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When it comes time to build your own PC, you obviously face down a plethora of tough choices. Not the least of which is “What houses all the myriad of hot and noisy components that make up today’s high performance PC?” Choosing a good enclosure is no slim task. You could go for the strictly economical route, buying whatever cheap box gets the job done. Maybe you’re more concerned about flash than anything else, so you want a case with a clear window, funky colors, and a unique shape. If you like to push the performance envelope, ventilation, cooling, and plenty of space are probably key considerations. There’s a big push toward quiet PCs these days, with many builders opting to take a little less performance if it means running a few decibels quieter.

Generally, those two attributes have been at odds: You can’t have great cooling without some noise, and you can’t have a nice quiet PC without sacrificing a little airflow. Antec is attempting to change all this with the new P180 case. It’s aimed squarely at the high-end system builder, the kind of user who pushes up clock speeds and voltages, runs two video cards, and runs 500-plus watt power supplies. At the same time, the company has strived to construct a very quiet case that keeps the noise down even in the face of high-end components and serious airflow. Let’s see if it succeeded. Continued…

Cosmetically, the P180 is a very handsome case. It stands perhaps an inch taller and an inch deeper than your average mid-tower, so it’s pretty big, but not dauntingly so. All sides are covered in smooth silver plates that are flush with the black plastic trim. The front door spans the entire height of the case, and swings back a full 270 degrees to lay flat against the side of the case, preventing door-hinge-cracking mishaps. It’s got room for four 5.25″ drives and a single 3.5″ drive or card reader. You can see two large grills providing ventilation for the drive bays. The power and reset buttons are appropriately located behind the door, but Antec has placed the FireWire, USB, and audio jacks where they are accessible when the door is closed.

The case looks pretty standard from the back, save for one major change: The power supply installs at the bottom (the case comes with no power supply). We’ll go into that when we discuss the case internals, but note the large 120mm fan and the air duct vent over the card slots:

Up top, we see another 120mm exhaust fan. If heat rises, blowing a little extra air out the top makes perfect sense. It sits beneath a sturdy snap-on mesh to prevent debris (or curious little fingers) from getting caught up in the blades.

The side panels are three layers deep—plastic sandwiched between two layers of aluminum. This makes them particularly thick and rigid, and they really do a lot to dampen the sound of whirring fans and chattering drives inside. Continued…

Inside, the case is roomy, with smooth, safe edges and sturdy construction. There are lots of places to install drives and plenty of room to get at your motherboard—with a few caveats.

Starting at the bottom, we see the P180 features a separated area for the power supply and a 3.5-inch hard drive cage. Cables run up from the power supply and hard drive cage through a plastic sliding divider; you just twist a thumb screw and “clamp down” the divider on the cables, ensuring that the airflow in this bottom chamber stays down there. Air is drawn through this bottom area by a 120mm extra-thick fan in the middle with three speed settings. Even on the low setting, it moves some serious air and can easily keep a pair of high-RPM drives and a high-wattage power supply cool, and heat from the rest of the system doesn’t spread to this chamber.

We like this design overall, but it makes installing your components a little more time-consuming. You have to take both side panels off to install the power supply, which sits in its own cage, held in place with four screws. The upshot to all this is that it keeps things rather quiet by moving one of the loud components to the bottom of the case. Antec even helps reduce power-supply vibration with some silicone rubber padding.

In the front of this bottom chamber rests a slide-out drive cage with room for four 3.5-inch drives. Drives are mounted vertically, with thick silicone rubber grommets to reduce vibration. Again, because they are kept in a separate air chamber with a one-way airflow driven by an extra-thick 120mm fan helps keep drives cool and quiet. The design is great, but threading your drive cables to your motherboard takes a little more time.

On the Inside—Upper Chamber
The upper two-thirds of the case is where the rest of your components lie. Keeping them separate from the power supply and drives is a good idea that should help promote a cooler-running and quieter PC, but it takes a little getting used to.

In the front of the upper chamber, you have another 3.5-inch removable drive bay, this one made to hold two drives horizontally. Again, large silicone rubber grommets are used to reduce vibration. There’s room for a 120mm fan in front of this drive bay, though the P180 doesn’t come with one. The four optical drive bays are standard fair, with plastic rails that hold the drives in place.

