For the longest time, as I see people asking for recommendations for a new chassis, I kept seeing the name CaseLabs being added to lists. At first I wasn't so sure about this company or what they had to offer. I am used to seeing chassis much like this concept, but they were from the likes of Danger Den, and while cool and fun to build, those cases always left me wanting in room, compatibility with my loop components, and most importantly, I didn't like the acrylic dust attracting materials for a chassis. You could have always gone to the likes of MountainMods, but from what I hear, the components are flimsy, and for the cost, customers are sometimes left with remorse for paying so much to be disappointed. That being said, there was room to improve on both ideas, and hopefully someone could deliver customers what they have been looking for this whole time.
This is where CaseLabs stepped in. They have some basic ideas that make them stand out, like being comprised of aluminum to reduce the weight and afford a material that will help remove heat from inside the chassis, as well as going the extra step to powder coat all of the parts to weather the stresses of component installation. CaseLabs offers a few sizes of cases from tech stations all the way on up to a dual system chassis. In with all of the chassis form factors, you can buy the basic design with a good layout, and then customize these cases to fit your specific coloration want, what is included in the front I/O, how many fan holes are in certain panels, and they add a full line of parts and accessories to not only repair things you may break after years of use, but you can also change parts you have to have a contrast of colors later down the line.
That brings us to why we are here today. CaseLabs has sent along the Merlin SM8 chassis for us to have a look at. On top of that, they also sent along some extra parts, slightly customized my chassis, and with all of these additions, we are almost to the SM8-X Extreme Edition offering of this chassis. So not only do you get to look at one of the most well designed water cooling capable chassis I have yet to see, you are going to see soon enough, that even with dual loops and an ATX motherboard, the Merlin SM8 will take anything you can throw at it and still be able to sleep a baby comfortably on the inside.
There is a lot to go over, and quite a few options to discuss, but however long this review is, the enthusiast in you will not be able to stop looking at and appreciating what you are about to see.
Specifications, Availability and Pricing
As I said, CaseLabs uses aluminum for all of its construction. For this Merlin SM8, we received a 22.44" height, 11.18" wide, and is 22.38" deep, and is powder coated in white for our sample. The chassis is very square as this design looks for simple elegance on the outside, with everything under the sun taken into account on the inside. The front offers 11 5.25" bays and you have the option for a front I/O panel to go in near the anti-vandal switches used for the power and reset. On top there is a flat ventilated panel (an option) to allow the option to install up to a quad 120mm radiator. The bottom of the chassis offers the same amount of holes for water cooling, and with the option for a top or bottom mounted PSU. It depends on where it is placed too, as it will cut off some of the holes. Both side panels are designed to open over 180 degrees to allow you easy access, and my sample was shipped with the XL window (an option) in the left panel. In the back there is room for a 120mm fan (an option), as well as support for eight expansion slots.
Internally things are a bit different from the usual design. While the front offers all that room for 5.25" drives, there aren't any restrictions as to where you put things in. This is because there are brackets for adding devices here that come in the hardware kit and not pre-installed into the chassis. Along with plenty of wire management options, the motherboard tray will hold Micro-ATX motherboards, ATX, and SSI-CEB as well, and the motherboard tray is completely removable. Since this design uses nothing but screws to hold everything together, if you want to, you can take the standard ATX layout, and with a little work, the internal layout can be completely reversed. There is plenty more to absorb as you read the list, but if I delivered it all to you now, it would get dry, and you would have little reason to continue and see all the nuances in the design.
As far as I can tell, the only place you will find CaseLabs cases to buy them is direct from their store. The Merlin SM8 ships with the base price of $379.95. While a bit of a premium price, it offers more than most other cases we have seen in this range and beyond. The version of the SM8 as you are about to see it is just shy of $500 and I still need to add the $35 flex bay radiator mount and the $90 for the optional top. So as you can see, it is quite easy to get carried away with options and parts, so much so that you can easily break the $600 mark customizing this chassis. I will be showing the original as-shipped design, but as I go through the build, I will be adding these additional options into the build.
