Supplied by SilverStone Technology
Silverstone LC20M case review
A modular case aimed at your living room
When deciding on a media centre PC for your living room, there are two routes you can take. You can buy a pre-built and fully integrated model from a major manufacturer, or you can build your own. Taking the DIY (do-it-yourself) approach means you need to carefully select your hardware, ensuring all the components will work with the software you want to use. One of the most important – and distinguishing – components of a media centre PC is the case.
A media centre must be “at home” in the living room. To accomplish this, it needs a case which is small, elegant, and quiet; it should blend in with other audio / video equipment and be as silent as possible whilst still offering adequate cooling to the beefy PC components housed within. The item we’re looking at today is part of Silverstone’s attempt to meet all those demands in a fairly standard form factor PC.
Silverstone currently offers several cases aimed at the Media Centre market, all of which are based on the same basic chassis with different styling details and optional add-ons. This ‘modularity’ does have some drawbacks, as we’ll see later, but it does mean that the cases adhere to a fairly standard layout and don’t offer any surprises to an experienced PC builder. The case we have for review is the LC20M, a model fairly close to the top end of Silverstone’s lineup. It includes an integrated remote control receiver and VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) module in a shiny case which won’t look out of place in any living room.
…but the giant box it arrived in would.
This raises my first concerns about this case: its size. It’s basically a mid-tower turned on its side, which makes it quite deep compared to standard A/V equipment. While this means there’s plenty of room in the case for large graphics cards and several hard drives, it also means you need to consider whether you have room for such a large and obtrusive device. Inside, the case was nestled in foam supports with an extra box containing all the exciting extras. Here’s what else you get with the case:
- 2 extra fan grills
- 1 remote control
- Cabling for the VFD
- Plenty of screws
While the case itself has all these features:
- 6 internal 3.5" bays
- 2 external 5.25" bays
- 1 external 3.5" bay
- 2 front fan mounts (92mm)
- 2 rear fan mounts (92mm)
- 1 side fan mount (92mm)
- Integrated remote control / VFD module
- Front mounted USB ports (4), sound, and firewire
I’d liked to have seen some bundled fans for those mounts, but I can understand Silverstone’s decision to not include any. This case is meant to be a media centre PC, so noise is a primary concern. Adding fans would increase the noise level of the case. Given the roomy case and adequate ventilation, they shouldn’t be needed anyway.
The front of the case looks sleek and elegant, with lines suggesting a modern high end A/V kit. If you’re not a fan of this look though, the other cases in this series have different front panels creating different styles. It’s great to see a case manufacturer giving such a wide variety of choice in their case designs.
The external 5.25" drive bays are hidden away behind a fascia, which drops gently down after pressing it in. This fascia is the only place on the case where the generally fantastic build quality is slightly sub-par. When closed, the drive bay fascia on my case felt slightly loose in the bottom corners. To be fair, it’s hard to see how Silverstone could have avoided this.
Another hinged fascia hides the 4 front mounted USB ports, the front audio connections, and the firewire port.
Although it is completely subjective, I really liked the look of the case. It’s very elegant and refined, although I would have preferred the (also available) black model personally. The power and HDD activity lights on this case are bright blue, something which may bother you if you’re planning on using this case in a particularly dark environment. Personally, I like them; they make the case look even more like a piece of A/V equipment and add a nice counterpoint to the VFD unit next to the lights.
Opening the case revealed a roomy interior with a middle bracing bar giving the case much-needed rigidity and means there’s no problem stacking other A/V equipment on top of it. The ventilation doesn’t make use of the top panel, so stacking things on top wouldn’t be a problem from an airflow perspective either.
The front half of the case is dominated by the drive bays. Silverstone includes 2 removable 3.5" drive racks, each capable of holding 3 drives and a front mounted 92mm fan. This means there’s plenty of scope for customization inside the case, and removing the middle drive rack may even give you enough space for a radiator / reservoir if water cooling is your thing.
