MonsterLabo The First Review – A PASSIVELY Cooled Gaming PC
Today we are checking out The First – yes, that is the product’s actual name – a passively cooled fan-less computer case from MonsterLabo. This is a Belgium company with a goal to deliver a small case that is powerful enough to cool good hardware and is also upgradable. The case itself is the cooling with a massive heatsink for the CPU and GPU called the Heart, it is capable of cooling CPUs up to 100W and GPUs up to 120W in fan-less configuration. However, if you add a low RPM fan for active cooling the TDP rating jumps to 140W and 160W, meaning a Core i9-9900K system with an RTX 2060 Super should fall within the the cooling capabilities of The First.
Now the whole point of this product is to be silent, making no airflow noise when you run this thing in passive configuration. I thought I was being trolled by MonsterLabo when I first booted up the system because I heard a fan running. Thankfully, it was just an error, the BIOS for some reason had reset when I entered into it, so the fan went rogue and the CPU voltage was reaching almost 1.50V on the Ryzen 3700X, which is why the fan was ramping up trying to cool it.
Not to worry though after a few tweaks this machine was back to being dead silent. I locked the voltages and set the fan RPM to 500, making the system practically inaudible, but not exactly passively cooled. There are plenty of scenarios when a totally silent machine may come in handy like recording studios, quiet offices, and low maintenance PCs. I will say that your ambient environment noise is actually part of the equation too. For example, when I turn on my AC it is louder than any machine that I have in the office. When I open the window, the city noise, the wind is definitely louder than the low hum of my water cooled machine. All this to say, is that a fan-less computer like The First has to be placed in an appropriate environment for a fan-less PC to make sense. MonsterLabo sent us a fully assembled system already, so I can work backwards to experience The First properly, and to be completely honest this case targets a particular type of enthusiast builder because everything from the order, to assembly, to tweaking requires a bit more knowledge and understanding of exactly what you are doing. This might be a bit of a hindrance for novice users. In this review, let us talk about my experience with The First and how it made me appreciate the sound of silence and the sound of airflow.
Size & Options
The first thing we need to discuss would be the size. At 19 liters The First is a fairly large ITX enclosure, but that is understandable as the majority of it is the Heart, which is a massive heatsink that is almost the size of the Corsair One system. It is kind of funny to see both spectrums of high performance/liquid cooling versus high performance/passive cooling. There are six heat pipes on each block, and this is the biggest heatsink that I have ever seen, which is necessary to passively dissipate all that heat. The rest of the case frame is basically built around the cooler.
The case is available in black or white or anodized aluminium exterior. It looks a bit like a lipstick, really minimalist, and something that will blend well in an office space or particular type of living room. It supports SFX, SFX-L, and ATX power supplies with an optional 120mm or 140mm fan. GPUs up to 270mm are compatible and there is a wide variety of CPU sockets too. On their website you can see a full compatibility list of what cards and motherboards are supported, and you have to let MonsterLabo know which hardware you are going to be using inside The First – specifically your motherboard and your GPU – so they can supply appropriate mounting brackets with the package.
The I/O is up top with dual USB 3.0 ports, audio jacks, and the jankiest power button ever with a housing that isn’t attached. Overall I’m a bit surprised at the feel and finish on The First. It is a bit rough around the edges and the contrast split piece that is the different color at the front isn’t exactly in line with other panels. In some ways it feels like a premium product, but then it feels like it is almost in the final stages of pre-production. For example, the rubber feet at the bottom are shaped like the logo – nice touch – and a portion of the bottom frame is coloured in orange after the brand colors. To get inside you need to remove 19 screws and the aluminium slide from the top isn’t all that smooth. Once inside you have to remove one of the support beams to gain access to the base plates.
Assembly & Issues
There is a 50 step procedure to assemble The First, but thankfully there is visual guide available alongside a long list of YouTube clips. There’s no doubt that the user experience is completely different and non-traditional versus your regular case.
