By: Jonathan Kwan
May 22, 2007
To an extent, your computer case defines your computer. If you get a 1U rackmount chassis, chances are that you are building a server. If you are using a mATX small form factor case, the aim is portability. A general mid-tower or full-tower case is used for mainstream and performance computing. As computers are now an integral part of many living rooms, the trend of stylish HTPC cases are becoming an important product line of many case manufacturers.
NZXT, established in 2004, is starting their quest to become an important player in this market. When they contacted me roughly a month ago in regards to reviewing their products, what really interested me is their NZXT Duet -- a HTPC case that is designed to accommodate both vertical and horizontal placement. Besides external appearance, how well is this case engineered, and how does it perform? Although we haven't reviewed a computer case for quite a while now, it's time for us to get back to it -- and let's examine NZXT's Duet today.
Our review unit came in a NZXT Duet retail box using UPS Ground. Actually, this happened twice -- our initial unit's front panel attachment pegs were all broken; disallowing attachment to the main unit. NZXT was nice enough to provide us a brand new NZXT Duet with no other questions asked!
Packed inside the box is a NZXT Duet wrapped in clear plastic with Styrofoam brackets filling in the gaps. It was nicely packed with a good fit so the contents would not rattle around inside.
NZXT's Duet is a steel case with an aluminum front panel. Right off the bat, I inspected the Duet to see if there were any sharp edges. Results indicate that there are many sharp edges -- so bear that in mind and try not to cut yourself while building your media center PC.
The aluminum door is held up with two magnets, and controlled by a gear for open/close action to ensure it will not swing open. Behind it hides the reset button, two 5.25" drive bay openings, as well as a single 3.5" drive bay opening at the bottom.
One is broken; while the second is the replacement unit kindly sent to us by NZXT.
Out of the box, you will get one NZXT Duet chassis. Accessories are twist-tied inside the case itself; including a manual, 5.25" bay mounting rails, legs, as well as a variety of screws and motherboard risers you'd expect as standard accessories.
Before we move on, let's take a look at specifications and description of the NZXT Duet, as obtained from their site:
As far as motherboard installation goes, everything went pretty smoothly. I used a full size ATX motherboard with the NZXT Duet; the fixed motherboard tray had holes labeled so you know where to put the risers.
The only thing I have to complain about is that NZXT could have included more motherboard risers and screws. There were not enough included risers and motherboard screws if you were to attach every screw to every hole on a standard ATX motherboard. I checked the accessories included with both packages; the number of screws/risers included were identical.
The I/O backplate was another interesting factor. Fitting it in was a bit tight, because the opening was not wide enough -- the width could be increased a bit to better accommodate standard I/O backplates.
Two small fans are included with the NZXT Duet. Located at the back, they are designed to push air out of the case (Exhaust fans). Despite its small size, they spin at fairly low RPM during usage and the noise level is very acceptable. We'll go over cooling performance later on.
The NZXT Duet has two front accessible 5.25" drive bays. Installation is completely tool free -- just attach two rails on both sides of the drive you wish to install, and slide it into place. You will need to remove the front panel to do so, however.
The front panel is held together by a series of attachment pegs. The problem I see here is that the pegs are made entirely of plastic, and it might break easily if the panel is detached/attached many times.
In addition to the two front accessible 5.25" bays, there is also a single 3.5" front accessible bay. You can put in a floppy drive or card reader to your preference, or even an extra internal hard disk if you don't need front access.
A series of cables connect to the front panel to enable two USB ports, firewire, and two 3.5mm jacks for microphone and headphones, respectively. Standard case connectors include power button, reset button, HDD and power LEDs.
One of the most interesting implementations is the power supply bay. The power supply is actually placed near the front of the case -- therefore a cable leads from the back of the case to the front in order to permit front PSU placement and still allow back power input. A wide opening allows access to the PSU switch (If placed at a standard location) and power cord, as well as a gap between the front panel and the power supply, in case you have a PSU with rear 80mm fans. A duct is also located on the side corresponding to the power supply location for appropriate air flow. Additionally, holes are wide enough for screwdriver access to attach screws to power supply. It's not wide enough for power screwdrivers though, since usually I build computers with real power tools from Home Depot, haha.
It's quite a tight fit inside, especially with two optical drives in my test setup. The power supply is placed directly right of the 5.25" bays, as shown in the bottom right corner in the photo above.
Another I must highlight is that you'll need to make sure you have a decently long ATX 4-pin connector (Or EPS 8-pin if it applies to you). The 20/24-pin cable can be standard length, but my OCZ Modstream 450W's cable is way too short -- therefore you'll need to buy an extension cable. It would be nice if NZXT included one though.
With everything installed, it's a very tight fit inside. The OCZ Modstream is known for very stiff cables, so it's extremely hard to do good cabling inside due to size limitations. It's not because I cannot do cabling, haha. Also, check out my extension cable for my ATX 4-pin connector -- I needed one fast, so I paid $10 (Gosh darn it, what a rip off!) for an EPS 8-pin extension since I couldn't find an ATX 4-pin extension at major PC shops here!
