Lian Li PC-A04 mATX Case Review

Today we look at the Lian Li PC-A04 mATX case, a small, yet versatile offering from Lian Li. Lian Li is a company that has been around for a long time, 1983 according to their own bio page. During that time they have not been afraid to take things in their own direction instead of playing it safe by hiding in the crowd. I still remember the time when if you wanted a cool looking case you pretty much either went out and bought a beige “shoe box” and then made it cool yourself, or you bought a Lian Li. Lian Li was giving us awesomeness, no that isn’t right, they’ve been giving us quality refined elegance straight out of the factory well before a lot of others. Well we’ve seen a lot of others play catch-up, but is Lian Li still one of the ones leading the way?

Shipping

Six weeks transpired between the time I gave my mailing address to Hokiealumnus until I received a notice from the post office that my package was waiting to be picked up. Given that the case was actually being shipped from Taiwan and had to clear customs and that there was a third party acting as an intermediary to handle the details (Hokie), which adds another layer to the process, I don’t find anything unreasonable about the time it took to get here. Initial impressions when I picked up the package was that it was very light. Lighter than I thought it should be. Anyone got Stephen Hawking’s phone number? I may have discovered a form of matter that has negative mass. Well as you can see from the images below once I got it home and inspected it I found there was no damage to the packaging. It survived two postal services (Taiwanese and Canadian) 100% intact. Forget Hawking, anyone got the phone number for Guinness Book of Records?

Package as it arrived

Package as it arrived

Case packaging, another angle

Shipping box, another angle

Seen from a third angle

Seen from a third angle

and the top of the packaging

And the top of the box

Packaging

A gentle rolling of the case revealed no loose parts rattling around. So I expected to find no broken bits of fan blade or other plastic parts once opened. Speaking of opening, below we can see the standard “two pieces of molded white Styrofoam on opposite ends of the plastic-wrapped case to keep the case suspended in the middle of the packaging and protected from damage” setup. This is the way everyone else does it, and it works. Nothing to complain about here.

Case outside the shipping box

Case outside the shipping box

Case outside the shipping box, other side

Case outside the shipping box, other side

The one thing that clearly stands out once it is removed from its shipping case, but before it is unwrapped, is the instruction manual. Once I removed the foam blocks from the ends and took the case out of the bag I inspected the manual. Some case manuals come as little booklets, others come as one big sheet that folds up like a map. The PC-A04′s manual is styled like the latter. When folded up it is roughly the size of standard 3-ring binder paper. Unfolded we can see there are eight “pages” worth of instructions. The eight sections are really just two sections repeated four times in different languages. The languages are English, French, German and Spanish. My manual was folded in such a way that the English instructions were facing out so I would not have to unfold it to use them.

PC-A04 manual, folded

PC-A04 manual, folded

PC-A04 manual, opened

PC-A04 manual, opened

Although I have had other manuals that covered many more languages I suspected that Lian Li would have more than one manual available depending on the market the case is destined for. Surely a Taiwanese case manufacturer would have a manual for its product in Cantonese and/or Mandarin, right? I won’t bore you with the details (unless asked to elaborate) but after a somewhat involved investigation of the Lian Li website and some all-around googling it would seem that Lian Li manuals are only available in those four languages. All good case manuals include a list of components that come with the case, I/O, LED and button pinouts along with specific component installation instructions and this manual does not disappoint. The list shows how many screws of each size one should have, the number of rubber grommets, cable ties and the case speaker. Through the openings in the back of the case I could see a small cardboard box zip-tied to the case which I assumed would contain these various small bits.

List of screws and other components included with case

List of screws and other components included with case

The I/O connectors are explained very clearly in the manual but there are no images on connecting the power buttons and LEDs. My suspicion is that diagrams for those were not added simply because they were just not needed. Usually those connectors have labels printed directly on the plastic ends, we’ll see if the end connectors for those wires are labeled once we get inside. It would have been nice to see a quick blurb for the sake of completeness, but it’s not critical.

Connector pinnouts for front ports

Connector pinnouts for front ports

Now on to the main part of the manual: how to install the various components that make up the computer. The instructions for installation are a mix of text and images, between the two they do a straight-forward, short and simple job of explaining how to add all of the various components except for two. The one thing they left out completely was how to add peripheral cards (PCI, PCI-e) but unless your case has some kind of hinged locking plate or other oddball lock down mechanism then peripheral card instructions are not needed. Since this case just uses the standard “screw on top to hold the card in place” method, peripheral card instructions aren’t required. Again a quick blurb for the sake of completeness would have been nice, but it’s not critical.

The only other section that, while being adequately explained, does not have a short, simple, straight-forward blurb covering installation is the hard drive section. It is not that the instructions for installing hard drives are absent, on the contrary they are there, but they are massive. Too massive for me to list everything possible here. Fortunately they aren’t big because of complexity, on the contrary each step is straight forward and easy to implement. The issue is their great versatility. This versatility allows up to seven drives to be oriented in one of three different directions in two separate drive cages that not only do not have a fixed position in relation to the case but also do not have a fixed position in relation to each other. This versatility is meant not just to give freedom of drive placement but to also allow multiple video cards with large cooling solutions to be used. We shall see just how possible (and easy) these options are to use once we get into the installation phase. If you want to take a look at the whole manual you can download it here.

