Fractal Design Node 304 White SFF Chassis

Sep 24 2013

Fractal Design has made themselves a reputation for quality and attractive chassis that can serve as capable as a gaming system just as it would in your living room as your home theater PC (HTPC). With the Node 304 White enclosure, Fractal Design is offering a small form factor chassis with a lot of storage flexibility and still the ability to have a full size video card, all for under $90. The challenge with the living room is the acoustics play as critical a role as the aesthetics, so that will all be considered as we evaluate the Node 304.

SPECIFICATIONS

As usual, before we give our analysis on the products, we want to take a look according to the manufacturer what the chassis has to offer. Today we’ll be looking at the Node 304 White version, however an identical black version is offered at the same price.

  • Mini ITX, DTX motherboard compatibility
  • 2 expansion slots
  • 6 – supports either 3.5" or 2.5" HDD / SSD
  • ATX PSUs, up to 160mm in length (To fit in combination with a long graphics card, PSUs with modular connectors on the back typically need to be shorter than 160 mm)
  • Graphics cards, up to 310mm in length, when 2 HDD brackets (1 HDD hanging bracket total) are removed (Graphics cards longer than 170 mm will conflict with PSUs longer than 160mm)
  • Tower CPU coolers, up to 165 mm tall
  • Case dimensions (W x H x D): 250 x 210 x 374 mm
  • Case volume: 19,5 Liters
  • Net weight: 4,9 kg
  • Colors available: Black and White
  • Cooling / ventilation
    • 2 - Front mounted 92mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fans, 1300 RPM speed (compatible with 80mm fans) – included
    • 1 - Rear mounted 140mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fan, 1000 RPM speed (compatible with 120mm fans) – included
    • Removable air filters for front fans and PSU
    • Fan filter for graphics card
    • 1 - fan controller for all 3 fans included
    • Front interface

 

 

UNBOXING

The Fractal Design Node 304 White came very well packaged in a thick brown cardboard box with some product information on the exterior. Although there was some noticeable damage to the outer box as has become standard expectations with FedEx shipments, the interior components of the packaging were unscathed. The package includes the chassis, a very brief user manual, and all the screws you will need for installation.

The case is composed of a combination of aluminum and steel components—not hefty by any means, but not as light as an entirely aluminum chassis either. Immediately upon unboxing the unit the white is strikingly bright and glossy. In our limited experience with the chassis, the Node 304 White does not seem to be as prone to fingerprints on its glossy exterior as we have come to expect out of black aluminum chassis. Hidden along the right of the faceplate are two USB 3.0 ports and the front panel audio connections. There are two 90mm intake fans hidden behind the faceplate which are also made by Fractal Design. And on the lower right of the faceplate is a small Fractal Design logo and a single blue LED for the power and hard drive activity (always on); this light is not dimmable, but you can simply not connect them if the blue light bothers you. In a dark room, the light is not blindingly bright like some other devices we’ve reviewed in the past.

The outer shell of the Fractal Design Node 304 White is a single piece unit that covers both sides and the top, and is held together by four black thumbscrews. On both the left and right sides of the enclosure is a black mesh window. One designed to help ventilate any 3rd party video cards you may have installed, and the right side designed to assist the power supply with the same.

When looking at the interior of the chassis it’s immediately noticeable how different the layout is. The Node 304 White supports a Mini-ITX or DTX motherboard, yet still offers support for a Full ATX power supply.  By looking at the dimensions with a width of only 250mm (9.8”) it’s obvious that Fractal Design was getting creative with their arrangement of the internal components—shown by the external power port with a pass-through cable to the front section. The motherboard sits in the back, and the power supply in the front, with the PSU’s exhaust fan pointed downwards through a metal grille and included externally removable fan filter. The configuration is odd to say the least and creates some cable management challenges, but allows the chassis to maintain its petite stature.

Directly atop the power supply are the three separate hard drive cages—each supporting two hard drives, SSD or traditional SATA. The cages are held together by two thumbscrews and then a small flat screw, and sit directly in front of the two 90mm intake fans. While you could remove the cages if unused, the design of each is so that it does not impede airflow when empty—a clever design.

EXPERIENCE

Installation proved to be a bit more challenging than anticipated, and that’s after we actually tried reading the manual--we say try because it is rather sparse with details and absent of any pictures aside from the structural diagram. Something as obvious as installation of the SSD caused some grief as there is no mention of it in the instructions, however it was quickly resolved realizing there were small holes in each of the hard drive cages specifically for SSDs.

