The looks of the Zalman Z11 Plus may not be too every ones taste. If you're one of those who makes up their mind about the inherrent attributes, performance and quality of a case, or any other product for that matter, based soley upon whether you like the aesthetics of it then you're perhaps missing out on a great many treats in life. If however you're open minded then you might be tempted to read on and see what this case is really all about.
We probably best know Zalman for their range of coolers, however a quick visit to their website will astound you at just how many products they have out there for us to spend our hard earned wedge on. From cases to coolers, Zalman prety much cover the lot. Start searching the e-tailers and you'll also be pleasantly surprised at how well priced this Zalman kit can be. Here we take a look at the Z11 Plus case. A mid-tower case with rather distinctive looks, and what appears to be a pretty reasonable feature set. Priced at just £50 the Z11 certainly appears to be good value for money, but is there substance as well as style
ATX Mid Tower
260(W) x 498(H) x 525(D)mm
Standard ATX / Micro ATX
Power Supply Compatibility
Standard ATX / ATX12V
Full Size (up to 290mm)
External Bay x 4
External Bay x 1, Internal Bay x 5
120mm/140mm Fan Vent x 1 (1 Fan included)
120mm/140mm Fan Vent x 2 (1 Fan included, 1 optional)
120mm Fan Vent x 1 (1 Fan included)
80mm Fan Vent x 2 (2 Fan included)
120mm/140mm Fan Vent x 1 (Fan optional)
Mic x 1, Headphones x 1, USB 2.0 x 2, USB 3.0 x 2
Up Close: Exterior
Probably the most striking aspect of the aesthetics are the "Evo" style power bulges in the front and sides of the case. As Zalman are perhaps better known for their cooling solutions, it's not surprising that their cases should have a focus towards airflow. The bulges aren't just there for aesthetic reasons though, oh no, each bulge houses an 80mm fan. Each of these 80mm fans are mounted transversely as an intake so as to focus it's airflow inwards towards the HDD area. The air they draw in comes from the side portion of the front grill on each side respectively. In addition to pushing air directly over the HDD area the fans also serve to increase the overall intake volume of the case, adding to that provided by the front mounted 120mm fan. Aside from the "power bulges", the window on the left of the case also protrudes outwards. This isn't a feature you see on a great many cases and does serve to increase the three dimensional aesthetic of the Z11. The window itself is acrylic as you would expect and aside from being smoked is also very easily removed by means of clips should you want to replace it at any time.
Looking at the case in more detail and starting at the rear of the top section we see that Zalman have gone with the slatted vent approach. This is a design we're starting to see more often and have to say although not too every-ones taste it's not something that offends us here at OC3D. However, unlike a few of the other proponents of this design, the slats on the Z11 cannot be closed up as they are fixed in place. They are however semi transparent and so serve to disperse the blue light from the LED fan which lurks beneath.
Anterior to the roof extract we find the front I/O area. The area is centrally dominated by a large sloping recess intended to provide a home for our various phones/USB sticks and of course Haribo sweets. To either side we find reset and HDD activity lights as well as a brace of USB2 and USB3 sockets, and of course the obligatory audio jacks. The shield shaped power button itself is located anterior and central to the I/O area on the leading edge of the case front. the switch is of the short throw soft click type and is pleasing to use.
Heading down the front of the case we are treated to no less than 5 x 5.25" external bays. The lowermost of which has a 3.5" cut out presumably for your state of the art floppy drive, or I guess failing that a little fan controller or card reader. The drive bays themselves are recessed some 25mm into the front of the case , as would be any device you inserted into them. As we reach the bottom of the case things bulge back out again with a large horizontally slatted air intake are dominating the lower half of this case. The styling is certainly aggressive, with more than a nod towards auto styling. The recessed 5.25" bays in particular reminding us of the front grill of the early model Dodge charger (69 to be exact) and perhaps the lower section having more of a lean towards the Power bulges seen on many of today's rice rockets.
Turning the case round we see the black finish extends to the rear of the case, an area often left as bare metal on cases this low in price. At the top we find a white bladed fan set to extract air from the rear, along with the usual rear I/O area. Two small rubber grommeted holes are provided to aid with any external watercooling ambitions you may have. Towards the base we find 7 expansion bay covers. Rather unusually these are not screwed in place, but rather left secured by 2 metal tabs. To use the bay you must work the cover back and forth to fatigue the tab until it snaps away, as such the covers, once removed cannot be re fitted. Zalman do however include a few spares in their accessories pack, and be assured that your valuable GPU is still secured by means of a thumb screw in the traditional manner. Right down at the base of the case we find the PSU cut out.
Flipping the case over on its side allows a view of the base, the very rear of which has a mesh filtered ventilation panel for the PSU. Anterior to this sits a slightly bigger removable mesh filter designed to provide clean air to any base mounted fans you have fitted. small rectangular rubber dampened feet are found in each corner of the base, lifting the underside about 10mm of the deck.
