Throw a rock on YouTube and you will hit three creators that have an RGB PC build glowing sedately in the background. The RGB PC craze is not new. In the beginning, there’s a lot of foggy memories of modders lighting up their PC with whatever they had to hand. Cold cathode tubes were the origins of PC lighting, of course, which are now something to be marvelled at if you can find a modded case with them installed.
If you cast your mind back to 2008, Gigabyte introduced the world’s first mechanical keyboard; the GK-K8000. You will be very hard pressed to find one of these early RGB keyboards on YouTube, let alone on eBay.
Sadly, because this keyboard is so rare, there’s little to no chance of finding any images with the RGBs in use.
When companies like Corsair and Razer began putting a stack of LEDs in their mechanical keyboards around 2013-2014, things had already got a bit silly. Everyone wanted an extreme RGB PC build by then, and anyone who had a YouTube channel (even if it had nothing to do with PCs) wanted in on the action.
Razer had already reignited the fire under mechanical keyboards and, subsequently, they had begun to gain popularity around the world. So, RGB was the logical next step in a PC build. The satisfying clunk of a mechanical keyboard can only be improved by a rainbow of colours dancing under your fingertips, obviously.
From keyboards we go to mice, which actually seemed to get left out by the RGB craze early on. Roccat started it all in 2007 with their Kone model; this RGB mouse still looks like it could adorn the desk of a conscientious PC gear freak with its classic ergonomic design and functionality.
Moving swiftly on to RGB PC case mods - which is truly where this article is heading – and we wanted to take a look at who made the first PC case that had RGB LEDs built in or packaged with the chassis. The problem is, there were so many manufacturers (from OEM to big players) at the time, there is no discernible line in the sand. There were no shows or exhibitions that had headlines like “World’s First RGB Fan Unveiled!”. Nobody felt the need to shout it from the rooftops because it seemed like a narrow focus of PC modding. There were PC cases without RGB fans and RGB CPU coolers, and then every case had some sort of RGB feature.
Rise of the RGB Gamer
The fact that Google suggested “Does RGB make you a better gamer?” when I was researching for this article means RGB is probably here to stay. Thankfully, the answer on Quora to the aforementioned question was straight to the point – “The RGB feature has nothing to do with performance: it's just for looks.”.
As a gamer, you probably already have lots of options in your PC case for RGB modding, and your case maybe even shipped with the staple RGB fans. Here, though, we will delve into the RGB accessories and peripherals you can hook up to your PSU and start looking like you know what you are doing.
Check Your Motherboard RGB Specs!
To see if you’re able to enter the fray in the first place, you will need to check if your motherboard already has support for plug and play RGB fun. It won’t matter if you don’t have LED headers for RGB also, though, as there are lots of aftermarket solutions that will have you up and running.
Note: Some motherboards now come with built-in LED strips that trace the outline of the board or circuits, which is a great little addition that is pretty subtle – yet well worth it. Boards like the ASRock B365 Phantom Gaming 4 and Asus ROG Strix Z490-E are designed with gamers (and RGB) in mind.
RGB and ARGB
The specifications of a motherboard will always show something like the following if RGB is supported:
Example Specs for the Asus ROG Strix Z490-E
- Aura RGB Strip Headers
- Addressable Gen 2 Header
Here we can see that ASUS have “Aura” RGB Strip Headers, which allow you to directly plug in any extra RGB LED strips. RGB headers can only control colours on a strip in a specific and limited number of ways. As an example, multiple or varied colours on specific parts of a single RGB strip aren't possible, so you will be limited in lighting options.
The Addressable Gen 2 Header (ARGB) offers flexibility and customisation options. ARGB supports devices with an IC (Integrated Circuit, but sometimes just called a microchip), and this IC is what offers the customisation options.
ARGB LED strips are 5v (3-pin). You should only plug an LED strip into a non-addressable (RGB) header if it’s a 12v (4-pin).
