All right, chilluns! We have here the Zalman Z11 Plus. Zalman Tech Co. was founded in 1999 and prides itself for introducing the concept of “Noiseless computing” to the computer industry. For us air coolers, this case looks very promising, and should have great potential for air cooling. How well does it reach that potential? Let’s see.
Z11 Plus Features & Specifications
• The front mesh bay cover provides cool air into the system while dust filters prevent dust from entering.
• Up to 7 system fans are installed to expel hot air effectively from the case.
• Zalman’s Powerful HDD Cooling Solution. Interactive Cooling System : Hot air generated from HDD is expelled through both sides. Cooling Performance is maximized for HDD cooling, and the overall PC exhaust is increased.
• For user convenience, Top air vents expel exhaustive air from the top cooling fan. In addition, translucent acryl vents are effective for tuning.
• Dynamic Side Acryl Tuning is provided for users to view the interior of gaming system.
• I/O module provides dual USB 3.0 ports for user convenience and expandability.
• Dust filters in the front and bottom mesh covers prevent dust from entering the system and keep the internal components dust-free.
• Z11 Plus supports bottom PSU installation and provides an aperture for cable management to make better use of interior space.
• The interior of chassis is coated black to provide a sense of unity and elegant design.
• Anti-Vibration Rubber prevents noise and also keeps the system safe from water or other liquid.
• The server-type Tool-Free HDD Mount Trays allow easy HDD installation/removal and maintenance.
• Spacious Interior for 290 mm Card Installation. The interior has been designed to be spacious for easy installation and maintenance of various components.
• Supports Solid-State Drive (SSD). Space is provided on the back of M/B plate for installing 2.5″ HDD/SSD.
• Separate apertures for CPU cooler are provided for convenient CPU cooler installation without having to remove motherboard from case.
• 3-in-1 Bracket Provided. 3-in-1 Adapter Tray is provided for installing FDD / 3.5″ HDD / 2.5″ HDD/SSD.
• Tube apertures are provided at the rear of the case for convenient water cooling set-up and maintenance.
• Dimensions (W x H x D): 207 x 464 x 504 mm (8.1 x 18.2 x 19.8 inches)
(The width is the width of the black plastic cap. The metal case is just under 200 mm wide. With the chipmunk cheeks, the case is somewhat more than ten inches wide.)
• Weight: 7.4 kg (16.3 lb)
• Materials: Plastic, Steel
• Motherboard Compatibility: Standard ATX / m-ATX
• Graphics Card Compatibility: 290 mm (11.4″)
• 5.25″ External Bay x 4
• 3.5″ External Bay x 1, Internal Bay x 5
• 5.25″/3.5″/2.5” 1 (3-in-1)
• Front: 120/140 mm Fan x 1 (1 Fan included)
• Top: 120/140 mm Fan x 2 (1 Fan included, 1 optional)
• Rear: 120 mm Fan x 1 (1 Fan included)
• Side: 80 mm Fan x 2 (2 Fan included)
• Bottom: 120/140 mm Fan x 1 (Fan optional)
• Front Panel I/O Port: Headphones x 1, Mic x 1, USB 2.0 x 2, USB3.0 x 2
Packaging and First Look
Cardboard box. Check. We’ve seen cardboard boxes before. Inside is a plastic-wrapped case buffered by two Styrofoam end caps. Check. We’ve seen those, too. Next.
Ah, the case. First the front view of the Zalman Z11 Plus. Check out those chipmunk cheeks! They make the case funny-looking, but are they worth it? Stay tuned. Before we move on to the next picture, notice the grating that fronts the lower intake fan. This means the fan can have a filter. The grating extends to the chipmunk cheeks; I wonder what those are for.
A view of the left side: note that we can see rear-facing vents on the chipmunk cheek. That makes a grate on the front and a set of vents on the rear of each chipmunk cheek. What’s going on here? That chipmunk cheek is plastic, fastened to the metal side panel. There’s also a window in a raised part of the side panel. That will make lots of room for a tall heatsink, and a window to show it off. However, no side panel fan for the GPU. Perhaps Zalman worries that hot air from the chipmunk cheek would be ingested into a side panel fan. We’ll see.
