Fractal Design’s Define R4 is a Stealthy Sleeper
2/3/2013 by: Matt Brodnick
Don’t let its no-frills, minimalist design fool you - Fractal Design’s Define R4 chassis is a serious solution for the multimedia pro looking to build a quiet, solid PC. Here’s what we thought:
We wanted to build a multimedia creation system that not only could handle the latest processing demands, but could also leave the least power and noise footprint in the room. With so many “extreme” systems in our testing lab whirring away, it was time to build something that could stealthily and humbly chug along.
Fractal Design believes that their Define R4 is a great candidate for our needs: It’s a “silent” chassis, has a very organized layout, and can accompany many hardware configurations, all in a mid tower form factor. This case supports the latest ATX, micro ATX, and ITX mainboards, can mount up to 8 hard drives or 10 solid state drives, and has excellent cable routing and hiding areas to help give your system a finished, clean look.
At first glance, the Define R4 is nothing to immediately brag about, especially if you’re in a room of other chassis with endless LED’s, windows, and other gimmicks. With its only accent being a brushed aluminium front door up front, we think it has just enough style to stand out in the office. At 27 lbs (12.3 kg), this case is a hefty one, which is alright for our needs since it will further aid noise dampening.
The front panel has what you need, nothing more, nothing less. There’s a big power button, with front header HD audio ports and reset button to its left, and both USB 2.0 & 3.0 ports to its right. A single, bright blue LED lets you know the system is on - which, in this case, is important when you can barely hear the hardware running inside.
The front door opens up, only to the left, revealing two 5.25’’ drive bays for your optical drives, fan controllers, or other hardware. Below it is space for two 140mm or 120mm case fans. The Define R4 comes out of the box with two of their R2 140mm silent fans, one for intake and the other for exhaust, but we put them both up front for more cold air with the least front-side noise. Of course, this fan bay has a removable dust filter, and 140mm fans can be installed in a snap with a toolless design. 120mm fans can still be installed with the proper screws.
Next to the 5.25’’ bays is a controller that connects all the case fans to a single 4-pin molex power supply connector, with three voltage (speed) options. Competing models that have built-in fan control have moved to potentiometers for smooth, variable control, but Fractal decided to stick with the switch for most of their models. With almost no difference between 5V and 7V, you really only get the option of either quiet or loud operation, when cranking it its full 12V setting.
However, we noticed that there was no mounting support or hardware to install 3.5’’ front panel devices into these bays. For example, our Intel Z77 board came with a USB 3.0 accessory that would have been neat to use, but even if there was a way to Frankenstein it into the bay, there was no 5.25’’ to 3.5’’ adapter bezel to make the installation flush with the chassis front.
If you don’t have many drives, the top 5-bay HDD cage is removable, opening up extra space for more airflow or, perhaps, watercooling hardware. Even with the bay installed, you can still fit an NVIDIA GTX 680 without a sweat. Our baseline system only had 4 drives in total: a single Corsair Force3 90 GB SSD for Windows 7, two Samsung 830 Series 128 GB SSD’s in RAID for demanding apps, and a workhorse 1TB Black Edition HDD for storage from Western Digital.
Behind the mainboard tray sits space to discreetly mount two more SSD’s if you run out of space. While this may be exciting at first, the only way to do so is to first remove the mainboard to access those mounting holes. This can be very troublesome if one of those drives were to malfunction.
And like most mid towers, the R4 has 7 expansion slot bays that hold hardware in place with thumb screws. It even has one vertical expansion slot bay that could be used for a fan controller, or other components that don’t need a PCI slot.
Up top, there are two spaces for case fans that are occupied by default by what Fractal calls “ModuVents”, trays outfitted with noise dampening foam. These are removable, opening enough space for your favorite air coolers or all-in-one watercooling loops - even those popular 240mm radiators.
The side panels are heavy duty, featuring a thin layer of noise dampening material with a ModuVent on the side. If you want to compromise some noise control for looks, Fractal Design does offer a model with an acrylic window, so your coworkers can marvel at its guts.
The Define R4 stands on 4 rubberized feet, with bottom vents for power supply or extra intake fans. There’s even a removable dust filter on the bottom as well. Because of this design, if you have a power supply that has a top-facing intake fan, and want to mount it toward this vent, we highly recommend to keep this case on level, solid ground with enough clearance (not carpet).
You may notice in these images that there’s foam filling the edges and surrounding some hardware. This is extra sound proofing, heat resistant material that we added later on, in areas that could block more noise without disrupting airflow. This is not to discount the R4’s noise reduction performance out-of-box, but we wanted to take it to the next level (which it did).
Our noise meter tests detected very little difference between ambient room levels, and while the system ran idle. Granted, there were some issues that were unavoidable at its current, baseline setup. Isolating the fans and noises individually, the loudest components are the stock fan packaged with the Intel i5-3330 CPU (3.2 GHz), and the dampened din of the mechanical HDD up front. When the system starts to chug, the chassis still provides enough cool air to support both CPU and GPU - even when the fan controller is switched to the 7V setting.
So our system specs are not yet quite where we want them to be, but the Define R4 illustrated the potential of how powerful this “sleeper car” can become, without making a scene. Despite some quirks with its front panel access, 5.25’’ bay and SSD options, this chassis can house serious and stealthy performance with a minimalist, sharp design. The guys at BSN highly recommend this case for professionals who need a quiet work environment, or for the enthusiast who needs a solid solution without the “bling”. We look forward to Fractal Design ironing out these bugs with the “R5”, and still carry this same philosophy.
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