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What Are PWM Fans? A Basic Definition

PWM stands for pulse width modulation. PWM fans and/or pumps are found in some CPU coolers (opens in new tab) and GPU (opens in new tab) (aka graphics card) coolers. They use an integrated circuit to control the speed of a fan or pump and, therefore, how much cooling it’s providing to the CPU (opens in new tab) or GPU. PWM fans and pumps can alter their speed and airflow based on the component's temperature.

To use this feature, you’ll need a motherboard with a PWM header (opens in new tab) and the appropriate software (for help shopping, see our motherboard buying guide (opens in new tab)). Most mainstream motherboards have at least one 4-pin PWM header, and the best motherboards (opens in new tab) usually have to four to six. Note, older fans may use 3-pin connectors.

PWM works like a switch, turning on and off while controlling the level of power delivered to the fan or pump. PWM fans works in correlation with the motor, receiving full power or zero power.

(Image credit: EKWB)

PWM is also used in servo motors, voltage regulation, telecommunications and audio equipment.

This article is part of the Tom's Hardware Glossary (opens in new tab).

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Scharon Harding has a special affinity for gaming peripherals (especially monitors), laptops and virtual reality. Previously, she covered business technology, including hardware, software, cyber security, cloud and other IT happenings, at Channelnomics, with bylines at CRN UK.