PC Test Build: Corsair’s iCUE Link Slashes the Cabling From RGB Cooling
If you have built PCs for a long time, some things are so ingrained, you assume they are just the way things are. You always have to fuss with tiny cables to hook up front-panel lights, switches, and ports. Hooking up cables for an armada of cooling fans? Fancy finger work is required to make your PC build look neat. And any liquid cooler you hook up? Guaranteed, it’ll be a bundle of bits, screws, and snaky cables that would make Medusa blush.
Corsair didn’t solve those things in a day, but this week, we saw promising solutions to some of that. We first got wind of Corsair’s iCUE Link at CES 2023 behind closed doors. We then visited with the company at Computex 2023, where iCUE Link made a splashy debut, winning a Best of Computex award from us. It’s an extensive, proprietary ecosystem of cooling and illumination gear designed to simplify putting together high-visibility PC builds. It reduces most connections to just one cable, and it lets you plug in cooling components in series.
Does it alleviate all the little cable quibbles that we've come to know and loathe? No. For now, iCUE Link only touches the parts of a PC build that Corsair can exert complete control over: cooling and lighting. (Corsair isn’t a motherboard maker, after all.) But what iCUE Link does, it does well—if you're willing to pay the premium for it.
Corsair sent over a “VIP Kit” comprising a whole host of its iCUE Link parts for a hands-on session with its new product line. We used it to build out a reasonably high-end gaming PC. Here's how it went.
iCUE, for those familiar with Corsair’s product line, know it as the company's software for control of lighting and input devices. It's of the same species as Razer’s Synapse, Logitech’s G Hub, and other vendor-specific front ends for their ecosystems of desktop-PC gear.
What iCUE Link does, however, is add a layer to the software's functionality: Now, the program recognizes and controls a subset of your desktop PC’s hardware that you can connect in series—specifically, Corsair’s new iCUE Link-compatible cooling components. Instead of, for example, each of your PC fans connecting to separate headers on a motherboard, and your AIO CPU cooler sprouting cables for its radiator fans, a CPU pump-control header, pump and fan RGB headers, and so on, these devices’ connections are unified under a single proprietary cable and a control standard that can connect them all in line. This allows for super-clean cable routing, a reduction in cables overall, and single-software-panel control over devices, which can now be programmed to light up or otherwise behave in perfect sync. Plus, in iCUE Link, RGB lighting flow control sees some cool improvements and simplification, allowing for some striking effects.
What new hardware is compliant with the standard? Well, for now at least, it's all Corsair cooling stuff. (We could see others supplying iCUE Link-compliant gear in the future if it takes off, but it’s early days for this.) The iCUE Link launch line comprises PC fans and AIO CPU coolers, along with a variety of cable and connector kits. At Computex (and on Corsair’s iCUE Link sales page) we saw some samples of upcoming iCUE Link gear: coolant reservoirs for custom liquid cooling, a couple of GPU cooling modules, and CPU waterblocks. A given iCUE Link PC setup requires at least one iCUE Link Hub, a small square module that you can place anywhere in your series of iCUE Link devices. The iCUE Link Hub attaches to a USB header on the motherboard, and iCUE Link Hub-compliant devices chain off of it in either direction.
The System Hub could be at the end of a device chain, or in the middle of one. (You decide, depending on how you have your PC build set up, the iCUE Link parts you use and where you want the cable runs to go.) Some iCUE Link products come with a System Hub in the box, or you can buy one separately. One iCUE Link Hub supports up to 14 iCUE Link items on a chain; you can add multiple Hubs if you have a really serious iCUE Link addiction, or a wildly complicated build.
Corsair sent us an assortment of iCUE Link-compatible hardware associated with the launch. We didn't use all of it in our test build, but we did deploy most.
The company also provided a Corsair Airflow 5000D ATX tower case to build a sample system into. We started with an ASRock Taichi B550 motherboard, an AMD Ryzen 7 5700G chip, some HyperX DDR4 memory, and an AMD Radeon RX 6800 graphics card, along with a WD Blue SSD installed in one of the board’s M.2 slots. We complemented that with a Corsair Shift RM750x power supply unit (PSU), a modular model with nifty side-mounted connectors.
