FC-ZE1 Fatal1ty Aluminum Case

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Product: Zalman FC-ZE1 Fatal1ty Case
Provided By: ZalmanUSA
Price: ~$380CDN Online

Introduction:

Zalman is much better known for their line of cooling products than their cases, but with their growing line of HTPC cases, they are starting to make a name for themselves in the case market as well.  Zalman also has a line of very expensive TNN (Totally No Noise) cases that really never caught on due to their expensive price tag, complicated install, and hardware compatibility.  Today, we are taking a look at a case that is designed to bridge the gap and bring a high-quality case to discerning gamers.  We are looking at the Fatal1ty branded FC-ZE1.

This case is individually serial numbered and offers amazing construction elements such as 5mm thick aluminum panels that prevent vibration as well as rubber mounted hard drive installation.  We'll get into this much more as we carry on.

The Package:

My good buddy Dwayne Dallmann gave me a call a few weeks back and said there was a rather large Zalman package taking up space at DallmannComputers, and I was out of town for Thanksgiving so my sister actually went and picked up this case for me.  She ought to have a medal and a back brace because this case is HEAVY!

The Box
 The Box

Big Box
 Big Box

Well Packed
 Well Packed

It came shipped in a box within a box and arrived in great shape, which is a little unusual for a UPS delivered package.  Inside the box it was protected by the standard issue styrofoam top and bottom and inside a plastic bag.

First Look:

After taking the bag off we start to get an idea as to why this case is so heavy.  It is built using incredibly thick aluminum panels that has a nice anodized black finish over brushed aluminum.  Take a look below at a few pictures of the case.

Front Side View
 Front Side View

Right Side
 Right Side

As you can see above, the case looks pretty flashy.  It has a nice square look, a nice sized window, and a bunch of laser etched logos.

Bundle
Bundle

On the next page we'll take a look at this case up close and see if it's as good as it looks at first glance.


Closer Look - Outside:

Once we took a closer look at this case we noticed a bunch of little details that we thought were worth pointing out.  Some were good and others, well, not so good.

Full Frontal
Front View

Full Backside
Back View

First off, I think it is noteworthy to remind you that the case side panels are made from 5mm thick aluminum.  This is nuts and shows that Zalman is not afraid to spend some money on their high end cases.  You'll also notice that the solid aluminum front bezel is screwed on using Allen-head screws.  These can be removed by using the provided Allen wrench.  There are 4 - 5.25" Drive Bays on this case as you can see in the picture above on the left that one bay cover is missing.  Zalman ships the case minus one bay cover assuming that you will install one optical drive in this case.  That is true I'm sure, but leaving a blank on a $380 case seems a little odd.  The bay covers that do exist are all laser engraved with different Zalman and Fatal1ty logos.

Moving around to the back lets us see that the back of the case is made from the same 5mm thick aluminum.  The layout is pretty standard, and the 120mm fan has a nice wire guard that won't restrict airflow.  On the back we also find the serial number and the laser engraved Falal1ty signature.

The case sits on four rubber feet that help reduce any vibration that could transfer from the case to your desk or whatever you place the case on.  The case feet look very nice and reminiscent of a high-end Home Theatre Amp.

Case Feet
Case Feet

A closer look at the front of the case shows the power and reset buttons as well as the Power and HDD LEDs.  You can also see the front audio, 2x USB2.0 ports, and a 6-pin Firewire port.

I/O Front Close
I/O Front Close

On the bottom of the case on the front are two 80mm fans that bring in fresh cool air over the hard drives.  These fans are the only air intake on this case and can be ran at either 5v or 12v using a provided Y-adapter.

On the next page we'll take a look inside.



Closer Look - Inside:

As we open up the door on this case we realize that Zalman has used a very nice hinge and latch on the door, but the door cannot be (easily) removed for hardware installation.