On the left of the case (looking towards the front) is a rack for 2 5.25" drives which are accessed externally. The blanking covers used to cover the bays when no drive is in place are screwed to the rack, rather than wedged into the front of the case as with other, cheaper cases. This makes it much easier to mount a single drive and leave the blanking cover in place without that cover falling out at annoying intervals. It’s one of the little details I really like about this case.
Underneath the 5.25" drive rack is the single, externally accessible 3.5" drive bay. Although most people won’t be using this for floppy drives in this day and age there might be scope for a multi-card reader here.
The easiest way to build a system in this case is to remove all the drive racks, put drives in the racks while they’re out of the case, put your motherboard and PSU into the case, then remount the drive racks. With the drive racks removed there’s plenty of room to maneuver; fitting your motherboard should be no problem. While I was taking the drive bays out, I was slightly disappointed that all of the fittings in this case are secured using screws rather than some fancy tool-less design. It’s not a huge issue. Screws at least have stood the test of time and I know once something’s screwed in it’s going to stay there. A decent tool-less system is always nice to see in a case though, especially one costing this much.
Once the motherboard and PSU are inserted it’s time to start cabling things up. Here’s where you might run into a couple of problems. The first is that the sheer size of the case, and the fact that the PSU is ‘below’ the motherboard rather than above it, as in a standard ATX case, means that some cables might not reach. In my case, the 4-pin power connector lead from my PSU is stretched taut across the case, and in fact presses against my heatsink because that’s the only way it would reach. If the cable was a tiny bit shorter it wouldn’t reach at all, although with a stock AMD heatsink you might have a bit more play than I did with my Zalman.
The next issue you’ll have is with the cabling for the front panel display and remote control. Iit’s not really a problem if you read the instructions, but how many of us do that? You have 4 extra cables to connect up. There’s an extender for the 24-pin ATX connector, which has a 3-pin lead coming off it. That 3-pin lead needs to be connected to another 3-pin lead coming from the front of the case.
Next you need to find the case power switch cable. Be aware there are actually two cables, one marked ‘motherboard power’ and one marked ‘Power SW’. The motherboard power cable needs to be plugged into the power switch section of your motherboard, whilst the ‘Power SW’ cable needs to be plugged into a little 2-pronged cable that you’ll find coming from the front of the case. This can be a little confusing if you haven’t read the included instructions. Of course I always thoroughly read the instructions for anything I get and thus didn’t spend half an hour looking at the 2 power switch cables wondering what was going on… it was more like 20 minutes.
That 2-pin cable comes from the front of the case and plugs into another cable connected to the front of the case. The reasoning behind this is that in other cases from this series the VFD / remote module isn’t present and thus there’s no need for these separate cables. I’d have liked to have seen these cables already connected and hidden away on this model though. This is what I mean about the modularity of the case also being a weakness.
The final ‘extra’ cable is the USB connector for the VFD. Silverstone gives you two choices here: you can route the cable to the outside of the case, or use the included adaptor to connect it to one of your motherboards USB headers. Silverstone should be commended for this approach. Too many manufacturers only give one option here, and the choice is nice. With the MSI motherboard I’m using for this review I have 3 USB headers on the motherboard, so I can connect up the 4 front panel ports (2 per header) and the VFD but the external connection option is for those who don’t have that luxury.
Incidentally, the instructions for the VFD display recommend installing the drivers before connecting that USB cable. I found that doing so did make for a trouble-free installation.
Once those extra cables are out of the way you just have your standard front panel I/O cables to connect.
With your cables connected it’s time to replace the drive bays. I’m not using the middle drive bay since I only have a single drive anyway; with all three drive bays added the front of the case might become a little crowded. You should remember I’m using a PATA hard drive though, which isn’t helping my cable management. If you’re using SATA drives, the smaller cables will really help here, especially if you have a full complement of six drives in the case.
With a bit more time and effort your case will probably look a lot neater than mine. I’m not really obsessive about cable management, though. As long as I’m getting reasonable airflow I’m happy.
You can really see the modding potential of this case. You could mount your water cooling kit in the front section where the extra drive rack should go, add a fluorescent light under the middle bracing, and add some windows in the top of the case for that fully pimped-out look. This case allows for many things that wouldn’t be possible in a small form factor media PC. It’s worth remembering this case has space for six hard drives and a full complement of full size add-on cards. You’d have no problem fitting an SLI rig into this case if you really want an SLI media centre.
