Basics of Cable Management - Beginner's How-To Guide

Written by  Tuesday, 07 August 2012 11:19
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Coming from a case and power supply background, I strongly value the presentation of a system. Your build's appearance and layout can either add value to the hundreds or thousands of dollars you've spent on parts, or it can diminish value. Well, I say you owe your PC some tender loving care. After taking the time to pick the right gaming case and choose the best motherboard, it only makes sense to assemble everything in an easy-to-maintain fashion.

manage-your-cables

Here are the benefits and procedures of good cable management and a handy step-by-step guide for how to cable manage your computer. You'll find some of the best cable management practices below, many of which have been showcased in our case reviews (see the video portions of the R5 review or Thor V2 review).

We've also included a video with this guide, so check that out for a more visual representation of our pointers.

 

Why should I care about cable management?

Behold, I give you three distinct reasons:

Easier to get into your build and tinker/upgrade

Chances are you'll be upgrading at least part of your system within a year or two of building it. You'll also open up your system from time to time to clean out air filters, reseat your RAM, or show your components off to your friends. It's easier to upgrade a video card if there's a clear path to it, rather than a spaghetti-bowl of cables obstructing the pathway.

cable-mgmt-finished-4A professionally managed case from Corsair.

Better airflow and Dust Management

By leaving your cables in a bunch, you're blocking necessary air pathways that help keep your system running at a comfortable temperature (and also risk cables physically intertwined with fans). As you run games, benchmarking programs, or other high-end applications, your components generate more heat -- and if there's no clear path for the air to escape or enter, the chances of dangerous temperatures rises, especially in an overclocked environment.

Looks better!

You've got the chance to wow someone with the computer you spent hours researching and putting together; don't let a spiderweb of cables block the view of components. If you bring your rig to a LAN party - especially an event like PDX or other large LAN events - members of the community, including company representatives and media, may marvel at your build and get you noticed! We've posted a number of system builds our readers have completed on our site and social media pages - keep it clean and we might do the same for you.

Getting Started: Cable Management Tools

Cable management is not a one-step action, but more of an active process that involves considering the components you have, the components you may have in the future, and the space you have to work with at all times.

Before starting, I recommend gathering some supplies, including:

- Cable ties.
- Twist-ties, hairbands/rubber bands (you can find great cable tie kits on Xoxide, Newegg, and Amazon).
- A screwdriver!
- Scissors or wire cutters.
- Electrical tape or Gaffer's tape (black for black cases) - be wary of tape and ensure it is ESD-compliant.

Of course, you can find more advanced tools in our must-have tools guide.

cable-mgmt-tools

If you haven't built your system yet and are still relatively new to building and/or cable management, allow an extra 1-2 hours in your building process so that you can work on cable management while you install. A word of advice: It's likely that you'll re-install components in your first attempt, so respect the process!

If you've already built your system, I'd recommend spending at least half an hour, preferably an hour, breaks included, tinkering with your wiring to make your system look respectable. However, more time spent will often result in a snazzier, more functional PC, so if you're enjoying yourself, don't limit it.

Look before you leap!

If you haven't put your system together yet, consider the following factors before diving in:

Does my case allow for enough cable management given the components I have?

If you're running SLI/Crossfire with a large CPU cooler, three hard drives, and a couple of fans, things may get a little tight in your system. Examine your case to see how many cable holes there are on your motherboard tray and where they're located. Measure the amount of space between the back of your motherboard tray and the side panel goes; 20mm (0.75in) is an acceptable minimum. If you're unsatisfied, consider upgrading to a larger case, like the NZXT Switch 810 or Thor V2 that we recently reviewed or a more accommodating mid-tower, like the R5.

