Introduction and Technical Specification
First things first, I'd like to have a little chat with the chap at Lian Li who thought it appropriate to name this case "The Hammer" For a start it's made out of Aluminium, and although no doubt sturdy it doesn't give the impression that it could be used for banging nails in with. Secondly, it's far too mature in it's appearance to suit such a name.
With that little rant out of the way nice and early, lets push on and have a bit of a gander at what we have here. Classic Lian Li styling with an all aluminium chassis, brushed black finish (also available in native Aluminium with the brushed finish). Two 5.25 bays and the ability to take 6x3.5"HDDs as well as 6x2.5" drives., or a total of 12x2.5" drives. GPUs up to a maximum of 400mm (16") without losing any storage capacity, PSU coolers up to a height of 170mm. Add in the HPTX and XL-ATX form factors and 10 expansion slots and it appears we have potential for a very nice case.
Power Supply Support
Maximum GPU Length
PCI Expansion Slots
External 5.25" Drive Bays
External 3.5" Drive Bays
Internal 3.5" Drive Bays
Internal 2.5" Drive Bays
Front I/O Panel
2 x USB 3.0
Removable Motherboard Tray
CPU Mounting Hole in Motherboard Tray
Dimensions (W x H x D)
230mm x 512mm x 489mm
2 x 140mm Fans
1 x 120mm Fan
Up Close: Exterior
Although not massive in comparison to some full size towers on the market, the PC-90 (sorry, I refuse to call it "The Hammer") is still pretty monolithic in it's appearance. The brushed Aluminium is finished in a black somewhere between satin and Matte. Light seems to fall into it, in fact so much so that it was actually a bit of a pain to photograph as my camera could not pick up a light reading from many angles. I wonder if Lian Li have been working with Lockheed Martin?
Both the sides and roof are devoid of any windows or fan grills, however the roof does have a removable section allowing the addition of a roof mounted fan should you so desire. The side panels are secured by means of knurled thumb screws, but also have small metal loop brackets allowing for them to be padlocked if theft of the internal hardware is a concern.
The front of the case is a simple affair, dominated by the large mesh grill protecting the two 140mm fans feeding air in the front of the case. Above the grill is a a simple line of I/Os in the form of 2xUSB3, a single eSATA and a set of audio jacks. The power switch is a thin strip of rubber, back lit with a blue LED, to double up as a power on light, so subtle and stealthy is it's appearance that it actually took me a few moments to work out that this was in fact the power switch. The PC-90 offers just 2 external 5.25" bays, with one already pre plumbed with a sleek optical drive bay cover and switch. Just a personal opinion, but I think drive bay covers such as this ought to be mandatory as nothing ruins the looks of a case more than the sight of an ugly optical drive.
Moving to the rear of the case we see that as with most Lian Li cases the brushed black has given way to naked Aluminium. The PSU is mounted at the top of the case old school style with Lian Li offering the ability to fit the PSU from the outside as well as the inside by virtue of having a removable mount secured by 4 thumb screws.
Beneath the PSU area we find the 120mm extract fan protected by a classic circular wire guard. To the left of this lies the rear I/O slot. Under the rear fan are 2 water-cooling tube ports each protected with a rubber grommet. The lower section of the rear of the case houses the 10 expansion card slots. each one having a removable vented slot protector.
I often think that it's round the back end of a case that we get an idea of the manufacturers Quality standards and attention to detail. What I mean is if they can be bothered to make the bit that's not seen as high a quality as the bits that are then things usually bode well. for that reason I've included a few close ups of the PCI slot protectors and would urge you also to re examine the picture of the PSU mounting plate and screws above left.
Up Close: Interior
The first time I took the left side panel off the PC-90 I thought for a minute I'd gone in the wrong side as what faced me for a moment looked like the reverse side of a motherboard tray. What we see in fact is the 3.5" and 2.5" drive mounting racks. In a break from the traditional method of stacking HDDs vertically in bays at the front of a case Lian Li have chosen an alternate solution in the form of 2 removable struts. Each strut has mounting holes corresponding to either 2.5" drives or 3.5" drives, both on the front and on the reverse, meaning that when fully laden the struts between them can hold a total of 6x3.5" and 6x2.5" or a total of 12x2.5". I think it's perhaps this feature that enables the PC-90 to maintain it's marginally diminutive size whist at the same time still allowing for the very largest Motherboards and longest GPUs. Removing the left hand strut and central cable management strut by means of a few thumb bolts we gain a better view of the internals.
