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How to Install Front USB 3.0 connections or Add Front USB 3.0


By Lee Penrod Copyright (C) 2012 Directron.com.

The following advice is based on years of experience. It is provided as a free service to our customers and visitors. However, Directron.com is not responsible for any damage as a result of following any of this advice. You are welcome to distribute these tips free to your friends and associates as long as it's not for commercial purposes. You are permitted and encouraged to create links to this page from your own web site, as long as you credit the Directron.com or Lee Penrod as the original source.

Introduction

Although front mounted USB has been around for a long time, a revolution is now taking place with the introduction of the USB 3.0. Although we described the process to setup standard USB 1.1 / USB 2.0 ports well in my How to Install Front USB guide, the process is somewhat different and somewhat tricky for many people to hook up. In this guide I will explain how to hook up your front USB 3.0 ports at length in an easy to understand way.

First things first, to have front USB 3.0 you need to have a few things:

  1. A case with front USB 3.0 ports
  2. A motherboard with a front USB 3.0 header, or an appropriate work around (described later).
  3. Appropriate wiring between the USB 3.0 port and the motherboard.


A case can support front USB 3.0 in two ways: via USB 3.0 port(s) or via USB 3.0 Header. Depending on the motherboard, the most common issue you will find hooking up a front USB 3.0 connection is a mismatch between the case and motherboard for the hook up. I'll describe that later in the article.

How to make sure you have a USB 3.0 front panel

If your goal is to have front USB 3.0 connections, the first thing you probably want to know about a case is: Does it support USB 3.0? That's actually an easy to answer question if you have a close up picture of the case front panel.

Looking at the front USB ports, coloring can tell you if the port is USB 3.0. All USB 3.0 ports have a blue center, while on USB 2.0 front ports we will see either white or black centers. It is common for high quality cases to have both USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 front ports. Due to current limitations of system design most motherboards will have only 2 or occasionally 4 USB 3.0 ports; however they will have many USB 2.0 ports and often at least 2 front USB 2.0 headers. If you need help hooking up your USB 2.0 ports, please see the USB 2.0 guide.
USB 2.0 ports vs USB 3.0 ports Figure 1. USB 2.0 vs USB 3.0 Front Ports.


Dealing with the other end of the connection

Now that we are sure that we have from USB 3.0 ports to hook up - -the obvious question is, How do I hook them up? Well for that we need to know what kind of connection the case offers. There are two main types of plugs coming off the Front USB 3.0 ports: Standard Header and Standard USB (Type A, male).

Type A Male: When your case has a type a male plug this is either a blessing or a curse. Basically a Type A male plug is the same kind of plug you would have externally. To hook this kind of cable to a motherboard USB 3.0 header, you will need an adapter. If the case has this kind of connection, about 75% of the time you will also be given a way to pass this cable out the back of the case and connect to back USB 3.0 ports.

Standard header: The other kind of connection a case may offer is the now standard 19-pin front USB 3.0 header cable. This female cable will typically connect directly into the USB 3.0 header on your motherboard or controller card. It is worth noting that the cable may or may not have two safety measures: a clip/latch on one side to prevent miss-insertion, and a blocked pin. The standard actually calls for 19 pins; however the cable will typically have 20 pins. The 20th pin pay or may not be blocked on the connector. If it is blocked, that pin acts as a secondary safety measure to prevent backwards insertion. Accidentally inserting either a USB 3.0 or USB 2.0 header cable backwards can fry your motherboard or controller card. If it doesn't fit, don't force it. Double check what you are doing and make sure you have the clip and or blocked pin in the right place. If you have any doubt, please double check your motherboard manual and confirm you have the normal 19 pin layout.
Front USB 3.0 ports  with type A cable Figure 2. USB 3.0 front panel w/ Type A.

Front USB 3.0 header cable Figure 3. USB 3.0 Header cable, USB 2.0 header cable.


Getting hooked up.. Connecting your USB 3.0 front panel to your motherboard


Now that we have a grip on the USB 3.0 front panel on our case, we need to take a look at the motherboard. Unlike previous USB 2.0 headers we discussed in the USB 2.0 article, USB 3.0 headers are pretty much completely standardized. In researching for this article I tried to find examples of competing layouts but it does not appear that any were in wide production. The actual design of the 19 pin header (20 with 1 pin missing acting as a key pin), was standardized formally in late 2010. There is an example of an Asrock brand motherboard with a USB 3.0 before the formal spec release, however they appear to have followed an Intel proposed spec which actually became the real official spec later. As such, if you have a USB 3.0 header, on your motherboard you can be pretty certain that the USB 3.0 cable from your case will work just fine in it. Since your motherboard has a header with a key pin missing, and a side latch - and your cable from the case should have at least one of these two safety measures -you should be able to connect the cable to the motherboard with little worry. The safety measures in the design make it only possible to plug the cable in one way. The hook up should be easy and worry free. The only trouble would come up if you somehow had a nonstandard header, in the writing of this article I could however find no examples of this. If you are unsure of what you have, see the tips section at the bottom of this article.
Front USB 3.0 Header

Front USB 3.0 header Figure 4. USB 3.0 Headers, motherboard side .