The Z11 back panel consists of a 120 mm fan, grommets for radiator hoses, seven expansion slots, and a bottom mounted PSU. Fairly standard.
The right side panel is flat, there’s no bulge for easier cable management, and it has a chipmunk cheek.
The top has rear-facing vents. Which looks good to me. When the top is covered this way, the case underneath sometimes has grill-free fan positions. That would free up air to flow with no resistance and no noise. Some cases with top caps also have room for radiators or fans under the plastic vents. That would be cool and useful feature.
The bottom seems to have two types of filters — one for the power supply and one for a bottom intake fan.
Let’s take a closer look at the bottom. We have a filtered bottom fan position. That’s good, but over the PSU intake we have a restrictive grill that is supposed to be a filter. It removes like a filter, but mostly it restricts airflow.
We’ll remove the filters now and take a closer look. The bottom fan grill is one of the less restrictive kind, but the filter is clipped in. That means you would have to tilt this case to get at the bottom fan filter. Doable, but a tad annoying. You can see that the PSU simply has louvers under it. I’m sure that was inexpensive, but along with the restrictive “filter” a PSU might have to struggle for cooling air.
Under the Masks
Below we see the Z11 Plus’s front, with the faceplate off. The 5.25″ barriers are actually fastened by bridges of metal. You must cold work them to free them. The top barrier has a ledge on which you can rest your DVD. Note that the bottom space, where the 3.5″ adapter goes, is actually a normal 5.25″ space. You can put a DVD here or any 5.25″ device. Admirable flexibility, since some cases do not allow you to put a 5.25″ device in the 3.5″ space. Below that we see the 140 mm fan filter. It’s identical to the bottom filter, which is good: these are excellent filters.
Next, the filter comes off. Underneath we see the lower intake fan which is a 120 mm model in this case (sorry; couldn’t resist the pun). The lower intake fan is fronted by the same grill work we saw on the bottom. It’s not terribly restrictive, but it’s not necessary: unlike the bottom of the case no one is going to have anything sticking into the fan, because the front grate will keep fingers away. Speaking of the front grate, now that it’s gone let’s peer into a chipmunk cheek. Hmm. Looks like an 80 x 15 mm fan with a plastic edge wall extending to the side of the chipmunk cheek. Well, it appears that there will be no airflow from the front into the chipmunk cheek. That front grating is purely ornamental.
In the right picture, the front fan comes off. Wow! That has to be one of the most open hard drive cages you will ever see. This is a very good thing. As for the fan holder, you can see that the frame is held on by a single screw at the top and clips at the bottom. More on those clips later.
Last, what you can’t see. The faceplate was very hard to get off, and goes on only by slamming it. Not fun. Even worse, the stiffness came with some brittleness. Prying out the lowest slot cover resulted in breaking a tab. Luckily the fit is tight enough that a tab is not actually needed, but it is not something you like to see.
Let’s move on to the space that will house your components. On the left is a view of the case with the left side panel off. From here you can see the underside of the top cover. Hmm. Doesn’t look like much room up there. We do see a nice large CPU window on the motherboard tray. Under it is a ventilated spot for a 2.5″ device like an SSD. That’s probably as good a place to put it as any. The cable pass-through holes have no grommets, but their edges are rolled so there is no need for grommets. In fact, if you use a lot of cables, grommets just get in the way. The rolled steel here is a better solution. The HDD cage has T-shaped slots. Why? On the far side panel you can see a chipmunk cheek fan. OK, now we know: the chipmunk cheeks are designed to pull air sideways out of the HDD cage, presumably to improve airflow and cooling around your hard drives. We’ll have to test that. Finally, the expansion slot covers are simply elaborate cutouts. Remove one and the spot where it was will be empty. Since there are only two slot covers in the accessory kit, if you remove more than two you will have to scrounge one from elsewhere if you change your setup, or do without expansion slot covers. On the other hand, removing all of your backplane slot covers is a good way to encourage airflow without having to install stronger and noisier fans.