Door Open
Door Open

The case has plenty of room to work in, and ships with the nine standard motherboard standoffs installed.  The hard drive rack is mounted sideways as is becoming popular.  As you can see in the picture above, the door swings back a full 90 degrees, and even manages about 110 degrees if you push it.  As nice as the hinge is, it is a pain to install hardware while the case is standing upright, and when you lay the case on its side and let the heavy door lay open, it feels as though you could rip it off of its hinges.  The Zalman manual states that you are to lay it on its side with the door open.  In this position, a small nudge on the door could cause damage.  The last thing I want to do is break a $380 case before I've had it a week.

The 5.25" bays are not tool-less at all, and require the removal of six Allen headed screws on the right side as well as two Phillips screws for the drive cover.  You will then need four screws to hold the optical drive in place.  This prevents vibration of loose tool-less drive rails, but could have been designed better.  The six screw removal of the right panel is a pain if you are in your case to swap out 5.25" devices very often.

The front 3.5" bay will also require right panel removal and a couple of screw to release the cover and four more to secure your 3.5" device.  Hard Disk Drive installation is a snap thanks to the rubber roller and foam sides on the drive bays.  The drives slides into place and the rubber roller drops in behind to keep in immobile.  A screw can be used to lock it securely so it won't fall out as you pack it to a LAN.

Inside Front
 Inside Front

Inside Back
Inside Back

The inside back of the case looks very clean but is also a bit troubling.  There are seven expansion slots - which is pretty standard, but the slot covers are the snap off type and there are no included replacement slot covers.  If you move a card around after removing one cover, you will have a hole with no cover to fill it up.  That is a pretty cheap feature for such a pricey case.  Zalman should at least include spare slot covers.  I believe that they should also use removable slot covers and provide thumbscrews for each cover.  This would greatly improve my opinion of the back side of this case.

Pre-Installation Thoughts:

As you have no doubt noticed, the outside of the case is littered with laser etched logos.  While these look cool at first glance, looking at these for a time makes you realize that you have purchased some else's custom modded case - not your own.  While I think some of the "warning labels" are cool - the whole Falal1ty thing is a bit overdone.  That being said, if you didn't want all the logos, you shouldn't have bought it in the first place.  Below are some (not all) of the logos on this case.

Laser Etched Madnes
Laser Etched Madness

Next up, we start to install some gear.


Installation:

We moved our Core 2 Duo test system from sitting on a cardboard box inside this case.  It should provide a better and safer home for our gear as every now and then my four year old and two year old son manage to get in the shop and stick screwdrivers on the motherboard while it's running.

Board Installed
Board Installed

Motherboard installation went alright, but was a little challenging as I didn't feel comfortable laying the case on its side and letting the heavy door torque on the hinges.  Zalman says it's okay to do this of course, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.  If there was a removable motherboard tray it would make this almost a non-issue, but the motherboard tray is not removable.  There is plenty of room to work inside this case which is one redeeming feature.  If you need to remove the PSU after the board is installed, it won't be a problem - even with a large HSF such as a 9700LED strapped to your CPU.

Hard Drive installation is very simple and straightforward.  Simply side the drive into the bay of your choice and push it forward until you can move the rubber roller down past the end of the drive.

Drives Installed
Drives Installed

Installing the drives requires a little force as the drive are being pushed into a foam bumper that helps eliminate drive vibration on the chassis.  Zalman has done an excellent job isolating vibration, although if you don't provide enough cooling, your drives could overheat as they have no metal-to-metal contact which helps dissipate heat.  Thankfully, the two 80mm front fans provide enough cooling even when running at 5v to keep the drives nice and cool.

My biggest gripe about this case came when I went to install an optical drive.  There are several issues with the whole 5.25" bay thing in this case.  First, it requires a Phillips screwdriver as well as an Allen wrench.  Second, there are not enough bay covers provided.  Third, my Plextor PX-750A would not fit in the 5.25" hole.  I initially tried the top hole and when it didn't fit, I thought it must be a machining error on the top hole so I tried another one; same result.