The biggest drawback for me with regards to the layout of the PC would be the inaccessibility of the motherboard I/O. Because it is facing down and it is actually inside the frame it’s just not easy to access. The workaround that they designed is a set of passthrough cables that you install into the motherboard and route into this backplate. All of this costs extra, and once you reroute a few USB, video, and ethernet cables for convenience that is at least a 50 Euros expense on top of the case price. You could bypass this altogether if you manually plug things into the motherboard and just don’t access that area, because it is really difficult to get to. I kind of understand this design decision given that it’s a passively cooled enclosure. It is geared towards low maintenance, so maybe if you plug things in and don’t unplug stuff it would be fine, but still it is not user friendly.
The most interesting thing about The First would be its cooling potential, so let us dive into my analysis. My system arrived with a 140mm fan that was particularly loud at 1,400 RPM, but it does give really acceptable cooling during a torture test on both the CPU and the GPU. This would be your best cooling scenario, but totally unacceptable because of the acoustics. Therefore I lowered the fan to 500 RPM, which makes this system inaudible. Going silent does come with extra heat and removing the top mesh doesn’t really help, but taking off the skin was a nice surprise as the temperatures dropped on both the CPU and the GPU. For example, if I disabled the fan cooling is not an issue with the skins removed, but as soon as the case is back at its default state the Ryzen 3700X goes above 90°C with much higher chipsets temperature too. And the problem is this processor is rated at 65W and we are struggling to keep it cool in a completely passive configuration, which gives me some concern. Installing a low RPM 140mm fan does improve our temperatures, but then it kind of defeats the whole purpose of this being a passively cooled PC case. Now obviously our load test is unrealistic due to 100% load on both the CPU and the GPU, but if we run a game with this fan-less operation temperatures are warm but acceptable.
I wanted to save the conversation about the price for last, because otherwise a lot of you would have stopped reading. The First is not a cheap item at 349 Euros, you can also get it without the exterior panels for 299 Euros. There is also a B-grade option that is heavily discounted because of some minor exterior imperfections. While 349 Euros is the base price you have to consider getting I/O cables, the back panel, the PCI riser cable, VRM cooling and heatsinks, and also a top fan bracket that is kind of expensive at 80 Euros but is needed if you are using an ATX power supply and want active cooling. The end result is that this is a really expensive computer case when you account for shipping to North America and the exchange rate. Another thing to note is that the USB 3.0 cables are Gen1, so you have to plug stuff directly into your motherboard for higher USB transfer speeds.
Alternatives & Conclusion
To be fair, there isn’t much competition in the passively cooled space, especially for cases that support both a CPU and GPU together. Streacom cases are just as expensive, but don’t have that much cooling potential, nor did they support a GPU. However, this case requires a fan to give you adequate cooling for mid-range components, so unless you are in the really dusty environment I would say going for a normal silent enclosure that has good airflow potential – like the be quiet! Pure Base 500 DX – would give you better results in terms of cooling compatibility for hardware, easier assembly, and it will definitely be cheaper. I appreciate MonsterLabo for trying to do something different, especially on that whole passively cooled / active cooled angle. Having that low RPM fan in there helps with cooling tremendously. However, all the add-ons are unconventional and expensive making The First bit difficult to recommend, especially when things like the NZXT H1 exist on the market. That cases follows a similar structure, a low footprint tower design, but the H1 comes with a cooler, a power supply, riser cables, and it so much easier to work in than The First.
Then there is also cases like the Shift Air from Phanteks and the new LD03 from SilverStone, that gives users a bit more flexibility in terms of assembly and hardware choice. Again, I would love for MonsterLabo to improve the overall user experience with The First because the airflow potential and cooling potential is already there and they’ve designed the heart so well, I would love for them to focus on the body next. All right. Thanks for watching. Let me know if you would ever consider going for a passively cooled system and why and why not.