Even now that PC games are a bigger market than ever, those who build their own desktops are niche customers. So when I talk about desktop PC cases, I do so by knowing that my position represents a niche in a niche, and one that can be quite criticized as old-fashioned. As I said: Let̵7;s talk about external drive bays!
Even more specifically, about the 5.25-inch external drive bay – the one that holds a CD DVD Blu-ray removable disk-based media drive. Please do not kill it, PC makers. I beg you.
Hard to find
A couple of months ago, deep in the pandemic’s illness, I decided to upgrade the case on my desktop computer. I had been using Fractal Design R4 for my desktop for almost eight years and carried it over three major system rebuilds and more individual parts than I can remember. I wanted something with a more modern internal layout for better wiring, perhaps easily accessible bays for my hard drive and SSD, and – the real wiring – a nice USB-C port on the front panel.
So I have to look. To keep all my current hardware, I need to find a case with two external drive bays, as I use a standard 5.25-inch DVD drive (the oldest dusty part in my case, which has used sterling service since my very first PC building 12 years ago) and a camera card reader, which is technically a 3.5-inch device in a 5.25-inch adapter. A 3.5-inch bay is the one you might remember as a “floppy disk drive”.
So I plugged my needs into Newegg’s handy search filters: full-size ATX motherboard case, at least one USB-C port on the front, two 5.25-inch drive bays. Here’s what I got:
“Okay,” I thought, “External drive bays are kind of fashionable now that everyone’s streaming movies and downloading games from Steam. I have to settle for just one and choose between my DVD drive and my card reader. Let’s lower the 5.25-inch union requirements to one. ”
As it turned out, I could find exactly one modern ATX case with both a front USB-C port and one (and only one) 5.25-inch compartment: Fractal Design Define 7, the spiritual descendant of my own Define R4. So I ordered it … and found out that although my 1.5 year old motherboard can handle the USB 3.0 connector needed for some USB-C ports, it does not have 3.1 gen 2 connector used by the R7 case.
So, to be able to use this very nice, very expensive case, I would need to ditch either my reliable dusty DVD drive or the camera card reader that I use regularly. and I have to go without access to the USB-C port I wanted in the first place. Alternatively, I can exchange my motherboard for something approaching a complete PC rebuild – for another $ 300 or so.
I sent back Define 7 and shot back all my parts in my old R4. I could find a case similar to the one I’m using now, but it would not have access to USB-C, and my current case is not so useless that I’m ready to ditch it. I will upgrade my PC case eventually, but it looks like this one will make it two digits in several years.
Discs are not dead
As someone who has not bought a physical game in several years, I am an odd master of the physical disc unit, if not the disc itself. But it is worth pointing out that physical media, even though they are on their way back, still have some benefit left.
The most obvious application here is movies. Cinemaphiles still require Blu-ray for their gigantic uncompressed video files, especially now that more and more people are coming in 4K: That’s why you should not watch a movie that Into the Spider verse on a streaming platform (if you can help). Saying nothing about the arbitrary and somewhat random nature of actually buying movies on streaming – if a movie I want is not on a platform I currently pay for, it is often much cheaper to buy a DVD or Blu-ray than to buy it (or even rent it!) on a streaming platform.
Which brings up another point: for some people, sending physical media is the best option! When I lived in rural Texas, it was less than giving a movie for two hours an unlimited LTE connection. Getting a 50 GB Steam game can take a week or more. Going to the store or ordering something from Amazon made sense regularly. Microsoft also acknowledged this and offers the massive Flight Simulator 2020 in an incredibly awkward 10-DVD physical edition.
And it ignores the large libraries for music and movies that many already own in record format. Many people like to digitize it – inflated Plex libraries are an indication – and need a disk drive to do so. Sure, it’s possible to do that with an external disk drive, but what’s the point of having a giant ultra – customizable desktop computer in the first place?
More options are better
I’ve already said that my situation – to need or at least want a strange combination of the latest ports and compatibility with older equipment – is niche. But meeting niches through flexibility is what builds your own computer!
Take that card reader and sit in the other 5.25-inch slot via a 3.5-inch adapter. I need to take photos for review regularly – my photos need to be of higher quality than my phone can handle, and my camera is old enough for Wi-Fi transfers to be extremely slow. So a dedicated gadget inside my computer is good, both for the standard SD card and occasional microSD transfer for cheating with phones.
But it is hardly the only use for a full-size device. Another common option for this space is a hot-swap hard drive bay, which allows users to insert and remove large amounts of storage for fast transfers instantly. Players and enthusiasts like to use this space as a dedicated fan or light regulator. If nothing else works, you can just add lots of USB ports, connected directly to your motherboard.
More creative uses for the space include a discreet container for liquid cooling or a small hole for your screws and tools, secondary status screens or even a cup holder. (Okay, maybe not the last one.)
Admittedly, some of these uses for the 5.25-inch unit tray are more practical than others. But in a product category that includes pyramids and cruise ships and what the hell this thing isI think a modern case with modern ports and the option of some old-school expansion is not too much to ask for.