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Product Review: Fractal Design Define R4

Written on September 10, 2012 by Matt Bach
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Introduction

Fractal Design is a chassis manufacturing company that we've been aware of for some time, but exclusivity agreements kept Fractal Design out of the distribution channel, preventing us from seriously considering their products. These agreements just ended, however, so over the past month we have been looking at a number of their chassis to determine if there were any that we would be interested in offering to our customers.

After looking at a number of different models, we found the Define R4. While some of Fractal's other models had a few issues that would prevent us from using them - namely drive and fan mounting that we felt was not secure enough for shipping - the Define R4 had none of these issues. The Define R4 has an emphasis on quiet operation (as evidenced by the front door and built-in acoustic dampening), but the size, number and location of the fan mounts means that it can be easily be converted into a chassis with very powerful cooling.

The Define R4 comes in three different colors; each coming in both a windowed or non-windowed version.

   Windowed    Non-Windowed
Titanium Grey FD-CA-DEF-R4-TI-W FD-CA-DEF-R4-TI
Black Pearl FD-CA-DEF-R4-BL-W FD-CA-DEF-R4-BL
Arctic White FD-CA-DEF-R4-WH-W FD-CA-DEF-R4-WH


Each version includes two fans by default (a front and rear 140mm Fractal Design Silent Series R2) but can accommodate up to six fans on the windowed version and seven fans on the non-windowed version. Each of these fan mounts can utilize either 120mm or 140mm fans, so there are a very wide variety of fan configurations that can be used. The Define R4 also has the ability to mount eight 3.5"/2.5" hard drives, as well as an additional two 2.5" drives behind the motherboard tray, meaning it can easily handle a number of simultaneous hard drive RAID arrays. 

The only major drawback is that the two 5.25" bays are the only external bays, so if you need more than two 5.25" devices this chassis is likely not the best choice. Also, Fractal Design does not include a 5.25" to 3.5" adapter, so if you want to use a 3.5" device like a card reader you will need to use a third party adapter.

For the full list of the manufacturer specifications for this chassis, click on the link below:

[+] View Manufacturer Specifications

External Features

Front Door Open Fan Speed Switch

The front of the chassis has (in our opinion) a great minimalistic look to it with no drives or fans visible at all until you open the front door. This door only opens to about 115° and while we are at first worried about accidentally breaking something by opening it too far, we did not end up having any problems. This door also has acoustic foam installed on the inside, which is a great touch considering a significant portion of noise from most computer systems generally escapes through the front of the chassis.

Behind the door are the two 5.25" drive mounts, the fan speed control switch, and access to the two front fan mounts and filter. The fan speed control switch is a simple 5V/7V/12V switch that utilizes the 5V and 12V rails from the power supply. To get 7V from the 12V and 5V, you use the 12V line as the power line and the 5V line as the ground, which results in 7V worth of power (12-5=7). There are rumors that doing this may damage your power supply, but we've been using this technique for years now on our systems with absolutely no problems. For us, this fan speed control is great as it allows us to use the exact same voltages as normal with the added benefit that the end user being able to easily adjust the fan speeds as needed.

This switch can control up to three fans, which is enough to control the two stock fans plus one additional fan. If you decide to populate all six or seven fan mounts (depending on if you get the windowed or non-windowed version), you will not be able to control them all with this switch. Theoretically, you could connect more fans with the use of splitter cables, but once you start adding too many fans to a single line you will start to see a voltage drop which will prevent the fans from running at full speed. And honestly, if you really need that many fans to keep your hardware cool, you likely need every bit of voltage you can get going to the fans.

Front Fan Access Front Fan Mount and Filter

The front fan mount and filter are accessed by pressing on the top right and left of the panel covering the fans, which causes it to pop out at the top and fold down out of the way. After that, press down on the tab located above the fans and pull the entire fan mount out from the chassis. At this point, you can either remove the filter for cleaning or replace the fans as needed. 140mm fans are held in place with four plastic clips and can be further secured with a pair of standard fan screws, while 120mm fans are simply secured with four fan screws. We initially had some reservations about the strength of this mounting, especially in shipping, but after using it for a few days we came to conclusion that it is sturdy enough to survive all but the absolute worst shipping scenarios.

