Fractal Define R5 - Compensated Review

Well, it’s the New Year. Seemingly endless feasting on mince tarts, ham, chicken and plum pudding is done and dusted, and the Christmas cake is disappearing like the relatives when you ask them to help clean up, so it’s time to address the elephant in the room.

No, I don’t mean me! Just what are you implying?! I mean the very nearly overdue review of the Fractal Design Define R5 midi-tower computer case. Some people!

The background then. In early December Fractal Design ran a little competition for ten people to review the R5 (including building a system into the case), in return for which they would be permitted to keep the case. Since I’ve built both a Fractal Design Define XL and a Fractal Design Node 304 before, I was on this like a pack of seagulls on a hot chip, and luckily I was one of the winners.

On the basis that I was building a system for my son already (Christmas present), I was simply going to build it into this case. Sadly his taste is all in his mouth, and so he decided on a “competitor’s” case in bright red, which from now on I will dismissively refer to as the “red one”. This means you get 2 system builds for the price of one review – you’ll see his system, and one I built for my own use.

Let’s start with the case though, and with the exterior. Opening the front door we see the DVD bays are sculpted and curved – you can see the removable (and replaceable) bay covers here. The cut-out for a 5.25 device is still properly squared off, though, so you should be able to put a 2 bay device here if you need to – just make sure it has a slot down each side so it doesn’t interfere with the supports for the top bay.

The door is switchable with 2 screws – so it can open in either direction. I want it to open in its default “left-hinged” way, though, so I’m leaving that untouched. I seem to remember the XL having a magnetic latch, which would be even nicer than the friction fit of the current door, and I think would suit the case better too.

Just about everything uses thumbscrews to lock into place, although apparently the thumbscrews were installed by Bamm-Bamm or the Hulk, or something, because I needed to loosen most with a screwdriver. Thumbscrews for the right hand panel (behind the motherboard) are captive, so you won’t easily lose them, but all the others are the standard easy to drop type. The left-hand side or main access panel is also clipped into place with a spring-loaded multi-catch, so you don’t need to use the thumbscrews to secure it.

There are multiple strange-looking curved panels attached to the top and right side panel – Fractal Design calls these panels Moduvents. Each cover panel hides a honeycomb style grille behind which you can mount a fan (or in many configurations, radiators). It’s possible to mount 7 x 140mm fans without compromising on other components such as hard disks or optical drives; another 2 spots are available for differing configurations. The manual does a good job of showing this, so I’ve shamelessly augmented that image to illustrate:

Almost all the locations you generally want to use for intake fans have simple plastic dust filters – the entire bottom and the front are 2 filters, while the top and rear are expected to be exhaust so don’t have filters. The plain plastic supplied is my preferred material since it’s so easy to wash and maintain.

The exception to the rule is the side-panel intake, which is a bit of a red-headed stepchild for two reasons. First, while this would normally be an intake (to blow onto graphics cards), there’s no filter. Second, unlike all the other Moduvents which simply clip in and out, you’ll need to take to it with a screwdriver to remove the covering panel. It’s only really noticeable because it’s so different from the rest.

You could also mount a ridiculous amount of radiator area in this case, though in doing so you will end up losing some (or even most!) of your drive bays, so I’ll not be going down that path.

Opening it up – looks pretty normal though the long-standing “white and black” colour scheme is still present and still looks good. Big old hole behind the CPU so you can fiddle with your through-hole mounted coolers and the like, but it doesn’t seem to compromise rigidity.

There are rubber grommets almost everywhere you want to route cables, and round the other side – Velcro ties and plenty of points to attach zip ties or twist ties for cable management. You’ll also find the power connector for the fan controller – a SATA connector, rather than Molex. Interesting choice, particularly since it means a fully loaded system will need 13 SATA power connectors, more than I’ve seen on any PSU including those from Fractal Design themselves.

You can reorganise all the drive bays – while there are 8 x 3.5 internally in a single stack by default, you can use just 3, just 5, or reorganise so that the 3 and 5 bays sit side-by-side at the bottom of the case. Note that if you do that, though, you’ll be a little cramped for access to the PSU, especially if it’s a modular PSU. This example is a Corsair CX750M, nominally 140mm long – as you can see there’s barely 40mm clearance.

Note that if you do reorganise the cages, you’ll need to remove the guides from the 5 bay section – I do like that even here, there’s a useful hidden feature – the guides are guaranteed to be straight by virtue of the 2 positioning holes and corresponding locator studs on the guide pieces. Neat.