Once everything’s fitted, you can power up your new media centre system. If you’ve connected all the extra cables, you should be able to power the system on using the included remote control. Although it’s fairly straightforward technologically, being able to power up a PC from across the room still gives me a little kick. And, yes, I have been trying it from different places in the room, in different poses, etc. For the purposes of this review I’ll be using Windows Media Centre Edition, since this case is aimed at the media centre crowd.
After installing Windows it’s time to install the drivers for the remote control and VFD module. You may remember that I elected to not connect the USB cable for the VFD unit until after driver installation. Here’s a critical flaw: the VFD module doesn’t work with the supplied driver. This may be corrected in later revisions, but for now you need to go to the Soundgraph website and download the latest iMon VFD module driver. Soundgraph is the company who supplies the VFD for Silverstone’s cases and their website has much later drivers than Silverstone’s.
Once you have the drivers, installation is a breeze. Follow the on screen prompts and you can’t go wrong. At the end of the installer you need to select ‘iMon pad’ as your controller type. Reboot your system and then connect the USB cable we left dangling earlier to get your VFD working.
Let’s have a look at the software now. The iMon display and remote control module fitted to the case come with a suite of software, including the remote control interface software, the VFD control panel, a media player, and the iMon manager, which ties it all together. The first reboot after installing the software will leave you looking at the iMon manager:
This is a basic management utility and is used to access a couple important screens. The first, the options screen, contains several items which could best be described as ‘miscellaneous’.
We can see the option to show the Infra-red receiver status onscreen, to adjust the onboard keyboard, and other status and display options. Far more interesting (and far more likely to be used) is the setup screen:
The remote control bundled with the iMon module, when combined with this software utility, allows a huge amount of flexibility. You can assign sets of keystrokes to any of the buttons on the remote; have different setups for different applications, and even trigger off macro commands with a single button press. There’s a virtual keyboard for those times you need to type something and don’t want to spoil the aesthetics by dragging out a standard PC keyboard. The ‘pad’ section acts as a mouse substitute and is much better than the other media centre remotes I’ve tried. In fact, the only problem I have with the remote is that it doesn’t work as a standard USB ‘mouse’. If you want to use the remote without installing the iMon software, you’re out of luck.
The remote is designed to work with the media player application which is part of this bundle. Called ‘iMedian’, it offers a reasonable alternative to Windows Media Player or Media Centre Edition. The interface is obviously designed with a ‘media friendly’ display in mind, a TV or projector display for example, and, like Windows Media Centre Edition, it really makes it easy to use your PC with displays other than a monitor.
Whereas Media Centre seems designed to hide the fact you’re using a PC at all, iMedian is much more open about the system it’s running on. Accessing media files stored on network drives is easy, and, unlike Media Centre (and Media Player), it’s trivially simple to play media that isn’t in the media library. A large-scale, well-designed file browser allows you to select any file you want to play from your PC without going through the rigmarole of updating your library.
iMedian is also supported by the integrated VFD, which can be set to show information about currently playing media. The only supported media players for this feature (in the software version I’m using) are iMedian, Windows Media Centre and Power Cinema. If you’re using Windows XP rather than Media Centre Edition, this tends to force you into using iMedian by default. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the remote is tailored towards this application anyway and the integration between software, remote, and VFD is nicely done.
The VFD is the main reason people would buy this case over another case in its class, so let’s take a closer look at it. The VFD unit itself is, as we have already seen, provided by SoundGraph. This company makes many displays and remote devices; this particular model is the ‘iMon VFD’. It displays two lines (16 characters each) and utilizes the iMon VFD driver to display information. The display can be utilized to display a wide range of information including:
- System information (CPU type, memory usage, etc.)
