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Zalman Z11 Neo ATX Case

Zalman Z11 Neo ATX Case

May 11, 2015 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Zalman Z11 Neo

ATX Tower Case
Manufacturer
Price
US$85

Zalman was there at the very beginning when building/modding desktop computers with aftermarket hardware was a niche hobby of geeks (perhaps less so than today). Being so long-lived, over the years their catalogue has swelled to include a bit of everything whether it be cooling products, power supplies, or various accessories.

Zalman also has a healthy range of cases though the brand doesn't carry quite the same panache as Fractal Design, Corsair, BitFenix, SilverStone, or NZXT. Looking through Zalman's current cases, there are no notable common design elements aside from the occasional halfhearted attempt to style a "Z" into the side or front panels. If the lack of a distinct look is part of the problem, their new budget mid-tower, the Z11 Neo, may be part of the solution.



The Zalman Z11 Neo, unboxed.



A closer look.

The Z11 Neo has a distinct exterior design, incorporating both angular and rounded contours. The curved plastic top and front panels bulge out slightly while the edges are slanted and the side window and vents are sculpted to form a less obvious looking "Z". Both the pleasantly beveled window and matte finish exterior surface attract an unusually high amount of dust, while the shiny coin tray at the top is a fingerprint magnet. With a height of 52.0 cm (20.5 inches), it would have been considered tall back in the day. Today, it's about average for an ATX tower, as it follows the increasingly popular trend of including more space at the top for a radiator up to 280 mm in size.

The case ships with five fans, an 120 mm LED model mounted at the top and front, one plain 120 mm variant gracing the back, and strangely, an 80 mm fan installed at the front/bottom of both side panels positioned to blow air out. The top, front, and bottom of the case support an extra fan each, bringing the total possible fan count up to eight. Also inside, you'll find common features like dust filters, removable drive cages, and anti-vibration drive trays. And as 5.25 inch bays continue to wane in popularity, only one is offered on the Z11 Neo, with a sliding cover.



Accessories.

The Z11 Neo's accessories are packed into a nice re-sealable plastic bag and include the usual accoutrement of documentation, zip-ties, and standoffs and screws. It also ships with a single expansion bracket as the ones inside the case are unfortunately disposable... but why did they bother to include just one? They've also thrown in an 8-pin extension cable even though it's probably not necessary given the length of cables provided by most modern PSUs.

Relevant Specifications: Zalman Z11 Neo

(from the
product web page
)
Case Type ATX Mid Tower Case
Dimensions 205 x 520 x 515mm (W x H x D)
Motherboards Standard ATX / Micro ATX
Power Supply Unit Standard ATX / ATX 12V
PCI / AGP Card Compatibility Full size 270~400mm
Expansion Slots 7 slot
Color Black
Drive Bays 5.25": External Bay x 1

3.5": Internal Bay x 6

2.5”: External Bay x 2
Cooling Components (Fans) Front: 2 x 120mm Fan Vent (1 LED Fan Included)

Rear: 1 x 120mm Fan Vent (1 Fan Included)

Top: 2 x 120/140mm Fan Vent (1 LED Fan Included)

Bottom: 1 x 120/140mm Fan Vent (Fan Optional)

Side: 2 x 80mm Fan Vent (2 Fan Included)
I/O Ports 1 x Microphone, 1 x Headphones, 2 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0

EXTERIOR & SIDE PANEL

Like most tower cases, the Z11 Neo is constructed primarily of steel complemented with plastic front and top panels. Zalman lists its dimensions as 52.0 x 20.5 x 51.5 cm or 20.5 x 8.1 x 20.3 inches (H x W x D), making its total volume a moderate 54.9 Liters. The specified width is deceiving as it doesn't account for the bulky side vents that jut out, which extend its thickness up to a substantial 25.8 cm or 10.1 inches.



Coin trays on PC cases are usually quite ugly but the Z11 Neo avoids this by giving it a pleasant slightly angled/curved shape, though its glossy surface is noticeably distracting compared to the rest of the case. It's surrounded by connectors with audio and USB 2.0 ports on the left, USB 3.0 ports and reset switch on the right, and a large power button toward the front. The rear half of the top has a series of plastic panels angled backwards to allow air to exhaust.



The front panel is solid aside for a single 5.25 inch bay near the top with a cover that slides up and down. The bezel's plastic surface has a faux aluminum brush finish but it's unconvincing.



The intake vents are not too restrictive but they are unfortunately confined to the bottom third of the chassis. Keep in mind there's also a dust filter on the inside, so airflow may be an issue, especially if you add another intake fan.



The top of the chassis has a second angled exhaust vent at the back which partially services the 120 mm LED fan inside. Another 120 mm fan acts as a rear exhaust but it's a standard model with a black frame and white blades.