The motherboard area is wide open, except for one very large plastic air duct, with extra drive rails snapped onto the side. It slides back and forth for a small degree of adjustment, but we think it’ll vent air in over your graphics card (or pair of cards in SLI mode) just fine without much tinkering. Air gets pulled in from the back, making a 90-degree turn before coming in right over the top of your graphics card.

This air duct has mounting space for an 80mm fan if you want to draw air in more forcefully, which you probably won’t need except in the most extreme cases. Like the separate bottom chamber for the power supply and drives, this is a great idea, but it makes the case a little more difficult to work with. You have to unscrew and remove the duct entirely to plug in graphics or other expansion cards, so building a new PC in the P180 is just a little more time consuming than with other cases.

The CPU sits free and clear above this duct, with air drawn out by the large 120mm fans in the back and on the top. These fans, like the one in the bottom chamber, have small three-way switches attached to adjust the fan speed to low, medium, or high. Both of these fans are in close proximity. With the power supply and drives separated from this upper chamber, there’s more than enough ventilation for even the hottest CPUs. Continued…

Building a system into the P180 can be a little daunting. It’s not that the case is hard to work with; on the contrary, everything is machined well with precise fits, plenty of snap-on parts and thumb screws, and no sharp edges. It’s just that the separate bottom chamber for the power supply and hard drives necessitates a little more time and care in the building process. The same goes for the air duct over the graphics cards. Drawing cool air from the back of the case in over the cards (through a 90-degree turn) really helps keep noise down. It’s a much better solution than cases with air vents or fans directly on the side panel. This solution is both quieter and makes the side of the case more attractive. Still, it takes more work to get all your components inside.

Is the extra effort worth it? To see how it handled noise and cooling, we built an Athlon 64 FX-55 with a stock cooler, GeForce 6800 Ultra, TruePower 2.0 480W power supply, and Audigy 2 into this case using an ASUS A8N-SLI Deluxe motherboard. We overclocked the system with air cooling as far as it would remain stable and then let it run for awhile before taking some sound measurements.

The ambient noise in the room was 40dB—typical for a very quiet office or suburban home environment. With everything running full-bore and the three 120mm fans set on Low, we measured a sound pressure level (SPL) of 45dB from approximately 1 foot above and 1 foot in front of the case. Turning the fans up to Medium only added 1dB of noise, but turning the fans to High starts to get a bit loud, up to 52dB. Even at the Low setting, the air coming out of the case was only slightly warm after hours of overclocked operation. Clearly, the separate chambers, graphics card air duct, and massive exhaust airflow can keep your system cool without much noise. These SPL levels aren’t totally whisper-quiet and probably aren’t appropriate for something like a home media center PC, but they’re excellent for a high-performance desktop PC with a stock CPU cooler, loud graphics card, and beefy power supply. Continued…

Antec has produced quite a fantastic high-performance case in the P180. It marries simple and attractive styling, solid construction, fantastic airflow and cooling, and excellent sound dampening. This is no mean feat, and it comes with a few drawbacks. Primarily, the P180 suffers from being a little more challenging to build a PC into than your average case. Expect to devote a little more time and a few more turns of the screwdriver to get your components into one.

It’s also fairly expensive at around $120 to $150 with no power supply included. With the P180, you get what you pay for. The construction quality is great, with thick rolled steel inside and triple-layer (aluminum-plastic-aluminum) panels on the outside. Three 120mm fans are included, all of them with three-speed switches. Antec even went out of its way to buffer power supply vibration with silicone rubber strips.

Everything about this case, from the double-hinged 270 degree door that still lets you access your front USB/FireWire/Audio ports when closed, to the dual-chamber design and triple-layer panels, speaks of a real commitment to making one of the best cases on the market. A little extra patience is required to build with one, but it is well rewarded by one of the more attractive, cool, and quiet PC enclosures we’ve seen.

Product Antec P180
Company: Antec
Price: $149 MSRP (check prices)
Pros: Solid construction; handsome design; great ventilation; quiet operation.
Cons: Expensive; requires more building effort.
Summary: Builders willing to spend more time and money on their case will be well rewarded with one of the coolest, quietest cases around.

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