Just keep in mind that the final version you are about to see in this review is no longer the $380 version of the Merlin SM8. Something else to consider is the cheapest shipping option I see is another $41 for standard Fed Ex transit, and goes up from there.
CaseLabs had sent two non-descript plain brown cardboard boxes, and I added the soda can for a bit of perspective to the size of what arrived. The chassis in its basic form is in the lower box, while the hardware and optional accessories are shipped in the smaller box on top.
With nothing to tell others that may have an eye on your porch, I am happy to see that there is a Made in USA sticker applied. While most designs come from one place, it is usually sent to China for manufacturing, with CaseLabs, it is all made in the States.
Inner packaging with the Merlin includes corner blocks of dense foam. The blue foam covers three sides at once on each corner and kept the chassis centered as well as getting it to my door in perfect shape.
It is also wrapped in a very thick plastic lining to keep the powder coated finish in great shape, and to protect the window, the protective paper is left on when it is installed. You have to remove the window to remove the covering.
The smaller box is densely packed with bubble wrap along with the taller top to this chassis, the flex bay radiator adapter, and all of the hardware for the Merlin SM8.
CaseLabs Merlin SM8 Full-Tower Chassis
The front of the SM8 ships with two thin covers for the top two bays and then offers three-bay covers for the lower section covering all 11 5.25" bays. As the chassis is shipped, the front I/O panel is on the right side of the chassis.
The base chassis will get the pair of anti-vandal switches for the power and reset buttons. As for the four USB 3.0 ports and the HD Audio jacks, this is an option that will cost you to add it.
Pulling off the front bezel that is held in place with clips at the four corners allows you access to rearrange or remove the bay covers, and you can see the front I/O can swap sides, but more on this later.
The top of the SM8 ships with a plain solid cover, but I was given the ventilated version for this review. This will allow any fans under it to easily pass through this wide slotted mesh design.
Under the top of the chassis you see the same four metal clips that the front was held on with to attach the top as well. You also have four removable plates for fans, and a large opening to plumb a radiator at the front.
The left side of the chassis has a large black handle at the front that allows the doors to just pull open and move to the rear of the chassis. The usual SM8 ships with a smaller window, but I was given the XL window, which again costs more on top of the chassis price.
In the back I broke it up to cover everything. There is an optional place for a PSU at the top. Just below this is the top half of the removable motherboard tray showing the optional fan mount for a 120mm fan next to the rear I/O area.
Visible in this image as well as the previous one, you can see the beefy black hinges used to support the large doors. Between them here you see eight expansion slots next to some honeycomb mesh, with the standard PSU mounting position set up at the bottom.
The right side panel offers the same large handle at the front, but on this panel you also have a row of slits cut at the top and bottom to allow for convective air flow behind the motherboard tray.
The feet are included in the hardware, but for now the bottom of the chassis offers four 120mm holes for fans or radiators. One thing to consider is that the PSU will be using the one furthest left.
Inside the Merlin SM8
Two pins hold the door in place, and with a slight tug on the black handle, the door will swing wide open. For normal access, the doors will open past 180 degrees, and with four screws removed, the entire panel can be pulled from the hinges.
On the inside of the chassis you can see that there are no pre-determined locations for anything in the 5.25" bays. This will allow you to add drives, reservoirs, fan controllers, or card readers anywhere you want them to go for easiest access.
Inside of the top of the SM8, there is plenty of room to hang a radiator and some fans without running into the motherboard. You can also see the aluminum covers for each hole, and you remove them as needed.
The solid section of the motherboard tray offers ten large holes with grommets on them to support the wire management, along with 14 tie points. The smaller section of the tray is completely removable and is made very strong.
On the floor of the chassis, all four of the 120mm fan holes have the plates still in place. With the PSU bracket installed at the bottom, you can see how it easily blocks one fan hole, if not more when wiring is involved.