We installed just the power cables onto the PSU body that we would need: the 24-pin mainboard connector, 8-pin CPU power, one string of SATA power connectors, and both GPU PCI Express power connector strings. (We confess: The latter is a bit of a cheat, as we only really needed one set for our GPU. But a little scouting-ahead in the iCUE Link gear made us plug in the second string preemptively; more about that later.)
After that, we suffered the usual slings and arrows of the PC builder; tracing out and plugging in the front-panel port connectors, deciphering the header-pin layouts for the switches and LEDs, and hooking up that case wiring to the mainboard. The two main 8-pin and 24-pin PSU cables went into the board, as well. With the core components installed, it was onward to the iCUE Link stuff. Our plan was to install three iCUE Link RGB fans up front, an iCUE Link AIO RGB CPU cooler up top, and a fourth iCUE Link RGB fan in the rear exhaust.
The Corsair 5000D case can accommodate three 120mm fans up front, two more up top, and one in the back exhaust position. We removed the case’s existing front and rear fans, which are non-RGB spinners, and cast them aside in favor of the three iCUE Link RGB fans from the company’s $159.99 iCUE Link QX120 RGB Starter Kit up front. (The Starter Kit also includes an iCUE Link System Hub in the box.) Corsair also provided a single-fan iCUE Link QX120 RGB Expansion Kit ($49.99) to supplement that trio of intake fans for the rear exhaust.
iCUE Link fans employ a special connector on the edge that connects them in blocks butted up against each other, snapping together like Legos. This kind of thing, of course, is not new or exclusive to Corsair. Some other fan makers, such as Lian Li, sell premium-design snap-together fans that connect to your PC via one wire set. (Some of them connect to one another via magnetic edge connectors.)
In the case of the iCUE Link fans, each fan has two rectangular ports on two of the opposite edges; they look vaguely like USB Type-A connectors. (They’re not.) In each case, one port is electrically active, and the other is just a spacer for a plastic bit that helps lock the fans together. You use provided “blank” and “electrical” connectors to lock the fans together in series; the joiner pieces resemble little USB dongles like you’d get with a wireless mouse or keyboard. (You can get more of these connectors as optional accessories in a box alone.)
The three front fans in the three-fan Starter Kit we used came pre-locked together, but here’s how they look going together if you separate them…
Using supplied ordinary fan screws, we screwed these three fans, as a unit, into the front of the case after removing the front panel, the front case filter, and an existing fan.
We checked to make sure they were in intake orientation, with the frame side of the fans facing the inside of the case, ensuring air inflow.
On the top edge of the top-most fan, we then plugged an L-bend iCUE Link cable into the electrically active USB-like port in the fan edge. (Again: Not actually USB!)
This would be the first cable in our iCUE Link component series.
Next up: We installed the CPU cooler. The model in our test kit was Corsair’s 240mm iCUE Link H100i RGB.
We hunted for a paper manual or a quick-start sheet in the box but instead found a QR code inside the top box flap. Following the code took us to a general iCUE Link page, but it wasn’t one specifically for the manual for our cooler, which we still could not easily find. So, we decided to go it alone. (Postscript: You can actually find it here.)
The assembly came with the fans (thankfully!) pre-installed on the radiator…
…along with the usual assortment of brackets for different AMD and Intel CPU sockets. We did have to change out the mounting bracket on the pump unit from an installed Intel to an AMD bracket set for the AM4 socket on the Taichi B550.
We also had to remove the Taichi motherboard’s existing AMD CPU cooler mounts (with four screws) and install the CPU cooler bracket provided with the cooler through the underside of the motherboard. We then screwed the provided four posts into the bracket to ready it for mounting the heat pump unit.
So far, so typical for an AIO cooler. We then positioned the radiator and heat pump assembly in the case. It would make more sense to mount the latter portion over the CPU socket first.
