I am not a neat person. You need only to see my desk to realize that. However, when it comes to my PC case, I keep the cables organized.

There are some good reasons to do that--and they have nothing to do with neatness. If you buy a new computer, especially an expensive powerhouse PC built for gaming or heavy-duty editing, one thing you notice is how neatly the interior is organized. Often, PC builders carefully route the cables along the case edges in tight bundles, making them almost invisible.

When you're tinkering with a PC, organizing the cables is a good habit to get into, for plenty of practical reasons.

  • You're ensuring that stray wires or cables don’t touch the fans, which would produce teeth-clenching noise and increase the heat around critical components. (Fans can also burn out this way.)
  • You can improve airflow throughout the case, so that the entire system remains cool and stable.
  • Good cable organization allows you to find the wire or cable you need when you have to unwind them to change out a component.

So here are some guidelines for organizing the cable clutter inside your PC. Rather than give abstract rules of thumb, I’ll walk through an example, and offer ideas and suggestions along the way.

Taking Inventory of Your Components

For this cable-routing project, I’ll start with a fairly modern PC case. This is the Fractal Designs Define R3, a midsize-tower chassis designed to house a quiet high-performance PC.

Although this case offers modern amenities such as a cutout behind the motherboard CPU socket to make mounting exotic coolers easier, it isn't excessively wide or deep. I'm going to build in a high-end graphics card, but with a case like this I can't fit one of those foot-long Radeon HD 6990 cards. The interior space is only a little roomier than that of the typical midsize-tower case, which affords me the opportunity to show you how to declutter cables inside an average case.

Most new performance-PC cases, such as this one, allow the routing of cables behind the motherboard tray. That's your key to cable-clutter happiness, and you should take full advantage of it. On the other hand, the R3 doesn’t have the extra width of something like the Coolermaster HAF 932 or Corsair 600T, so you can’t just run bulky cable sets behind your motherboard willy-nilly--you’d never get the case side back on.

Of course, building a PC requires collecting a set of PC components. I'm going to transplant an existing system based on an Intel DX58SO2 motherboard and a Core i7-970 processor. Just so no one accuses me of cheating, I won’t use a modular power supply. The Corsair TX850w unit has all its cables permanently connected, including two full runs of SATA power and four PCI Express power cables. As you can see, everything makes for quite a pile of parts.

The CPU cooler is a Corsair H70, which is a sealed liquid cooler with two 120mm fans. While it moves clutter away from the CPU socket, it adds clutter to the back of the case, which creates challenges of its own.

Now that I've defined the project, let's go over some rules of thumb.

Check Your Connectors

Before installing components, spend some time doing a connector inventory. That way, you’ll have a better idea of how many cables and wires need to be routed. My particular system has the following pieces.

  • One nonmodular power supply (with several excess power connectors)
  • One high-end graphics card, requiring two PCI Express power connectors
  • Three hard drives, for a total of three SATA power connectors and three SATA data cables
  • The motherboard, with associated power, reset, power LED, audio, eSATA, and USB connections; also needs a main power connection from the power supply as well as the eight-pin ATX12V auxiliary power connection
  • One optical drive, with a SATA data cable and power connector
  • The sealed liquid cooler, which needs two fan connections on the motherboard for power
  • One front case fan, which also requires a motherboard case fan connector

At this point, you should take stock and figure out what you need to install first. Typically you’ll want to install the power supply, storage devices, and motherboard right away. After that, it’s time to stop adding components and route power cables to the motherboard. That advice particularly holds for the eight-pin ATX12V connector I'm using; if you make the mistake of installing the liquid cooler radiator first, it will be impossible to install the ATX12V connection.

Now that I understand what needs to be routed, it’s time to string some cables. But wait--since I’m going to organize the cables, I need some gizmos to tie the cables back. Thankfully, plenty of good options are available for tying down cables.

Personally, I use everything from rubber bands to twist ties to Velcro straps to nylon buckle ties. But I do not use zip ties--ever. A few years ago, I unpacked a system in which the builder had obsessively dressed the interior cables with zip ties, every 3 or 4 inches. Tracing any individual cable or wire required half an hour of carefully cutting zip ties to avoid slicing actual power or data cable. As cautious as I was trying to be, I accidentally cut a wire connected to a four-pin Molex power plug.

Luckily, the power supply had a few spares. But it was still annoying, and that's why I recommend you avoid zip ties for organizing your cables. In any system where you might change components out at will, using something as permanent and hard to remove as zip ties is simply not practical. You can find a host of other, more ergonomic and user-friendly tie-down methods. After all, you’re not handcuffing your PC for transport to jail--you’re working inside the machine.

Find Your Route

After installing the motherboard, hard drives, power supply, and optical drive, I decided to look at the back side of the Define.

Note the various wires that the case needs, including those for the power switch, the power LED, and so on. I’ll get to those in a bit. Right now I’ll run the two power cables behind the motherboard, like so.

Not all cases have neat cutouts for routing cables, but it would have been almost as easy to run the cables along the side of the motherboard tray and then across to where they’re needed. If I’d had to do that, I might have needed an extension cable for the ATX12V connector.

Now that the power is connected, I can install the CPU cooler. After doing that, I run the two sets of wires around the edge of the fan, and affix them to one of the fan screws with a twist tie.

Next up are the internal case connectors. I route these around the back of the case and through appropriate cutouts. Note that audio cables typically come with two connectors--and you’ll need only one. I recommend tying the excess connector off, like so.

The wires for front-panel connections are very long. I recommend taking a nylon buckle strap with an adhesive pad and tying down the excess front-panel cable length. This arrangement makes the case side easier to close, and keeps the small wires from getting in the way.

Next up are the SATA power cables. Once that’s done, I dress the excess length of the power connections. It's worthwhile to look over the whole affair at this point.

Okay, now it’s time to connect the SATA data cables. Note that I route the data cables to minimize the potential of blocking airflow, but I don’t tie them down. I find that SATA cables are the ones I’m most frequently detaching and reattaching, so I like keeping them easy to access.

Note that I’ve also routed the PCI Express power cables behind the motherboard so that they emerge at the back end of the graphics card. The only time I’ve ever had a graphics card fry on me is when a PCI Express power cable blocked the fan completely. I heard no noise, and the GPU died from overheating before I knew what was happening.

That area under the motherboard may offend some neatniks. But you never really see it. Instead, below is what you see, once the system is fully assembled.

Now that I’ve routed all the power connections, a number of extra power cables are left. I use a Velcro strap to tie off the excess in as small and compact a bundle as I can create.

With the cables routed, bundled, and tied down, I need to assess whether I've met the main goals of cable organization: maximizing airflow and minimizing the chance that a stray cable can damage a fan or other component. Let’s check the inside of the system.

It looks like the system has unobstructed airflow, and no stray wires are floating around, just waiting to create problems. The underside of the motherboard may not look all that neat; but despite the relatively tight quarters, I was able to attach the side panel with no problems or unsightly bulges.

Of course, if you are obsessed with neatness, you can do even more, by employing a few wire extenders and some more-judicious tie-downs. If you prefer a really clean routing of wires and cables, go for it. Just remember: Don’t use zip ties! When you upgrade or rebuild your system, you’ll be much happier.