How To: Add Front Access USB Ports

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Fairly easy case mod – Brian

SUMMARY: Adding USB front access to a case that doesn’t have any.

00

“I want my U-sb!” =)

I wrote an article a couple months ago, that dealt with connecting USB cables
to the headers on a typical new motherboard. It came about because I was also in the midst of a product review, which adds front access USB ports to older Chieftec/Antec/Chenming mid-tower
cases, by means of a replacement/upgrade front bezel.

But what if your case doesn’t even have them?

Most of the newer model cases do, but what if you’ve got an old favorite that doesn’t? Or, the new case you really really like doesn’t?

Make your own!

01

I bought this full tower Chieftec case at Directron
a couple years ago, and I still love it. This case is bigger than some houses and can flow a ton of air. I’ve had a dual CPU system built in this case for the majority of the time I’ve had it, and I’ve always gotten superb temperatures
due to the high amount of air that can be moved through it. I’ve never regretted buying it, but….

I always wished it had front access USB ports.

While Directron stocks replacement front bezels,
and side panels with and
without
a window pre-installed, they (nor anyone else, and I’ve searched high and low) has a front bezel with USB ports built in for one of these cases.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Installing these ports where there never were any is a fairly easy job, and in a situation like this, allows a bit of license on where they get installed. The only real constraint on where
they can get mounted is going to be determined by the length of the USB cable you have.

This may, however, be a time consuming task, depending on the case you are modifying, and/or if it’s a bare case or fully assembled and running. You need to remove the entire front bezel from
the case, which may or may not require removing any and all optical drives, floppy drives, and disconnecting the leads for the front LEDs and power/reset switches.

If you’ve got an older (but still fairly recent) motherboard you no longer use and still have all the accessories that came with it, you can modify the USB extension cable and bracket
assembly to add some ports to that case you want them in.

If you don’t happen to have one of these cables sitting around somewhere, they’re fairly inexpensive, and easy to find online.
When I went looking for a USB hub on e-BAY a couple years ago, I found hundreds of listings for these cables, and they usually were priced under $5. Oddly enough, that USB hub (which I finally found)
is pictured here too (see above). It’s served me well the last few years, and in a way, gave me the front USB ports in that full tower I wanted.

As long as I opened the door… While not exactly a difficult task this, having a port located elsewhere than behind that door would be a lot easier to use.

Below is a list of tools you will need:

  • USB external cable w/bracket (from motherboard header to expansion slot)
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Two (2) computer case screws (the coarse thread ones)
  • Hand drill (cordless is best/easier to use)
  • 1/4″ and 1/8″ drill bits
  • X-acto knife or similar
  • Small files (needle files are best)
  • Sewing needle or pin
  • Sharpie marker (or similar..must have sharp point!)
  • Thumbtack, icepick, etc..something metal with sharp point
  • Can of compressed air or small vacuum

Not all of these tools are “required”, as some can be used interchangeably. You can omit the X-acto knife, but the work with the files will take longer. Conversely, you can omit
the files if you’re skilled with an X-acto knife. You may or may not need the air, depending on whether or not you have to cut/enlarge a hole for the cable(s) to pass through the front
of the case chassis.

02

This is the type of USB cable I’m referring to.

Before you continue, locate the USB header on your motherboard and figure out where the cable you have will reach to on the front of the case. Take into account
any bends
you may need to have to route around any fans, etc. Don’t leave yourself short. You’ll want some slack in the cable (not much, but some) and not have it
“bowstring tight”.

Start out by removing the front bezel from your case. As I mentioned, this may or may not be an involved process. The full tower Chieftec I’m working with doesn’t require removing
any drives to get the bezel off the front of the case, but most mid-tower cases do.

On a good note, if you’ve got some teardown involved, look at it this way: This will be the hardest part of the job. Once the bezel is off, putting the ports in is easy. Plus, it’s a
great opportunity to do a good cleaning and/or incorporate other maintenance or upgrades you might have been putting off.

{mospagebreak}

Ok, got the bezel off? Good. Let’s prep the cable (if necessary) next.

03

Start by removing the metal bracket from the cable itself. Now, depending on if you’re going to use both USB ports/cables and the plug(s) that are on the motherboard end of
them/it, you might have to alter them.

If you’ve got nine or ten loose, single wires with a plug on each individual wire, you can skip this part entirely.

If you have two plugs, one per cable, with the full set of leads for each port in a 1 x 4 (or 5) plug (as pictured above), you may or may not need to change this. A 1 x 5 plug
will need a bigger hole to route the wire through, but will work fine.

If you’ve got a big 2 x 5 pin plug and plan on using only one port/cable of the two, you’ve got some work to do. Even if you plan on using both USB ports, you’re going to need a
pretty large hole to get that 2 x 5 plug through, so you might want to change the plug over to smaller ones as follows.

First off, if some configuring is needed, you may need some replacement plugs. Over the years, when I’ve stripped old/dead machines, I usually snip off the various
switch and LED leads and throw them in a junk box. The leads on these wires use the same terminals as the USB headers.

The old i286 to i486 vintage power LED and keylock plug just happens to be the exact same plug as a 1 x 5 USB header plug. I’ve salvaged a few odd LED leads (and case speaker
leads) that make a good 1 x 4 USB plug. A pair of two pin reset or LED plugs can be used together to create a set of USB leads. This is a good way to go, as the hole needed to fish
these through can be much smaller.

