RGB motherboards – an introduction

Compared to regular motherboards, RGB motherboards add a cool touch to your PC. The best ones make sure your PC’s specs are not its only standout feature – you also get complimentary lighting in and around your PC’s components for that added bit of flair and sophistication.

If this is your first time dabbling with RGB lighting on a PC, choosing the right RGB motherboard can be somewhat confusing. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s an RGB motherboard?

When a motherboard packs in additional lighting components for greater visual appeal, then it is an RGB motherboard. The RGB here is a nod to the three primary colors – red, green and blue – used by digital display systems. A mixture of the three in different proportions will create other colors.

In a motherboard, RGB lighting has three distinct components:

  • The native RGB lighting on the motherboard
  • RGB lighting connectors to support additional RGB components
  • A software module to sync and manage the entire RGB lighting system

Native RGB lighting

Image of Sample RGB motherboard
RGB motherboard with native lightning

As part of your PC’s overall RGB lighting system, your motherboard will pack in its own RGB led lighting setup. This RGB lighting setup can be placed anywhere on the motherboard, but you’ll usually find it in and around the main motherboard module near the CPU socket. Native RGB lighting is an integral component of the motherboard, so it automatically powers on and syncs with the motherboard system once the motherboard itself is turned on.

RGB lighting connectors

Most additional RGB components draw power from and are controlled by a motherboard. And the way they do this is by connecting to the motherboard via special ‘connectors.’

Connectors are of two types:

Conventional connectors

These are the usual connecting interface you’ll find on a motherboard. So USB for PC components like a mouse; or a DIMM PCIe port for RAM: or a SATA, M.2 port for external storage.

USB connectors are the most popular in this category and they usually serve as connectors for RGB lighting elements that come with their own Controller.

RGB headers

These are specialized connectors for plugging in RGB components specifically. Unlike conventional connectors which are multipurpose, RGB headers serve the sole function of connecting RGB lighting elements to your PC

So, led strips, extra RGB fans, RGB cases and the likes

Software module

A disco of lights does little to create the air of lighting sophistication you’d want with an RGB motherboard. That’s why you need a software control module to manage your RGB lighting system. Software module come with motherboards, so they’ll vary by motherboard manufacturer.

RGB headers

As I just said, RGB headers are what you’ll use to plug in most of the cool, extra RGB components like led strips and RGB fans and cases. Not all motherboards ship with RGB headers. If you plan to go all-in with RGB lighting, it’s important that your motherboard comes preloaded with RGB headers since you cannot add them later. 

How many RGB headers do I need?

Two is the number most recommended RGB motherboards will come with but as far as RGB customization on PCs goes, the more, the merrier. That said, two to four RGB headers should be more than enough in most instances—one for your led strips and one for extra RGB fans and RGB cases.

RGB splitters

Image of Sample RGB splitter
This is a five-way RGB splitter

You can get an RGB splitter if you need more RGB headers on a motherboard. RGB splitters ‘split’ your RGB header into more RGB header slots. Think of them as wall outlet extenders but this time for your RGB header. RGB splitters can come in various configurations – so you can have a splitter that splits your header into two, four, or even eight RGB headers.

Addressable RGB vs non-addressable RGB header

ARGB (Addressable RGB) and RGB (non-addressable RGB) are important terms to understand when it comes to RGB motherboards.

If an RGB header is addressable, it basically means it can support led strips and other lighting components with led elements that can be controlled (addressed) independently of others.

The typical led strip, much like a Christmas lighting strip, is made up of many led bulbs. If each led bulb on a led strip assembly can display different colors, at different intensities, independent of other led bulbs on the same strip assembly, then it is an addressable RGB led strip. An Addressable RGB header is the port that supports this functionality on the motherboard. ARGB headers on a motherboard are usually of the 5V, 3 pin configuration.

A non-addressable or simply an RGB header supports RGB lighting components where led elements act in tandem as a whole. With non-addressable RGB lights, you cannot program one led element or a segment of the led system to display a different light color or intensity – the whole assembly acts together and displays the same colors. RGB headers on a motherboard are usually of the 12V, 4 pin configuration.

ARGB and RGB headers and the lighting systems they support are not interchangeable. Plugging in an RGB led strip into an ARGB header could damage the header or the lighting system, or worse, fry your motherboard.

Which should you go for between ARGB and conventional RGB headers?

A motherboard with at least one ARGB header will offer more control over your PC’s lighting situation. ARGB allows you to implement certain lighting patterns and effects that’d be otherwise impossible with the RGB config.

