Fractal Designs Define R3

Jul 05 2011

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When selecting the perfect chassis to serve content to the audio/video stack a different set of attributes is required than what is typically demanded from a home theater PC (HTPC) enclosure.  The ideal server must be able to scale to support multiple hard drives, keep everything cool and not sound like a shop-vac in the process.  With eight 3.5” hard drive trays, seven fan mounts, sound absorbing material included and a convenient layout Fractal Designs’ Define R3 enclosure looks good, and has the specifications to warrant consideration.

Specifications:

Dimensions: 8.16” (207.4mm)W x 17.4”(442mm)H x 20.52”(521.2mm)D
Weight: 27.56lb (12.5kg)
Motherboard Compatibility: Full ATX, Micro ATX, Mini ITX
Power Supply Unit (PSU): Full ATX (not included)
Front I/O: Microphone, Headphone, 2x USB 2.0, 1x eSATA
Internal Storage: 8x 3.5”, 2x 5.25” (5.25”->3.5” adapter included)
Cooling: 2x 120mm Fans (included; bottom front and top rear) and mounts for 5 additional (7 total) - 1x 120mm (front), 4x 120/140mm (top, bottom, side), 1x 120/140mm
Construction: Steel & Plastic
Other:
  • Supports graphic card lengths up to ~290mm (untested)
  • Supports CPU coolers with height of ~165mm (untested)

Constructed mostly of steel and weighing in at just under 28lb were I forced to choose a single word to describe the Fractal Designs Define R3 it would be “solid.” It is not uncommon for large, heavy objects to take abuse in transit (in this case mostly at the corners), fortunately the packaging was up to the task and the chassis arrived completely unscathed.  Those who prefer gaudy enclosures may find the Define R3 too plain, but anyone with a more developed aesthetic will appreciate the flat black exterior and lack of internal lighting systems, see-through side panels and other case “bling” that mars many other chassis in this size range.  Fractal does take it a step too far however by omitting a hard drive status LED.  While the rationale behind the move is understandable and anyone really missing the indicator could add one in, it would have been better to err on the side of inclusion; letting users decide for themselves whether to connect the wires.  With plenty of room for expansion, ways to add additional cooling should the need arise and attention to details like removable fan filters, covered air intakes (so unused fan mounts do not affect airflow through the case) and thick sound damping material on the inside - the Define R3 is nearly perfect in execution. 

Along with the case Fractal Designs also includes: cable ties, a fan controller (supports up to three fans), a manual, screws and a bracket that can be used with the internal 5.25”-to-3.5” adapter to support accessories that require a 3.5” outlet (e.g. card reader).

Motherboards with internal USB 3.0 headers are still relatively rare, so the twin USB 2.0 ports on the top of the case will suffice for most.  If you are fortunate enough to own a board that can take advantage of front mounted USB 3.0, Fractal Designs offers an optional accessory to replace the eSATA/USB 2.0 with one that supports the newer rev.  I do not have a system capable of testing it however, so just a picture for now.

Build:

Motherboard: Intel DH57DD
Storage: 1x 7200RPM Samsung 500GB, 1x Seagate 7200RPM 320GB, 1x Hitachi 7200RPM 250GB
PSU: 380W Antec EarthWatts 80+
RAM: 4GB ADATA DDR-1333
CPU: Intel Core i5-661
Tuners: 1x AverMedia M780, 1x Hauppauge HVR-2250, 1x Hauppauge HVR-1600, 1x Hauppauge Colossus
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate x64

The best way to test anything is to use it, so the Define R3 was loaded up with as much PC hardware as I had on hand - including four tuners and three hard drives.  Most of my recent builds have been focused on the opposite side of the spectrum, so the enclosure’s luxurious amounts of space made the install process almost too easy.  Besides the large amount of real estate available, there a few other notable niceties with case - including a bottom mounted PSU (just make sure your motherboard’s power connector is not along the top side of the board), hard drive trays with padded isolation mounts and a 120mm fan located in-line with the CPU – which because it is at the top will be able to exhaust the hottest air from the case.

Alongside the niceties, there are also some finer points that were greatly appreciated; including use of thumbscrews, rolled internal edges (an excellent feature, as anyone who’s sliced a hand inside a case can attest) and separate power LED pins - ensuring maximum compatibility without having to break out the tiny screwdriver to pull apart the two-pin or pin-space-pin power header depending on what the motherboard OEM went with that day.

