Today, we’re going to go over our picks for the best PC case for airflow. In order to help you make the right buying decision, we’ll also be going over everything you need to know about airflow in your chassis, that way your decision is informed and you know how to keep everything in tip-top shape.
Best Computer Cases for Airflow – 2020 Recommendations
|Best Airflow PC Cases||Design||Model||Supported Motherboard Sizes|
|Best Budget Airflow Case||Fractal Design Focus G||Up to ATX||Check Price|
|Best Mid-Range Airflow Case||Silverstone Redline RL06||Micro ATX and ATX||Check Price|
|Best High-End Airflow Case||Cooler Master MasterCase H500M||Up to Extended ATX||Check Price|
All You Need To Know About PC Case Airflow
In this section, we’re going to go through everything that you need to know.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is airflow, exactly, and how does it work?
Airflow in this context refers to the speed and volume at which air flows through your chassis. Generally speaking, you want as much air going through your case as fast as possible, that way the heat generated by your components doesn’t linger and build inside your PC. While a PC could technically work without any intake or exhaust fans, it would also run much hotter and therefore much slower, since the CPU and GPU will throttle themselves to protect from damage.
Good airflow is vital for two reasons:
- Ensuring that your components perform in tip-top shape
- Ensuring that your components have the longest possible life, as higher temperatures degrade hardware faster
The last thing you’d want is for your PC to underperform or for your parts to die quicker than they otherwise would. A proper airflow configuration can also help prevent excessive dust from building up inside your PC, though even with the best airflow and filters, dust is still inevitable over time.
Difference between Positive and Negative Air Pressure
Now, let’s talk pressure. This is actually fairly important to consider when balancing a case for proper airflow, as it can make a massive difference in how everything works out. Depending on whether you’re running a Negative or Positive pressure configuration inside your PC, the exact same chassis with the exact same number of fans can experience fairly different results.
Allow us to explain.
Negative pressure refers to when there is more air being exhausted than air being taken in. For a particularly extreme example, this could refer to a PC where all fans are on exhaust instead of intake duty, but most won’t make this mistake.
Negative pressure results in a lack of cool air being created inside the case and excess dust being pulled in from outside of the chassis. This is because all of the fans present are working against each other and pushing the same hot air just outside of the PC, where it’s likely to return very quickly due to the negative air pressure inside of the chassis.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, negative pressure is definitely not what we’re looking for. So what about positive pressure?
Positive pressure is when more air is being taken in than air is being exhausted. This ensures that the PC is always receiving fresh, cool air, which helps keep components cool…within reason. Without at least one exhaust fan in a positive pressure configuration, you’ll begin noticing similar downsides as with negative pressure. Excess dust will build over your air intakes, and while the case will technically be cooler than with negative pressure, heat will still have difficulty escaping from your chassis.
For these reasons, it’s best to have a balanced-leaning-on-positive air pressure configuration. For every one exhaust fan you have, you’ll want to have one intake (balanced), or 2+ intakes (positive). If you add additional exhaust fans to your chassis, be sure to also add intakes in order to keep the balance leaning toward positive pressure.
If you can avoid it, never allow your exhaust fans to outnumber your intakes.
Fan and radiator mounts
Now, let’s talk mounting fans and radiators.
Fans and liquid cooling radiators alike use the same mounts, and often what you’ll do is mount a radiator to a given space and an additional fan directly to the radiator in order to push air through it and keep the liquid (and therefore the component it’s cooling) cool. We’ll explain this in more detail below.
Fan mounts and sizes
For most PC cases, fan mounts come in one of two sizes: 120 mm and 140 mm. These measurements refer to the length of one of the fan’s four sides.
While 120 mm fans are by far the most popular, 140 mm fans can be fairly useful, too. The main reason to opt for a 140 mm fan over 120 mm is noise, since larger fans can push more air more quietly than smaller fans. In terms of raw airflow performance, however, some of the best fans on the market are still 120 mm: just not necessarily the quietest.