Turning our attention to the rear of the case we see that the 10 vented expansion bays as well as the rear 120mm exhaust fan. In true Lian Li style the interior of the case, like the rear and base is presented in naked high sheen Aluminium.
The front of the case interior is where we find the 140mm intake fans. Two in total, with each being protected on the inside by a classic wire guard. The front fans, like the rear 120 are fitted with removable 4pin molex adapters, allowing the user to choose whether to go straight to the PSU or into a convenient fan header. Although not intended as a Watercooling case it looks very much to me like it would be an easy job to mount a 2x140mm rad and fans in this area. enough room perhaps even for a push pull set up without encroaching on the space available for GPUs. The picture below right shows the PSU mounting area. Simple rubber strips provide sound isolation with rails running the full length of the roof and a total lack of obstructions meaning that any size PSU will fit up here with no problem what-so-ever.
By now you may have noticed the cable management options provided by Lian Li, or rather the lack there of. Aside from the 2 large cut outs in the Motherboard tray which are intended to give access to the rear of the CPU, (or CPUs, as this case can accommodate twin CPU Motherboards), there's not really a lot else. The Motherboard tray ends some 10cms sort of the front of the case giving at least one place to feed the wires round but it's far from an elegant solution. Turning the case around perhaps gives us a clearer view of the lack of cable management. No holes, no grommets, no cable tie mounts, and worst of all, with just 12mm of clearance, no space to speak of.
Up Close: Stripped down
The PC-90 comes apart really very easily. The removal of the front panel is one of the slickest I've come across, dispensing with the feeling as with many cases that you're about to break something as you tug away, the Lian Li simply un-clips gently, with no trailing wires to cope with. The top of the case is secured via 4 small screws at the front and rear. Once undone the roof section simply lifts off.
With the case "au-natural" we again get to see Lian Li's attention to detail and high quality. Each of the front intake fans has removable washable filters. Above them we see the small PCB for the power and HDD switches and lights as well as the front I/O assembly. The 5.25 bays are of the tool-less type, with the blanking plate simply pulling away and unclipping with a small amount of force.
Those of you who are averse to the naked Aluminium interior and who like myself simply can't resist getting the rattle cans out and changing the appearance of a case will be pleased to know that the rest of the case comes apart as easily as the parts I've shown. Most parts are either screwed in place, but the odd structural strut or brace is riveted.
Instructions and Accessories
The PC-90 comes with quite a bewildering array of screws and plastic brackets. So many in fact that Lian Li have been thoughtful enough to include a small plastic partitioned box for you to put them all into for safe keeping once the packets are opened. The black plastic brackets seen in the image below left are intended to give support to PCI cards, especially those longer cards found in some Workstation and server set ups. They work in conjunction with the central vertical strut which is located between the two HDD mounting struts. The picture below right shows in more detail one of the HDD mounting struts and the central strut.
Lian Li include a multi language set of instructions and although comprehensive the pictures are a tad small and the use of language a smidgen on the confusing side at times. Also included is a nice pamphlet of Lian Li accessories and add on s for this and other Lian Li cases.
Building into the PC-90 is an unusual experience. Not actually difficult so much as different. This unusual experience is generated I think as a result of a the case having an unusual combination of genuinly useful (if not slightly odd) features and an relative absence of some of the things we've very much come to expect and take for granted, especially in a case of this pedigree and price.
With the struts removed to gain access tot he inside of the case the first job is to install the motherboard. Now I've installed a few of these in my time, and this particular motherboard more times than I care to think about. Without fail when building a PC the thing I find most annoying and fiddly are the motherboard screws. Forever failing to engage in the hole or slipping into little nooks and crannies. Well the boys at Lian Li have answered my prayers and done away with the classic Motherboard screw, instead replacing them with long thin thumb bolts. The bolts have a cross head on the top so that after you've placed them easily by hand and started the thread off they can be gently tightened down. Lian Li even include some longer ones to help get at the harder to get at places.
With the Motherboard in place it's time to install the PSU. again a pleasant experience as a result of the removable rear mounting plate. The PSU slides easily into position resting on the soft rubber isolation pads. Next comes what I would normally call cable management, but as there's only 12mm behind the Motherboard and nowhere in particular to either secure or feed the cables I can't really call it management so much as "cable stuffing". OK so there's no side window so no one is going to see the vipers nest that results, but good cable management isn't just about aesthetics, it's about airflow and poor cable management equals poor airflow.