Front Panel Removed Inside of Front Panel
 

In addition to the fan mount, the entire front panel can be removed by simply pulling on it from the bottom of the panel. The front fan mount stays attached to the chassis, but the rest of the panel (including the front ports and fan speed control switch) all come off in one piece.

The only dislike we have about this design is that the front ports are attached to the main front panel and thus must be unplugged from the motherboard before removing the front panel. On many of Fractal's other chassis (including the Arc Midi Tower), the front ports are an entirely separate piece from the front panel and are secured to the chassis frame, but the tight tolerances keeps it looking like a single piece. We would very much like to see that on this chassis as it is a great way to make it easy to remove the front panel without having to first disconnect the front ports.

Right Side Left Side (Windowed) Rear

The right side of the chassis is simply a featureless side panel, although the left side has either a window or 120/140mm fan mount depending on the version. On the non-windowed version, the 120/140mm fan mount is covered by default with a plate that includes a layer of thick acoustic padding. This is a great way to reduce noise levels, yet still allow those who want/need additional cooling to do so.

The rear of the chassis houses the rear 120/140mm fan mount, the PSU mount, and the motherboard I/O panel and PCI slots. Fractal Design opted to not include the "standard" liquid cooling pass-throughs found on most chassis in favor of an extra vertical PCI slot. Obviously you cannot install a PCI/PCI-E card in this slot as it could not connect to the motherboard, but you can use it for any connectivity brackets (such as E-SATA, USB, or Firewire) if you don't want to take up one of the standard PCI slots.

In our experience, it is very rare for anyone to use a liquid cooling pass-through, so we are in favor of Fractal Design's decision to forego them in favor of this extra PCI slot. One problem with this slot, however, is that the recessed hole is very narrow. While most cables should be able to fit without a problem, we could certainly see a thicker plug not physically fitting into the hole. There is no shortage of space in that area, so we would love to see this hole widened by about 50% which would guarantee than any bracket installed into this mount will work without a problem.

Top Front Ports Bottom

The top of the chassis houses the front ports and two 120/140mm fan mounts. While it may look like there are two status LEDs (one around the power button and one in front of it), the power LED actually lights up both the ring around the power switch as well as the clear bit of plastic in front of the power switch. There is no HDD LED, which for some may be a negative, but for others is a positive.

The top 120/140mm fan mounts are covered with plates that include a layer of thick acoustic padding. The one downside to these fan mounts is that since they are centered on the chassis they are not ideal if you want to install liquid cooling onto these mounts. Since they are centered, any radiator beyond the very thinnest will block the motherboard. We measured a distance of 1 5/8" between the top of the chassis and the motherboard, meaning that with a standard 1" thick fan, you could only use a radiator that is roughly 5/8" (16mm) thick.

The bottom of the chassis is fairly standard except for the removable filter which covers both the PSU intake fan and the optional bottom 120/140mm fan.

Internal Features

After removing a pair of thumbscrews, the side panels simply slide back about an inch then can be removed from the chassis, giving access to the interior of the chassis.

Right Side Panel Left Side Panel Acoustic Padding

The inside of the panels themselves are covered with a thin, but dense, acoustic padding material to help reduce the amount of noise from the system. Overall, these panels are not exactly revolutionary, but they feel solid and we appreciate the inclusion of the acoustic dampening material.

Chassis Interior Cable Management Holes CPU Heatsink Cutout

Moving on to the chassis proper, there are five cable management holes each with a rubber grommet around where the motherboard will mount to aid in cable management. These kinds of holes are great for keeping the cabling clean, and the rubber grommets are great for hiding any stray cables that would otherwise be visible behind the holes.

