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Written by Bruce Normann   
Sunday, 24 April 2011
Table of Contents: Page Index
Lian Li PC-AO4 Aluminum Mini-Tower PC Case
Closer Look: Exterior
Detailed Exterior Features
Closer Look: Interior
Detailed Interior Features
Build Notes
Lian Li PC-A04 Testing
Final Thoughts
Lian Li PC-A04 Conclusion

Lian Li PC-A04 Build Notes

The rubber meets the road when you start putting all your carefully chosen components into the case that was hopefully chosen with equal care. Almost every other PC component interacts with the case in some way, so it's not unusual for people to spend even more time researching and deciding on which gaming chassis to buy. In my experience, people also tend to keep their cases and monitors longer than any other PC component, so the extra effort is worth it.

Here's what my first full build looks like. It's pretty straightforward: air cooling, single GPU and a few drives. Unlike most builds, it wasn't as hard to find places to hide all the unused PSU cables, since I used a very modest PSU. This time, I used every single cable, believe it or not. I figure most people aren't spending the extra $$ for modular power supplies, even though it's usually only about a $20 cost adder. I used the lower HDD cage which didn't leave any space below it to store any extra PSU cables. I ran the 8-pin 12V ATX power cable around the back side of the motherboard tray; I had plenty of cable length, and was able to take advantage of the cutout above the mobo that is specifically designed for this cable. The main motherboard power cable was another story, as there was no way to route it around the back of the case, and get it out of the main airflow path. One of the biggest problems I experienced was one that you almost never have; most of the cables seemed too long.

Lian_Li_PC_A04A_Mini_Tower_Aluminum_Case_Full_Build_LHS_01.jpg

One of the key specs for any gaming chassis is the maximum length of video card that it can accommodate. Depending on how many HDD cages you choose to deploy and where the HDD cage is located, the PC-A04 can take a pair of any cards, up to an HD 5970 in stride. The biggest cards are only about 305mm long and this case can manage units that are 370mm in length. That's a huge amount of flexibility left over for cable routing, even with the world's biggest video card. Unlike the ROG board I'm showing above, not many uATX motherboards are going to support multi-GPU arrangements. Due to the limited number of PCI Express slots available on this form factor, most motherboard designs make do with only one 16x PCI-E slot. This case design will support almost any CrossFireX or SLI arrangement, and if you go that route you should definitely spring for a beefier power supply than I used here, and make it modular, too.

Lian_Li_PC_A04A_Mini_Tower_Aluminum_Case_Full_Build_RHS_01.jpg

There isn't much cable routing going on behind the motherboard tray, which is good, because there isn't a lot of space there. As I mentioned in the Closer Look section, there is between 10mm and 11.5mm of gap between the motherboard tray and the exterior side panel. That's enough room for any of the smaller cable sets, but not wide enough for the main power cable. The lack of any tie-down points is pretty obvious from this view, as well. I guess you could use some of the aftermarket ones with adhesive mounts, but I usually shy away from those. All of the right edges on the interior panels have folded edges in order to eliminate any sharp or rough spots that would damage cables (and your hands!) while they were being routed from spot to spot. The area behind the drive cage(s) is wide open, and serves as a kind of alley-way for cables in this area. Once again, some localized tie-down points would have been a welcome feature here. My cable management at this point in the build process looks awful, but in 3-dimensions it makes a little more sense than it does in a 2-d photo.

Lian_Li_PC_A04A_Mini_Tower_Aluminum_Case_PSU_Installed.jpg

The power supply fit right into place without any issues or concerns, and the black crinkle finish was a perfect complement to the brushed bare aluminum finish of the chassis. The mounting holes lined up perfectly, which you might think is very easy to do, and quite normal. I wish it were true, but I always seem to have to drive one screw in on a slight angle when installing a PSU in a typical PC chassis. I like the look of the black screws against the silver background, but chrome ones might also look OK. Matte finish stainless steel would match up best, but good luck finding those in a compatible thread size. The slide-in feature that I mentioned earlier worked great, and as I was installing the PSU I thought of a couple of builds in the past where I had to go through some random series of contortionist moves to get the PSU past various parts of the motherboard and things hanging off it. I came close to knocking off a few SMD capacitors once or twice, which is nearly impossible to do with this design.