Drive Won't Fit
Drive Won't Fit

In the end, I broke out a DeWalt random orbit sander and sanded the drive bezel down in order to make it fit.  This took extra time and was unnecessary.  To sand the drive down, I had to take it apart to remove the plastic front in order not to pooch my drive with small dust particles.  I realize that Plextor may have used a slightly over-sized drive bezel on this drive, but the tolerance shouldn't be that fine on a case.  This drive fits into CoolerMaster cases and other generic cases just fine.

After an hour and a half we finally had our basic install finished in this case.  Most of the time, an install takes no more than 30 minutes or so.  This build took a long time because of wire routing issues, and most of all mounting the optical drive.  Taking the side panel off takes time, and then of course sanding down the drive itself to make it fit after confirming it wouldn't fit in the other drive bays - which required unscrewing the blanks.

All Installed
All Installed

The install looks nice and clean, and one thing I really love about this case is the window.  When it is shut, you can't see the hard drive wire jumble and the front of the case.

On the last page we'll take a look at this case in action and run see how well it keeps our hardware cool at both low and high fan speeds.


Up & Running:

Back in the days of yore, red LEDs were about the only affordable LED when it came to modding.  As blue LEDs became more popular, people quit using the common red LED.  After years of being MIA in the enthusiast world, I must admit that red LED lighting does have some appeal once again.

Front Lights
 Front Lights

Back and CPU Lights
 Back and CPU Lights

Cooling Performance:

To run some "benchmarks" on this case we ran the fans at both 5v and 12v using the provided Y adapters. 

When the system is idle, running the fans at high speed doesn't lower temperatures dramatically on this system.  CPU, motherboard and GPU temperatures only drop a maximum of 3C when idle.  When the system is running full-load, things are only a little different.  CPU temperature drops 3C, motherboard temperature is down 5C, and GPU temperature is down 4C.

This brings to mind another issue I have with this case.  For $380 Zalman doesn't include a fan controller of any kind to control the speed of the case fans.  They include Y adapters that require you open your case, unplug fans from one side of the Y and into the other side.  This is not handy at all - especially when you're sitting around idle at a LAN, then want to crank up the performance when you go to game.  You could of course leave the fans at 12v the entire time, but they do make a fair bit of noise.

Conclusion:

This case has been bitter - sweet in so many ways.  It has 5mm thick aluminum panels which make it feel like a tank in terms of durability, but it has so many other things that go against it.  While the front aluminum bezel exudes quality, the fact that I had to sand down an optical drive to get it to fit in the hole is just plain ridiculous.  The PCI expansion slots at the back are the snap-off style and they don't include extras to fill the holes if you should move or remove hardware later on.  Also, having high and low speed fan options are nice, but when you have to open your case and unplug the fans, then plug them into another side of the adapter is downright cheep.  Zalman makes a sweet fan controller - the ZM-MFC1 and if they did it in a red Fatal1ty theme and included it with this case - it would be a much better fan control choice.

Pros:

  • Thick aluminum panels.
  • Tool-less anti-vibration Hard Drive bays.
  • Anti-vibration rubber feet and rubber grommets on fans.
  • Extra Allen screws provided in case you lose some.

Cons:

  • Door cannot be removed.
  • Installing 5.25" devices requires removal of 6 Allen Screws and 2 Phillips screws.
  • 5.25" Bay too small to install Plextor DVDRW.
  • Fan control is Y adapter (cheap)
  • PCI slot covers are snap-off and there are no replacements.
  • Non-removable motherboard tray.
  • Looks a little tacky with so many logos.

BCCHardware.com Rating
Quality:
7/10
Performance:
7/10
Installation:
4/10
Stability:
n/a
Features:
5/10
Value:
4/10
Total Score 5.4

I really wanted to like this case, but the truth is that is has some major issues.  These are mostly in the way of cheap things on an expensive case.  I feel confident that Zalman could remedy this without much cost to them and provide the user with a much better experience.  I know that many of you may flame me for this extremely low score, but for $380 for a mid-tower case, you'd really expect that there would be more features and easier to use.

If you have any questions or comments, please drop me a line in the forum at the comments link below.