Different manufacturers have different features for RGB, some have names like “Aura” for ASUS and MSI’s cool sounding “Mystic Light” - but the general rule when looking at the specifications is to check to see the RGB header and ARGB header information.
Kitting Out Your Rig – RGB PC Build Options
Okay, okay. You stuck with us on the boring stuff for long enough. Let’s look at the gear we can install in our rig, and light it up!
Quick Note: Your motherboard will have specific RGB controller software and will offer a dashboard to set up lighting in your case and beyond. All of the below information is offered assuming you have one of these controllers installed (predominantly ASUS Aura, Gigabyte Fusion or MSI Mystic). However, if you’re purchasing a new motherboard to start RGB modding, then chances are you already have one of these systems on board.
More RGB Options = More Customisation
There’s always room for more RGB. If you look at your PC when you’re done and it looks like a radioactive unicorn just threw up on it, then maybe you went too far. Or maybe not?
Before you start looking at all of the options below and wonder how you’ll slap them all in your ARGB slots, take a look at the Corsair Commander Pro.
Compatible with Corsair products, this unit offers a lot in terms of customisation, but also gives you an array of monitoring tools that are a massive bonus.
- Six 4-pin fan ports with voltage and PWM control - Control 3-pin and 4-pin fans with ease from a complete stop to max speed.
- CORSAIR LINK software support - Manage and control the devices connected to the Commander PRO through our intuitive CORSAIR LINK software.
- Two USB 2.0 internal headers - Connect your CORSAIR LINK devices while only occupying one USB 2.0 header on your motherboard.
- Four thermistor inputs - Monitor temperature in different locations throughout your system.
- Dual channel lighting - Conduct a symphony of RGB lighting with individually addressable RGB LED strips (sold separately) and unleash the full RGB potential of the HD RGB and SP RGB fans (sold separately).
- Low profile design - Slim form factor allows installation nearly anywhere in your case.
Corsair, ASUS Aura, Gigabyte Fusion and MSI Mystic RGB Systems
If you’re going to be choosing Corsair products, then the Commander Pro makes a lot of sense. There are other controllers out there, such as the Lamptron SP103 10X, but you will need to match it with your motherboard brand. The Lamptron, for example, is only compatible with Aura, Fusion and Mystic systems from the big manufacturers MSI, ASUS and Fusion.
CPU Fan RGB Lighting
CPU fans always look great when they are lit up, and when combined with a ‘chasing’ or ‘rippling’ RGB lighting effect, can look spectacular.
There are a few different types of CPU fan available, and manufacturers now have a range of RGB options specifically for their CPUs. Corsair (naturally) have the market sewn up as far as RGB options; Corsair have some incredible lighting arrays that start with the CPU and branch out to memory, case lighting and even cable management.
So, as you can tell, a lot of the customisations you make (especially the CPU fan RGBs) will be hardware specific and manufacturer dependent. There are some RGB CPU fans that do not require a specific processor or motherboard, however.
The Cooler Master MasterAir MA620M, for example, looks pretty and has great specifications in the cooling department. The MasterAir uses two heatsinks and utilises six heat pipes (which increase the available surface area and will enhance cooling). In between the heatsinks Cooler Master have stuck a vertical 120mm PWM fan which will run at 650-2000 RPM. As with most Cooler Master products, air pressure is very good, and you will hardly know it’s there with an acoustic level of 30dB.
As for the RGB features? The CPU fan comes complete with its own controller, with the hexagonal design being addressable for customisable lighting, and all installed using simple step by step instructions. If you get stuck, this popular CPU fan has a lot of advocates on YouTube who can walk you through visually, too.
Next up is the Cooler Master MasterAir MA410M, which looks like Eve Online designers decided to get in on the CPU cooler action.
When this mid-size CPU cooler is lit up, it looks great. Even when it isn’t, it still looks the business.
