PCI-E stands for Peripheral Component Interconnect Express, and it’s an interface used to connect components that process a lot of data. Such components that use the PCI-E bus are graphics cards, NVME M.2 Drives, sound, and network cards. A motherboard has a set number of PCI-E slots, and it can largely depend on the form factor of the motherboard. For example, the standard ATX motherboard will have a maximum of 7 PCI-E slots.
There are different types of PCI-E slots, they all work the same but come with a different number of lanes. There are x1, x4, x8, x16, x32 PCI-E lanes, and these lanes denote how data moves between the PCI-E bus and the PCI-E component. The graphics card will connect to the PCI-E x16 slot so the graphics card can work at its max potential, however, GPUs can connect to slower PCI-E slots but it won’t run as fast.
Answer: The PCI-E standard is backward compatible, this means you can install a PCI-E 4.0 device into a PCI-E 2.0 slot. The consequence of this is that your device will be limited to the PCI-E 2.0 data transfer limit. PCI-E is also forward compatible, so you can install a PCI-E 4.0 slot into a PCI-E 5.0 motherboard.
PCI-E Compatibility & Generations Compared
|PCI-E Architecture||Frequency||Data Rate||Bandwidth|
|PCI-E 1.1||2.5 GT/s||2.5 Gb/s||8 GB/s|
|PCI-E 2.0||5.0 GT/s||5 Gb/s||16 GB/s|
|PCI-E 3.0||8.0 GT/s||8 Gb/s||32 GB/s|
|PCI-E 4.0||16.0 GT/s||16 Gb/s||64 GB/s|
|PCI-E 5.0||32.0 GT/s||32 Gb/s||128 GB/s|
|PCI-E 6.0||64.0 GT/s||64 Gb/s||256 GB/s|
The PCI-E standard is both backward and forward compatible, this essentially means you can install devices into any PCI-E slot, but there may be consequences. For example, if you install a PCI-E 5.0 component into a PCI-E 3.0 slot, the bandwidth will limit the component to 32 GB/s, this essentially acts as a bottleneck so you won’t get the full potential from the component. Installing a PCI-E 3.0 slot into a PCI-E 5.0 slot should work, and there will be no downsides as the bandwidth is much wider.
The data transfer rate is doubled when comparing PCI-E 4.0 with PCI-E 3.0, each lane is twice as effective in the PCI-E 4.0 generation. A PCI-E 4.0 x16 lane will be twice as effective as a PCI-E 3.0 x16 lane due to the doubled bandwidth. This means the PCI-E 4.0 x8 lane is as effective as the PCI-E 3.0 x16 lane. Installing a PCI-E 3.0 x16 device into a PCI-E 4.0 x16 slot won’t double the bandwidth, the card will still run at PCI-E 3.0 x16 which has a bandwidth of 16GB/s. Only a PCI-E 4.0 x16 card that is installed into a PCI-E 4.0 slot will operate at max bandwidth of 32GB/s
Is it worth upgrading from PCI-E 3.0 to 4.0? Well, upgrading to PCI-E 4.0 can provide you with numerous benefits such as the ability to use NVME M.2 drives. This is arguably the biggest benefit as NVME M.2 drives are far superior to SATA SSDs due to the drives using the PCI-E interface instead of AHCI. This is a massive benefit for gaming if you value loading times in games. Also, PCI-E 4.0 graphics cards may generate slighter higher frame rates installed into a PCI-E 4.0 slot compared to 3.0, and it’s great if you’re looking to future-proof your system.
PCI-E 4.0 Vs PCI-E 3.0
The most important factor to consider is the speed at which they operate, the PCI-E 4.0 interface is faster and can allow for double the transfer rate that PCI-E 3.0 provides. The transfer rate per lane is doubled, it is 16GT/s vs 8GT/s for PCI-E 3.0, and the bandwidth is also doubled at 64GB/s vs 32GB/s. Storage-wise, the PCI-E 4.0 specification wins with the release of NVME PCI-E 4.0 SSDs, these devices can allow for data transfer rates of up to 3 GB/s which is extremely fast.
Devices installed on the PCI-E 4.0 interface will work twice as fast, such devices are graphics cards and SSDs. This is a massive benefit for gamers and video editors as these users tend to move massive amounts of data around. Gamers will benefit from the faster load times in games such as GTA V, and video editors using an NVME 4.0 SSD can benefit from fast playback speeds. Graphics cards will also generate slightly higher framerates.
If you have a PCI-E 3.0 motherboard and you want to populate the slots with PCI-E 4.0 technology, you will not benefit from PCI-E 4.0 speeds. Your motherboard will need to have a PCI-E 4.0 slot so you can benefit from double data transfer, and reduced latency. Is this a big deal for gamers? Well if you’re installing a PCI-E 4.0 graphics card into a PCI-E 3.0 slot, you are essentially bottlenecking your graphics card, and you won’t get the full performance out of it.
Can A PCI-E x1 Device Work In A x16 Slot?
|Slot||PCI-E 1.0||PCI-E 2.0||PCI-E 3.0||PCI-E 4.0||PCI-E 5.0||PCI-E 6.0|
|x1||0.25 GB/s||0.5 GB/s||1 GB/s||2 GB/s||4 GB/s||8 GB/s|
|x2||0.5 GB/s||1 GB/s||2 GB/s||4 GB/s||8 GB/s||16 GB/s|
|x4||1 GB/s||2 GB/s||4 GB/s||8 GB/s||16 GB/s||32 GB/s|
|x8||2 GB/s||4 GB/s||8 GB/s||16 GB/s||32 GB/s||64 GB/s|
|x16||4 GB/s||8 GB/s||16 GB/s||32 GB/s||64 GB/s||128 GB/s|
The PCI-E interface allows for cross-compatibility, this means you can install a PCI-E x1 card into a PCI-E x4, x8, and x16 slot. The PCI-E x1 slot has one PCI-E lane and it is the smallest slot on the motherboard, and the PCI-E x16 slot has 16 lanes and it is the largest slot on the motherboard. We do not recommend doing this under normal circumstances as you will have no decent place to install the graphics card.
The PCI-E x16 slot is reserved for components that require high data transfer rates such as graphics cards, installing an x1 slot on an x16 slot isn’t a good idea as you won’t benefit from it. The x1 slot is perfect for cards such as network, and sound cards, these devices do not require the data transfer rate the x16 slot does. If you’re ever confused about which slot your devices go in, the graphics card should always go in the fastest slot available.
The PCI-E 4.0 x1 lane will have a bandwidth of 2GB/s, which means x1 devices will have a throughput limited to the x1 lane. The x1 device will not allow data transfer speeds provided by the x16 slot, it isn’t possible as the device is limited to the x1 throughput. The bandwidth of the x16 slot is 32GB/s and the bandwidth of the x1 slot is only 2GB/s according to the PCI-E 4.0 generation.
The verdict is the PCI-E interface is quite compatible allowing for future PCI-E cards to work in older PCI-E slots. You can also install older PCI-E components into newer PCI-E slots, so the PCI-E interface is both forward and backward compatible. The PCI-E standard is also cross-compatible allowing the user to install PCI-E devices of different configurations (x1, x2, x4, x8, x16) to work in different slots. So you can install a PCI-E x1 device into an x16 slot and it will work.