|Lian Li PC-AO4 Aluminum Mini-Tower PC Case|
|Reviews - Featured Reviews: Cases|
|Written by Bruce Normann|
|Sunday, 24 April 2011|
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.