Case Exterior

Now lets look at the external finish. Boxy, rectangular, 90° corners everywhere, no slopes or odd angles, brushed aluminum finish (even on the drive bay covers), no scratches or imperfections in the finish. Everything we’ve come to expect from Lian Li. Nothing was warped and all of the joints seamed up properly with no unevenness or gaps. Running my hands along the edges I found no sharp spots or burrs to cut myself upon, just as it should be.

Clean lines on this side...

Clean lines on this end...

...and on this end as well

...and on this end as well

Top Side

The top side is a solid, flat rectangle of black anodized aluminum with only two things interrupting it: The 120 mm exhaust fan and the front ports/buttons. I refer to the fan as an exhaust fan for three reasons. First, the case I received had the fan mounted to draw air out of the top of the case. Second, there is no fine mesh grill on the top fan mount to catch small particulate and therefore this fan would be better suited for exhaust than intake. Third, by keeping the fan to its exhaust setting we can use the basic scientific principle of hot air rising to our advantage instead of working against it while trying to maximize cooling. As I said the mesh on the top fan opening is not small enough to prevent minute particles of dust from getting inside but the grill is more than tight enough to prevent other reasonable hazards such as car keys, thumb drives or pen caps from accidentally dropping into the case.

Closeup of top mount fan from outside of case

Closeup of top mount fan from outside of case

The other feature on the top is the I/O ports/power buttons. The case has connectors for headphones and mic, as well as connectors for one USB 2, one USB 3 and an e-SATA port. They are all arranged in a single row near the front of the case. Running my fingers along them I do not feel any rough or sharp edges. I’ve said in the past that placement of these on top instead of in the front of the case is both bad (limits case placement, you can’t put the case into a small opening on a desk with no topside clearance if you expect to be able to use the power button or USB ports) and good (you can take the front face off the case to replace an optical drive or clean a fan grill and set the front face down beside you instead of having it annoyingly tethered to the rest of the case by the chain of wires going from the front buttons to the motherboard headers). I can find no overwhelming reason to state that this example of topside controls is better or worse than with other cases I’ve used or reviewed in the past that have had topside controls. I am glad that they knew enough to place the buttons and ports near the front of the case. So if you do put it into a place with limited topside clearance you won’t have to move the case out very far to access its buttons and ports. Something my wife pointed out to me while observing my critique was that there were no words or symbols printed on or embossed into the case showing which port was for which. You and I may know the color codes for audio ports and how to tell an e-sata from a USB connector but my wife had to ask which plug in was for the headphones and which was for the microphone. Adding some kind of label would probably be appreciated by the less computer-oriented users out there.

"Front" ports and buttons are topside on this case

"Front" ports and buttons are topside on this case

Front Side

Front

The front face of the case is almost completely flat, with the only thing sticking out being the case badge with the Lian-Li name on in, which sticks out about a millimeter. Other than that there are no protrusions on the front. Above the case badge are the vent holes for the two 120 mm fans. The holes are small enough to catch any big intrusions but won’t stop small dust particulate from getting through. Nor will they provide significant resistance to the airflow from the fans themselves. I feel they’ve struck a good balance between dust blockage and air flow allowance.

Plenty of holes for ventilation

2X120mm worth of holes for ventilation

Above the fan grills are two 5.25” drive bay covers. These have the same brushed finish as the rest of the case and are actual metal, not some cheap plastic approximation. Tapping on them slightly reveals that they are solid and unlikely to dislodge if slight pressure is applied while moving the case. This gets a thumbs up from me and probably a lot of you because we all know we’ve worked on at least one case in our lives where if you just put even the gentlest of pressure on the drive bay cover you’d pop it free and push it into the case. Then you have to take the front bezel off or possibly even open up the case to get at it, then the optical drives above and below, along with all the various cables, make it difficult to reach the faceplate because of course you happened to shove it just far into the case that bla bla bla, please shoot me now! Well it doesn’t feel like this will be a concern with this case here.

Brushed aluminum bay covers match the rest of the case

Brushed aluminum bay covers match the rest of the case and are sturdily held in place

Near the top right corner of the drive bay covers are two LED’s. No marking on what they are but by any logical assessment one should be for the power and the other for hard drive activity. We can get confirmation of this once we have the system installed and running.

Bottom Side

As you can see above the bottom of the case is pretty plain. The feet are solid rubber and about 13 mm thick. This will give some good clearance between the case and the floor for those who use a PSU with a fan on the bottom to draw in cool ground-level air. Some cases I’ve owned have barely had half that clearance. Being made of solid one-piece rubber the feet will not be prone to having a break in the pressure-fit plastic tabs that I see from time to time in other styles of feet. The downside is that by not having any snap-in pressure or screw-in fittings the only think keeping the feet on is the glue itself. I don’t know how well those feet will adhere over time, but for now they seem solidly in place so I give them a passing grade. Case feet may not seem like a noteworthy issue but trust me when I say that you will notice them the day you get that case that has really crappy ones!