Also consider the amount of "user-defined" passthroughs in the case: Look for separation between the drive bays and the motherboard wall, find tricky ways to reroute drive bay cabling, front panel cabling, and any required pass-through cables (like USB3.0 front panel connectors). Some cases, the HAF X being the most popular example, include power supply covers to stuff cables under, so those will help hide non-modular, excess cables. Also be certain to check the length of your cables against the size of the case - some cases won't accommodate a behind-the-tray 12v cable due to length or spacing limitations.

What do I do with unused power supply cables?

Cable management will likely be a thorn in your side (or behind your side panel!) if you use a non-modular power supply, especially one that has plethora of PCI-E, SATA, and Molex connectors. Paying $30 or $40 more for a semi- or fully-modular power supply, such as Antec's HCG-M series or any number of other PSUs, as discussed in our Power Supply Dictionary article, is seriously worth your investment if that means reducing a rat's nest of cables.

How can I make my system look good if the cables are too short?

Several companies have made an effort to address this issue by selling separate cable extensions. When we reviewed NZXT's Switch 810, they also sent along a pack of their Premium Cables Starter Kit, though other companies also sell them (just search 'power supply cable extensions' on your favorite e-tailer). I'll be using the Premium Cables in this system since they are black connectors and therefore enhance my system's appearance. 

What if I intend to go SLI / install a custom water cooling loop / add more hardware soon?

If you know what parts you're going to add/swap, leave the cable management of paired components (a graphics card, CPU cooler, etc.) more open-ended so that you can easily install your new parts without having to redo your entire cable management scheme.

Now am I ready!?

You're so close! Do yourself a favor and take care of these items first:

•    Place your PC in an environment that has enough light, and be sure to use a sturdy, level surface for building/routing.
•    Make sure your computer is OFF and everything is unplugged; if you're using an ESD strap, which we encourage, leave it plugged in but flip the PSU switch to the off position. This will keep you grounded without supplying any current through the system. If your PSU does not have an off switch, connect yourself to another grounded device in your room (like a lamp).
•    Take time to cleanse your system of dust. Some dust filters can be washed out more easily under running water - just make sure it is thoroughly, absolutely dry before putting them back in. Any water droplets - even the tiniest drip - can be the death of a component, so be wise about this.

As I said earlier, since cable management is an active process, you may need to take a step backward before you can move forward. However, you can still follow a loose procedure for component installation + cable management (note that it is wise to test components prior to full-installation); the order itself isn't entirely necessary, but this is just the way we prefer to do it:

•    Power Supply
•    Drives (get them out of the way early)
•    Motherboard with RAM, CPU, and CPU Heatsink pre-seated, before installation in the case
•    Case fans
•    Cabling included with the case / front panel cabling / things you want to be 'under' the larger cables.
•    PSU cabling; bigger stuff should stay on top to hold the smaller stuff in place.
•    Video card
•    Other peripherals
•    Remaining cables.

PC Assembly & Cable Management Procedure

Here's a step by step breakdown. As with my Switch 810 review, I'll be using the same hardware -- it's nothing fancy, but it runs games nicely:

Processor: Intel Core i3 2100 @ 3.1 GHz
Motherboard: ASUS P8P67M-Pro
Graphics Card: ASUS GTS 450
RAM: Kingston HyperX 2 x 2 GB DDR3
HDD: Seagate Barracuda 500GB 6 Gbps
Case: NZXT Switch 810
Power Supply: Antec HCG-620M
CPU Cooler: Antec KUHLER H2O 620

Outside of the case, let's start by installing the CPU, its heatsink, and the RAM. Ensure this is all done on ESD-compliant material (like the anti-static foam that is often shipped with a motherboard). Test the components and ensure everything works - if there's nothing that's DOA, it's time to start assembly.

Next comes the power supply:

Go ahead and mount your power supply and make sure it has the exact set of cables you'll need for your whole system. For my build, I require the standard 24-pin mainboard connector, 8-pin EPS, 1 x 6-pin PCI-E, 1 x Molex, 1 x SATA, and fan connectors. The motherboard supplies these, so I'll install it without the need of extensions or adapters.