Generally-speaking, you’re going to want at least three fan mounts available in a given PC to accomplish a positive pressure setup, with two fans being used as intake and one being used as exhaust. (This applies especially to Mini ITX PCs.) With larger cases, it’s common to have 3-4 intake fans with 1-2 exhaust fans, which is still a perfectly fine setup for accomplishing positive pressure.
How liquid cooling radiators work
Liquid cooling radiators are measured in mm, but of their longest side. A 120 mm radiator will slot right into a 120 mm fan slot with no issue, but a 240 mm radiator will require two 120 mm fan slots side-by-side in order to be properly mounted. In most situations, it’s best to use a radiator in an intake position rather as an exhaust, since testing shows that CPU temps are massively impacted by configuration whereas GPU temps are not.
Front panel types and what you need for good airflow
Now, let’s talk front panels. For good reason, we’ve gone with one specific type of front panel for all of our main picks, for reasons that will become quickly apparent.
Solid Material (Tempered Glass, Plastic, etc)
Easily the worst for airflow. A solid front panel may look pleasing aesthetically, but unless there are vents elsewhere on the chassis for intake, then your airflow and temps are going to suffer. If airflow and performance are your chief concern, do not buy a case with a solid front panel: at least, not one without ventilation on the sides.
Solid w/ ventilation
Like above, but better. As more users have become aware that solid front panels are bad for airflow and bad airflow is bad for their PCs, manufacturers have started using this to compromise between aesthetics and performance.
In some cases, this can be done by creating a wide gap between the glass and intake fans, usually protected by some sort of dust filter. In others, vents on the side or full-on side fan mounts may be the solution. While these still won’t provide the best thermals, it’s still better than dealing with a fully-solid front panel with no form of air intake.
An interesting choice, but one becoming more common in recent cases from Corsair and Cooler Master. While this isn’t the highest-performing option, it’s certainly a lot better than having a solid front panel. On the scale from aesthetics to performance, this leans fairly close to performance…though whether or not perforated metal is actually aesthetically pleasing is going to vary from person to person.
The best option…short of just pulling off your front panel (which you should not do, unless you want to dust your PC like a madman). Mesh prevents air from being outright blocked in any area, and requires only minimal fan power in order to pull air through. Mesh’s high airflow performance has made it our top choice for the cases we’ve selected today, and third-party testing from sites like GamersNexus confirms it to be the best.
How case size impacts airflow
Case size doesn’t necessarily impact airflow by itself, as we discuss in our Mini ITX case article. However, case size will naturally impact temperatures if proper airflow isn’t in place, since the same amount of heat is being generated in a smaller space. As long as your case has proper ventilation and enough fan mounts (at least three recommended for any Mini ITX/Micro ATX PC build), then you shouldn’t need to worry too much about airflow.
In addition to our main recommendations below (which are for standard ATX builds), we’ve also included a few smaller case picks that still have good airflow. So if you’re worried about getting good airflow but still want a smaller PC, don’t worry: we have you covered.
How many fans you need for good airflow
As we’ve discussed prior, the main thing you need is a positive pressure configuration: at least 2 intake fans per single exhaust fan. 1:1 configurations can be okay too, but are less ideal for keeping temps low and air flowing.
The more room for fans you have in your chassis, the more you’ll benefit from adding fans to it. We recommend mounting as many intake fans as your case can support, and adding a second exhaust fan if that number happens to exceed three. As long as your fans are half-decent and in a positive pressure configuration, you’ll have the best airflow you can get with your chassis.
How the CPU and GPU are impacted by airflow
While your CPU and GPU have their own coolers, they still need to be receiving cool air for the best results, especially your CPU. With a positive pressure configuration, ensure that both components are getting the influx of cool air that they need to achieve peak cooling performance. This will also allow them to sustain higher clock speeds for longer periods of time, resulting in a not-insignificant increase in performance.
The Best Airflow PC Cases
Now that you know everything you need to know to make an informed buying decision, it’s time to go over our top picks for great airflow in a PC case.