The underside has a series of restrictive vertical slits acting as intakes for the power supply fan but there's also a naked thin filter dotted with holes covering it. The 120/140 mm fan position at the center has a filter as well but it's composed of fine mesh and has proper plastic edges.



The side panels are only 0.80 mm thick but the raised edges of the window and the plastic air vents make them feel more substantial. Accessing the 80 mm fan requires removing two screws and pushing in four plastic tabs.



The slim 80 mm fan inside is powered via a 4-pin molex connector, so it can't be controlled out of the box. It's positioned to pull air from the inside and blow it out but the path is a roundabout journey. Air is forced toward the rear of the case, then must perform a U-turn to be expelled toward the front.

INTERIOR

The Z11 Neo's plastic panels fit well and the motherboard tray and 5.25 inch bays are sufficiently stiff. However, the hard drive cages are very poorly supported which usually results in louder operation due to hard drive vibration. This combined with the lack of replaceable expansion slot covers makes the interior seem cheap.



Inside the side exhaust vent.



Popping off the front panel reveals three 5.25 inch bays though only one can be used externally, which suggests the main chassis body may have been reused from another model. The other two bays have been been repurposed with 2.5/3.5 inch drive adapters, so they're not completely useless. There are two 120 mm intake fan spots with one LED fan pre-installed in the bottom position. The fan grill holes are large but the removable dust filter is somewhat restrictive.



The layout inside is typical for a modern ATX tower with no surprises aside from larger than usual cable routing holes with exposed edges.



The two removable drive cages are held on with just three thumbscrews in total. They fit well against one another but there's nothing to brace them against the front of the case or the motherboard tray, so it's a wobbly structure. There's an odd support beam connecting the 5.25 inch bays to the bottom panel but it doesn't physically contact the drive cages. This bar may need to be removed depending on the length/width of the video card.



The small slits used to feed the power supply fan are a bizarre choice considering the rest of the case uses round or honeycomb grills. Perhaps a more open vent was deemed to cause too much flex. Also visible at the back are cheap throwaway expansion slot covers.



The fan arrangement in the case is unusual. Most manufacturers double up on intake fans, but the Z11 Neo places a bigger emphasis on exhaust. Also, while the two fans at the top/rear are of the usual 3-pin variety, the intake fan and the smaller side panel fans use 4-pin molex connectors.



Removing the top panel reveals a pair of 120/140 mm fan placements in an elevated position to make room for a possible radiator up to 280 mm in size. The panes of plastic at the top can be taken out one by one like old school 5.25 inch drive bay covers.



The routing holes around the motherboard tray lack grommets so it won't look as tidy but the shape of the side window makes it tough to see anyway. There are plenty of spots for looping zip/twist-ties and there's also a 2.5 inch drive mount on this side. Up to 20 mm of clearance is offered behind the motherboard tray which is sufficient for most users.

ASSEMBLY

The assembly process is fairly straightforward as all components are installed via traditional methods. The interior is fairly spacious to work in but some larger CPU coolers may not fit.



2.5/3.5 inch drives can be installed either hard-mounted to the adapter brackets sitting in the 5.25 inch bays or into the dedicated drive cages using the provided plastic trays. Aside from the pegs used to keep the drive in place, the sides of the drive don't physically contact the tray which helps limit vibration.



Similarly, the round rubber grommets on the outside keep contact with the drive cage at a minimum.



Our test system fully installed. The Asus GTX 980 Strix is 10 mm too long, necessitating the removal of the upper drive cage. The intake fan is also placed in the upper position to better cool the GPU and CPU.



Our 160 mm tall Scythe Mugen Max heatsink just barely fits beneath the top lip of the left side panel opening. If the heatsink is narrow enough to clear the edge, it can be taller as the side window extends outward by up to 12 mm.



If you look through the top, the interior perimeter of the window juts inward and actually presses down on the heatsink, making it a very tight fit. As our system uses an AMD motherboard, the CPU socket is positioned slightly higher making this more of a problem than on an Intel board.



There is sufficient space behind the motherboard tray and plenty of tie-down points, making cable management a non-issue.



The case is equipped with two LED fans but the blue lighting emanating from the top fan is diffused into a soft glow by the plastic panes on the ceiling. Meanwhile, the intake fan isn't really visible in the upper position. The power LED is blue as well, but quite subtle, while the hard drive LED flashes a more prominent red.

TESTING

System Configuration:



Test system device listing.

Measurement and Analysis Tools

  • Prime95
    processor stress software.
  • FurMark
    stability test to stress the integrated GPU.
  • Asus GPU Tweak to monitor GPU temperatures and adjust fan speeds.
  • SpeedFan
    to monitor system temperatures and adjust system fan speeds.
  • Extech 380803 AC power analyzer / data logger for measuring AC system
    power.
  • PC-based spectrum analyzer:
    SpectraPlus with ACO Pacific mic and M-Audio digital

    audio interfaces.

