Today we have a chance to take a look at another Small Form Factor HTPC/Media Server case from Fractal Design. Different from the Node 605 I recently reviewed, this time its a cube shaped case – the Node 304. This is the smallest case in the Node series but like the 605, aims to offer a lot of flexibility along with, “minimalistic and stunning Scandinavian design and maximum functionality”. Let’s see how this matches up to Fractal Design’s vision.
Packaging & Specifications
Below is a list of Features and Technical specifications from the Fractal Design Website:
- Compact, modular interior
- Minimalistic design with an elegant aluminum front panel
- Unique new modular mounting system that accommodates up to 6 hard drives
- Accommodates tower CPU coolers and single-fan water cooling systems
- Filtered air intakes ensure a dust-free environment for internal components
- Three Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fans included
- Excellent cooling for all components
- Accommodates ATX power supplies
- Fan controller for all fans included
- USB 3.0 for fast file transfers
- Mini ITX, DTX motherboard compatibility
- 2 expansion slots
- 6 – supports either 3.5″ or 2.5″ HDD / SSD
- ATX PSUs, up to 160 mm 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 310 mm in length, when 2 HDD brackets 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
Cooling / ventilation
- 2 – Front mounted 92 mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fans, 1300 RPM speed (compatible with 80 mm fans) – included
- 1 – Rear mounted 140 mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fan, 1000 RPM speed (compatible with 120 mm fans) – included
- Removable air filters for front fans and PSU
- Fan filter for graphics card
- 1 – fan controller for all 3 fans included
- 2 – USB 3.0 (Internal 3.0 to 2.0 adapter included)
- 1 – 3.5 mm audio in (microphone)
- 1 – 3.5 mm audio out (headphone)
Below are a couple of ‘alternate’ shots of the packaging.
Ahh there she is, my subwoof…oops, the Node 304. Sorry everyone, I cant help the shape of this unit reminding me of my subwoofer! Terrible joke aside, you can see the cubed shape the 304 sports. Like the 605, the Node 304 has what Fractal Designs likes to call their, “…minimalistic and Scandinavian design”. Again we have an all black case with a brushed aluminum LOOK to the front panel, but it’s made out of plastic. On the front panel you’ll also find the Fractal Designs namesake on the bottom right corner. About the only distinguishing feature on the front is the perforated grill on top, which allows the two 92 mm fans to get fresh air. Outside of the name, the only thing you can see on the front is the power LED (blue).
Rotating the case clockwise you can see a small vent area for the PSU’s exhaust to pass through. On the same side you will find the power button, two USB 3.0 ports, and your audio/microphone jacks. On the other side of the case, you see an even larger opening for airflow. This is well placed as this is the side where a discrete GPU would be, and would need to draw air from. In case you are wondering, there is no way to fit anything like a H100 between the GPU and chassis.
Very minimalistic indeed… and as you know, I like minimalistic designs. I’m just too old for ‘bling’ these days!
Taking a look at the backside, you can see there are two slots to house a dual slot GPU solution, a 140 mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fan (runs at 1000 RPM max) sitting in front of a honeycomb grill, and the I/O area for the motherboard. At the top right is the fan controller which controls all three fans included with the case.
Flipping the case on its side, we can see the bottom, which houses a removable filter for the PSU intake. So long as you do not fiddle with that filter it will stay in place, but moving it around can knock it out of place fairly easily. Clearly not a deal breaker, but it would be better if this filter were held on more secure.
Below is a close up shot of the Node 304 powered on, and the blue power LED illuminated. The HDD LED, not pictured, glows white. Also pictured are the USB 3.0 ports as well as the front panel microphone and headphone 1/8″ jacks.
Overall I have to give a thumbs up to the look of this cube. It may not fit as nice next to your A/V Receiver like the Node 605 would, but then again, you buy the 605 if you want that look anyway. A nice job on the looks Fractal Design!
“But wait there’s more!” as was said by the late Billy Mays…can anyone see what is missing from this case? If you said there isn’t a provision for an optical drive, you are absolutely correct. That’s right folks, no bay to mount any kind of optical device. This is a pretty peculiar omission from this sort of case to me. It’s true you can find most/all of your software online, and install applications or operating systems from USB quicker than with optical media. However, if one of the uses of this case is for a HTPC, a lot of people use that for their DVD or Bluray player. So, if this is the case you decide on, hang on to your DVD/Bluray player or you can add an external one. Easy workarounds no doubt, but to me one point of having an HTPC is to consolidate equipment. For example, I got rid of my CD Player and Bluray player, and replaced it with a HTPC (Node 605).
