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Fractal Design Node 304 Mini-ITX Case E-mail
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Written by Tom Jaskulka   
Wednesday, 26 December 2012
Table of Contents: Page Index
Fractal Design Node 304 Mini-ITX Case
Closer Look: Node 304
Node 304 Detailed Features - GPUs
Node 304 Detailed Features: CPU Coolers
Testing and Results
Final Thoughts and Conclusion

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.

Node304_TopBuild.JPG

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.

Pros:Benchmark Reviews Golden Tachometer Award

+ Actually would make a great quiet-running file server, HTPC or high-end gaming system
+ Three fans with included fan controller
+ One of the smallest enclosures that can still fit high-end GPUs
+ Still keeps those high-end GPUs cool
+ Intelligent layout
+ Fits full size ATX PSUs
+ Simple, clean and attractive lines
+ Fits tower CPU coolers

Cons:

- Have to cherry-pick a PSU if building a high-end gaming rig
- Must choose between full-length GPU and six HDDs
- Cable management always a struggle
- Odd shape for an HTPC (Hard to place with other home theater components)

Ratings:

  • Performance: 9.0
  • Appearance: 9.5
  • Construction: 9.0
  • Functionality: 9.0
  • Value: 8.5

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?

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Comments 

 
# front panelsam.m 2013-02-05 11:32
Are you sure the front panel is aluminum? Couple of other reviewers have called it a aluminum look ABS.
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# RE: front panelTom Jaskulka 2013-02-05 11:33
Yes, the front panel is made of aluminum, although it's more of an aluminum "veneer" - it is about 1mm thick, and made of a one-piece sheet of aluminum that gets wrapped around the entire front face of the Node 304. It's a technique very similar to what is used on many laptops with metal (aluminum or magnesium) surfaces. Antec, and I'm sure many other manufacturers (I just have an old NSK1300 that uses aluminum in the same way) often sandwich plastic between thin layers of aluminum, as pure aluminum panels would transmit noise and vibration a little too effectively. The front panel on the Node 304 is done very well, and looks quite pleasing to the eye while still blocking the noise from the front intake fans. Hopefully that answers your question!
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# Cooling.....JWil 2013-02-05 11:33
Hi Tom,

So you would recommend the Zalman CNPS9900MAX-B as the best CPU cooler for this case? Not going to be doing any O/Cing
My planned setup:

Asrock Z77E-ITX MB
i7 3770
16gb RAM
ATI7850 XFX dual fan black edition
Zalman CNPS9900MAX-B cooler

Want to use for XBMC/Hyperspin so needs power but needs to be cool and quiet too....

Thanks!
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# RE: Cooling.....Tom Jaskulka 2013-02-05 11:34
Hello JWil,
I could certainly recommend the CNPS9900MAX as a CPU cooler, but "best for this case" depends on the orientation of the socket on the motherboard you choose - ideally, you'd want to keep the front-to-back airflow. The Zalman cooler has been tested to perform at or better than many of the top air coolers, so it's a great product in and of itself (there's a review on this site if you're willing to search for it). If you aren't going to overclock, and you're on the LGA1155 socket/platform, honestly I don't see much of a reason to use anything other than the stock cooler, unless the noise penalty is worth the price to you to go aftermarket.
With the motherboard you listed, you'll probably be forced to install the cooler "sideways," and I'm not certain you'd have the clearance for a 135mm fan in that direction. Again, each motherboard is diff! erent, so see if you can measure or borrow one from a friend if possible to make sure it'll fit.
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# RE: RE: Cooling.....JWil 2013-02-05 11:35
Yeah, cool and quiet are most important to me.

The motherboard i'm not too concerned about as long as it has a CIR header so i can setup an IR remote to turn the system on/off as a HTPC. Is there anyway i can check which way the socket faces by looking at the MB before I buy one?
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# RE: RE: RE: Cooling.....Tom Jaskulka 2013-02-05 11:36
Actually, looking further at pictures of that ASRock motherboard I think the Zalman would face the "right" direction - it's a little hard to tell, but if it's oriented the same way as every other 1155 motherboard I've installed my CNPS9900MAX on (the "long" way of the cooler runs the same direction as the lever that secures the CPU, if that makes sense), it should provide that front to back airflow and clear the rear 140mm fan just fine. Seems a little close to the PCI-E slot though... Some quick searching confirmed that it does fit, but you may want to double check and make sure.
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: Cooling.....JWil 2013-02-05 11:36
I just double checked with someone who has the same motherboard and it doesnt fit unfortunately. Do you have any other recommendations for good coolers (that will fit the Node304)?
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Cooling.....Tom Jaskulka 2013-02-05 11:37
I'd recommend reading up on some of the all-in-one liquid coolers from manufacturers like Corsair, Zalman, Coolermaster, etc. - typically these will avoid any clearance issues, and should allow for efficient cooling. I haven't had the chance to review one in this case specifically, so I hesitate to make a recommendation on a specific model - something to look into anyway.
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# FitDon 2013-02-05 11:38
Might be a stupid question but was it possible to fit everything on the motherboard before placing it into the chassis? The coolers that is, I'm guessing that could be helpful when you have hands like a giant as I do.
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# RE: FitTom Jaskulka 2013-02-05 11:39
Actually, with enclosures this small, that's a very good question! Yes, it is possible to add a large cooler first and then place the entire thing into the chassis - to make it even easier, you can remove the crossbar that the hard drive hangers attach to and free up even more room to work. Placing the motherboard into the case from the top was much easier, as long as your cables are out of the way... It might be a little tricky from the sides with a big CPU cooler.
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# RE: RE: FitDon 2013-02-05 11:40
I read that people had to drill those screws since they wouldn't budge but glad to hear it's possible, wouldn't help a lot. Is there anything Else to think if as far as what order to add components?
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# RE: RE: RE: FitTom Jaskulka 2013-02-05 11:40
There are four regular '+' type screws that secure the crossbar, it's easy to remove. Depending on your components, I would start with CPU cooler/motherboard/RAM, then PSU, then GPU. Hard drives last of course. The Node 304 really is an easy case to build in, especially for how small it is.
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# RE: Fractal Design Node 304 Mini-ITX CaseJohn 2013-03-19 13:00
What about Noctua NH-L9? Would that be a good cooler for CPU like Xeon?
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# Asus gtx 670 MiniSimon 2013-07-29 08:23
Great article which really helped me out. Am planning a build in this case using a gtx670 mini. Have been searching for shorter power supplies but thanks to your pictures I can see that a 160mm modular power supply will fit the case fine without any interfering with the 170mm long GPU. Nice one!
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