With that in mind, we mounted the pump unit and its cold plate (it has a pre-applied pattern of thermal paste, as you can see a few pictures up) atop the CPU and screwed it down in the usual cross-wise pattern, using the four nuts provided in the cooler’s accessory pack.
You'll note zero cables coming off the heat pump unit. What’s nifty here is that the iCUE Link control and power cabling actually runs through the weaved sheath over the coolant hose. Total camouflage: No power or RGB cables to wrangle from the pump head to the motherboard! That’s super clean and super slick.
We then installed the 240mm radiator into the top of the case. First, we removed the 5000D’s top fan filter, and screwed the radiator into place with the eight screws and washers provided with the kit. (We first made sure the hoses faced forward, and that the arc of the hoses wasn’t too tight.)
The fans for our AIO cooler’s radiator will blow air through the radiator, and the air will exit the top of the chassis.
Now, ordinarily, on an AIO cooler like this, you’d be wiring up the pump header for power, and possibly RGB, along with the fans on the radiator. Instead, here, we simply plugged the iCUE Link cable from the front panel’s fan group into a port on the leading edge of the fan pair on the radiator. (Note! This was a mistake, we learned later. See those ports in the background, in the two images below? Those needed to come into play. More about that in a bit.)
(As we mentioned earlier, at the fans’ end, we used an L-bend cable from one of Corsair’s provided iCUE Link cable kits; the company sells several varieties and lengths.)
Here's the thing: a short iCUE Link cable that came in the cooler's box is supposed to link the radiator portion of the cooler with the twin fans mounted on it. This loop is a little kludgy, and a little harder to hide than we would have hoped. (And full disclosure: We failed to connect it until the very end of this test build. It wasn’t obvious that it was needed from the outset, working without a manual!) But still, this little connection is way more elegant than the old way, with most typical RGB fans each featuring their own RGB and power cable. (Cabling was reduced by 75% right there!) We then fished out one more iCUE Link cable from the accessories, and plugged it into the iCUE Link cable port in the rear-facing edge of the fans to continue the device series.
Here's where we had to do a bit of strategizing. We could have run this cord straight to the rear exhaust fan, which would be our last iCUE Link device in line. The iCUE Link Hub that would control all this stuff, however, would have to go somewhere. Rather than running this cable to the rear fan, and then having to feed another cable back out from the rear fan to the System Hub, we routed the cable from the radiator behind the motherboard. And here we deployed the iCUE Link Hub that came with the QX120 Starter Kit. (We also got one in the CPU cooler kit, as well as one provided separately. Hub-a-palooza.)
The back of the iCUE Link System Hub has a magnetic surface that clings, if not too firmly, to most of the smooth metal surfaces in the case. We dropped it in the upper right on an open surface near the CPU cooler cutaway. (Once we ended up cabling it all up, we couldn't get it to quite stay straight, but no one would be the wiser once we put the side of the case on.)
The System Hub, about 2 inches square, has four edge connectors. Two are for plugging in the Hub inline with our iCUE Link devices. But the Hub also needs power, and a way of talking to the rest of the system to control the whole chained-together shebang.
The power part of that equation could be the most problematic, if you have a high-end GPU but a lack of extra PSU PCI Express connectors. Why? For power, the System Hub doesn't need what you'd expect a device like it to need (a Serial ATA power connector), but calls for a full-on PSU 6-pin PCI Express connector. This, of course, assumes that you have a spare one unused on your power supply. It goes into a pigtail on the System Hub (like shown below).
If you have a higher-end supply, that's likely no problem. But if you have a needy video card that eats up three power connectors, or a power supply that has just two for a two-port video card, you've got a hurdle here. You might be able to get by with third-party converters, splitting off existing PCI Express connectors or converting SATA power to PCI Express power, but it will not be pretty, and you'll be on your own to figure it out. Because the System Hub is an essential part of any iCUE Link installation, this connector is not negotiable. So, scout out your power supply's spare connectors before you invest in iCUE Link gear.