Tall feet = goodair flow clearance

Tall feet = good air flow clearance

Aside from the feet we see the grill for the PSU intake fan. The grill is a fine mesh similar to screen door material but with much smaller grid work. The fine mesh should easily keep small dust particulate out. Fortunately, it is hinged so it can be easily removed from the outside for cleaning. Bonus! I don’t have to crack ‘er open just to clean the PSU grill! The grill cover is approx. 140 mm square and covers a series of long, louvered openings.

Bottom vent filter installed, 152mm ruler (6") for scale

Bottom vent filter installed, 152mm ruler (6") for scale

tabs on side depressed to release filter

Tabs on side depressed to release filter

Filter completely removable for ease of cleaning

Filter completely removable for ease of cleaning

Aside from the feet and the grill with filter the only things left on the bottom are a few small openings, basically mount points put into the case to accommodate the multiple drive cage orientations. Again, running my fingers along the edges of these openings reveals no rough edges. Good eye to detail.

These mount points allow the the HDD cages to be oriented in 3 directions

These mount points allow the the HDD cages to be oriented in 3 directions

Back Side

Back

Starting from the bottom and working our way upward we first see the framework that the PSU is mounted to. This framework itself is a removable plate that covers an over sized hole allowing the PSU to be slid into the case from behind without having the video card(s) or drive cages interfere. This plate looks to be reversible, allowing the PSU to be flipped 180°. Again, once we get into the installation phase we’ll see if this is true. The framework is held on with 4 thumbscrews. I’ve had some cases in the past that came with thumbscrews for the PSU and some that just used regular screws. Honestly thumbscrews are not a necessity for PSU installation, but they do make a nice option. A minor plus, but a plus nonetheless.

Thumbscrews for ease of installation, looks to be reversable

Thumbscrews for ease of installation, looks to be reversable

Above the PSU are four PCI slot covers. Each one is vented with holes big enough to let some good airflow through but small enough to keep critters out. At this point in the internet’s development we’ve all seen that picture of the fried mouse that crawled into a case and started chewing stuff just before the system was powered on, right? (No I won’t post a link, just trust me if you haven’t seen it, it’s pretty disgusting.) Well that won’t happen here even though these covers have openings for airflow. Aside from providing good ventilation the slot covers all look to be separate, removable parts. Not just stamped into the sheet metal of the case that you then have to break away later as needed. Most cases I’ve had came with one removable slot cover in the topmost bay where they expect most video card slots to be, the rest are stamped in and need to be punched out to put a card in their particular slot. This isn’t really a huge undertaking to break the metal out but if you do that and then you re-arrange your peripheral cards you’ve got an empty slot with no cover to put back in it. Yes we all have plenty of spare covers from older systems we can use but what’s the O.C.D. sufferer in us to do when those old covers don’t match? Other than suffer I mean? Unmatched PCI covers on a Lian-Li case are like having that small dent around the rear wheel well on your sports car repaired but not repainted. It’s not going to affect performance but you still don’t want to have to look at it or be reminded that it’s there. Well that won’t be a problem here. Regardless of what PCI(e) cards you choose to install you will always have a full, matched set of covers for any empty slots. One more small thing that shows attention to detail.

Full set of PCI covers, not break-away tabs

Full set of PCI covers, not break-away tabs

Above that we have the frame for the rear I/O panel. Rarely have I ever found issue with this part of a case and there is no exception here. It’s the right size, no sharp edges, no obstructions like overly thick fans to block it in and make it hard for you to see what you’re doing. The standard thumbs up here. Beside the rear I/O panel opening is a mount point for an 80 mm fan. There is no fan, just the opening for one, covered over with a fine mesh grill to keep little critters out. The grill itself is domed so that if you mount the fan with the rotating part facing the grill the blades will not scrape against the grill’s surface. The grill is held in place by plastic plugs that expand to lock in place. The plugs hold the grill well but are not difficult to remove if one wants to use a case fan in the opening. My only downside on this is I would have liked to see a universal 80 mm/92 mm mount to give the end user more options. The physical body of the case is large enough to accommodate a 92 mm fan in that position and a 92 mm fan will let you get the same CFM with fewer RPM, thus lessening the noise.

Mount point for 80mm fan (fan not included)

Mount point for 80mm fan (fan not included)

Above the rear fan mount is an access port labeled in the manual as a”vent” for the internal USB3.0 cable to plug into a rear panel external USB3.0 port on the motherboard. I’ve seen this before more than once, it’s becoming both popular and common place. The rubber flaps allow cables to run into and out of the case but protect said cable from getting snagged on any sharp metal edge around the opening. They also help prevent critters from getting inside. Such openings in other cases are sometimes marked for water cooling purposes, but given that there is only one in this case that would imply if you wanted to water cool you’d only be able to use this single opening for an external fill port, thereby keeping blocks, pumps and rads internal. Doable, but only if you sacrifice one or both drive cages AND are very particular to choose only the smallest of parts. I would be surprised if my old Eheim 1250 and Mustang heater core would fit in this case.