There’s a reason MSI motherboards with ARGB headers are called ‘JRainbow,’ while those with conventional RGB headers are called ‘JLED’ or ‘JRGB.’ Note, however, that motherboards with addressable RGB are usually more expensive than their RGB counterparts. Compatible ARGB lighting components (led strips, ARGB cases) are also costlier.

RGB motherboards are cheaper. And, if you’re just looking for some minimalist lighting system on your build, then they can work good too. It’s also less of a technical hassle to put together a lighting system based on the RGB config alone since you have fewer customizations to effect and less controls to play with.

3 pin vs 4 pin RGB headers

Image showing 3-Pin connector
Connector for 3-pin ARGB header

I already noted that most ARGB headers are 3 pin headers. The nature of 3 pin headers is that each pin or line delivers either a data feed, power or ground connection to the addressable RGB component. The Power feed powers up the RGB component, the data feed carries information about which led should be lit up in what color, and the ground is the earth connection. Power from a 3 pin header is usually 5 volts.

Image of 4-pin connector
4-pin connector for RGB header

RGB headers are usually 4 pin headers, one pin each for the red, blue and green components of the RGB led system and then one ground connector. As you might’ve noticed, there is no data stream, and this is why these 4 pin systems are typically un-addressable. Power on this line adds up to 12volts, and with this voltage specification, it’s easy to see why it’s dangerous to mix ARGB with RGB components.

How do you know which header your motherboard has?

Motherboard manufacturers will usually label their RGB headers as either RGB or ARGB. For the most part, and like I said, ARGB headers are 3-pin, 5volts headers while RGB headers are 4-pin, 12volts headers.

Note that some headers might be 5-pin, 12volts. These are very similar to the 4-pin configuration and are as such, un-addressable, The extra pin channel serves as a feed to an additional white component that these headers support. Conventional 4-pin headers create white color on compatible lighting components by powering (mixing) all RGB elements; with a five-pin header, you get a dedicated pin channel for white color. In all, you have one pin each for red, green and blue, then an extra pin for white and then the last header for ground.

Can you use a 4-pin connector on a 3-pin header?

No. As I said, the voltage and architecture of both systems are different. So a 4-pin connector from your RGB component (e.g. a led strip) should only be used on a 4-pin header, and a 3-pin connector should only be used with a 3-pin header.

That about sums up the basics of RGB motherboards. If you need help with picking an actual motherboard, check out this guide for AM4 RGB Motherboards.

Let’s quickly address some questions that may arise as you put together your RGB PC setup.

How do RGB case fans work?

Image of RGB case fan
An example RGB case fan

I already hinted at how RGB case fans work in the body of this guide but to summarize.

Depending on the manufacturer, an RGB case fan for your PC will connect to the motherboard either via:

  • A 3 pin 5-volt addressable RGB header
  • A 4 pin 12-volt non-addressable RGB header
  • Or directly via a controller plugged into a power source.

With the first option – the 3-pin 5-volt addressable RGB header – you get fine-grained control over how the RGB lighting on your case fan works. Usually, you’ll do this via an RGB control software shipped with your motherboard.

With the second option, you get limited control over how the lighting displays because the non-addressable lighting system lacks a data feed for controlling individual led elements. You can make some modifications, and if you prefer something minimalist, then it might be a perfect fit. 

Some RGB case fans come with their own controller modules, that is, a physical control box that you plug into a power source (your motherboard’s fan header) and then attach the case fans to the box. You can control the case fans from the controller, and the level of control you get is similar to that of the 5-pin 5-volt setup.

How do you install RGB case fans to your motherboard?

It’s simple you determine if the case fan RGB connector is 3-pin or 4-pin then you find the appropriate RGB header for the case fan on your motherboard. Once connected, you can tether the case fan securely to your PC case.

For case fans that come with their own controller, you need to plug in the controller to a power source. The source for most RGB controllers is a traditional USB port.

Most case fan manufacturers will provide a detailed guide on how to connect their components to a motherboard, especially if it comes with a dedicated controller.

Now it’s important to note that to connect an RGB case fan properly to a motherboard, said motherboard should have an integrated compatible RGB header (3-pin or 4-pin). If your RGB header on a motherboard is already occupied by another RGB component, say a led strip, you can use an RGB splitter to split each header port into more ports. See the section on splitters in this guide for more info.

If your motherboard doesn’t have an RGB header, then you can plug in your RGB case fan to the traditional fan header, but that will mean losing most, if not all, of the customization options that ship with an RGB fan.

Most third party RGB fans will come with a controller, so you can connect the RGB fan to your normal fan header and then route its RGB connector to the controller, which usually plugs into your PC via a USB cable.