Review: Fractal Design Node 804 Micro ATX Computer Case

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Fractal Design Node 804 Micro ATX Computer Case Review

Thanks to Lihan Wang of Fractal Design and Overclockers Australia for running the “Need Your Voice” competition and choosing me as one of their lucky ten recipients to review and keep this case. Rest assured, it will be getting a thorough review and I won’t hesitate to point out everything everything both good and bad.

The Cube Case Revolution

Smaller is better. That seems to be the mantra of new enthusiast system builders today. It seems that the Bitfenix Prodigy and Prodigy-M really sparked a movement towards cube-style cases, with many enthusiasts choosing to build one for space-saving, aesthetics or portability reasons. Even OEM PC manufacturers have been tinkering with their motherboards to provide small form factor machines and “microserver” cubes.

Enthusiasts using “ordinary” form factors have little choice when it comes to slimming down as they are at the mercy of the size of the motherboard. However, case manufacturers have upped the ante by moving away from the traditional tower design and eschewing the normal ATX placement of power supplies and drives. In turn, we have been able to squeeze more performance into less space.

I will unashamedly say that I have been caught by the cube case revolution. I recently built a system around the Bitfenix Prodigy and a miniITX board. I am also fully aware of the Bitfenix Prodigy-M, and have built systems using cases from almost every major case vendor (Thermaltake, Antec, Coolermaster and Fractal Design).

In almost all cases, building using one of these cases is a less pleasurable experience due to the many tradeoffs which occur. Many of these cases feature removable flexible bays which need to be removed in order to accommodate long graphic cards or radiators. Others have bays where they cannot be used to their full depth without interfering with something else (e.g. a CPU cooler). They will also accommodate full size power supplies, however, non-modular supplies often leave an unwieldy nest of wires that have nowhere to hide. It’s often hard to determine whether a set of components will fit without actually trying it, as the internal measurements are not well documented. This will end with the possible outcome of frustration.

One of the big tradeoffs is the choice of the miniITX motherboard. These motherboards are small, but only feature two full-sized RAM slots and one PCI-e slot. For gamers, that slot is most likely to be filled with a high end graphic card, leaving no slots for sound cards or other peripherals. It also limits the maximum amount of RAM available, and crucially, for overclockers, miniITX boards generally don’t have the exotic multi-phase VRMs that can be offered by larger microATX boards. However, choosing to build a microATX cube-shaped machine didn’t leave you many options for cases, and many of them have even worse trade-offs when it comes to drive bays, etc.

Enter the Fractal Design Node 804 – the case that promises unrivaled flexibility.

Product Unboxing and Tour

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The case comes in a brown cardboard box, roughly the size of a milk crate. The outside is printed with an image of the case, along with full specifications of the case and what it can accommodate.

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The case is wrapped in plastic and securely nestled inside styrofoam and arrived safely despite having a little crushing in one corner of the box.

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The front of the case features a curved design with no drive bays whatsoever. The front is instead covered with a brushed aluminium and grille finish. Even the Fractal Design logo is small and understated, allowing the case to stylishly blend in unobtrusively. The window next to the logo is for the LED status indicators, which are decently diffused to avoid direct glare.

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Along the left side of the case, with the protective film removed on both sides, is the perspex window which allows you to admire the internals. It seems like the case has a slight identity crisis, as it is both elegant and understated from the front and somewhat shouty from the side (especially if you fit casemods inside). Don’t get me wrong, I rather like it. I mean, if you’re an enthusiast and you’re going to have some nice components, you want them to be seen!

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The rear of the case shows you how the dual chamber design works. The left half in the image houses the power supplies and 3.5″ drive bays, whereas the right half houses the “hot” components – i.e. CPU and (optionally) GPU. It seems that due to size constraints, the left fan bay is dual cut for 140mm and 120mm, whereas the right side is strictly 120mm only. The supplied Fractal Design hydraulic bearing fans are visible with their white and black colour scheme (this might not be to all tastes). The third supplied fan is in the front on the CPU side (you can just see it through the I/O shield cut-out.

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The right side of the case has a non-windowed panel, and for good reason. This covers all the unsightly cables from the power supply and hard drives. Neat! It’s also where the power button, audio jacks and front USB 3.0 connectors live. There is a slot cut out for a slim slot-loading optical drive. No provision for a full 5.25″ optical drive is provided.

