Being in the LAN scene, mobility is something that is important to most of us. The solution for some is a laptop, for others it is a sling for their tower and dealing with the grunt work that goes into lugging around an entire system. More and more however folks are turning to smaller form factor motherboards that will fit into LAN boxes. Fractal has sent over one of their Mini ITX cases that can perform as a LAN boxe, the Node 304. Let’s take a look and see how it stacks up against the competition.
Product Name: Fractal Design Node 304
Review Sample Provided by: Fractal Design
Written by: Wes and Brennon
Pictures by: Wes
-Mini ITX, DTX motherboard compatibility
-2 expansion slots
-6 – supports either 3.5" or 2.5" HDD / SSD
-ATX PSUs, up to 160mm in length (To fit in combination with a long graphics card, PSUs with modular connectors on the back typically need to be shorter than 160 mm)
-Graphics cards, up to 310mm in length, when 2 HDD brackets are removed (Graphics cards longer than 170 mm will conflict with PSUs longer than 160mm)
-Tower CPU coolers, up to 165 mm tall
-Case dimensions (W x H x D): 250 x 210 x 374 mm
-Case volume: 19,5 Liters
-Net weight: 4,9 kg
Cooling / Ventilation
-2 - Front mounted 92mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fans, 1300 RPM speed (compatible with 80mm fans) – included
-1 - Rear mounted 140mm Silent Series R2 hydraulic bearing fan, 1000 RPM speed (compatible with 120mm fans) – included
-Removable air filters for front fans and PSU
-Fan filter for graphics card
-1 - fan controller for all 3 fans included
-2 - USB 3.0 (Internal 3.0 to 2.0 adapter included)
-1 - 3.5mm audio in (microphone)
-1 - 3.5mm audio out (headphone)
-Power button with LED
Retail package content
-Node 304 computer case
-Product code: FD-CA-NODE-304-BL
The first thing that I noticed about the Fractal Node 304’s packaging is that it wasn’t at all flashy. The box is a simple black and brown cardboard with a diagram of the case and its features on the front. The picture of the case on the front is an actual piece by piece breakdown of the entire product. The pieces are each numbered and to the left of the picture we can find a list of key features that point us to their corresponding location on the product. On either side we can see product specifications or an image of the entire case from the outside. It is clear based on the overall packaging that Fractal is confident in the product that they are putting out and that no wacky wavy inflatable arm flailing tube men are needed to get impulse buyers.
On the inside we found that the case is nice and secure inside of two pieces of foam. These hold the case firmly in place through the shipping process and also protect it from getting banged up if a bump is hit or it is tossed around a little too violently. Inside of the foam the case is placed inside of a plastic bag, this is likely so that it keeps the new case shine all the way to the doorstep. Inside the box we also found a few different baggies with stuff inside. There are two baggies with screws alone that are meant to be used for hard drive mounting and other miscellaneous things throughout the case. There is also another baggie that contains three zip ties, some more screws, and some standoffs for the motherboard. Also included is a user manual for anyone who might need it.
The first thing to catch my eye on the Node 304 is how simple the design is. I love the slightly curved brushed aluminium front panel. Fractal kept the entire front completely clear other than their logo down in the bottom right corner. From the logo on over is a small slit that houses the power light and points you towards the power button and the USB 3.0 ports above it. Along with the USB ports you also have the headphone and microphone plugs as well. For ventilation on the front, the area between the curved front panel and the rest of the case on the top is meshed.
Both the left and right side panels also have mesh for ventilation but the mesh on the right side is limited to a small area for your power supply to pull in fresh air. The left side has a much larger mesh area that lines up with where you would mount your video card meaning most video cards will pull in cool fresh air to help keep temperatures under control.
Around back we can see the layout of the Node 304. The rear I/O panel is slightly centered with the power plug tucked in just to its left. There is a 140mm fan above the rear I/O panel that is set to exhaust meaning the case pulls its air in from the front and pushes all of the warm air out of the back. Just above the PCI slots there is a small switch that is actually a fan speed switch, its rare to see a small case like this include any sort of fan controller at all really. Considering the cases size I expect to keep it running on high most of the time, but its nice to have the option. Especially if you aren’t putting a high heat build into the case, why not keep the noise down even more. Keeping with their normal styling, Fractal has included white trim on the otherwise black Node 304. The two white PCI slot covers look great. Lastly, from here we can see how the case comes apart. We have four thumb screws holding on the “shell” that comes off all in one piece.
On the bottom of the Node 304 we can see where the power supply pulls in its fresh air. To keep things clean this intake does have an air filter that is easy to remove and clean if needed. The front of the case also has a little ventilation on the underside, but unlike the top they didn’t use any mesh. For feet we have small rectangle feet in each corner, they are all blacked out and blend into the case. I think the case would have looked amazing with a few round aluminum feet here, but in sticking with the clean and simple look I’m not shocked that Fractal went with this option.
