Road to the Perfect Mini ITX PC (Part 1): Fractal Design Core 500

The computer that I bought roughly a year ago has seen quite a few revisions already. But I am not talking about the core hardware – although I switched the GPU at one point. I mean the case. I wanted to go with something small from the start, so the basis is a mini ITX mainboard. However, I have not been incredibly happy with any of the cases so far. In this first installment in a series of several blog posts, one for each computer case, I will share my experiences in building a small, attractive, and performant and yet price efficient computer. I will cover design, hardware compatibility, pricing, and availability. Unlike the YouTube tech creators, not everybody has a seemingly unlimited budget or receives hardware from the manufacturers for review or showcases. It may look easy in all those YouTube videos, but it might not be for everyone.

Although I am mainly talking about gaming hardware, the same thoughts also apply to compact office PCs or workstations. Depending on the use case, i.e., which PC component requires the most focus, one or the other might become less or more relevant. So, first off is the Fractal Design Core 500.

Motivation

At the root of it was the wish for a compact, affordable mid-tier gaming computer. As a quick background, I am incredibly interested in computer hardware (sadly). I know and understand the benefits and tradeoffs between different CPUs, GPUs, RAM, and everything relevant for a gaming PC. I like fast hardware, the technical details of it, and I want to own it. However, over time, I have also grown very conscious about how I use my computer and how much my real-world usage of the machine should be worth it. Only paying for what I require is in constant conflict with the urge to get the good stuff. I am aware that this is also in conflict with a small form factor PC because usually, all this mini ITX stuff is extra expensive. But I will talk more about that a bit later.

Design

First, here is a picture of my desk set up with the Fractal Core 500.

Now that you have an idea about what it looks like, I can start telling the story.

One of the first reactions I have received about this case was: "oh, it’s a shoebox." This assessment is not so far off. As you can see from the image, the Core 500 is a cute small box. It is wider than tall, which is likely what has led to the "shoebox" analogy. Although it does not use a lot of space compared to a regular-sized tower case, its wide stance requires more space than you would expect from an ITX enclosure. The best place for the Core 500 is in a TV cabinet or maybe even next to the TV. It is not an on-the-desk computer case, at least not for me. I am not saying you should hide it because it is ugly, far from it. It is a good-looking case, with a metal shell and a plastic front with a brushed aluminum-like finish. The way it is proportioned did ultimately not suit my needs.

Compatibility & Experience

This case piqued my interest because it supports ATX power supplies and pretty beefy CPU tower coolers. Because I am interested in hardware, I tend to sweat the details, and proper CPU cooling is undoubtedly a part of that. And it is flexible too. In 2019 it was one of the rare breeds of cases in which you could install a 5.25-inch drive, like a BluRay player. At this size! Almost no mid or even big tower case provides this option anymore. There is also room for two 3.5-inch mechanical hard drives or several 2.5-inch SSDs. The biggest challenge will be cable management when you fully populate this tiny shoebox, though.

As an example, I equipped it with a BluRay drive, one 3.5-inch hard drive, one 2.5-inch SSD, an ATX power supply, and an ASUS Strix GPU. All the big stuff, if you will. In this configuration, the most significant compromise was the CPU cooler. AMD’s Wraith Stealth, the box cooler that comes with the Ryzen 5 2600, was tasked with keeping the CPU in check. It did so well enough, but at the cost of the CPU not clocking to its full potential. Note, though, that this is because that cooler is living on the edge in every case. However, all this hardware in this small case worked very well. You must admire it just for that. At 50€!

When I said it supports beefy CPU coolers, I was implying that the Wraith Stealth was not the target solution. I was using a Scythe Mugen 5 Rev. B, and it fits without problems. Depending on orientation, you may even be able to squeeze it in and simultaneously keep the optical drive. However, cable routing will be hell. I opted to ditch the optical drive and instead populate the top with two 140mm fans.

One component is limited in size, though, and as is often the case with small PC enclosures, it is the graphics card. It is not about length or height; it rarely is (unless you go lunch box size, of course, like the Velka 3). It is about thickness. You can mount dual-slot models, which is good, and they can even be a bit thicker. But only a bit. My MSI Gaming X 1660 Super fits (46mm, according to Geizhals.de), but only if you remove the dust filter and stick it on the outside (it is magnetic). There may even be a few more millimeters available, but it is hard to tell. I performed a small "mod" that required bending the u-shaped cover to pass a cable from outside to inside. In the end, my not so subtle approach had caused some deformation to the u-shaped body that resulted in the side panels being bent slightly inward, thus taking space away from the graphics card.

