In and Around the Fractal Design Define R4

It's going to be difficult to go through this review without talking about the Fractal Design Define R3, so while I don't like assigning homework, reading our review of that enclosure can at least help put this new one in perspective. Essentially what we're looking at, though, is a mid-tower engineered primarily for silent running but capable of going the opposite direction in a pinch. This is in many ways a spiritual successor to Antec's P182 and P183, and in some ways I think it's actually a better engineered descendant than Antec's own P280 is. Fractal Design hits a lot of beats with the Define that Antec missed with the P280 and NZXT missed with the H2.

It starts with the front door. The R4's door is hinged on the left and has an attractive black brushed aluminum finish; the inside surface of the door features an acoustic foam that is used pretty extensively on the inside surfaces of the case. When you open the door, you'll see just two 5.25" drive bays and a pair of 120mm intakes hidden behind a door that pops open handily. There's also a removable fan filter in front of the fans. On the whole I like that Fractal Design has deprecated 5.25" drive bays, as it allows them to move the intake fans further north which in turn creates a better directed airflow towards the CPU heatsink. Next to the bays is a three-setting fan control switch, a great feature that was missing from the R3. With most fans (and most cases), full bore often isn't the most efficient setting to run at; usually there's an inflection point where the improvements in airflow become minimal compared to the amount of noise generated.

The top of the R4 is going to be pretty familiar; I/O and buttons are at the front of the case, striking a compromise between users who put their towers on the floor versus users who put their towers on their desks. There are also two blocked off 120mm fan mounts; Fractal Design includes removable, acoustically padded panels behind the unused fan mounts that gives the enclosure some flexibility. If you want to increase airflow and mount additional fans, you can do so, but if not you can block those vents off and muffle noise in the process.

Side panels are basically the same, although our review unit was a bit stiff. The panels are held in place with thumbscrews, and the left side one has a 120mm fan mount with the same padded panel behind it. If you want to add a side intake, you have the option, but again not opting to doesn't mean having to deal with increased noise from an open vent. Finally, the back of the case presents one difference from the R3: Fractal Design got rid of the rubber-grommet holes typically used for external watercooling in favor of just adding an auxiliary expansion slot. I'm all for this change; most custom watercooling loops these days are completely internal and use cases that can accommodate them, so reclaiming that space for something that could conceivably be a little more useful is appreciated.

Open up the Define R4, and you'll see that while not a whole lot has changed from the R3, Fractal Design did make one very interesting change: the drive cages are now removable. They still have a staggering eight drive trays (again benefitting from the reduction in 5.25" drive bays), but the middle cage is easily removable with two screws and the bottom one can be removed by unscrewing it from the bottom of the case. Being able to ditch that middle one is a big, big win, as it allows you to completely unobstruct the primary front intake fan without sacrificing too much in the way of storage; conceivably you can still install two 2.5" drives (mounted to the back of the motherboard) and three 3.5" drives in the remaining drive trays, which should be plenty for most users.

While I feel like the R4 is in some ways still too conservative a jump from the R3, pretty much every change Fractal Design has made here has been an improvement, full stop. If you were interested in the R3, the R4's design squarely obsoletes it. I do think there's a missed opportunity in not shifting the top fan mounts over to the left and thus reducing any potential clearance issues with 240mm radiators; Fractal Design cites compatibility with 15mm-thick radiators, but I honestly just wouldn't try with this case and would probably stick with a 120mm rear-mounted closed-loop like a Corsair H80. An enterprising builder could probably get at least a little bit of watercooling action going in the R4, but it's really not ideal for it.