A small problem then arose, as I tried to put all the bays back into place. The 5.25 bay was very slightly misaligned (no more than 1mm) – and getting the thumbscrews back into their places took rather more force than I was comfortable applying in a cramped space (and it leaves the screws under stress too). A small niggle but noticeable when you compare that experience with the rest of the case. It could probably be resolved by having locating pins and matching holes – this would put the stresses onto those pins/holes rather than the screws.

You can apparently rotate the 5 bay unit through 90 degrees – though it is listed in the manual as a feature, I have no idea why you’d bother. Frankly all it does is reduce clearances for cards, make it harder to remove drives, undo your careful cable routing and make it look … well just a little ugly, in my personal opinion. Leave it as it comes, this is a feature looking for a problem to solve, and it doesn’t work. (I wouldn’t bother redesigning to remove the feature, I’d just pull it from the manual).

Usefully, the mounting point that is central to an ATX board (and also common to mATX (edge) and ITX boards (corner)) is occupied by a raised pin – this means you don’t need to faff about with 4 hands to keep the board pressed up square against the backplate springs while trying to locate a screw and screwdriver – the board will hold itself in place.

Speaking of those mounting points, the standoffs are augmented here with a little plastic tool to help screw them into the motherboard panel. It’s a small thing I’d never seen included previously but it works and works well.

Almost all of the various fixings are shown below – each item is bagged separately. Not shown on the box is the rubber grommets which are included for all the 3.5” drive bays. The matching screws are exactly the right shape to screw in firmly without over-compressing the rubber (no guesswork needed). Nice touch.

So let’s build the son’s system into this case and see how it goes. I’m not going to show you step by step, it’s fairly obvious how things fit together. His system, composed of parts entirely selected and purchased, generally based on “stuff I’ve used previously and don’t distrust” (no sponsorship deals here):

  • Gigabyte Z97X-UD3H board
  • Intel i7-4790K processor
  • 16GB of Corsair Vengeance DDR3 RAM
  • Samsung 840EVO 512GB SSD
  • 2 x GeForce GTX 970 (SLI obviously)
  • Corsair CS750M power supply
  • Pioneer BDR-209EBK Blu-Ray Drive
  • 2 x recycled 3.5” drives for low-performance storage

Here it is, built into the Define R5:

Note that I did not use the 2.5” mounts behind the motherboard for this build – they’re a nice concept, but if I were leaving this system in this case, I’d put the SSD in a 3.5” bay simply for ease of servicing if something goes wrong. You also have to have the right cables – right-angle SATA connectors and power cables where the connector is at right-angles to the wiring will not work in those 2.5” mounts behind the motherboard.

Total build time for this was about 2 hours, including all the unpacking, cable routing and re-routing, fiddling around etc.

Now here it is built into the “red one”. Looks almost the same, right (there are some minor differences - ignore for now the Arctic Cooling CPU cooler, it has minimal impact on the rest of the build)?

Sure. What you DON’T see is the difference in effort required. Not only did it take about 3 hours longer to get close to the same “quality” build, routing the cables in the red one was a pain (check the CPU power cable as an example), the grommets were too loose and fell out all the time, the standoff tool was too small to use, there’s not enough space behind the motherboard/drives, there’s no sound deadening or rubber grommets for disks, the cable routing holes are too small to work properly, the panels and components didn’t line up as easily or as well, the side panels use the old-school 10 tiny latches top and bottom (so it’s fiddly to reinstall the sides), and it’s just plain more annoying to work in.

Further, check the red one more carefully. Note there are fewer drive bays, no SSD trays behind the motherboard, horribly flimsy drive carriers, no ability to reorganise drive cages … it looks similar, and is priced similarly too - but there’s a whole world of difference in reality. Suffice it to say I probably wouldn’t have realised how big the difference if I hadn’t built the same system in both, but it’s massive.

So I cursed his lack of taste and the long long effort involved. Then I remembered that it means I get the Define R5 for myself and my own workstation build, and suddenly I wasn't annoyed any more. My build details:

  • Intel S1200-BTL board (recovered from an old server)
  • Intel Xeon E3-1230 processor (recovered from an old server)
  • 16GB of DDR3 ECC RAM (recovered from an old server)
  • 160GB Intel SSD (recovered from son’s old build)
  • XFX Radeon 6870 (recovered from son’s old build)
  • Corsair HX650 power supply (recovered from an old server)
  • Pioneer DVD Writer (recovered from son’s old build)
  • 8 x WD 2TB Green drives for streaming and bulk storage (recovered from an old server)
  • LSI-based IBM M1015 SAS RAID controller (recovered from an old server)

You read this right – the whole system is recycled parts from my past systems. I’m not unhappy about this. Here’s the fully-cabled system:

You can see how neat it is internally even with such a crammed build and lots of cables. One thing I do notice with this build is the difference in temps between the top and bottom drives (the top drives have the fan blowing silently across them), so I’ve going to order another fan for the front. I’d have liked to see the third fan included by default, but I can also see it not being needed for many builds.