Next, you can see the bottom of the case from the inside, clearly showing how little airflow will come to the PSU. However, there are four rubber pads for the power supply unit so it won’t rattle.
We have arrived again at the right side of the case. First note the green wires. Those end in connectors that hook to the wires on the faceplate. These allow you to disconnect the wires and completely separate the faceplate from the rest of the case. Handy. Now let’s peek behind where the motherboard will go. Note the plenitude of tie-down points on the back of the motherboard tray. Those will make cable management easier. Again, there is the 2.5″ mount. Last, this case is feather light when it is empty without all the plastic.
On the left are the Z11 Plus accessories. The big surprise is the EPS12V extension cable (8-pin plug). This is a short case, so it is unclear why Zalman thinks you need one of these. The manual actually is a fine instruction manual, well worth reading. Reading it will help you avoid making mistakes, as we shall see.
In the right picture, you can see three kinds of thumbscrew. On the upper left is a specimen of the thumbscrew that holds on the back panels. Ordinary thumbscrews are too small, so don’t lose one of these. More importantly, don’t lose two. There are five of the thumbscrew on the right. That thumbscrew is used to hold a hard drive in place when you move . . . or remove a plastic device I will show you later. The lower thumbscrew is to hold your 5.25″ devices in place. The slot cover with the odd holes? See the next paragraph.
The case wires. Zalman doesn’t waste your time with an AC ‘97 audio plug. They stick with the HD plug. Then the case shows when it was designed. Yup. Those are two USB3 cables. Zalman set this case up so you can snake those cables through the special slot cover, and plug them into the back of the motherboard, outside the case. Those little holes are for USB3 cables to pass through. We’ll see how that looks.
The right picture shows the top of the case without the plastic cap. The cap could not be lifted by pushing on its tabs, however. It had to be dislodged with brute strength. I was afraid of breaking it. The grill on the top of the metal ceiling is not very restrictive, except to the rig-builder’s fingers. It is also unnecessary, given the louvered plastic cap that fits over it. One more thing about that cap: there is not enough room for a 25 mm thick fan or rad under it. That is a lost opportunity, given what we will learn later.
Building in the Z11 Plus
So let’s build in the Zalman Z11 Plus. We’ll start with the hard drives.
Ha! Read the manual. I looked at those T-shaped slots and figured I knew just what to do. I put the rubber bumpers on the hard drives as you see on the left side in the left picture. That’s right, the side with the crossed red circle. Why did I put the international symbol for NO over that side? Because when I mounted the first HDD with bumpers like that it would not fit. Then I read the manual. Oh. Replaced the bumpers the way you see on the right, and the hard drives fit nicely in their cage. See the center picture for how it looks. BTW—the thumbscrew on the upper left side of the hard drive in the picture is available to fasten the HDD into its cage.
Here we see an EPS12V plug trying to get through at the top of the case. It will fail. It will fail not because of the fan — that can be removed — but because of the motherboard. There is no room for both a motherboard and an EPS12V plug. You must remove that back fan, feed the EPS12V through first, and only then mount your motherboard to the motherboard tray.
You can see why that back fan might not go back where it came from. There was just not quite enough room for it. It was only a matter of millimeters, but the fan would not fit between the EPS12V cable and the top of the case.
And in the right picture you can see that when your DVD drive is in the top 5.25″ slot the cables coming from the front and the top of the case interfere with placement of a forward top fan. So this rig was built with no top fans.
Another note: some cases this size allow you to put a 240 mm or 280 mm rad on the top side of the ceiling with its fans on the underside. Clearly, there is room for neither in this case.
The next shot shows the rear of the case. The pass-through slot is there with its grommet, along with the two USB3 cables coming out and plugging into the backplane USB3 sockets.
