Last Updated: November 19, 2021
Computer cases come in all shapes and sizes, from little Mini ITX boxes you can fit on your lounge room TV stand, all the way to massive heavy towers that could probably house a dozen GPUs. There's also a great variety of different styles out there, from low-key sleeper black boxes to RGB-covered centerpieces that steal the limelight in any dimly lit room. PC cases also vary in their quality, airflow potential, and flexibility in terms of what you can and cannot install inside. Let's go over all the basics you need to know when choosing the right case for your next custom gaming PC.
See Also: Choosing the Best CPU for Gaming/VR
The first thing to know about choosing a compatible PC case for your build is that your case must be compatible with the motherboard you choose. Motherboards come in different sizes, technically called its ‘form factor’. The most common form factor is ATX, which is a regular sized motherboard if you will. Then you have Micro ATX (mATX), which is a bit smaller than ATX. Mini ITX (mITX) is even smaller than mATX. On the other end of the spectrum you have Extended ATX (E-ATX), which is a wider/fatter version of ATX.
So, if you have an ATX motherboard, which is the most common size, then you must choose a case that supports an ATX motherboard (any Mid Tower or Full Tower). mITX motherboards can only be installed in mITX cases. mATX motherboards can be installed in mATX cases, but also in many regular ATX cases too (called a Mid Tower). E-ATX motherboards only fit in certain Full Tower cases.
Don't worry if you're confused, as it's quite simple once you get the hang of it. Basically, all you need to know is there are 4 common motherboard sizes (mITX, mATX, ATX, E-ATX), and 4 common case sizes:
Most people building a gaming PC choose a Mid Tower case, as it's not too big but not too small. Mid Towers also have the largest range in terms of models to choose from. But if you're lacking space - perhaps you have a small desk and don't want a big tower taking up a lot of room - getting a Mini Tower is fairly common. They're also typically cheaper than Mid Tower cases, so can be a good option for those on a tight budget (though there are also premium Mini Tower options out there).
Just do not confuse Mini Tower cases and Mini ITX cases. Mini ITX cases are a bit less common, as some of them are so small and compact that it makes component compatibility quite limited (far less options), as well as making installation and maintenance a little more difficult too. Mini ITX cases not only require a mITX motherboard, but potentially also a special SFF (Small Form Factor) power supply, and you won't be able to fit a large graphics card. Your future upgrade options will also be limited. Plus, in small cramped spaces where components don't have much room to "breathe", airflow can be poor, potentially leading to higher temperatures and/or a louder PC.
If you understand the limitations, and are willing to do extra research on choosing the right compatible parts, Mini ITX cases can be great for sitting on your TV cabinet if you're into lounge gaming with your PC (or for PC VR). I don't recommend them for most first-time PC builders though, as it's generally a lot simpler and easier to go with a Mini Tower if you want to save space (they're not as small, but still compact enough for most people wanting a smaller case).
Then there's Full Towers, which are the largest cases on the market, but generally unnecessary for most people unless you're assembling a system with a ton of components such as a rack of a dozen hard drives, a fully fleshed out water cooled gaming PC, multiple optical drives, or if installing an extra large graphics card. Full Tower cases can also be easier to do cable management. But unless you know that you need a Full Tower case you should probably just stick with a Mid Tower (or Mini Tower if you're tight on space), as there are many that have plenty of room to work with.
Since modern gaming is strenuous software that demands a lot from PC hardware (mostly your graphics card and CPU), the airflow of your PC build is an important consideration. The more powerful your PC, the more important of a consideration it becomes. Internal components such as your CPU cooler plays a key role in how effective airflow will be within your system, but your choice of computer case is a big factor as well. Specifically, the design of the case, and whether or not it encourages easy movement of air from outside the case, through the inside, and out the back.
This flow of air from the front to the back of the PC is the most common airflow configuration, but keep in mind some cases work in other ways such as from the back or bottom to the front or top (though less common). Knowing if a case is well designed for effective airflow is a matter of reading trusted expert reviews such as Gamer's Nexus just to name one (who do a great job reviewing cases for airflow, but also for noise and overall quality/features). You'll find that most of the best airflow cases have a mesh front panel, instead of a solid panel (which allows the front fans more easily draw air in from outside the case).
But another pivotal feature to look for when choosing a good case for airflow is the amount, size, and quality of the fans included with the case. You can almost always add additional fans to a PC case though, so if a particular case doesn't come with enough fans out the box, or if those fans are of low or average quality, that doesn't immediately rule out said case as a good option. The specs of a case will always list how many and which size fans you can add on.
Not everyone can be bothered buying and installing extra fans in their PC - the convenience of having a nice set of pre-installed fans in a case is always nice. If that sounds like you, or if you are interested in adding fans to your case but are planning how many you need, this section is for you.
Generally, most cheap or mid-tier sort of computer cases will ship with 1 or 2 pre-installed fans. Upper mid-tier and high-end cases can come with 3, 4, or even more in some instances. But do how many fans do you need? There's no single one size fits all answer, and it depends on how powerful your gaming PC is, how many of your internal components could use some extra air blowing their way, whether your case is well designed for airflow in the first place, how hot your room is, and so on.
But to paint a very broad brush here to give you a general overview, for most budget to mid-range gaming PC builds, you are likely to be fine with just 2 fans - 1 in the front (sucking cool air in) and 1 in the back (blowing the air out). For more high-end gaming PC builds, you'll want to consider 3 fans as a minimum (typically 2 in the front, and 1 in the back). Anything more than 3 fans is either a luxury, only required for very powerful high-end machines that need every extra bit of cooling they can get, or something people do if they want a ton of RGB fans.
Let's go over some other features and specs to be aware of when picking the right case for your gaming PC.
How Much Should You Spend on a PC Case?
If you want to be as cost-effective as possible and don't care to get the fanciest looking case with luxury features such as built-in RGB fans and high-quality glass panels, you can find plenty of good cheap cases suitable for most mid-range gaming PCs between the $50 and $80 range (US Dollars). For high-end gaming builds sporting powerful components that require the best airflow setup, you can find many great options between the $80 to $120 mark. Spending anything more than that on a computer case is unnecessary (overkill, if you will), and more for those wanting additional features or extra-nice aesthetics.
Which PC Cases Have the Best Airflow?
For the latest recommendations on specific case models, see the best gaming PC builds series which hand-picks some of the current best bang for buck, high-airflow cases on the market.
Are Case and PSU Combos Worth It?
Computer cases don't typically come with a power supply (PSU). But sometimes you will come across combo deals like this. Whether they are worth it or not depends on the exact case and power supply, but generally speaking from my experience, a lot of these combos include cheaper power supplies that you should generally avoid for a gaming PC build. It's almost always best to buy a case and power supply individually, so that you ensure you choose a good power supply that will reliable power your system for many years to come (and do so quietly and efficiently).
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Indie game dev currently working on my first public release after years of hobby projects, a story-driven VR FPS adventure built using Unreal Engine (to be announced once I'm ready here and here for anyone into VR FPS's). Also likes writing and updating these tech articles, which helps fund development of the game.
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