Salvo Studios S402 Mini ITX Case Review: Compact, High End Gaming

With the launch of Powercolor’s mini ITX 5600XT and 5700 GPUs, I was in the mood for building a new mini ITX PC late last year and early this year. One problem I had, however, was finding a good case. There are plenty of mini ITX cases on the market, but they’re more “mini ITX compatible” than actually “mini.” I also wanted a system that didn’t need low profile GPUs and could instead house something like one of Powercolor’s mini ITX GPUs or even a typically sized GPU like you would find in a standard ATX sized desktop. Finding this kind of balance was really difficult when browsing Newegg and Amazon.

That’s why it was very convenient for me when Salvo Studios, a mini ITX designing operation run by one man, reached out to me and asked if I was interested in reviewing their S402 mini ITX case. Obviously, I said yes. The main selling point of the S402’s design is that it cuts down on things that don’t matter for a gaming PC in order to save space, while reserving enough so that even the largest of GPUs can be installed, along with some drives for storage. So, I decided to transition my main PC to the S402; here’s my thoughts on this slim PC case.

The Case and Accessories

First, the case itself. It’s about 370mm tall, 79mm wide, and almost 330mm long, which is important for GPU compatibility. Additionally, with about 70mm of clearance, the S402 has enough room to house even the largest GPUs that take up more than 2 slots. The size of the case is comparable to a PS4 Pro, perhaps just a tad larger. While this is not the smallest case on the market (that crown belongs to Velka I believe), it is certainly perhaps the smallest gaming focused case that can house practically any air cooled card, even my Shagohod sized Powercolor Red Devil Vega 56.

Inside the case, you’ll find a place for your SFX PSU, an extension cable for said PSU, a PCIe riser cable to mount the GPU vertically, a low profile drive bay, and the USB 3.0 front IO cable. You’ll also have some other accessories in a separate box: three 70mm fans, a carrying handle, and two steel feet. Salvo Studios also sells a few extra accessories, like a filter for the side of the case (which I consider essential for dusty environments), a different power button that is compatible with SFX-L PSUs, some normal sized drive bays, and a mat that’s intended for placing the case horizontally like a gaming console normally is.

One more thing I need to comment on are the fans. These are decent, 70mm fans, but they have one fatal flaw: no PWM control. This is something Salvo Studios actually discovered when I told them that the fans seemed to be broken and weren’t responsive to fan control either in the BIOS or in software. Although these are 4 pin fans, only two of those actually carry any signal. All future S402 cases will have different fans with PWM control, and any S402 owner who has the older fans can contact Salvo Studios for a free replacement. Very nice to see.

One important thing about the S402 is CPU cooler compatibility. Normally, air cooling is a must for mini ITX, but the S402 does have a 120mm AIO option if your GPU is short enough, less than 210mm to be precise. But, if your GPU is longer than that, then air cooling is your only option, and here the S402 should be noted to have far less clearance for the CPU cooler than it does for the GPU, because the motherboard is taking up space too. The only cooler I had that fit in this case was Noctua’s L9a, which is designed for compatibility with basically anything. I tried four other coolers, two of which didn’t fit because they were too tall and the others because they interfered with my RAM. Sadly, Noctua’s other low profile air coolers will not fit in the S402 due to the first issue; if your RAM isn’t too tall, then the IS-60 and Black Ridge low profile coolers (which Salvo Studios brought to my attention) should. I haven’t tested these coolers, but from what I can tell, they should be pretty decent.

For a gaming rig, this design makes alot of sense. Unless you are pushing a very high framerate, you are almost always GPU limited, and that is exactly why the S402 can house some of the most powerful GPUs but not very powerful CPUs. I highly, highly recommend a Ryzen 3000 CPU for a system in this case because these CPUs excel in power efficiency, whereas Intel CPUs and previous generation Ryzen CPUs really don’t. The Ryzen 5 3600 is a perfect fit for the S402 and the cooling capacity its limited to, but the Ryzen 3 3300X is also a good choice if you’re focused especially on gaming.

The style and quality of the case I think are fairly good. It’s simply all black and boxy looking, but it wears that design very well. Some will find the S402 unimpressive in this regard, but for enthusiasts, the features of the case will be far more compelling and much more important than what the case looks like. Again though, I do like the simplicity of the S402. The materials used in the case are also sturdy, have a consistent texture, and unlikely to cause bodily harm.

Building a System in the S402

The first step in an S402 based PC is installing drives in the drive bay. The drive bay is directly below where the PSU is, so it’s not easy to go back and install or uninstall drives once the PSU is also installed. One thing I want to point out here is that since the clearance is very minimal here, your PSU cables are going to be an important factor in whether or not you can even install a drive. If your PSU’s drive power cables are daisy chained and don’t really terminate like a normal cable, you might not have enough room to even plug the cable in. To be clear, this is mostly bad PSU design, not bad case design, and I’m only bringing this up because my PSU has this issue.

Installing the PSU is straightforward, as it sits in the case horizontally in its own area. One criticism I have of the S402 in this area is that the extension cable that connects the connector on the outside of the case to the connector on the PSU is that it’s not at a 90 degree angle, meaning the cable kind of mashes against the case due to the lack of clearance. This design choice was made for compatibility reasons, and given how frustrating it would be to carry two different types of cables and having to validate which PSUs worked with the angled one, I would have to agree with Salvo Studios that this was the right call.

