Lets start out with what the Hornet Pro is. It is a couple of inches taller than an ordinary SFF case , and a few inches wider. Here it is, sitting next to an Iwill ZMax SFF case, note the size difference, it will be important later.
The first thing that the Hornet Pro does better than an average run of the mill SFF is that it will take any standard Micro-ATX motherboard. This is an advantage that is hard to overstate. You are not locked into any single proprietary motherboard, and if something better comes out, it is a snap to upgrade. The one I have has a Gigabyte GA-K8VT800M, a pretty full featured board for such a small form factor. It has two DDR slots, a full length AGP slot, IDE RAID, onboard LAN, six channel audio, eight USB 2.0 ports, and the standard old school ports. Basically just add memory, HDD, a video card, a floppy, and you are off to the races.
There are some optional extras that the box has. First off, a must on my short list for any new computer, it has a memory card reader. This one has a combo floppy and 7-in-1 reader that is pretty much indispensable if you use a camera or any other modern device. The Hornet Pro also has a 250W Enermax power supply, with an optional upgrade to an even less noisy 270W version.
This Hornet is packed with the proverbial bling-bling toys. In its previous life, it was sitting on the ATI stand at GDC, so it has all the goodies. If you look closely at the picture of the slide out tray below, you will see some white spots by the ports. It has lighted IDE cables, red neon cold cathode tubes, lighted intelligent fan controller, and best of all, the famous Corsair XMS Pro memory with the LED lights on top. Let's just say this thing lights up like there is no tomorrow. It glows, it blinks and it attracts attention in a big big way. Check out the picture of it while on, the camera flash takes away a lot of the glow, but you can see the red light from inside, and the blue temp LEDs on the front.
Part of its attention grabbing features is the blazing Mustang Yellow paint. The Hornet comes in normal black, anodised purple, and is hand painted red or yellow. When I first read about the custom paint, I was extremely sceptical, I mean really, $160 for a colour? What are they, nuts? Then I got it, and I must say, I am convinced, period. The paint job is a multi layered, clear coated, hand wet sanded and buffed job using PPG automotive paint. When I get a new part in, I will usually take it on the rounds of the local geek set to get commentary on it. This time around, I saw something that I have never seen before, not one, but two people rubbed it. The paint is shiny and has that deep, wet look, and people actually rubbed it. It was that good. If you get it, get one with both clear side panels, you want to show things off, so go all out. Since it is upgradeable, you don't have to worry about spending a lot on a case that will be obsolete soon.
The extra size has some real advantages. Not only will it take a full size AGP card, but it is able to take two slot AGP cards like some of the newest Nvidia cards. A lot of SFF cases will limit your choice of cards or CPU fans, but this one has room for just about anything you can imagine. As far as I know, the Hornet Pro is the only SFF case on the market approved for use with the new GeForce 6800 Ultra cards. The only down side is the same as any other case, you lose a PCI slot, but there are still two others to use if you have anything else to plug in. You need to get the higher end power supply, but that is a small price to pay for LAN parties.
Speaking of LAN parties, I mentioned earlier that it was a really good case for gaming on the go. One of the reasons I say this is that it has a large metal handle in front, so you can just pick it up and take it with you. If that isn't enough Monarch will shortly offer matching carrying cases, basically a custom fitted duffel bag, for the Hornet Pro. These guys have thought the gaming market through, and designed the case for it.
The insides of the case are generous for a SFF machine. It isn't cramped with everything arranged just so. While it may lack some of the mystical art of packing things so tightly that you fear gravity might pull everything into a black hole, I would gladly give that up for a little headroom when putting in a part that isn't quite standard. The Hornet Pro has the usual 5.25 and 3.5 bays, but it has two internal HD bays, something you don't often find in the usual SFF cases. This will let you do a basic striped RAID array in your SFF gaming box, a definite plus.
One of the nicer touches is the slide out motherboard tray. It is close to perfect, but brings up the one criticism I have of the case. When you are putting it together, you screw the mobo in, put all the parts on, and slide it in. Once it is together, and the cables are all zip-tied together in a clean, nice way, it is hard to pull the tray out. You have to unplug some of the cables before you can slide the tray out, and a couple of them were a little annoying to remove until you figured out which side of the plug the release was on. That is about my only criticism of the case, and it is hardly a deal breaker.
Even with the heartbreak of having to remove two or three cables before you can take the case out, it is so much easier than working on even a normal mid-tower that it isn't even funny. It is about half tool free, the sides, mobo tray, and slot covers all come off with big thumb screws, but all the drives require old fashioned screws. Access is easy from both sides, so it is not a problem at all. Taking the sides off and pulling the tray out is a job that takes all of a minute unless you are terminally slow. Here is a shot of the case in a half open position.
Once on, it is very quiet. The one sent to me was not kitted out to be dead silent, it was meant for the confines of a trade show where background noise is plentiful. If you option it out with the quiet power supply, an 80mm CPU fan, and the noise killer thermal management setup, you can get something close to silent. Of course, since it will be a gaming rig, the first thing you will want to do is slap a monster video card on it, and the fan on that will drown out what little noise the rest of the machine makes. Oh well, those are the crosses we all must bear, a big set of speakers will turn this problem into a non-problem.
Overall, getting my hands on a Hornet Pro was not a disappointment. It is everything I thought it would be. The original idea behind the review was to make a good LAN gaming box for $1000. At the time, around new years, it couldn't be done, parts were just too expensive, or you would have to cut down the computer to something not really suitable for gaming. As I was prepping this article, I went to the Monarch site and optioned one out, and came tantalizingly close to my goal.
With an Athlon64 2800+, 80GB SATA HD, 512MB ram, DVD-R and a Geforce 5900XT, you can buy one for $1034. The one I got, with all the bells and whistles, paint and extras ended up at $1309, and that is without a video card. You can option a Hornet Pro out to about $2000 if you try hard, but $1300 or so should get you a solid, upgradable lan party gaming box with a bunch of niceties. It is a little expensive, but nothing I know of is as portable and expandable. It is well worth a close look next time you buy a computer. Also, get the lighted feet, they will make people do a double take. µ
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