During installation of the motherboard, as is common practice the user is asked to apply the motherboard standoffs. Normally this is of no concern, but our review unit was very “tight” where these holes were, and we were forced to use a special tool to help us turn the standoffs into the metal frame. Aside from that, installation of the motherboard is standard but as you would imagine with a chassis of this size, there are no special channels for cable management.

As mentioned above, the power supply location is in the front, and there is a separate pass-through cable which connects to the outlet of the power supply. Utilization of a modular power supply is certainly preferred when dealing with any small form factor chassis such as the Fractal Design Node 304 White, as there is not much extra space to tuck and hide the extraneous cables from a standard PSU such like the one used in this review. The mesh grille on the right side of the case should assist in allowing the power supply to pull in fresh air to keep things cool without taking away from the internal air circulating.

Once we figured out the installation of our SSD, the rest of the hard drive installation was a snap. Each cage supports two drives, with screw holes on the bottom—all screws except the SSD include rubber grommets to reduce vibration noise. The Node 304 White supports up to six hard drives, and our test unit was populated with four—three SATA and one SSD—and with the two 90mm intake fans there should be no concerns of keeping them cool.

The final note on the installation piece is the included fan controller on the back of the chassis, which includes three connections for all of the included internal fans. While utilizing the controller will take away the benefit of PWM fans (designed to adjust speed depending on the temperature of components), in an HTPC environment the ability to manually control the speed of them is appreciated—not to mention that a motherboard of this size would most likely only offer one additional PWM power outlet in addition to the CPU fan.

TEST SYSTEM

Motherboard

Intel DH77DF Mini-ITX

CPU

Intel Core i3-3220 (3.30GHz)

RAM

2 x Kingston Hyper-X DDR3 1333Mhz 2GB (4GB Total)

PSU

Silverstone SST-ST40F-ES

HARD DRIVES

1 x Intel G2 80GB SSD

2 x Seagate 1.5TB Barracuda

1 x Seagate 3.0TB Barracuda 7200.14

 

Once assembled and returned to testing, we noticed a loud humming coming from the system. Further investigation proved that the rear thumbscrews were not tight enough which was causing additional vibrations resulting in the noise we heard. Simply tightening them as hard as we could with our fingers removed this issue.

Even on the “High” fan setting, the fans were noticeable but not obnoxious, from approximately six feet in front. On “Low” then the fans are virtually inaudible and certainly wouldn’t bother most movie watchers. An HTPC case with three internal fans is a luxury and it’s good to see that caution was paid to ensure attention to low noise was paid.

To analyze the different speeds, we ran the system to see how the different fan settings had an impact on the temperatures inside:

 

Low Setting

Medium

High

CPU Temp

55 C

52

50

PCH

64

63

58

Memory

39

38

34

VR

44

43

40

HD

45

45

41

HD

45

45

42

HD

39

38

34

 

Even under the lowest setting, the temperatures were still acceptable and with the exception of either gaming situations or during a heat wave, should be sufficient for most.

CONCLUSION

At less than $90, the Fractal Design Node 304 White is a very unique case that appears more than capable for a number of different types of users. Offering up to a whopping six hard drives and allowing support for a full ATX power supply and mini-ITX or DTX motherboard, it’s flexible enough for conservative or extreme users. With our needs in an HTPC environment the chassis is more than sufficient, offering the necessary storage flexibility needed for the huge high definition recordings from any amount of tuners. In the HTPC world where black and silver are standard affairs, the glossy pearl white used by Fractal Design is different to say the least. The Node 304 is available in black for those typical users, but thus far we are enjoying the look of the white in our living room; alongside a white wall, it doesn’t stand out nearly as much as we expected.

Pros:

  • Supports six hard drives
  • Fan speed controller with three speeds
  • Available in either black or white
  • Full ATX PSU support

Cons:

  • Difficult installing motherboard standoffs
  • Cable management is challenging

 

Thanks to Fractal Design for providing the chassis for review.

 

 

Comments

I'm not usually a fan of white (or non-black for that matter) chassis, but I have to admit that this is one looks great.

This looks a lot like my Media Center PC for Extenders HP ProLiant N54L case.. Nice and small and I can stick it in the corner and just have power and network connected.

 

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