Introducing the Fractal Design Define R4 Assembling the Fractal Design Define R4
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  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, July 20, 2012 - link

    Fractal Design rates it for 15mm, but I'm still of the opinion that your mileage may vary due to VRM sink design, etc. If it's going to fit it's going to be awfully tight, I don't think I'd try it in this case.
  • danjw - Saturday, July 21, 2012 - link

    Thank you for the response. Sounds like a water cooling in this case is a lost cause. Oh well.
  • vanwazltoff - Wednesday, August 1, 2012 - link

    actually there is not a single review that says this but the button hard drive cage can be moved back and a 240mm read can be installed in the front. there is a YouTube video from fractal that shows this
  • TheStu - Friday, July 20, 2012 - link

    I just picked up the Arc Midi, which I love aside from one small issue. In the removable cage, you cannot put a 3.5" drive into the top bay. The screws that secure the plastic bits on top protrude down too far and it scratches the top of the drive. I suppose if I felt like gouging the crap out of my drive I could put one there, but fortunately I /only/ have 6 hard drives and 1 SSD.
  • sonicology - Saturday, July 21, 2012 - link

    "Evolution not revolution" and variations thereof must be the single most overused literary cliche in tech journalism, every time I read it I shudder.
  • randinspace - Saturday, July 21, 2012 - link

    It's the influence gaming has had on the current generation of writers. Although, I'd personally take "evolution not revolution" over "rare(fied) air" (which seemed to inexplicably sweep the nation after Drew Brees passed Dan Marino's passing record last season, even creeping into Anandtech) any day.

    Seriously speaking (as a hack novelist who makes less money from writing than most HS kids do from their summer jobs), I find that even though the writers here at Anandtech all have their own idiosyncrasies which they can't help but put on display considering their output, they each have their own distinct "voice" and do a good job not just parroting their fellows' expressions, anecdotes, opinions, metaphors, and what have you. As opposed to AM radio personalities, ESPN's in particular. If I hear Jeremy Lin described as a "gift from the heavens that fell into the Knicks' lap last season" one more time (after hearing it used on just about every ESPN radio program just about every day this week) I'm going to throw whatever the offending phrase issued from into the nearest bay. Even if it's my manager.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Saturday, July 21, 2012 - link

    Sometimes I can't help it, and I've found myself often even accidentally or almost repeating myself in headlines. It's tough to consistently come up with new stuff when you write as much as we do. ;)

    At the risk of tooting our own horn a little bit, Anand pretty aggressively courts (and has us aggressively court) people who have some writing skill in addition to their understanding of technology. From there, our editorial process has been in my experience devoid of any stylistic editing. I've written for a few sites, but these are seriously the nicest and most genuinely talented guys I've ever worked with.
  • Grok42 - Sunday, July 22, 2012 - link

    I love the monolithic front look of the case with no bays or grills. I also appreciate this case bucking the almost universal trend of putting three or four and sometimes even five useless 5.25" bays. Doing so builds the option of having much better cooling or many more hard drives.

    Other than the power button, the ports on the top of the case seem a bit silly. I can't imagine why I would use the audio ports for my speakers. I can't imagine use them for headphones instead of the headphone port on my speakers or remote dongle. Same for the USB, just use the one on my computer/monitor/keyboard/speakers all which seem like they would be more convenient. I wouldn't care so much but it seems like those top ports will get dirty quickly and become unsightly.

    I also agree with other posters that the top ports shouldn't be there. My current case has a vent and fan on the top and I will never get another case with them again. You can stack anything on top and my son loves to put things into them.

    Finally, If they really want to do a revolution for the next iteration of this case here is what I would do. Ditch the 5.25" bays entirely. Reduce the width of the case as much as feasible while still keeping the 3.5" bays mounted the same. Ditch the lateral expansion slot if it helps reduce case width. Ditch ATX support along with 3 of the 7 expansion slots to allow the case to be shorter.
  • Arbie - Sunday, July 22, 2012 - link

    Actually, I love the top vents on my Coolermaster CM-690, and wouldn't buy a case without them for a performance build.

    This looks like a very good case even compared to the CM-690 series, except I don't want a door. Is it removable? I hope so.
  • Grok42 - Sunday, July 22, 2012 - link

    I would prefer not having a door as well to reduce the overall size of the case. However, as long as manufactures insist on not making ANY cases without putting 5.25" bays in them, there are a lot of people who want something to cover up the ugliness these bays create. My ideal case would look just like the front of this without a door. The front sides would have vents/grills for pulling air in across all the drive bays and exhaust it out the back with vents/grills where they now typically have 9 expansion ports. Basically create a wind tunnel from front to back with the only compromise is not pulling air through the front panel for appearance reasons.

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