A PC Case NO ONE Asked For – Cooler Master NC100 Review
If you have the courage and the urge to build a system with a NUC Compute board you don’t have many choices for cases. Razer showed off the Tomahawk at CES last year, but that’s not on the horizon anytime soon. Therefore, your case options are limited to either the Intel’s own enclosure – which is okay but it doesn’t have full graphics card support in terms of length – and the other option is the Cooler Master MasterCase NC100.
What is really cool about this case is that it’s extremely small at 7.9L and it’s designed around the whole NUC Compute Element. The benefit of this case is that there is no wasted space, but the downside is that it’s almost approaching the size of other really popular small form factor cases that support an ITX motherboard, like the Dan A4-SFX case for example, which is actually slightly smaller than the NC100.
What You Can Expect
I will say the price point is a major roadblock with all parties involved, not just with Cooler Master and this enclosure, but from the Intel side as well because the Compute Element is not cheap. Aside from what you spend on the Intel Compute Element, the enclosure itself from Cooler Master is $200 USD. That is because you get the enclosure and some addressable RGB illumination built into the power button and at the very bottom underneath the front foot. That lighting shoots all the way to the back and kind of spills it all over the place, I’m not a big fan of this approach.
A 650W SFX Gold-rated power supply is included with, short cables that eliminate all the cable clutter. There is also the daughterboard at the bottom into which you plug in the NUC Compute Element and your GPU. The reason why I say this might be a tough sell for the enclosure and for the entire ecosystem is because all of the concerns that we had in January still exist today. Basically, they are just all too expensive.
For $200 I was hoping to see a bit more focus from Cooler Master on the build quality of the enclosure. It’s not bad, but it’s not fantastic or premium either. For example, it is all plastic and steel, and the side dust filters are glued on to the side panel, which I find quite strange. The design is a bit too angular for my style, I was hoping to see something a bit cleaner, like we saw with the NR200. The one positive is that both side panels and the top are removable making installation and working inside the enclosure super simple. The chassis seems to be all secured with screws, so you can undo them and completely disassemble the frame. I find it really odd that we have red USB ports at the front, but there is a reason for that, which is that they are USB 3.1 Gen2 like what you would find on the back of the motherboard.
What’s really cool though is that the USB internal cable is removable, so you can connect that to the front and directly into the Compute Element. A few more cables are included, like this ARGB hub that is SATA powered and has a remote so you can cycle between different colors. The only issue is that you cannot actually enable a solid color, you either have like blinking, fading away, or this RGB puke. We also have fan splitter because the top of the chassis has two slim 92mm fans for exhaust, and the last two accessories included a magnetic dust filter that you attach to the top. There is also a plastic really flimsy, slightly adhesive shroud for the actual NUC Element.
Once inside the first thing we notice is that daughterboard card at the bottom, the power supply at the front, and the power cable somewhat cleanly pre-routed at the top so it’s not dripping down. The daughterboard card requires a proprietary 10-pin connection, and that is already pre-routed into the power supply so if you swap it out for a different SFX unit you will have to find an adapter.
Installing RAM & GPU
Now since the case is based around the NUC Element, you don’t have to worry about CPU tower clearance or storage configuration since that is basically the NUC Element enclosure itself. The module has two DDR4 SODIMM notebook memory slots and there are two M.2 SSD slots for storage. The amount of DIY that you need to do is fairly minimal, you just need to populate memory and storage, install Windows, and you are good to go.
Building The System
The NUC Element is incredibly small, my ITX variant RTX 2060 Super is just a tiny bit larger than the module, and it contains your processor, your memory, your motherboard, and your cooler too. The only thing you have to worry about with the NC100 is GPU clearance, 2.5-slot GPUs up to 320mm are supported. That is basically any card on the market, including the new RTX 3000 series. The only thing that might be a problem is the height of the card, which in this case you have a little bit of room until the connector hits the top. The fans up top there that also limit your spacing, but anything slightly taller than reference should be sufficient.
Now it looks like the daughterboard card Cooler Master is using has wider spacing between the Element and the GPU, which is awesome because on the original Intel NUC 9 Extreme that spacing was really short and the two PCIe devices were practically touching. With the NC100 you can fit that plastic shroud in between and it helps with cooling the NUC as it doesn’t simply suck in that hot air emitted by the back plate of your GPU. Generally the spacing in this unit is sufficient.
Once the power connector is removed, you can insert the Compute Element, plug in all the power cables and all the I/O cables as well, insert your GPU, and you are ready to go. Because of the compact form factor it is much easier assembly than working with an ITX motherboard inside something similar, so that is one advantage of the NUC ecosystem and especially the NC100.
CPU & GPU Temperatures
After a quick windows installation the first thing I wanted to see was how cool the GPU and the NUC Element itself were running, because the i9-9980HK is being cooled by that blower-style design. I wasn’t expecting any miracles and in AIDA64 stress test the CPU gets really toasty, but the GPU is incredibly cool. The top two fans are doing a fantastic job and it looks like the ventilation on the sides is adequate. I then installed the plastic NUC shroud, and the CPU temperature did drop by a few degrees, while the GPU remained the same. Removing both side panels gave us a reference point for exactly how toasty the case is. There was a drop of a few degrees on the CPU and GPU, but not that significant. The case itself has really good cooling potential for the GPU. This is especially true when we compare it to my most recent ITX cases, like the Cooler Master NR200, the Fractal Design Era and the NZXT H1.
A few more things to mention about the case, there are antenna slots at the back or you can remove the front panel and mounted them behind that. I don’t think you can do much with the CPU temperatures – unless you undervolt and underclock the CPU – because the case cooling potential is great, but the blower-style design on the NUC Element isn’t really the best. The main thing that is constantly at the back of my mind when it comes to this ecosystem and the NC100 is the price point of the actual NUC Element and it’s availability.
Also, you can’t convert this to an ITX enclosure since it doesn’t support regular motherboards, it can only hold the NUC Element and a GPU. The closest thing in size to the NC100 would be the DAN A4-SFX case, which is also $200 USD, so clearly building a PC this case comes at a cost. If you want to go the ITX router instead make sure to check out the NR200 from Cooler Master, because while it is a much larger enclosure at 18 liters, it’s amazing in terms of cooling potential and hardware support.
As for the NC100, it does exactly what it promises to do in terms of delivering a proper enclosure for the whole NUC Element ecosystem, giving you plenty of GPU clearance, a solid 650W Gold-rated power supply, and really fast I/O at the front as well. Let me know what you think of the NC100, I don’t think the whole NUC Element will be popular. This case might be proof of that since Cooler Master is the only case company who is making cases for the NUC Element right now and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
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