This is a bit unfortunate, especially for those who are looking to run home theatre applications and require the use of an optical drive. Generally slim-line slot-loading drives aren’t inexpensive, and are harder to obtain. They also will need a SATA connector adapter from the small mini-SATA connector used (not included) and have longevity issues, slower transfer rates and lower burn qualities.

The provision of only two USB 3.0 connectors also seems to be a common thing amongst cube cases. It would be nice if they could provide another two or four USB 2.0 on the other side. There is no reset button on this case.

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The top of the case is finished in the mesh grille panel for ventilation purposes.

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The bottom of the case shows access to the dust filters. Each of the filters can be removed without tools or disassembly of the case which is neat. The feet of the case raise the case slightly above the surface on which it rests but not by much. If you’re resting the case on tall-pile carpet, you might want to raise it a little more.

Getting Under the Panels

Taking a look inside the case is the best way to illustrate all the intelligent design features that Fractal Design have squeezed in. All of the panels that are screwed in are secured using thumbscrews, so it’s easy to get in without tools. The rear PCI expansion slots and hard drive cages also utilize thumbscrews for fastening.

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From the motherboard side, we can see that the motherboard tray has a generous cut-out which allows you plenty of space to re-configure the CPU cooler and replace any backplates without having to remove the motherboard entirely. It’s not visible in the photo, but it appears one stand-off is already pre-installed at the factory, possibly to prevent inadvertent installation of motherboard without standoffs.

The clearance above the motherboard is rated at 160mm, which will accommodate the larger tower-style coolers, like my personal favorite, the Noctua NH-D14.

There are cable-management cut-outs at the bottom and front, which are decently big, to provide paths for water-cooling tubing. A smaller cut-out is provided at the top, which is nifty as it allows for routing the ATX12v lines and the fan controller wires. The included fan controller can be seen in the top left corner, with wires dangling – this is a basic three channel control unit with manual switch between low, medium and high settings. No RPM monitoring is provided for.

There are two positions on the bottom where the grille is to mount two additional 2.5″ or 3.5″ hard drives. The front has provision for another 120mm fan on this side, however, this position must be left unfitted if you are opting to use graphic cards longer than 290mm.

There are two fan positions at the top on this side, which can accommodate 120mm or 140mm fans. The fan positions at the front and at the top can be changed for radiators of appropriate size.

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From the other side, we can see generous space to mount the power supply, along with velcro ties for cable management. The filter at the bottom allows for the power supply to take cool air from the bottom of the case (i.e. outside air). The cut-outs for the power supply mounting allow it to be mounted both ways (i.e. you can have the fan taking inside air and expelling it).

DSC_8118The eight 3.5″ drive bays are provided on removable racks, each accommodating four drives each. These racks feature anti-vibration rubber grommets. The rack rails can be removed for an additional two 120mm/140mm fan bays at the top. There are two 120mm fan bays at the front with no fans configured. These positions are also suitable for radiator installation. A rear 120/140mm fan bay comes with a 120mm fan already pre-installed. Removing the rails and bays will limit you to a maximum of four 2.5″ drives or two 2.5″ and two 3.5″ drives, with the two 2.5″ drives mounted in the front panel and the two 3.5″ mounted under the graphic card.

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Removing the top mesh panel makes the top fan bays clear.

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Removing the front panel shows the two paired 120mm bays which are suitable for radiator installation along with the included dust filters.

Features and Build Experience

One of the main things that a case should offer, aside from being a good case, is a hassle free, straightforward build experience. Fractal Design have gone a long way to ensure this by including a quality manual, which can also be downloaded online.

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It’s no ordinary manual. It’s got colour highlighted illustrations and isn’t just a folded up piece of paper. By all means, this is a necessary part of navigating the labyrinth that compact cases are, and is necessary in making sure you take advantage of all the features the case has to offer.

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What’s even more surprising is that the last few pages of the manual even feature detailed dimensional drawings which detail the sizes of everything, so if you really wanted to sit down and plan out whether things would fit, you actually have the information to do it.

I opened up the case and grabbed the box of included parts and began sorting through it. Thoughtfully, Fractal Design have included five small cable ties for cable management, should you need it. The list of screws and parts in the manual definitely helped to separate and understand what each screw was for.

