The great thing about a small form factor PC is that they are so portable. Weighing in much less than full sized computers and often packing just as much processing power, it's no wonder they are gaining acceptence among enthusiasts, especially LAN gamers.
Of course, there's a trade-off and as often is the case with smaller computers, that trade-off is expansion, or lack thereof. Typically, you won't find more than two expansion slots, one of which is for video cards. Depending on the manufacturer, the motherboard also cannot be changed for something newer since it may be either tied into the case's design, or they do not offer an alternative PSU.
MicroATX motherboards address that problem in two ways. One, they allow for more upgrade peripherals than smaller, FlexATX motherboards, and two, you can move them around relatively easy between different cases and power supplies. We've looked at some MicroATX cases before, but the truth is we've found them lacking in many ways.
A problem many case manufaturers make is simply taking a case, shrink it and call it a day. Will the make the same mistake, or will they bring something new to the table? Read on to find out.
Cooler Master Centurion 540 – Exterior
The Centurion 540 is constructed primarily out of steel, which is stronger than aluminum, but also heavier. Since this is a MicroATX case, even with a power supply and parts, the weight is something that should be easily manageable by most users. The black and silver colours give the case a fairly sophisticated feel, which is something we prefer personally over loud oranges and reds.
The front bezel is 100% aluminum, which differs from the steel construction as the rest of the case. Overall, we like the look of it, and although a silver or grey fan filter may match better, we think the contrast with the black (plus it matches the sides) looks pretty sharp.
The bezel is removeable, and all it takes is gripping the bottom of the bezel and giving it a solid pull. The bezel will then pop off in which you can fully remove it.
While there are not as many external 5.25" bays as a full sized case, the Centurion 540 does offer two. This in turn is more than what you would find in most form factor PCs.
The center and lower half of the bezel lies the front fan mesh, power and reset buttons, the two 3.5" external drive bays and external I/O connections. Between the power button and reset buttons are the power and HDD activity LEDs.
There is a 120mm fan grill behind the fan mesh for drawing air in from the front of the case. The fan grill is factory cut in a honeycomb manner which is better than the cheaper looking factory cut grills of yesteryear. While Cooler Master allows for one 120mm intake fan in the front of the case, no 120mm fan, let alone any fans at all, are included.
As you may have noticed in our earlier bezel removal picture, there is a foam fan filter located just behind the fan mesh. Airflow should not be impacted significantly, and of course the filter will keep the dust particles out of the case.
Rounding things out on the front are the FireWire/USB and sound connections. For those of you who prefer using headphones for late night gaming, or if you tend to plug in a lot of peripherals into the USB or FireWire ports, you'll appreciate the extra connections Cooler Master provides on front. What I don't really like about the placement, is that it tarnishes the look of the case when viewed head on. It's not really that big a deal, but some sort of latch to hide it would have been nice.
The case has a bit of a BTX design to it where the side panel comes off the opposite side we're generally used to with ATX cases. Both side panels are removable, but only the access panel (the right side when facing the case head on) is done so via a couple thumbscrews. This access side panel features a couple of vented areas to allow some cool air to flow over the hottest components.
From our previous experiences, the rectangular vents for video card cooling do not have a big impact on performance, but the round vent works quite well thanks to the CPU fan duct on the opposite side. The fan duct more or less forces air to be drawn from the outside directly and over the CPU heatsink. Normally, most CPU heatsinks draw airflow from above and into the CPU heatsink's fins. The air duct should limit any warm zones and allow cooler exterior air into the case to be more effective.
However, many of today's modern performance coolers may be too large for the air duct. Either you'll need to remove it (which can be done with a simple screwdriver), or change your heatsink. Chances are, most will choose the former. While we were unable to test every solution out there, we can state that the Zalman CNPS9500, Thermaltake Big Typhoon and asetek VapoChill Micro cannot be used if you're deadset on keeping that fan duct.
The back of the case does a little more in demostrating the quasi-BTX design Cooler Master looked for when designing the case. As you can see, the motherboard's I/O are pointed towards the bottom. Typically in an ATX design, this is reversed and the PSU helps the rear fan draw out warm CPU air from the case. In this instance, we can forget about that since basic thermal dynamics (aka, heat rises) say that the video card now prevents this from happening, let alone the motherboard orientation.
However, there's a reason for all this. Given the size of the case, as well as the heat produced by modern CPUs, Cooler Master was able to outfit the Centurion 540 with two 80mm fans by reversing the motherboard. Well, you'll actually need to provide your own fans, but the point is this should be relatively efficient since the PSU is normally busy trying to keep itself cool.
Removing the fan duct side panel exposes the interior of the Centurion 540. Unlike their premium midtower cases, Cooler Master chose not to include a removable motherboard tray in the Centurion. Normally, we prefer having a removable tray as it makes upgrading a lot easier, but despite the small size, there is enough room inside that working isn't too difficult.
We've already mentioned the thumb screws for the side panels, and in keeping with the tool free design philosophy, the Centurion uses snap rails and clips for installing the hard drive and optical drives, negating the need to use Phillips screws and a screwdriver for installation.
Installing the CDROM, or any other 5.25" device is done by pushing the device through the front of the case until it slides into place. Once the drive is installed, you snap the lock on the rail into place, thus securing the device.