I installed a hard drive at the top of the NZXT Duet -- right above the optical drives is an internal 3.5" bay. you will need to attach screws from both sides though, and now this can be done with power tools ;)
Due to height limitation, don't expect to fit any tall heatsinks on your CPU. Even smaller vertical implementations such as Arctic Cooling Freezer 64 Pro won't fit. Therefore I installed our "favorite" heatsink of all time, the Thermaltake RX-K8, instead. Hey, it's sort of better than a stock fan and it uses stock retention bracket. What more can I ask? Just add a fan controller to slow it down and it will be nice and quiet.
Optional 120mm fans can also be implemented at the top and bottom of the NZXT Duet for additional airflow and cooling. Just make sure your cables do not get in the way.
While installing the motherboard, I noticed that the array of case connectors did not include a speaker cable. The speaker is actually a separate unit; as I placed on top of the side panel in the photo above. Unfortunately, due to the tight fit inside, it is almost impossible to access the connectors/pins at the bottom right of the motherboard because the power supply will get in the way. For this very purpose, I would install the power supply last.
Do yourself a favor -- don't use long power supplies with the NZXT Duet, and when possible use PSUs with easy-to-manipulate modular cables. Power supplies such as the Seasonic M12 is perfect for this case (Especially when combined with its high efficiency, it generates less heat).
Add-on card installation is not tool-free, you'll need screws for it.
Everything is now installed and powered on. You can see the blue LED of my OCZ Modstream at the top -- NZXT has cleverly implemented a vent to allow airflow for PSUs with 120mm fans. There's a blue power LED in front, but ours did not seem to want to work at all.
Without installing the legs (Since they are adhesive, I won't bother with them for now), the case door is a bit close to the floor and won't open completely. Despite this, the bottom optical drive's tray still clears and opens.
As you can see, the NZXT Duet is very shiny, from its front plastic areas to the steel side panels -- as you guessed -- it's a finger print magnet. Side panels also scratch extremely easily.
Anyway, moving onto test system specifications --
AMD Athlon 64 3000+ S754 Newcastle @ Stock 2.00GHz (Cool & Quiet DISABLED)
Asus K8V-X Motherboard
Corsair 2x512MB, Single Channel, DDR400 @ 2.5-3-3-8
Western Digital 80GB 7200RPM 8MB Cache (NTFS)
ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon 9800 Pro
Arctic Cooling VGA Silencer Rev. 3 @ 2400 RPM
Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2
Pioneer DVR-108 Multiformat DVD Burner
Liteon 16x DVD Drive
OCZ Modstream 450W PSU
Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2
Maybe last time wasn't the "last time a test will be conducted using this machine"... (After all, I miss AMD after the nice Core 2 Duo!)
Due to many limitations, I did not compare the case's cooling performance directly to other cases as this would not be a very accurate representation. Instead, a better performance indicator we've discovered over time with regards to temperature is load versus idle temperatures -- if the load temperature is close to the idle temperature (Given that the idle temperature is within a reasonable limit), it is an indication of good cooling performance. Temperature units can be analyzed without relative comparison like benchmark scores, therefore we believe this is the best method of publishing our results.
Using a Zalman Fanmate2 resistor module on the CPU fan, it runs at 1600rpm idle and 1800rpm load (+/- 100rpm). With stock fan configuration and such a tight fit inside, the cooling performance is actually pretty good for such a setting -- and results indicate that the case temperature and hard disk temperature is the same at any given time. CPU temperature is pretty high for an Athlon 64, but still within acceptable limits.
For a rough estimate and indirect comparison, temperatures are mostly 6-10 degrees Celsius higher than the Thermaltake Matrix VX at any given time. Keep in mind that this is for indirect reference only.
In terms of noise, the small fans spins at an acceptable rotation speed while generating an acceptable amount of noise. However, the case itself will not block out any noise; the thin steel panels are not designed for this purpose. Also, the amount of vents implemented will allow sound to pass through easily.
Accommodation of most standard PC components (Such as standard PSUs and ATX boards) in a media center chassis is very interesting. We can see that NZXT has designed it to use every single inch of room on board -- nothing is wasted -- nothing at all. It creates such a tight fit that things may get in the way; but it is a sacrifice well made if you want the best of both worlds. General design and aesthetics are excellent, but build quality can be improved upon in areas such as back I/O panel opening, as well as regarding sharp edges and front panel attachment design. Also, it should be made more scratch resistant. Cooling performance is pretty good for such a case, but enhancements can be made so the case can insulate noise in and allow the sound generated by the components inside to be kept inside. Installation, in general, is fairly smooth, but not entirely trouble free -- more motherboard mounting accessories can be included, and just a few tips and tricks to look into before building. I can confidently conclude that the NZXT Duet is a very well designed media center chassis, but it is not perfect.
Special thanks to Tom over at NZXT for making this review possible.
Rating: 7.1/10 | APH equal.balance
- The rating 7/10 means "Great product with many advantages and certain insignificant drawbacks; but should be considered before purchasing".
- The rating 8/10 means "Definitely a very good product with drawbacks that aren't likely going to matter to the end user".
- More information in our Review Focus.
Checking the price of the NZXT Duet at major online retailers, it could be quite a steal. Excellent case that's well designed; build quality can be improved and just a few things for NZXT to look out to and fix up.
Do you have any comments or questions about the NZXT Duet? Drop by our Forums. Registration is free, and it only takes a minute!