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After a short moment, I had all my screws in order, but I found that the Motherboard Screw and 2.5″ Drive Screw both seemed to be indistinguishable. This might cause first-time builders some anxiety.

It seems that Fractal Design have thought about how many screws a builder might need for the maximum possible configuration. As a result, it’s unlikely you’ll ever use all the screws, but at least you won’t be fumbling around looking for some, and that’s a good thing. It was good to see a standoff tool was included to properly secure the standoffs into place.

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Construction of the system began on the power supply side by installing the power supply. For my system, I went with a low-cost non-modular power supply – the Corsair VS550. The mass of cables will certainly put the cable-management to the test.

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Construction then moved onto installing the standoffs and then installing the rear I/O shield and pre-configured motherboard. This was an Asrock Z97M Anniversary Edition with Pentium G3258 as I had overclocked earlier.

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So far, so good with no hitches whatsoever. While manipulating the case with all the panels removed, the case seemed to have a certain amount of flexing to it. This was at first a little unusual, but it seemed okay as nothing broke. Once the panels were re-installed, the case became rigid again.

I decided to carefully manipulate the fan wires and get the fan controller hooked up, as well as the motherboard. For an additional challenge, I decided to shoehorn in my old Gigabyte GTX580SOC graphic card. This is by far the longest graphic card I have at the moment, with a triple-fan cooler, measuring about 28cm. It fits without any hassle whatsoever. I’m impressed. You can’t do this in most miniITX cube cases!

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When configuring the front panel connectors, I came across a very nifty thing – the guys at Fractal Design even marked the polarity on the Hard Disk LED connector – many other case manufacturers don’t do this and make me pull my hair out every time.

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But that’s not all. Lets give the Node 804 another little challenge. Lets fill all six SATA ports with something. For that, I decided to put in a Sandisk Extreme II 480Gb SSD in the front cover.

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While the drive fits and it was simple enough to mount, one thing to note is that the drive is a fair distance from all the other drives, and as a result, the other connectors on that power supply lead weren’t usable for other drives. That still leaves me with five more ports to fill … so out come the 3.5″ drives.

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Just over halfway fitted, In the end, I decided to fit four 3Tb Toshiba 5970rpm drives and one WD 3Tb Green 5400rpm drive. The drives were screwed in through the grommets using their specially designed screws – not tool-less I’m afraid, but no big drama.

So, in the end, how did it all go?

The Finished Build and Performance

The build was quite pleasant and trouble-free in the end. Internally, from the motherboard side, the built looks pretty neat (by my standards anyhow).

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On the hard drive and power supply side, it was a mess but nobody’s going to see that, right?

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This is what the finished build looks like from the side and rear, with the case closed.

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I ran this build over the weekend and so far, my impressions of the case are pretty good. Despite it being slightly bigger than most cube cases, it’s a lot more friendly to construction with less caveats and frustrations. Despite feeling a little flexy during construction, the panels seem to fit just perfectly with no resonance or hum from the case itself.

Even with the mixture of hard disks in the system, the drives sounded very quiet with the vibrations quite effectively damped out by the rubber grommets. Even my HP Microserver with just one hard drive was more noticeable than this one with five!

The fans themselves are high quality units. I do very much like the fluid bearing type as they are quieter and longer lasting than the (normally included) sleeve bearing types in other cases. The fans seem to be optimized for static pressure and move a decent amount of air even in the medium setting. At the high setting, the airflow noise is audible over the rest of the system, but the fans themselves do not make any audible whine. At medium, the fans are barely noticeable over the graphic card and CPU fans.

The design of this case doesn’t seem to prioritize quietness as some other Fractal Design cases have in the past. The presence of many large open fan cut-outs allows for noise from the inside of the system to escape without being damped.

As my initial overclocking was done in open air, and the power supply and graphic card had changed, the overclock had to be re-checked. In the end, I had to dial it back one notch to 45x rather than 46x, and move the voltage from 1.375v to 1.320v to keep the system stable and thermals under control. Under 24 hours of Prime 95, the CPU peaked at 90 degrees C using the stock cooler inside the case.