On the outside the white trim was just two small PCI slot covers, but when we opened up the Node 304 we were surprised to find three large white hard drive hangers right on top. Each hanger holds two hard drives of 2.5 or 3.5 inch sizes. The 2.5 inch drives are mounted directly to the hangers while the 3.5 inch mounts are rubber to keep vibration down. Each hanger has two thumbscrews and one recessed screw holding them in place. In order for Fractal to fit all three they notched the frame of the case to prevent the rubber hard drive mounts from catching on the case when you slide them back into place. Of course working in this case you will most likely have to remove all three hangers for access and if you decide to run a long video card you will only be able to reinstall one back in.
Just in front of the hard drive hangers you have two 92mm fans mounted to the front of the case that blow right over top of your drives.
Under the hard drive hangers you have the power supply mount as well as where the front panel wiring comes into the case.
The back of the case from the inside is fairly simple, you can see the fan controller wiring above the PCI slots. The 140mm fan looks huge, especially when you consider that just below it will be a Mini ITX board that is almost the same size.
As you can see there isn’t any place to hide your wiring in the Node 304 so you want to do your best to keep things wires cleanly. From the power supply all the way over to the motherboard there are small zip tie mounts for you to be able to keep your wiring tied down and out of the way. Its important for cooling, especially in such a small case.
Considering the Node 304’s size I couldn’t go with our standard test bench. This time around I went with an AMD E-350 motherboard APU combo that is perfect for an HTPC setup or a small low power file server. The Node 304 is capable of holding a lot more than this small motherboard as well if you remove some of the hard drive mounts. Speaking of the hard drive mounts, the first thing you want to do when digging into the Node 304 is remove the three hard drive mounts to make for easier access to the entire case. With our motherboard installed I went ahead and dropped in our power supply. The 850 Watt power supply is obviously overkill for the build that we are putting together but I was curious how a large PSU would fit in this situation. As you can see it is a little tight, especially with the modular connections that we will need as well.
Fractal recommends a shorter power supply if you are planning on installing a long video card as well. Along with that you will need to remove two of the three hanging hard drive mounts to make room as well.
I didn’t mention it before, but when you install the power supply, because it is fully on the inside of the case, you have to plug in the power cord to it. The way our power supply lined up with the fan blowing out the ventilation on the bottom of the case, the cord was a little bound up against the front of the case.
Installing our hard drives into the hanging hard drive cages went smoother than I expected and those of you who prefer cases that use screws to hold the drives in place over tool-less will really be happy with the design of the Node 304.
With everything installed in the Node 304 I moved on to its performance. Frankly the all in one motherboard that we went with wasn’t enough to generate enough heat to put the cooling of the Node 304 to the test. For such a small case Fractal really went over the top to make sure everything stays cool inside. We have tested full size towers with less cooling. Along with the cooling, I was also impressed with the noise level that the Node 304 sits at. To fans of Fractal cases, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, they are always known for being quiet along with their styling.
Overall use of the Node 304 was interesting. I love the look of the case with everything hidden but it was interesting the first time I asked my wife to turn the computer on for me with the power button hidden around on the side. Once you figure it out its simple and easy to use though and its not a bad compromise for the clean look that it gives you. I also love that the large mesh panel on the side of the case is right next to where you would put your video card meaning it will pull in nice cool air keeping things even cooler. Really the whole case is interesting, you have the cooling and capacity to pack a killer gaming rig into the Node 304 but the biggest issue you will run into is the only way to do that is to remove 2/3rd of the hard drive capacity as well as stick with a small power supply. I would love to see this exact same design but an inch wider. You could put together a PC that will play any game as well as compete with the storage capacity of much larger cases as well.
Overall and FV
When we dug into the Node 304, I was seriously blown away by its styling. It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that we had another Mini ITX case in from Fractal Design called the Array. I (Wes) was impressed with that case and still keep it around for use to this day. Its hard to believe that Fractal was able to find a way to improve on that design enough to surprise me. The Node 304 is a great looking case that even from across the room you will be able to tell it is a Fractal case. The clean styling is what they are all about and with more and more gamers getting older, having kids, and moving up in the world, the market for clean cases continues to grow. A good example of this styling is the location of the front I/O panel and power button, Fractal tucked it around on the side where it is still easy to get to but kept the front clean. Really my only complaint came with the limited room for power supplies in the Node 304, especially if you need to install a long video card. Those of you looking for a good price will also be impressed with the Node 304, at less than $90 its a great deal as well.