We discussed most of what you see here already from the outside. What we couldn't see was that CaseLabs uses longer thumbscrews to secure cards into this chassis.
The right side panel opens just as the left does, from front to back, and will open fully to get out of the way short term, and can be removed for a full build.
Behind the tray you have mounts for a 3.5" drive at the top, a pair of 2.5" drives near the front I/O wiring, and another 3.5" drive at the bottom. I also like that the I/O wiring is sleeved and is long enough to connect on the motherboard.
To get the motherboard tray out, you simply loosen four spring loaded screws at the back. Once the screws are loose, they do stay attached to the motherboard tray as you see now, so that you don't misplace them.
Now out of the chassis, this motherboard tray is much easier to work with, and if you want to install a back plate after the motherboard is in place, you need to pull this tray for access.
To add some strength as well as cleaning up the looks of the motherboard tray, there is a piece of aluminum screwed to the back. These five screws need removed to access the back of the motherboard.
Accessories and Documentation
Part of the included hardware is seen here. There are standoffs and motherboard screws in a bag, a bag of spare parts if something were to break or strip, and some PSU isolation tape in another bag. The bottom row has four rubber feet and screws to make the motherboard tray a tech bench. There is a bag with all of the HDD and SSD mounting hardware, and a case badge that you can choose where to apply.
At the top here, you have eight side brackets for 5.25" devices along with M3 screws, and next to it, you have sorter brackets with 6/32 thread screws. Then there are two hard plastic wire management hole plugs next to the hard rubber case feet and screws. The bottom row offers ten wire ties and a thick aluminum handle with screws for the motherboard tray.
CaseLabs also sent the optional 120.2 Flex-Bay radiator mount that will take up six slots in the front of the chassis, but offers both ventilation as well as a place for an additional radiator.
With it now flipped over, you can see how you go about installing things. You need to remove six screws and pull the halves apart. This will allow you to have access to run screws through the plate into fans and a radiator. I will be using this for front intake ventilation, without a radiator mounted.
The instructions are basically printed sheets that are stapled together. In here you will find only the basics of adding in the hardware that comes with the basic kit. CaseLabs assumes you have some common sense and basic mechanical skills when you buy a chassis like this, so they won't be holding your hand for every bit about the chassis.
Page one covers adding the rubber tape to the PSU bracket to isolate any vibrations, and jumps right into mounting drives in the three brackets found on the back of the motherboard tray.
Page two discusses how to take the removable motherboard tray, and with the use of smaller feet included in the hardware, you can set the tray up off the table and allow the GPU tabs a bit of clearance. The lower half of this page covers that you need to install the standoffs for your motherboard, and the screws in that bag are used to mount it securely to the tray.
The last page covers optical drive installation, and look closely, those eight brackets are two sets of four, that have different holes in them so they fit correctly into the chassis. The last bit of information is about the case badge not being placed on the chassis, due to the orientation you chose, the badge may end up upside down if they had placed it on a door or the front bezel.
The Build and Finished Product
Since CaseLabs offer the option to do so, I took the motherboard tray, and by removing the outer four screws and replacing them with the longer ones that come with the rubber feet, you can isolate the tray and offer clearance needed to have a tech bench.
At this point, this is it. Now just add in the motherboard, cooler, video card, and maybe a fan and test away with complete access to components.
As for the chassis, I grabbed the thick rubber feet and found they have a washer in them to keep the screw from compacting the foot, or allowing the screws to go in too deep. These do offer secure footing, but will leave black rings on the surface it sits on for a while.
Following the steps in the instructions, I also added a strip of the rubber tape to each side of the power supply support rack.
Since I wanted to go with the reversed internal layout, I thought I would show what I had to go through. You need to swap the I/O and front bezel to the left side, and there were about 30 screws to get the tray and the rear of the chassis apart to allow you to move the tray over.
I added a reservoir for the GPU loop to the top of the chassis, and you can see the radiator peeking over the top. I also added the Flex-Bay to the front to have a place for a pair of 120mm fans.