With a quad-heatpipe with 6mm copper pipework, 120mm MF120R fans and a thermal sensor to provide data, the design is compact and totally functional. The MA410M comes with addressable RBG LEDs which are embedded in the side casing of the cooler chassis. This creates a colourful glow that comes from the core of the unit – the colours emanate from within the fins and radiate outward from the crystal style fan blades. The effect is awesome.
These are both CPU coolers that will work with any processor, and there are other manufacturers besides Cooler Master – though few can compete with their quality and pedigree. As stated, there are also brands that work in unison with other accessories, and the CPU cooler will often be the centre of all the data processing as far as temperature and fan speeds etc.
Memory RGB Lighting
I was surprised to see RAM having the RGB treatment, but I shouldn’t have been. The basic wafers we used to see on our motherboards have now turned into blades of fury, with jutting fins and hard plastic mouldings to make them extra menacing. In an aggressive PC build (such as the Mecha 5000X, below, which we covered in our PC Mods 2021 article), you could hardly put in a couple of boring PCBs and give it a thumbs up. Why not make the memory part of the aesthetic?
When it comes to RAM RGB options, there are now a plethora of options which can be done aftermarket or purchased off the shelf.
Off the shelf there are plenty of manufacturers who are embracing the sexy glow of RGB RAM, but market leaders are (the usual suspects) Corsair and Kingston. Whilst there are cheaper alternatives, you often get what you pay for.
Aftermarket options include DIY with a hair dryer and nerves of steel (see below video) or using RGB sleeves.
An RGB sleeve - also known as a “heat sink” or “memory vest” - will fit over your current memory and allow you to hook up all that RGB goodness.
The addressable RGB will be controlled by whichever software you have installed, but check compatibility in the specifications of your RGB memory vest.
Case Fan RGB Lighting
Much the same as other hardware, case fans are ten a penny when it comes to custom RGB mods. Whilst extra cooling is great, it doesn’t hurt aesthetics either!
The first thing to check is the size you require, which is just as important as availability of RGB headers. Generally speaking you will find 120mm, 140mm and 200mm sizes are the most common and accepted by cases that allow modding.
Cooler Master, Antec, Corsair, NZXT and Thermaltake all have excellent products in the space, and if you want functionality as well as looks, it is best to stick with a brand you already trust. Again, Corsair has been proven as a market leader in the case fan department, but for ease of installation and setup, they are even stronger.
Corsair have a great range of RGB case fans that will be easily controlled by their Corsair iCUE software. Their range of cases have pre-installed RGB case fans, too, if you want a simple solution that won’t involve too much screwdriver activity.
Water Cooling RGB Lighting
Nothing pleases me more when I see a case mod that likes to have most of the guts on the outside. This is usually part of a water cooling mod, and allows you to run RGB water pipes around the exterior of your case, and not just the inside.
Water cooling RGB lighting usually comes with a bank of fans (to cool the liquid), so you get a lot of gear to play with from the outset.
One such kit is the Raijintek Phorcys Evo CD240, which will give you plenty of RGB lighting options and looks pretty sweet to boot. You’ll even get a handy remote control to play with.
This all-in-one kit, however, comes at a steep price, costing over £300. Water cooling is currently coming down in price, however, and if you’re not ready to make the switch just yet, you might be better waiting for a sale to come along. One of the better known brands, Cooler Master sell a kit that does not include all the fancy pipework, but still looks amazing with its RGB features – the Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R RGB AIO Liquid CPU Cooler.
Final Word On Your RGB PC Build
Depending on your budget and how much RGB lighting you plan on having, there are bolt-on options for virtually every component in your PC. Going with the trusted brands is recommended, though, as a faulty RGB kit can cause you untold problems when it comes to managing power and locating issues that your monitoring software throws up.
Plan your RGB PC build carefully and aim to use the best brands where possible. Don’t scrimp on cheap LEDs, because you’ll find that with even the best controller, cheap manufacturing leads to electrical problems that are not easily resolved.
Whether you are looking for a full white RGB build or want a rainbow paradise whirring away on your desktop, you have many options ahead of you. Good luck and happy modding!