Design Node 304

(from the
product web page
)
Motherboard Mini ITX, DTX
Drive bays 6 – supports either 3.5" or 2.5" HDD / SSD
Power Supply ATX PSUs, up to 160mm in length (To fit in combination with a long graphics card, PSUs with modular connectors on the back typically need to be shorter than 160 mm)
Expansion 2 slots
Graphics Card Up to 310mm in length, when 2 HDD slots (1 HDD hanging bracket total) are removed (Graphics cards longer than 170 mm will conflict with PSUs longer than 160mm)
CPU Cooler Tower coolers, up to 165 mm tall
Dimensions 250 x 210 x 374 mm (W x
H x D), 19.6 liters
Case volume 19.5 Liters
Net weight 4.9 kg
Colors available Black and White
Cooling System Front: 2 x 92mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fans, 1300 RPM speed (compatible with 80mm fans) – included



Rear: 1 x 140mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fan, 1000 RPM speed (compatible with 120mm fans) – included



Air filters: Removable filters for front fans, PSU, graphics card



Fan control: Fan controller for all 3 fans included
Front interface 2 - USB 3.0 (Internal 3.0 to 2.0 adapter included)

1 - 3.5mm audio in (microphone)

1 - 3.5mm audio out (headphone)

Power button with LED

HDD LED
Package contents Node 304 computer case

User manual

Accessory box

EXTERIOR & COVER

The Node 304 measures 25.0 x 21.0 x 37.4 cm or 9.8 x 8.3 x 14.7 inches (W x H x D), giving it a total volume of 19.6 liters, and it weighs 4.9 kg or 10.8 lb. The main chassis and outer cover are made of steel and the front bezel is plastic with a aluminum surface.



Running down the right side of the front face are line-out and mic ports, the power switch, and a pair of USB 3.0 connectors. If your motherboard lacks an internal USB 3.0 header, the cable has a USB 2.0 option as a backup. Located on the right side is an exhaust vent for the internal front-mounted power supply.



Unusually, fresh air is pulled in from the top and bottom of the front bezel rather than from the sides. The top portion has a mesh grill while the bottom is completely open.



The only removable external dust filter (the rest must be removed from the inside) services the power supply's intake fan. The chassis is elevated by four short rectangular rubber pads, creating only 10 mm of clearance under the power supply vent.



At the rear is a 140 mm exhaust fan placement residing above the motherboard tray, the switch for the fan controller, and a pair of expansion slots. The top and sides come off in one piece via four thumbscrews like most cases of this style.



The included fan controller can power three fans and has three speed settings: low, medium, and high.



Measuring 0.9 mm thick, the external cover is reasonably strong. Multiple latches are employed to create a snug fit. The side-facing power supply exhaust port has a basic of steel mesh acting as a dust filter, with only malleable tabs keeping it in place.



The much larger vent on the opposite side near the expansion slots has a proper removable filter with a plastic frame.

INTERIOR

The interior of the Node 304 seems fairly well-built. The frame is stiff as is the support beam at the top of case, and the drive trays are relatively thick. Except for a cheap mesh dust filter on the right side of the case, nothing inside feels substandard in quality.



A lot of space is taken up by the hard drive trays. They occupy
more than half the depth of the chassis and hang over a small portion
of the motherboard.



The brackets are supported by the top/front portion of the chassis frame and by removable support beam running through the center of the case. Each bracket is held on with three screws and supports a pair of 3.5/2.5 inch drives a piece.



A pair of 92 mm fans pull in air through the front, push it through the hard drive bays towards a rear 140 mm exhaust fan at the back. There's room for a big tower CPU cooler as well which is a huge plus. Sitting below the drives, the power supply is isolated, pulling air in from the floor and exhausting it out the side. An extension cable is routed through the case interior so it can be connected to AC power at the rear.



140 mm fans are rare in even ATX towers so it's nice to see one in a mini-ITX case. Next to it in the corner is a molex-powered fan controller which supports up to three 3-pin fans, just enough for all the included stock fans.



