The Ultimate Linux Box: A Case Study

by Glenn Stone

Once again, it's time to consider how to build the Ultimate Linux Box. This time we're going to do things a bit differently: I'm going to analyze one element at a time, write a web article on it, take readers' feedback from that, add the next component and so on, until we've built the entire box together. A little open-source project, if you will.

This year the idea is to build a multimedia workstation. We want a dual-head video card, professional quality USB sound, the latest in serial ATA RAID storage, a DVD recorder, some serious horsepower to drive it all and, of course, a nice case.

So, let's get down to cases. For this sort of project we want a case that can hold as many ATA drives as possible, for future expansion, but that is still something approaching a normal size. It also should have good cooling, because all that hardware will tend to get rather warm. I looked at three different mid-tower cases: the Chenming ATX-601AW, the Thermaltake Xaser III V1000A and the Lian Li PC-65B.

The Chenming is a rakish looking thing, available in several different colors of anodized aluminum. It has four 80mm fans—two in the front and two in the back—four 5.25" bays and six 3.5" bays, the lower four positions being internal-only. The external bays are concealed by a hinged plastic cover. The side panel is unique in that it is not held into position with thumb screws; instead, it locks into place with a key. (I'm not sure this is an advantage for tinkerers who are apt to lose their keys.) The fixed motherboard tray accommodates the extended-ATX-size motherboards (12 x 13), although the largish bar across the open end of the case (an artifact of its being all-aluminum) is going to make getting the motherboard in and out rather interesting. On the other hand, getting 5.25" devices in and out is a breeze. No having to pop the front bezel; simply unplug from the back, then unclip and pull. No problem. Street price: $85.99.

The Thermaltake is the giant of the group, nearly 21" tall. It sports, among its other accents, a blue Thermaltake logo that lights up when the machine is powered on. Both the front and side covers lock, which is good for the security-conscious. The front panel has a built-in Hardcano 7 display, which has a Firewire port, two USB sockets, a temperature readout and a fan speed control for the seven fans. As for fans, there are two each in the front, side and rear, a seventh one in the top. Twelve drive bays lurk under the cover, with the usual four-and-two accessible from outside. This cavern of a case takes the E-ATX motherboards with room to spare. It's almost completely tool-less inside, from the drive bays to the PC card holders. The drive and card holders are plastic, however; having shipped a lot of Linux machines in a previous incarnation, I'm a little dubious as to how well that would stand up under shipping. It lists for $169.99.

Then, we come to the Lian Li. A sleek all-black affair with a hard-anodized finish, this case appeals to the tinkerer in me. Undo a few thumb screws in the back, and the entire motherboard tray (standard-ATX sized) slides out. All the innards come loose with metal thumb screws, even the PC cards. The usual case wiring is on a ribbon cable with a quick disconnect, making major surgery on the machine a breeze. There are four fans, two up front, one in the rear and one in the top. The drive mounts are unique; there are the usual four 5.25" bays, but all three of the upper 3.5" mounts are accessible from outside. The lower five are mounted sideways across the bottom of the case, directly in front of the twin fans. The pop-off front bezel conceals the fan speed control, and it has a nice metal door covering the USB ports. (The bezel is the one major part of this case that does not involve thumb screws.) There aren't any locks on the case, although there is a bracket in the back into which you could insert a small padlock and keep folks out. $124.99 takes it home.

So we have three nice cases—but which one really deserves to be the foundation of the Ultimate Linux Box? The Chenming quickly can be eliminated from contention; it's missing two drive bays and a top fan in comparison to the other two cases. The decision between the other two cases, thought, isn't quite as easy. Seven fans and the front panel display are awfully alluring advantages for the Thermaltake. However, the slide-out motherboard tray is an effective counter to a hardware geek, and metal thumb screws trump plastic latches. Besides, one is likely to spend more time either inside the case or looking at the screen; a snarky-looking case gets you points at a LAN party, but it doesn't do anything for you when you're trying to get work done. The final factor that puts the Lian Li over the top is it's all-aluminum construction, which dissipates heat better than the Thermaltake's steel chassis. (The Lian Li is the only all-aluminum case that I have seen that really seems as sturdy as a steel case, the Chenming included, and the price tag reflects it.) The one downside to the Lian Li is it is limited to a standard ATX motherboard; the big monsters won't fit. But, not to worry—there are ways of putting quite a bit of horsepower into a 17" case. But that's a topic for next time.

Next installment: the Chairman of the Board.

Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.

email: gs@liawol.org

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