Construction / Quality
As with the R3 and F4 cases, the Node 304 is solid but at the same time it's lighter than we had expected. Once loaded up with a standard PSU, mini-ITX motherboard, cooler, hard drive and graphics card, the final build is relatively light compared to something like the Stryker or R3 builds we have done in the past. Weight wise, this is a great option for a LAN rig.
The whole top and sides of the case is a single piece of steel which makes for easy access and cleaning whilst providing nice rounded edges from the outside, eliminating ugly panel joins. We did notice the absence of a reset switch but don't consider it a big deal.
The powder coat and general finish on our unit was good and we appreciated the struts of the case internally being 3 sided or hollow for cable routing. The front panel is nicely finished off in black brushed aluminium with the USB 3.0, audio ports and power button neatly tucked around on the right hand side. The design is compact and minimalist and although the finish does attract fingerprints like most black cases, they wipe off very easily. The feet are rubber and very low profile, so the case sits about 5mm off the desk.
Once you remove the top of the case and take out the drive brackets, you can start to appreciate the need to plan your build before you start construction. The left hand drive bracket will need to stay out if you plan to use a longer discrete graphics card.
The rear of the case has a large grill for the included 140mm fan but you can also use a 120mm fan here if required. This would be handy for some of the closed loop water coolers like the Corsair, Antec and Thermaltake options. There is a 3 stage fan controller at the rear of the case above the PCIE slot. The power plug on the back passes through to the PSU which is housed internally - this means that you can't switch the power off to the PC at the power supply with the case closed unless you simply unplug it. The power cable pass through is not a big deal and Fractal Design aren't the only company to take this approach.
The front panel easily comes off to reveal the two front mounted 92mm fans and dust filter. We really liked the I/O ports and power switch tucked around the right hand side. The power LED is not too bright and the hard drive activity LED is smaller and housed underneath the front of the case. We couldn't easily find it until we powered the machine up for the first time - it really is that subtle.
This is a mini-ITX case so we always new it was going to be tight to work in and tricky in terms of cable routing. As with any case we review, we did a full build inside it and tested the unit for thermals and noise.
There were a few things that we noticed straight away, the internal space for the PSU means that you can install a PSU up to 160mm long but there are a couple of caveats. If you plan to use a discrete graphics card, then you want to make sure that your power supply is going to fit with its cables. In our build, we chose a Corsair CX-600M because it is 140mm long, has modular cables and the cables are flat (easier to hide). 600W is plenty these days so we could power an i5-3570K paired with a GTX580 and overclock the CPU - all with a quality 140mm unit. We needed to flip the PSU over and have its intake facing down in the case so that the power cables were exiting the PSU closer to the front of the case, in the void at behind the 285mm Gigabyte GTX580 graphics card. We really liked the way Fractal Design implemented the internal PSU on the Node 304. Fractal Design also have a really nifty cutout in the bottom strut to allow you to secure the PSU in place without having your screwdriver on an angle - this is the attention to detail that we like to see from hardware designers.
Cable management was a challenge because there isn't a motherboard tray to hide anything under, nor is there a lot of room to store the excess behind the front panel although there is a little bit of space to play with there. The fan cables seemed to fit well in the case roof supports and you can route flat cables around the fans due to the slight gaps available. I don't think the build process is any more difficult than other cases of similar dimensions and it's the trade off you make when choosing one of the smallest form factors that will accommodate a high end gaming graphics card.
There are number of points around case for cable management/anchoring zip ties and we used almost all of them along the left hand side. At the end of the build, we were able to have a slightly messy or "busy" front left corner in terms of cabling. The rest of the case was pretty neat in the end and the airflow wasn't really obstructed.
In our Stryker, R3 and R4 builds, the actual build process was quite forgiving and we had more than enough room to maneuver components around. In our Antec small form factor build, we had more difficulty because of the cramped case. When you make the jump to something as small as the Node 304, it should go without saying that the build process can be unforgiving. We are not saying that this case is difficult to work with, just that if you buy it - plan your build carefully, use the shortest modular power supply that you can get away with and don't rush it.
The dust filters are all easy to get to with the PSU intake filter being the most difficult because you have to lift the PC. The top/side cover comes off with a couple of thumb screws at the rear. The front panel simply pulls off to provide access to the front filter. Fractal Design couln't have made it much easier here as it's almost tool-less.