Mini-ITX PC cases are seldom known for their flexibility. These small chassis are defined by their limitations and lack of space. The Era ITX, then, is a contradiction of sorts; it’s versatile in layout, and its compatibility with hardware is wide, but it’s still supremely compromised. This all-aluminum tiny-tower chassis is an odd duck that can host either ATX or SFX power supplies, along with a liquid cooler, all while maintaining a small physical footprint. But this all-things-to-all-builders philosophy cramps the Era ITX’s style. It’s roomy enough inside for its size, but builders should be prepared for some hard choices and fancy fingerwork to keep things neat and the airflow unimpeded. Consider this attractive mini-ITX chassis a challenge to build in—and at $159.99, a bit expensive, too, given the work you’ll put in.
The Design: Warning, Curves Ahead
The Era ITX was designed with curvy metal sides that use nifty snap-on fasteners. Getting into the case is quick and easy. The curvature of the panels is elegant and the high point of the case’s aesthetics. Due to the compact mini-ITX form factor and the need to keep the hardware from overheating, Fractal Design punched holes in every side of the case except the front to allow air to pass easily.
The company also tossed in an 80mm fan on the back to help with cooling, and you get room to add up to four 120mm or 140mm fans to the case. But it’s unlikely you’ll want to go all-in on fans. Two of these fan mounts are set at the top of the case, while the other two are on the bottom. These latter two fan mounts are problematic, as they can block installation of a graphics card. More to the point, if you don’t have a graphics card, it’s unlikely that you would need this much extra cooling just for the CPU and its supporting PCB components. Plus, installing a graphics card is largely the point of opting for a bigger, tower-esque mini-ITX case like this one.
The top panel on the Era ITX requires a bit of special attention, as Fractal Design has given its customers some unusual material options for what they would like to go here. Our review unit came with a simple sheet of steel mesh. This lets lots of air pass through, and a filter set underneath helps to keep the case from getting too dusty inside. In addition to the metal-mesh top in the model that we received, Fractal Design also ships versions of the case with a tempered-glass top (our model also bundled a tinted glass sheet), or with white oak or walnut wood tops for people that dig a retro-tech look, when everything from early game consoles to station wagons had wood or faux-wood inlays. Our model came in black (“Carbon”); Fractal Design also offers the Era ITX in Cobalt (blue), Gold, Silver, and Titanium Gray.
All of the panels on the Era ITX are held on with magnets, which makes them easy to remove—sometimes, a little too easy. Moving the case around while working on it is also about as easy as it gets, as the system weighs in at less than nine pounds empty. The front I/O panel consists of two USB 3.0 ports, a USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port (using the new-style USB 3.1 motherboard header, not the older 19-pin USB 3.0), and a 3.5mm audio jack that works for both microphones and headphones.
Internally, things are more complicated—much more complicated. With limited space in the case available for mounting hardware, Fractal Design had to make a few interesting design choices to make everything fit. One of the unusual aspects of the design is the mount for the power supply unit (PSU) that sits at the front of the case. This isn’t the first case like this that we’ve seen, but it’s downright funky.
The case can support most PSU form factors, including ATX, SFX, and SFX-L (long-bodied SFX) models, and it comes with brackets for each type. After you screw the power supply into the correct bracket, you slide it into the case through the top. The design leaves you a little wiggle room to mount the PSU close to the top, middle, or bottom of the case, using different screw positions (plus some small, fiddly screws). To connect power to the PSU, Fractal Design employs a power extension cable inside the case. This allows you to plug in a standard power cable to the case’s rear, then connect the extension to the PSU’s main power connector inside once the PSU has been bolted in place.
Just as its name suggests, the Era ITX supports only mini-ITX motherboards, and it has two PCI Express expansion-slot positions at the bottom. This enables the use of relatively large dual-slot graphics cards up to 11.5 inches in length.
As for drives, in total, you can mount up to four storage devices inside this case. The left side of the case has a removable metal bracket behind the side panel. It runs from the top to the bottom of the chassis frame, and this bracket can hold two 2.5-inch drives. It’s also possible to place a single 3.5-inch drive here, but this will prevent you from adding smaller 2.5-inch drives in this location.