Up Close: Interior
The interior of the Z11 is laid out in a largely traditional way. Ample cable management holes are provided, which although devoid of rubber grommets do have nice turned steel edges. Along with a large CPU cut out, there is also a second large cut out running the entire length of the base of the motherboard area. Although this large cut out does make it very easy to pass cables to the rear of the motherboard, it also makes this rear area very visible and as such reduces the places available to stash unwanted and unused cables out of sight. Before we move on to look at the rest of the interior in detail, now's quite an opportune time to have a quick look at the interior of the side panel, and in particular the side panel fan. The picture below right is a close up of the interior of a side panel, showing the inside of one of the fan intakes. Why have we shown you this? Well we hope it shows the level of quality and finish in this case. Don't go thinking this is some cheap piece of junk made out of monkey metal and badly fitted together. There's real time and effort gone into the fit and finish here.
With no less than 5x2.5" bays the resulting bay area dominates the front of the case. No tool free installation mechanisms here though, just good old fashioned screws will be used to hold your devices in place. We have to be honest and wonder quite what you can find to take up all 5 bays. With no real chances of getting a radiator into this case the need to use to for a bay reservoir is negated, OK a fan controller, maybe an optical drive if you absolutely insist on using such antiquated hardware, but aside from that....OK, perhaps we're being a little heavy handed here, maybe we should just count as 4 bays as the lower bay has an integral adapter which enables it to accommodate not just 5.25" but also 3.5" and 2.5" devices. Beneath the 5.25" bays lies the internal drive storage area. Again, 5 is the magic number, with drives simply having rubber grommeted isolation screws attached to the relevant side holes before being slid into the runners of the bay. The whole of the 3.5" bay area is build from 2 sections of hex-mesh perforated steel, allowing good airflow though the assembly. Immediately forward of the 3.5" bays lies the front intake fan. A 120mm blue LED unit is fitted, but mounting holes are present for a 140mm model.
As we saw from the outside, the base of the case supports a 120mm or 140mm fan, although neither is included. Four rubber isolation feet are fitted for your PSU of choice but as with many cases, fitting a longer PSU will obscure the base fan location. What does concern us a little are the very thin slits made in the base for the intake or extract of air from the PSU (depending on which way up you mount it). With so much use made of the hex pattern else where in the case it's hard to see why Zalman would want to risk restricting airflow in this area. The 2 images below also better serve to illustrate the metal tabs that secure the expansion bay covers and the white bladed non LED fan referred to when we toured the exterior.
The roof of the Z11 provides a decent area for hot air extraction. With 1x120mm blue LED fan already fitted, the large Hex mesh area is able to accept a total of 2x120mm or 2x140mm fans. These fans feed air straight up and out to the slatted area on the roof exterior.
Although with only 15mm of room behind the Motherboard the Z11 cannot claim to be palacial, what does make a difference though is the thoughtfully inclusion of 22 cable tie points. We have a sneaking suspicion that this more than generous feature will make for a pleasant build and by far compensate for the slim work area.
When first looking at the rear of the case we were rather perplexed by what at first sight appeared to be a mounting bracket for a 60mm fan just below the CPU cut out. OK, so they've put little fans in the doors, maybe they think we want little fans behind our Motherboard. Perhaps the reason we though this was that we just didn't expect to see a bracket that enables you to mount a 2.5" drive on the posterior aspect of the Motherboard tray, but that's exactly what it is. Shame on us for having pre conceived ideas about what a Budget case should be like.
Essential to any build is the bag of accessories and of course the instructions (if you're that way inclined). Accessories wise, along with the bags of screws we get a pair of spare PCI covers. As already mentioned, once the PCI covers that are quite literally attached to the case are removed, they cannot be re fitted, so should you wish to cover hole back up a spare is provided. The other cover as you can see has two small holes in it. This is to provide a pass through for the USB3 connectors from the front I/O which must be attached to one of the motherboards rear USB3 sockets. All of this is very well, but I can't help thinking it might have just been easier to follow the well trodden route of having PCI covers that are removed and re fitted by means of thumb screws. Presumably it must be cheaper to do it this way. With that little rant over with, lets assure you that the instructions provided do a more than adequate job of reminding you of your lack of manliness in having to read them.
As always, before we start a build we always strip the case down pretty much as far as it will go. This not only enables us to show you what lies under the skin of the case, but also serves to aid in planning the hardware installation and cable routing. In the images below you can see for example that although the front intake is filtered and can accept either a 120mm or 140mm fan, the front of the case must be removed in order to change and clean the filter.
Building into the Z11 is quite a pleasurable affair, made all the more so by the very large and well spaced cable management holes. Although the holes are bereft of rubber grommets a clean look can still be achieved by means of careful planning. As we anticipated though, the large cut out along the bottom of the motherboard tray did make it harder to stash cables out of site after they left the PSU. Although we've only popped our trusty old 8800GT in to the case, it's more than capable of accepting cards up to 290mm in length with another 10mm left over if you have a card with the PCI power socket located on the end.
