When it comes to budgeting for a PC, the last thing a lot of people seem to leave room for is the case.

I, sadly, can attest to being one of these people.

Over the last few years I've managed to wear and tear my way through at least half a dozen of what I affectionately refer to as POS cases, AKA the sub-$100 plastic fantastics which are always justified with the inner mantra of the fiscally fickle - "it will do the job".

What people like me don't seem to realise is that if we take the cumulative spend of all these cases over just a few years, roughly $500 in my example, then it would actually be more prudent to front up with a few hundred dollars in the first place and get a case that will stand the test of time, and provide a few other benefits as well. Now, deciding how much to spend is just the first step - there's still a plethora of products to choose from in this price range, so today for your viewing pleasure we've plucked two candidates for your cash, which are roughly the same price, and we'll pit them against each other to what you're getting for your bucks.

Cooler Master Sniper - $345 NZ RRP

Cooler Master, as their name implies, are primarily in the business of thermal solutions. They've been around for about ten years, and whilst they are expanding their portfolio into a wide range of PC products, cases and coolers are their bread and butter. The Sniper up for discussion today is the first case from the "CM Storm" series, which will presumably be a series of cases from Cooler Master aimed explicitly at gamers. Their tagline for this model is "World's 1st True Gaming Chassis." We'll see.

Features:
Model SGC-6000-KKN1-GP, Available Color Black
Material Steel, ABS Plastic, Mesh bezel, Dimension (L)566.6 x (W)254.6 X (H)551 mm
Weight 10.6 kg, M/B Type Micro-ATX/ATX
5.25" Drive Bay up to 5 Exposed, 3.5" Drive Bay 5 Hidden 1 Exposed
Cooling System:Front: 200x30mm Blue LED Fan x 1 (500 - 1000rpm, 17 - 23 dBA)
Top: 200x30mm Blue LED Fan x 1 (500 - 1000rpm, 17 - 23 dBA)
Rear: 120x25mm Standard Fan x 1 (1200rpm, 17 dBA)
Bottom: Supports 140mm Fan x 1 or 120mm Fan x 1 w/ Dust Filter (optional)
I/O Panel USB2.0 x 4; IEEE1394 x 1; eSATA x 1; Mic x 1; HD Audio+AC’97 x 1

Antec Nine Hundred Two - $319 NZ RRP

Antec is an American company who have specialised in cases and power supplies for over twenty years, as well as branching out into other PC components as seems to be the fashion lately with manufacturers. This Nine Hundred Two gaming case replaces the original Nine Hundred which can be had for around $200, so I'd expect this new model to have some extra bells and whistles.

Features:
Advanced cooling system:
- 1 rear 120 x 25mm TriCool™ blue LED exhaust fan
- 1 top 200 x 30mm "Big Boy" TriCool™ blue LED exhaust fan
- 2 front 120 x 25mm special black blue LED intake fans with front speed control
Built-in washable air filters. 9 drive bays
8 expansion slots to support multiple graphics cards, including NVIDIA 3-way SLI®
Front mounted I/O ports - 2 x USB 2.0 - 1 x eSATA - Audio In and Out (AC'97+HDA)
Motherboard: Mini-ITX, microATX, Standard ATX
Unit Dimensions: - 49.3cm (H) x 21.8cm (W) x 47.2cm (D)
Package Dimensions: - 57.7 cm (H) x 28.8 cm (W) x 51 cm (D)
Weight: - Gross: 28.9 lbs / 13.1 kg

Size

In case it's not obvious from the pictures - the Sniper is huge. The Antec case is not miniature by any means, in fact it in turn dwarfs my POS case by the same proportions. Size can be a plus or a minus depending on how you'll use the case. The extra room inside the Sniper is definitely a plus when it comes to installing the components - lots of room to hide cables and plenty of space to get in with hands and screwdrivers when installing parts.

The downside of course is real estate: only the Nine Hundred Two would actually fit under my desk! Taking the Sniper to a LAN would also prove cumbersome, however the carry handles on it are very strong and accessible, in fact the Antec case has no handles or carry points at all. The rear of the case is fairly solid to grab but lifting the case by the front panel almost feels as if you're about to snap something.

