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The Ultimate Upgrade? Why upgrading your case makes subsequent upgrades easier and helps them work better

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The Ultimate Upgrade?
Why upgrading your case makes subsequent upgrades easier and helps them work better

What PC upgrades do you have planned for the next year or two? Maybe youll try one of the new Serial ATA hard disks. Perhaps a dual-format DVD burner. A new motherboard with a 3GHz-class Pentium 4. Maybe even the new Athlon 64.

Before you install another internal upgrade, you should consider making another upgrade first: the case. If your current case makes motherboard, drive, or port upgrades a struggle, a new case can make these upgrades a pleasure by making it easier to add and remove internal components

A new case can also improve system cooling and make access to popular I/O standards such as USB and IEEE-1394 easier.

In the following sections, Ill compare an old mid-sized case for ATX motherboards to a brand-new case so youll see exactly what the benefits of upgrading can be. The old case is just a generic one without a name-brand, but the new case is a relatively low-cost Antec PlusView1000AMG. Its around $80-90.

Making Add-On Card Upgrades Faster and Easier

What component do you add or change most often? For some people, especially gamers and audio-visual mavens, its probably add-on cards. Every six months or so, it seems that a new crop of high-performance 3D graphics chipsets show up from ATI and nVidia and graphics card manufacturers swing into high gear. The once-moribund sound card business has also taken on new life with the rise of 5.1, 6.1, and even 7.1 positional audio cards from several vendors. You might also need to pop in a card to experience the joys of Gigabit Ethernet, USB 2.0, or the latest flavor of IEEE-1394/FireWire. Whichever the type of add-in card you want to install, case designs can make it simple or make it nightmarish.

Figure 1 compares an old ATX case to the Antec. Like many cases still made to this day, the beige case is a three-piece affair. You cant remove the side panels unless you take off the top panel first. It uses only one screw, thankfully, but its certainly no joy for the frequent upgrader.

On the other hand, the Antec case uses four screws if you want to use them. However, it also has a locking latch which can be used to gain fast access to the interior. You can leave the screws off and still securely close and open your case.

Figure 1 The Antec case on the right features a convenient door latch, while the case on the left must be disassembled to access the drive bays and card slots inside.

Making Drive Upgrades Faster and Easier

As you might remember from my book Upgrading and Repairing PCs, Im a big fan of removable drive cages, also known as removable drive bays. Its a huge pain to try to wrestle with the interior of a computer case to install drives, but if the case has removable drive cages, its much easier to install and remove 3.5-inch drives.

Many low-end ATX cases, including the beige example shown in Figure 1, lack removable drive cages. However, for less than $100, you can pick up a variety of cases which one or even two removable 3.5-inch drive bays. Figure 2 shows one of the removable drive bays built into the Antec case.

Figure 2 This removable drive bay is designed for hard disk drives, and even supports an optional fan to help keep high-speed (7,200 RPM and faster) drives cool.

A well-designed case can also make installing 5.25-inch drives such as optical (CD and DVD) drives and some types of high-capacity removable-media drives easier. The beige case in Figure 3 requires the user to fasten the drives to the case with screws, while the Antec case uses rails and, unlike some cases which use rails, allows you to slide the drives into place without removing the front of the case. This case also features convenient storage for additional drive rails inside the case.

Figure 3 The Antec case on the right features drive rails and a swing-out door so that 5.25-inch drives can be inserted or removed without removing the front of the case.

Improving Cooling

High-speed processors, memory, drives, and 3D graphics cards all produce more heat than ever, and many older cases just arent up to the task of providing adequate airflow. Compare the rear of the old beige case and the new Antec case in Figure 4. The old case isnt designed to use larger-diameter high-performance case fans to move air; the largest fan supported would be around 60mm or less. Newer cases often support 80mm or larger fans, but still require the use of screws. The Antec case supports larger fans, and thanks to a snap-in, snap-out fan holder inside the case, you dont even need to use screws to install a fan. One fan is already installed, but theres room for another.

Figure 4 The Antec case on the right a pair of snap-in, snap-out holders for case fans. The upper holder has an installed fan, leaving the lower holder free for future use.

Improving I/O Port Access

Many new systems now feature one or more USB or IEEE-1394 ports built into the front of the case. Many cases you can buy as upgrades, such as the Antec case shown in Figure 5, also support this feature. Generally, these ports are connected to header cables which are designed to connect to built-in ports on your motherboard. Because different motherboards have different arrangements for header cable pinouts, dont be surprised if the cable from a front-mounted port features individual connectors rather than a molded multi-pin connector.

Figure 5 The Antec case features front-mounted USB and IEEE-1394a/FireWire 400 ports.

Other Features to Consider

If youre planning a motherboard upgrade or two, a removable motherboard tray is very useful. Typically, you need to buy a more expensive case than that shown in Figures 1-4 to get this feature. With a motherboard tray, you dont need to remove as many components to perform the motherboard swap. See Chapter 22 of Upgrading and Repairing PCs for a typical example.

To help further improve cooling (and make lugging the computer around a bit easier, consider an all-aluminum case. Aluminum cases have better heat transfer than steel or steel and plastic cases. Theyre also more expensive, coming in at around $150 or so.

Keep in mind that many cases are sold with low-quality power supplies. Look for cases without power supplies to avoid being stuck with an inferior model, or else choose cases from vendors which use high-quality power supplies such as PC Power and Cooling or Antec (cases with TruePower power supplies).

Making the Switch

Unlike most other upgrades, a case upgrade doesnt require any new software. Follow this basic procedure:

1. Take the ESD precautions covered in Chapter 22 of Upgrading and Repairing PCs such as anti-static work mat and wrist strap.

2. Find the manual (or download one) for your motherboard so you know how to connect cables for front-panel power, lights or ports.

3. Shut down your PC and unplug it from power.

4. Disconnect power, data, front-panel and rear-panel cables from your motherboard.

5. Remove add-on boards.

6. Remove the motherboard and install it in the new case.

7. Connect the front-panel leads for on-off switch, signal lights, and ports.

8. Move the power supply to the new case.

9. Connect fans on the motherboard and case to the new power supply or motherboard as needed.

10. Remove the drives from the old system and move them to the new system. Install drive rails (provided with the case) as required.

11. Connect power and data cables from the drives to the motherboard and power supply.

12. Reinstall the add-on boards in the same slots they used previously. Be sure to remove slot covers from the rear of the case as needed and close up the system when done.

13. Reattach monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other cables to the front and rear panel ports.

14. Plug in the power supply.

15. Restart the system.

16. If the new case supports features such as intrusion detection and additional case fans which can be monitored by the system BIOS, start the BIOS setup program and make changes to the system configuration as needed. Save changes.

17. Enjoy your new case.

Conclusion

For less than $100 (the best deals are often found online), you can buy a computer case that makes most upgrades much easier. Spend a little more and you can also get features such as a removable motherboard tray or aluminum construction. If youre planning to make frequent changes to your system, a case upgrade is an excellent idea.

For Further Research

Get more useful and fun ideas for your next case from these articles from the Toms Hardware website:

How To Select The Right Case
http://www.tomshardware.com/howto/20020521/index.html

15 Cases for Review
http://www.tomshardware.com/howto/20030211/index.html

Check out these case manufacturers websites for a wide variety of choices:

Antec
http://www.antec-inc.com

Chieftec
http://www.chieftec.com

Enermax
http://www.enermax.com.tw

PC Power and Cooling
http://www.pcpowerandcooling.com

Thermaltake
http://www.thermaltake.com

Copyright©2003 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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