While I did not go with a heat sink and fan (HSF) that required access to the bottom of the motherboard; I generally prefer to go that way (note the carnage from a previous HSF installation in the photo above), so having easy access to both sides is another welcome feature.

Back when it was still hard to build a quiet HTPC I often lined systems with PAX.mate to help absorb the rattles, whines and other unwelcome noises that emanated from within.  Fortunately SSDs and Moore’s law have mostly eliminated the need for it in the A/V stack, but the large pools of disk still need to live (and be cooled) somewhere, so it was fantastic to see all of the damping material, including covers over the unused fan mounts, on many of the internal surfaces.  With three older 7200RPM hard drives installed and churning the lack of noise was refreshing.

No review would be complete without some problems, but I have to admit that there were only a few and all of them are minor nitpicks.  One example of this is shown in the picture above where we can see that the motherboard tray has labeled stand-offs and an index conveniently outlining what they indicate--this is great, but not all of the positions required for mounting a Micro ATX motherboard are actually labeled “B” which can cause momentary confusion when installing.

Performance

It has been unnaturally cool in Chicago this summer so creating a worst case environment for the test build proved more difficult than it would have been in previous years.  Placing the enclosure in the hottest room available was the best I could do while running through a stress test which included eight hours of recording (four concurrent) plus two hours of simultaneously running ShowAnalyzer (SA) on the recorded TV files for commercial detection and then introducing a looping HandBrake (a popular software based transcoding utility) job converting a 1080i AVC/AC3 file to a 480p AVC/MP3 MKV file for the remainder of the duration.  Room temperature was relatively constant throughout the entire run with around one degree of fluctuation between the start of the test (79.2° F / 26.2° C), which incidentally was the lowest value measured, and what was measured eight hours later. 

Prior to starting the test the PC was powered on, and left at an idle state for ~30 minutes to set a baseline for component and external temperature then captured again at the two, three, and eight hour marks.  It is important to reiterate that the conditions changed at the two hour mark with the introduction of the Handbrake transcoding process, so the spike in specific temperatures, like the CPU, was expected.  Looking at other components like the PCH and RAM we can see from the graph above while there was some movement as stress was added to the system, even after many hours of extended load the out of the box cooling provided by the Define R3 was more than adequate.

Intel Media Series motherboards, like the DH57DD installed in this system, include a feature to dynamically control fan speed so the almost flat RPM numbers of the three fans in the D3 is indicative of a cooling system under minimal stress; which translates directly in to noise or the more precisely, the lack thereof.

Conclusion

With outstanding build quality, expandability, cooling, noise levels and design I can find very little to dislike with the Fractal Design Define R3.  Use of the word “investment” to describe any PC, or Consumer Electronics, purchase is pet peeve of mine; but if an exception were to be made, it would be for high quality chassis like the $110 Define R3 - which due to its flexibility and outstanding construction including built-in sound damping materials, mounts for seven 120mm fans and tool-less maintenance will hold its value far longer than any of the components enclosed within making it and excellent choice for not just for your current server, but for the next few as well.

Pros:

  • Flexible, spacious interior
  • Eight 3.5” hard drive slots
  • Excellent out-of-the-box cooling (2x 120mm fans) and five additional enclosed/dampened mounts
  • Quiet
  • No crazy LEDs, blinking fans, transparent side panels

Cons:

  • No hard drive LED

Thanks to Fractal Designs for the review sample.

Comments

You don't by any chance have decibel meter?  I'm just curious how much (or how little in this case) noise this unit actually makes.

oliverredfox wrote:

You don't by any chance have decibel meter?  I'm just curious how much (or how little in this case) noise this unit actually makes.

Nope, sorry.  At some point I'd like to get one, but good ones are expensive.

ca_steve wrote:

Thanks for the HTPC perspective on this case. You can find acoustic measurements over at Silent PC Review.

http://www.silentpcreview.com/fractal-r3

Awesome! Thanks Steve!

ca_steve wrote:

You can find acoustic measurements over at Silent PC Review.

Thanks =)

8 drive bays.  Would make for nice server case.

I love this case, the exterior and interior aesthetics are nice. The only con which is not a big deal, its the the hard drive bays are not split into two, that would have been a plus for longer cards or more air flow by removing the top half, but other than that , this is awesome. Thumbs Up.

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