Fractal Define XL Black PearlThere has been a significant shift in the PC case market targeted at the enthusiast / gamer community from arguably gaudy to the very refined. We see this trend first hand based on all the cases we have been receiving in the $70 - $200 range including this latest offering from Fractal Design.
You may have heard of Fractal Design from their fans and PSU's but as of about 1.5 years ago they have also been trying to make a splash in the value to mid range computer case market. This is a bold move given the timing as there are a large number of companies competing for the very same market segment. The only way to win in this space is to offer a lot of high end features with good build quality for a reasonable price.
Fractal Designs has seven case offerings currently, in up to four different colors:
- Arc Midi Tower
- Arc Mini
- Array R2 Mini ITX NAS Case w/ 300W SFX PSU
- Core 1000
- Core 3000
- Define Mini
- Define R3, Arctic White
- Define R3, Black Pearl
- Define R3, Silver Arrow
- Define R3, Titanium Grey
- Define XL Black Pearl
- Define XL Titanium Grey
The Define XL, that we are reviewing today, comes in either Black Pearl (our sample) or Titanium Grey. Interesting choice given the current trend of white being the popular alternative to black but based on the pictures the grey doesn't look too bad either. While this case is titled a "Mid-Tower" the dimensions are close to what other manufacturers label as a "Full Tower". Also be aware that the Define series comes in standard or USB 3.0 versions. The USB 3.0 versions simply have two of the four front ports wired for USB 3.0. This is also a field upgradable option if you order the upgrade kit from Fractal. Currently we found the Fractal Design Define XL with front USB 3.0 ports in Black Pearl for $149.99 plus shipping and Titanium Grey for $139.99 plus shipping at Newegg.
Fractal Designs Define XL Specifications
- 4x 5,25" bays, 1x 5,25" to 3,5" converter included
- Mini-itx, micro ATX, ATX and E-ATX motherboards
- 10x HDD trays. 4x HDD trays in the HDD cage in the main chamber. This HDD cage is removable and rotatable.(Space ~330mm with HDD Cage and without ~480mm) 6x HDD trays in the lower HDD chamber. These HDD cages are fixed.
- A total of two 140mm fans and one 180mm fan included. Front 140mm fans are mounted with removable, washable filter. A fan controller is included, for mounting in one of the rear expansion slots.
- Pre-fitted with dense noise absorbing material in both side panels.
- ModuVent™ feature, allowing the user to choose between an optimal low noise level, having the cover mounted or optimal airflow by removing the cover and mounting a fan for intake.
- Maximum PSU length: Supports PSU’s with a depth of maximum circa 180mm
- Maximum Graphic Card lenght: Supports graphic card lengths up to 330mm when removable HDD-Bay is in place
- Maximum CPU cooler height: Supports CPU coolers with height of 180mm
- Expansion slots: 7+1
- On top of front panel: 4x USB 2.0, 1x eSATA and Audio I/O
- Case size (WxHxD): 232x560x561.3mm
- Net weight: 17.95kg (39.57lb)
- Warranty: 2 Years
- 2x 140mm fans (one 140mm included, one optional) with removable and washable filters, in the front. Recommended for intake of air.
- 1x 120mm fan optional with removable and washable filter, in the front. Recommended for intake of air.
- 1x 180mm fan included in the top of the case. Recommended for exhaust of air.
- 1x 140mm fan included in the rear of the case. Recommended for exhaust of air.
- 1x 120/140mm fan optional in the side of the case. Recommended for intake of air.
Unboxing the Fractal Design Define XL Black PearlLike most things these days when the box showed up it had a few nicks and dings from the wear and tear of today's shipping companies. As far as the boxes used to ship computer cases, this one is fairly light on graphics which is ok by us, we would rather the money be spent on the case not making the box look pretty.
The front of the box has a nice image of the front of the case and some marketing text about the features.
On the back there is another graphic of the inside of the case and a few marketing highlights for this case.
The right side of the case simply stated which color we were getting, Black Pearl. And we didn't bother to take a picture of the other side of the box because it is just solid black with no text or graphics.
Like most companies today, Fractal expected the shippers to toss the package around a bit so they used the standard one inch thick foam blocks on either side to protect the case inside.
We grabbed a shot of the case still covered in the thin plastic bag and with the heavy foam blocks still in place. Case looks like it made the journey well.
With the foam and bag removed there is still a nice sheet of plastic on the front aluminum panel.
The outside of the Define XLThe first thing we noticed when we received this case is something you might have missed on the front page specifications. This beast weighs in at almost 18kg (40lb) and we felt every bit of that empty weight when we were moving this case around for our photo shoot.
The front of the case is a smooth aluminum panel set in black plastic to form a door.
The right side is just a solid black steel panel. This view also shows the vents behind the front door and the silver feet the Fractal Define XL sits on.
