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Adafruit's best practices for their Neopixel LED strings say:

Place a 300 to 500 Ohm resistor between the Arduino data output pin and the input to the first NeoPixel.

What is the purpose of this optional but recommended resistor?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

http://learn.adafruit.com/adafruit-neopixel-uberguide/power claims "can help prevent voltage spikes that might otherwise damage your first pixel".

In conjunction with the other warning about connecting ground first, I think it's there to prevent current flowing through the clamp or parasitic diodes between the data line and the positive power rail. It limits the current into the pin. Potentially if you have the data line connected but the positive power rail disconnected, it might attempt to power the LED through the data pin and burn it out.

It will also very slightly mitigate damage from static charge building up on one end of the data line while disconnected, and it will act as a termination resistor reducing "ringing" from signal edges. Normally termination resistors are smaller, though.

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On my scope it visibly reduces slew rate and removes ringing i.e. forms a RC low pass filter. – ChrisR Jun 29 at 14:29

This plays an important role in limiting the current into the Arduino's data pin. Without this resistor, you could potentially have a short that will cause a current spike and overload your pin, potentially damaging your board.

I actually had this happen on a different microcontroller I was using that had lower current limits than the Arduino. Forgot the resistor and my data pin overloaded and blew a fuse in the board.

Do use the resistor!

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The NeoPixel data input pin is high impedance and does not source or sink a significant amount of current (typically less than 1uA). Where do you think the short would be? – bigjosh Dec 29 '14 at 18:44

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