- Media information from supported media players (as seen above)
- News headlines (RSS feeds)
Weather for a wide range of cities worldwide
Installing the iMon software adds an icon for the VFD control panel in your system tray. Double clicking this icon accesses the VFD control panel shown here:
As you can see, the control panel consists of eight buttons. These buttons correspond to the various ‘modes’ of the display, each of which is used to display a specific type of information. For example, selecting the ‘system’ button puts the VFD into ‘system information mode’ in which shows information about your hardware and operating system. The VFD can display one mode at a time or you can select the ‘auto’ mode which causes the display to cycle through your chosen modes in turn. Clicking the option button on this control panel takes you to this screen:
This screen is used to control what is displayed. Under the options for the auto mode, as seen here, we can select which information modules we want to cycle through as well as set the format of the clock display, which is shown when nothing is selected to be displayed. Also on this screen is the standby message – the default text shown when the system is powered off. My only complaint about the display would be that it doesn’t offer enough customization. There’s a very limited range of information that can be displayed, but if you’re a programmer the API for the display is available.
Also, for those using Windows Media Centre edition there’s a nice third party add-on called Front View available.
This allows you to utilize the VFD to display lots of information about your current Media Centre session by selecting the ‘plug-in’ mode of the VFD. This add-on really makes the VFD shine in Media Centre, taking it from a gimmick to a truly handy piece of hardware. While it’s never going to replace your monitor, it does allow you to do novel things. You can use your PC as a party jukebox without a monitor easily with this display showing you what track you’ve selected. The VFD does have its limitations though; other VFDs are available which offer more customization and functionality.
I really, really like this case. It’s very aesthetic, stylish, and is obviously aimed at the living room. The VFD module adds some functionality and plenty of gimmicky fun. The remote control is among the best PC remote controls I have seen. The bundled software (once you download the working version from Soundgraph) works well and ties the system together.
There are faults with the case that can’t be ignored though. It’s a very big case. I’ve been using a small form factor case as a media centre for the past couple of years and I’m used to the PC in my living room being small and unobtrusive; this case is definitely not that. There’s a minor issue with the layout of the PSU and motherboard, which could cause cabling issues. That problem with the supplied drivers for the VFD really needs to be looked at. You shouldn’t have to download drivers from a third party’s website to get an integral component working. If you can look past these issues, the LC20M is a great media centre case offering plenty of room, plenty of airflow, plenty of style, and plenty of sheer geek chic.
|Build quality is always important when choosing a case, since we don’t want it falling apart once all of our precious hardware is in there. Thankfully the LC20M adheres to Silverstones usual high standards. There’s a slight ‘jiggle’ to the drive / port covers but that’s only to be expected and they hinge smoothly open when you want them to. Inside the case all the edges are rolled, preventing any annoying loss of skin incidents, and the removable parts fit snugly into their places. This case is probably the best put together I’ve seen and is only prevented from getting a 10 due to those joggly drive covers. Also counting against Silverstone in this area is the bundled driver version, which just doesn’t work at all.|
|While the design of this case is generally good, it’s sheer size and the layout of the PSU mounting spot means that you may have problems stretching cables from the PSU to your motherboard. Other than that little niggle the case is well layed out and the removable drive racks are a nice touch. Some may complain about the lack of a removable motherboard tray, but the motherboard area has so much space around it a tray really isn’t required.|
|This was always going to be a very subjective area, for me the case looks fantastic. It is large though, and you need to keep that in mind when judging wether this case is for you. If you don’t mind the size then I can’t think of a better looking case on the market.|
|With this case Silverstone have really done well at integrating the software and hardware they supply. If you take the time to learn the ins and outs of the Imon software suite it becomes a credible alternative to Windows Media Centre edition. If however you’re planning on sticking to the Microsoft path you might be better off with a Media Centre remote than the Imon one on offer here. The remote you get with this case only works with the Imon software and is pretty useless in Media Centre without third party add ons. The same can be said for the VFD, 3rd party add ons are a must if you plan on using Media Centre.|
|The LC20-M currently retails for around £160 Which perhaps seems a little pricey. You have to consider that for the money you’re getting a fairly high end case, a nicely integrated VFD and a remote control though. Once you factor all that in it seems reasonably priced although still not cheap.|
|A total percentage of 88%|
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- Aesthetics and style
- Great remote control
- VFD needs third party driver installed
- Large size