Side Panels

Component side door.

Component side door.

Motherboard tray side door.

Motherboard tray side door.

A gentle wrapping of my fingers on the side door panels gives the impression that while sturdily made these panels would be easy to bend. I’ll know better once I get the doors off and look at them from all sides. The two side panels are both plain sheets of brushed aluminum. No embossed logos, no fan mounts, no air vents. This should make them interchangeable but the bit that wraps around the back side of the case where the screws lock them into place shows that they are mirror images of one another, and so may not be interchangeable after all. In the past I’ve come down on doors without any form of ventilation as that forces you to rely on front/back, top/bottom airflow to keep things cool. I like having all options readily available without modification but I don’t see this as such a big concern this time for several reasons. First, we are dealing with a small mATX case not a mid tower or full tower ATX, so statistically fewer people will be running high end flame thrower-esque CPUs and video cards in a case like this. You’re more likely to find it serving a medial center role than a power user role. But for those who do want to jam in as much firepower as can physically fit into as small a case as possible there are two 120mm fans upfront that take up a good 2/3rds of the front of the case to get a good volume of air in. This should help compensate for the lack of side fan cooling.

Opening It Up

Alright we’ve seen the outside, now let’s crack ‘er open! The first thing I do to take the side panels off is undo the thumbscrews. Surprise, surprise, look what I found. Rubber grommets on the thumbscrews to help snug them into place without stripping the screw holes in the case. On behalf of all of the heavy-handed people like myself who frequently strip screw holes bare or otherwise break the unbreakable, I say “Where have you been all my life?”, I mean “Thank you.”

Grommets on  the thumbscrews!

Grommets on the thumbscrews!

So now the doors come off. Removing the doors is not completely effortless, but the maneuvering is by no means difficult. To remove the doors one needs to slide them back about an inch, then tilt them outward at the top about an inch, then lift up. These steps are needed because of the hooks and grooves and whatnot in the doors and the door framing. Said hooks and grooves are asymmetrical from top to bottom, meaning you can’t flip the two doors upside down and put them on opposite sides, so if you have your case positioned in such a way that one side shows more than the other, and you gouge the door that shows, you can’t hide it, you’ve got to live with it. The sizable amount of metal that is bent over is more than I usually see in a case door, especially along the bottom. This gives the doors extra strength to resist bending. A gentle torquing of the doors in my hands reveals that they are stronger than I had first than my initial finger wrapping led me to believe.

slide

Slide door back, then tilt away...

slide door

...then lift door up to remove

Let’s continue to strip the outside bits before we get deeper into the case. The front bezel pops off easily enough. Cheaper cases usually have screws to hold them on but this case has four press-fit, spring-loaded, plastic pins, one in each corner, and two more longer pins along the bottom. These pins hold the front on with enough force to keep the bezel firmly in place without making it difficult to remove. Once we have the front bezel off we can see what is behind it.

Behind the front bezel

Behind the front bezel

Two fine mesh filters similar the the external one on the bottom of the case but sized for the 120mm fans that are behind them. These filters are removable for cleaning in the same easy way the bottom one is, just press in the tabs on the left side and pull the filter away from the case.

Two tabs to remove the filter

Two tabs to remove the filter

One fan grill removed, note the rubber grommets to dampen fan noise

One fan grill removed, note the rubber grommets to dampen vibration noise

Above these filters are the two ODD bay covers. We can now see why the covers can not be inadvertently pressed into the case. They are not snap-fit into the cover bezel, they are secured to the metal of the case itself. Unless you’re really, REALLY trying to “accidentally” pop these covers loose and shove them into the case then it’s not going to happen.

Note the ODD bay covers extending and anchoring to the case

Note the ODD bay covers extending and anchoring to the case

Near the top right corner of the ODD covers we can see the two LEDs, again they are secured to the case frame itself, not the plastic cover bezel. We can also see in the four corners the white/beige spring-loaded slots where the tabs for the bezel connect. The extra two pin openings are along the bottom just below the fan filter.

Tab on the bezel underlined, slot in the case encircled

Tab on the bezel underlined, slot in the case encircled

So lets take the top off now. There are four small screws that hold the top on, two at the front and two at the back. There’s nothing special or tricky about these screws, a common Phillips head screwdriver does the job easily enough. Once these screws are removed the top comes off without effort. Beneath we see…. nothing, and a whole lot of it.

Look at all that room to get your hands in from the top!

Look at all that room to get your hands in from the top!

There is a small plate near the front right corner where the power and reset buttons are secured but beyond that the top is one big opening. Beautiful!!! Absolutely beautiful. Now that is how you implement a small, mATX case! Not a lot of room to get your hands in to work on things like securing the heat sink? No problem! Just take the top off the case and now you can get at that heatsink from the side.