Also on the motherboard tray is the large 43mm x 26mm cutout hole that allows you to access the backside of the CPU heatsink while the motherboard is installed. This is great and is something that we feel every single chassis should incorporate. Not only does it allow you to add/remove/change a CPU heatsink without having to first remove the motherboard, but it removes the possibility of a CPU heatsink "bottoming out" on the motherboard tray. Heatsinks are not always designed perfectly, and we have certainly come across a few that when combined with shorter than normal motherboard standoffs will actually come in contact with the motherboard tray.

Top Fans Covered With Plates PSU Mount Bottom Fan Mount

Looking up towards the top of the chassis, we get an inside view of the two blocked top fan mounts. Again, we really like the fact that Fractal has these fan mounts blocked off by default. The plates are easy to remove, but it is rare for a user who does not need a top fan to go through the hassle of blocking off any unused fan mounts. 

The very bottom-rear of the chassis houses the PSU mount which includes a nice foam gasket and soft standoffs onto which the PSU rests. While power supplies typically do not vibrate much, we always like to see vibration dampening anywhere possible as long as it does not interfere with the performance of the system. 

In front of the power supply is a 120/140mm fan mount. Obviously, this can only be used with shorter power supplies (we measured 85mm max length with a 120mm fan or 75mm max length with a 140mm fan), and while not often utilized, is at times useful for cooling certain video cards.

Drive Cages Top Cage Turned Top Cage Removed

Moving forward, we get to the two 3.5" drive cages. The bottom cage is held in place with screws through the bottom of the chassis, and can be removed if absolutely necessary. The top cage is held in place with a pair of thumbscrews and easily slides out either to be removed or turned 90º. Removing the top cage allows for long video cards (longer than 295mm) while turning it 90º reduces the amount of airflow obstruction from the front fan(s), while still allowing additional hard drives to be mounted.


 
Hard Drive Trays Option Securing Screws Extra-wide Lip

Hard drives are mounted onto trays which then slide into the drive cages. Each tray allows for either a 3.5" or 2.5" drive to be mounted and can be secured to the cage with a single screw from the inside of the chassis. Note that this chassis does not include any screws for this purpose, but any standard #6-32 (standard hard drive) screw can be used. Hard drive trays are often a problem in shipping as they typically are fairly flimsy, but the optional screw combined with an extra wide lip for the trays to rest on (preventing the drives from "dropping" if the cage slightly flexes in shipping) keep the trays securely in place. 

5.25" Bays Front 5.25" Bays Rear

Moving up, we get to the two 5.25" bays, which are the only external drive bays on this chassis. There is no tool-less mounting here, which again is great for us at Puget Systems for shipping reasons. The only thing to point out here is that this chassis does not come with a 5.25" to 3.5" bay adapter, so if you want to use a 3.5" device like a card reader, you will need to find and purchase a third party adapter.

Extra 2.5" Drive Mounts Additional cable management tabs on motherboard tray we would like to see Additional cable management tabs on 5.25" bay and front panel we would like to see

Moving to the backside of the motherboard tray, we see the two extra 2.5" drive mounts and the cable tie points for cable management. These 2.5" drive mounts are a bit strange in our opinion and will likely be seldom used considering that in order to add/remove a drive you have to screw it from the front side of the motherboard tray. This means the motherboard must not be installed in order to add/remove a drive from one of these mounts. However, they are not hurting anything by being present, so as long as they do not raise the cost of the chassis (which they shouldn't) we have nothing against Fractal Design including them. 

The cable tie points are decent, although when we built up a system in this chassis there were a few areas that we found ourselves wishing there were additional cable tie points. The first was along the right side of the motherboard tray (as viewed from the back) where, as you will see in the System Assembly section, we ended up routing a decent amount of cables including the 8-pin ATX power and Molex power for the fan controller. Plus, this is a prime location to store any extra un-used power supply cables so we would really like to see more cable tie points in this area.