If you've ever build into a mid-tower chassis and fitted a large heatsink you'll know that it's often near on impossible to get your hand into the small gap in the top left hand corner to attach the CPU power cable. So why not fit the motherboard and then fit the cooler to it? After-all, there's a big cut out at the rear of the CPU to allow for this. Well because it's a bit of a catch 22, as most of these big coolers have to be pre fitted with the motherboard out, again as a result of the lack of access in the top left to tighten contact plate retaining bolts. This isn't a situation unique to this case, or even just to Zalman, it's one we come across quite frequently with large coolers in mid tower cases. Unlike a lot of manufacturers Zalman however offer a way out of this viscous circle. By attaching the included 20cm CPU power extension cable to the motherboard with the cooler pre fitted you can then slip the cable behind through the small aperture at the top of the case ready for it to meet up with the main cable from the PCU. You then screw the motherboard down as you would normally. It's simple and effective, but more than that shows that Zalman are putting thought and consideration into their designs and not just leaving their customers to fend for themselves in working out a solution.
Focusing on the rear expansion bay area you can see that although the covers are only affixed by metal tabs, once removed to insert a PCI card chromed thumb bolts are supplied to hold your cards in place. For what is actually quite a slim case (power bulges excepted), the case is still able to accept coolers up to 160mm in height. The cooler shown below is the Zalman CNPS14X, measuring in at 159.3mm. It fits but only just. Guess we're just going to have to be careful not to use more than 0.7mm of thermal paste.
Turning the case around we can see that although 15mm is not exactly a lot of space to work in, thanks to the abundance of cable tie points it's relatively easy to achieve a decent cable management job, keeping them grouped together and feeding off through the holes at the appropriate points. Also shown below is the rather nifty 2.5" drive holder, and yes, that is a 2.5" drive out of an old lappy and not a super zippy little SSD but you get the idea.
Performance, Testing and Conclusion
Zalman have got all the basics here. The build quality is good, OK so we're not seeing half inch thick slabs of hairline brushed machined aluminium but then we're not being asked to pay £150. Neither are there any cable grommet hole rubbers, but then don't forget that neither did the iconic CM690II , and for that matter nor do a great many other cases that cost the same as this (and some that cost quite a bit more). The Z11 is made of good thick steel, not thin flimsy stuff, as indicated by the lack of flex and bend in the main panels and especially the side panels. It also has a reasonable feature set, actually let me re phrase that, this is a £50 case, given the price, there's a damn good feature set here. With 3x120mm fans and an additional 2x80mm fans in each of the side panels included at the point of sale. You also get an innovative 2.5" drive support on the rear of the motherboard and really very good cable management thanks to good sized, well spaced holes and the inclusion of 22 cable tie points. We've looked at cases very recently with an additional 5mm of space but with only 3 cable tie points and believe us when we say we know which was easier to build into and which gave the better end result. Add into the equation the inclusion of the handy dandy CPU power extension and you begin to appreciate that this case is budget, but certainly not "Cheap". So, there isn't any native water cooling support, but then neither do a lot of other cases that cost a great deal more than the Z11, It doesn't have tool free installation for 5.25" drives, but to be honest if you really need to get a 5.25" drive out of a bay that quickly that taking a few extra moments to undo 4 screws will be of critical importance then you really ought to re examine your priorities in life
We guess if we were to level a fair criticism it would be the inclusion of the 2x80mm fans in the front. As they're positioned both as intake and pointing directly at each other, it's likely that the intended airflow over the HDD area could become muddled., not actually degrading cooling, just not really adding much too it. They're also a bit on the noisy side, again, not an insurmountable problem, as they can always be detached or perhaps replaced with a set of super silent 80mm Noctuas. The only other thing we're not too sure about is the use of punch outs for the rear expansion bays. It's a bit of an uncommon design choice and one we can only hope enabled a cost saving otherwise we can't see the point.
And so to the competition. If you're on a tight budget and looking for a case around the £50 region then as you're probably aware you have quite a bit of choice. Far too many to mention in the confines of this review in fact. So there are other options, of course there are, but lets stand back and put the Z11 in perspective. Put simply, a great many of the cheap £50 and sub £50 cases feel exactly that, Cheap. The Zalman doesn't. It's sturdy, it has a great feature set including 3x120mm fans and 2x80mm fans, stealth mount for a 2.5" SSD bay and an inclusive 12pin CPU extension cable. Top all this off with good build quality and excellent cable management and you start to get the idea that your £50 is getting you quite a bang for your buck.
At the start of this review we mentioned the aesthetics of the case and accepted that it might not be to every-ones taste, and that's fair enough, but don't dismiss this case as being "bad" and of low quality simply because you don't happen to like the looks of it. If you like it and are thinking of spending in the region of £50 (after all, these days money is tight for all of us) then you're going to want to know what you're getting for your £50. The answer in simple terms is quite a lot actually. We asked is there substance as well as style? The answer is a resounding yes. All of which brings us neatly to the issue of the award. All this for £50? In these times of austerity, the Z11 just has to be the proud recipient of one of our VFM awards.
Thanks to Quiet PC for sending the Z11 in for review, you can discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.