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Underside of case top, cables neatly organized

In the photo above we can also see what the underside of the top looks like. The fan, at 25 mm depth is not so thick that it hangs down past the thickness of the sides of the top cover, so it won’t intrude upon your heatsink’s clearance presuming the heatsink clears the case frame itself. A 38 mm thick fan might make contact with the side of a heatsink but that would depend on what heatsink one chooses to use. As with all mATX cases, you need to choose your components wisely. On the underside of the top we also see a small, plastic compartment that holds the topside I/O ports and the cables for said ports coming out of the box. I like the large, plastic clip to retain the cables and keep them out of the way. On the plastic ends of said cables are marking letting you know which connector is for what, so my previous concern about the manual not listing every connection has been addressed.

Interior

So we’ve removed the doors, the front and the top panels, now that’s she’s naked lets really look inside. Smooth, clean lines everywhere. Running my fingers along every edge that I could find revealed no burrs or sharp edges to cut myself on. One thing that did catch my eye was the drive cages. The angles don’t seem to be quite square. I had a bit of concern that this may cause issues when installing hard drives. The only other negative I found was one scratch, in the non-anodized framing where the door connects (highlighted in red).

See the small, white box zip-tied to the chassis in the two lower shots? This is where the screws are kept. Most cases (but not all) I’ve looked at had some way of restraining the small bits to keep them from rattling around and scratching the finish during shipping. Well this “small, cardboard box taped shut and zip-tied to the chassis” method works just as good as any others I’ve seen. So I cut the zip-tie and remove the box. I open it up and do a head count. Every screw and bit accounted for. Nothing was missing. So now lets remove the drive cages. This process involves seven screws, all of which are thumbscrews, some of which are of a non-standard size. The non-standard ones have grips that are longer but thinner than your typical thumbscrew. Given their placement in tight areas it’s obvious that they were made thinner to make it easier to turn them in tight spaces and then longer to compensate for the lack of gripping surface’s width with more length. If you’ve got big, fumbly hands like me they will be a bit difficult to work with but by no means impossible.

Case door thumbscrews, general all-purpose thumbscrews, HDD cage "tight places" thumbscrews

Case door thumbscrews, general all-purpose thumbscrews, HDD cage "tight places" thumbscrews

So the drive cages are now out. As we can see in the pics below, the bottom plates for each cage is removable.

Both drive cages have swappable bottom plates and come with HDD mounting grommets to reduce vibration and noise

Both drive cages have swappable bottom plates and come with HDD mounting grommets to reduce vibration and noise

This is so you, the end user, can decide which will be the upper cage and which will be the lower cage. To illustrate just two of the possible drive installation options I dug out a bunch of old drives and installed them to show some of your choices. First, we have four drives installed in the four drive cage on top of the three drive cage with the power and data connectors facing the component side of the case. Then, we see the same drives in the same cage installed below the three drive cage with the drive connectors facing the motherboard backside of the case. The two cages have room for seven drives total and Lian Li has included enough screws (thumbscrews!) for each drive.

4 HDD bay on top oriented so connectors face components

4 HDD bay on top oriented so connectors face components

4 HDD bay on bottom oriented so connectors face motherboard tray

4 HDD bay on bottom oriented so connectors face motherboard tray

System Installation

So let’s put the puppy to use. Originally I had planned to put just one setup into the case but I decided to put several systems in to showcase the amount of room available for different components. So if the components seen in one picture look different from the next you’re not going crazy, it’s just different part combinations shot at different times. The main difference from setup to setup will be the size of the heatsinks.

Setup #1:

  • s775 mATX motherboard
  • non-modular, standard sized PSU, lots of wires & connectors
  • large tower heatpipe w/120 mm fan
  • 1 ODD
  • 2 HDDs
  • small video card with small cooler

Setup #1:

  • s775 mATX motherboard
  • non-modular, standard sized PSU, fewer wires & connectors
  • small tower heatpipe w/92 mm fan
  • 1 ODD
  • 1 HDD
  • small video card with small cooler

First let’s put in the motherboard. I want to see how much wiggle room this case gives me so I’m going to keep the heatsink on for this. It’s a tall and wide heatpipe tower sink built for a 120 mm fans so this could prove difficult for such a small mATX case. It wasn’t. Remember what I said earlier about removing the top to allow greater access to the motherboard and heatsink? Well that’s just what I did. It really wasn’t completely necessary for either motherboard/HSF combo, I would have managed it eventually with the top on, but if you need to take the top off to do the install, you can.

Motherboard installed WITHOUT REMOVING 120mm HSF

Motherboard installed WITHOUT REMOVING 120mm HSF

Plenty of room to reach the top/rear corner motherboard mounting screw (and CPU heatsink mounts, and CPU fan power connector, and anything else that one usually finds along the top of the motherboard near the CPU socket). So the motherboard got installed fine with the heatsink still on, no problems, and there is also enough room once the top is off the remove and replace the heatsink independent of the motherboard once the motherboard has been installed. But, when we angle the camera down to see how well the height of this tall cooler integrates into the case we find the top of the heat pipes extend out just past the case edge by a few millimeters. I was able to put the door on but it was exerting a little bit of pressure on the door, bending it slightly but not warping it permanently.