Moving around to the back, Fractal throws in a little bling by using white ventilated covers for the rear ports including the interesting perpendicular one above the others. This is used to mount the optional included variable fan speed control. Between these are two ports for water cooling tube and the rear facing 140mm white Fractal fan.
The left side of the case has more vents along the side of the front door to provide air to the intake fan(s). There is also a unique feature that Fractal has named ModuVent. This simply means the door has a 120mm / 140mm fan vent right above where the GPU(s) would go for maximum cooling, but it is sealed with a plate mounted over the opening to maximize sound proofing.
The top is just a solid piece with a bezel that has a headphone and mic jack, e-SATA port, power button that glows blue when on, and four USB 2.0 ports. As we mentioned earlier this case comes as either USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 with the option to upgrade to the USB 3.0 with an upgrade kit.
This is a picture of the upgrade kit to convert two of the four ports to USB 3.0 that you can install into your USB 2.0 Define XL case if you choose.
Turing the case on its side we get a view of the bottom. This view shows off the rubber dampened metal feet and the downward facing PSU fan filtered vent.
The inside of the Fractal Design Define XLMoving to the inside we can start to see why this case weighs as much as a small elephant before installing any hardware. Fractal made a point of trying to make this case dead silent which translates to heavy steel construction and copious amounts of sound deadening materials.
Behind the front plastic and aluminum door is the ventilated bay and fan intake area. The door is lined with a very heavy dense sound deadening material to assist with the low noise design. At the top you can see the four 5.25" bays with pop off covers.
This is one of the covers removed, it is as easy as pulling that little tab on the right out and the plastic vented covers just pop out.
The bottom of the bay area has a push to pop door that reveals the installed 140mm fan with filter and a space for another 140mm fan. It is a bit hard to see from this image but there are simply two tabs you press in to pop the dual fan cage out in order to install the second fan.
If you gently pull the entire front assembly off the case it reveals another optional filtered fan mounting area for a 120mm fan. You can have considerable intake pressure from three fans but the actual flow rate might be slightly restricted by the front only having the side vents.
This is a shot of the inside of the left door of the case. We wanted to show that the special vent over the GPU area is not just a metal plate but it is also treated with the heavy sound dampening. This door alone weighs about 7lb to give you an idea of the heft of this case.
The overall inside has a common layout with the PSU on the bottom, 5.25" drives in the top right, HDD cage below that. Following in the footsteps of several other companies, Fractal created three cooling zones inside the case. The first is the PSU area, the second is the lower hard drive area, and the third is the motherboard and top HDD cage area. One thing Fractal did with the Define XL is make sure to include tons of hard drive space in white no less. There are 10 trays for either HDD's or SSD's which should be more than enough space for the largest media collections. One thing to note is that unlike many cases today this is NOT a tool-less design for any of the additional hardware. Given the price point we were a bit surprised by this.
Moving in for a close up of one of the HDD trays shows the four rubber grommets to mount your hard drives from the bottom to minimize vibration. We want to point out that unlike most manufacturers these trays are white painted steel, not plastic. This makes them very strong but also contributes to the weight of the case. Also note the center hole pattern to accommodate a SSD drive. This means any tray can handle either a hard drive or SSD for maximum flexibility. Also note the top HDD cage can either face left to right or be rotated to face front to back. It can also just be removed in case you are using very long video cards providing even more options.
If we zoom into the top of the case for a peek at the 180mm fan you can see it is mounted on a slight angle with a unique path out of the top back of the case. Knowing they were going for ultimate silence the rear port makes sense but not sure a large low RPM top venting fan would have created that much noise for the potential performance sacrifice.
Another unique design aspect on the Fractal Define XL is this pass through plate between the PSU zone and the motherboard area. We assume this is intended to allow you to run power cables in front of the mother board instead of behind it. Or it could be used in case you want to turn your PSU over and have the large side mounted fan face up to help vent the motherboard zone. In either case it is not a common option we see on cases these days.
Here is another interesting feature of this case, a steel door between the bottom HDD cages and the PSU. We assume this is to give you the second and third cooling zone or you can open it to make one larger cooling zone. We are not sure what the value is of this door but it is there.
Keeping with the silent theme they also include this nice PSU gasket to help keep it quiet down below. The plate the gasket is mounted on can be removed and rotated 180 degrees to allow you to face your PSU up or down as required.
Going around the other side you get a better view of all the square wiring grommets with pass through flaps similar to the Corsair design. There is also a fold down door on the back of where the CPU would be mounted for easy access to the back plate for your CPU cooler. Fractal placed several bump outs for zip ties to help with your behind the motherboard cable management.
Included inside the Fractal Define XL is a box of goodies.