On the right you can see the Z11 Plus case fully loaded. Despite the two USB3 cables snaking through, it looks pretty sharp.
Let’s lay this case down and look at the clearances. Here you can see that this 200 mm case will fit a NH-D14 with room to spare. So if there were a version of this case with a flat side panel, it would hold a D14 or any other full tower. To fit an Archon or other oversize heatsink you will need the bowed panel.
However, you don’t have much room at the top. There was barely enough room for me to remove the side mounted clips that hold the D14’s fans. The top grill got in the way (here is where a grill-free open ceiling would have been very helpful). If you could fit a top-mounted fan in there it would have to go in last and come out first: once in, there would be no room for working with the heatsink. Note that I just placed the fan in there loose because of the interference with the EPS12V plug there is no way to fasten a fan short of using Velcro.
On the left, you can see that having lots of tie down points is a good thing. This power supply unit has several long, fixed cables. It would be a good PSU for a full tower case, but the Z11 Plus is a mid-tower, and barely that on the inside. So we must deal with a fair amount of slack. There is also a lot of slack in the case wiring. So as a result the various cables and wires take serpentine paths to their destinations. Because of the many tie down points, those cables and wires are all tied firmly in their places. The long cables show what this case can do in cable-handling.
On the right, you can see the behind-the-motherboard-tray clearance. Only 16 mm. While that is plenty for the cables running behind the motherboard itself, the cables running over the divider between the motherboard tray and the drive-holding column made it difficult to fasten the right panel. After careful placement of those cables, another difficulty presented itself: hooking up those five hard drives to SATA and power cables again made the side panel hard to put in place. In the interests of time, I simply disconnected the HDD’s to make room. Here is where a slight bowing of the case panel would help. As the case is now, the HDD’s would benefit from right-angle and left-angle SATA cables.
Let’s peer into a chipmunk cheek once again. Yup. Doesn’t appear to be much room between the fan and the side wall.
The second picture shows a chipmunk cheek opened up. That is what they call an ‘axial fan’. Axial fans are what enthusiast builders use all the time. They pull air from one side and blow it out the other. Your desk fan is an axial fan, for instance. So is a ceiling fan, or the fan behind the radiator of your car. They work well in all those applications, but using one here seems inefficient. A ‘blower,’ which is a centrifugal fan that pulls air in from the side and blows it out at right angles, would be a better fan for the job. Of course, it would be more expensive.
The placement of this chipmunk cheek fan is designed to suck air out of the hard drive cage, push the air against the side walls, and force it out the back. So we will test this.
Before we do, look at the hard drive cage. The HDD clip is outlined in a translucent green. Only two screws holds it on.
Now, on to the test. With hard drives in all five spaces, after an hour with no ventilation the hard drive being monitored rose to 41 °C, or 19 °C over the ambient 22 °C. I then recorded the temperature of the HDD with various combinations of fans while I measured sound pressure levels at 10 cm from the front grate. This arrangement will under-represent the fan noise from the chipmunk cheeks. The fan combinations were:
- No fans running
- Front intake fan only; No other fans
- Front intake and rear exhaust fans running; No side fans
- Front intake, rear exhaust and side fans running
- HDD clip removed; Front intake and rear exhaust fans running; No side fans
The SPL results were converted to a standard 1 meter distance by subtracting 20 dB.
Note — “HDD Plate Removed” means no side fans, just the front and rear fans.
As you can see, the least expensive option — removing the HDD clip — had the greatest cooling effect and matched the least noise. Think of it as removing a banana in your tailpipe (watch Beverly Hills Cop to see what I mean). With the obstruction gone, Zalman’s magnificent low-resistance HDD cage comes into its own.
Ironically, if Zalman had wanted a truly effective ventilation system using chipmunk cheeks, it should have used blowers rather than axial fans. Note that I did not try the system with a HDD cage pull fan in place of a front intake fan. That would probably work just as well as chipmunk cheeks and make less noise.
