Fractal Design Era: Good looking case, too hot?

I starter building my new small form factor PC by selecting a key component – a case. It is a bit unusual to start with a case before making decision on other key components like CPU and motherboard. But at around the time I started looking at ITX cases available at the market, Fractal Design released their latest case – ERA ITX. I really liked the design, and it just got stocked in Australia, so I ordered a new case.

Fractal Design Era ITX is really good looking case, with sleek lines, built out of anodized aluminium with smooth finish, further emphasized by top panel that is made of real wood or tempered glass (depending on colour). Design certainly stands out among most other small factor PC cases and does look different than boxy design of other Fractal Design cases. Era ITX is available in five colours – Cobalt Blue, Carbon Black and Gold come with black tempered glass top, while Titanium Gray has Walnut and Silver has White Oak wood top. I liked Silver + Oak but it was not available at that time, so I opted for Titanium + Walnut combination.

While I was waiting for my order to be delivered, a number of articles reviewing the case popped up online. They were overwhelmingly positive on the aesthetic aspects of the case, but there were some concerns that case design does not provide sufficient airflow for good cooling. One of the most critical was video review posted on Optimum Tech You Tube channel, where due to bad internal design and overheating they simply called ERA – an ITX disaster.

Optimum Tech is good and trustworthy channel, and their review raised some valid points. But since I already got my ERA ITX case (based on looks, not thermals), I am confident that I can make it work with my configuration, hopefully without thermal issues. There are a few key parts of that plan – I’ll get the best CPU cooling that I can fit in the case, use shorter graphics card to leave more space for the air intake, install exhaust fans on top of the case, get a motherboard with good VRMs, and Platinum-graded power supply to increase efficiency and reduce thermal waste. I could go with liquid cooling, where ERA ITX design could help having space on top for dual 120 mm radiators. However, I decided to make it work with air cooling.

 

This review of Fractal Design ERA ITX is based on my initial experience with unboxing the case and preparing it for the computer build. I will discuss assembling experience and performance once I complete the build.

ERA ITX comes in a cardboard box that contains the case and a small accessories box. Accessories box includes two case covers – the fancy cover depending on colour scheme (glass or wood), and metal mesh cover. Accessories box includes another small box, with power supply screws (4x), motherboard/2.5’’ drive screws (20x), cable ties (5x) and 3.5’’ drive screws (8x).

Case has removable sides, which requires some initial force to be pulled out, starting from top of the case. Removing and returning sides back is easy, as there are no screws. While aluminium is material of choice for case externals, inside it has a solid iron frame. There is a cross-section on each side with perforation to help with air flow, and removable dust filters. On top of the case, there is a plastic frame with large dust filter, that can be also removed. Case cover goes on top, with magnetic mount – so no screws again. This allows to easy change from wood/glass top to mesh panel, when needed to help with better airflow and cooling.

On front of the case, there are 2x USB 3.0 ports, 3.5 mm audio/mic connector, and one USB 3.1 Type-C port. Having USB-C on front is quite convenient, but many ITX motherboards don’t have Type-C header. So if you plan to use front Type-C port, check if your motherboard can support that.

Even though it has “ITX” in product name, ERA ITX has more space inside akin to more “a bit grown up ITX” case. It supports the compact SFX power supplies and slightly longer SFX-L, but can also accommodate larger ATX PSUs (up to 200 mm in length). With ATX power supplies being typically cheaper than SFX, that can help with saving some costs. But with ATX power, case can accommodate just one 3.5’’ drive, compared to two 3.5’’ HDDs supported with SFF. Or in case of 2.5’’ drives, with SFX supply you can install up to 4x SSD drives, and 2x with ATX. Which is probably more than anyone needs. Larger issue with using ATX power supply is that it is using more space in a case and can decrease airflow resulting in worse cooling.

Another aspect of “grown up ITX” case internals is that ERA ITX can accommodate motherboards that are slightly larger than mini-ITX form factor (6.7 × 6.7 in, 170 × 170 mm) and can support some mini-DTX motherboards (8 × 6.7 in, 203 × 170 mm). Mini-DTX boards are rare, but possibility to accommodate slightly larger motherboards became convenient for my build. At the time when I ordered the ERA ITX case, I still have not selected the motherboard. But later I decided on getting the best motherboard for my Ryzen configuring, which turned out to be a board in mini-DTX form factor – Asus ROG Crosshair VIII Impact (I will write more on that motherboard in separate review).

Overall, first impressions on Fractal Design ERA ITX look and build quality are very positive. There is a concern on whether I can make it work without being too hot. And whether all selected components will fit together, as that is always the big unknown with custom small form factor PC builds.

Microsoft PowerToys: The Next Generation of legendary system utilities

Microsoft PowerToys is legendary suite of free system utilities for Windows, created as hobby project by people from Microsoft development teams. PowerToys were very popular in the old times of Windows 95, as they provided many additional functions that were not included in standard Windows environment at that time. A special mentioned goes to Tweak UI, a system utility that allowed tweaking of Windows user interface usually by modifying obscure and often undocumented configuration parameters in Windows Registry.

After original release for Windows 95, there was another major release of PowerToys for Windows XP, but then the development stopped. Until recently when a new generation of programmers at Microsoft revived the PowerToys brand and came up with new version created from scratch for Windows 10. PowerToys is developed as open source project, and source code and installation files can be found on GitHub, on microsoft/PowerToys.