Getting USB 3.0 ports hooked up.. What could go wrong?



Earlier in the article, I mentioned that the most common issue is a cabling mismatch. If you had a match (case had a header cable, and motherboard had a header) then pretty much you are done at this point. If not, read on as I discuss those issues in depth.

Problem 1: My case has a USB 3.0 cable (or cables) but they are not header cables - they are USB (type A) but my motherboard has a header.

SilverStone CP09Solution A: If you have a case like the Corsair 600T (shown in figure 2), but you have an actual USB 3.0 header then really you have two options: 1) Assuming your case allows for it, and you have back USB 3.0 ports as well, run the USB 3.0 (type A) cable out the back of the case and into the motherboard like it was a normal USB device. Or 2) Use an adapter cable. There are a number of fairly inexpensive adapters. The most popular adapter available is the SilverStone CP09. This simple cable turns your USB 3.0 19 pin header into 2 USB 3.0 (Type A female) connectors so that you can plug in the USB 3.0 plugs from the front of your case with ease.


Solution B: If your case has front USB 3.0, but has a USB 3.0 type A cable internally, but your motherboard
has a USB 3.0 header it is fairly likely you have a USB 3.0 header bracket similar to the one pictured at right. Although its not as elegant as something like the CP09, one option is to remove the bracket using a screwdriver. Once you have removed the bracket its essentially a USB 3.0 header to USB Type A female adapter. The only down side to doing this is the cabling length may make cable management slightly trickier.Front USB 3.0 Slot Bracket


Problem 2: My case has a USB header cable, but my motherboard only has back USB 3.0 ports (no USB 3.0 header ). Or my motherboard has no USB 3.0 ports but I have front USB 3.0 in the case and it uses a header.

Solution: : If your motherboard does not have a front USB 3.0 header, and only has back USB 3.0 ports or no USB 3.0 ports at all really there is only one good option - add a card with a USB 3.0 header.
Luckily, there are some excellent solutions available like the SilverStone SST-EC01+ (shown at right) or the SilverStone SST-EC04. These cards give you a usable standard USB 3.0 header that will activate your existing Front USB 3.0 ports. The only thing to bear in mind here is that you will need a free PCI Express 1x, 4x or 16x slot available in order to use cards of this type. Due to the speed of the USB 3.0 interface, almost all cards that provide USB 3.0 ports are PCI Express 1x. SilverStone SST-EC01+ USB 3.0 Card Figure 5. SilverStone SST-EC01+.
The older standard PCI interface just does not have enough bandwidth on it to provide stated speeds on USB 3.0. (Note: A PCI Express 1x card works in a 1x, 4x, 8x, or 16x slot. See my PCI Express Guide).

Problem 3: My case has a front USB 3.0 connection, but only 1 port and my motherboard has no USB 3.0 header or ports.

Solution: As with Problem 2, the best solution for this problem is to add a USB 3.0 controller card, however you want a different kind of card. A small number of USB 3.0 controller cards will actually provide one or more internal USB (type A female) ports to help you out. The most notable of these cards is the Syba SY-PEX20073 which adds 3 back USB 3.0 ports and 1 internal USB 3.0 port. Another option is of course to use a card like the SilverStone SST-EC01+ along with a SilverStone CP09 adapter cable. That will give you two internal USB 3.0 ports and probably is the best choice if you might change your case later as over time all cases will slowly move to header cabled USB 3.0 ports. SilverStone SST-EC01+ USB 3.0 Card Figure 6. Syba SY-PEX20073.


Problem 4: I really want USB 3.0 front ports, but my case only has front USB 2.0 ports what are my options? My motherboard has USB 3.0.

Solution: : If your motherboard offers USB 3.0, but your case does not have front USB 3.0 ports you do have some options, but what you'll want to buy depends on if your motherboard has a USB 3.0 header or not. If you have a USB 3.0 header in your PC already, then your best option is to add a USB 3.0 I/O panel.
Syba SY-HUB50044 USB 3.0 Front Panel
There are a variety of these devices available and usually they add some minor additional functionality to your machine such as a card reader or connections for other kinds of ports. An example of such a device, the Syba SY-HUB50044 is pictured to the right. It offers a simple card reader and 2 USB 3.0 ports that connect to a standard USB 3.0 header. SilverStone EC03B USB 3.0 Card