A second bracket that can also hold either two 2.5-inch drives or a single 3.5-inch drive bridges over where the power supply goes. However, use of this second drive-mounting bracket will be blocked if you use an ATX power supply. Effectively, this limits you to having just two 2.5-inch drives or a single 3.5-inch drive if you are using an ATX power supply, plus any on-motherboard M.2 drives. The remaining storage mounts are usable only with an SFX PSU installed.
The Build Experience: Welcome to the Cable Cram
Building systems into some cases can be fairly enjoyable, especially when things go smoothly. The Era ITX is not one of these cases.
As this is a mini-ITX case, it should come as little surprise that the main build problems relate to its compact size and lack of space. This was especially true for the test system that we put together with a standard ATX power supply.
Getting the parts into place is a bit difficult, but not unusually so for a mini-ITX build. Cabling, however, was a cram party with little room to maneuver plugs into place, even with our modular Antec ATX power supply using just a minimal cable loadout for motherboard power, one drive, and a video card. Things would have gone more smoothly had we used an SFX PSU, but some of these issues are unavoidable.
Getting power and data cables run to the storage devices is particularly difficult, especially as the metal brackets that hold the storage devices obstruct access to the vast majority of the case interior. You’ll have to install drives last and do some cable-stuffing. Also, there’s next to no room for running cables behind the motherboard tray, which doesn’t help. If you try and squeeze a millimeter-thickness more cable behind the tray than it can take, the right side panel will tend to pop off its mounts. Somehow, you need to keep any cabling back there as flat and flush as possible.
The CPU cooler height is also limited. Right out of the box, the case can support a cooler up to 120mm high, but if you add a 3.5-inch drive on the rearmost side bracket, which arches over the CPU area, this is reduced to a mere 70mm, the typical ceiling for low-profile or stock CPU coolers. Liquid cooling is an option, as you can install a 240mm radiator on the top of the case, though adding one and running the hoses will be challenging given the the cramped confines of the interior. Also, if you are using an ATX PSU, you will be limited to a smaller 120mm water cooler, which mostly just gives you another reason to avoid using an ATX PSU inside of the Era ITX, or opting for air cooling if you must go ATX.
Fractal Design left room for graphics cards up to 47mm thick and 295mm in length at the bottom of the case. The power supply can reduce this to as little as 190mm if you are using an ATX PSU mounted closer to the bottom. For this review, we opted to add a relatively small single-fan video card that measures 170mm in length, but it still felt very cramped trying to fit it into the case and attach its power leads. The wires from the PSU were wedged between the card and the front of the case, and an SFX PSU is a must for anything that’s longer.
It’s a contradiction, really. You likely want to install an ATX PSU for its extra wattage to power a robust video card. But it’s with long, powerful video cards that an ATX PSU is least suited to co-exist here. You can do it with care, but it’ll be a squeeze, and airflow will be limited. You should definitely get a modular power supply, whichever size you opt for. You’ll be pressed to fit the necessary PSU cables, never mind unused extras.
Verdict: Tight Tolerances Test Your Mettle
Fractal Design’s Era ITX is a nice-looking case that ultimately comes off as a mixed bag. Versus most ATX or MicroATX cases we’ve reviewed, the Era ITX cramps a builder’s style, but mini-ITX is its own animal and requires special consideration.
As a mini-ITX case, the Era ITX has elegance on its side and quality construction, but it also has a lot of room for improvement. The curved metal is a unique design, and it can hold a lot of hardware, in theory, but the building experience will test even zen-calm DIY types. If you plan to build inside the Era ITX, it’s critically important that you plan out your build to save space and make the job easier. In particular, a modular SFX PSU feels like a must; it would have drastically improved our system-building experience versus our experiment with a bulky ATX.
The price will also be a hurdle for some shoppers. A $159.99 case and the need to buy a premium-cost small PSU are factors that may make the Era ITX hard to recommend, unless you’re willing to make a wholehearted investment in components that will keep the case-cramming down to a minimum. That means just a few high-capacity drives (ideally M.2 SSDs mounted on the motherboard), a compact video card, perhaps some slimline fans, and—definitely—a modular SFX PSU.