We were okay, in our case; Corsair presciently included in its demo kit that 750-watt Shift power supply with adequate connectors. We ultimately plugged in our Radeon RX 6800 graphics card, which needed two 8-pin connectors, but the Corsair Shift PSU had an extra string of GPU power connectors that could feed the need of the System Hub.
So, that complication aside, the System Hub's “talking to the PC” part is easy, by contrast. You just plug in a USB 2.0 header cable that's provided with the Hub, one end into the bottom edge of the Hub, and the other into a USB 2.0 header socket on the motherboard. In the case of our B550 Taichi motherboard, we had two such headers, so no problem there.
With those two plugs in place, we were ready to wrap up our Hub connections.
As for the iCUE Link cable from the CPU cooler, we ran it to the System Hub and plugged into one of its USB-A-like ports.
We then plugged one more iCUE Link L-bend cable into the System Hub (with the same kind of USB-like port on the opposite side), and snaked that cord back through the case to the exhaust fan’s position at the back of the chassis.
We connected that cable's L-bend end to the QX120 Expansion fan that would go in the back of the chassis, using one of the fan's electrical connectors…
…and placed the fan in position.
We then screwed in this rear exhaust fan into place (four of the usual coarse-thread case fan screws), routing the cable the best we could to hide it.
That was it for the iCUE Link gear. We positioned the hub and smoothed out the (much reduced!) cabling behind the motherboard, and put the right case panel on. After installing our graphics card, and fixing it to PCI Express power, we buttoned up the other side of the case with its glass panel, reapplied the case top’s filter, and connected up to monitor and peripherals. It was time to fire up the system.
We have to confess: As we alluded to earlier, at our first boot, something wasn't quite right. The CPU cooler’s pump unit didn't light up, as you can see below, but the AIO liquid cooler's on-radiator fans did...
That's because (as we mentioned earlier) we hadn't installed the loop cable between the AIO cooler's pair of radiator fans and the radiator unit proper, thus not providing the iCUE Link signal and power for the heat pump on the CPU. Passively cooling a Ryzen 7 desktop chip? Yikes, that's never wise, so we shut down right away, and with a little hunting rectified the problem (i.e., we plugged in the missing cable).
After that all was sorted, it was time to play in the iCUE Link application. We got down to installing Windows 11, followed by the endurance round of Windows updates and driver installs. An hour or so later, we were ready to install Corsair’s iCUE software at the Windows 11 desktop. We snagged its latest version from Corsair’s site.
A wizard inside the iCUE software can walk you through the initial iCUE Link setup, if you let it. Assuming all is working as intended, the application recognizes all of the iCUE Link devices in the chain you set up and maps them out.
If the items are fans, the software cleverly lights up a portion of each fan in a different quadrant, and in a different color, so you can identify which fan is which in the actual "real world" chassis versus its depiction in the software. You can then drag them around the interface to match the sequence in which they are installed in the case.
You can monitor fan speeds and toy with parameters, and set up custom monitoring dashboards for most of your system's components, made up of info-blocks that you choose, assemble, and drag around. Also, you get intelligence into temperatures, with a sensor in each fan detecting the temperature of airflow through each.
The real appeal, though, is the granular control over lighting. You can set up universal lighting schemes for all of the devices in the iCUE Link Hub chain, with a single color flowing through all, glowing steadily, or executing elaborate effects. Some of the effects, called Murals, apply across the chain and can't be individually tweaked. But you can also design your own patterns and lighting sequences.
One of the most striking patterns that we saw demoed at Computex 2023 is the so-called Time Warp fan effect, which creates the illusion that a rapidly forward-spinning fan is actually spinning slowly forward or backward, or standing still. The iCUE Link system pulls off this optical illusion via some clever synchronized strobing of the RGB lighting.
