|Fractal Design Node 304 Mini-ITX Case|
|Reviews - Featured Reviews: Cases|
|Written by Tom Jaskulka|
|Wednesday, 26 December 2012|
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Mini-ATX Final Thoughts
Overall, I came away very impressed with the Fractal Design Node 304. In addition to the great looking design aesthetic, the enclosure itself is arranged well and can accomodate a surprising variety of high-end components - some of which would struggle to fit in some micro or mid-tower ATX enclosures. While you'll probably have to choose between a gaming rig and a six HDD file server, I can't imagine there are too many buyers looking for an enclosure that can accomodate both of those roles equally well - at the same time. The Node 304 certainly excels at the roles mentioned by Fractal Design: turn the fans to low using the built-in fan controller, and you can easily cool six hard drives and have that quiet-running file server or HTPC. Turn up the fans, install a tower CPU cooler and a full-length enthusiast class GPU, and you can have a high-powered gaming rig as well. The many tie-down points along the top rails of the frame, with the tie down areas by the GPU help maintain the inevitable cable clutter you'll experience while building in a small enclosure. I could wish for a little more space between the motherboard and PSU for routing cables, but the way the ATX and 4-pin CPU cables are routed currently don't impede airflow or really get in the way whatsoever.
Fractal Design Node 304 Conclusion
The Node 304 performs incredibly well for such a small enclosure. I wouldn't hesitate to build a high-end gaming system into this case, with all the heat that such a build commonly produces. During my testing, temperatures stayed well within component limits - it was difficult to get past 65C for the 7850 at full load, and 48C for the CPU with the SpinQ cooler and fans set to high. It would be nice to have some direct airflow to the GPU (ability to mount fans on the side), but the combination of 92/140mm fans and filtered intakes do a wonderful job regardless. Using a full-size ATX power supply really allows for some flexibility, and makes it a simpler task to choose a unit capable of powering the wide range of components you can fit in the Node 304.
Fractal Design really won me over with their approach to design. I can't quite put my finger on it - I love the way they've integrated the mesh intakes, and rounded the front panel ever so slightly. The power LED is done right - it won't blind you, and the HDD activity light is actually a white LED that points down, located under the "Fractal Design" logo seen in the picture above. The effect is stylish, unique, and well executed. The paint is good quality and a great texture, and the contrasting white accents are eye-catching. This is by far the least "exciting" chassis I have used, yet it is quickly becoming one of my favorites to look at. It truly is stylish enough to display, yet unobtrusive enough to blend in with almost any decor.
The best part of ITX cases are their small size, making them easier to transport if necessary. The Node 304 is constructed very well - I've picked it up and carried it to a couple different places, and it feels solid and unyielding. I found it easy to bump the bottom-mounted removable PSU filter out of place (which, to be fair, is the point of a removable filter...) when carrying the Node 304, but that was the only part of the chassis that felt remotely unsecure. Even fully loaded with components, there was zero flex or give to any part of the case. There is no doubt working with this case that it is constructed well.
ITX cases have previously been somewhat of a compromise. There weren't many options that fit full size GPUs or more than two hard drives - functionally the Node 304 is a unique solution to the thermal and layout problems that challenge small cases. While you still can't have it all, the number of roles this case will perform (and perform well) are a testament to the functionality available with the Node 304. Normally, the lack of an external 5.25" bay should detract from the functionality - but as many manufacturers are winding down their production of optical drives, and the Node 304 already includes a fan controller, I maintain that omitting this bay and making better use of the space is a good and forward-thinking decision.
As of December 2012, the Fractal Design Node 304 is selling for $85.97 Amazon / $89.99 NewEgg. This is a fair price, considering the functionality and versatility of this enclosure. While mini-ITX is still by nature a niche market, it is beginning to catch on - and we have cases like the Bitfenix Prodigy and Node 304 to thank for that. However, you'll still pay a premium for mini-ITX components, so even though the amount of materials may be less than a full size ATX case you may pay more for overcoming those design and thermal challenges present in smaller cases. If I needed the smallest case possible to fit a gaming build, I feel the Node 304 would be a stylish solution. The Prodigy still takes the prize for a truly enthusiast capable build, due to it's space for watercooling and larger fans, but the case itself is also much larger. The FT03 Mini is a stylish performer as well, and takes up even less desktop real-estate due to its tower design, but it won't fit the types of components you can cram in the Node. Overall, the value for the price is right where I would expect it to be.
I respect what Fractal Design has accomplished with the Node 304. The overall quality and the astonishing amount of space for high-end components really impressed me compared to many other enthusiast-class ITX enclosures on the market. If you like the style, it looks even better in person. In its category, and especially due to the types of builds this case will accomodate well, I feel Fractal Design deserves the Golden Tachometer award for their Node 304.
+ Actually would make a great quiet-running file server, HTPC or high-end gaming system
- Have to cherry-pick a PSU if building a high-end gaming rig
Final Score: 9.0 out of 10.
Excellence Achievement: Benchmark Reviews Golden Tachometer Award.
COMMENT QUESTION: What do you like most about the Fractal Design Node 304 Mini-ATX Computer Case?