We can see below they include a users manual as well as enough screws and standoffs to mount anything this case has room for.
Cracking open the case is easy, simply remove the four thumbscrews on the back and slide it off. Once open, you can see the three drive cages, and room for a PSU up to 160 mm long, including modular cables. The pictures below also illustrate the ITX motherboard support and all the front panel and fan cabling.
Now, for getting the panel back on. While still not a challenge, it did remind me of yesteryear (ahh my Compaq 486 DX4 100MHz days in 1994…) and what a bear it was to get those tri-panel covers on and off. Its not as easy as a single panel, but you still have to line up three things at once to get it to slide on properly.
Here we see a top view of the hard drive cages from a different angle, and then removed from the case exposing where the PSU will rest. As noted in the specifications, the Node 304 can support up to six 2.5″ or 3.5″ drives with all three cages installed.
With the cages removed, you get your first glimpse of the two 92 mm Silent Series R2 fans. These are quiet little buggers and don’t particularly move a lot of air, but they do a fair job at getting that air in the case for the large 140 mm to evacuate.
In this photo we see a close up of the frame that holds the PSU. It is offset from the edge of the case by around an inch to allow you to plug in the 90-degree adapter. The adapter then plugs in to your common location, the back of the case.
For the last picture, I have shown the fan controller’s back side and its connectors, which control the three included fans.
Working with the Node 304
Now we start to see the installation come to life. Like the Node 605, you have to install the motherboard stand offs yourself. Removing the hard drive cage makes things a lot easier to install on the bottom of the case, those things being the motherboard and PSU of course. For this build we have the Seasonic SSR-360GP. This PSU is around 150mm in length and as you can tell, not modular. Things are starting to get a bit cramped in here after the PSU installation. With this non-modular setup, you actually have a bit more playroom for a discrete GPU as the cabling from the PSU is at the far back of the case, versus modular PSUs where they are all over the face of the PSU.
Once we mount the hard drives (a single SSD in this case) and put the cages back in, you can see there is plenty of room around the components for cooling. However, once you jam the rest of the cables in there, it will tend to break up the airflow from the two front mounted 92 mm fans. There still seemed to be adequate airflow however, even with the SSD and cables inside the drive cages. As you can tell I used the stock Intel heatsink and fan, but temperatures never got out of hand.
As with the 605, there are really no provisions for cable management. The only places, as described above, are in the drive cages if you choose. There are included zip ties to help things out a bit however, so that is good. But also like the 605, you cant see inside the case anyway, so it’s really not a big deal unless you’re a perfectionist.
Installed & Ready for Showtime
Below is the system we put inside the Node 304. As you can see from the second picture, I managed to fit the HIS 7970 IceQ X Turbo GPU into this tiny case. An amazing amount of horsepower in such a small space really. The MSI GTX 680 Lightning fit in there a bit easier, as it’s around 1/2″ shorter than the HIS card that is pictured.
Final Thoughts & Conclusion
Overall, Fractal Designs has a solid case on its hands. What you have on the outside is what Fractal was going for, a sleek, minimalistic design. On the inside you have the ability to fit a full-sized, to a limit of course, video cards, ATX power supplies under 160mm, and up to six hard drives. The case overall is a bit smaller than the BitFenix Prodigy, but still manages to keep things cool on the inside, even with a powerful GPU like the 7970 exhausting mostly inside the case.
As far as the not so great, about the only things I can ding this unit for is the lack of any option for an internal optical drive, and the ‘shell’ tri-panel just isn’t to my liking. Though we went over the fact you can get around the lack of an optical drive, I still think provisions for one should have been included if this is to be more than a simple file server. Again, the one piece ‘shell’ panel wasn’t a bear to get on as I remember in the past, but its still not as easy as having individual panels.
The pricing for this case comes in at $89.99 from Newegg. There are other cases it competes with, like the Silverstone SG05, which come in around $25 more, as well as the Prodigy that comes in $79 or $89 depending on the color. I haven’t had my hands on either case to compare directly, but I can tell you there is a lot of competition in this arena, and price range. The Fractal Design Node 304 should be a top consideration when looking for a small ITX case in the sub-$100 range. Just make sure your needs do not require an internal optical drive or you will have to look elsewhere. With that, this case is Overclockers approved!
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~ Joe Shields (Earthdog)