Removing the Terminals

04

This is where you need the needle or pin. Look closely at the picture (and your cable). Each wire is held in place by that plastic tab, which needs to be lifted
ever so slightly up to release the terminal. Lifting it too much will snap the tab off! Push the terminal IN, and stick the pin under the side of the tab
and lift it slightly, hold that, and gently pull on the wire. You’ll probably break one tab off (I usually do), and if you do, it’s OK…just try not to.

It might be good to note the order of the wires, but if the cable you have is fairly new, the colors of the wires are standardized now. When it comes time to connect
them, refer to your motherboard manual, and the first link I mentioned on the first page of this article for help in connecting them in the proper order. The only real oddball
cable would come from a Gigabyte motherboard. All others use the “Intel Standard” for the wire configuration.

Once you’ve got the wires loose, change the plug(s) over. Push the wires in, and you’ll feel them “click” into place when they’re in fully.

05

Yet further uses for DOS era parts. Recycle! =)

Once this is done, it’s time to break out the drill and make some holes. Now that all the prep work is done, we’ll start picking up some speed from here.

Next, find (or make) a suitable hole in the chassis to route the cable through. This is where modifying the cable plugs might help. Where I changed my cable over to a
pair of smaller plugs, I only had to slightly enlarge an existing hole with the needle files (the small square on the right, below).

Ensure the hole, if it’s an existing one, isn’t used by the bezel itself as a mount. The larger rectangular hole on the right edge would easily route a 1 x 5 plug, but
it’s a bezel mount hole, so I couldn’t use it.

06

(Lower right front corner, Chieftec chassis shown).

This is where you’d need the can of air. If the case has a system installed in it, be extra careful doing any cutting/drilling/filing here, as any stray cuttings/filings
could short out things if left in the case and get blown around by the case fans (or you, with the can of air!)

{mospagebreak}

07

Pick your location next. Again, ensure your cable is long enough to reach the spot you want to mount it/them, and the area is deep enough in the bezel for the socket to fit between the bezel and chassis!

08

A machinist’s ruler is really good for measuring, centering, and making the holes level. Any ruler will suffice, though.

09

Mark out the location with the Sharpie, and then, using the metal bracket you removed from the cable, use it as a template for marking the two screw holes. Use the Sharpie
and put a dot in each screw circle.

Then, take the thumbtack or similar sharply pointed metal object. Make a bit of a “punchmark” in the center of the two screw “dots”. This will help keep the drill bit from
“wandering” as you drill the two screw holes out.

10

Using the 1/8″ drill bit, drill out those two screw holes.

11

Now, you’re going to temporarily “mount” the bracket to the face of the bezel, using a pair of standard case screws. Screw them in just snug, but don’t overtighten them!
They’ll just hold the bracket in place from shifting during the next few steps. A little shifting is OK, but you want as little as possible. Less shift = neater hole.

Switch over to the 1/4″ drill bit. Mentally view the rectangle of the USB port as a pair of “squares” side by side for a moment. Using the thumbtack again, make a pair of dents in
the center of each “square”. Then drill a 1/4″ hole in the center of those “squares”.

Having the bracket mounted here will keep the drill bit from wandering around, as the hole is just over 1/4″ wide.

12

A USB port is starting to take shape.

CONTINUED page 4…

13

Next comes the interchangeable knife/file bit I mentioned. Use the knife to chop the “bridge” between the two holes out. Again, the bracket will keep the knife from cutting in too far.

Alternately, you can just start in with the files and “file” the bridge out, but it will take longer. Or, if you’re good with the knife, use it and do most of the rough
cutting with it instead. Bear in mind this hole is going to be quite visible on the front of your case, so you’ll want to do the neatest job possible. Even if you use the knife
primarily, you’ll likely still want to use a file to touch up the edges when you’re done cutting.

14

Take your time with the files and make sure you’re filing straight up and down, not at an angle, so the hole will be square. Keep filing until you just hit metal all the way around,
and stop when you do. Remove the bracket.

15

You should have a nice straight hole like this at this point.

If you’re using both cables/sockets, repeat the procedure for the other hole.

16

Mount the cable using the screws that originally held it to the bracket.

Note the socket orientation above. Normally, the socket is positioned so that when a USB cable is plugged in, the imprinted USB “symbol” on it faces up. The white plastic part
inside the socket will be in the upper half of the socket when oriented properly.

17

Route the cable(s) thru the front of the chassis (and the power switch/LED leads), and reassemble the case.

18

Plug the cable into the motherboard USB header.

Again, if you aren’t sure how they connect, consult your motherboard manual. My article from Nov. 2003 on
connecting USB cables
might also help.

{mospagebreak}

19

If you didn’t put both USB sockets out front, you might want to still use the rest of the cable/bracket assembly in the back of the computer. Configure the header plug so that
the front port is the primary of the two (they’re usually numbered 0 and 1, 0 is the primary).

20

Uploading pictures to my computer us a lot easier and faster now. =)

CONCLUSIONS

I can understand why the full tower Chieftec might not have front USB ports. More often than not, it’s going to get used as a server, and you’d rarely ever have need for them in that
type of system.

But if you’ve got a mid-tower workstation, there’s no reason not to have the access, especially when it’s this easy to add your own.

Perhaps some ambitious fellow will take note of this, and the manufacturer of the Chieftec case I have here will add this port in as I did. Where I located it is a very sturdy, out
of the way spot that doesn’t interfere with airflow, fan or bezel mounts, etc. If a cable with five individual wires is used, like the ones they use on the replacement mid-tower Chieftec
front bezels, no modification to the chassis is needed whatsoever. Just route the cable through the hole I used, without enlarging it.

I can hope, can’t I?? =)

I hope your project turns out a clean looking as mine did.

Cheers!

Email Brian

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