Heat pipe tops extend just outside the case by a few millimeters

Heat pipe tops extend just outside the case by a few millimeters

How different was the process for the smaller cooler? Not very. Easier, but the bigger one was easy enough as well. This tower did not have its heatpipes reach all the way to the door, and tack on about 1 cm of extra room around the CPU socket on every side and you get the picture. For an actual picture of a smaller sink, here’s a shot of a third cooler setup I put in afterward to show just how much room you have if you try to keep things small. It’s the Arctic Cooling Freezer 11LP (low profile) shown next to a stock Intel s775 cooler for scale, and installed in the system that had the 92 mm heat pipe tower. You ca see the Freezer Pro 11LP is larger than the default sink. When mounted it does come close to the top case fan, but it does not interfere with it’s operation. Swapping out the 92 mm heat pipe tower for this sink was easy and did not necessitate taking the top panel off of the case. This swap yielded plenty of extra room in the case. What you decided to try to do with that space is up to you. Custom over sized chipset cooler perhaps?

Freezer Pro 11LP next to stock s775 cooler
Freezer Pro 11LP next to stock s775 cooler
Freezer Pro 11LP installed
Freezer Pro 11LP installed, plenty of extra room

Next let’s put in the PSU. As I assessed earlier on the cover plate is oversized to allow the drive to be slid into place from the rear. This is a definite plus when you’re working with a mATX case and don’t have a lot of wiggle room. You don’t have to worry about removing video cards or hard drive cages just to change PSUs. My other assessment about the PSU mounting also rings true: the rear mounting plate for the PSU is reversable as we can see in the two pics below.

PSU sliding into place one way...

PSU sliding into place one way...

...and then flipped 180° to install the opposite way

...and then flipped 180° to install the opposite way

The rails that the PSU glides along when installed are covered with rubber which should help cut down on vibration and not scratch the finish on the PSU. Notice how the vented louvers cover more area than a standard 120 mm fan and actually extend past this PSU. This combined with the support rails raising the PSU about 1 cm off the bottom of the case will allow PSUs of varying length to be utilized without the problem of their bottom-facing fans not lining up with the case venting perfectly.

Extended vents in case bottom allow for longer PSUs

Extended vents in case bottom allow for longer PSUs

Let’s move on to the optical drives and see how easy they are to install. The ODD bays have a hinged door on their side that when locked into place will hold the drives in place very securely with their pins. If however you wish to use screws to hold the ODDs in place the door is easily removed to allow you to do so. To install the drive we first need to disengage the door from it’s locked position, not just so we can slide the drive into place (obvious) but also because the door’s locking pins actually hold the drive bay covers in place. Now we see why they would not dislodge earlier. I like this, nice and secure. So now the door is opened and we can see the holes for the door’s pins (or screws if you prefer).

ODD bay side view, top door unhinged & face plate removed

ODD bay side view, top door unhinged & face plate removed

Close up of ODD bay with door  removed, revealing screw mounting holes

Close up of ODD bay with door removed, revealing screw mounting holes

Underside of ODD bay door, removed from case

Underside of ODD bay door, removed from case

Close up of ODD mounting door, detailing locking pins and door hinge

Close up of ODD mounting door, detailing locking pins and door hinge

Now lets slide the drive into place and… big problem here. The drive won’t go all the way in. It hits both the motherboard and the case’s motherboard backplate! Here we see it pushed all the way back as far as it can go, and how much is left sticking out.

First optical drive I tried to install in the case

First optical drive I tried to install in the case

The endof the drive shove back enough to touch the mobo and it's mount plate

Back end of the ODD drive touching the mobo and it's mount plate...

...yet the drive still sticks out past the face plate for the drive bay below

...yet the drive still sticks out past the face plate for the drive bay below

And with the front bezel on we clearly see it does not fit

And with the front bezel on we clearly see it does not fit

This not only doesn’t look good but it also means the drive’s mounting holes don’t line up with the case so it can’t be locked into place. At first I thought there could only be two causes for the drive not fitting: 1) the case does not meet the minimum requirement for room for a mATX case or 2) the motherboard does not stay within the maximum. Then I realized there could be a third culprit: the drive itself. Look how the mobo and the case’s motherboard back-plating size up to one another in the pic above. They both fit with each other fine without one running too long. They both meet the industry standard for the mATX form factor. A quick check of the manufacturer’s site for the DVD drive reveals that the drive is 190 mm deep. The image below shows two drives, one that fits and the one that doesn’t.

Two different length ODDs, only one fits

Two different length ODDs, only one fits

The size difference between the two

The size difference between the two, 5mm

The one that does not sticks out 5mm past the one that does fit. So if you want to use an optical drive that is more than 185 mm deep then you’re out of luck. A caveat I must point out is that the drive I was trying to install initially was PATA, most people are running all SATA drives by now and the two SATA drives I tested fit fine, so you should be good to go if you’re running modern hardware, but you might want to measure your pre-existing ODD(s) just to be sure. So let’s move on to the PCI(e) cards. I’m only putting in one, the video card. My assessment that the manual lacked specific instructions on how to install peripheral cards was correct, the method is so standard in this unit that no special instructions are needed. Here’s what the system looks like with two rather small video cards installed into two different motherboards.

