Zalman Z11 Neo ATX Case Review

With more radiator space and a more-modern design, does Zalman’s Z11 Neo have the combination of cool and quiet to get our stamp of approval?

Performance And Style?

Exterior

The Z11 Neo doesn’t look like a groundbreaking design, though it is stylized quite a bit more than most other £50 “enthusiast” cases. Some of that style comes from hiding its second and third 5.25” bays behind a closed panel, and putting a slide-down cover over the upper bay, to mimic the look of modern feature-free designs without mimicking their impracticality.

Top-mounted front-panel ports also help to clean up the face panel, and Zalman even places a tray between those ports for holding your cell phone (or whatever other small device requires charging). This is an obvious nod to those who place their system under their desks, though we always recommend keeping the system above the floor to reduce dust accumulation.

Zalman understands that most buyers find top-panel ports extremely practical, though some readers would rather hide them under a dust cover. Its combination of two USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports also matches the configuration of most mid-priced motherboards, though we’re sure someone will scream about the legacy nature of USB 2.0. Putting aside the notions of people who would negate practicality rather than tolerate legacy, the only thing that isn’t practical about the top panel port section is the non-scratch-resistant finish of the tray. Builds that must survive an extremely dusty environment could potentially use the hidden 5.25” bay for a port panel.

Speaking of dust, the front panel snaps away to reveal an easily removable dust filter. A single LED-lighted fan is installed in the lower of two 120mm mounts.

Two more filters cover the power supply inlet and an optional 120mm bottom fan mount, though these aren’t as easily serviced as the front-panel fan. Another option, installing the power supply “upside-down” to draw air from inside the case through the front filter allows users to ignore the bottom filters, though a second intake fan might be useful in that configuration. Even though that workaround exists, we can’t come up with a reason why Zalman didn’t specify a slide-out filter to cover both bottom-panel inlets.

The back of the Z11 Neo features a single 120mm exhaust fan, seven expansion slots, and two pass-through holes (with grommets). An eighth slot isn’t available, but would have been required to allow a thick graphics card to fit an ATX motherboard’s bottom slot.

A second LED-lighted 120mm exhaust fan is mounted in the top panel beneath translucent smoke-colored louvers.

A true mid-tower with an extended top panel to support thick radiators, with a full measurement of width (including the protruding side window and fan housings), adds 2.4 inches to the manufacturer-specified 8-inch width. Buyers who bought this case to fit within their 10”-wide cabinet would surely be disappointed.

Inside The Z11 Neo

An 80mm slim fan in each side panel pulls warm air away from drives, but also pulls out some of the air from the single 120mm intake fan. The duct behind these fans is responsible for the Z11 Neo’s bulged panels, and exhaust vents are placed near the rear of that bulge (facing forward).

A large hole in the motherboard tray accommodates the installation of CPU cooler support plates in various positions, and the perforated portion below that supports a 2.5” drive on the rear of the motherboard tray. That means the case can hold up to nine 2.5” drives or eight 3.5” drives, including those mounted in two blocked-off 5.25” bays.

Two triple-tray drive cages are individually removable to make way for long expansion cards. A vertical brace behind these trays is also removable, though long cards can usually be inserted without removing it.

Each flexible drive tray supports a 3.5” drive via side pins, or a 2.5” drive via screws. True craftsmen might even be able to put a 3.5” drive on top and a 2.5” drive on the bottom of each tray, though doing so would adversely affect airflow.

The chassis upon which the Z11 Neo is based was originally designed for three 5.25” bays, and Zalman makes the two closed-off bays useful by putting internal drive adapters here. Both adapters are drilled to support 3.5” and 2.5” drives. One could probably fit a full-height MFM drive here, though finding an interface adapter might prove challenging.

Space behind the Z11 Neo’s motherboard tray is more than adequate for managing cables, so Zalman decided it was a good place to put a hidden 2.5” mount. Unfortunately, installing that drive makes the space barely adequate. We’ll do it anyway, just to make sure it’s possible.

A top-panel mount that supports two 140mm or two 120mm fans is offset 1.5” from the motherboard tray, providing room for extra-thick radiators. Zalman says you can fit dual radiators (stacked) here, but that’s only possible with 1”-thick radiators if your motherboard has adequate clearence at its top edge. We’re more comfortable suggesting a single thick radiator instead.

The top is also limited to 120mm and 2x 120mm radiators (which are often mislabeled 240mm radiators by sellers), since the 140mm mounting locations are too close to the edges to fit the oversized radiator’s end caps and line fittings. This shouldn’t be a big problem for most builders, since 2x 120mm is the more-common “large” size.

Building With The Z11 Neo

The Z11 Neo includes a basic screw pack, an 8-pin ATX/EPS 12V extension cable, and a single expansion slot cover. That last part might be a bigger problem for build-your-own enthusiasts than Zalman anticipated. Unlike professionals, home-based builders tend to be hobbyist, and changing configurations is part of the PC hobby.