With everything hooked up it's time to mount the CPU cooler and start finish off strategically stuffing those cables into little hidey holes, (I found the vacant 5.25" bay quite useful). Lian Li do provide a central cable management strut to help with the unruly mess however In trying to use it I found it more trouble than it was worth. I'm really not sure what they had in mind when they created it but I don't think it was cable management. While on the subject of coolers it's worth noting that although Lian Li quote a max cooler height of 170mm this I think must be without the left hand and central strut in place. Placing these struts reduces the max cooler height to about 155 without an internal mounted drive and 145mm if you have a drive mounted internally on the strut.
The hard drives themselves are mounted by means of screws with rubber isolation grommets into the base of the HDD. The assembly is then slid into the corresponding holes on the strut. From experience I found it best to attache the cables first as space is limited once the drives are mounted, and if you're unitising the attachment points on the inside of the struts it's near on impossible to attach the cables once the drive is mounted and the strut in place. I won't pretend the whole drive mounting thing isn't more than a bit of a faff.
So the PC-90, where does it get it right, and where does it get it wrong?
When reviewing a case, or any other component for that matter, one of the most important factors I consider is quality, after all the money we spend is hard earned and we like to know we're getting good quality when we're spending a bit of our hard earned wedge. If you fork out the £155 required for the PC-90 you won't be left disappointed with the quality, or left wondering where your money was spent. With the possible exception of some of the Silverstone cases I've not seen quality like this in a case. The finish and attention to detail is first class. There are no marks, no blemishes, no tool marks, no scratches, no imperfections, no dodgy fits, nothing, absolutely nothing. I like to be picky, I really do, and I can usually find a small something that I can pick up on that lets the side down quality wise. But here....Nothing. When you come to attach the side panels they slide on nicely, the holes at the back then line up perfectly with the thumb bolts, which then proceed to engage their threads perfectly. The front of the case can be eased off with well...ease, without the feeling that you're about to snap something expensive. For Jebus sake they've even put fan guards on the inside of the case. Even the screws and bolts used look to be of engineering grade rather than made out of the usual monkey metal. I think you get the picture.
Thermally the case performs well, despite the amount of wiring potentially dangling around, somehow the case can still move a decent amount of air from front to back. A small concern is the roof mounted PSU especially as it's situated directly over the CPU cooler. That said I've noticed no ill effects during testing.
Continuing with the high quality theme as you would perhaps expect this case is quiet. The front 140 fans spin round at a leisurely 1000rpm, whilst the reat 120 is a little faster at 1200rpm. With the PC-90 sat on the desk next to me, no more than a whisper can be heard from it.
So with such attention to detail and obvious design flair what I really can't understand is why Lian Li made such poor decisions when it came to cable management. Sure there's a small amount of space behind the motherboard, but not enough to really be of any use, and the fact that there's no routing holes makes it kinda pointless running cables back there anyway as there's nowhere to bring them back out. The central cable management strut is another half hearted effort, too small to be of any real use.
Aesthetically the PC-90 is sleek without actually being sexy. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for me the fan grill at the front stops the "sexy" that usually accompanies the "sleek". But then, I don't get the feeling that this case is meant to stand proudly on the top of you desk, more likely it's natural habitat is going to be under the desk, quietly going about it's business.
And what exactly is it's business? Lets take a moment to think about what this case is. The PC-90 is really no bigger than a 690 II, yet it's able to accommodate the biggest Motherboards on the market. It's not an in your face gamers case, yet it's clearly built to accommodate high end gear and lots of it. So what is it then.
I've re-written this conclusion a few times trying to get a handle on exactly what Lian Li were trying to do with the PC-90 and what lead them to make the design decisions they did. The only way I've been able to rationalise the decissions is that the design team at Lian Lian Li were given the design spec of coming up with the smallest case possible that would take the very largest Motherboards (HPTX and XL-ATX). In doing so they've made some brave design choices. They've had to think outside the box whilst remaining inside the box.
What we have here is a case that can be used just as an unassuming gamering chassis but is probably more likely to be used as a home office workstation or perhaps with it's decent hard drive capacity a small office server/workstation. A machine for the chap who wants a beast but doesn't necessarily want to have a monster sitting next to him.
A good case, but not a great case. Some genuinely innovative ideas and yet some really glaring omissions. That Lian Li have managed to find a way of accommodating HPTX and XL-ATX in a case this size deserves recognition, it really does, just a shame they let themselves down a little when this case could have been so much better. 8-10 more mm behind the motherboard and a few cable management holes and the PC-90 would have been heading towards a gold, as it is however it scrapes a silver.
Thanks to Lian Li for the case on review today, you can discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.