Dual front fans are also unusual for a mini-ITX model but in this case, given the layout of the rest of the chassis, it's a perfect fit. Having two smaller fans allows them to cover more horizontal area, providing direct airflow over every drive, even if the case is filled to capacity.



The front panel is easily removed in case you need to service the front fans or the dust filter.



Along the floor of the left side of the case are some spots for employing zip/twist-ties. Unfortunately, given the cramped layout, there really isn't much room for excess cabling.

ASSEMBLY

Assembly of the Node 304 is fairly straightforward thanks to the modular design
but spacing is incredibly tight, and there is little room reserved for cables.
A modular power supply is highly recommended.



The hard drive brackets are 1.2 mm thick and support two drives a piece. 3.5 inch drives are secured with four screws dampened by rubber grommets.



One compatibility issue we ran into was the cables coming off the back of the drives interfering with the fan of our Noctua NH-U12P heatsink — we had to move it to the other side in the "pull" position next to the exhaust fan



Most of the cables end up on the left side of the case, making it difficult to install a long graphics card. Adding a full sized GPU also means one of the hard drive brackets must be removed.



Perpendicular SATA cables would help but the drives are not mounted in the same orientation. If you want the cables to face the same direction, you'll need both right-angle and left-angle connectors.



Given the proximity of the CPU cooler and the rear exhaust fan, we briefly
flirted the idea of ditching the CPU fan completely. This is a valid
option if the system is utilizing a low power processor or never put
under heavy stress. In a brief test of our 95W Core i5-2500K under full
load, running the heatsink passively resulted in the chip heating up
25°C more compared to using our reference Nexus 120 mm fan after
just a few minutes.



There was an additional ~25 mm of space available above our Noctua NH-U12P cooler, making the total CPU heatsink clearance approximately 183 mm, 18 mm more than Fractal Design's specified limit. The width of the heatsink is more of an issue than the height.



The long hard drive activity LED is diffused somewhat, making for a pleasant blue glow. The white power LED underneath the bezel shines brightly downward like a spotlight and is blinding when viewed directly. We recommend leaving it disconnected.

TESTING

System Configuration:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

System temperatures were recorded with RealTemp, SpeedFan, and GPU-Z
at idle and on load using Prime95 (small FFT setting) and FurMark, an OpenGL
benchmarking and stability testing utility. Power consumption and noise levels were also measured.

Test Drive Noise Summary
Drive
Vibration

1-10 (10 = no vibration)


Idle Airborne Acoustics @1m

Seagate Barracuda XT 2TB
7~8
17 dBA
Samsung F3 EcoGreen 2TB
7
15~16 dBA
WD Caviar SE16 320GB
6
18~19 dBA
WD Red 3TB
9
13~14 dBA

Usually we test cases with a single hard drive but for models designed or marketed
for use as a server we also test with three additional drives. The acoustic
properties of the drives used are detailed above. Incidentally, the Seagate,
Samsung, and WD SE16 drives are the models used for our single drive configuration
mini-ITX, microATX, and ATX case systems respectively.

Baseline Noise

The Node 304 ships with a trio of fans, 2 x 92 mm and 1 x 140 mm, belonging to their Silent Series R2 line. The case also includes a built-in 3-speed fan controller that's capable of controlling all the included fans.

Stock Fan Noise Level

(HD 3000 IGP Test System turned on, CPU fan disabled)
Fan Speed Setting
SPL @1m
Low
17 dBA
Med
19~20 dBA
High
27 dBA
Measuring mic positioned 1m at diagonal angle left/front
of case.

Baseline noise was tested with our test system on but the CPU fan disconnected, so the only noise generators aside from the system fans was a power supply fan and single hard drive. Generally we consider an overall noise level of 20 [email protected] and below to be quiet and the stock fans certainly met this standard with ease. Our instruments measured 17 [email protected] and 19~20 [email protected] on low and medium speed, respectively. The high setting was much louder and probably unnecessary for a server type configuration. Hard drives don't require much in the way of airflow.