For the motherboard's power, Molex, and SATA cables, you'll want to route them through the lowest cable routing holes and drag them up through the back of the motherboard, only re-entering when near the cable's destination. This method will elongate the cables more so that you have less of a "cable bulge" when you put the side panel back on. Try to stretch-out cables as much as possible to reduce overall clutter, and try to keep heavier cables on top to keep the more flimsy cables (like front-panel connectors) in place. Route those through the back now and leave them hanging until you get your board in place.

Your case may or may not have a designated routing hole near the 8-pin EPS connection on your motherboard - check the top left of the case and if there's a hole, try to feed the 4-pin or 8-pin 12v connector through the hole. If it fits, you'll have any easy time routing your EPS cable. If not, either route the connector through the case, or see our tips at the bottom. We'd recommend running it under the video card and against the side-wall, but it's possible that some expansion cards will not allow this method.

cable-mgmt-nzxt-1

You don't have to finalize your routing for the power supply cables yet, but at least put it through a test run.

Install your HDDs/SSDs/Optical Drives

I recommend this step next since hard drives present their own "grouping" of cables, and in some cases, they can get in the way of a pre-mounted motherboard (especially cheaper cases or cases which mount drives from the inside, rather than outward-facing). Mount all the drives accordingly, then plug in their SATA connectors from your PSU. Depending on the orientation of your drives, you may need to add another SATA cable to your PSU. Some cases will allow hard drives to face either the left or right sidepanel; facing the right sidepanel is preferred, since cables can be connected behind the board.

Install your motherboard

Take the time to study where appropriate cables go for your power/reset/USB hub, hard drives, fans, etc. It's much harder to read the tiny motherboard text when it's mounted in the shade of the case. Refer to your manual if in doubt (or ask us below and provide an image of the board).

Route the front-panel connectors through the back of the case and then pull them out of the passthrough that's closest to their destination. Connect the cables. Do this for the buttons, LEDs, system speaker, USB connectors, HD Audio, and any SATA or other connectors that require interaction with the board.

Now take your SATA connectors and plug those in. Wrap them together with your SATA PSU cable behind the motherboard tray if you're 100% sure you won't need to reconfigure those connectors for now. You'll notice I have configured my drive group together just to the right of the drive cage; I used the gap between the drive cage and my motherboard tray to reduce visible wiring.

With only a few cables left - mostly power cables - it's time to route the 8-pin or 4-pin 12v connector to its destination; if you're waiting to connect the video card (due to an inability to pass it through the back of the case), then hold it off to the side for now. Route the large 24-pin connector through the hole closest to the PSU, then pull it back through when it's near its motherboard socket. Try to use as much of this cable's length as possible to reduce abrasions and any bulging.

CPU coolers (air and liquid) take up a lot of space and should be addressed after installing some of the other components that connect to your motherboard (like memory). When plugging in the CPU fan connector (and, for liquid coolers, connecting the pump plug to the fan connector), utilize the mobo's CPU cutout to stick the connector behind the motherboard then back through right to where it plugs into the CPU fan. That cuts out more visibility.

cable-mgmt-coolerRoute the fan cable through the cut-out and back up to reduce visibility.

Make sure there is enough clearance between your CPU cooler and video card and memory.

Configure your case fans

If you're adding on fans, approach cable management in groups. For example, group your cabling for top & rear fans, or group your cabling for front & internal fans together behind the motherboard tray. That said, keep in mind the number of Molex connectors you'll need to finish the job; you may need to add another Molex cable to your PSU.

Since fans are often smaller parts, you can conceal their wires through gaps between components or through small holes around the motherboard tray. Visible fan wires in the chassis can "disappear" with a little black tape, too.  

This is a little hindsight, but I do recommend checking out cases that come with a preinstalled fan hub (for 3-pin connectors) like the Switch 810; it's very convenient.