GPU thickness is always the piece of information manufacturers skimp on, and I feel this is the most crucial information about compatibility. 2-slot graphics card support is all nice and well, but some GPUs call themselves 2-slot, but the cooler or shroud is technically more massive than the dual-slot slot cover’s thickness. It may not be by much, but it might be enough to not fit into a case with support for only exactly a 2-slot card. The higher-end the graphics card, the more likely this is the case. Unfortunately, most of the reviewers online install one of the NVIDIA 2080 Ti founders edition cards when showing off how much power you can stuff into a small form factor. That is cool and all, but it does not help me decide whether MY graphics card will fit. I am yet to find one that is trying several different popular models to showcase compatibility. For giggles, it is interesting to see whether one of the enormous triple-slot ASUS Strix cards fits, but to, me that is just the upper end of an extreme and not incredibly helpful for a broad user base.

The Core 500 requires you to make only a small tradeoff. You cannot mount triple-slot graphics cards, but with a bit of luck, 2.5 slot GPUs might fit, depending on how thickness is measured. CPU coolers, on the other hand, can be pretty big, and the Scythe Mugen is just that, in my opinion. There is enough space to mount an additional full-sized 140mm fan above this cooler. According to the spec sheet, even Noctua’s monstrous NH-D15 should fit regarding the height. If you need CPU power, you can make it work. In this regard, this case is almost the perfect mini ITX enclosure. It is not too big, but big enough to fit quite the performant computer and cooling solution. The flipside to that is that it is also not the most space-optimized case. It can accommodate an ATX power supply, for crying out loud.

Cooling

Since this is the first blog post in this series, I want to preface this section with a disclaimer. I have not stress-tested this case or any other cases that will follow for the best fan layout and performance. I am going from experience and the hope that it works out the way I think it should. I look at temperatures in HWInfo, but I do not run several benchmarks and try to replicate the same situation in every case. I use my computer like a (somewhat) average person and check temps from time to time. Now, with that out of the way, let’s discuss cooling options.

The Core 500 has mounting spots for one 140mm fan at the back and two 120/140mm fans at the top. The back, top, and the GPU side are nicely ventilated and can pull in or exhaust air without too many restrictions. I set up the system to let the CPU cooler pull in air from the back, the GPU was naturally pulling in cold air from the side, and two 140mm fans were pushing warm air out of the top. They were supposed to take the warm air from the CPU and the GPU and create a negative pressure situation to pull in air through any cracks. During a gaming session, this feels like a compact space heater with all the warm air that is exhausted out the top.

One thing that might improve CPU thermals is to flip the CPU fan to use air from within the case and exhaust it out the back. This theory’s idea is that with the setup to get air from the rear, it might also recycle some of the GPUs hot air that gets pushed through the slot covers at the back. However, since the graphics card completely blocks the side intake vents, the CPU cooler could not directly access fresh air. Therefore, I assume that sucking some fresh air from the back is better than no fresh air.

It should (not tested) also fit a 240mm radiator without interfering with the graphics card, maybe even 280mm. And the good thing about it, the radiator is mounted at the top, thus keeping an AiO pump-water block-combo always underwater (see this video from Gamers Nexus for details).

Pricing & Availability

At around 50€, the Core 500 is a very affordable enclosure. As far as I am aware, there is no cheaper way to get into mini ITX. But that is not to say that this case is cheap. On the contrary: it is not all-aluminum, of course. The main component used is metal except for the front, which is plastic. But it looks and feels good.

With its support for regular CPU tower coolers and an ATX power supply, you can select from a breadth of widely available and affordable PC components. It is only for the motherboard where you must pay an ITX premium. Everything else can be standard. At the time I built the computer, it was around 630€. That is for the case, Asrock B450 Mainboard, the Scythe CPU cooler, a Ryzen 5 2600, 16GB DDR4 3000 RAM, ATX PSU, and an AMD RX570 8GB. Overall, I would call this an affordable mid-range system, so goal achieved. Availability is good too. Fractal Design is not a niche manufacturer and sells many computer cases well received by the press and its users. Therefore, the Core 500 should be readily available for purchase almost everywhere. Please keep in mind that I cannot speak for every country. Here in Germany, it is in stock at many online retailers.

Final Thoughts

Here is a summary or verdict, or however you want to call it to bring part one to an end.

Unfortunately, the case did not make me happy from a visual standpoint. At least not in the way I was arranging my desk. It is wider than tall, and ultimately, this did not appeal to me in the long run. My sister, on the other hand, is incredibly happy with it. Generally, I like the case. It looks good and has many options that you can put into it. As I have already mentioned, it is better suited in a cabinet or next to a TV. It is not a desk PC.

Overall, I have a favorable opinion about the Fractal Design Core 500, and I would definitively recommend it. If you are willing to spend a bit more money than strictly necessary, you should opt for an SFX power supply instead of ATX. A smaller power unit will provide some additional space for cable management and airflow.

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