- Stand off mounts
- Black screws to mount the motherboard and disk drives
- Handful of zip ties
- Variable fan speed control (with two fan headers) to mount in the extra vertical rear port
- 3.5" bay converter for one of the 5.25" bays
Building inside the Define XL
Installing a system in the Fractal Design Define XL was a little challenging as you will be able to see. While this case is on the upper end of what most would consider mid-tower specifications the layout makes it feel smaller than it is.
Right away you notice the intrusion of the top mounted 180mm fan into the working space of the motherboard. This forced us to run the secondary ATX power all the way across the top of the motherboard instead of having a port in the area. Maybe it was this reviews chubby hands, but that space is very tight to get that to plug in, at least with this mobo. The second thing we noticed was across the bottom the motherboard is snug up against the separator plate between this zone and the PSU zone. Again the cables were challenging to get plugged in and the cables have no where to go but across the bottom of the board. We would have gladly given up the top two HDD racks to move that separator down and provide a bit more breathing room around the motherboard. We also would have flat mounted the 180 mm top fan and just vented out the top to give back those extra inches.
These are the three cooling zones Fractal talks about with the Define XL. It still isn't clear where the air entering zone two exits if you leave the door to zone three closed. Also be aware that long PSU's are going to have a problem since the rear most HDD cage is riveted in. Also if you have a long PSU notice the pass through hole will be covered by the PSU making cable routing very challenging.
This is a close up of that area so you can get a better feel of how tight it is down there. Notice the two red plugs for our GPU not plugged in. There was not enough run on them to make it from the GPU down to the PSU we used and we didn't have any PCI-E power extensions handy.
On the back side we didn't spend any time to clean up our cables even though Fractal provides many zip tie mount points to do so. In all reality our cables were barely making the distance so there was not enough length to zip them to anything. You can even see the ATX extender we plugged in to make it around the 180mm fan. Depending on the cable length of your PSU your mileage will vary.
Even though this is a rather large case, Fractal only gives you 1/2 inch behind the motherboard tray to run cables. When you consider the heavy sound deadening pad on this panel you get no extra wiggle room. Even with the few cables you see here the panel fought us a little bit to seat right.
Another thing we wanted to point out, while our PSU cable lengths prevented us from fully powering up the system, we did play with this top mount fan a bit out of curiosity. Just based on the back of the hand test it did not seem to move all that much air. It is very close to the rear fan which does not have this unique ducting for better air flow. Being a 180mm fan it runs very quiet even with the case open. In concept it seems like it might be a good idea, but in practice it probably would be better as a blow hole fan and give up the minimal noise this fan creates.
Final Thoughts & ConclusionsWe love seeing new companies come in an disrupt a market with fresh ideas and innovative solutions. Fractal Design's attempt at a large mid tower case does focus on some of this but in a quirky confusing way. I don't think we have reviewed a case that made us say "hmmm, that's interesting" more times than with the Define XL.
The thought put into the sound deadening design is fantastic and will force you to check the power button light to make sure it is running. The idea of 10 HDD or SSD's inside a silenced case made our inner media center addict jump for joy with the thought of this sitting next to our plasma streaming our entire media collection. The removable / rotatable top HDD rack is very clever and gives you options for cable routing or long GPU's. Finally we liked the fit and finish of all the parts with very little plastic throughout the system.
We think Fractal made some odd choices that either provided little value or negative value. The panel between the PSU zone and the motherboard zone is a confusing addition (but we did use it for our short PCI-E Runs). We think they could have improved on that by simply placing a large grommet hole there. The gap between this panel and the top of the PSU is large enough that you could flip your PSU over and it still could easily draw air. The 180mm top mounted fan provides minimal value and could easily be blow hole mounted to give us more space and provide better thermals. With all the insulation from sound, this case needs all the airflow it can get. We loved the size of the PSU grommet hole but it needs to be moved further toward the front for longer PSU's. Another odd exclusion, this case has no hard drive activity light. The case is not tool-less in a day and age where nearly all are. Finally the door between the HDD and the PSU only seems to block air flow.
We are neutral on the overall weight of the case. This solid build is fantastic and does what it says it will do, keep the rig silent. We broke 50 lb fully built so do not expect to be taking this to any LAN parties anytime soon. If you do, make sure you rent a dolly. At the time this article was published the Fractal Design Define XL with front USB 3.0 ports runs $149.99 plus shipping in Black Pearl and $139.99 plus shipping in Titanium Grey at Newegg. After you figure in the $19.99 shipping fee you are looking at $169.98 Shipped and that is on the pricey side. We would expect a little more intuitive case design for the price.
Legit Bottom Line: If you want a silent case above all else then the Fractal Design Define XL hits the mark. But if you prefer maximum versatility we would pass on this one for now and wait for version 2.0.