Even now that PC gaming is 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 knowing my position represents a niche of a niche, and one that might fairly be criticized as old-fashioned. That said: Let’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 disc-based media drive. Please don’t kill it, PC case makers. I’m begging you.
Hard to Find
A couple of months ago, deep in the work-from-home malaise of the pandemic, I decided to upgrade my desktop PC’s case. I’d been using the Fractal Design R4 for my desktop for almost eight years, carrying it across three major system rebuilds and more individual parts than I can remember. I wanted something with a more modern internal layout for better cable routing, maybe easier-to-access bays for my hard drive and SSD, and—the real draw—a fancy USB-C port on the front panel.
So, I got to looking. In order to keep all of my current hardware, I’d need to find a case with two external drive bays, because I use a standard 5.25-inch DVD drive (the oldest dustiest piece in my case, which has been pulling sterling service since my very first PC build 12 years ago) and a camera card reader, which is technically a 3.5-inch drive in a 5.25-inch adapter. A 3.5-inch bay is the one you might remember as the “floppy drive.”
So, I plugged my needs into Newegg’s handy search filters: full-sized ATX motherboard case, at least one USB-C port on the front, two 5.25-inch drive bays. Here’s what I got:
“Alright,” I thought, “External drive bays have kind of gone out of fashion now that everyone’s streaming movies and downloading games from Steam. I’ll have to settle for just one, and pick between my DVD drive and my card reader. Let’s drop the 5.25-inch bay requirements down to one.”
As it turned out, I could find precisely one modern ATX case with both a front USB-C port and one (and only one) 5.25-inch bay: the Fractal Design Define 7, the spiritual descendant of my own Define R4. So, I ordered it … and found out that, while my 1.5-year-old motherboard can handle the USB 3.0 connector necessary for some USB-C ports, it doesn’t have the 3.1 gen 2 connector that the R7 case uses.
So, in order to use this very fancy very expensive case, I’d need to ditch either my trusty dusty DVD drive or the camera card reader that I use on a regular basis, and I’d have to go without access to the USB-C port I wanted in the first place. Alternately, I could replace my motherboard, for something approaching a full PC rebuild—for another $300 or so.
I sent the Define 7 back, and shoved all my parts back into my old R4. I could find a similar case to the one I’m using now, but it wouldn’t have access to USB-C, and my current case isn’t so useless that I’m ready to ditch it. I’ll upgrade my PC case eventually, but it looks like this one’s going to make it to double digits in years.
Discs Aren’t Dead
As someone who hasn’t bought a physical game in years, I’m an odd champion for the physical disc drive, if not the disc itself. But it’s worth pointing out that physical media, while absolutely on the decline, still has some utility left.
The most obvious application here is movies. Cinemaphiles still demand Blu-ray for their gigantic uncompressed video files, especially now that more and more are coming in 4K: That’s why you shouldn’t watch a movie like Into the Spider-verse on a streaming platform (if you can help it). To say nothing of the arbitrary and somewhat random nature of actually buying movies on streaming—if a movie I want isn’t available on a platform I’m currently paying for, it’s often much cheaper to buy the DVD or Blu-ray than to buy it (or even rent it!) on a streaming platform.
Which brings up another point: for some people, getting shipped physical media is the best option! When I was living in rural Texas, streaming a movie for two hours was less than a given on an unlimited LTE connection. Getting a 50GB Steam game might take a week or more. Going to the store or ordering something off of Amazon made more sense on a regular basis. Even Microsoft acknowledged this, offering the massive Flight Simulator 2020 in an admittedly unwieldy 10-DVD physical edition.
And that ignores the vast libraries of music and movies that many people already own in disc format. Plenty of people like to digitize that—bloated Plex libraries are an indication—and need a disc drive to do so. Sure, it’s possible to do that with an external disc drive, but then what’s the point of having a gigantic ultra-customizable desktop PC in the first place?
More Options Are Better
I’ve already said that my situation—needing or at least wanting a weird combination of the latest ports and compatibility with older equipment—is niche. But catering to niches via flexibility is what building your own PC is all about!
Take that card reader, sitting in the second 5.25-inch bay via a 3.5-inch adapter. I have to take photos for reviews on a regular basis—my photos need to be higher-quality than my phone can handle, and my camera’s old enough that Wi-Fi transfers are achingly slow. So a dedicated gadget inside my PC is great, both for the standard SD card and the occasional microSD transfer for fooling around with phones.
But that’s hardly the only use for a full-sized drive bay. Another common alternative for this space is a hot-swap hard drive bay, which allows users to insert and remove massive amounts of storage for high-speed transfers instantly. Gamers and enthusiasts like to use this space as a dedicated fan or light controller. If nothing else works, you can add just tons and tons of USB ports, connected directly to your motherboard.
More creative uses for the space include an unobtrusive reservoir for liquid cooling, or a handy little hidey-hole for your screws and tools, secondary status screens, or even a cup holder. (Okay, maybe not that last one.)
Admittedly, some of these uses for the 5.25-inch drive bay are more practical than others. But in a product category that includes pyramids and cruise ships and whatever the hell this thing is, I think a modern case with modern ports and the option for some old-school expansion isn’t too much to ask for.