Lian_Li_PC_A04A_Mini_Tower_Aluminum_Case_CPU_Cooler_Clearance.jpg

Another major concern for gamers and PC enthusiasts is how well the case and its cooling system will work with their CPU and GPU coolers. The two front-mounted fans are going to provide enough outside air to the video card area, so that's pretty well taken care of for any sane video card choice. Let's take a detailed look at how the CPU cooler fits in. If you want to push things to the extreme, you are going to have to be very careful about the physical dimensions of your cooler. The two things that will constrain your choice are the distance from the CPU center to the bottom of the top-mounted fan, which is approximately 55mm. Quick-calculating readers will recognize right away that this is less than half the width of a 120mm fan. Unless you go with a downsized cooler and a 92mm fan, forget about having the airflow go from front to back.

The other limitation is the height above the motherboard tray, which I measured as 173mm. My first choice for the CPU cooler was the Thermalright Venomous X, because I had one on the shelf and I am admittedly obsessive/compulsive about component temperatures. It seems like overkill, but my plan was to run a fairly low speed, high quality fan, in order to minimize noise. The specs for this cooler list its height as 160mm, which is a common figure for this type and general class of cooler. I've never had an issue with cooler height before, as most full-sized cases will take a 160mm cooler in their stride. On this occasion, I experienced about 4-5mm of interference between the tips of the cooler's heat pipes and the side panel of the PC-A04. I also tried a Cooler Master Hyper 212 RR-CCH-LB12-GP, which saved me about 2mm, and allowed me to get the side panel on with a bit of scraping. I used this cooler for my testing, since I needed to be able to install the side panel - scrapes or no, to get representative cooling results.

Lian_Li_PC_A04A_Mini_Tower_Aluminum_Case_CPU_Cutout_01.jpg

The large cutout on the motherboard tray is big enough to handle any type of motherboard CPU backplate, either AMD or one of the various Intel sockets. There's enough room for future expansion, if it comes to that. Considering the size of the case, I expected to face a lot more issues with the build than I did. The two things that stick out are the limits on CPU cooler size, and the lack of arrangements for cable routing. In a case this small, every little advantage helps and I felt like I was back in the old days before PC building became an art form.

Let's plug it in and run some thermal benchmarks, to see how well the cooling system works. I think everything is going to rest on how well those two fans in front push cool air into the case.



 

Comments 

 
# ExcellentJustin MacQueen 2011-04-24 23:22
Just wanted to say thankyou for an excellent in-depth review Bruce. Photography is also superb and you really do this case justice. I have one currently and found (similar to what you stated earlier on) that two black optical drives makes for a good look. Thanks again!
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# ThanksBruce Bruce 2011-04-25 07:33
Glad you liked the review; we try hard to get the images right on Benchmark Reviews. A picture tells a thousand words, etc.....

I'm curious what CPU cooling solution you ended up with, on your build. I bought the Coooler Master COOLER MASTER Hyper N 520, which looks like one of the better 92mm units out there.
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# People more talented than me.....Bruce Bruce 2011-04-25 07:41
Our associate Werner has solved the ODD fascia problem with some nice case mod work that he posted here in our forums. Thake a look at the first three posts to see how he took it to a new level. It's in the "First SFF.Gaming PC Build" thread in the Modders Showroom, if the link doesn't work....

#forum.benchmarkreviews.com/showthread.php?t=17082
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# Great reviewJeff 2011-04-24 23:51
But I prefer my Lian Li PC-A05N ATX Mini Tower. Its not that much larger and gives me a lot more options in hardware. Regardless, Lian Li makes some pretty amazing cases.
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# Can't go wrong......Bruce Bruce 2011-04-25 07:49
The PC-A05N is also a very nice case; no doubt about it. The 3.5" drive bay on the front panel is problematic for me, though. If I needed a card reader, it makes sense to use that slot.....

You're right about Lian Li; as I said in the review, they may have some equals, but there are none that are better.
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# Filing cabinet styleBill 2011-04-25 05:32
This has the same style as a filing cabinet. Who is making these designs?
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# Bored by the classics...?Bruce Bruce 2011-04-25 07:52
What style of case do you prefer? This case is so far removed from the basic "Gaming Style Sheet" that it's bound to seem a bit foreign to some.
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# I don't see this as classic unless ..Bill 2011-04-25 08:18
I don't see this as classic, to me it looks more like a sheet metal project from the 8th grade. The kind of case I prefer is one that is both functional and aesthetic. The only case I have seen that I like is the Thermaltake Level 10. On a functional point, The level 10 has easily accessible drive bays - I don't have a level 10 case (I intend to buy one later) but it would appear I could use the drive bays like a raid or use them to hold bare drives instead of using external enclosures. I love the compartmentalized sections they look very accessible. I like the "control line" down the side that includes the power button and usb etc. If you plug in a usb cord it can hang off to the side. I really dislike the usb on the very top of the computer in this review because of what it will look like when you plug something into it and then where will you put the device and how will the cord follow? Its like there was no thought put into the design. Esthetically, the thermaltake aesthetics follows directly from its function and for that its beautiful.
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# I think I understand.....Bruce Bruce 2011-04-25 08:45
I am also a fan of the Level 10. Even if it gets a couple of things wrong, which is unavoidable, it still represents original thinking.