Plug in your case's included connectors

There isn't much strategy here other than to use whatever cable management holes are available. However, the Audio plug, which fits in a "no man's land" spot on your motherboard, can be difficult to route. In my example here, I take the connector and route it through a bottom-left hole and then drag it up through a small gap between my motherboard and graphics card. Check it out below with the GPU installed.

cable-mgmt-frontIn a HAF X, we used the PSU cover to hide the front-panel connectors.

Install your video card

The video card is easy. Just secure it in place and use the appropriate routing hole for your PSU's PCI-E cable.

Wrapping It Up

Alright, so you've got everything installed, but now's the time to get everything right behind the scenes. Use cable ties and twist-ties to secure your stray (or groups) of cables into place. Prevent "cable bulge" any way possible, even if it means using tape.

cable-mgmt-tieThe beginning of the cable tying process.

Most importantly, be sure to leave some space behind the motherboard for future components. What goes next in your computer -- a hard drive, a graphics card, a liquid cooling system? You won't want to pull everything apart and put it back together again, so route wisely.

We've shown you a few different systems so far - here are a bunch of the finished products! Click to enlarge.

cable-mgmt-finished1 cable-mgmt-finished3 cable-mgmt-finished2
cable-mgmt-finished6 cable-mgmt-finished-4 cable-mgmt-finished5

 

Final Thoughts

Systems with abundant cable routing holes make cable management hassle-free. And even if there's just under an inch of routing space behind the motherboard wall, while that's not best-in-class, it's enough room to help someone with a moderate amount of hardware.

While I did not require them, I enjoyed using NZXT's Premium Cables in my system. The Starter Kit contains 24-pin, 8-pin EPS, 6-pin PCI-E (low-end/older GPUs), and 6+2-pin PCI-E connectors and, while setting you back $20 or $25, they are easy to work with and make your system look great.

Looking at my system, I'm satisfied with my routing job but think there may be room for improvement. Had I used the lower-left cable hooks on the motherboard, I may have reduced some cable bulge and, had I not been too picky with interior aesthetics, I could have done an overall cleaner job behind the motherboard. In my case, I'm using less hardware and can put interior looks first, but your needs may differ from mine. That said, I invite you to try out a variety of tricks and techniques I've included below to make your cable management pristine.  

Tips & Tricks

These pointers improve upon our cable management fundamentals. 

- Partner up! With an extra set of eyes, you'll be able to execute the best cable management system for your PC. This is Tip #1 in my book for beginners and beyond.

- Steve of GN has a good one: Don't commit to zip ties until the installation of that part/group of parts is final.

- Some connectors come with a bundle of vibrant, visible wiring. Black that out with a twist-tie to reduce visibility.

- If possible, wrap a large cable tie around your PSU cables so that they squeeze together and take up less visible space.

- Some cables cannot be routed between two different holes because of length, but they'll likely look too awkward if they're exposed in the system. Try placing that cable through one routing hole, then folding it with your hands and securing it with a tie, then placing it back through the routing hole where it plugs in. Watch your rear-mobo space if you do this more than a couple times.

- One of the most frustrating cables is the 8-pin EPS motherboard power connector. Occasionally, the cable will be too short to route behind the motherboard tray -- even in a mid-tower -- leaving you to secure it out in the open in all its ugly glory. Thankfully, companies have addressed this issue by making longer cables or, in the case of NZXT, providing cable extensions. Or, if you're really desperate, try routing the 8-pin between the video card and the motherboard. I've had luck routing it between the motherboard tray and the motherboard before, but don't necessarily recommend that approach.

- Consider using electrical tape to secure cables around the chassis's interior perimeter. Use rubber bands to bunch smaller cables together to tidy things up. You'll see I even used duct tape on the back of my motherboard's tray.

- Always leave as much open space as possible. You will need that space for upgrades/replacements.


~ Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton

Last modified on Tuesday, 07 August 2012 12:52

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