Microsoft PowerToys: Settings

PowerToys The Next Generation is completely different from PowerToys of the last century, but one key thing is common – it provides a number of small utility programs to extend the functionality of Windows environment. In the current version it includes the following tools:

  • FancyZones: a window manager that allows to split screen area in rows and columns, and quickly position windows in desired area. In a way similar to Windows Snap is doing, but with more options to customize.
  • File Explorer Preview: this is File Explorer tweak that enables Preview Pane, to preview the selected file. This is very limited in current version, but
  • Image Resizer: Windows Shell Extension that allows to right-click on image in File Explorer and do a quick resize of the picture.
  • Keyboard Manager: allows to remap select keys and customize what happens when the key gets pressed. This can be done for individual key, or for combination of shortcut keys.
  • PowerRename: Windows Shell Extension to help with bulk renaming a large number of files, with support of search and replace or regular expressions.
  • PowerToys Run: instead of using Start menu to launch an app, you can activate PowerToys Run using Alt + Space shortcut and start typing. It will show popup window on the middle of the screen and let you search for an app and launch it.
  • Shortcut Guide: keep Windows key pressed for more than a second, and it will show the helper screen with available Windows + <key> shortcuts.
Microsoft PowerToys: Image Resizer

I especially like Fancy Zones, which helps a lot to quickly arrange windows when working on a wide screen. Windows 10 has standard options to quickly snap selected window to left or right half the screen – just use Windows + Left or Windows + Right key. But Fancy Zones let you easily split the screen on eg. three parts. To do so, you need to launch Zones Editor, select the Columns template, and optionally move the vertical splitters.

One way of splitting can be do define approximately 25% of left and right part of the screen for one vertical window, and leave 50% in the centre for main Window. Left side can be used for let’s say Outlook, right one for Teams, and in the middle you can do whatever you usually do. FancyZones can remember configuration for each app, so this way it will always launch an app in designated part of the screen. Of course, you can undock the app from initial position and move if freely around the screen.

Microsoft PowerToys: FancyZones

Microsoft Build 2020: Virtual conference with a real swag

Microsoft Build (also known as //build/) conference has just finished. This is major annual conference held by Microsoft, targeting software engineers and developers. This year’s conference was quite different, as Build 2020 was all-digital event for the first time. It was originally planned to take place in Seattle, and with physical events getting cancelled Microsoft decided to proceed with a virtual one. And to make it available free of charge for all, requiring just a simple online registration.

And as is the case with most conferences, attendees got a “swag” with some goodies. Being digital conference, Build 2020 has Digital Swag that includes various wallpapers, banners and watch faces. Nothing to write home about, but it can be found at Build2020_DigitalSwag on GitHub. But I was pleasantly surprised when around a week before the start of Microsoft Build, I’ve received a package with real, physical swag! I signed up for the conference some time ago, and I am not sure if Microsoft sent this to all early registered attendants?

Microsoft Build 2020 swag

A package included the following:

  • A lanyard and conference name tag (without a name). Just plastic tag, no embedded RFID tags that Microsoft uses on many real conferences.
  • Two sheets of labels – Azure, Python, Microsoft Learn, racoons. Someone might stick these labels is on their laptops. I won’t.
  • A pair of socks, with unique “Microsoft :heart: Developers” design, great to work from home. Because you probably would not want to be seen wearing them in public. Socks are good quality, soft cotton blend, made in the USA by the Sock Club.
  • A reusable lunch box with cutlery. Made with bamboo fibre composite. It can be useful not just for sandwiches, as it comes with elastic band to keep it closed, while cover has rubber membrane. That should help with keeping some cooked food without spilling, though I wouldn’t dare using it for soups and curries.

It was nice to get a real swag for the virtual conference. Thank you, Microsoft people.

Linguistic clarification is needed – in Australia, “swag” has much different meaning, and refers to a roll-up bed you use when you sleep out in the bush. For the stuff you get at events, in Australia we use terms “goodie bag” or “show bag”. But since virtual heart of Build 2020 was in Seattle, and my Build 2020 goodie bag was sent from the USA, then “swag” it is.

Building a new PC: small, fast, AMD

I am building a new home computer. A design brief to myself is simple:

  • Case should be small(ish). Not Intel NUC-style small, but good PC configuration in a Small Form Factor (SFF).
  • Configuration must be good and fast enough to be future proof without (major) upgrades for at least a few years.
  • Processor will be AMD Ryzen with Zen 2 architecture , undecided yet which model. Sorry Intel, the time to change has come.

What is a bit different than usual SFF builds is that I’m not into gaming or multimedia. This will be machine for my work, which require running many virtual machines in parallel, various business software, a range of software development tools, lots of data crunching and analysis. In this scenario, processor speed, memory and storage are more important than graphics card – though I do plan to get a decent graphics card.

I haven’t built my computer for quite some time, and after decided to build by next PC, I quickly realized that building a Small Form Factor can be a daunting task. Deciding on form factor (in my case ITX), CPU platform (AMD Ryzen), socket (AM4) and chipset (X570) is easy, but that is when the troubles (or fun?) just start.

Adequate cooler is needed, that can cool the CPU but still fit the case and do not interfere with other components. Is standard AMD cooler (Wraith Prism or Wraith Spire) going to be enough? How about liquid cooling? RAM does not only need to match requirements for speed and latency, but dimensions and heatsink are important, so it does not interfere with the cooler. All motherboards are not equal, there are differences in layout, VRMs, chipset cooling, etc. For graphics card it is not just which GPU and memory, but also how is it getting cooled and what are physical dimensions, can it fit the case? Power supply must be in SFX format to fit the case, adequate to power all components, modular to avoid too much spaghetti cables, quiet to minimize noise, and with good efficiency ratings for less heating.

This is gonna be fun.