  • Anechoic chamber
    with ambient level of 11 dBA or lower

Testing Procedures

The system is placed in two states: idle, and load using Prime95 (large FFTs setting) and FurMark, an OpenGL
benchmarking and stability testing utility. This puts more demand on the CPU and GPU than any real life application. Throughout testing, system temperatures, noise levels, and power consumption are recorded. During the load test, the system and GPU fans speeds are adjusted to various levels in an attempt to find an optimal balance between cooling and noise while maintaining a GPU temperature of 80°C (assuming an ambient temperature of 22°C).

Baseline Noise

For our baseline noise tests, the system is left idle, the CPU fan is set to its minimum speed under PWM control (400 RPM), and the GPU fans are off by default. The system fans are connected to controllable fan headers and are set to a variety of speeds using SpeedFan. This gives us a good idea of what the stock fans sound like at different speeds with minimal interference from other sources.

First off I should mention that the front fan uses a 4-pin molex connector so out of the box, it can't be plugged into the motherboard. Molex to 3-pin adapters are actually surprisingly rare, and if you don't have one on hand, it will have to be run at full speed. For reference, the front fan produces a noise level of 22~23 dBA at full speed on its own in our test system with all the other fans turned down to minimum speed or off. The 80 mm exhaust fans on the side panel are actually fairly quiet, generating 17~18 [email protected] together, but have been disabled for testing due to their dubious value.

Baseline Noise Level

(Idle, CPU fan at 400 RPM, GPU fans off)
Fan Speed Setting
Avg. Fan Speed
SPL @1m
0%
N/A
16 dBA
40%
600 RPM
17 dBA
60%
830 RPM
20~21 dBA
80%
1040 RPM
24 dBA
100%
1200 RPM
28~29 dBA
80 mm fans disabled.

Measuring mic positioned 1m at diagonal angle left/front
of case.

Ambient noise level: 10~11 [email protected]

The three 120 mm fans are all 1200 RPM models and are labeled with the same model number "ZA1225CSL" but they have varying acoustics. The rear fan has a pleasant and smooth profile with bit of a soft fluttery sound throughout its range. The top fan is generally innocuous sounding but exhibits buzzing at high speeds. When the top cover is put in place it also generates a low pitched hum, so there's definitely some acoustic ramifications for the shape/construction of the ceiling. The front fan sounds similar to the top, as they seem physically identical, but the buzzy portion of its profile is more pronounced. In our system, they begin to make a measurable difference in noise level starting at around 600 RPM or the 40% setting on our motherboard and can produce a very loud 28~29 [email protected] at top speed. For users looking for a quiet experience, 60% or about 830 RPM, is as high as you'll want to go.

Together, the fans' individual deficiencies aren't as noticeable, so the overall noise quality is above average up to 80% speed. At 100% it's too loud and buzzy for my liking. Despite the incredibly insecure hard drive cage, drive vibration surprisingly isn't an issue because the tray does such a solid job at minimizing contact between itself and the drive/cage. There is a tonal peak at ~120 Hz which corresponds to the 7200 RPM speed of the drive's motor, but it's actually not too strong.

TEST RESULTS

Initial load testing generated surprisingly poor noise results that didn't line up based on the baseline noise level tests and my past experience with other cases. On load, the system generated a ghostly tone and acoustic analysis showed a spike at 220 Hz. After some investigation, I discovered that pressing down on the coin tray completely eliminated this effect. Something about the shape or the way the top cover is connected produced this acoustic anomaly. On load, with CPU and system fans set to 60% and GPU fan set to 44%, the difference in noise was a substantial 4 dB. Testing proceeded with a weight (a DC power brick) sitting in the tray but a more permanent solution would be to glue some kind of weight to the underside of the coin tray.

System Measurements (80°C Target GPU Temp)
System State
Idle
CPU + GPU Load
CPU Fan Speed
400 RPM (Min)
800 RPM

(60%)
Avg. System Fan Speed
600 RPM

(40%)
830 RPM

(60%)
960 RPM

(70%)
1040 RPM

(80%)
GPU Fan Speed*
Off
1230 RPM

(44%)
1180 RPM

(43%)
1130 RPM

(42%)
CPU Temp
29°C
62°C
61°C
60°C
MB Temp
34°C
46°C
45°C
45°C
SSHD Temp
35°C
36°C
36°C
36°C
GPU Temp
37°C
80°C
80°C
80°C
System Power (AC)
49W
356W
356W
355W
17 dBA
25 dBA
25 dBA
27 dBA
*set as low as possible to maintain target GPU temperature on load.

