The War on Cables is the hottest desktop PC trend of 2023
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Internal cable management is the most frustrating part of building a desktop PC. Wait, that’s not right — the most frustrating part is making sure all your parts are compatible. Okay, that’s not right either — the even more frustrating part is how expensive all those parts are. But cable management is definitely top five, especially if you like to frequently tinker with your setup. There’s an emerging trend for PC hardware this year, and the PCWorld editorial staff has christened it the War on Cables.
PC hardware manufacturers are coming up with ever more elaborate tricks to keep your desktop enclosure nice and tidy, eliminating power and data cables whenever possible, and when not, tucking them all behind the motherboard so the main chamber looks like a minimalist office lobby. (I guess that would make the CPU cooler the massive reception desk?) Which you can leave bare, or fill up with nerdy stuff to show off through your case’s big window.
I suspect this trend really got started years ago, when motherboards started coming with M.2 slots. When system builders could stick primary storage right on the motherboard and get rid of both power and data cables for SATA, it started an itch. That itch is now being scratched, and we’re seeing it in new design tweaks for motherboards, fans and liquid coolers, lighting, enclosures, and even graphics cards.
For a more recent and applicable starting point, we look to Gigabyte’s Project Stealth, which goes back to 2022. The idea is simple: Take all the cable connections on the motherboard, for the power supply, fans, the case’s front panel power switch, USB, and audio, and even SATA ports, and stick them to the back of the board instead of the front. This requires a bit of a redesign of the case itself, in order to plug everything in the rear. A slightly customized GPU rounds out the package, with the power connections facing the bottom of the graphics card instead of the top or side.
Done correctly, every cable in the system can be run through the back of the board, with the notable exception of whatever you’re using to cool your CPU. You can actually buy Gigabyte’s Project Stealth as a pre-built package right now on Amazon, though it’s a bit pricey for just a case, a motherboard, and a last-gen graphics card, and the board’s chipset is from 2021. A new “Stealth 500” kit was announced at CES this year, though it appears to be using most of the same specs, just with a new case design and some included fans.
That’s okay. Gigabyte isn’t the only company on this train: New motherboard designs from Asus, Maxsun, and MSI are following the trend. The latter has its own “Project” moniker for this new design language, Project Zero. Once again, you need a compatible motherboard and case to make it all work — MSI’s initial version is in the slightly smaller MicroATX version, though standard ATX is coming. MSI says it’s willing to make cases and boards that are compatible with other manufacturers, cementing the hope that this could become an industry-wide trend.
Other components follow along
The case and the motherboard are the biggest pieces of this puzzle, but other components are being redesigned with a clean interior in mind as well. Corsair’s RMx Shift power supply line is notable, as it literally rotates the conventional position of the power supply by 90 degrees. That puts all the modular cable connections on the side of the PSU, facing the same side of the case as the rear of the motherboard. Again, combined with rear-facing headers on a board, that means every single power supply cable (with the possible exception of your graphics card and any non-M.2 storage) can be handled on the backside of the case, nothing in the front chamber.
Let’s get back to Asus, which has already committed to making at least one motherboard with rear-facing connections. The graphics card has been a sticking point in all of this, especially since it’s something you’ll probably replace more often than your processor or motherboard. Asus has fixed that with the GPU-motherboard combo it’s showing off at Computex. In this iteration there’s no cable going to the graphics card at all, because the custom RTX 4070 card plugs into a custom header just to the side of the PCIe port. The power cable is technically still there, hiding the new 12VHPWR standard on the back of the motherboard and transferring all 600 watts to the card via the less-obtrusive port.
This solution still requires both your motherboard and graphics card to match, which is probably why it appeals to Asus, maker and seller of both components. But there’s no denying that it’s the sleekest way to do this we’ve seen thus far. If you’re too young to remember Windows Millenium Edition, you might not remember the days when graphics cards didn’t require dedicated power rails. But trust me, it made internal cable management a lot easier. Sadly there’s no indication of whether or not this idea will make it to retail.
One system that is coming to an electronics store near you (if there are any electronics stores near you, anyway, it’s not like they’re still selling Windows ME) is Corsair’s new iCue Link. This “ecosystem” of cooling and lighting accessories uses a custom hub and wiring system to let you daisy chain any number of fans, AIO heads and radiators, and even coolant reservoirs along the same cable for power and data. Ideally implemented — with Corsair’s proprietary and probably expensive gear, natch — you can string every cooling and lighting element inside a PC case along just one power and data cable. The way fans connect in arrays, like little LEGO blocks, is especially impressive.
When will the revolution arrive?
So when can you get all this wonderful tech for your next desktop build? Hard to say. Corsair’s new power supplies are already out, and the iCue Link is scheduled for release within a month or two. The rest of the products shown off at Computex will be arriving in the latter half of 2023 or early 2024, if they progress to retail availability, given their project/prototype status.
I suspect that we’ll see this trend evolve more slowly than some would like. Something akin to the shift to tool-free enclosure designs would be my guess. Eventually a super-clean, cable-free primary chamber will be the standard instead of the exception, but it’ll take a few years for everyone to catch up. At which point cases will have even more big plastic and glass windows, the better to show off the Funko Pops and LEGO sets you can now perch on your GPU — contain your excitement, /r/Battlestations posters.
Adam Patrick Murray/Foundry
Will it actually make a difference for performance? Probably not. A big, open chamber looks good through plexiglass, but as far as actual cooling performance it’s more important to have your fans and radiators properly placed and keep everything dust-free. And it’s worth noting that a lot of these innovations probably won’t make it to small form factor designs, like the gorgeous new Fractal Design Terra. Those cases are pulling every engineering trick they can just to cram components together without catching fire, they can’t spare any thought for aesthetic cable management.
And this trend is, at its core, aesthetic. But I for one appreciate a clean interior build a lot more than a techno rave’s worth of RGB LED lights, or extraneous screens strapped to every internal component. (Which, now that I think of it, will only get more numerous without cables in the way.) Now if only they can figure out a way to get an all-in-one liquid cooling setup to be “cable free,” we can have some real fun.