If your motherboard has USB 3.0 ports only on the back, or does not have USB 3.0 at all then you need a different solution. The most popular solution for this issue thus far has been the SilverStone EC03B. The EC03B offers a USB 3.0 front panel that fits into a standard 3.5" bay which you will find on most cases, and uses a USB 3.0 controller card with front header to activate those ports. Over time, more of these types of solutions will likely appear.SilverStone EC03B USB 3.0 Card Figure 7. SilverStone EC03B.
Syba SY-HUB50042One other somewhat unique solution also exists in the form of the Syba SY-HUB50042 pictured at left. The Syba SY-HUB50042 is somewhat reminiscent of the early USB 2.0 IO panels in that it packs a lot of stuff into a small area. Unlike early USB 2.0 panels though the HUB50042 is a fairly smart device and basically has a USB 3.0 controller card integrated into it. This is evident because one connection required by the device is actually a PCI Express 1x slot.


Tips and additional thoughts



One question that comes up from time to time is: Can I just re-use my USB 2.0 ports with my USB 3.0 header? The short answer is no, the long answer is its possible, but its really not worth the trouble. Although your USB 3.0 connection can work with USB 2.0 devices, hooking up a USB 2.0 port just isn't worth the trouble. Why?

USB 2.0 headers and USB 3.0 headers are physically different in 2 ways:
Asus F1A75-M Front Panel
Figure 8. Asus F1A75-M Motherboard header -- A standard compliant arrangement.


  1. A USB 2.0 header is typically 9 pins with the actual port needing 4 pins each while a USB 3.0 header is 19 pins with each plug needing 9 pins.
  2. The pin out, physical spacing and density of the USB 3.0 header is different than with USB 2.0. That means that even if you had something like the all pins separated design I discuss in the USB 2.0 guide, the plugs wont really fit properly in the USB 3.0 header. In the USB 2.0 guide I described the spacing on a USB 2.0 header as .025" and pins and a .100" spacing. The spacing on the USB 3.0 header is 2mm which is about a half millimeter closer together than the previous generation. Basically all that means is that if you wanted to attempt to splice something together, it is significantly more difficult as its going to be harder to scavenge anything that could fit the pin layout.


If you must attempt a splice of a USB 3.0 header into a USB 2.0 port I can offer the following advice:

USB 2.0 ports consist of 4 wires which I described in the front USB 2.0 guide: Vbus (power), D-, D+, and GND (Ground). On a USB 2.0 header, the pins are normally arranged as in the picture below.



Looking at the Diagram of the F1A75-M front panel connector we see that we have our old USB 2.0 pins, but they are spread out. Port 1 is: Vbus, IntA_P1_D-, Int_A_D+, and then GND (the GND beside P1_D-,). Port 2 is Vbus, IntA_P2_D-, IntA_P2_D+, and GND. I believe that is the correct mapping in this example, however again, I do not recommend attempting a splice. Generally it is much better to add a controller card or front IO panel to resolve these kinds of issues. Also, please be aware that if you do splice a USB 2.0 port on to a USB 3.0 header you will only achieve USB 2.0 speeds you lose any benefit of the USB 3.0 header. Please also be aware that splicing the connectors may fry your motherboard or controller card if done improperly especially if you reverse power and ground or put power to a different pin than intended. Any damage caused by splicing is solely your responsibility.

Summary and closing

Although hooking up your front USB 3.0 ports may sound tricky the first time you do it, the process is pretty simple. In closing let me just cover the basic points:

  • If your case has front USB 3.0 ports, and they have a header connector on it you can normally just connect them straight to your motherboard's USB 3.0 connector. The connector only goes in one way and its mostly fool proof.
  • If your motherboard was made before 2010, and actually has a USB 3.0 header you may want to double check that your motherboard header matches the standard. Most motherboards before this date did not however have headers for USB 3.0. ( almost all only had back ports if they had USB 3.0 )
  • If your case has front USB 3.0 but gives you a normal USB 3.0 cable instead of a header cable then you can either add a card to give you an internal cable, use an adapter (if you have a header) or pass the USB connection out of the back of the case and into a motherboard port (provided the cable is long enough).

    Note: If you do pass the cable out the back of your case you may plug it into a back USB 3.0 port or a USB 2.0 port but if you plug it into a USB 2.0 port the front port will only operate as a USB 2.0 port.


Portions of this document are adapted from technical documentation provided by Intel and Asus with their motherboard products.

Last updated: 6/15/2012

More Works by Lee Penrod: | How to Install Front USB 2.0 | A Guide to Network Cable | Understanding Memory and CPU speeds: A Layman's guide to FSB | What is PCI Express? | 1.5V AGP Guide | What is a KVM? | Hooking up a Neon Light | Mod Dictionary | Lee's Blog |

If you find this article useful, please create a link to it from your website or tell a friend about it. If you have any comments or suggestions about this article, please email information@directron.com or place a comment below.


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