Both the 92 mm and 140 mm fan had a similar acoustic quality. They droned at
high speed and clicked when slowed down. With the cover was secured on, these
deficiencies were only audible at close proximity and other noise producing
components mask these negative qualities further. At distances of one foot or
further, it sounded completely benign.

TEST RESULTS: Test System with Intel HD 3000 Graphics

System Measurements: HD 3000 IGP Test System

(One Hard Drive)
System State
Idle
CPU + GPU Load
System Fan
Low
Med
CPU Temp
30°C
52°C
51°C
PCH Temp
28°C
40°C
38°C
HD Temp
33°C
34°C
34°C
System Power (AC)
37W
132W
134W
21~22 dBA
23 dBA
CPU fan at full speed.

Ambient temperature: 21°C.

Sitting idle with the CPU fan at full speed and system fans set to low via
the included controller, the interior was comfortably cool and the machine's
noise level was a respectable 21~22 [email protected] Putting the system on full load
brought the CPU and PCH temperatures up by 22°C and 12°C respectively
while the hard drive only heated up by a single degree. Our power supply is
very quiet, not ramping up its fan at this load so there was no difference in
noise level. For this configuration, increasing the system fan speed was completely
unnecessary as switching it to medium gave us only minute thermal improvements.

System Measurements: HD 3000 IGP Test System

(Four Hard Drives)
System State
Idle
CPU + GPU Load
System Fan
Low
Med
CPU Temp
31°C
55°C
53°C
PCH Temp
29°C
42°C
40°C
HD Temp #1
36°C
38°C
37°C
HD Temp #2
31°C
32°C
31°C
HD Temp #3
34°C
34°C
34°C
HD Temp #4
31°C
32°C
31°C
System Power (AC)
53W
149W
149W
23~24 dBA
25 dBA
CPU fan at full speed.

Ambient temperature: 21°C.

At idle with the system fans set to low speed, three extra drives didn't really change the overall climate inside, barely heating up the CPU and motherboard, though the it did bring up the first drive's temperature by 3°C. Still, thermals were excellent across the board and the noise level was only 2 dB higher. On load, the we recorded a similar temperature rise to the single drive test and three of the drives stayed below 35°C. This time increasing the system fan speed had more of an effect in this slightly hotter environment but the gains were marginal.

The four drive system was only louder by 2 dB, but the vibration level was
more impressive. With a single drive there were some minor tremors but nothing
noticeable was picked up by the mic or our ears. With four drives, the system
produced some resonance but it was completely inaudible once we got further
than one foot away. Using our test components, cases with poor structural support
for the hard drives often produce high tonal peaks at 90 and 120 Hz (corresponding
to 5400 and 7200 RPM drives respectively) but for the Node 304 these were minor.
Dampened drives hanging on their sides to a rigid support structure appears
to an excellent strategy for taming the vibration generated by spinning hard
disks.

System Measurement Comparison: HD 3000 IGP Test System

(Four Hard Drives, Idle)
Case
Lian Li PC-Q18*
BitFenix Phenom**
Chenbro SR30169***
Fractal Node 304**
System Fan Speed(s)
5V
800 RPM
500 RPM
Low
CPU Temp
24°C
33°C
39°C
31°C
SB Temp
29°C
33°C
37°C
29°C
HD #1 Temp
35°C
40°C
42°C
36°C
HD #2 Temp
35°C
31°C
35°C
31°C
HD #3 Temp
30°C
37°C
37°C
34°C
HD #4 Temp
36°C
31°C
33°C
31°C
System Power (AC)
54W
53W
60W
53W
[email protected]

[Single Drive]
21~22 dBA
[19 dBA]
23 dBA

[20 dBA]
23 dBA

[19 dBA]
23~24 dBA

[21~22 dBA]
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

*Relevant config differences: Scythe Big Shuriken 2 at 1100 RPM

**Relevant config differences: Noctua NH-U12P at 1100 RPM

***Relevant config differences: Core i5-3470S (vs. Core i5-2500K), Noctua
NH-L9i at 2400 RPM, AcBel CE2 300 (vs. Cooler Master Silent Pro M700W)