Connections

There is a clear winner here on the front-panel-connection side of things. Aside from the standard issue Power/Reset switches, activity LEDs and MIC/headphone jacks the Sniper also packs a total of 4 USB ports, plus single firewire and eSata port.

The Big Knob in the middle is also kind of handy too: the dial can be connected to all your system fans and speed-controlled all from there, and the button inside turns the system LEDs on and off.

The Nine Hundred Two by comparison looks pretty bare with just 2 USB and 1 firewire port alongside the standard buttons. The pre-installed fans can be controlled individually - the two front 120mm fans have small rotary dials on the front but the rear and top fan have 3-point control sliders which are microscopic and located on the rear of the case. This can be a PITA to find.

Style, Design, Quality

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but personally I'd give more points to the Nine Hundred Two in the looks department. I like the sleek, sharp lines and the all black interior. The Sniper has a slightly gun metal grey finish, but the overly rounded edges don't strike me as aesthetic. Apparently they were going for a military weapon type of style (hence the name), which works I suppose if you're into form over function.

The two cases are pretty neck and neck when it comes to internal design. The HDD mounting mechanism in the Sniper is very unique - slide out an unassuming little black plastic tray, pop the HDD into it, and click it back into its cubby hole. No screws or anything. The other cool thing about the Cooler Master case is what they call "StormGuard". Basically they are little panels that block your empty PCI slots which you can wind cords into before screwing them down. This would be useful when lanning to secure your mouse, keyboard, portable HDD and other peripherals to your case so they don't go walkabout as easily. The Antec case by comparison is a bit more traditional but makes up points in other ways. The HDDs are more securely in place with a standard 3.5" cage mechanism, and the front panels too are locked down like Fort Knox with no less than 8 thumbs screws apiece. The top of the Nine Hundred Two also has lots of little nooks to throw screws into when putting it all together which I found handy.

As far as build quality goes, ignoring the slightly iffy lifting method mentioned earlier, the Nine Hundred Two wins hands down. The Cooler Master case is not flimsy by any means, but it feels as if you could throw the Antec case down the stairs and the stairs would come out worse off. The front and side panels seem to lock in much more smoothly and easily. They've also painted the inner of the case black as well, whereas the Sniper has the powder coating thing going on. Ew.

Cable Management

I spent no more than fifteen minutes on cable management in each case (does it show?).

The point here being that straight away it's painfully obvious that the Sniper has superior cable management capabilities. The bigger case has more area to run and hide cables, plus the PSU can be mounted with the fan pointing downwards so that the cables exit the PSU on the side closest to the mobo tray, as opposed to in the Nine Hundred Two where there's not enough room for airflow to mount the PSU in this fashion so instantly the cables are more visible.

This has the unsightly disadvantage of my 8pin mobo connector not being able to be routed underneath or around the mobo. What you can see in the picture is the only way of plugging it in that would reach. This is possibly the fault of my PSU for having a short 8pin cable, or of my P5Q-Pro for having the connector right at the top there, but it wasn't a problem at all in the Cooler Master case.

Noise and Temps

The Nine Hundred Two performed better in both areas here. At low fan speeds both cases are almost (but not quite) silent; at medium speed they were audible but tolerable; however at full speed the Sniper is way too loud. This is probably down to the fact that there is more mesh for the sound to escape through, whereas the Nine Hundred Two has a perspex window to block noise. The Antec case was also slightly better at keeping temps down over all fan speed settings. My overclocked 4850 with stock cooler ran 2 - 5'C colder in the Antec case under load; my Intel E8500 dual core CPU at stock speeds and voltages ran ~1'C cooler on average, and my 250GB Western Digital HDD ran a full 5'C chillier.

Conclusion.

There isn't exactly a clear cut winner here. The Cooler Master Sniper is easier to work with, has much better cable management, and has more features like front panel fan control, peripheral guards and screwless HDD storage. The Antec on the other hand is slightly cheaper, is of higher build quality, and is definitely more portable.

It really depends how you're going to use the case. If you want something to sit loud and proud in your computer room with immaculately routed cables then go for the Sniper, otherwise if you're a purely practical person then the smaller Nine Hundred Two might be a better choice for you.

Either way, they'll outlast at least half a dozen POS cases, so I wouldn't hesitate in splashing out for either model.

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Our thanks to Computer Lounge for providing the review samples.