Anyway, after much googling I found others had the same problem. Many people in fact shorted out their front panel display by hooking things up wrong. If anybody tries it, here's what you do :
1. Look at the inside of the front panel from behind. On your left is the HD area, on your right is the DVD area. There's a bundle of cables coming from the left, such as "reset", "hdd led" and "power sw".
2. The "power sw" cable from the left is black and white. Run that power cable over to the right side through the little hole at the bottom, and across the DVD area and up to the top right corner - there's a little exposed spot with two pins to plug the cable in to.
3. From the right side, there is a smaller bundle of cables coming out of the panel. One is red and black and labeled "power sw" just like the black and white one. Run this one through the hole by the power supply and over to the power button on the motherboard's F_PANEL pins.
4. Also from the right side there's a thick black cable with a USB adapter in the middle of it and a 5-pin head. It took me a minute to figure this out (again there's zero directions for this thing). Obviously it's a cable for external USB converted to internal USB. The USB pins on your motherboard are 2x5 blocks that normally hook up two USB cables, we're going to put this thing on just half of one of those. The motherboard pins have one missing pin and the 1x5 head on this cable has one blocked so it's obvious how to put that in.
I also had one fuck of a time getting the Scythe Mini Ninja cooler on. The socket AM2 cooler attachment is supposed to be really easy, but the Scythe wasn't set up for the right depth, so you have to take the clips off (they come in the shallowest of 3 settings) and move them to the middle setting.
Other random notes for anyone actually trying to build one of these things : Make sure to install the chip and cooler before you put the mobo in. Also install the right plastic air blockers before you screw in the mobo, it's impossible to change them once screwed in. See silentpcreview for HD mounting - it should have the top facing the mobo and be closest to the mobo. The little metal cable clips on the inside are designed to be bent in order to release and secure cables, you don't have to try to wiggle cables onto them without bending them like I did. The PSU is supposed to have a black and blue cable to control its fan; mine doesn't have one, whatever.
To get Windows to install I had to unplug the front panel USB and set the SATA drives to IDE mode. (apparently there's a well known BSOD crash in the Windows installer if you have drives in AHCI). Once Windows installs successfully, you can install the Mobo and Panel drivers and then put the hardware back.
I made a few little mistakes with the build. I got a SATA DVD drive solely for the thinner cable; I've read in reviews that getting an IDE cable around this case is a bitch, and in fact I see that would be true. However, the PSU only has one SATA power out cable, so I don't have enough SATA power for an HD and a DVD. D'oh. Easy fix with a Molex-SATA adapter cable. I also probably should've gotten a WiFi card so I don't have to run a cable across the living room (and a wifi card is like the same price as a cable these days!).
The biggest problem for me is that this mobo (AMD 780G) doesn't support any analog TV out, only digital. Apparently the majority of AMD/ATI cards do support composite/svideo/whatever output through their VGA or DVI port with just a cable adapter, but this one doesn't. A note on those cables : there are lots of things like the ATI DVI to Component Adapter or VGA to Component Cable which seem like they might help. These cables are not converters, they are just dumb electricity re-routers. The normal signal coming out of a DVI-I or VGA wire does NOT work with an analog video TV. What these cables do is let your video card output a special analog TV compatible signal through the DVI or VGA pins. Your video card must be able to the conversion internally and it just re-uses the same pins to send a different signal. The brilliant people at AMD didn't include that circuit in the integrated graphics, presumably to save some money, even though this an HTPC-intended part and lots of people still have TV's that don't have any digital inputs. Yay.
So my first thought was just fuck it I'll buy a new TV, but then I calmed down and realized I should just get a $30 video card with TV out. Anyway, I'm pissed about the lack of analog out because the whole idea was to build a super minimal cool quiet cheap machine, and part of that was not having a fucking video card which blocks air flow and makes a bunch of unnecessary heat. One thing to note, if you put in a video card, the onboard video output (VGA, DVI, HDMI) is disabled, so you must get a video card that has all the outputs you want.
Also, WTF, all these hardware review websites are kind of pissing me off. Search for something like "ATI 3450 review" and you will find about 100 web sites, every single one of them copying the Tom's Hardware style, every one doing a shitty job of it, none of them actually understanding the hardware well, just running all the same benchmarks, not looking at things like features or compatibility. Stop it. Go back to playing Starcraft and pretending you're a 1337 HaX0r
I was thinking if I'm going to get a video card I may as well get a TV tuner, but there seems to still be some major fuckup with HD TV tuner's that's scaring me. The ATI All-In-Wonders for example apparently only work in Vista, not XP. Windows Media Center apparently won't record HD. It seems to all be related to some fucking ass licking DRM bullshit which is fucking retarded. My original plan was to not get a TV tuner until that shit was settled down a bit, but now my hand is being pressed. Urgh!
On the plus side, the Scythe fans kick major ass, they feel like they blow a lot of air to me and they are super quiet. Also the WD drive in the rubber grommets is almost silent. The only time I hear it is if I put my head close to the case and listen for it parking after a few seconds of idle, it makes a little tick sound.
On the minus side of the quiet front, the DVD drive is loud as hell. I did a little searching for "quiet DVD drive" and didn't turn up anything, they all seem to be super loud. Also the activity lights on the case are pure evil for watching video, but that's easy to fix with a piece of black electrical tape. It would be ideal to have a software toggle for the activity lights.