Then, installing the motherboard and the fans was pretty normal. I recommend installing the CPU cooler on the motherboard before putting it in the case, unless you’re doing AIO. If you forgot to do this or if you’re using an AIO, then luckily for you there is a backplate on the other side of the case where you can access the back of the motherboard. Otherwise, you won’t need to touch this part of the case at all.

Plugging in the power and reset buttons was surprisingly frustrating because they’re not labeled. Now, thankfully the reset button is on the back of the case, next to the power plug, while the power button is at the front next to the PSU itself, which means you won’t be getting those two confused, but it is very easy to get the wires of power button LEDs and the wires of the power button itself confused. It took me a few tries to get the pins right, which is a few tries too many. I would have appreciated some labels or color coding.

Finally, the last thing to install, the GPU. If you have a rather large GPU, you might actually want to consider installing it before the motherboard just to make sure it all fits, since a large GPU will require some maneuvering to get installed. Additionally, the PCIe riser’s position can be changed for this sort of situation; by default it sits in the middle, giving you two slots to work with, but if you need more room it can be placed where you can use three slots. The riser cable itself is pretty high quality and adequately shielded. One last thing: there’s a little L shaped bracket that’s supposed to be attached to the GPU for mounting purposes, so don’t forget to do that before actually putting it in the case.

Cable management is difficult by nature in small form factor PCs, and the S402 is no exception. There are some pockets in the GPU area and around the PSU which you can use to stuff cables. I didn’t have too much issue making sure all of my cables were either hidden away or restricted to the lanes between the motherboard, PSU, and GPU (which is another area where you should consider running the full length of your cables, even if you need to overlap the same cable on itself).

The S402, given its small size, was surprisingly easy to build in and didn’t really cause me any major headache (though the power button wiring was rather annoying it has to be said). I have certainly had worse building experiences in cases that had far more room. Salvo Studios gets a pass here. You can also take a look at what I ended up with in the images below.

Thermals and Noise

When it comes to thermals, the S402 is designed rather well. It being a small case, there is of course a limit to how much power you can let your components use, because almost all of that power becomes heat. In my opinion, the realistic limit for the S402 is about 350 watts of combined power usage between the CPU and GPU. This was tested using the Powercolor Red Devil Vega 56 and a Ryzen 5 3600. With both parts undervolted about 100 mV and the fans tuned, I could hit around 80-85 C on both parts while playing Hitman 2 at maxed out settings, which provides a CPU and GPU intensive workload. This configuration consumed about 300 watts; with a better CPU cooler and more aggressive fan tuning, I could achieve and perhaps surpass 350 watts and avoid thermal throttling, but I don’t think that’s worthwhile.

As for noise, you might be surprised at how quiet the S402 can be, provided you find the right fans and coolers. Noctua has some excellent 60mm fans for exhaust and their low profile 120mm fan can provide additional airflow to the GPU or motherboard area if needed. If you decide to use a CPU cooler like the L9a, an auxiliary 120mm fan would be useful and you can mount it to the side panel. I did not find the S402 to be a case that lends itself to being loud just because it’s small. However, the included fans were quite loud since they always ran at 100%; hopefully the PWM controllable replacements coming in newer S402 shipments will rectify this issue.

You might be curious as to how the S402 can manage to be so cool when it’s so small. Well, the ideal configuration is intake via the side panel (which could be inhibited by the optional dust filter) and exhaust through the top of the case. The GPU and CPU coolers alone will do most of the work but you can add an auxiliary fan to increase intake from the side panel. Exhausting hot air through the top is easy because hot air naturally rises. I would say the S402 is designed pretty well for thermal and noise performance, even though mounting a GPU vertically tends to result in poorer cooling.

Maintenance

I found maintenance to be fairly good in the S402. Practically everything is accessible to you just by opening the vented side panel, and another, smaller side panel on the other side of the case will reveal the backside of the motherboard in the event you want to change your CPU cooler. Since everything is so close together, I actually found that the S402 was easier to work with than almost every other PC case I’ve used, though the high cable density will likely pose a problem if you’re like me and have two PCIe 8 pins going to your GPU, a SATA power cable going to a drive, and a handful of fans.

The S402 should also prove to be fairly dust resistant, provided you use the dust filter. Since the only intake it (should) use is through the vented side panel, where the filter is, there’s not really anywhere for dust to come from besides the bottom. However, a slowly spinning fan placed on the bottom of the case should make sure that no dust will come from there. Overall, I don’t think the S402 causes PC maintenance and upgrading to be especially painful. Cables can get in the way but other than that, it’s a pretty straightforward experience.

Conclusion

The S402 is a very nice case, but you might be wondering how much it is. Well, it’ll cost you $200 for the case alone. The dust filter is $27 and the SFX-L compatible button is $10. That is certainly alot for just a case, even if it’s a purpose built mini ITX case. It’s not even the only case of its kind; the Fractal Node 202 looks fairly similar and right now it’s retailing for about $90. Though, I haven’t reviewed the Node 202 and the S402, according to the specs is both smaller and also has more room for the GPU. Still, the existence of a similar looking and far cheaper case makes the price tag of the S402 look high.

The S402 is certainly a good case, price aside. It’s made of good materials, has a good design in respect to both appearance and layout, and provides the lowest volume of a relatively normal case. It also offers a practically uncompromised gaming experience thanks to all the space it provides for the GPU. I highly recommend Salvo Studios’s S402, it just commands what I think is too high of a price. Check it out here.

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