The other area we would like to see a few additional cable tie points is on the back side of the 5.25" bay (to tie up the fan cables and any extra 5.25" device cables) and on the back of the front panel. This location would allow you to have the SATA power and data cables nicely tied up and out of the way. By far this is the least important location, but cable management tabs are easy and cheap to include so we always like to see more rather than less.

System Assembly

Overall, it was extremely easy to assemble a system using this chassis. The only thing we had to keep in mind while cabling was to make sure that the front fan wire had slack in it so that the front fan mount could still be removed if the filter needed to be cleaned.

DVD drive visible with the door open Rear ports and PSU accessible from the rear On the windowed version, you can see the internal components through the windowed panel

Due to the front door, there is not much visual difference between an empty chassis and a fully assembled system when viewed from the front with the door closed. Upon opening the front door, however, the single 5.25" DVD drive we installed is exposed. The rear of the chassis is where the biggest visual change occurs, with the rear ports and PSU being visible. 

If you have the windowed version of this chassis (which we did for this review) you get a nice look at the motherboard area within the chassis. We rather like how this window is cut as it reveals all the interesting bits of a computer, but hides the areas that may have slightly messy cabling (such as around the PSU and hard drives).

Removing the side panel gives us a good look at exactly how everything fits together. As you can see, it is very easy to hide cabling due to all of the cable routing holes around the motherboard. We routed front port connectors behind the motherboard tray and had them pop out right where they get plugged into the motherboard which helped keep everything looking extremely clean. All of the front port cables were plenty long to reach any header standard header location on any modern motherboard, so even taking the roundabout route was not a problem. 

All cabling hidden behind the motherboard tray No cable tie points along the right side

Since there are no cables loose in the main section of the chassis, it makes sense that the back side of the motherboard tray would be a bit messy. This is the first time we've built in this chassis, so while our cabling might not be the prettiest, it did its job and was out of the way. Overall, it was fairly easy to keep the excess cabling secure, especially since the one inch gap between the motherboard tray and the side panel meant we didn't have to worry about how high we stacked cables.

Our only gripe is the lack of cable tie points that we pointed out in the previous section. We ended up using the holes intended to mount the extra two 2.5" drives to secure some cables, but it was certainly not as easy as using actual cable tie points.

Test Setup

To get a good look at the cooling performance of this chassis, we used hardware commonly used in many of our Spirit systems which we feel will be similar to the majority of hardware that we would be installing in this chassis if we chose to add it to our product line. As a comparison, we also performed a set of thermal testing using the same hardware installed into the Lancool K7, which is a very popular chassis for this range of hardware. The only thing we changed on the Lancool K7 is that we upgraded the stock Lancool fans to Antec 120mm TriCool fans since the stock fans are not quite high enough quality for this hardware. Normally we would install three Antec TriCool fans in the Lancool K7 (2 front, 1 rear), but we will also test with only two Antec TriCool fans (1 front and 1 rear) since our testing with the Define R4 was done primarily with only two fans (1 front and 1 rear).

Fractal Design Define R4 Lancool K7B

CPU and GPU temperatures were recorded with a combination of CoreTemp and GPU-Z with the CPU temperature taken from the hottest core. We let the system idle for at least 45 minutes before recording the idle temperatures, and to put the system under 100% load we ran a combination of both Prime95 and Furmark.

Cooling Performance

Before doing any comparisons, we first want to evaluate this chassis with the fans running at 5, 7, and 12V via the fan controller. Since the modular hard drive cage may have an effect on cooling performance, we also performed thermal testing with everything stock, with the top HD cage turned 90 degrees, and with the top HD cage removed completely. Since we were also curious about how much the side fan on the non-windowed version would help temperatures, we also got a hold of a non-windowed side panel and mounted an additional Fractal Silent R2 140mm fan onto the fan mount. 

With the fans all running at 5V, we saw little difference between the different top hard drive cage configurations. This is likely simply due to the fact that at this low of a voltage, the fans are not producing enough airflow for the minimal restriction caused by the hard drive cage to matter. Adding the side fan, however, did result in a 1-2° drop in load temperatures.