Ambient temperature: 22°C.

With our test system inside the Z11 Neo, under load, the hard drive temperature remains the same no matter what fan speeds are used as it's positioned away from the hotter components and isn't in the direct airflow path of any of the fans. There are minuscule CPU and motherboard temperature differences at system fan speeds between 60% and 80%, suggesting that the cooling setup isn't that efficient. Under our testing perimeters, the 60% and 70% setting produce the same 25 [email protected] noise level while the 80% level is 2 dB louder, making 70% the sweet spot.

The reasonably good acoustics of the Z11 Neo's stock fans remains after adding more noise from the CPU fan and GPU fans. Whether idling or under load, the machine sounds pleasant enough, lacking any noticeable tonality, and any of the minor individual noise defects are masked by the combination of fans

Case Comparison: System Measurements

(CPU + GPU Load, 80°C Target GPU Temp)
Case
SilverStone KL05
CM Silencio 652S
NZXT H440
Corsair 500R
Zalman Z11 Neo
Avg. System Fan Speed
840 RPM

(2 x 60%)
1120 RPM (3 x 90%)
810 RPM

(3 x 60%)
550 RPM

(4 x 40%)
960 RPM

(3 x 70%)
GPU Fan Speed*
1070 RPM
1120 RPM
1410 RPM
1090 RPM
1180 RPM
CPU Temp
57°C
62°C
66°C
57°C
61°C
MB Temp
43°C
45°C
51°C
38°C
45°C
SSHD Temp
34°C
32°C
36°C
30°C
36°C
GPU Temp
80°C
80°C
80°C
80°C
80°C
System Power (AC)
351W
352W
358W
348W
356W
[email protected]

[right side]
24 dBA
24 dBA
24 dBA
25 dBA
25 dBA
*set as low as possible to maintain target GPU temperature.

CPU fan at 800 RPM.

Ambient temperature: 22°C.

Compared previously tested cases retailing for US$120 and lower, the Z11 Neo performs fairly well considering it only costs US$85. In its optimal fan speed configuration, it's slightly louder than most of the other models but the temperatures are quite similar to the Cooler Master Silencio 652S. However, the US$70 SilverStone Kublai KL05 outshines it in all measured metrics, though its rickety hard drive mounting assembly isn't as forgiving and the area behind its motherboard tray is much more cramped.

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

Aesthetically, the Zalman Z11 Neo features a blend of eclectic elements that gives it a bold look. The way they've merged both angular and rounded contours has a strange elegance about it, as does the raised/beveled side window. On the otherhand, the coin tray is disproportionately shiny compared to the rest of the case's matte finish and the thick side vents are a bit of an eyesore, not to mention completely pointless. Having a pair of two small exhaust fans at the bottom/front is baffling as it steals what limited airflow is provided by the single intake fan and the small front intake vents. It may help with hard drive cooling but that's just not very important, certainly not enough to warrant this much consideration.

The fan setup is also unusual in that only the top and front fans have LEDs, and the top and rear fans use 3-pin connectors while the other three rely on 4-pin molex power, which means no RPM reporting and no motherboard fan control unless you happen to have the necessary adapters. On the bright side, the lighting is subdued and the acoustics of all the fans are relatively pleasing. Rather than having unsightly exposed fan grills at the top of the case, Zalman uses a seemingly effective and unique slotted ceiling vent design, though ultimately the overall shape of the top panel can cause a curious and annoying tone that requires weight/pressure to fix. Ventilation in general could be improved as both the power supply and front intake vents are too small, and this is only made worse by the dust filters.

The interior has a few positives including a reasonable amount of space behind the motherboard tray and good cable management in general. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the inexplicably vibration-resistant hard drive mounting scheme. The drive cages are actually fairly loose, which usually spells disaster, but the solid design of the individual drive trays miraculously saves the case from being shaken down to its core by high speed hard drives. Compatibility is fairly solid with accommodations available for a large radiator on the ceiling and a long graphics card, but users may have interference issues with some larger CPU coolers. It only accepts coolers up to 160 mm in height unless the heatsink is narrow enough to clear the top lip of the side panel opening, which with our motherboard, excludes taller towers with 140 mm fans.

On paper, the Zalman Z11 Neo seems like a solid buy if you're on a budget but you'd be better off spending a bit more on a more polished product. The best thing I can say about it is that it somehow manages to deliver decent performance in spite of all its various issues.

Our thanks to Zalman
for the Z11 Neo case sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest

Corsair Carbide 500R Performance Midtower

BitFenix Pandora MicroATX Case

Be Quiet! Silent Base 800 ATX Tower

Cooler Master Silencio 652S Tower Case

SilverStone Kublai KL05 Budget ATX Case

NZXT H440 Mid Tower Case

* * *

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