Old Radeon 9700 with stock P/// cooler added for extra cooling (duct tape covers the slot in the cooler for the P/// mounting clip)

Old Radeon 9700 with stock P3 cooler added for extra cooling in first PCI slot from top

Newer, yet smaller, GeForce8600gt with stock cooler in second PCI slot from the top

Newer, yet smaller, GeForce8600gt with stock cooler in second PCI slot from the top

One of the selling points for this case is it’s ability to hold two video cards with large cooling systems in spite of the case’s overall small size. Unfortunately I lack two such cards to give a specific example but internal measurements of the case’s space does verify it’s ability to handle peripherals with a depth of 390 mm. So just like the moon landing I say let’s fake it and claim it’s true. Below we see a PCI SCSI controller, 311 mm long, and three 38 mm thick, 120 mm fans (360 mm total, obviously) tied together, lets see how well they fit into the case.

Long PCI card and 3 large fans to simulate a big video card

Long PCI card and 3 large fans to simulate a big video card

Long card with three 120mm*38mm fans on top, easily fits

Long card with three 120mm*38mm fans on top, easily fits

ee

Long card with three 120mm*38mm fans below, easily fits

Plenty of room at the end

Plenty of room at the end

Given that that PCI card is in one of the middle slots and there is space for the fans above and below the card we can clearly see there is room for two large video cards. In that last pic we can see that at the end of the 360 mm worth of fan length we have an additional 15 mm of space. Add to that the 25 mm of thickness the two case fans have and you get a total of 400 mm. Subtract from that the bit of wiggle room you need to get the cards to slide into place and the depth of space the VGA power connectors from the PSU will take up and yes, you can get two thick, long videos cards in this small case. Keep in mind you’ll have to sacrifice the four drive HDD cage and the installed case fans to do so.

On to the hard drives…. Oh geez. Where to begin? When to stop? Honestly, I won’t live long enough to show all the options this setup gives you. So let me just concentrate on a few facts about hard drive installation I haven’t covered yet. The drives screw directly into the cages, they don’t use rails. This means you do need to remove the cages to install the drives properly (ie: secure them on both sides). This is not a hard task because of the thumbscrews that hold the cages in place and taking the cages out just gets you one step closer to positioning them the way that works best for you anyway so why not? Right? The screws that attach the drives to the cages are thumbscrews, sized to fit perfectly through the easily removable rubber grommets that isolate the drives from the rest of the case, thus reducing vibration and noise. I’m not sure why you’d need to remove one or more of the grommets but if you need to, you can do it without massive effort. Although the screws are “thumbscrews” their grip is a bit short for my fingers, the trade off is you don’t have thumbscrews sticking out everywhere inside the case. Space is at a premium here after all. So even though I don’t like stubby thumbscrews I will accept their usage in this situation as a necessary evil. The case came with the exact number of thumbscrews to fill all seven drive bays with drives and to have each drive secured in all four spots.

The short head makes these thumbscrews harder to grip than "normal" ones

The short head makes these thumbscrews harder to grip than "normal" ones

If you’ve read my previous reviews you’ll know my first case was accidentally scratched by myself during testing, so I went ahead and scratched the next one on purpose. Today we continue this horrible tradition. Lian-Li is well known for their quality brushed finish and so this is going to be somewhat sacrilegious but it has to be done. I chose the front ODD face plate to take the hit because almost every system will have at least one ODD so scratching the finish on the plate that has to come out to add that ODD is a perfect choice. As you can see below the scratch shows easily. Unfortunately it was also easy to inflict. This will be much less of an issue if you get the silver one, in fact the brushed finish could very well hide the scratch presuming they run parallel to one another.

A fine cut, gently inflicted with a small screwdriver

A fine cut, gently inflicted with a small screwdriver

another angle

another angle

So everything’s in, now let’s take a look at two, different and complete setups.

The first system installed into the case...

The first system installed into the case...

...and the second one installed

...and the second one installed

So there you have it. Above you see two systems. Here’s where they are similar: Both have mATX boards, standard sized PSUs, small video cards,one optical drive and less than one full cage of hard drives. Here’s where they differ. The one on the left has a 92 mm fan based heat pipe tower cooler (later replaced with the previously shown Frezer Pro 11LP), the one on the right has a larger 120 mm fan based heat pipe cooler. Both installed fine while still attached to the motherboard and the door shuts on both (although as mentioned above the larger one does press slightly on the door). The left one has both drive cages installed, while the right one only has the three drive cage installed in the upper space, leaving room for the larger and more numerous PSU cables in that system in the area below. Once fully installed each setup was tested and all case related components functioned properly. All of the fans spun up, the top-mount ports function, the buttons and LEDs are good. Both of these setups were easy to install because of both the clear explanations of any non-standard aspects in the manual and also the high quality of design and construction of the case itself. It was a pleasure to work with.