Best Budget Airflow Case – Fractal Design Focus G
- Dimensions – 19 x 11 x 21 inches
- Supported Motherboard Sizes – Up to ATX
- Fan Support – Up to 2 120/140 mm intake fans (2 included), up to 2 120/140 mm top fans, up to 1 120 mm exhaust fan, up to 1 120 mm bottom fan
- Front/Intake Panel Type – Mesh
The Fractal Design Focus G is definitely our top pick for budget users. In addition to being the cheapest option on this list, it also comes bundled with two great intake fans out of the box, though you’ll need to add your own exhaust fan to the setup.
The Focus G offers reasonably-compact size (especially with the Mini version), a builder-friendly interior, and most importantly for airflow, a full mesh front panel. This mesh front panel allows for superb air intake into the PC, especially if you utilize both of the available intake fan slots. Elsewhere in the chassis, you also have room to mount an extra bottom intake and top exhausts.
The only real downside of this case that we can think of is its side panel window, which is made of Acrylic instead of Tempered Glass. This is a minor nitpick, though, and won’t have any kind of impact on the thermal performance of your components inside of this rig.
If you want great airflow but can’t afford the higher-end cases on this list, then the Focus G should be perfectly suited for your needs. If you want to do a smaller Micro ATX build instead, you can also opt for either the Focus G Mini or Meshify C Mini linked below.
Best Mid-Range Airflow Case – Silverstone Redline RL06
- Dimensions – 7.87 x 18.78 x 17.91 inches
- Supported Motherboard Sizes – Micro ATX and ATX
- Fan Support – Up to 3 120 mm or 2 140 mm fans on front, 1 120 mm fan in the rear, and up to 2 120/140 mm fans on top
- Front/Intake Panel Type – Mesh
Let’s just get this out of the way: according to third-party reviews, the Silverstone Redline RL06 offers among the best, if not the best, airflow of any case on the market. Knowing what we know about front panels now, it’s easy to see why: not only is the front panel mesh, it is huge, and it leads very directly into the three provided intake fans.
This case is focused on providing superb airflow above all else, and it shows. In addition to the three included intake fans, you also have an included exhaust fan pre-installed in the back. While you will spend more for this than the Focus G, you won’t need to worry about buying any extra fans: out of the box, this one is already a positive pressure powerhouse.
In addition to the great airflow, you have extremely spacious internals to work within, including a dedicated PSU basement, with cable management and drive mounting in the back. This is a very clean-looking case, aesthetically-speaking, and a superb performer on top of that. We highly, highly recommend it.
Best High-End Airflow Case – Cooler Master MasterCase H500M
- Dimensions – 21.4 x 9.8 x 21.5 inches
- Supported Motherboard Sizes – Up to Extended ATX
- Fan Support – Up to 2 200 mm intake fans (2 addressable RGB included), Up to 1 120/140 mm fan in the rear (1 140 mm included), and up to 3 120/140mm fans up top
- Front/Intake Panel Type – Mesh
Last but not least, though..we know some of you won’t be satisfied with anything less than the most superb RGB implementation.
The Cooler Master MasterCase H500M (as well as the stock H500), offer dual 200 mm RGB fans for truly superb air intake and gorgeous RGB aesthetics. If the main selling point you need to hear is “it has RGB”, congratulations: it has RGB, and great thermals. What’s not to love?
Well…the price point. Despite mostly being the same case as the H500 (which is available for roughly half the price), getting addressable RGB fans adds a significant price premium. The difference between regular RGB and addressable RGB is the ability to address individual LEDs inside the RGB device, whereas plain RGB can only address the entire device. Addressable allows for even deeper customization of your RGB lighting, but you’ll pay a price for that.
If you don’t care about addressable RGB, feel free to opt for the H500. It’s virtually the same case, just with a less powerful RGB implementation.
RGB and pricing nitpicks aside, this is a truly gorgeous case that performs well…as long as you swap to the included mesh front panel. Both the H500 cases ship with two front panels: a glass front panel, which chokes airflow, and a mesh front panel, which doesn’t. In the context of this article, the choice should be fairly obvious: always go mesh.
The rest of the case is huge, but extremely flexible and builder-friendly. For those of you who want an Extended ATX build, congratulations: this is definitely the case for you.