I also did perform an OCCT Power Supply test run which stresses the CPU and GPU simultaneously. A 12 minute run resulted in the CPU heating up to 99 degrees C and the graphic card managing to hit 91 degrees C.

I know the graphic card itself is a bit of a challenge to keep cool on its own. In the end, this is likely my fault as I only relied on the supplied fans and stock heatsink to cool the system. Fitting a few more low-speed 120mm fans would likely improve the situation dramatically, and this case definitely has the bays to do it!

Conclusion

The Fractal Design Node 804 is an attractive, slightly larger cube style case which offers a stylish brushed aluminium and mesh front, and perspex window on the side. Most importantly, it offers a multitude of flexibility in the interior which would satisfy the needs of many enthusiasts looking to build a small but powerful machine.

The use of the microATX form factor relieves us from some of the limitations of miniITX, allowing for more motherboard choices, peripheral expansion and RAM slots.

Being slightly larger, there is no need to compromise on cooling, with space for four fans on the front, four fans on the top and two fans on the rear. Of course, these can be exchanged to mount closed-loop water-cooling radiators for high performance applications. Three quality fluid bearing 120mm fans and dust filters which can easily be removed for cleaning without having to remove any panels are included. The depth of the case easily accommodates CPU coolers up to 160mm in height, so high performance users can easily accommodate tower coolers such as the Noctua NH-D14 with ease.

There is also no need to compromise on drive storage as well, with eight 3.5″ hard disk bays provided in four cages, with two additional mounting spaces underneath the motherboard that accommodate either 3.5″ or 2.5″ drives. Two further 2.5″ HDD/SDD mounting points are provided for in the front cover, as well as a space for a slot loading slim optical drive.

With the long body, it is also capable of accommodating virtually any graphic card on the market (even high performance cards are often 30.5cm long, and the Node 804 is capable of 32cm with the front fan removed).

The clever dual chamber design also offers dividends in cooling, and making cable management a snap, and hiding unsightly drives out of the way of the side window. Wide cut-outs are provided in the tray to allow for piping and wire bundles to easily traverse the two chambers.

In all, the slightly larger design does make building a lot less frustrating, as it removes many of the tradeoffs inherent with smaller cases (e.g. longer power supply obscures optical drive bay, or optical drive limits length of graphic card). It also eases access to the components.

On the downside, the case doesn’t feature a provision for a full size optical drive. While this is likely due to the size and aesthetics, slimline slot-loading drives are less common and are typically less reliable, slower and feature lower durability and burn quality as compared to full size desktop drives. However, this is likely to be of limited importance, as most users are moving away from optical media entirely.

The basic fan controller included has only three channels, and does not feature any RPM monitoring for the motherboard. Due to the lack of external bays, it does not seem possible to mount aftermarket fan controllers into this case.

While building the system, the case had a level of torxional flex (i.e. it sort of “twisted” slightly). While at first, it felt a little unusual, it did not indicate any real problem. It is probably down to the materials which were used, that keep the case’s weight to a manageable 6kg.

Furthermore, the case itself is slightly less quiet than some other Fractal Design cases owing to the fact there are so many fan cut-outs which allow for the sound of the internal system components to escape unmuffled. That being said, the drive vibration grommets are effective at reducing the vibration noise of the drives, and the supplied fans are quiet especially at the low and medium settings. Fitting more fans would allow for the fans to be run at low speed and still provide the necessary airflow. All of the panels fitted well, and no resonance vibrations were audible.

Finally, despite using thumbscrews in most places to go “tool-less”, fitting of 3.5mm and 2.5mm hard drives did require the use of a Philips head screwdriver.

In all, these are very minor points, and the case was a pleasurable one to build with. The case definitely has appeal to those looking to build a stylish, high performance, compact PC by eliminating many drawbacks and inflexibilities experienced with cases that are only slightly smaller.

It is definitely worthy of your consideration if you’re looking to build that HTPC gaming file-server … for example. The price is comparable to other cases in its class when you consider the inclusion of three fluid-bearing 120mm fans (which aren’t inexpensive on their own).

Acknowledgements

Thanks again to Fractal Design and Overclockers Australia for giving me the opportunity to review (and keep) this lovely case. I hope you’ve enjoyed this review, feel free to browse any of the many other articles filled with reviews, teardowns and random thoughts.

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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