Experienced builders including hobbyist have long seen break-away slot covers as a sign of cheapness, and “cheapness” shouldn’t apply to a case that weighs over 17 pounds. We know that slot covers cost manufacturers pennies apiece, that breakouts are hard to remove after the motherboard is installed, and that a single slot cover is not enough to fill the myriad of slots that we may open up to test different configurations. Understanding that this $85 case would have still cost less than $90 if it the slot panel were filled with removable slot covers, Zalman’s decision is baffling.

The cable selection makes sense, featuring a split power LED connector to fit both standard and Asus motherboards. The Z11 Neo gets rid of the old AC-97 audio cable that we haven’t used in a dozen years, supporting the more-recent HD Audio front-panel connection exclusively.

Our 2.5” SSD screws securely to the back of the motherboard tray, though we did need a long screwdriver to reduce the angle between the driver head and screw. Cable tie tabs made it easy to wrap both the main ATX power cable and the EPS12V cable around the drive, which removed excess cable length.

The extended cooler of our Gigabyte GTX 970 required removal of the upper drive cage, though a standard (reference design) GTX 970 would fit. The Z11 Neo supports motherboards and cards up to 11” long with all the drive cages installed, and we chose a narrower “Standard ATX” motherboard over our oversized reference model merely to open up the cable passage slots.

The LED-lighted front fan draws air from both the front grills and a slot beneath the front panel, while the tiny exhaust fans inside the side panel blow drive heat out of the side vents. Though all the blue lighting may make the Z11 Neo a little too bright for an office, the tinted side window and translucent grey top louvers soften the appearance when compared to typical “lighted” cases.

How We Test Cases

The components we used in this article only deviate from our official 2015 Reference system in motherboard. We had to swap out the reference system's 10.5"-deep MSI X99S XPower AC for a standard ATX (9.6") model: the X99S Gaming 7.

Obviously, our Lian-Li PC-T80 open bench chassis sits this one out.

Test System Components








Settings

CPU4.2GHz (42x 100MHz) @ 1.2V Core
MotherboardFirmware 17.8 (02/10/2015)
RAMXMP CAS 16 Defaults (1.2V)
GraphicsMaximum Fan for Thermal Tests

Drivers

GraphicsNvidia GeForce 347.52
ChipsetIntel INF 9.4.2.1019

To facilitate identical cooling on differently-sized motherboards, we're downsizing from Noctua’s huge NH-D15 to its NH-U12S. Though the smaller dimensions could solve fitment issues with some hardware combinations, cooling our overclocked Core i7-5930K is more challenging for its single-tower sink and one fan.

We’ve also transitioned from a noisy blower-style graphics cooler to an axial fan model from Gigabyte. The GV-N970G1 Gaming-4GD keeps its GPU exceptionally cool at reduced noise, while dumping its heat directly into the case.

Power comes from the 80 PLUS Platinum-rated Dark Power Pro 10 850W by be quiet!

Benchmark Suite

Our new test platform runs hot and quiet, negating the dramatic performance differences its predecessor was designed to produce.

Prime95 v27.964-bit executable, Small FFTs, 11 threads
3DMark 11Version: 1.0.3.0, Extreme Preset: Graphics Test 1, Looped
Real Temp 3.40Average of maximum core readings at full CPU load
Galaxy CM-140 SPL MeterTested at 1/2 m, corrected to 1 m (-6 dB), dBA weighting

Noise is measured .5m from the case’s front corner, on the side that opens. The numbers are corrected to the 1m industry standard used by many loudspeaker and fan manufacturers by subtracting six decibels.

Comparison Cases

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Test Results And Analysis

Worried about the impact of those side exhausts fans of the Zalman Z11 Neo? The intake fan flows much more air, as indicated by the moderate GPU temperature. Note that the GPU fans were set to full speed in each of these full-load tests.

CPU temperature, on the other hand, favored the Gaming S5’s pair of intake fans. It probably makes sense that the spread-out airflow would benefit the CPU and GPU separately, though the Gaming S5’s side vent also allowed some of the graphics card waste heat to escape out the side rather than traveling up to the CPU.

Be Quite got reduced noise by using thin acoustic foam, but Zalman achieved similar results by stiffening up the side panels with plastic ductwork.

Zalman’s higher acoustic efficiency score is due entirely to its reduced GPU heat, compared to the Silent Base 800. The other cases didn’t produce bad GPU temperatures though, and the Z11 Neo did have higher CPU temperature than the Silent Base 800, dropping its overall lead down to 1 percent.

Good acoustic performance combines with a low price to give the Z11 Neo a huge value lead over the Silent Base 800. The price difference is larger than even the performance number.

The Zalman Z11 Neo offers a great combination of overall quality and price, and much of that quality comes from stiffer panels that weigh more than most other cases in the sub-$100 class. It also offers better radiator support than most cases in its class, so what’s the downside?

Conclusion

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Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware, covering Cases, Cooling, Memory and Motherboards. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • montyben1011
    Hmm I have the Z11 plus but I might look at getting this
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