I would also have preferred the ATX cable to go through the grommet directly above the board (it’s just to the left of the connector), but the hole and grommet is just too small even if you pull the grommet out first. Similarly for the 8 pin CPU power connector; I had to remove the grommet, put the cable through, and then refit the grommet to the slot. They need to be just a little bigger – 5mm higher and 20mm longer should just about do it, and there is easily sufficient space as far as I can see.

This time I did use the SSD mount behind the motherboard – it works well enough, though the first time I didn’t realise how heavily sprung they were and so the mount exploded from the case and the thumbscrew ended up across the room. Both mounting plates are the same so it seems to be intentional, though I don’t understand the reason for it.

The wiring for audio, USB, lights and switches is all marked nicely with one exception – the HDD plug has no markings for polarity. Everything else is marked or keyed, and while you can infer polarity from the power LED (both negative wires are black and positive white), it seems like a small thing to screenprint a + on the appropriate side of the HDD LED connector.

The white drive caddies didn’t click into place as securely as I personally like – but two seconds of effort to bend the spring loaded catches out solved that quickly enough. I’m sure if they were as solid as I prefer, others would be annoyed at how hard they were to remove.

Finally you’re left with a small stack of leftover components – be they extra screws, grommets, expansion slot covers and 5.25” bay covers; with a full build there’s really nowhere you can stash the little cardboard box and bay covers inside the case.

Speaking of temperatures and noise, then. The Define R5 is marketed as a silent case and, as it comes from Fractal Design, it is no lie. The fans are completely inaudible to my 40yo ears (no snide remarks from the cheap seats, please). Fill it with a high-end system though, and there’s only so much the sound dampening can do. You will still hear the fan(s) on the video cards when they ramp up, especially if it’s tonal noise or you force the fans to crazy levels (though there’s a noticeable difference in the volume and quality between the Define R5 and the “red one”). You probably won’t hear drives clicking or the system fans – even at max speed on the included fan controller. At idle, my build is silent unless you’re within 3” of the case, and that’s good enough.

So overall then let’s see.

On the good side:

  • Insane customisability of drive cages and locations
  • Insane customisability of fan and radiator locations
  • Switchable door opening side
  • Ease of assembly is deceptive
  • Cable routing (in the Define the panels with large grommets are offset and angled to provide clearance for the cable bundle, and are far more effective than the un-bent panels and grommets in the red one)
  • Drive grommets for the 3.5” bays and the trays overall
  • Included sound deadening and near-silent fans
  • Most of the intake fans are filtered and those filters are simple washable plastic
  • Attention to small details (e.g. the locating pins for drive guides and motherboard)
  • Overall fit and finish (excellent)
  • Best manual I’ve seen in ages for any case

On the niggle side:

  • Difficulty of reinstalling the 5.25” bays
  • Size of the grommets above the mainboard
  • Tension on 2.5” drive mount plates
  • Lack of marking +/- on HDD LED connector
  • Only 2 fans are included by default
  • Bottom filter can be fiddly to re-fit
  • Side intake cover is screw in (not clip in) and has no filter

Major issues:

  • None.

I suppose at this point you want the conclusion.

I think if I’d have reviewed the R5 in isolation, you’d be seeing a score of about 9.0 - 9.25 out of 10. There are enough little niggles to just take off the “new purchase” shine – I’d have taken off 0.25 points each for the undersized grommets and only 2 fans, and another 0.25-0.5 for the rest of the noted niggles.

Building exactly the same system components into a competing case reset my evaluation markedly, and so my personal overall rating for the R5 is a solid 9.5 out of 10 (to give you a sense of scale, the red one would probably rate around 7.5-8.0). The quality really is that much better.

If your sense of stylish means enough flashing lights to put the Griswolds to shame; if you want to build a storage system to backup the Internet, or you want something small enough to put in your hipster jeans, this isn’t the case for you.

But for everyone else, there’s the Fractal Design Define R5. Highly recommended.

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