Turning the fans up to 7V starts to give us the results we were expecting with either turning or removing the hard drive cage resulting in a 1-2° C drop in load temperatures. Adding the side fan results in an additional 1° C drop in GPU temperatures and a 2° C drop in CPU temperatures. Oddly, the load temperatures from the stock configuration are identical to the stock configuration at 5V. What this means, at least with this hardware, is that unless you are either adding a side fan or rotating/remove the top hard drive cage, you might as well run the fans at 5V rather than 7V.

With the fans running at full speed (12V), we get some unexpected results. We expected a larger difference between the stock configuration and rotating/removing the top hard drive cage this time, but oddly there is no variance in load temperatures at all. Adding the side fan lowered the CPU and GPU load temperatures by a single degree C, but that's it. This is a very odd result, and is something that we can't fully explain.

What our results tell us is that unless you are trying to get temperatures as low as possible, there is almost no reason to worry about messing with the top drive cage. If you were using a 130W CPU with SLI video cards, you would probably want to remove the top hard drive cage since that hardware would be running much hotter than our test hardware, but for the average mid-range system the difference in cooling is small enough to not matter.

All of our results are well within safe cooling levels, but since it is hard to gauge how good these results are without a comparison, let's take a look at how the Define R4's cooling compares to the Lancool K7.

Cooling Comparison

Before we get into our results, we need to point out that while we ran the Antec TriCool fans in the Lancool K7 at their "low" setting, they are actually comparable in noise level to the Fractal Silent R4 fans running at 12V. So while we will primarily be considering the cooling of the Fractal Design Define R4 with the fans running at 5V since that is what we would likely be running them at, 1:1 cooling comparisons should really only be done against the Define R4 with the fans running at 12V.

Also note that these readings were all taken in the stock configuration. So the hard drive cage was not turned or removed, and no side fan was added.

At idle, the Lancool K7 gives slightly better CPU and GPU temperatures, although idle temperatures are not nearly as important as the load temperatures so this is not a big deal. Under load, the Define R4 with the fans at 12V is pretty much identical to both of the Lancool K7 configurations. With the fans turned down to 5V, the Define R4 is 3-4 °C hotter on the CPU and 1 °C hotter on the GPU, but that is completely to be expected since the fans are running at a much, much lower RPM. 

Load Thermal Images
Fractal Design Define R4 - 5V Fans Lancool K7 - Dual Front TriCool Fans

In addition to our thermal sensor readings, we also took thermal images of both chassis under load with the fans in the configuration that we would most likely use to get a good look at the cooling for components that do not have thermal sensors (such as RAM and the motherboard MOSFET). So in the Define R4, the fans were running at 5V, and the Lancool K7 has both front fans installed.

Given our thermal sensor results, we expected the Lancool K7 to have better all-around temperatures, but the thermal images show very little difference between the two chassis. The Define R4 does have slightly higher temperatures around the MOSFET, RAM, and hard drive, but it is much less pronounced than we expected. 

What all of these results mean is that in terms of both noise and temperature, the Define R4 with the fans running at 12V is pretty close to the Lancool K7 with upgraded fans. The major advantage of the Define R4 is that the fans can be easily turned down which drastically reduces the noise levels, and the fact that there is an additional two top, one front, and one side fan available when additional cooling is necessary. After taking these factors into consideration, it is clear that the Define R4 is a much, much more flexible chassis than the Lancool K7, even with the stock Lancool fans upgraded to Antec TriCools.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, we were very impressed with Fractal Design's Define R4 chassis. The chassis is fairly budget friendly, yet packs a ton of features usually reserved for premium computer cases including acoustic dampening material, a painted interior, built-in fan controller, and rubber grommets on the cable management holes. From a cooling standpoint, the Define R4 is comparable to other chassis of similar design; but the built in fan controller, the fact that the stock fans are high quality, and the extra fan mounts in the top, bottom, and side (on the non-windowed version) of the chassis makes it much more versatile than the competition.