Moving around to the right this time, since I reversed the layout, you can see the Merlin SM8 takes on a ton of hardware and has plenty of room to get in there elbows deep to fix something or add in more hardware later. It truly is one of the most spacious designs on the market.
The Build and Finished Product Continued
You may have to get creative with the fittings as I did here to make all of the connections smooth, but with the reservoir just under this, you are going to want to have the barbs facing the back of the case to make life easy. Little things like this just make life so much easier for builders.
In the back things certainly get more colorful, but there were no issues to discuss. The tray as well as the card, dust cover, and PSU all went in place as they should have and lined up very well.
Behind the tray, I did have a couple of tricks to keep things clean. I used a fan power hub at the bottom to keep fan wiring simple, as well as needing a few 12V to 3-pin fan adapters at the top. I also was able to tuck some wiring under the SSD, and with the holes and tie points, you will be hard pressed to find a place that isn't ready for wiring here.
Since they sent it along, and the fact that I went external with the triple radiator on the top, I went ahead and added the 120mm tall top panel onto the SM8 to cover it all up and look just as good as it did when we started. The XL window offers a great vies, and I didn't have to look at the side of my reservoir either.
One last image of the SM8 before I power it up and see what this chassis is like with all of the equipment running.
One thing this chassis lacks is a bit of case lighting, and I wish I had a few CCFL's to install to help show off the components inside. The anti-vandal switches illuminate, but not all that brightly. To be honest, the brightest light in the build is a tossup between the motherboard boot LEDs or the Swiftech logo on the side of the GPU.
What is there that can't be said for CaseLabs and the Merlin SM8? It is huge and offers all the room you will ever need. It is sturdy and very solid, and the only time I could tweak a panel in this chassis was once the rear of the chassis and the motherboard tray were pulled out. That leads us to the full modularity of this chassis as well. With a chassis like the SM8, you just seem to run out of expletives to explain what it is you just had the pleasure of seeing, building in, and using - this chassis is just that good. Outside of aesthetics and structural integrity, since this chassis is made of aluminum, it is not only cooler and lighter, if you do decide you want to take a drill or a saw to this chassis, it is much easier to mod and easier on the tools as well. There really is not one thing I can complain about.
As you saw with my build, I was able to stuff in a triple radiator at the top of the chassis, and with the optional top, it was all enclosed and you are left with a very clean look. I was also able to stick a dual radiator on the floor for the CPU loop and have the PSU in place at the same time. With the basic design, air flow can be set up to make this chassis a chimney with air coming in at the bottom and going out the top. With the heat from the radiator in the floor filling the chassis before the triple radiator would have been cooled, I used the Flex-bay in the front and it allowed me plenty of additional air flow, while it also offers a place to hang another radiator. With all the cases that have passed over my desk, I honestly can't think of a chassis that is this water cooling ready, and with accessory parts, you can make this chassis do anything your enthusiast build would desire.
The pricing is the one thing that will keep a lot of buyers from opting to purchase the Merlin SM8, but I will say it is worth every penny of its $379.95 list price. Out of the box, even with a radiator inside of the top, this chassis would take it on without a complaint and still offer tons of room for SSDs to be stuck to the tray, tube reservoirs, and still keep wiring clean enough to remove the motherboard tray without much issue if needed. Once all of the options are added and the price soars much closer to the $600 range, it is a bit of a stretch, but I use a $600 TJ11 that is not this accommodating to water cooling, nor does it offer the space of the Merlin SM8. For the enthusiasts out there, CaseLabs does make one hell of a chassis and is well worth your attention.
For those of you that are used to $100 cases, you can get by with less, but none of them will offer the future set or the ability to change with your tastes or component requirements like the SM8 will, so I advise since the weather is warm, you pick up a summer job to afford one of your own. The Merlin SM8 is just so advanced compared to other offerings, surely anyone with mechanical ability would love to get their hands on one for as many water cooled builds as possible.
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