Against other mini-ITX cases housing our four drive server configuration, the Node 304 measured the loudest but the difference was small compared to the BitFenix Phenom and Chenbro SR30169, and the Node 304's noise increase from the one to four drive configuration was modest. Also, vibration effects were substantially worse with the Lian Li PC-Q18 and BitFenix Phenom, to the point where this factor was more annoying than the airborne acoustics. The Node 304 also boasted the second lowest hard drive temperatures.

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 5~10 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 Node 304 has a clever design that maximizes its cooling potential. It begins
with two 92 mm intake fans pulling in air from the top and bottom of the well-ventilated
front bezel and blowing it through the hard drives toward the motherboard. The
CPU cooler height is limited in many mini-ITX cases due to interference from
the power supply but the Node 304's PSU is located at the front of the case
on the floor which isolates it from the rest of the system. This frees up space
above the motherboard, allowing the use of a highly efficient tower cooler which
is further complemented by a 140 mm fan at the back acting as an exhaust.

Noise in the case is also well managed. The fans aren't the best in terms of
acoustics but its undesirable characteristics are only noticeable when the cover
is removed. They're also a bit noisy at full speed but the included 3-speed
fan controller makes this a complete non-issue. Hard drive vibration, the biggest
noise-related complaint we typically have with cases designed for server utilization,
is mitigated with hanging drive trays which dissipate much of the side-to-side
tremors generated by hard drives. With four hard drives, it did produce some
faint rhythmic pulsing but this was only audible at very close proximity. Furthermore,
the case is well built and easy to assemble and service. The front panel, power
supply bracket, drive trays, and the support beam supporting the drives are
all easily removed, as are the dust filters which cover every intake position.

 

Our complaints about the case are far and few between. Overall, the Node 304's dimensions are sufficient for what's inside though we wish feet were raised as the stubby rubber pads it sits on creates only 1 cm of clearance underneath the power supply intake vent. If placed on carpet, this area will become clogged up quickly. The interior can be very cramped depending on the configuration. Moving to the interior, we recommend utilizing a thin tower heatsink like the Scythe Ashura, Phanteks PH-TC12DX, Noctua NH-U12S/U14S, or SilverStone Argon series. Thicker models, such as the Noctua NH-U12P we used, may interfere with the SATA data/power cables connecting the drives. Cable management isn't a pleasant experience, but to be fair, no mini-ITX excels in this department. Almost all the cables are routed to the left side of the case and while there are positions there to tie them down to the floor, if you exercise the option of using a full sized graphics card, things get very tight.

A well designed case offers good build quality, as many features as possible
in the allotted dimensions, and noise-limiting elements that don't sacrificing
airflow. It's a tall order for a case of a any form factor, let alone mini-ITX,
but surprisingly Fractal Design hits every mark with the Node 304. While it
can serve other purposes, it's best utilized as as an enclosure for server or
HTPC with multiple hard drives. It delivers a compelling blend of drive support,
cooling, and noise control, all in a shorter package than competing cases that
boast similar capabilities. Best of all, the Node 304 is relatively affordable,
currently selling for around US$90. (Editor's Note: The
Node 304 is a natural evolution from the earlier Fractal Design Array Mini ITX
Case, which it outperforms in every way. Nice to see a company learn and improve
on an earlier design.)

Our thanks to Fractal Design
for the Node 304 case sample.

* * *



Fractal Design Node 304 wins the SPCR Editor's Choice

Articles of Related Interest

BitFenix
Phenom Mini-ITX Case


Chenbro
SR30169 Mini-ITX Server Chassis


Silverstone ML05
mini-ITX HTPC Case


Fractal Design Array Mini ITX NAS Case


Lian
Li PC-Q18: The Perfect Mini Server Case?



* * *

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