One of the many things that make computers so great, particularly desktop computers, is the high degree of customization that they afford to the users.
If you want to add an expansion card that can provide you with additional features, or just upgrade your PC, a PCIe slot will come in handy.
You may have definitely come across PCIe slots in your search for motherboards. So what are PCIe Slots? To understand what are PCIe slots, you will need to understand what is PCIe.
What is PCIe
With a PCIe bus slot, users can add dedicated graphics cards, sound cards and even some SSDs for storage with RAID cards among many other things.
PCIe slots come in many different sizes as will see below.
There are also many versions of the PCIe with v4 being the latest, but that is a topic for a different article. Here are talking specifically about the slot and how its works.
PCIe Slot Configuration
There are different sizes of slots available on the motherboards.
The slots come in different flavors that we’ll discuss shortly. The benefit of this is that it lets you assign a slot to a device that can make full use of it.
An X16 slot can be great for a graphics card and likewise, the smaller ports like the X4 can be great for a network card or a sound card.
Note on PCIe Lanes
Understanding PCIe lanes is very important, especially when building a custom PC.
Here the number after “X” tells you the number of PCIe lanes. Each lane has a send-and-receive link.
Therefore, a PCIe X16 slot has 16 PCIe lanes or it can support a device up to 16 PCIe lanes in bandwidth such as a graphics card.
You must note that the amount of PCIe lanes a PC has in total are generally dictated by the CPU and the Motherboard. Therefore a PC DOES NOT have unlimited lanes.
Having a large variety of slots with a large number of lanes is great, but only if the CPU and motherboard can support it.
The total number of PCIe lanes a PC has can be found by looking at the CPU specsheet and motherboard CHIPSET specsheet.
Most mainstream processors have 16 dedicated PCIe lanes with only the extreme and premium processors reaching 40 or more dedicated PCIe lanes.
Motherboards also provide PCIe lanes, however, not all of them are dedicated (dedicated means available to use). For instance, the Intel Z170 motherboard has 20 PCIe lanes, however, only 4 are available for use the other 16 would be reserved for internal components like SATA ports, USB ports etc.
Therefore, with a configuration of 16 CPU lanes + 4 provided by the motherboard chipset, you will have a total of 20 PCIe lanes to use in total. With this you can, for example, add a single X16 graphics card and a single X4 RAID card.
To add more graphics cards you will, of course, need to have a higher PCIe Lane count using expensive CPUs and motherboards.
Again, you can find the number of CPU and motherboard PCIe lanes in their respective data sheets.
PCIe Slot Sizes and Data Transmission
The X1 slot is the smallest one and has the least bandwidth. Following up are the X4, X8, and X16 slots. X16 has the largest bandwidth for consumer space.
Industrial and commercial spaces also utilize the much large X32 bandwidth.
For there to be data transfer through a PCIe device, there needs to be a way to transmit the data. The PCIe slots have electrical connections that correspond to the number of lanes that they have for data transfers.
The lanes are the means through which data is transmitted across the slots from the devices to the CPU and how much data can travel through a PCIe slot at a given time will be determined by the number of lanes that the device has.
For example, a graphics card typically has X16 bandwidth or lanes. Therefore, it would be ideal to fit it on an X16 slot. A network card, on the other hand, can work with an X1 slot.
X1 PCIe Slot
This is the smallest slot and hence has the smallest bandwidth. The speeds vary across the different generations of PCIe slots, with the first one i.e PCIe v1 posting 250MB/s, the PCIe v2 doubling the previous one to hit 500MB/s, the PCIe v3 at 985Mb/s and the PCIe v4 doing about 1969 MB/s.
Networks cards and modems generally are ideal for X1 slots since they do not have a high bandwidth requirement.
With the larger X4 slot, speeds are almost quadruple that of the X1 slot as expected. The first generation i.e PCIe v1 registers 1000MB/s and the PCIe v2 one does 2000MB/s. The PCIe v3 comes at about 3940MB/s while the PCIe v4 clocks 7876MB/s/.
These slots are great for RAID cards or for SSD expansion since they require higher bandwidth.
X8 is the most peculiar slot of them all.
In many motherboards, the X8 slot looks almost similar to the X16 slot in both size and configuration, so a keener look may be necessary to tell them apart.
In some motherboards, you may have full 2 x X16 slots. However, if you have a total of 24 PCIe Lanes only, then one PCIe X16 slot will have full X16 bandwidth, while the other PCIe X16 slot will only be able to operate at X8 bandwidth despite having the same size.
X8 slot can still support the full X16 slot albeit at a weaker performance.
The first-generation PCIe v1 X8 PCIe slot has a bandwidth of 2000MB/s while the second is twice as first at 4000MB/s.
The third-generation PCIe X8 slot transfers 7880MB/s while the fourth PCIe v4 does 15752MB/s.
The X16 Slot
These are the largest available PCIe slots available for home users or consumer space.
These are distinctively used for the graphics card.
At 4000 MB/s for the first generation, 8000MB/s, 15760MB/s, and 31504MB/s for the second, third, and fourth generations respectively, this is the fastest widely available PCIe slot yet.
It has 16 data lanes and is ideal for high-bandwidth devices like graphics cards.
The X32 Slot
As part of the PCIe standard, there’s an X32 slot that has significantly increased bandwidths of up to 64GB/s.
It is rare in user-grade motherboards and it’s expected to be twice as large as the X16 slot to accommodate the extra data lanes. More information can be found in the specification.
Practical Example of Slot Compatability
The motherboard above is an excellent example of how cross-compatibility with PCIe works.
You will notice that the motherboard above has 3 PCIe slots with X16 physical slot sizes (two in silver color and there is one black colored X16 slot at the very bottom that may be hard to see).
Due to the Lane limitation, as mentioned earlier, this motherboard has been specified to be used in x16/x0/x4 OR x8/x8/x4 modes.
In other words, you can use the motherboard in two modes.
- Mode 1: ( x16/x0/x4)
- Mode 2: (x8/x8/x4)
With more and more devices requiring high bandwidth transfers, a PCIe slot is essential for the modern computer.
Here we talked extensively about what are PCIe Slots.
Basically, these slots provide fast transfers and expandability to your motherboard which lets you customize it to your wildest desires.
PCIe slots are what connect your devices to the lanes for data transfers and they come in different sizes and capabilities. They have also evolved over the years with each new generation promising double the data transfer rates of the one before.
All this makes for a more efficient machine for both work and play.