The area that the Define R4 really shines is in its customizability. You can either go the quiet route by leaving the fan covers in place and running a few fans at 5V, or you can remove the plates from one or more of the additional fan mounts and install more fans for increased cooling. Either way, the installed acoustic padding and front door means that the system will be quieter than if you used almost any other similarly priced chassis currently on the market.

No product is perfect, however, and the Define R4 is no exception. What makes the Define R4 a good product is not the fact that it is flawless, but the fact that the flaws are all relatively minor. First, there are only two external 5.25" bays and no external 3.5" bays. Second, the front ports are attached to the front panel, which means that you have to disconnect the ports from the motherboard before you can fully remove the front panel. This is offset, however, by the fact that on most chassis, the main reason to remove the front panel is to access the front fans or filter; but in the Define R4, the front fans and filter can be removed or replaced without removing the front panel. Finally, the cable tie points behind the motherboard tray are somewhat limited. The number of cable tie points is fine, they are grouped in one location when we would rather see them more spread out across the back of the motherboard tray.

Overall, this means that the Fractal Design Define R4 is a great chassis that we are planning on adding to our product line in the near future. We are still working out the final details, but be sure to watch for this chassis to be an option on our configuration pages soon.

Shiroikaz3

I know a case is as quiet as its components but is there any notable difference in sound quality/levels when putting on either side panel? 

Posted on 2012-09-20 16:21:13

If you mean the difference between the windowed and non-windowed, there certainly is a difference, but whether it is noticeable or not is going to vary person by person. Acoustic padding and thick side panels do a really good job blocking high-pitched noise, so if you have anything that higher pitch than say the air movement caused by a fan, I would definitely recommend using the non-windowed panel if you are going for an ultra quiet computer. For some that pitch of noise is not noticeable, but for others is very annoying. Personally, I really like getting my personal computers as quiet as possible so I tend to use non-windowed side panels whenever I can.

Sorry I can't give you any actual numbers here. The difference between windowed and non-windowed side panels is on my list of things to investigate, but unfortunately we have not had the time to get hard data yet.

Posted on 2012-09-20 19:21:26
Pierre Bach

Just as a quick note.
There's a test of the Define R4 on anandtech if I recall right that takes a look at the temperature vs noise allthough it doesn't cover window vs non window.
But it does cover an aspect not fully covered here.  ( if referring to non puget articles is not okey please remove this post - but I figured it was okey since good info = you can sell them ;) )

Posted on 2013-01-08 19:32:42

That is fine, the more info the better (especially from reputable sites, like AnandTech)!  The Define R4 also recently won a roundup of quiet computer cases at Toms Hardware :)

Posted on 2013-01-08 19:38:22
Guest

How does this case compare to the Antec P183, acoustically?

Posted on 2012-10-10 09:54:33

Both chassis in their stock configurations will be very similar. In the P183, however, you can move the front fan to be behind the top hard drive cage which effectively reduces the amount of noise from that fan. The R4 simply doesn't have the capability for something like that.

If you are going for the absolutely quietest system possible (which due to heat will likely prevent you from using the highest-end hardware), I would recommend the P183 over the R4 (which is why we still use the P183 in our Serenity systems). If cooling is at all in question, the R4 is likely the better choice since the cooling potential is better than the P183 due to the optional side fan.

Posted on 2012-10-10 19:04:15
Scott

If you were to add an additional fan besides the front intake and rear exhaust that come with the case, where would you put it?

Posted on 2012-11-17 15:20:40

That really depends on the components being installed.  If you had a lot of hard drives, a second front intake fan to help ensure there is airflow around them would be ideal.  If you have a hot-running video card, though, then a side panel fan (on the non-window version) would be quite helpful.

Posted on 2012-11-18 07:26:29

I think this is really a very nice post.

Posted on 2013-01-12 11:32:56
Vitor Mocho

I have a simple question..
The PSU unit sould be mounted with the fan facing down, or facing up? T the inside of the case?

Posted on 2013-04-14 23:55:50