It'll be interesting to see if others move towards that type of modular architecture. One problem with it, is cost. To me, that's one of the required functions, and I don't see how to make a case like the level 10 as cheaply as you can make a rectangular box. Sadly, most consumers will buy anything, as long as it is cheap!
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# RE: I don't see this as classic unless ..David Ramsey 2011-04-25 10:09
The Level 10 is striking, no doubt about it (I bought one myself). However, the Level 10 GT (reviewed here, check our "Cases" section) is less than a third the price, offers much better cooling, a SATA power backplane, and similar removable drive caddies. It's not as good looking, and there's tons of plastic (the Level 10 is pretty much all aluminum), but price and performance are just better.
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# Great review. Too bad about the caseEd 2011-04-25 11:05
Superb review, from noting the space behind the mb tray in mm, both the tray and the tray edge (bravo!) to noting the fit of gpu cards to the interference between the left panel and the cpu heatsink to the interference between the top fan and the cpu heatsink . . . Wonderful.

The case: needs to be 12mm wider, to provide room for full tower cpu coolers and to provide a little more space behind the mb. 210mm would be better still, of course.

The rear fan opening is just right . . . for a front-to-back heatsink setup. It should be bigger, of cousre, which it would be if the case were wider. And it needs a fan fingerguard rather than a grill to facilitate easy outflow.

I continue to be disappointed by Lian Li's providing cases only with rear fan positions on the tops of many of their cases. With provision for two fans you could have a top intake in front and block off that rear top fan position. That would allow room for a cpu heatsinkk to be mounted front to back. Then with three intake fans the air would easily and quietly make its own way out the back, no exhaust fan required. Air goes where you push it. It need not rise.

I like reviews like this. They tell me when I should not buy a case. For this I am grateful. Thanks for this review.
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# Thanks for actually...Bruce Bruce 2011-04-25 12:00
Thanks for actually reading through the review, Ed. Some folks post comments and ask for info that's already been included in the article.

It's funny, I don't think I've ever seen the perfect case. Logically I think it must exist, somewhere.

I think I'm going to pick up an 80mm finger guard for the back; the mesh part is easily removed and replaced, if desired. Should work nice with the Hyper N 520 I just got.
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# RE: Lian Li PC-AO4 Aluminum Mini-Tower PC CaseTukzar 2011-05-07 08:00
I chose Lian Li PC-A04 for my computer case and I'm planning to build mATX PC from following components:

CPU: Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz, 6MB, LGA1155, BOX
+ Zalman CNPS 10X Performa Cooler
RAM: GoodRam 4GB (2x3GB) 1333MHz CL9
MOBO: AsRock H67M-GE/HT mATX
GPU: Sapphire ATI Radeon HD6950 1GB DDR5/256bit DVI/HDMI/mDP PCI-Express
AUDIO: Asus Xonar DX
WLAN: D-Link DWA-131
HDD: Samsung SpinPoint F3 HD103SJ 1TB SATAII 7200rpm 32MB cache
SDD: Ocz Vertex 2 OC2SSD2-2VTXE90G 90GB SATA II
PSU: XFX Core 550W
ODD: Liteon iHAS124 SATA (black)
CASE: Lian Li PC-A04 + Lian Li USB3.0 connector UC-01

And I'm wondering if mentioned graphic card and cooler will fit in this case. What do you think Bruce?
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# Well Done !!Bruce Bruce 2011-05-07 17:46
Congratulations on finding the lowest profile 120mm upright PU cooler! The manufacturer lists the height at 152m, which should just fit, with 1-2mm to spare. Of course, I am a cynic, so I will ask you to come back after your build and verify for all of us that the published specification is correct.

Since you are only looking at two drives, the graphics card possibilities are unlimited. Unfortunately, Sapphire does not publish the dimensions of the card you mentioned, so I can't say if it will fit without removing one of the drive cages. My ruler says anything less than 250mm will fit, and the Sapphire has the power cables at the top of the card, so that's not an issue.

Sounds like a nice build.
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