@#&$%! front panel connectors

The PC has thrived largely thanks to standards. In addition to allowing us to confuse the masses with acronyms like AGP, ATX, IDE, and PCI, those standards have facilitated broad interoperability between various PC components. That interoperability is what enables system builders to assemble systems with a seemingly limitless number of configurations, and it's what fuels an enthusiast's ability to roll their own rig.

Motherboards are probably the best place to see standards in action. Not only are the boards themselves governed by form factor specs, they're also populated with all sorts of ports, slots, and connectors that subscribe to one standard or another. Despite this cornucopia of regulated connectors, motherboards are still one standard short.

Every motherboard has a series of front panel connector pins to power a chassis' internal speaker, power and hard drive activity lights, and power and reset buttons. There are 12 pins in total—just three more than the number of pins used for internal USB and Firewire connectors, but a whopping 27 pins less than a standard IDE connector. Unlike internal USB, Firewire, or IDE connectors, though, front panel pins aren't arranged according to a common standard. That means that instead of being able to connect all 12 pins with a single cable and jumper block, separate wires and connectors must be used for each function. With one speaker, two lights, and two buttons, that makes five functions, and five annoying little wires to hook up.

Are you kidding me?

Front panel connector patterns from Asus (top), MSI (middle), and Nvidia (bottom)
Now this clearly isn't the most pressing problem facing the modern PC. Still, it seems ridiculous that motherboard and chassis vendors haven't agreed on a standard pin pattern for front panel connectors that would allow five annoying little connectors to be replaced with a single cable and jumper block.

And it's not like one pin pattern is going to be superior to another, either. We're talking about simple wiring for a couple of buttons and LEDs—a far cry from sensitive, high-speed signaling for I/O.

I'm not entirely sure whether blame for the lack of front panel connector standardization should be shouldered by motherboard or chassis makers, but there's plenty to go around. Asus does deserve some credit for trying to make the situation a little better, though. The company's more recent motherboards include a handy front panel jumper extension that can be used to consolidate a chassis front panel wiring into a single block. You still have to make five individual connections, but it's much easier to do that on a jumper block rather than the motherboard itself.

Although it's more of an effort than what we've seen from others, Asus' jumper block is at best a timid toe over the line rather than a real step in the right direction. That there isn't a standard for front panel connections may not hold the PC back, but it's still annoying, and frankly, a little embarrassing.

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