Price

Oddly enough Pricebat.ca struck out, so did resellerratings.com. I got no hits for the PC-A04 on either site and a general search using “Lian-Li, LianLi or Lian Li” gave me lots of results, but none for this specific case. So I hit Newegg.ca and found it for CA$129.99 + CA$20.09 shipping (+tax) while Newegg.com in the U.S. has it for $109.99 with $19.99 shipping. NCIX has it for CA$92.89 but is currently out of stock, so I can’t get a direct shipping quote but another case of similar size an weight will add $15 to the total. Other Canadian e-tailers are asking similar prices to Newegg.ca

Conclusions

Time for the good, the bad, and the summary.

Pros:

  • Sturdy framework and doors
  • No rough edges or seams
  • Easy access to all areas (top, PSU, front fans, etc.)
  • Intake fan filters are both effective and easy to clean
  • Good airflow on four of six sides
  • Excellent use of limited space
  • Grommets everywhere you need them

Cons:

  • No airflow on door sides
  • Scratches occur fairly easily and stand out
  • Drive cages must be removed to remove a drive or fully secure an installed one
  • Some thumbscrews are difficult to grip
  • Manual limited in its languages

My final conclusion is that this case is a winner. It’s small and light yet strong and sturdy. Build quality is what we expect to get from a top tier case manufacturer. Buy this case and you’re buying one that can definitely stand up to the day to day wear of a household full of pets, kids and big, fumbly lummoxes like me. They’ve figured how to let you jam big things into a small box without you having to sell one of you children to the devil to do it. They took away every mm of space they could from this case and still left it with plenty of accessibility. Up to seven HDDs in a mATX case and the possibility to have two video cards, each with double thick coolers extending well over a foot! The number of installation permutations for those drives and their movable/removable cages is staggering. Yes, it would be nice if all of the thumbscrews were easier to grip, but the thin ones and stubby ones aren’t difficult to use, just not as effortless as the regular ones. The sacrifice of a minor amount of comfort is not in vain, it allows Lian Li to get the case down to the smallest size possible. The lack of side ventilation is neutralized by the significant amount of front/bottom/back/top ventilation. This case give you a lot of flow for such a small body.

I guess my only concern that does not come with an acceptable trade-off would be the finish, it scratched too easily for my liking and the scratch really stands out. So if you want to be a big, fumbly lummox like me by all means kick it with your foot and stub your toe. You won’t easily dent it or break it, just try not to gouge it with something sharp and hard. I leave the discussion of its appearance to the very end and I will only touch on it briefly as that is purely a matter of personal aesthetics, as I’ve said in my other reviews I don’t get to tell you if you like the look of it or not, only you get to decide that. My opinion should not count on your decision to like its appearance or not. Having said that, the look of this particular carries on the tradition of elegance we have come to see expect from Lian Li over the years.

So, to answer the question I asked in the beginning: yes, they are still one of the ones leading the way. If I had to pick one word: Mercedes. Working with this case has been a pleasure. This case is officially Approved.

I want to thank Lian Li and Hokiealumnus for the opportunity to review this case, and for their understanding in the slight delay in the process due to a personal loss on my end. This review is dedicated to Caramel, the best little network cable chewer I’ve ever known.

-eobard

This review dedicated to Caramel, scourge of mouse and network cords everywhere.

This review dedicated to Caramel, scourge of mouse cords and network cords everywhere.

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Discussion
  1. I.M.O.G.
    Nice read eobard. Thanks.

    On my phone it was hard to get all the pictures, however it sounds like you have to remove the drive bays and screw the drives in to secure them? I really prefer mounting options with rails or other solutions that make installing a drive take 5 seconds or less.

    Not a huge deal, but that is one area I think I would improve this case.


    You would need to remove the drive cages to install drives for two of the three drive cage orientations, the third orientation (drive cage body parallel with the case body) would only require removal of both side doors to access the drive mounts. You also could fiddle with the screws to install the drives without removing the cage first for the other two orientations but its a very tight space and would probably be easier for most people just to pull the whole cage out. It's not 100% impossible to install without removal, just 100% frustrating. Ultimately though I agree that it is not a huge deal.

    TheQuadFather
    i wonder why they chose a 80mm fan spot on the back even though according to eobard there was space for a 92mm? i mean i know 92s are rarer than 80s but they aren't difficult to find.
    My guess would be perhaps they couldn't find a way to implement the hybrid 80/92 mount in a way that would maintain their high standard for the appearance of the case. They're not the kind of company that would sacrifice doing it well just to be able to do it at all.
    i wonder why they chose a 80mm fan spot on the back even though according to eobard there was space for a 92mm? i mean i know 92s are rarer than 80s but they arent difficult to find.
    Nice read eobard. Thanks.

    On my phone it was hard to get all the pictures, however it sounds like you have to remove the drive bays and screw the drives in to secure them? I really prefer mounting options with rails or other solutions that make installing a drive take 5 seconds or less.

    Not a huge deal, but that is one area I think I would improve this case.