Fans in Front
Let’s button this thing up and see how she looks. First, a front view in the left picture. As you can see, the only 3.5″ device I had was a floppy drive left over from the beige computer days.
Next, we see a new build, all lit up. We have a 140 mm LED fan in the lower front intake position. Because of the clip on the fan holder (see above), the lower 140 mm fan had to be forced in a little. There was no clearance, but above in the 5.25″ bay the DVD drive has been moved to the bottom slot. Above that, taking up 3-1/3 slots, is another 140 mm LED fan behind the filtered 5.25″ slot covers. I love slot covers like this, because they really do filter dust.
We can do even more though. First you see the DVD in the bottom slot, with a 140 mm fan taking up about 3-1/3 slots above it. In the next picture, we have moved the DVD up a slot. The 5.25″ bay is open at the top, and clearly there is room for another 1/3 slot at the top. Now you can put a 3.5″ device in the bottom slot, or another 5.25″ device like a fan controller. Even with the two bottom 5.25″ slots occupied, there is still room for a 140 mm fan in the upper part of the 5.25″ bay. Hurray! Some cases like the Zalman Z9 Plus do not have the flexibility of putting a full 5.25″ device in the bottom slot. Since there is little call for 3.5″ external devices these days, in those cases the slot is wasted. It is not wasted here.
One drawback: I had a 140 mm Yate Loon D14SH-124B in the lower front intake. It made lots of noise pulling air through its grill. Really, that grill is a nuisance.
- Built-in filters for the bottom and two front intake fans (counting the meshed 5.25-inch covers as filters)
- Spaces for five 140 mm fans, counting a fan in the 5.25″ bay and not counting the rear 120mm fan or the side 80 mm fans
- Wide enough; Just barely so, but enough
- Many tie-down points on the back of the motherboard tray
- Tight to work in
- Chipmunk cheeks add cost but not value
- No place for a fan to ventilate graphics cards
- The system builder must take little extra steps, like being careful in what order the motherboard and EPS12V plug must go in, like removing the HDD clip from the HDD cage to assure proper ventilation
- Unnecessary grills
- Very stiff plastic
- Taller top cap to allow a fan or a radiator to go up there
- Leaving grills off the front intake and the top under the cap to allow freer airflow with less noise
- More flexible plastic
A less expensive case — call it a Z12 — based on this one, but without the chipmunk cheeks and without the front and top grills. It should include space for a fan over the graphics cards, and the top cap should have room for 25 mm thick fans or a radiator. Keep the five filtered front slots.
Overall, the Z11 Plus was not easy to work in. It was tight, and could have used another 5 mm head space and 5 mm for cable room. Its chipmunk cheeks really did little for HDD cooling. You could get better cooling by removing the clip that covered over half of one side of the HDD cage. That said, having five filtered 5.25″ slots makes this an attractive case for air coolers: you get an additional intake fan aimed directly at the CPU heatsink. And the hard drive cage looks like it should have the freest airflow of any HDD cage I have seen.
But the Zalman Z11 Plus is a frustrating “almost there.” For every nice touch, like the plethora of tie down points, you have drawbacks like too little space under the cap for a standard fan on the top of the case, and too little space for a fan next to the motherboard under the top of the case.
Still, the case is not terribly expensive: $69.99 at Newegg as this is written, $59.99 with a $10 MIR. And if you put your 5.25″ devices in the lower two slots you have room for a 140 mm upper front intake fan — a filtered fan at that. Inside, if you do not put a 5.25″ device in the top slot there will be room for a forward top fan (upper front vs forward top; they are different fans). With a nibbler you can remove the front, top and rear grills. This will make airflow through this case so much smoother and quieter. The chipmunk cheeks can be removed. So this case really can be an air cooler’s delight.
Bottom line: if you like the features and you can put up with the difficulties of this case, it can be an air cooler’s delight. If you need an easier case to work in, look elsewhere.
– Ed Hume (ehume)