We tried it, and it worked quite convincingly, though we were more enamored with the spinning and flow-through lighting effects with the fans spinning in normal orientation. The ability to easily synchronize or flow, say, from chassis fan to chassis fan to radiator cooler fans to cooler pump, front to back, was quite striking. That’s not entirely new, of course, with the advent of motherboard-based software control over RGB via the likes of Asus Aura, MSI Mystic Light, or ASRock Polychrome. Regardless, this makes setup and control a cinch, without struggling with ARGB versus RGB distinctions, fragile RGB connectors, and a rat’s nest of cables.
Now, of course, you can take this to extremes: multiple radiators with multiple fan sets; multiple fan sets in blocks situated around a large case; the CPU cooler pump unit lit up, of course, like here; a GPU liquid cooling block in the series; or iCUE Link-controlled reservoirs in your custom liquid loop. Corsair showed off more than a dozen discrete iCUE Link Hub products in its first launch wave, and we suspect more will follow in short order. Even for building a relatively “basic” and traditional high-end gaming PC, like we did, it simplified some of the tedious aspects of the build to a noticeable degree. Plus, the cable routing required to make our build satisfyingly clean was minimal. You no longer have any excuses!
What’s not to like about iCUE Link as a concept? On paper, it's great: Fewer cables; simple cable routing; better airflow, given that you now have less clutter in the case; no more pressing on the side of your case to smush it closed against the cable mess you made with RGB and power cables to a half-dozen fans, pumps, and more.
The biggest concern is pricing. As Corsair explains it, each iCUE Link device requires a microcontroller to govern its independent operation and set its position in the iCUE Link chain. That adds expense. So do the System Hubs, and not a nominal one; they run a whopping $59.99 apiece if you buy them singly. You may get a System Hub in a kit with a cooler or a fan set like we did, but they're certainly not free; they're baked into the cost of the kits. Count on that.
To wit: Our 120mm triple fan Starter Kit (with a Hub) costs $159.99, and the single-fan Expansion Kit we used for the rear-panel exhaust is $49.99. The iCUE Link H100i CPU cooler kit comes in at a hefty $199.99. Compare that, say, with the vanilla iCUE H100x RGB Elite, without iCUE Link (also a 240mm cooler), at $99.99. You're definitely paying a premium for the easy iCUE Link functionality.
You'll get functional cables, of course, in the boxes with the various iCUE Link components you buy. But if you want to do anything custom or clever, such as use an elbow-bend cable to route something cleanly out of sight, or get a long or short cable to make a cable run easier or cleaner, that's extra cash. A pair of cables with an elbow-bend connector at one end (200mm length), or a single extra-long (600mm) elbow-bend cable will cost you $19.99. Short 100mm cables are $9.99 each, and a Y-splitter for complex installs is $19.99 as well. The cables add up!
The other aspect, of course, to all this is a bit of classic razor-and-razor-blade marketing on Corsair's part. Once you're in a few hundred bucks deep with iCUE Link gear, you're more likely to stay inside the ecosystem, given the sunk cost. It's not a bad thing, to be sure, if you know you won't be upgrading much, or you’re happy with what Corsair has in the line. But if you're a compulsive tweaker and system (re)builder, you'll be limited to what iCUE Link-compliant gear there is, if you want to keep everything in sync (the whole point with this!) with additions or changes in the future. If another vendor comes out with a slick AIO cooler or a nifty fan design that you want to adopt later, that may mean abandoning part of your build for new gear that's outside of the iCUE Link chain.
Still, if you're willing to be brand-loyal to Corsair, and you like the general build quality and look of the company's gear, iCUE Link has a whole lot of street appeal. And lots more compliant gear is planned, including an AIO cooler kit with a programmable LCD screen on the pump head, and a variety of reservoirs and waterblocks. In a usual PC build, by the time you get down to installing the cooling gear, you're in the tiring home stretch of the job. iCUE Link is, indeed, the missing link between most casual builders’ skills and putting together a boutique-quality, cleanly cabled showoff PC.
Considering the “boutique tax” on many PC custom builds from elite desktop makers, the iCUE Link system could actually be something of a bargain, gaining you most of that look at a fraction of the cost. Either way, though, you're in spendy territory, so be sure you know your PC-build aims before you commit to getting all iCUE Linked-up.